La Carboná, The Flavor of Sherry

La Carboná is one of the most traditional restaurants in the center of Jerez de la Frontera (nobody uses the full name, everybody just says, "Jerez"), the heart of Sherry production in Andalucía in the south of Spain. The restaurant itself was an old winery, so it has high ceilings with a wooden structure. There’s only one big room with plenty of tables and space between them, so no matter how loud the party at the next table is, you don’t really hear them.

There is always olive oil on the tables, so while you wait for the other guests or for the food to arrive, you can start dipping your bread. The oil that particular night was of a deep, bright green with so much flavor that it was difficult to stop eating it. Green olives in brine are also readily available, and they are unbeatable while sipping some Fino Sherry, one of the classical aperitifs of the region. But experience tells me you get a lot of food in this place, and of superb quality, so no matter how good the oil is, you should save your appetite for what is yet to come.

On the wine front, all the food that I’ve mentioned so far works really well with biologically aged Sherries (Fino or Manzanilla), but I had some unusual wines to sample there. The grape from Jerez is Palomino, a somehow neutral, low acidity grape that can easily transmit terroir. But it’s also an easy-to-grow, high-yielding, resistant grape that was planted throughout Spain after phyloxera. There’s quite a lot of old-vine, dry-farmed Palomino in Galicia, so Rafael Palacios from Valdeorras was in town investigating the possibilities of Palomino. So I tried his 2011 collection of whites produced with Godello to sample as an advance to my future visit to Valdeorras for an article covering Galicia in the October issue. I won’t tell you much about the wines, this is not a proper wine review and also it would be like telling you what present you’re getting for Christmas. I was very impressed with them, and I’m sure a lot will be talked (and written) about a new single-vineyard bottling called Sorte O Soro in the next few months (and years). Keep your eyes peeled.

Would you believe caviar is produced in Granada? Well, it is, and of very good quality indeed. We did not have it tonight, but we did have the smoked meat of the sturgeon from Riofrío. It was served cold, like most smoked fish, with salmon roe and mâche to add freshness and crunchiness. The sturgeon is something between the meaty texture of swordfish and the jelly-like consistency of eel.

Tuna is another local specialty from the port of Barbate, a village 80 kilometers south of Jerez. The belly is the fattier, juicer part of the fish which, briefly grilled at high temperature, seals the outside and leaves the inside almost untouched and it melts in your mouth. Going back to the wines, I wanted an excuse to tell you about a new, unique and exceptional wine produced in the Sherry region. It’s a white wine produced by Equipo Navazos from Palomino grapes from 2010 grown in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and it was a kind of accident, one of those wines that just happened. It’s unfortified, and stayed under flor for a total of 38 months, eight of them in used Sherry barrels (bota) and a further two years in stainless steel vats. It combines the power of flor (the veil of yeast that grows on top of the wine that gives Fino and Manzanilla that pungent tang) and the lightness of a white with only 11.5% alcohol. The wine is so tasty and saline that I’m sure is full of umami, and as such it is a real wine for food, subtle enough for lighter dishes, but able to stand up to meats and stews. It might not be a wine for the masses, but it’s truly exceptional. Its name? La Bota de Vino Blanco MMX 44 Florpower. And yes, they took the (made up) word florpower, a pun on ‘flower power’ and flor, which is the Spanish for flower, from an article I wrote about lunch at Noma and drinking Jura and flor wines.

In Spain, it’s hard to finish lunch or dinner at a restaurant without having some meat. Most people want it, and restaurateurs feel they should always offer some. The red meat they serve at La Carboná is exceptional, so I had nothing to complain about. It’s the classic thick chuleta, beef steak, grilled and then sliced tataki-style, cooked outside and raw in the middle. Perhaps I’d have liked it a little less cooked this time.

Again, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve eaten, you’ll always get some dessert, especially if you’re on a large table, where food is mostly taken to the center to share. So even when everybody is quite full, there’s always a little something in case you want to try it, often refreshing sorbet or ice cream, or like tonight that diabetic-killer of a sweet known as tocino de cielo (literally "bacon from heaven"), a cream caramel where only the egg-yolks are used, so high in sugar that it literally sticks to your palate. But boy is it good!

One nice detail for foreign visitors: dinner (and lunch) in Spain is awfully late, 9:00, sometimes 10:00 p.m.—especially in the summer—but here they seem to accommodate and are flexible and serve it early if requested; a group of tourists were paying already as we were sitting down.

A good stroll through the center of Jerez will help you digest all that food, or if the weather allows for it, you can sit down at one of the many bars with outside tables and have a digestif (currently the fashion is for gin and tonic) while you converse with your companions, hopefully about wine and food rather than football or politics, until the small hours of the morning.

Hero image courtesy of La Carboná Facebook page.

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