Saturday, 16 October 2010

Tales from Jerez

Last week I spent a couple of glorious days in Jerez with Gonzalez Byass. I was particularly excited about going as I lived in Granada whilst at university and haven't revisited Andalucía in six years.

After checking in, I head out with team GB for tapas at the very Spanish hour of 10pm. Striking upon an gem – honest and unpretentious, we sit outside on plastic chairs, drink copious amounts of Tio Pepe and eat the charmingly titled 'Scrambled to the Boots'.

Our boots filled, we stop by bar Kapote for an Amontillado before bed, and host Jeremy Rockett regales me with stories of Times food critic Giles Coren's outrageous exploits on a recent press trip to Portugal, which end in Charles Campion putting him in a headlock.

Before going to sleep, I open the door to my balcony and sit, soothed by the cool night air, watching the stars and listening to the trilling of the cidadas. Luxuriating in the moment, I feel totally transported – a rainy gray London sky to a blanket of stars in a matter of hours.

Shortly after sunrise, we troop onto a bus and are driven out to the Gonzalez Byass vineyards, just outside the Sherry triangle. Disembarking, we're given a few minutes to roam. The morning light over the vineyard is haunting. A layer of mist hangs on the horizon, and spreads across the vines like gauze. The sun is still low in the sky, and everything seems so fresh and full of hope.

Our next stop is the Gonzalez Byass bodega, complete with a fire engine red Tio Pepe train, which looks like it arrived in Jerez by way of the Magic Kingdom. The tour begins in La Concha, a shell-shaped room designed by Gustav Eiffel before he transformed the Parisian skyline, built in honour of la Infanta Isabella, the 'nymphomaniac' queen.

We shuffle on to the barrel room, and I go off in search of artists and writers. French poet Jean Cocteau describes Sherry as 'the blood of Kings' on his barrel, while Picasso illustrates his with a raging bull. In the far corner of the room is a Sherry glass with a tiny ladder leading up to it, set up for the infamous Tio Pepe mouse I'd heard so much about. He makes an appearance one in every five visits. We wait patiently, holding our breath. Nothing. The group moves on but I'm determined to catch a glimpse of the elusive rodent, certain he is close by.

I stand in the doorway in silence and wait, camera poised, finger on the button. After a minute or two, a tiny figure emerges from under the barrel and scurries across the sand. I frantically focus the camera and take a few snap shots of my brief encounter. A second later, he's gone.

After an epic lunch at Juanitos that includes chocos (fried cuttlefish), langoustines and the house speciality Рscrambled egg and crisps, Jeremy and I take a detour to Bodegas Tradición to check out their impressive art collection, which includes works by Goya, Velazquez, Murillo and El Greco.

But the painting that will stay with me is that of a cocky bullfighter with a missing front tooth and a black pirate hat, leaning against a wall, cigar nonchalantly in mouth, a dagger ready for action in his blood red cummerband. His robes are so richly rendered, from the regal purple cape he's wrapped in, to the soft brown embroidered jacket and ornate floral waistcoat. It's such a vivid image he seems utterly alive, as if he could leap out of the frame at any moment and ask for a light.

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