Xeres, Jerez, Sherry, Granny's tipple; whatever you call it - for me this southern Spanish region produces the most unique, diverse and undervalued wine in the world.
My first encounter with sherry was probably like a lot of people's: childhood, Christmas day morning. For some reason, the stilton cheese and pork pies were out before 9am, along with a bottle of - you guessed it - Harvey's Bristol Cream. A blue bottle that was always a permanent fixture in the Whitaker household resting un-chilled ready for a special occasion, or when Granny was feeling extra 'crazy'. Each Christmas from the age of around eleven I would make the same mistake. Lured in by the maple syrup colour of this liquid, I would take an ambitious sip, and instantly feel regret. My face would scrunch up and my parents would give me a condescending smile, and I knew full well I would make the same poor decision the following year. Sadly, this is where for many people the sherry adventure ends.
I re-discovered Sherry in 2013 at the Great Sherry Tasting. A trade tasting event presenting the largest selection of Sherry in one room to be found anywhere outside of Jerez. Forty producers and over 200 different sherries to try. I had just passed my WSET Level 3 exam, so I was familiar with the styles, and thought I had a rough idea on quality levels and overall flavour. Needless to say, I was blown away. The aroma of flor - that slight nutty, bready smell - lingered in the corridor. Once inside, the room was alive with passion and enthusiasm. I tried rather a lot of sherries, starting with the dry Manzanillas and Finos, working my way through to the intense PX styles (although I must say my palate could only take a few of these before fatigue kicked in). En Rama sherry was my discovery of the day. I sat through a masterclass hosted by Beltran Domecq, where he explained how and why these sherries were of such exceptional quality. Bone dry Finos and Manzanillas that are taken straight from the cask and bottled without intervention, in an attempt to replicate the experience of drinking the sherry in the Bodega itself. The quality to price ratio was unbelievable. I couldn't wait to experiment with different sherry and food pairings.
Upon returning to my place of work, The Nut Tree Inn, Murcott - a Michelin starred pub with a big focus on food and wine pairing, I profusely experimented with sherry pairing. We served an eight-course tasting menu, in which I immediately started serving a sherry as part of the accompanying wine flight. From Fino En Rama with home smoked salmon to aged PX with rich chocolate puddings, I was determined to change people's opinion on sherry. It amazed me how closed-minded some tended to be when being presented with a sherry. Before the liquid even hit the glass, negativity would often shadow the table. However, many customers' opinions changed there and then. Not being able to comprehend the dry, crisp and refreshing characteristics presented to them in a Manzanilla or nutty Prolonged flor aged Fino, some customers understandably didn't enjoy the dry style sherries. But a medium Oloroso or a 1983 PX soon got them on board the sherry train.
In 2016 I took my love of sherry to the next level by entering a competition called Copa Jerez. This was a food and wine pairing competition for restaurants all over the world to enter. A three-course menu was to be cooked on stage at the London restaurant show in front of a live audience, then each dish must be meticulously explained and paired with an appropriate sherry. Granted I had the easy job of pairing and talking about the food and the wine. Head chef Mary North had to cook the full three-course menu in one hour with very little food preparation time. The Nut Tree was the only restaurant from outside London to be competing. So just being there was an absolute honour. The highly acclaimed judges included Gerard Basset OBE, MS, MW, MBA, Sarah Jane Evans MW, and Carlos Martinez. Having to describe why I chose a certain sherry and why it paired so well to these three judges was very intimidating. Thankfully they all loved the food and sherry combinations and we were lucky enough to come in second place (second to The Ritz may I add). This was a huge achievement and one that only added to my love for sherry and emphasised its versatility with food. Below is the three-course menu we served at Copa Jerez.
To me the simple pairings are often the best - Fino sherry with good quality olives is very rewarding and a fantastic combination. Spiced nuts and Amontillado, or smoked meat and Oloroso are two more. Experiment, have fun, and remember...
If it swims - Fino / Manzanilla
If it flies - Amontillado / Palo Cortado
If it runs - Oloroso
Crab salad Fresh cooked Cornish crab served immediately. Selection of citrus fruit (segments of orange, grapefruit), crispy sea weed to add saltines and texture to the dish. A simple dish letting the natural flavor of the crab shine through. Manzanilla: Bodegas Hidalgo-La Gitana Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada has fresh apple peal and sourdough on the nose, with a natural fresh pallet letting the true flavors of the crab shine through, a fuller bodied manzanilla working to balance the citrus and the crab together, with a saline finish to pair with the sea weed.
Gallotine of Guinea fowl The Gallotine will consist of the fillets (off the breast) made into a mousse with diced leg meat and its offal, which will run through the center of the guinea fowl breast. This will be poached and roasted. served with a potato puree, seasonal vegetables for freshness & Pied de Mouton mushrooms with an oloroso sauce to provide richness and balance to the dish. Palo Cortado: Leonor 12 AÃ±os Palo Cortado Sherry by Gonzalez Byass has an intense nutty and autumnal nose, a touch of flor with savory notes. The pallet is dominated with richness to balance with the sauce. A hazelnut and spicy pallet to cut through the game flavors of the guinea fowl Gallotine leading to a lond finish.
'Sherry Trifle' A deconstructed and seasonal version of the classic trifle. The elements will consist of a light sponge soaked in 1986 Don PX, a set custard, a light chantilly cream, garden blackberries, and fresh almonds with a PX jelly. Medium Oloroso: Sandemans Royal Corregidor rich old Oloroso 20 year old is soft on the pallet with and intense hit of PX, the oxidative aging of the sherry creates complex layers of walnut & raisin, with distinctive acidity to cut through the creamy elements of the dish combined with the sweetness bringing the dish together in harmony.