The thin layers of soft, fatty pork are laid on waxed paper and dressed with sea salt and lemon – chicharrones de Cádiz, a speciality of the region. Beside them are ‘fritos’, fat, crisp chunks of spicy pork belly almost like pork scratchings, as well as slices of longaniza picante (spiced sausage), chorizo, morcilla and queso de arte. All of these are slapped down in front of us without fanfare, no single ‘tapa’ costing more than €2.30. I roll the chicharrones round tiny breadsticks – picos – to make a cumin and pepper-scented, crunchy snack of lardy delight, accompanied by glasses of chilled Cruzcampo then barbadillo, a light, grassy local white wine. This is Taberna Casa Manteca, (Calle Corralón 66) which means, literally, House of Lard, where Matador memorabilia adorns the walls and sausages hang behind the bar. It’s a noisy spit-and-sawdust kind of place, where roaring locals spill out ontothe pavement and I immediately feel at home. So at home that I soon find myself joining in a round of happy birthday – and I can barely speak Spanish.
Round the corner is Virgen de la Palma, a pedestrianised cobbled street in the heart of this slightly shabby former fishermen’s quarter. It’s lined with tapas bars and restaurants, but we joyfully discover that during daytime hours it becomes a magnet for weatherbeaten men selling oysters (six for €5) and prawns from carts on corners.
We’re staying nearby in the Parador Hotel Atlántico, which affords astonishing views out across the ocean at almost every turn. From here we walk everywhere, mostly along cobbled streets, turning corners, losing our bearings and then suddenly surprised to see the sea again.
On Saturday at the Mercado Central (Calle Santa Lucia, 10), housed inside a former convent, we watch as the theatre of the working day unfolds: swordfish are butchered, chocos (cuttlefish) cleaned of their black ink. There’s time to stock up on vacuum- packed mojama (smoked tuna), ham, chicharrones and fritos, before hitting the stalls selling sherries, plates of cheese (a selection of local cheeses, including goaty ‘los payoyos’, is €5.50), glasses of albariño at €2.50 and fat churros hot from the fryer. We are sucked into the theatre of the market and lose an afternoon. At DKY Gastronomia Gaditana de Abastos (108-109 plaza de Abastos puestos), my first taste of tortillita de camarones, leaves me in raptures: a thin, crispy fritter, studded with tiny shrimp and spring onions (80 cents).
In the middle of the city’s flower market is Freiduría Las Flores (Plaza de Topete 4, 0034 956 226 112), where you can stand at the horseshoe bar and sample every single tapa for less than €2.30 each (if you sit down you must pay the more expensive half plate price). There are anchovies, shrimp and prawns all
dipped in flour and fried, octopus swimming in oil and paprika, marinated dogfish and small plates of paella and fideuà perfectly paired with small glasses of very cold beer. On the other side of the room there are lines of people queuing for takeaway paper cups of surtido – mixed fish fry-up.
For serious splendour, we head to the rococo Cafe Royalty, a recently-restored grand salon, and eat four refined courses of Andalucian cooking for €33, including a punchy gazpacho garnished with prawn, and a glass of albariño. It opened in 1912, and intellectuals, artists and politicians came here to chew the fat before it closed at the dawn of the civil war. At Horno al Gloria, I learn how they make pan de cadiz, a celebratory cake of marzipan, almonds, dried fruits and spun sugar also known as ‘hair of the angels’. The owner of this historic city bakery, Pepe Rueda, proudly brandishes his knife, explaining that it is the only machinery he uses, along with his hands, to produce his jewel-like confection studded with crystallised gems of red, green and yellow.
Another Pepe greets us at Taberna La Manzanilla, a sherry tavern dominated by blackened oak barrels. Pepe Garcia offers us a short sherry lesson, and with each tasting glass come two olives, exactly, and a revelation. This ‘sherry alive’, as Pepe calls it, is straight from the barrel and is like nothing I’ve tasted before – it’s soft, thick, salty, with no harshness. There’s a three-year old manzanilla fina (€1.20 a glass) and I work my way up to a 26-year-old amontillado viejo (€3). I leave with a litre bottle of 70-year-old sherry vinegar (€12.40).
Down at the town beach, buzzy bar Quilla (Antonio Burgos, 11002 Cádiz, Spain) lays tables out on the promenade – one of the best spots to nurse a chilled white and ponder the glorious sunset. At El Faro we eschew the posher restaurant for the bar and try ortiguillas fritas (sea anemone beignets – €8.80 per half portion) and patatas alinadas al estilo, another Cadiz speciality of soft potatoes, thick with oil, parsley and spring onion, topped with tuna (€2.35). It’s here that we have the most fantastic tortillitas of the weekend: thin, crispy wafers made up almost entirely of miniscule shell-on shrimp. We finish with raisin ice cream covered in sweet pedro ximenez sherry and it’s such a joy that we high-tail it back to Pepe’s taberna to buy a litre. Cadiz had taken me to its heart and I took its sherry to mine.
Rooms at the Parador Atlántico from £133 per night B&B. Book via UK agent Keytel (keytel.co.uk). Ryanair flies to Jerez (40km from Cádiz) from London Stansted from £39.99 (ryanair.com). More information: cadizturismo.com