It was 1965 when Mel and I, as newlyweds, left England to spend three months living in an old wine press house in Jerez de la Frontera, called Cerro Viejo. He was 20 and I was 19 and this was our first year in the wine business. Mel had been offered a trainee position with Sandemans, the port and sherry producers; it was a life changing and magical experience. Forty nine years later last December we returned!
We checked into a glorious, peaceful and beautiful hotel (the Hotel Villa Jerez, Avenida da de la Cruz Roja). It was like staying in someone’s large private residence. Needless to say Jerez is vastly different from 49 years ago and now a bustling metropolis instead of a sleepy Andalusian town. We wandered the streets trying to locate old haunts but of course they had all disappeared. The only thing that seemed to be just the same was the old Sandeman bodega where Mel had achieved the rare “excellent” exam for his apprenticeship back in ’65. The smell of the bodega was just the same. Isn’t it funny how smells and music can take you back to the earliest of days?
Mel’s old friend, the eminent Spanish wine and food expert Gerry Dawes (the Spanish Artisan Wine Group) had told us to stay in Sanluca de Barrameda (which we had always loved) instead of Jerez but due to the time of year, most of the better hotels were closed. First morning, however, we drove in brilliant sunshine to visit Sanluca, a tiny fishing village on the coast some 30 miles west of Jerez where the delicious Manzanilla sherries are made.
We were longing to return to an old haunt of ours called Casa Juan where we had eaten the famous giant shrimp called langostinos with lots of Manzanilla back in 1965. In those days it had dirt floors and old tin ash trays filled with freshly made mayonnaise! We have dreamt of it ever since! Well I guess the lesson here is never try and “go back”. It was truly disappointing, having become touristy and mediocre with tiny shrimp and bottled mayonnaise. The only thing left that was still magnificent was the sublime chilled bottle of Manzanilla from the La Gitana.
We stared sadly over the water to the Marismas – a massive 2000 sq. kilometer nature preserve once owned by the Gonzalez family but now called the Donana Nature Park. Mel had been taken over there by Uncle Monolo Gonzalez (of Gonzales Byass fame) a half-century before to shoot snipe and duck. The shooting party of 8 arrived back home at the end of the day having only shot one giant owl!!! When the owl had flown over him, Mel had naturally let it be, but hearing loud shouts from either side he had thrown himself to the ground just in time for the barrage of shot to zing over his head. The Spaniards assuaged their masculinity by bravely bringing back their only kill – one owl!
We decided to return to San Luca again next day and go ONLY to the places our friend Jerry Dawes had told us about. We began in the old square which is full of colorful tapas bars and, because it was a holiday Monday, it was wall to wall families having a great time. We literally squeezed ourselves into one bar and ordered a couple of copitas (thin tall sherry goblet) of Manzanilla and a generous dish of Iberian ham. Eight young inebriated women were in a corner of the bar singing Sevillianas (folk/love songs) and dancing flamenco in a furious and wanton way with hand clapping and “ye-ha” being yelled intermittently by all. Just as we were about to leave for lunch, one of the gorgeous ebony-haired maidens grabbed my Mel and insisted that he join her for a Sevillianas dance. Of course he complied! And yeah, he had mucho fun-o, bless his macho heart, and danced like a 20-yr-old.
We eventually escaped back to the beach and went into Casa Bigote (calle Portico Bajo de Guia, 10, 11540 Sanlucar de Barrameda. 34 956 36 26 96), a few doors down from Casa Juan. There were 3 bartenders serving a fully packed bar of happy Spaniards. Every time someone ordered a drink, the bartender would scribble it down on the space in front of the guest directly onto the oak bar with a piece of chalk and start a tab so they could keep a tab on the countless copitas being consumed to say nothing of the wonderful tapas of fried croquettes, slices of aged Iberian ham, eggy/oniony/garlicky cold omeletts slices, baby white anchovies, hot and cold baby squid and on and on.
After a half hour or so we crossed a small alleyway opposite feeling warm and fuzzy and walked up a staircase made of colorful tiles to a restaurant owned by the same two brothers Fernando (the chef) & Paco Hermosa (the maitre’d) at both places. Low oak beams, oak chairs and high arched alcoves greeted us. We sat at a table for two beside the window overlooking the estuary. We were the only foreigners there. We then had a remarkable meal of proper jumbo langostinos served with home-made mayonnaise tinted green from the local virgin cold-pressed olive oil. Memories tumbled out in happy profusion. The whole grilled sea bass was as fresh and juicy as could be. They served it simply with sliced boiled potatoes mixed with sliced raw white onions and drizzled with that rich green olive oil. We downed a bottle of Barbadillo Palamino white even more easily and drove slowly back to our hotel. The whole meal was under $100.
As we drove back and neared Jerez I suddenly yelled, “That’s Cerro Viejo!” Mel slammed on the brakes and swerved into a tiny side road and drove up toward what, to me, looked awfully like the old Sandeman press house where we had lived in 1965. The gates were locked so we scrambled through the vineyards and around it and started up the long driveway. “I know it is!” I cried. One can’t forget those things. It had no loo and no kitchen and we shared it with a darling gay gypsy flamenco player named Pepe who fell in love with both Mel and me! I used to ride Tommy (an old white mule) from here to the market in Jerez 2 miles away and instinctively I knew it was our old home.
A snarling guard dog came roaring down towards us followed by a truck kicking up clouds of chalky dust. We froze. I put out my hand and murmured sweet Spanish dog talk to the animal. He surprisingly started to lick my hand. The truck skidded to a stop a few feet away. I approached the young man who was striding indignantly towards us and cried, “Cerro Viejo? Si? Cerro Viejo?” He looked bewildered and replied “Si.” I immediately threw my arms around him and then explained to him in broken Spanglish how we had lived there for 4 months those many years ago. He, in turn, introduced us to his dog Juan who was wagging his tail enthusiastically. Wow! We told him how we had lived there with no electricity, a stone oven fed with vine clippings for cooking and a mule for transport a half century before. We left the best of friends.
After two wonderful days in memoryville, we took the 200 mph bullet train from Seville to Madrid for our last day in Spain. The taxi stopped for us in front of the imposing front doors of the Ritz hotel (paid for on miles!). We had stayed there on our honeymoon and were prepared for another “Casa Juan experience”! Boy, were we wrong!
It is EXACTLY the same as it was in April 1964. One half expected Ernest Hemingway to appear (although I doubt he would have hung out at the Ritz!). Christian Tavelli, the new general manager, was there to greet us and our room was EXACTLY the same. Massive comfy bed with scarlet silk hangings and the vast French windows overlooking the Prado park (containing the great Spanish national Prado museum).
We took a long siesta in voluminous comfort and then bathed and dressed to the nines we skipped down the circular staircase to the main bar and immediately ordered two flutes of champagne (24 euros/$36 a glass!!!). Our menus for dinner were brought to us together with little bowls of nuts and exquisite olives. We swished into the great gold and scarlet dining-room and had a sumptuous dinner of a soup thick with shrimp, monkfish, miniscule squid rings in tomato, onion, cucumber, garlic, olive oil broth with our now favorite Palomino white wine followed by crispy succulent suckling pig with a bottle of fine Rioja red. At midnight we were finishing our espressos and, as Mel was signing our house away for the tab, I got into a conversation with the stunningly beautiful hostess. She told me in perfect English that she was actually a school teacher with 5 languages under her belt who had been laid off and forced to move back into her parents house and this was the only job she could find. I tell you, we are so lucky that we live in America in stead of Europe just now. At least there is a slim hope for the young grads for the future – it looks like a 25-year catch-up situation under the European austerity measures they have put in place and no-one, absolutely no-one is hiring for the foreseeable future.
Next morning bright an early we left Madrid and flew to Toulouse where we would meet son Charlie and his bride Mona and spend time in the Languedoc and elsewhere doing our blends and eating and drinking. More on that next time!
HAPPY NEW YEAR+