The teams came from the seven countries with the highest consumption of the region's treasured wines
After two years competing in their respective countries, the finalist teams came to Jerez ready to present their culinary creations paired with Sherry and Manzanilla. Teams consisted of the chef and sommelier from participating restaurants in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The competition took place during the morning of Tuesday, 14 October. But beforehand, contestants and international media had the chance to visit some of Jerez's most revered cellars, including González Byass (Spain's most visited winery and one of the most popular visitor attractions of its kind in the world) and Bodegas Maestro Sierra. Of course, the sommeliers and chefs were already very familiar with the versatility of Sherry, but the experience of tasting it with the winery's oenologist in front of a "solera" (the lines of casks piled up in pyramids, known as "criaderas", where Sherry is aged and blended) must have been unforgettable for them.
Many of the team members were remarkably young and very keen to broaden their knowledge of these unique wines. German chef Karina Appeldorn (from First Floor restaurant, with one Michelin star) admitted that "before taking part in this competition I didn't know much about these wines. I tasted quite a few different types and brands in Germany so I could come up with a well-balanced menu. But even so, being here in Jerez and actually experiencing it for myself, I'm really surprised. I didn't expect such a huge range of possibilities. I want my colleagues in Germany to get to know these wines too, and I'll definitely develop some menus that go well with Sherry when I go back to Berlin."
The versatility of Sherry
After a wait of nearly two years, during which local competitions have been held in each of the countries taking part, the day of the eagerly-awaited final round of the 5th Copa Jerez arrived at last. The jury gathered at ten in the morning with a busy day's schedule ahead of them. The jury included some renowned figures from Spain's gastronomy scene, such as food critic Jose Carlos Capel, Chef Angel Leon and Sommelier Juli Soler, as well as international names such as US wine expert Doug Frost and Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn. The jury was chaired by the outstanding Josep Roca, joint owner and Sommelier of El Celler de Can Roca restaurant, named by Britain's Restaurant Magazine as the best in the world.
The event followed a simple format. Each team had to prepare three dishes: a starter, a main course and a dessert, all paired with a Sherry or a Manzanilla. The variety of creations really showed off these versatile wines to perfection: ranging from an always tricky pairing with artichokes (Stewed artichokes with warm foie and crispy ham paired with Fino La Panesa from Bodegas Emilio Hidalgo presented by the Spanish team from Il Bambino restaurant), to Ibérico pork (Ibérico pork tenderloin, Cévennes onion, fried cauliflower, autum truffle matched with the Palo Cortado VORS from Bodegas Tradición) an ingredient which, according to chef Jelle Cattellein (from Restaurant Hertog Jan, with three Michelin stars and based in Belgium) "was chosen for the purity of its meat". Another team opting to use Spanish produce was the one from British restaurant Galvin La Chapelle, with their Saddle of rabbit, morcilla, Serrano ham and morels, which they chose to pair with an Oloroso Gobernador from Bodegas Emilio Hidalgo.
After the presentations, nerves were getting the better of some team members while they waited for the results to be announced. "We're very pleased with how it went, everything turned out just as we planned" Chef Paul de Groote from the Dutch team at Inter Scaldes restaurant (two Michelin stars) told me, "but we're nervous, all our colleagues have set an extremely high standard and any of the teams could win." Scott Jones, chef at Boston restaurant No. 9 Park restaurant, was keeping calm, saying "we've got nothing to lose, just taking part in the competition and spending these few days in Jerez is a reward in itself." Sommelier Melodie Reynolds explained that they had "around 20 Sherry labels on our wine list. What we like best is to search out small producers who have real gems hidden away in their bodegas."
And the Winner is...
After a couple of hours' rest, we went to the La Atalaya museums complex, home to the Misterio de Jerez museum. After speeches by César Saldaña and Beltrán Domecq, General Manager and President of the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry and Manzanilla - Sanlúcar de Barrameda Regulatory Council, Josep Roca made some thought-provoking remarks: "Jerez needs to display not only its product but also its ability to get people excited, and this event certainly does that. But Jerez also needs to do empirical studies and make use of science, rather than just rely on nostalgia and charm, to raise awareness of the amazing chromatographic properties of these wines". His words are undoubtedly food for thought.
At last, it was time for the winners to be anounced. The first award to be presented was for Best Starter Pairing, won by Restaurant Inter Scaldes with their Marinated vegetables, Ratte potatoes, Bari olive, orangeflower, with Fino Antique Rey Fernando de Castilla. This was followed by the prize for Best Main Course Pairing, which went to the Belgian team from Restaurant Hertog Jan and their Ibérico pork, described earlier. In keeping with the logical order of courses in a meal, the third award to be presented was for Best Dessert Pairing, again for Restaurant Inter Scaldes with their delicious Pineapple, Kombu, sea lettuce, Valrhona Caraïbe Grand Cru Chocolate 66%, with Moscatel Emilín of Lustau.
Excitement was now at fever pitch, as next to be announced were the individual awards Top Chef, which went to Danish chef Jonathan Kjølhede Berntsen (Restaurant Clou) and Best Sommelier, collected by an ecstatic Hannes Desmedt, from Belgium. The team from US restaurant No. 9 Park won the award for Most Creative Pairing. And finally, the team from Restaurant Clou received the coveted prize for Best Food & Sherry Pairing Menu, with the following combination:
Starter: Raw scallops in salted rye bread crust, with Fino Valdivia
Main Course: Pulpo braised in ducks fat and afterwards roasted in almond oil, with Blend of Amontillado Barbadillo
Dessert: Ice cream of milk, hazelnut praline and coffee, with Pedro Ximénez VOS from Bodegas Tradición
As everyone crowded round to congratulate the winners, brothers Jonathan (Chef) and Alexander (Sommelier) Kjølhede Berntsen admitted that they had a few anxious moments before the results were announced. "We knew for sure that we'd done a great job, but when you're sitting there and they're handing out the awards you start to have doubts. It was so exciting to hear our names read out as winners of the 5th Copa Jerez and we're really grateful". Ángela de la Rosa, from the Trade Comission of Spain in Denmark and who accompanied the Danish delegation during their stay, was overjoyed. "They've worked extremely hard, it's a real boost for them and for all of us" she said, smiling broadly.
The party continued in the museum on a warm Jerez evening cooled by a pleasant breeze. The evening was rounded off with the inevitable, or perhaps essential, Flamenco show. "I've never watched a Flamenco group perform live" confessed the German chef, "I like it and I'm really surprised by it". A smile came to my face as I replied "well, you know, this is a bit like Sherry, it's much more enjoyable at first hand".