La Venencia – Madrid, Spain

La Venecia
La Venencia

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.

Tortilla de Camarones

It’s easy to get in a rut when dining in Spain.  However, Spanish cuisine is incredibly varied when you decide to extend beyond the staples.  Factor in that most of Spain is bordered by the sea and it increases your chances of finding something you had never heard of.  On my last trip there, one such discovery was the tortilla de camarones.  When my wife told me, according to her pre trip research, that the place in Sanlúcar in which we were seated was famous for them, I was skeptical.  Shrimp in a tortilla?  It sounded kind of low on the texture scale.  Plus, I’m a tortilla purist and the thought of sticking anything other than the essentials (egg, potato, onion) in a tortilla is just a distraction.  Luckily, a couple of tables down, the folks ordered an unidentified plate of something heaping and fried and it piqued my curiosity.  I went to the counter at Casa Balbino and ordered a plate of the tortilla de camarones for two and another couple glasses of La Gitana.  I waited and was greeted with this:

Tortilla de Camarones
Tortilla de Camarones

It’s not a tortilla in the classic sense but an incredibly airy, perfectly seasoned, fried nest of whole baby shrimp.  The crunch of the batter mixed with the shell of the shrimp reminded me of softshell crab – without the unfortunate mush that sometimes accompanies the latter.  It was incredible.  The Manzanilla cut though the grease perfectly and I had no problem devouring the majority of the plate.  My wife enjoyed it as well but is not quite as adventurous of an eater as I am especially when it comes to baby shellfish.  Still, she said she loved it.  (Maybe I just didn’t give her a chance to eat more!)

Spain is a big country and the amount of culinary diversity is immense.  Tortilla de camarones is a standout, however.  If you ever find yourself in a restaurant where it is served, order it – and don’t forget the manzanilla.

Sherry Rebujitos in Grazalema, Spain

A Rebujito in Grazalema, Spain
A Rebujito in Grazalema, Spain

Our last trip to Spain opened my eyes to lots of new food and deepened my understanding of a few of the most classic Spanish drinks.  One of the tipples that I really got to know on this journey was Sherry, or Jerez, as it is called on the peninsula.  I’ve been a fan of Sherry since the first vacation to Spain with my wife.  Oddly, when I lived there as an 18-year-old foreign exchange student, I didn’t get into it.  I think I was too busy discovering J&B with coke.  (Don’t ask.)  Anyway, a little more maturity has paved the way for the immensely satisfying world of Spanish Sherry.  Its flavor is legendary and is as varied as the Spanish landscape itself.  There are many more experienced Sherry palates on the web to discuss the topic in detail so I’ve chosen to bring one small strata of the world of Jerez to you  – El Rebujito.

El Rebujito comes from a long line of Spanish drinks that mix beer or wine with juice or soda (sangria, tinto de verano, cerveza clara…).  El Rebujito takes this a step further and mixes Fino Sherry with lemonade or, as we experienced more often, 7-Up.  Yep, 7-Up.  The flavor of the sherry was mellowed by the 7-Up, which managed to take away some of the characteristic acidity of the Fino.  Served over ice, it was the perfect midday sipping concoction to enjoy in the local sun-drenched plaza.  Mixed with a salty tapa or just a good bunch of potato chips, it was perfect.  Having enjoyed the single drinks early on in the trip, imagine our delight when we found it served in a pitcher in a little place in Sevilla, outdoors, on a characteristically scorching Sevilla day.

Sherry showed its incredible versatility and variety on this trip.  It’s made a permanent home for itself in my bar/armory.  And, the Rebujito is a welcome foot soldier in the war to beat the summer heat.

Ay, Tio

We’re sitting on another balcony tonight. This one is in Jerez, the home of sherry. We toured the Tio Pepe bodega today and learned a lot about sherry. Cool stuff. Thanks to a Zune, Dora the Explorer and some kid-sized headphones, the 2 year old NHer did the tour with us. Funny stuff. Especially for the tour guide.

Tried to enjoy some time on the beach today just north of Cadiz but the royal sandblasting proved to be too much for all of us. Maybe we should take up windsurfing – ay, tio!

Hasta pronto.