Access all areas at the Copa Jerez

From missed flights and kitchen fights to missing ingredients, db’s Lucy Shaw was given access all areas at this year’s Copa Jerez competition, where seven chef and sommelier teams battled it out to create the best food and Sherry pairing menu.

Maverick chef Leon Mazairac (right) and his wingman Goos van der Berg of Podium Onder de Dom in The Netherlands celebrate victory at the Copa Jerez

On a sweltering summer’s day in Jerez, Gianni Ferlito, head sommelier of The Ritz London, manages to keep his cool despite being dressed in a tailcoat.

Keen to keep up appearances, the immaculately attired and impeccably mannered Italian extols the virtues of Sherry to a panel of six judges including Josep ‘Pitu’ Roca, head sommelier of the twice voted World’s Best Restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, and Andoni Aduriz, head chef of the two Michelin star Mugaritz in the Basque country, during the first round of the Copa Jerez.

In the mix: Robin Alexander Leypoldt of Humprey in Belgium gets whisking

Now in its seventh year, this year’s competition drew chef and sommelier teams from seven countries around the world who gathered in Jerez to try and woo the judges with a three-course meal paired with cherry picked Sherries.

Among the competing teams were an eccentric pair from Humphrey restaurant in Belgium – bowler hat wearing, moustachioed Norwegian head chef Robin Alexander Leypoldt and green-eyed head, nattily dressed sommelier Glen Ramaekers, who both appeared to be enjoying the competition rather than feeling the heat.

With the word “rock” inked on his right arm, to keep the crowd entertained while the judges deliberated and codjetated, Leypoldt busted out his best Frank Sinatra renditions as Ramaekers worked the room offering members of the press a taste of grated reindeer heart, which was used in their main course.

The most envelope pushing and divisive dish of the competition, alongside salty slivers of reindeer heart it featured earthy celery root, tobacco cheese and chickpea miso and was paired with Bodegas Gutierrez Colosia En Rama. “Intensity of flavour is very important to me. Finesse is okay but I like it when a flavour fills my whole mouth,” Leypoldt told the judges.

After presenting their main course, Ramaekers admitted to me backstage that he’d just had a falling out with the flighty Robin for hogging the lion’s share of the presentation time, leaving him only a minute or two to explain his Sherry pairing to the judges.

Oysters with crunchy cabbage and walnuts paired with Fernando de Castilla Antique Fino created by the Danish team from Falsled Kro

Also competing were Flannery Klette-Kolton and Kerin Auth-Bembery, a dynamic duo from New York pop-up En Rama housed inside Tertulia restaurant in the West Village.

Softly spoken and petite in stature, Klette-Kolton served up some of the most powerful and thought provoking flavour combinations of the competition, from silky scallops with coconut sand, Seville orange and sea foam, to a magnificent main of kombucha and kaffir braised short ribs with an espresso rub and brûléed carrot soufflé.

Presenting in perfect Spanish, Auth-Bembery charmed the audience with her anecdotes of discovering Sherry while living in Seville and dating a Jerezano.

“I fell in love with somebody from Jerez and drank a lot of Sherry with him. Spain is my first passion ­– at the feria in Seville I’d drink manzanilla from ice baths in the middle of the street,” she said.

“You can taste the spirit of Jerez in its Sherries – the salt from the sea, the people and its culture. I love its diversity – there really is a Sherry to suit every dish and palate,” Klette-Kolton added.

The judging panel, which included Beltran Domecq, head of DO Jerez, and Josep Roca of El Celler de Can Roca

The Ritz team had a few hurdles to jump through before plating up. Belgian-Italian chef Michael Nizzero, who joined The Ritz from Michel and Albert Roux’s three star Waterside Inn in Bray, missed his flight to Jerez and ended up having to drive down from Faro, leaving prep time to a minimum.

Keen to recreate The Ritz London experience in Jerez, which is riding high on a new Michelin star, Ferlito flew over three cases full of kit including the restaurant’s distinctive desert plates with cappuccino-coloured swirls.

With the competition taking place on a Tuesday and there being no fish at the main market on Monday, it was touch and go as to whether Nizzero would be able to get his hands on the langoustines needed for his starter of langoustine, broad beans and mint, a vivid ensemble Ferlito married with a decanted Bodegas Hidalgo Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana.

“I chose this Sherry as the vegetal notes from the broad beans pair well with the chamomile and green apple notes in the manzanilla, while the natural sweetness of the langoustine balances the salty, savoury notes in the Sherry,” Ferlito revealed.

“I serve Sherry every day by the glass at the restaurant and I believe it’s the ultimate food pairing wine. One of my favourite pairings is a PX with a crumbly English blue cheese like Stilton and a dried fig chutney – most people pair blue cheese with Port but I think PX works better,” he added.

While The Ritz relied quite heavily on local ingredients, other teams brought almost everything with them. Brawny, blue-eyed maverick Leon Mazairac, head chef of Podium Onder de Dom in The Netherlands and his chiselled cheekboned, floppy blond-haired wingman Goos van der Berg, believed that to give them the best shot of winning they needed to ship their ingredients out to Jerez.

The Ritz’s winning dessert pairing – hazelnut and fig semifreddo and Gonzalez Byass Noé VORS Pedro Ximénez

“Having won our round in The Netherlands I told Goos that we were going in for the kill in the final. A guy who competed in a previous Copa Jerez told me to take everything with me – the more you can bring the better prepared you are,” Mazairac told me during the awards ceremony after the competition.

A few of the teams had to tweak their menus at the last minute as they weren’t able to get hold of the ingredients they needed – the German duo from Odenturm restaurant had to switch their marinated lake trout sashimi dish to salmon for lack of trout, though the sublime starter, paired with a salt-licked Lustau Manazanilla En Rama, still shone despite the setback.

The atmosphere in the tiny kitchen during the competition was tense, with each of the teams given just 55 minutes to cook and plate up each dish.

Among the most successful pairings was a simple starter devised by the Spanish team from the two Michlin-starred Casa Marcial in Asturias. Formed of a tiny tortellini stuffed with tender, delicately spiced pheasant and salty seaweed, the sweetness of the meat and its Middle Eastern spices paired seamlessly with a nutty Amontillado from Bodegas Delgado Zuleta.

Chef Brigitte Berghammer-Hunger of Odenturm in Germany puts the finishing touches on her coffee ice cream and salted caramel pud

Sometimes it was a tiny touch in a dish that brought the pairing alive – the addition of caramelised walnuts in The Ritz’s rich and powerful veal fillet and wild mushroom main course was inspired, bringing out the sweet, nutty notes in Ferlito’s chosen oloroso – Antique VOS from Bodegas Fernando de Castilla.

Keeping things classic, the Danish team created a divine pairing with their oloroso mousse, white chocolate and citrus dessert matched with Bodegas Gutierrez Colosia Moscatel.

Rammed with sultanas, candied fruits and strips of orange peel, the sweet, lightly spiced pud cleverly echoed the flavours found in the Moscatel, chosen over a Pedro Ximénez for its lighter touch and floral aromatics.

In the end, practice and preparation paid off for the team from Podium Onder de Dom in Utrecht, who emerged victorious, with head chef Leon Mazairac scooping the best chef award to boot.

Their menu began with an oyster with green olive gelée, sardine cream and Ibérico ham sauce paired with Bodegas Delgado Zuleta Manzanilla Pasada, while the main event was Dutch rabbit crépinette with masala spices, and carrot and orange cream married to Bodegas Callejula Oloroso.

It ended with a quirky play on sweet and savoury involving caramel and porcini flor ice cream with a Sherry brandy reduction and aged Oudwijker cheese from Utrecht paired with Medium Mons Urium from Bodegas Urium.

“We wanted to be as prepared as possible so were practicing pouring and presenting the wines with the chambermaids the night before the competition,” Mazairac revealed with the cocksure swagger of a young Gordon Ramsay.

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