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Sherry, finos, passas puros. Manzanilla, Sanlucar de Barrameda

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A Bar from a Bygone Age in Sanlucar de Barrameda

It is Christmas, and the streets of Jerez are crammed with people on their paseo. They have started early today. After taking ten minutes sitting in my car simply trying to turn across the street I give up and head in the opposite direction. To hell with Jerez, I will go somewhere else.

Eventually I see a sign for Sanlucar de Barrameda. It's at the end of the world. It's an old town, with massive bodegas on the hill, and a windy beach at the bottom of the hill, with breakers reaching out as far as the eye can see. That means shallow sea for at least four miles. The tide is in. I must come back when it's out. Instead I go into the main part of town and find a bar to sample the local delights, and the rest of this story is about a strange lurch back into history. I found a Spain that I thought had passed away.

Sanlucar has a long and honourable history. Five hundred years ago when Spain was bursting upon the new world, most of the treasure that had been stolen from South America was brought back to Seville. However, the ships docked at Sanlucar first, where the cargo was checked before it got to those crooks up river. You could, after all, trust a man from Sanlucar.

There are still some old mansions, which, after the civil war, were largely inhabited by expatriate Americans looking to escape the twentieth century. Here you are indeed at the edge of the world. To the south and west is the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. To the east are the rolling hills of Andalucia, with nothing until you get to Jerez. To the north are Las Marismas, the large marsh lands of the Guadalquivir. Half the land is swamp, the other half is barely a metre above the swamp.

The river is enclosed behind high banks, but that doesn't stop the whole area being inundated every winter when the rains come. Behind the banks you see ships sailing up the river, but all you can see is the tops of the boats, as if they are ploughing through the land.

Behind the town is a slightly raised area of ancient forest. The whole is supposedly a protected wild land, with no settlements, no roads, and no tourist ghettos. And the only way to get about is along deeply rutted tracks that are easy enough to negotiate in the summer when it is dry, but are semi-bogs in the winter. I tried to drive down to the river, but got hopelessly bogged down and it was touch and go getting back out again.

The town of Sanlucar was quiet and dusty, which seemed odd after so much rain. It was as if the whole place was mimicking the wine laying gently in the bodegas. Everything was laid down and waiting. Everywhere were the large warehouses where oceans of the best alcoholic drink in the world matures.

It was time to taste it. I drove back into the central street, chose a bar and walked in. At the back of the bar was a row of small barrels. The barman was standing on a ladder tipping a goatskin of liquid into one of these barrels. Each barrel was numbered. Along the bar were glasses in various stages of emptiness, and small saucers of olives, and a lively clientele.

"Seņor?" the barman looked at me.

"A Manzanilla, of course," I asked.

The barman smiled. "Yes, but which one?"

How the heck should I know? I shrugged. "The best, please."

He smiled, took a tall glass and held it up to one of the barrels. "This is the best," he said, and he put his fingers to his lips and blew a kiss. "Olives?"

"Yes please."

"Which kind?"

I was gradually beginning to see that some of the Spain I remembered from my school days in Barcelona had lingered on in this outpost of the empire. I actually had a choice of olives at the bar. I was obviously in a bar of some style, and looking at the different types of Manzanilla available, and the bowls of olives, it was obvious that I was surrounded by connoisseurs. I needed help here. "As you have given me the best Manzanilla, you had better choose the appropriate olives for me," I said, and a plate of juicy fat green olives appeared on a saucer beside my glass of Manzanilla. They had been marinated in the wine together with coriander.

The first taste of the drink was rather special. The wine had started life on the chalk downs to the east, had then been vinified just down the road, and had then lain in barrels exposed to the salt Atlantic air until deemed ready for consumption. It had then travelled all of a couple of hundred yards to the bar, where it tasted like fresh spring water with a hint of the chalky hillsides, a hint of the sea, and a certain historical something which made it taste like food and refreshment at the same time. But it also tasted clean and healthy.

The first tumbler went down so smoothly it hardly touched my throat. I put the glass down on the bar, and before I could say "muy bueno" the barman was refilling it.

The olives were delicious, both sweet and tangy, and very juicy. The second glass went the way of the first, and the saucer of olives gradually emptied.

When it came time to go I looked for the barman to pay, but he had vanished. "He's gone to feed the chickens," said the guy next to me. "Have an olive."

I sat eating olives and talking about the basketball, but still the barman didn't appear. "Where are these chickens?" I asked.

"Just out the back," said my bar companion.

"I think I'll go and find him," I said, and walked round the back of the bar, and out through the scullery. There was a small path down through the garden. And right at the bottom was a chicken run where the barman was crouched down talking to his hens.

"Ah!" he said, smiling, and getting to his feet, "You want some more Manzanilla?"

"No, no. I must go. I will come back and have some more next time. It was wonderful, very fine, estupendo."

I sat down on a box in the chicken run as a lazy conversation developed. He was perched on one box, I was perched on another. The chickens clucked around us, pecking into the dirt. I didn't want to leave. There was that wonderful ambience oozing out of every part of this establishment.

The bill for two tumblers filled to the brim with best quality Manzanilla, and a saucer filled with fat juicy olives came to one hundred pesetas.

I just need to sit back and read that again. The bill came to one hundred pesetas, and at the time there were about 260 pesetas to the pound.

And on top of everything I got a little present. The barman followed me back down the garden path. "Before you go, seņor," he said. He dug around under the bar, and pulled out a saint's day calendar for me.

I clapped him on the shoulder and told him it had been one of the nicest days of my life and that I thought Sanlucar was a wonderful place; real Spain; and I'd be back. And I hurried out to the car, sat in the driver's seat and burst into tears.

I had found a little corner of the peninsula that was still the Spain that I remembered from all those years ago.

Driving north a sign told me the road ahead was blocked. I didn't care, I drove on, but at the top of a small rise the road just stopped. The road across the marshes had been cancelled. It clearly said: Don't go north boy, stay here.

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