Monday, 14 March 2011

My sherry amor

1 oloroso, 1 PX, 1 manzanilla...
This week’s Observer carried two articles that appear regularly, approximately annually, and have done for most of my adult life.  The first is the in depth Woody Allen interview/profile that promises his soon to be released film marks a long awaited return to form from the once great filmmaker, the second is the standard sherry piece  (hereafter referred to as the SSP) that, presumably, every newspaper’s wine writer is contractually obliged to file once a year.  The SSP reports, sadly, that sherry’s fortunes have been in decline for decades, but announces, gladly, that someone is now doing something to turn around public perceptions and promises that, at last, sherry is just about to have its moment in the spotlight.  Neither promise, of course, ever comes true:  Woody Allen, face it, is never going to make another Bananas, let alone an Annie Hall;  and sherry has yet to have its fashion moment – otherwise, obviously, the standard sherry piece would, at the very least, have to have its introductory paragraph, the one about the decades of unbroken decline, substantially rewritten.

While it is sad that Woody Allen’s films are now embarrassingly bad, the continuing decline of the sherry industry is a cause of greater and longer lasting concern.  After all, we still have, and always will, not just Annie Hall, but all of Woody’s early funny ones, and the later gloomy ones for that matter.  And it seems, that Woody has banked enough money, credibility and goodwill in the past to carry on making a film a year in perpetuity, no matter how cringe-inducingly poor they are, or how few people go to see them.  On the other hand, if the market for sherry continues to decline (by 40% over the past twenty years, according to the latest SSP) then sooner or later the sherry makers are going to go bust, and then we simply won’t have any of their wonderful wine any more.  Which would be a travesty.  After all, unlike Woody and his films, it’s not as if they just don’t make sherry like they used to.  They still do, it just seems that fewer and fewer people care, and those that do are, literally, dying.  Of old age, I hasten to add, not from drinking sherry – 40% of sherry drinkers (again according to the latest SSP) are now over 65.  Actually I have to say I’m suspicious of the quoted stats in this version of the SSP: the industry has been in unending crisis for 40 years; sales have fallen by 40%; 40% of sherry drinkers are old.  Not everything, statistically, can be 40, can it?  It looks suspiciously like either the Observer’s David Williams has a faulty number pad on his keyboard or he’s just cutting and pasting ‘40’ whenever a stat is required – which would bring a whole new definition to the term ‘lazy journalism’.

Anyway, I love sherry, and would be heartbroken if it either ceased to exist entirely, or, more likely and in a way even worse, became so rare and expensive that it might as well not exist for the vast majority of us – It would, as I say, break my heart if I could never again enjoy a glass of ice cold manzanilla in a cool, tiled Andalucian room, with a bowl of salted almonds, some olives, and a bunch of old men watching motorcycle racing on the TV above the bar; to know, simultaneously that the likes of Paris Hilton or Roman Abramovich could, still, drink manzanilla, fino, Oloroso or PX, on their yachts, would be an extra, unbearable, twist of a blunt and rusted knife in that broken heart.  So I would urge everyone reading this to do their bit to support a struggling industry and go out and buy a bottle of sherry, or two (there are at least half a dozen distinctive basic types, and I would urge you to try them all eventually), right now.  Yes, I mean NOW.  Don’t even bother reading the rest of this article, it’ll still be here when you get back.  Like the early films of Woody Allen, but unlike the sherry if we’re not careful.

And if you say ‘but I don’t like sherry’ I shall resist the urge to say ‘shame on you’, because: a.) it’s personal taste; b.) I know a lot of people do have bad sherry memories, mainly linked to Christmas and Harvey’s Bristol Cream, which I can see would put you off; and, c.) I recognise that sherry has an image problem (not unrelated to b.), although the persistence of that problem is slightly mystifying, in that sherry manages to still be tainted by maiden aunt associations at a time when the very notion of a maiden aunt has, surely, long since been consigned to history.  I will, again, though urge you to try it.  Start with a manzanilla, well chilled, as an aperitif.  And if you get the chance to do the Andalucian bar thing, with the salted almonds and the olives – with or without the old men and the motorcycle racing – then I can’t recommend that highly enough.  That would count, in my mind at least, as one of the very rare examples in life of a repeatable moment being reliably sublime.  And if you experience that, and still don’t get it, then we will, regrettably, just have to agree to differ on the matter of sherry.  You should know, though, that I don’t think we could ever truly be friends…

I like to think that I do my bit to support the sherry industry (apart that is, from writing this, with it’s global readership of literally tens…).  I currently have three bottles of different types of sherry in my house (a manzanilla, an oloroso and a PX) plus a bottle of sherry vinegar – that was actually more expensive than either of the bottles of drinking sherry that I paid for myself (the PX was a birthday gift from my friends Sarah and Jimmy – Sarah having undergone something of a sherry epiphany at Moro for Jimmy’s birthday just the week before mine, which, entirely coincidentally, Becca and I also celebrated at Moro.  Thank you Sarah and Jimmy.  Thank you Becca.). And that is another thing about sherry, and another reason the Paris Hilton/Roman Abramovich scenario described above would be so particularly excruciating – right now sherry provides ridiculously good value by fine wine standards.  You really can get something properly, seriously, good from Jerez, for the same price, or less, as something really very bog standard from any other great wine producing region you care to name.  And I am talking about under a tenner here, not thirty quid a bottle sort of money.  I am, after all, going to cook with this wine, as well as drink it…

And cooking with sherry is another way in which I like to think I’m doing my bit.  And I love to cook things in sherry.  Apart from anything else it gives me an excuse to drink sherry while I’m cooking, which otherwise does feel just a little bit excessively indulgent.  Even by my standards.  I’ve already described recipes for pigs cheeks in sherry, and lamb’s hearts.  Here’s one for chicken.  Like the recently posted recipe for chicken cooked in cider, which, in terms of technique, is essentially the same, although thoroughly different in flavour, you can joint a whole chicken for this one, or sneakily use those supermarket packs of chicken thighs which are actually ideal and cost about the same.  I shouldn’t really approve, I know, but hey, this is the world we live in…

Chicken in sherry

For two: 
4 chicken thighs
1 really big onion, or two averagely small ones (you want plenty of onion in this dish), peeled and sliced into wedges
A couple of cloves of garlic, and a bit of fresh chilli
Thyme, salt, pepper (lemon zest – optional)
A glass or two of sherry (about 150-200ml)

plenty of onions, a bit of garlic and chilli...
I start by taking a clove of garlic and about a centimetre’s worth of fresh chilli, and crushing them to a paste in my garlic crusher then rubbing that paste into the chicken pieces with plenty of salt and pepper, a sprinkling of thyme leaves and some olive oil.  I might just grate a bit of lemon zest over the chicken as well, just to brighten the flavour.  Then I brown the chicken in a shallow, oven proof, lidded pot, throw in the onion, and another garlic clove and another cm or so of fresh chilli, both finely sliced.  Cook till the onion's just starting to soften, but not colour, then pour over the sherry and cover.  Bring the sherry to the boil, back it off to a gentle simmer, then transfer to the oven at about 180, for about half an hour (by all means go lower and slower if you like, that’ll be good, if not even better, but this is something I tend to throw together as a quick supper.  Also, if you’re doing the roast potatoes below in the oven at the same time it’ll need to be at least 180).

lemon roasted new potatoes

When it comes out of the oven, just check that the chicken is cooked through, and if you need to, add an extra splash of sherry for extra sauce.

I’ll generally serve this with lemon roasted new potatoes – the fresh zestiness of new potatoes and lemon just seem to go.  I boil the potatoes for ten minutes or so in their skins, either whole or sliced in half lengthways, depending on size.  Once I’ve strained them off, I grate the zest of a lemon over them, then squeeze the juice of half of it into the pan, add salt, pepper, some fresh thyme leaves and a little olive oil, shake it all together and tip into a hot roasting tray with a bit more olive oil and the other half of the lemon, sliced lengthways into four.  Again, about half an hour at 180 should be good, but you might want to whack the temperature right up for just 5-10 minutes at the end, once you’ve taken out the chicken, just to ensure a beautiful golden hue to your potato skins.

Smoke salted roast almonds

If you do want to recreate the ice cold manzanilla and salted almonds experience in your own home, it’s even more satisfying, obviously, if you’ve salted and roasted the almonds yourself.  I use a mix of sea salt and paprika, you could use just salt, or just paprika for that matter.  And to get an interesting smokiness, I use Maldon smoked sea salt, although you could go with smoked paprika instead, use hot or sweet paprika, whatever you fancy really.  Whatever mix of salt and spice you use the trick is to add it to the nuts in a polythene bag, with just enough olive oil to help it bind.  Don’t over spice the nuts, about two teaspoons of salt and one of paprika would be my starting point for a 300g bag of nuts, but feel free to add more if you don’t feel they are sufficiently coated.  The most important thing I have found is making sure they are not too heavily coated in oil, or you never get them roasted to the right light crunchiness.  Once your nuts are coated to your satisfaction spread them out evenly across a roasting tray, ensuring they are in a single layer.  As for how hot to roast them, and for how long, I couldn’t precisely say, as I normally put them in alongside something else I’m cooking already, so it depends on how hot the oven needs to be for that. What I would say is not too hot, and not too long.  About 150 for about 15 minutes would probably be just about spot on. My best advice would be to keep an eye on them, and take them out just before you think they are going to be perfectly done, as they will continue to bake themselves once you’ve removed them from the oven and they’ll end up over toasted if you leave them in till they look just right.  Spread them on kitchen paper to cool, covered with another layer of kitchen paper, to absorb any excess oil.


  1. I had no idea I was neglecting sherry at my peril - I absolutely love the spectrum from manzanilla to oloroso (PX is just too sweet for me). I will ensure it is my next aperitif!

  2. I was given some smoked sea salt for Christmas, and I've been having difficulty find a way to use it in which its flavor is noticeable. The almond recipe looks like just the ticket.

    Greetings and salutations from a fellow Fino drinker.