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The Sherry Bars of Madrid

There is something about the drinking of Sherry in the midst of a Madrilenian spring that just works. Late March sees the watery sunshine of winter give way to the beginnings of a more persistent warmth but if any chill remains, the extra shot of alcohol in Spain’s most famous fortified assists in its removal from those whose mercury is yet to rise.

At the airy, glass-fronted, Mercado de San Miguel, a breakfast of umami rich iberico ham, octopus spiked with hot smoked paprika, and half a dozen oysters seasoned with a squeeze of lemon, was perfectly accompanied by the still yeasty tang of an aged and old-gold tinged fino. For some, a breakfast of such substance more than satisfies, pushing any thoughts about what might be for lunch to the back of one’s mind. For me the opposite is true. With a thirst for more, I left the Mercado in search of Madrid’s gastronomic heart. A slow traverse across the restrained grandeur of Plaza Major led to the gentle incline of the much smaller Plaza Santa Ana. It is here, in the narrow streets to the north, that the tiled, dark-lit bars and restaurants, peculiar to Madrid, are concentrated.

I made my way to the most famous, La Venecia. Serving only Sherry (and tap water) with a sign at the door forbidding the taking of photographs, it possesses an anachronistic air that is both cosseting and calming. The sherry taken from dark bottles filled from small butts that line one wall, provides the entertainment. I had a glass of fino followed by one of Palo Cortado, the latter nutty and savoury and consumed with translucent slices of rose-hued mojama and a bowl of salted almonds. The temptation to stay, in this paean to Spain’s greatest wine, for the rest of the afternoon was hugely tempting but instead I settled my tab that was scribbled in chalk on the bar top, left, and began to think about the one remaining significant event of the day: dinner.