Our fast train hurtled away from the Madrid, heading south on course for a three hour journey to the city of Jerez de la Frontera in Southwestern Spain. Though I’d never visited before, my friend Gary has visited the town famous for producing some of the world’s finest sherry and had me convinced that it was place that I needed to see. Not only is the sherry famous but Jerez is the place where the flamenco was invented and the Spanish centre of Equestrianism.
Though we’d had a late night in Madrid and woken early for the train this morning I felt like I was operating on batteries as I spent the train journey catching up on emails and reading blog posts super excited for what was to come that day. As soon as I arrived in Jerez, I sent Gary a picture of the station sign as he equally excited that I’d be visiting one of his favourite places, and then it was into the car and off to our first destination.
Ximenez Spinola is an incredibly special sherry bodega, having been founded in 1729 by Phelipe Antonio Zarzana Spínola and remaining in the family for nine generations. There’s a museum-like room dedicated to the history of the bodega too with original documents from it’s founding
There are sixteen hectares of vines and the bodega sets itself apart by only growing Pedro Ximénez grapes which is rare in Jerez as Palomino grapes are most common.
Despite the thirty plus degree heat, we didn’t feel uncomfortable due to light breezes coming from each direction. Apparently it is this air that contributes to the character of the sherry along with the chalky soil; warm, dry winds from the East and cool, humid winds from the West converge at the point where Ximénez-Spínola make their wine. I learn more and more as I write this blog and having the opportunity to visit places like this – I didn’t know much about sherry before and I considered it something that you might crack open at Christmas!
Sherry is made differently to wine and is aged using the solera system. This is stack of barrels of fortified wine that are each topped up with an older reserve from the next barrel and replenished with wine from younger barrels. Another thing I didn’t know is that sherry is a generic name and there are actually eight types for example Fino de Jerez which is dry and young and Pedro Ximenez (PX) which is the sweetest variety all produced here in the ‘sherry triangle.’
We were able to sample sherry from the different barrels which to me had a strong taste of raisins and a beautiful golden colour – the wines are rather rare so this was a very exciting and exclusive opportunity. We also sampled some of the brandy produced in the bodega as well as the sherry vinegar which has flavour from the oak wood casks where its aged.
After our tastings it was time to leave the bodega and for the aspect of this trip that I had been looking forward to the most – lunch at two-Michelin starred Aponiente.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a great sense of anticipation for a restaurant as when we arrived. A large metal sign and a welcoming maître d’ highlighted that we were in the right place but gates concealed a compound that contained that highly hallowed restaurant. I felt a real sense of gravity press down on me with the knowledge that we were in for something truly special…
Through the metal doors we entered the compound first being led into a conservatory-like space with brigade of chefs in the corner busily preparing snacks with micro-precision.
Glasses of sherry were poured and our snacks were bought to the table. Every single dish here is fish and seafood based which as you can imagine was a total dream for me.
Albacore temaki were gorgeous cones of tuna tartare, a Japanese dish with a Spanish twist.
Along with ‘Moray eel rinds’ or deep fried eel skin.
Delicious crispy shrimp fritters with little dots of avocado.
As well as the sherry we refreshed ourselves with a Gin Mare martini which actually contains spheres of algae! More on that later…
Brined anchovy with fresh sardine in vinegar and marinated fried dog fish.
Chargrilled sardines and the most amazing cuttlefish doughnuts which were like savoury profiteroles. Even the scaley plating references the seafood-theme of Aponiente.
With the snacks finished it was time to move into the main restaurant and as is often the way with these gastronomic temples of food, the setting is key to the story. The restaurant’s move to a 19th Century Mill is relatively recent and could pave the way for restaurant’s third Michelin star.
First built in 1815 to convert tidal energy into wave power, change local cereal to flour and to mill sea salt. The mill was a benchmark in the flour industry and one of the biggest tide mills is Southern Europe until it fell into disuse in the 1970’s. It has been completely restored in order to house Aponiente with the past of the building feeding into the themes of the restaurant as well as the nautical decor.
A vast wine cellar and open kitchen greets us as we enter the restaurant and at this point we are lucky enough to meet the man himself; chef-owner Ángel León. Also known as Chef del Mar or Chef of the Sea, he is firmly established as a ground-breaking chef when it comes to seafood, marine research and the use of more unusual ingredients such as algae and plankton. Thanks to his father he has a lifelong obsession with the sea and was even a sailor before he was a chef. He has run Aponiente for nearly ten years and in 2014 was awarded his second Michelin star.
It’s here by the kitchen that we have our final snack, bread with clam served on a delicate spoon, before moving on into the dining room.
Here you could also most be under the sea yourself with chairs shaped liked fish, brick walls and port holes leading out to marshy views. There’s two menu options the Groundswell menu (205 EURO) or as we had, the Calm Sea menu (175 EURO) with eighteen courses including the snacks that we’d had outside.
Our first course was intriguely named ‘sea sausages.’ The collection of sausages on the table looks for all the world like meat but everything that you see here is made from discarded fish – at Aponiente what you see is not always what you get – Angel claims that showing the fish remains as meat allow people digest his innovative concepts more easily.
The fish pate looked, tasted and had the exact same texture as meat. I’m a huge fan of chorizo and I wouldn’t be able to distinguish this from the real thing.
Oyster salad in what looked like a soup but was actually a gel once again deceived our eyes.
And a delicious raw mackerel, cucumber and jalapeno pepper course was the perfect morsel leaving just the right amount of spicy fire in the throat.
We all think of iodine of that stinging substance that you put on cuts and bites but at Aponiente they serve a cold iodine soup served in what looks like a moon crater! And speaking of soup, you may be wondering about the bread…personally I’m always thinking of the bread. Well nearly every course were served with an incredible different bread from the restaurant’s in house baker…I thought it would be best not to include them in order to avoid taking this post to 3,000 words!
At this point we took a break from this epic meal and we were led upstairs to Ángel León’s test kitchen.
Since his early days in the restaurant business Ángel León has been involved in research and development for innovative ways of cooking and flavouring seafood. He works to extract the very best, often using little known products and the parts of the fish that are discarded. He is also dedicated to sustainability and reducing the environmental impact of fishing.
But let’s forget about the science bit for a moment…we were about to see some magic…
We were each given a grapefruit drink to which crumbs of a small shell-like substance were added and swirled around. The lights were switched off and our goblets began to glow, luminous in the dark. Drinking was like tasting the stars as the ‘edible light’ left an imprint on our tongues. Honestly, glow-in-the-dark drinks sound rather unsophisticated and child-like but it really was an incredible spectacle and added another layer to what was already a truly out of this world meal. We didn’t want the magic to end but we still had several courses left and a plane to catch! So with the lights back on and our drinks dimmed, we headed back downstairs.
You can imagine how incredible the service was by the sheer number of staff coming to our table. I think we must had a waiter each!
The next course is called ‘A tribute to Huelva’, a fishing village in Spain. A hot milky soup is poured over two prawns, cooking them in the liquid. The soup itself was our first hot dish and it’s deliciously comforting. That’s the thing about the food here, despite fancy small portions and some unusual ingredients it’s also just supremely tasty and full of flavour.
Even a simple vegetable medley contained the very freshest of peas and was given flavour with a touch of cod skin.
Hake with sorrel was another small morsel in this multi-course menu but I just wish they’d been more.
The name of the next dish had us puzzled buy ‘rice with plankton and spiny murex’ turned out to be sea snails which a mushroom-like texture. The use of plankton is one thing Ángel León is famous for and he was the first to use it as an ingredient in his cookery. As plankton collects flavours and scents of the sea and fish, eating it as like tasting a highly concentrated version of the sea – this rice is his signature dish.
Ángel León has worked with Gin Mare to create a signature cocktail to represent the taste of the Mediterranean. Dried plankton is combined with rosemary and citrus flavour in this reinterpreted gin and tonic that actually tastes like the sea! Ok a plankton cocktail sounds kind of strange but we all agreed it was our favourite that we tried and I loved the glowing green hue.
We ate this delicious squid in one bite served with salicornia in a cream sauce.
Tuna alla cacciatore or a kind of brasied tuna in a thick unctuous sauce. After sixteen courses I was feeling pretty full – remember we had all that bread too…
The ‘fresh apple’ dessert is light but full of different textures and temperatures.
And citrusy burrata which even tastes of the sea with pearls of plankton on top!
A final cocktail and petit fours marked the end of the experience – a better word for this all sensory, immersive extravaganza than a simple ‘lunch’. I have to say it will go down in history for me as one of the best restaurants of all time, there was not one bad course in all 18! We were each presented with a beautiful gift as every tiny detail is considered here before we headed to the car bound for Seville airport.
My gastronomic journey through Spain had taken me all through the country from the North to South all in the space of about a day and a half and I have definitely fallen more than a little bit love with the exceptional cuisine of the country. A huge thank you to Gin Mare for taking me on this trip.
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My trip to Spain was hosted by Gin Mare but this is not a sponsored post