I first visited Spain more than thirty years ago. I was young and just married; it was my first trip abroad. In Barcelona, we stayed with the family of our friend, Juan Manuel, whom we had met in school. His father owned a ham business. Having known only boiled ham I found the ham served at meals to be quite another beast. I enjoyed it and didn’t mind that the entrada always incorporated it in some way. Then one day, his father suggested that we visit the bodega where he cured his jamon serrano. “Sure,” we thought. “Why not?”
Of course, the bodega was in an industrial neighborhood, in an area we had never visited as tourists. The bodega itself, I recall, was in a large cement building. We entered the dark musty space and immediately turned down a wide flight of stone steps leading to the cellars where the hams hung. Half way down the steps, the pungent smell of curing hams hit me smack in the face. Breathing it in, my head started to spin. I felt faint. I started to fall but my husband and friend grabbed me before I could go tumbling down the rest of the way. When I came to a few moments later, they were holding on to me and asking, “What happened? Are you all right?” I was feeling nauseous so all I could say was, “Please get me out of here.” So, they did. Up in the fresh air the nausea subsided and I urged them to return to bodega and our friend’s father to finish the ham tour.
Later that afternoon when we sat down for lunch, the entrada was jamon serrano with fresh melon. As it was set before me all I could smell was the bodega. A chill went up my spin, my head started spinning, and my stomach somersaulted. There was no way I could eat it. I was embarrassed and didn’t want to make our hosts feel bad about the American girl not being able to take the smell of ham curing, so I took a big forkful and nudging my husband made him allow me to put the ham onto his plate without our hosts noticing. “Whew, close call,” I said to myself. “That’s the end of that.” But it wasn’t. Our friend’s mother seeing my plate empty so quickly, immediately offered me more; when I refused she insisted. I protested. She insisted. Finally I gave up and accepted another portion which I cut and cut again, moving the pieces around the plate and exclaiming how delicious the ham was and how full I had become while my head spun and my stomach flipped.
The next day, I dreaded the approaching lunch hour knowing that jamon serrano would, in some form, end up on my plate. It did. Again, I cut it and pushed it around the plate as the odor settled into my nose causing another wave of nausea and faintness. Our friend’s mother realized something was up. Peering down at me she quizzed me in rapid fire Spanish about who knows what because I couldn’t understand a word she said. My new husband jumped to my rescue offering answers as fast as he could and doing his best to dissuade the mother from further inquiry. Finally, it was settled. I was ill and should only eat a soft boiled egg and toast that day. I didn’t mind at all. In fact, the delicate state of my stomach saved me from eating jamon serrano for the rest of the visit. So strong was my reaction that I couldn’t eat ham, any ham, for the next ten years or so until finally the memory of the bodega faded just enough to allow me to once again taste it. Now I prefer jamon serrano to boiled ham any day, but dare say that if a visit to a bodega were offered me I would decline.
This summer, after visiting two of our favorite cities Barcelona and Madrid, we headed south on the AVE train to Andalucia and the cities of Cordoba, Sevilla, and Granada. In Sevilla, after enjoying a glass of fino one evening, our friend and traveling companion decided that it would be fun to visit the bodega that had produced his delightful drink. By the time we got back to the hotel that night it was late, very late, but not too late for our friend to send an email to the small but high quality fino producer, Fernando de Castilla, in the hopes that someone from the bodega would see it first thing in the morning and would be amenable to a visit. To our friend’s surprise, in his email inbox the next morning, was a response from the commercial director, Sr. Andrés Soto, proposing a tour of the bodega at 1PM that very same day.
As the bodega was just an hour away and we already had a rental car, we accepted immediately. The city of Jerez de la Frontera, is an old city with roots dating back to the time of the Phoenicians in 1100 BC, then the Romans in in 200 BC, and later the Moors in AD 711 when it formed the frontier of the Moorish kingdom in Spain as its name reminds us. Together with Puerto de Santa Maria and San Lucar de Barrameda in the province of Cádiz, it delineates the Protected Destination of Origin of the Jerez or Xéres wine-growing region. English speakers know Jerez wines as sherry, a word that comes from the Arabic word, Sherrich, as Jerez de la Frontera was known in the time of the Moors.
Jerez de la Frontera is also the home of the famous Andalucian horses, known for their elegance, proportion and abundant manes, although only the stallions are allowed to wear these long and flowing. Ever since the incorporation of Jerez into the crown of Castilla in 1264 these horses have been important to the city. The Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre (The Royal Andalucian Equestrian Riding School) is here and offers the public shows of the famous dancing horses. But, having just enough time to find the bodega of Fernando de Castilla, there was no time for horses that day. Unlike the commercial elegance of Napa Valley wineries, no grand entrances mark the way to the bodegas of Jerez . Instead, inside the city, we drove round and round for quarter of an hour until we found the bodega-lined street, Jardinillo. There, as instructed, we looked for #11 and found it along the right hand side of the street. We rang the bell. No answer. Then, from the other side of the street, we heard our friend calling us. He had found another bell, had rung it, and was being invited inside by a man who quickly returned to his desk in an office just inside. Sr Soto, our host and guide, approached our friend with a warm greeting. We followed quickly and were also welcomed with a broad smile.
Leading our friend with the badly twisted ankle inside to a large, comfortable room where she could rest her foot on a sofa, Sr Soto procured for her a glass of Fino, a dish of olives, and some old German fashion magazines which he somehow found for her and which she, being German, delighted in.
Asking us to follow him into the courtyard, he began his story as we walked to the first bodega. Entering the building, a similar dense musty smell to that which had greeted me at the bodega de jamones so many years before hit my nose. For an instant, my body recoiled but my mind fought back quickly. You are not going to miss this, I told myself. Forget the smell. Just enjoy it.
And enjoy it, I did. Listening intently to our solicitous host I forgot the smell as he explained the secrets of Jerez wine making, telling us about the unique combination of soil, climate, and process that come together to make vino de Jerez. The soil, called albariza, is known for being chalky and moisture-retaining; the damp climate encourages the growth of flor, a yeast layer that forms on the aging wine and is responsible for the aerobic process; and the solera system is the process by which vintages are blended into wines of consistently high quality year after year.
Standing in front of a long row of wine casks, or butts, stacked three-high, Sr Soto dove into an explanation of the solera system which being completely different from the way other wines are made, was, at first, a bit bewildering. Essentially, he explained how some wine is taken from each row of butts and added to the row beneath. The higher rows are called the criaderas with the bottom-most called the solera from which the finished wine is bottled.
Starting with the delicately colored, dry and pleasant yet slightly sharp-tasting fino, which we had been enjoying since our arrival to Andalucia, we tasted each wine as we made the rounds of the bodegas. Next was the amontillado which, after the initial flor process, is aged without its benefit thus allowing further oxidation producing a darker richer color. Amontillados, we learned, typically contain a small amount of the sweeter Pedro Ximénez producing a demi-sec wine. Then we tasted the oloroso which is produced without the benefit of flor and thus has an even darker color. Olorosos are fuller body and typically have a higher alcohol content. Next was the capricious palo cortado which starts out as amontillado by nose but by taste oloroso, and continues to age in this way producing a highly structured and concentrated wine. Palo cortado, Sr Soto explained with a twinkle in his eye, cannot be made, rather it is a happy accident of nature. By that time I was beginning to feel sleepy what with the darkness of the bodegas, the enjoyment of many different wines, and my empty stomach. As we moved on to brandies, my enthusiasm for tasting waned while that of my husband and friend continued. As I listened to our host explain brandy making, they enjoyed some truly exquisite examples, including one that had been aged for fifty years.
Back in the tasting room, we asked where we could purchase Fernando de Castilla wines in the United States. To our dismay, Sr. Soto told us that the U.S. is not one of their markets being far too complicated for a small, high end producer. However, he added, “We do sell our vinegars de Jerez through Williams Sonoma.” Leaving nothing to chance, our host continued, “I find that one part vinegar to three parts olive oil is best.” Then he showed us a bottle, packaged for direct delivery to the shelves. I gasped at the price, but on tasting the vinegar decided that it was well worth the splurge and promised myself to purchase a bottle upon my return home. Then our host offered us another glass of fino with green olives. “An aperitivo,” he said. It’s time for lunch.
All original content copyright 2009 Mary E. Slocum