The Jerez Way of Life: Tabancos, Tapas, & Sherry
In Jerez, life moves a little bit slower. In the summer, between the hours of 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM, the city is desolate. The majority of Jerezanos are in their homes, hiding from the oppressive sun, eating a decadent lunch and taking their siesta. The only people left wandering the city streets are los guiris; the tourists. These newcomers to the city are left to fend for themselves if they want a bite to eat or a refreshing drink. Any attempt at either will be met with shuttered windows and locked doors. Dinner begins late here in Jerez—around 9:00 PM is when you see the city come alive with people taking up every part of the street, cars struggle to drive through the sea of people hopping to and from their favorite tabancos. A tabanco is a type of tavern indigenous to Jerez. These local joints are focused around selling Sherry straight from the barrel while also serving simple, traditional food. In addition to the food and drink, tabancos serve the community with a place to socialize and mingle. At every tabanco you will find a Sherry menu on the wall, but don’t expect to see a detailed listing of various producers. You will simply see a listing of each style accompanied by a price per glass. Make your selection and watch the bartender pour you una copita from the barrel.
Each one usually sells for well under 1.50 Euros per glass. The lack of an identifiable producer is commonplace. There’s a house Sherry for each style, and the public is rarely, if ever, privy to such information. It is only important to pick the style you would like to pair with your tapas. This is because dinner in Jerez is a much smaller affair than in the United States. It’s more a time to socialize with friends while picking on tapas and having una copa de vino de jerez (a glass of sherry) or small beer called una caña. The tabanco is small, the glasses are small, and the plates are small. While you can find larger restaurants with more in-depth Sherry lists and more fancily crafted food, the dinner pairing remains the same: Sherry is an accompaniment to food and food is an accompaniment to Sherry. Never one without the other.
I quickly learned after a few nights in Jerez that it is impossible to drink and eat separately. The first few times I was invited out for a drink, I declined food. This was met with strong backlash and several orders of tapas anyway. I’ve also learned to tread lightly when I’m hungry, because the first stop for food and drink is never the last stop.
It seems Jerezanos never stop eating or drinking throughout the day, yet somehow are never too drunk nor too full. I’ve heard this phenomenon referred to as el puntito. For every glass of fino, manzanilla, amontillado, and oloroso, there are equal plates of carne mechada, coquinas, queso payoyo, chicharrones, jamon iberico de bellota. As the Sherry continues to flow, so too does the food in order to balance the Sherry.
This inseparable pairing is in contrast to the United States where food and drink are often consumed separately, often to the point of being either stuffed or drunk. It's beginning to change as people are returning to the pre-Prohibition days of drinking with their food. Maybe this is why only recently Sherry has begun gaining popularity in the U.S. Sherry was born from a culture where eating and drinking together are important, and moreover, eating and drinking well. There’s an apocryphal story in Jerez that says there was once a McDonald’s in the center of the city, but it quickly closed down—the only McDonald’s in Spain to do so. You’d be hard pressed to find a Jerezano who would choose a McDouble over a succulent plate of chicharrones.
Sherry should not be thought of as an aperitif or after dinner drink, but a drink to be paired with your lunch or dinner, (or breakfast for that matter). It deserves a place on our dinner tables alongside the French and Italian table wines we think of as more food-friendly. Sherry is extremely versatile, pairing well with things that are notoriously difficult, like asparagus, artichokes, mushrooms, and anything with umami flavors. But perhaps the best pairing for Sherry is the combination found in every tabanco all over Jerez; good conversation with good friends. So grab a plate of jamon iberico, a few friends, and a bottle of Sherry to recreate a traditional Jerezano experience.