For the first time, we started our day with pure sunshine and blue skies. It was still a bit chilly, but I could understand how this coastal area is called “Costa de la Luz” or Coast of Light. We were out of the hotel early, or at least early for Spanish standards. The city was just coming to life as we strolled into the main plaza towards the market on San Roque. Vendors were starting to put out their wares on the street including leather goods, cheap clothing and various trinkets.
As we approached the major indoor market, we came upon small stands with older women selling food products including fresh eggs, honey, live snails, tagarninas (asparagus-like stalks) and live, jumping, tiny camarones that reminded me of the live fjord shrimp that I ate at noma. The destiny of these livewires was not likely to be the same as their Nordic cousins. though. Theirs were likely to be folded within tortillitas de camarones, fritters of these tiny shrimp in flour and fried.
I love Spanish municipal markets. The quality and variety of the product tends to be outstanding, as was the case at this market in Sanlucar de Barrameda. The seafood was especially alluring with an incredible assortment of fish and shellfish from the nearby Atlantic, the local marshes and the estuary of the Guadalquivir River. From langostinas to cigalas to sepia eggs to salmonetes, acedias, tuna and many others, the still abundant local sea left us drooling.
We were not left drooling for long though as we found a small kiosk cooking and serving breakfast foods. While LJ and I enjoyed a grilled breakfast sandwich of fried eggs, cooked ham and cheese, Gerry went off in search of some additional breakfast delights. He returned with some large langostinas and cigalas. For a little more than a Euro, they grilled them on a bed of salt on the plancha. Fresh oranges were put through an efficient squeezing machine to deliver truly fresh juice and the coffees were competent and satisfying. This was a breakfast of champions. Even in a local restaurant, the amount of shellfish we had would likely have cost around 70€ or more. Instead, the shellfish itself cost a little more than 10€ with the kiosk total just an additional 12€ – for three people.
As much as we would have enjoyed lingering at the market, we couldn’t as we had an appointment for a tour and tasting at Bodegas Hidalgo – La Gitana, the premiere sherry house in Sanlucar if not the entire Sherry triangle, which also includes Jerez de la Frontera and El Puerto de Santa Maria. The bodega has been in the Hidalgo family for over 300 years. Gerry introduced us to his friend, 6th generation owner and avid horseman, Javier Hidalgo. After a welcoming conversation in Hidalgo’s elaborately tiled and richly wooded office, my son and I went off with Miguel, the mellifluous director of PR for Hidalgo on a tour and tasting of the bodega and its products. What a tasting it was! Miguel brought along a caña for dipping into the ancient casks. We tasted nothing from bottle and everything from casks as he would dip in the caña and with a flourish pour the golden liquid into the sherry glasses that he would hold at arm’s length with his opposite hand. Then after a toast and a quick shake of the glass, we would smell the heavenly perfume of the wine and sip it slowly. We lingered long in “El Geriatrico” the cellar with their oldest solera casks. These had been started about 120 years or so ago and had been subject to the mixing in of fresh Palomino grape wines over the years. An Amontillado, their oldest, had an average age of 43 years. It was sublime, with a long lingering finish. Somehow, even surpassing the brilliant amontillado, the 46 year old (average age) Palo Cortado was miraculous. Without a doubt the finest sherry that I have ever had the pleasure of introducing to my palate, it was also one of the finest wines of any kind that I have ever had. It was pears and caramel and toast and layer upon layer of lingering complexity. We sat in the cellar and we sipped as much as we wanted. Finally, another representative of Hidalgo came in with three young Japanese men from Kyoto to repeat the process. We moved on to their main solera rooms, where we tasted the apple-laden, dry La Gitana Manzanilla with an average age of eight years and the even more complex and delicious Pastrana Manzanilla straight from the barrel. It was a delightful visit, both educational and full of drinking pleasure. There will be more to come from this visit as well the other sherries that we enjoyed during this visit.
After our tasting we re-grouped with Gerry and drove off to Chipiona to check out the auction of the day’s seafood catch. Unfortunately, we got distracted by some beautiful beachfront scenery and a lack of a GPS, so by the time we arrived at la lonja for the auction, it had already been completed.
Disappointed, but not chagrined, we moved on to our next adventure – lunch. It is not everyday that I call lunch an adventure, but this day it was. It was not just any old restaurant that we were off to. It was one known only to some locals and few others. Even with Gerry having been there before and with written directions from Javier Hidalgo himself, the restaurant, Las Compuertas was located out in the middle of the marshes approachable only over poorly conditioned, pockmarked roads. The journey was worth it, however, as we arrived at this backwater shack to feast on some of the freshest and most well prepared seafood anywhere and all for just a fraction of what a meal like we had would have cost locally in Spain, let alone a larger Spanish city. It would not have even been possible to have had this meal in the United States. The food was rustic, but skilled and absolutely delicious. We took a different road back that was supposed to have been quicker, but it appeared to have suffered a recent attack by heavy artillery with lunar craters strewn throughout requiring even more careful post-prandial driving than the way there. Stay tuned for a full report on this wonderful homespun restaurant.
We managed to avoid getting swallowed up by the craters and made it back to Sanlucar, having missed the big fish auction in nearby Bonanza, but in time to check out the statue of Gerry’s good friend, the legendary bullfighter from Sanlucar, Jose Martinez “Pepe” Limeño located in front of the more than century old Corrida de Toros and then to the beach for a glorious sunset seen through a glass of Manzanilla. The chill came on as quickly as the sun set, but we warmed up at the nearby Bar Bigote with some freshly sliced Iberico, local olives and a cup of Caldo de Galeras, the delicious shellfish broth that we had had the night before. The icing on the cake was when Pepe himself came out from his home to meet us there
It had been a full day and we were all exhausted. With a long trip in front of us the next morning we packed it in and called it an early night.