Spain’s Vejer de la Frontera is the perfect place to sip and savor.
by Virginia Philip
Spring is season of much-awaited anticipation and hope. Perhaps there is a project you are eager to begin — or finish. Or there could be a trip you have been planning. One of the most beautiful villages in Spain is also one of the most unique destinations to visit. Vejer de la Frontera, located south of the Sherry Triangle, has an array of attractions that draws the visitor — not to mention its bounty of Sherry. I sat down with Annie Manson, a transplanted Scot with a love of all things Spanish, who opened her cooking school in Vejer in 2009.
VP: You went to Edinburgh University to study business and finance. After graduation, you worked for the Chemical Bank of New York. When did you realize your passion was for cooking and wine?
AM: After working for Chemical Bank, I went to work for Dun & Bradstreet in the European head office in London. When I started traveling extensively in Europe for work, I realized I was more interested in what I was eating and in visiting local supermarkets than I was for the business at hand.
VP: I have visited Vejer many times, and it is one of the most beautiful villages I know. How and when did you discover Vejer?
AM: For 20 years, I had been coming to Marbella on holiday. I saw a television program mentioning neighboring Costa de la Luz. I decided right then I was heading there. In 2003, I found Casa Alegre, a restored Andalucían patio home. It was becoming more difficult to leave Vejer while on vacations and weekends to return to London. I had fallen in love with the people, the wine, and the food. In 2006, I sold my catering company and moved full time to Vejer.
VP: Today, you operate a cooking school from your home that allows you to share and teach the pleasure of utilizing local, fresh ingredients, paired with the local wines and Sherry. How would you describe your philosophy of teaching?
AM: I do not really teach culinary skills or techniques. I share my knowledge of how to cook authentic versions of the local cuisine. The class shops at local markets, then returns to the kitchen to prepare lunch as a group. They gain an insight to the food, wine, and culture of Andalucía. All meals are paired with wine and Sherry.
VP: Sherry is the major wine component of the area. Vejer is located just slightly south of the Sherry Triangle and Cadíz. How would you describe Sherry?
AM: Sherry is basically an aged white wine. A food wine, Sherry should always be drunk with food. It’s also a wine of extremes that can range from extremely dry to extremely sweet.
VP: Where does it come from?
AM: A wine can only be called Sherry if it is from the denominación de origen (DO) of Jerez. Likewise, Champagne can only be called Champagne if it is from the AC of Champagne. The DO of Jerez is known as the Sherry Triangle. All Sherry has to be aged within this triangle, bordered by the Sherry towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.
VP: There are several types of Sherry. I love the range and the versatility these wines have with food. You became a “Sherry Educator” in 2011. Can you describe the different styles?
AM: Sherry is a generic name for eight types of fortified, aged, and blended wines. If you go into a bar and ask for a “Sherry,” you may encounter a blank stare. You need to specify the type you want. The eight types of Sherry are: Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso, Cream, Moscatel, and Pedro Ximenez (PX).
VP: How is Sherry made?
AM: All Sherry is made from green grapes only: Palomino, Moscatel, and Pedro Ximénez (PX). Ninety percent of all Sherry is made from the Palomino grape. The color of Sherry comes from oxidization or sun drying (sundried Moscatel and PX raisins). Flor is the layer of naturally forming yeast that sits on top of Fino and Manzanilla wine in the casks and protects the wine from the oxygen/air. Sherry is FAB — fortified, aged, and blended.
VP: Sherry, similar to Port, is fortified. How do they differ?
AM: One hundred percent of all Sherry is fortified from grape spirit. Port is fortified with brandy. This grape spirit is also aged on its own in old Sherry casks, giving us Sherry brandy.
VP: What else is unique about Sherry?
AM: All Sherry is aged. The youngest Sherry is three years old and is aged using a unique system called solera and criadera — think barrels stacked on top of each other. The wine of the current harvest is added to the top barrel and over time, makes its way to the bottom barrel – solera. This is called fractional blending — a blend of different vintages, accounting for 98 percent of all Sherry. To the Sherry industry, the quality of harvest is not crucial; it’s what happens to the wine after harvest that is so integral to the process.
VP: The most important process in Sherry production is its contact with the air.
AM: All Sherry is aged above ground in buildings called cathedrals. The circulation of air from the Poniente and Levante winds of Sherry country keeps the barrels cool and is absolutely paramount.
VP: I personally love Sherry in all of its styles and facets. A glass of Manzanilla with olives, toasted almonds and a slice of Manchego is one of my favorite snacks. I must admit, however, that it can be a bit of an acquired taste. How do you pair Sherry with food?
AM: There’s an important saying to bear in mind when you’re matching Sherry with food: If it swims: Fino and Fanzanilla. If it flies: Amontillado. If it runs: Oloroso.
Fino and Manzanilla are perfect with anything salty. Try them with sushi and smoked salmon. A glass of Amontillado with roast chicken is yum! Try Oloroso with a burger, pork chop, or any beef stew. The great thing about Amontillado and Oloroso is that after you open the bottle, you can have just one glass, and it will remain good for at least a year. The wine has been made in contact with oxygen; therefore, does not deteriorate after opening.
VP: You were recently adopted by Vejer as an honorary citizen for the attention you have brought to the local gastronomy. Trip Advisor.com rates your kitchen experience as No. 4 out of 1,235 things to do in Andalucía. Why?
AM: Spanish gastronomy has gone incognito for years. Italy has been the world’s focus. I came to town with no expectations. Gradually, a whole new world of undiscovered deliciousness unfolded. Although the people are traditionally poor, their cuisine is based on local, quality ingredients requiring very little fuss when preparing. It is healthy and truly a diet of the Mediterranean. From acorn-fed pork to air-dried tuna or nibbling on nuts and olives, there is a wine or a Sherry for everyone!
Want to find out more about Sherry? Visit Annie’s Beginner’s Guide to Sherry @ www.anniebspain.com/Sherry/beginners/guide/.