We go to Jerez. Our usual hostal: cheap, clean and sparsely furnished. Two high little windows into the alley, a cool-tiled floor, a double door with ornamental balcony that overlooks the inner patio, its railings hung with geraniums, a fan in the corner, a chair.
I go for a walk while K sleeps and, finding myself in an old tabanco (a sherry bar that serves from the barrel), I ask for a palo cortado; on a prompt from the ageing barman I stipulate that I’d like it chilled. Then I settle down with it at a barrel-top table and stare into the middle distance like the other two unaccompanied men in the place.
Tabancos will sometimes sell the region’s wine by the bottle as well and there are a few rickety old shelves for the purpose as well as large urns and plastic containers of sherry vinegar. I’m the youngest here by a long way, and I’m not that young. If you require vivacity in your watering holes it probably wouldn’t be for you, with its assisted-suicide-through-sherry vibe and pickled old men, but I like it. When I came in the guy behind the bar looked genuinely surprised to see me but by the time I get up to pay and leave, asking as I do if it would be alright for me to take a photograph of the place, he’s become friendly and says that of course it would. He does advise me that if he himself is in the photo he will charge me.
“Like Ronaldo does,” he says.
“Fine,” I reply, “please get out of the way.”
I’ve got a notion to do a piece on the tabancos – unique to Jerez – and I stroll back to the hostal with a mind to convincing K to visit as many of them with me as possible. In fact there aren’t many left; it is by some accounts a dying art. That makes it easier to persuade her and we begin the night together in one that we already know. A Jerez institution, El Pasaje is so called because it can be entered from either the front or the back. Barrels are stacked behind the bar, sherry is cheap at a euro a glass and the mint green walls are cluttered with caricatures of flamenco gliterati, including the city’s own José Merce. The tables are sticky, which somehow seems right.
The word is a confusion of ‘estanco’ and ‘tabaco’, the former meaning a state-controlled shop and the latter a product that was becoming popular alongside the establishments themselves in the seventeenth century. Cervantes mentions them. Just as their name is a blend, so they are – both venues for bulk sales of wine and places to gather socially. They may have had their day and then again perhaps not – one or two new ones have established themselves in recent years.
After El Pasaje and before the next one we stop off at La Cruz Blanca for some tapas. I have cold dressed liver and K has stilton and walnuts. In May, on a balmy evening with the blue Jacarandas hanging over the terrace of cheap chrome tables, La Cruz Blanca is the best restaurant in the world, because I say so. Then it’s through the Arenal and past the illuminated walls of the Alcazar, golden in their night light against a late evening indigo sky.
We think this tabanco must be one of the new ones as, although housed in an old building and decorated in a traditional style, everything looks to be in improbably good condition. The tables here too are fashioned from sherry barrels and The Simpsons is on at high volume in the corner as we take our little seats, K with her favoured oloroso and me with an amontillado. We’re just about the only ones in the place, apart from a couple of people at the bar. The huge, heavy door is left open on one of the best views I’ve seen from any bar – the ramparts of the twelfth century Almohad fortress. The tops of the palm trees are lost in the darkness, the air a flurry of the swifts that nest in the old walls.
We don’t stay long, retracing our steps toward the Arenal for a quick stop in at a favourite tapas bar. Tonight, though not quite hot, feels like Summer for the first time this year. Not even the fact that the bar has discontinued our beloved paté de jamón can wipe the grins from our faces, partly brought on by the sherry and partly by the fact that we’re in Jerez, a place we’ve come to love.
On to the last tabanco of the night – San Pablo, on a street of the same name contrasts sharply with everywhere else we’ve been tonight. It’s busy. Very busy – tabancos don’t traditionally have much, if anything, to do with food but this place (open since 1934) has dragged itself into the twenty-first century by adding an Andaluz kitchen to the equation. It’s worked – the place fills up and spills out onto the little side street and a cramped cluster of little wooden tables and benches. Best tortilla in Andalucia, they say, and the dueña has apparently used the same fork to make it for twenty years.
We’re happy to be somewhere noisy and don’t pay too much attention to the drunk who wobbles over us as we chomp into some chicharrones and a plate of tomates aliñao. The street has a number of bars on it and when it’s busy here, which is almost all of the time, the spillover from each merges with the next, creating a party atmosphere. There’s even a pub where we tend to end our Jerez evenings and tonight is no exception. We toddle in there once we’ve settled up at San Pablo for the last one before bed and I end our tabanco oddysey with a very large whisky that, come morning, I will thoroughly regret.
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