I do like lunching in London on Saturday. Free of another week, I most often crave salt and seafood. My favourite Saturday lunch spot is currently Soho's Barrafina, though Borough's Wright Brothers is a very close second. The proximity of Barrafina to Fernadez & Wells (recently narrowly beating Flat White in Time Out's London's best coffee shop award) allows one to roll dreamily from yawns, coffee, Spanish cakes and newspapers to salt, sea and liquor.
If you arrive at Barrafina by around midday you are a good chance of snaring one or two of the 23 non-reservable bar stools. Be warned that Frith Street is sleepy and hungover until midday, but quickly starts to grumble back to life thereafter. Newspapers tossed under my bar stool and comfortably seated, I like to kick off with some Pimientos de Padron, direct my gaze thoughtfully to the sherry list, return to the food menu and then try to eliminate from my forthcoming order the few dishes I am not prepared to murder for. The gambas, baby red mullet, sardines and prawn and piquillo pepper tortillas are never culled. And I feel sunless and ill-prepared for the rigours of the afternoon if no Jamon de Jabago blissfully dissolves on my tongue.
Back to the sherry. There is an awful lot to like about sherry. I like that it's made from a tasteless white grape called Palomino, a grape incapable of producing decent wines anywhere in the world other than Jerez, a grape whose only good fortune is a grand name which conjures images of gallant white horses. I am fascinated by the flor, the natural crust of yeast which grows on the surface of the fermented Palomino juice and boldly asserts itself on the end product (as follows in brief for the uninitiated: (i) Fino - the flor is active in the spring and autumn but not summer or winter; (ii) Fino aged in the seaside town of Sanlucar - the flor is active all year, giving these sherries more character, saltiness and yeastiness and the name Manzanilla; (iii) Amontillado - the flor dies after about 7 years of aging as a Fino or Manzanilla; and (iv) Oloroso - the flor is killed by adding alcohol at an early age). I like the mystery and possibility of the solera system, a fractional system of blending where old sherry is refreshed with younger sherry to ensure consistency - generally, unlike most other wines, there are no vintages. On the downside, sherry is quite high in alcohol - Fino is generally about 15% and Amonitllado/Oloroso higher - but so are many wines these days, particularly those from the New World, and I am fond of a nap on Saturday afternoons.
Fino (this and the following references to Fino should be taken to include Manzanilla) should be consumed as soon as possible after bottling and no later than 6 months after bottling. If not consumed swiftly after bottling its freshness is forever lost. Like opened bottles of wine, Fino should also be consumed within a day or two or ditched, though this is not market practice in most of the London bars and restaurants I visit. A real problem buying Fino in London (and presumably most other parts of the world) is that it is often not possible to know when it was bottled. If you spy people who look like clothed naturists slyly moving and turning bottles of sherry in your local supermarket, it is likely they are checking bottling dates. If you order Fino at a bar or restaurant, take a peek at the back of the bottle before it's opened. If there is no bottling date or more than six months have passed since the bottling date, order something else.
Barrafina's wine list lights candles, beckons and seduces with a bottle of La Gitana Manzanilla (500ml) for 14 quid. Not a bad price for a sherry which normally makes me jig and click my heels - it is bone dry, salty and delightfully yeasty, a doughy rogue champagne on the shores of Maldon. It should work so well with the brilliant salty tapas that Barrafina churns out better than any other tapas bar in London. The bad news is that Barrafina's current stock of La Gitana, which has been its current stock for at least the last month, was bottled in January 2006 - i.e. about 18 months ago. Teary eyed, I sleepishly pointed this out to the staff on my last two visits, directed them to the back label which licentiously recommends consumption with 12 months of bottling and ordered something else, cold-spooning my breathy sherry-lust. There is one other Fino and one other Manzanilla on Barrafina's wine list, both of which can be brilliant sherries, but rather frustratingly, neither of these show bottling dates.
Fino is still very much under-appreciated in the UK, despite UK wine writers banging on about its aromas, flavours, finish and value for money. Barrafina proudly waves a Spanish flag, but it is under no obligation to promote this wonderful and unique product from Jerez. Barrafina should, however, try to provide its customers with sublime food and wine experiences so that they return and so that they tell others about the place. And that means serving Fino, or at least La Gitana, a sherry that should so perfectly complement its food, at its best.