'Do you want a bag to take the rest of this stuff home then?'
'No, no! It's all for you!'
Lucia had returned from her home-town of Jerez de la Frontera (where sherry comes from) and had brought me gifts. She bustled in with a bag of Payoyo cheese from Cadiz, a bottle of sherry, a box of cooked prawns she had bought from her local market the day before, and another box of some fresh, peeled prawns. It was promising to be a great evening.
They say that on nights of a full moon, the fishing is especially good. Prawn-lovers also argue over where the best ones come from. It seems to be a tie between the waters off Cataluña, Valencia, Denia, Garrucha (in the Almeria province of Andalucia) and Sanlucar de Barrameda, the latter being about 30mins from Jerez. She cooked gambas al ajillo. First she fried the prawns in lots of oil, with a healthy dose of garlic and some little guindillas - dry chillis. After the prawns had taken on some colour, and shrivelled a little, she tossed in a double shot of sherry, allowing it to reduce slightly. The resulting earthenware-contained mix was sweet and fragrant. The blend of wine, seafood and garlic danced surprisingly daintily on the palate. Having cooed sufficiently we proceeded to blast away the flavour with the parmigianaesque nutty strength of the curado cheese and some glasses of the amontillado.
In Henry IV, part II that fat jollyite Falstaff bellowed:
'If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.'
In short, to stop drinking lady-liquor like beer and wine and get stuck in with the big boy's drink, sherry.
It is a drink that has been in production for more than three thousand years. In 1587 - the year Mary Queen of Scot's head was lopped off - dear old Francis Drake had a dalliance to the south of Spain pre-armada and attacked Cadiz. In the raid he smashed up around thirty ships and labelled the mission 'singeing the King of Spain's beard'. As well as spanking the old port town he also managed to pilfer 2,900 barrels of the region's favourite tipple. From that time on, our dear British ships have sailed southwards to get our hands and throats on the stuff.
Regarding sherry, there are seven main types.
1. Fino - a light liquor, dry, and with a clear golden colour. It is slightly floral and has wispy nuances of almonds. It is the classic aperitif, often found in a grandma's clutches before Christmas lunch.
2. Manzanilla - also light, it is clear in colour and very dry. It is grown uniquely in the Sanlucar area (that of the prawns) due to the Atlantic micro-climate and as a result is quite sharp and has faint hints of salty sea air.
3. Amontillado - this is what comes out when you let fino stay in the barrel longer. The wine oxidises, darkens and intensifies in flavour, as if the fino is relaxing more, letting its hair down. Due to its time 'inside' it's generally a little more potent too, slightly bitter and nutty on the nose. Great for cooking and marinading white meats with garlic and salt.
4. Oloroso - this a sherry allowed to oxidise against the air, eschewing it's yeasty protective layer - the 'flor' - that covers the chemical processes of its cousins. The end product is a dark wine with heaps of body, abundant and strong aromas - oloroso means fragrant - of nuts and a flavour that is a little sweet.
5. Pale Cream and Cream - dessert style sherries. They are both sweet. Pale Cream is lightly-coloured and made from Palomino grapes whereas Cream is very sweet, dark, intense and is made from oloroso wine.
6. Pale Cortado - this is a mahogany-coloured wine that sits between amontillado and oloroso. It is produced without the flor and is nice and dark. In short, not to spurn it in any real personal attack, you can live without it.
7. Pedro Ximenez - this is a velvety sweet sherry, similar to Moscatel (also produced in Malaga), that is a guilty little pleasure with puddings and smacks of raisins on the tongue.
Sherry is equally adept at being flame-fried with kidneys, simmered with parsley and clams, or sipped in front of some live flamenco with a little dish of olives. I think it's reputation as a favoured booze of the silvery haired generations should be depth-charged out of existence. Either that or the grandparents know real quality. I can see why Drake and Falstaff were so enamoured!
That's quite a lot about food.
In other news, my career as a Spanish television presenter is advancing further still. The format is generally decided - Roque wants to do a programme about literary 'routes' in Spain. For instance a programme presented, by me, in situ, in Pamplona, were that episode about Hemmingway's Death In The Afternoon.
Last Wednesday I had a photo-shoot of sorts in the garden of his house out in Aravaca - a rather wealthy residential suburb. He gave me some tips and cues in the fading light as a bouncy photographer called Ivan clicked and snapped about me and his pet cat and dog scurried around the flowerbeds. Rather surreal. I've seen the RAW format images so it's now just a matter of time, and finger-crossing, until I see the finished ones. He wants to make an advertising dossier about the potential programme. We'll see if his Photoshop is able to null the red in my cheeks a little first.
And the Christmas excesses have begun...