STAR INGREDIENT Diana Henry experiments with sherry
Bone-dry or raisin-sweet, sherry perks up many a dish and adds a seductive sweetness to others. Break out the bottles for these recipes
It’s almost ridiculous to see sherry as a single ingredient. The cold, flinty, dry fino you knock back with shellfish is a world away from the sweet, raisiny, pedro ximénez (PX) someone offers you – if you’re lucky – with a slice of chocolate cake. Drinks writers have been predicting sherry’s rise for the last 40 years. When tapas bars started to open here in the mid 1980s, it looked as if we were going to seize sherry from our nans and make it the drink of our time but the enthusiasm just didn’t build enough momentum. It’s true that ‘foodies’ no longer see sherry just as something to slosh into a trifle, but we still don’t make enough of it.
As soon as I discovered sherry at university, where I got into cold fino with green olives, I was hooked. It wasn’t until years later, when I was in Jerez eating a meal where each course was accompanied by a different sherry, that I began to see its potential as something to cook with. There was a dish of beef cheeks braised in oloroso that was a revelation
– it had savoury depth but a hum of sweetness.
You start to run out of vocabulary when you try to summon the essence of different sherries and the flavours they impart to the dishes in which they’re cooked. In fact, cooking with sherry often reminds me of cooking with dried chillies, in that they’re both about tone. With both you speak of raisins, nuts, wood and chocolate. However, fino and manzanilla-style sherries are spoken of in terms of their saline qualities. I always have a bottle of fino, a medium type (palo cortado or the richer oloroso) and a bottle of PX on hand. The PX is a treat (an expensive one) but there is no better pairing for chocolate (it’s wonderful in chocolate ice cream). On those weekends when you cook a special dinner, but can’t manage to pull off dessert, a bottle of PX, served with good-quality dark chocolate, makes a grand finish.
My bottles of sherry aren’t stashed away at the back of a cupboard. I reach for them often – the fino for cooking with clams or mussels, or in place of dry vermouth; the oloroso for braises where I want a background note of sweetness. I find oloroso the most useful, as it works well with mushrooms, all meats, chorizo and the Spanish black pudding, morcilla, apples, pears, stone fruits and in eggy puddings.
It’s cream sherry – a blend of oloroso sweetened with PX that started out as an export-only product for the
British market – that makes us think of sherry as a rather sickly drink. In days of yore, this was pulled out of the drinks cupboard on Boxing
Day to make turkey à la king, a sherry-spiked béchamel which was a vehicle for all that leftover turkey we didn’t know what to do with. Thankfully, those days are long gone.