I was out to dinner the other night with my family and friends and did a little research before I went. It was a warm summer evening and we were going to be dining outside under a cloudless sky. The thought of sucking down heady Czech beer seemed a little heavy handed to my palate so I made a strategic decision early on. I ordered one of my favorite drinks, Sherry. I’ve written about a few of my experiences with this typical Spanish drink before but nowhere outside of Jerez typifies it more in my mind more than the place I’m about to tell you about, quietly, like a well-kept secret. The place is – come closer – La Venencia in Madrid, Spain.
My first experience in La Venencia was brought on by my wife, well, needing a bathroom break. We were cavorting around Madrid one evening about nine-or-so years ago and nature called. The rest, as they say, is history. My wife found what she needed and for me the doors to a secret world opened by dumb luck. Upon my first visit, I had no idea where I was. I didn’t know what they served but I did see a whole lot of what looked like wine casks. I figured I could at least get a glass of wine while I waited. So, I asked for a glass of “algún vino blanco y seco” (some dry white wine). The guy behind the bar just smiled and said “Solo tenemos blanco.” Not knowing what I had stepped into, I did what came naturally. “Vále” (OK), I retorted. The next 7 seconds passed, he smiled and, for some unknown reason, decided to take pity on me. He reached for one of the five corked bottles behind the bar and poured the light, grassy copita of Sherry. “Fino,” he said as he re-corked the bottle and scrawled my order on the bar in chalk. My senses were reeling. Chalk on the bar? Leather on the walls? Casks? Air impossibly thick with smoke? This must be it. Heaven!
For anyone with even a passing interest in Sherry, it was and is a slice heaven. La Venencia is about as authentic as anything gets in all of Iberia. From the people behind the bar to the impossibly yellowed posters and pictures adorning the walls, the place is so Spanish it hurts. It’s the place where my wife turned into a Sherry fan and I believe the place where we first considered the idea of a trip to Jeréz which we just completed earlier this year. It’s also a place that I visited with my brother while in Madrid – on several occasions during our trip there. In fact, every time we walked by and it was open, we stopped in for a copa. From the Seco Amontillado, to the Fino, to the Manzanilla (among others), all glasses are served with an intensity and sacredness that really respects the liquid that is being poured as much as the tradition of the place.
Rounding out the flavor package are the complimentary plates of tapas that go with the delicious copas. The olives are some of the best I have had in Spain. Garlicky, slightly salty, and steeped in grassy Spanish oil. The cheese under the glass cover behind the bar is a queso de cabra, I believe, but can’t be entirely sure. Then there are the slices of chorizo that seem to melt in your mouth and lay the perfect foundation for a sip of this Spanish ambrosia.
Finally, there are the people themselves. The faces behind the bar are solemn and seem as worn as the dark brown wood and the leather covered walls. Their faces appear to tell a story of the place with years of tobacco smoke plotting a sort of relief map of Sherry history. They can be fairly conversational if the stars are aligned correctly. On one early visit, I was mistaken as an Italian and the bartender seemed amazed that I was, in fact, an American.
This bar would be an impossibility in another country. Not only could one never find this many smokers in one city but the phenomenon of Sherry is purely Spanish. However, there is something else. This is Spain, or more specifically, Madrid. It’s the tradition of the city. The grittiness mixed with hospitality that exists but is not over-exuberant. It is authenticity like I have never witnessed anywhere else. Of course, it wouldn’t be the same without the Sherry. And, oh, the Sherry.