Taberna La Manzanilla, in the Spanish coastal city of Cádiz, is a sherry-filled cavern that’s changed little since it was founded in 1942. Like his father and grandfather before him, Pepe Garcia nurses five different types of sherry, all stored in 500-litre barrels. Here there are no modern-day contraptions such as fridges — just cool stone walls and fine sherry quietly ageing in oak.
Standing proud behind the counter in a guayabera shirt, Pepe serves small glasses of sherry, each accompanied by two olives — no more, no less. Each year, the barrels are topped up with 150 litres of new-harvest sherry, meaning it’s difficult to put an exact age on what’s inside. “This wine is alive,” says Pepe, before holding up a map and giving us a lesson on the ‘Sherry Triangle’ that is Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María — “a humid area with morning dew and ocean breezes”. The climactic differences between each city makes for very distinct wines, and almost all of Pepe’s are from Sanlúcar, where his family originated.
Pouring straight from the cask, Pepe offers a three-year old manzanilla fina, which is young, bitter, salty and green in colour; then a manzanilla madura (drier and rounder); followed by a moscatel blanco oloroso, which is sweet and viscose. I work my way up to a 26-year-old amontillado viejo, which looks like whisky and is dry and strong. There’s also a 70-year-old sherry vinegar that ranks as the best I’ve ever tasted.
Stepping out from the darkness of the taverna, the light greets me, bouncing off Cádiz’s worn, limestone buildings. Everything is an easy amble in this city, and because it’s a peninsula bounded by the Atlantic, there are views out to sea at almost every turn and seafood sellers on many of the street corners. I head for Freiduría Las Flores, in the middle of the city’s flower market, and stand at the horseshoe-shaped bar, ordering a bunch of tapas dishes, where we pay no more than €2.30 (£1.90) per tapa (if you sit down, you have to pay the half-plate price). There are anchovies, shrimps and prawns, all dipped in flour and fried; octopus swimming in oil and paprika; fried strips of broad, flat calamari known as chocos; marinated dogfish and small plates of paella and fideuà (a seafood dish, with fine noodles).
The nearby Mercado Central is an animated theatre of seafood (as well as ham, sherry, cheese and vegetables). Gaditanos (residents of Cádiz) and tourists alike gaze wide-eyed as a stallholder butchers an enormous swordfish, bloody in its meatiness, with a sword that almost touches the ceiling. Housed inside a former convent, numbered stalls line the perimeter of the market, making it a simple hop to savour cheese, sip fine albariño, buy sausages or jamon, then stop again for a sherry or a glass of chilled Cruzcampo beer.
At DKY, I’m in raptures at my first taste of one of the best delicacies of Cádiz, tortillita de camarones, a thin, crispy-fried fritter of chickpea and wheat flour, studded with tiny shrimp and spring onions. I wander to another stall, teased by the sight of churros (Spanish doughnuts), fresh from the bubbling oil.
On a Sunday afternoon, I head for Taberna Casa Manteca (literally, House of Lard, because it sells almost every conceivable form of cured pork), where matador memorabilia adorns the walls and sausages hang behind the bar. Run by two brothers (sons of a matador) and known locally as Bar Manteca, it’s a noisy spit-and-sawdust kind of place, where shouty Gaditanos spill out on to the pavement, and I immediately feel at home. Thin layers of soft, fatty pork are laid on waxed paper and dressed with sea salt and lemon — chicharrones de Cádiz, a speciality of the region (elsewhere in Spain, the word refers to fried pork rinds).
Beside them are fritos (fat, crisp chunks of spicy pork belly), as well as slices of longaniza picante (spiced sausage), chorizo, morcilla (sausage stuffed with blood) and queso de arte (artisan cheese). All are slapped down in front of me without fanfare, and cost a bargain €2.30 (£1.90) per tapa. I roll the chicharrones round tiny breadsticks, picos, to make a cumin and pepper-scented, crunchy snack of lardy delight, accompanied by glasses of Barbadillo, a local light, grassy white wine.
Out in the street, two weatherbeaten seafood vendors shuck oysters and twist newspaper cones to hold hundreds of tiny pink shrimps for €1 (83p) a pop. Manteca is in the heart of Virgen de la Palma, a pedestrianised cobbled street at the centre of this slightly shabby former fishermen’s quarter, now clustered with tapas bars and restaurants.
From here, I take a short stroll to the town beach and Quilla, a buzzy bar where tables are laid out on the promenade, thus affording one of the best spots to nurse a chilled white and ponder the glorious sunset and wide sky.
I marvel at this city, more than 3,000 years old and host to a variety of civilisations, including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Visigoths, Romans and Moors. They came and they departed. But some things will always remain the same in this corner of Spain: the stark Iberian light, the salty air and the freshest seafood. And it’s these aspects that will make me return to laid-back, atmospheric Cádiz time and time again.
Five Cádiz food finds
1. Horno al Gloria: A historic city bakery that makes pan de Cádiz, a celebratory cake of marzipan, almonds, dried fruits and spun sugar popular at Christmas. hornolagloria.com
2. Ultramarinos Bar El Veedor: A joy of a tapas bar-cum-shop, where you can buy hams, cheese, sausages, tinned fish, wines and sherries. detapasencadiz.com
3. Taberna la Manzanilla: For five types of unfiltered sherry sold in litre bottles straight from the barrel and 70-year-old sherry vinegar. lamanzanilladecadiz.com
4. Vinos Magerit: This company specialises in wines and sherries from Andalucia and other Spanish regions. It also has a presence in the Mercado Central. vinosmagerit.es/shop
5. Pancracio: Truffles, bonbons and chocolate vodka are among the wide range of wares on offer at this stylish city centre chocolate boutique. pancracio.com
Four places for a taste of Cádiz
El Faro de Cádiz
The restaurant of this venerable Cádiz institution is a fine place to sit and lose a languid afternoon, but the tapas bar is visceral and much more fun. Here they serve some of the finest tortillitas de camarones in the city, with crisp, lacey wafers of chickpea and wheat flour densely studded with miniscule shell-on shrimp. There are also ortiguillas fritas (sea anemone beignets) and patatas alinadas al estilo, a Cádiz speciality of soft potatoes, thick with oil, parsley and spring onion, topped with chunks of tuna. Finish with raisin ice cream covered in sweet Pedro Ximénez sherry.
■ How much: From €20 (£17) per person. elfarodecadiz.com
Restaurante Freiduría Las Flores
Stand at the horsehoe-shaped bar in this pescaíto frito (fried fish and seafood) restaurant in the heart of the city’s flower market and you’ll pay no more than €2.30 (£1.90) per tapa plate (if you sit down you have to pay the half-plate racion price). There are anchovies, shrimps and prawns, all dipped in flour and fried; octopus swimming in oil and paprika; and small plates of paella and fideuà. Ice-cold Cruzcampo lager is served in short glasses.
■ How much: Ten plates of tapas will cost no more than €23 (£19). T: 00 34 956 226 112.
Taberna Casa Manteca
Famous for its glorious pork and pork-fat morsels of goodness, this small, characterful bar is one of the shining stars of Cádiz. Gaditanos (locals of Cádiz) tuck into thin layers of soft, fatty pork dressed with sea salt and lemon — chicharrones de Cádiz, a speciality of the region. Try fritos, fat, crisp chunks of spicy pork belly, as well as slices of longaniza picante (spiced sausage), chorizo, morcilla (black pudding) and queso de arte (artisan cheese), with no single tapa more than €2.30 (£1.90). Everything comes with a basket of tiny breadsticks, picos, and is best accompanied by glasses of Cruzcampo or Barbadillo.
■ How much: Ten plates of tapas will cost no more than €23 (£19). T: 00 34 956 213 603.
For serious splendour, head to the rococo Café Royalty, a recently restored grand salon where you can eat four refined courses of Andalucian cooking for €33 (£27), including a glass of fantastic albariño and a punchy gazpacho garnished with prawns. It dates back to 1912, and intellectuals, artists, writers and politicians came here to shoot the breeze before it closed at the dawn of the Spanish Civil War. Encouraging that olden-days cafe society vibe, it welcomes those stopping for just tea or coffee and cake.
■ How much: Three courses (including a glass of wine), will set you back €33 (£27) per person. caferoyalty.com
Published in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)