A sherry or three and a very late lunch

Mike Gerrard goes on a fortifying tour of the cellars of Jerez - and ends up wanting to dance on the tables

"I'M A VERY sherry girl," says Consuelo, who is showing us round the Gonzalez Byass bodega in Jerez. "When I was two years old, I had a nanny who was a gypsy and she taught me to dance the flamenco. Oh yes, I would dance on the table when I was just two. I will still dance on the table, of course. People ask me how I can go out at night and work the next day, but I do. I dance till two, three o'clock, and then I'm at work the next morning at seven, eight o'clock. It is not a problem."

Gonzalez Byass is best known for producing one of Britain's - and the world's - favourite sherries, Tio Pepe, the name simply the Spanish for "Uncle Joe". The founder of the bodega - or cellar - worked in a bank in Cadiz and his Uncle Joe used to come every day to help him out. In the early days, cash was short and Uncle Joe said that instead of wages he would take a key to the cellar so he could bring his friends in to have a drink. So the friends used to say, let's go and have a drink of Uncle Joe's sherry. When names had to be registered, Tio Pepe it was.

But there is much more to Jerez de la Frontera than sherry. For one thing, there is an incredible lack of British tourists, despite the fact that the Costa del Sol is little more than an hour's drive away. Perhaps we Brits are just more attracted to places with names we can pronounce easily, like Marbella: the two resorts near Jerez are Sanlucar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria. These three form the sherry triangle, the sole producer of authentic sherry to the entire world. Many Spanish tourists are drawn here not only for the fortified wine, but for the beaches and the excellent seafood.

At La Parra Vieja (the Old Vinestalk) in Jerez, we turned up for lunch at 2pm only to find that the place hadn't opened yet. When they say they eat late in Spain, they really mean it. The owner took pity and unlocked the doors, and we ordered the house speciality, puntillitas (shrimp tortillas). Sorry, said the owner, I've been feeling whimsical today and haven't made any. You have to be in the mood for making puntillitas. We asked him to bring us what he had felt like making, and sat back to enjoy artichoke soup, plates of shrimps, cheese, anchovies and the claws of an unknown sea creature which had to be smashed on a wooden board with a mallet. I was eating things I never thought I'd be able to - sea snails pierced with a toothpick, for example - and drinking sherry in quantities not even a vicars' convention would get through. In Jerez, they drink sherry before, during and after meals, perhaps kicking off with a light fino, and ending with a darker oloroso.

Back at the hotel, I flick through the TV channels. There's bullfighting on one and scrambled porn on another. Personally, I'd prefer them to scramble the bullfighting and leave the porn. But there were plenty of other options on the TV: Eric and Ernie in The Intelligence Men, dubbed into Spanish with a surprisingly convincing Eric Morecambe, soccer, tennis, a Spanish You've Been Framed (thankfully without El Beadle), and the usual ludicrous Italian game show fronted by a hostess with a cleavage the size of the Alps.

Another day, another bodega. This time the Williams and Humbert company, where I am shown around by a London cabbie. Thomas Spencer came from a family of cabbies and met his Spanish wife through his uncle. "My uncle was stationed in Gibraltar during the war," he told me as we relaxed with a sherry after the tour, "and he married my wife's aunt ... though I didn't know then that she was going to become my wife, of course. My uncle and his wife were living in Dagenham at the time.

"One day, my Spanish aunt said that her niece was moving to England and could I drive her round? I used to take her to visit her aunt in Dagenham. We couldn't talk much because I was in front and she was in the back, with no communication possible between the two in those days, and in any case, she spoke no English and I spoke no Spanish.

"But we started to go out and took a dictionary with us. We got by. In order to arrange a date, I'd want to know when her next day off was, and she'd say 'Manana-manana-manana-manana-manana-manana-manana!' So then I knew that it was in a week's time.

"Eventually we got married, and came out here to Jerez for the wedding. It was the day after the World Cup Final in 1966, so everyone was congratulating me twice over. We used to come to Jerez for holidays and she'd come back to London and be terribly homesick. We had two children, and every year I sent them with my wife to Spain for a couple of months. When I saw them off at the airport, I admit that at first I thought, 'Oh good, a bit of peace and quiet for a while.' But I'd come home and look round the house and see their things, their toys and cots, and I missed them terribly. That was when I realised that material things didn't matter. Your family and being together and being happy, that's what really matters. So we moved here."

Thomas's cockney humour isn't wasted on the bodega tours. He shows us a model of the bodega in the 19th century, when the grape-treading was done by foot. "I believe that is still the best way," someone remarks. "Well," says a doubting Thomas, "I've seen old black-and-white film of those treading methods, with the men smoking cigarettes and dropping the butts in with the grapes. Everything went in there. And they used to tread all night to get the job done, so do you think they bothered to get out if they wanted to go to the toilet? No, we'll stick to modern methods, thanks."

We pick up lots of sherry-drinking tips, too, like discovering that oloroso will keep for up to two years once it's opened, because the oxidation process has already taken place, but other sherries will only last for a maximum of two weeks, and even then, only if kept in the fridge. I think of all the bottles of sherry I've seen in people's houses, opened for a nip one Christmas and still being drunk the following year.

We also use the wrong type of glass, serving sherry in glasses that are tiny with straight sides, when it should be poured into a larger tulip- shaped wine glass, to get the best of the aroma. "The cellar-master tastes with the nose," another bodega guide tells us, "and only uses his mouth when he has any doubts. The cellar-master, he is like a bullfighter - it is a God-given gift."

Did I say there was more to Jerez than just sherry? Well there is, like the cathedral, a Moorish castle, weekly displays at the town's renowned horse-riding school, the nearby Coto Donana National Park, and festivals galore.

But in Rome, you look round churches, in Florence visit galleries, in India see the temples. In Jerez, you drink sherry and eat seafood. On our final night we took local advice and went to a prize-winning tapas bar, Bar Juanito. It is easy to find from the main square - established for 50 years, it has its own road sign directing you to it.

The owner specialises in artichokes, and goes all over Spain looking for the best specimens. We had four mouth-watering green globes. Then a plate of langostinos (prawns, with a homemade mayonnaise dip), another of calamar pequeno entero (baby squid stuffed with minced pork and squid tentacles), lomo en cana (spicy pork sausage taken from the spine of the pig), chicharrn (little round pieces of pork crackling) and a plate of potatoes soaked in oil and vinegar and served with parsley and onion. And bread. And two glasses of sherry. And then a half-bottle of Tio Pepe. And a bottle of water.

The bill? About pounds 15 each. And, er, we'd had a bottle of fino first in the bar across the road. So where was Consuelo when we needed her? I felt like dancing on the tables myself.

FACT FILE

jerez

Getting there

Mundi Color (tel: 0171-828 6021 or 0161-848 8680) offers city breaks in Jerez at this time of year from pounds 331 for two nights.

Kirker Holidays (tel: 0171-231 3333) offers three-night breaks, including full-board and car hire, from pounds 569.

Further information

The Fiesta de Otono in Jerez, which celebrates the new grape harvest, runs until 12 October.

For further details about the festival and general enquiries, contact the Spanish Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (tel: 0171-486 8077)

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