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RESTAURANTS

‘Struggling to keep our dream alive’: Madrid’s expat restaurant owners in a battle to survive

It’s lunchtime and on a sunny plaza in downtown Madrid a few locals are settling down for a menu del diá in one of the few establishments that is still open for business.

'Struggling to keep our dream alive': Madrid's expat restaurant owners in a battle to survive
Maria Maisey and Fabio Peral the British couple behind Amicis. Photos: Amicis

A year ago it wouldn’t be easy to find an empty table at Amicis on Plaza del Conde de Miranda, a restaurant run by British couple Maria Maisey and Fabio Peral in Madrid’s historical centre, just a stone’s throw from the Plaza Mayor and the popular Cava Baja.   


In pre-covid times people would line up outside Amicis to wait for a free table. 

 

In good times, the restaurant which opened three years ago had queues of people lining up to wait for a free table and became number 1 on trip advisor within weeks of opening.

It had a staff of 18 people and hosted private parties in its bodega, an atmospheric cellar space beneath the main restaurant. 


The Amicis team before most of the staff were furloughed. 

Now it is one of the few establishments in the area still opening its kitchen.

“We are now more focused on lunchtimes as the new restrictions mean customers are not allowed to order dinner after 10pm and in Madrid, who goes out for dinner before 10pm?” explained Maisey, 42 and originally from Bath.

The couple bemoan the chaos that has been caused in Madrid with political squabbling leaving Madrileños unsure about restrictions in a city that has one of the highest infection rates in Europe.

“With the latest restrictions and partial lockdowns meaning we must now close at 10pm – the time most Spaniards go out to eat – it doesn’t seem much like anyone in authority is on our side,” she said referring to new lockdown measures grudgingly adopted by Madrid’s regional leaders under pressure from Spain’s central government.

Political infighting between the conservative run regional government of Madrid and the Socialist coalition central government have seen a stand-off that has led to a state of emergency being imposed on the capital.

The first weekend of Madrid’s new lockdown saw an estimated 75,000 reservations cancelled, leading to €8 million in losses, according to a business association.


Empty tables at the restaurant now struggling to survive in the coronavirus crisis. 

While it is estimated that some 90,000 bars and restaurants could permanently close by the end of the year across Spain representing job losses of 400,000 according to a recent Marcas de Restauración report.

Amici’s benefited from the footfall of the San Miguel market, in normal times a huge bustling tourist trap full of little bars and food stalls but with virtually no visitors to the capital and with new restrictions in place, the market finally closed its doors on October 2nd.

“The market brought us so much traffic as thousands of tourists would flock there every day…..but now, with it being shut, the centre is emptier than ever, and we are struggling to keep our dream alive,” says Maisey.

Where the restaurant once relied on around 75 -80 percent tourist trade, the focus is now very much back on local residents but that meant adapting the menu from a Mediterranean fusion style to the more traditional.


Fresh local ingredients and great service are winning over locals. 

 

“Spanish diners are pretty unadventurous and they like to see the classics on a menu,” admits Peral.  

“They want to stop off for a caña and croquetas  or a menu del dia. So we are focusing on simple good recipes, done really well with local produce and great service and that’s winning people over,” he said.

 “We have a skeletal staff of three, basically a chef, one waiter and me,” said Peral who explains that keeping the restaurant open means “losing slightly less than keeping it closed”.

Economic measures introduced by the government to help businesses hit hard in the coronavirus lockdown may have seemed life-saving at first but have now become a dead weight.

“With most of our staff in ERTE (the furlough scheme in Spain) we are paying €4,500 a month on social security contributions to basically keep a work force at home. If we bring one back, we have to bring them all and then you can’t lay anyone off for six months. That’s just not how things work in the hospitality industry.”

But Fabio remains upbeat. “Call me an optimist but I’m looking at this as an opportunity, as a way to introduce our restaurant to a whole new clientele. If we manage to survive this, we will come out stronger.”

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FOOD & DRINK

The surprising connection between Spanish sherry and the British and Irish

The southwest of Spain may be known as the sherry capital of the world, but it in fact has a surprising connection to England, Scotland and Ireland.

The surprising connection between Spanish sherry and the British and Irish

Spain’s sherry triangle sits in the southwest of the country in the province of Cádiz and lies between the cities and towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.

It’s a Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) region, meaning that only the white fortified wine grown and made here can be called sherry.

Sherry is predominantly made from the white palamino grapes and the region’s chalky albariza soil full of limestone, it’s hot summers, mild winters and high humidity make it perfect to cultivate them.

Jerez de la Frontera is the capital of this wine region and its streets are lined with sherry tabancos fronted by old sherry barrels and locals sipping glasses of fino.

However, sherry wouldn’t be the celebrated sherry drink it is today in this part of Spain without the legacy set up by the British and the Irish some 250 years ago.

1865 drawing of sherry barrels stacked up inside the González and Byass winery, in Jerez de la Frontera “. Image: The Universal Museum/Public Domain

In Jerez, you’ll see signs hidden signs of the British everywhere, from the sherry posters, the names on the walls of the cellars, to the labels on the bottles and even the names of some of the types of sherry such as cream and pale cream.

Wine has been produced in the southwest of Spain since Roman times, but it wasn’t until later that sherry was produced. It was first imported to the UK in the 13th and 14th centuries and become known by the English name sherry, instead of the Spanish name – jerez.

Sherry sales saw growth in the UK after the marriage of Catherine of Aragon with King Henry VIII.

It is said that she often complained saying: “The King, my husband, keeps the best wines from the Canary Islands and Jerez for himself”.

Shakespeare’s Falstaff and his affection for Sherry “sack” also did much to spread the reputation of the drink. Painting´: Eduard von Grützner

From 1587 onwards, sherry became particularly popular in Great Britain, when Sir Francis Drake supplied taverns around the country with several thousand sherry casks he brought back when he captured the port of Cádiz.

Sir Frances Drake brought sherry back from Cádiz. Photo: Ann Longmore-Etheridge / Flickr

But it wasn’t until the 1700s that British merchants actually started investing in the sherry trade and opening up their own bodegas in Spain.

One of these was Scot James Duff, whose sherry business was developed by his nephew William Gordon and then taken over by their friend Thomas Osborne. Their business became the well-known sherry brand Duff-Gordon, which was later renamed, Osborne.

Osborne sherry has become famous around the world due its iconic logo of a Spanish bull, seen on bull-shaped billboards across Spain. Photo: Volker Schoen / Pixabay

Today, they are one of the biggest sherry producers in Spain and the Bodegas de Mora Osborne are one of the most famous in El Puerto de Santa María, which can be visited on a tour.

Another was William Garvey, a rich Irish farmer. It is said that he came to Cádiz to buy merino sheep, but instead ended up establishing himself as a wine merchant, first in Sanlúcar and later in Jerez. In 1824 his son Patrick took over the company and set up the Bodegas San Patricio. Today, these bodegas, located in Jerez de la Frontera are some of the biggest in the region.

The Tío Pepe wine factory in Cádiz. The famous sherry producers also have British links, as their holding company – González Byass – carries the name of Robert Blake Byass, a renowned English wine merchant. Photo: María Renée Batlle Castillo/Flickr

More and more British followed suit with Sir Alexander Williams and Arthur Humbert creating their own bodegas in 1877 and Spaniard Manuel María González partnering with Englishman Robert Blake Byass in 1835 to create one of the most well-known sherry bodegas today – González Byass.

Today, even though most of the sherry producers are Spanish, many can trace their family origins back to the British, from Sandeman and Harveys to Terry.

So next time you’re sipping a manzanilla or fino sherry in a tabanco in Jerez, you might want to raise a glass to the British and Irish ancestors who made it possible. 

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