• Sevilla
  • Sevilla
  • Sevilla


An article for Ikea magazine

It is 9:00 PM and I can sense that the seductress, Sevilla, seductress of Andalucia,is about to rouse herself. Soon clutches of young women, dressed in thin cotton frocks, all of them mirroring the soul of Carmen, gather on street corners in the Barrio Trianna on the right bank of the Rio Guadalquivir. In twos, threes and fours they begin the evening’s “paseo,” a slow promenade down the street to the centre of town, singing and clapping out flamenco rhythms. I follow in admiration as they pass by solitary men making love to their guitars. Though the men and women are young, their songs are ancient. The pop charts have no place here. This is the cradle of flamenco, and the birthplace of the guitar. On the river’s opposite bank the narrow, twisty, cobblestone lanes begin to fill with people slowly coming back to life after hibernating through a stunningly hot afternoon. Kitchens renew their fires and the scents of saffron and garlic mingle with those of orange blossoms. In the shadow of the great cathedral men and women eye each other and contemplate the very near future. Others are not even waiting for it. They stand on the corners or lean against the old building’s walls, kissing. God’s house will see many amorous goings on this night. And his votaries within will wink and smile. It is fitting for the seductress, Sevilla.

This is the heart of Andalucia. And Andalucia is the heart of Spain. This is not the 21st century nation state with memberships in NATO and the EU. This is Hollywood Spain, and it almost defies accurate description. It’s made with certain secret ingredients. Among the obvious are bullfights and Gypsies; Carmen and Don Juan; fiery steeds and fiery passions; sultry nights heavy with perfume and possibility; loves and feuds; persistent Moorish ghosts; and food and wine worthy to match. The Andaluz have a word that sums it all: La Alegria. We might call it joi de vivre.

In this city I always take my first dinner at La Albariza, at Calle Betis, #6.  It’s easy to find near the bridge that connects the old city to Trianna. Just follow the sounds of singing. Inside Spanish hams hang from hooks on the walls and the air is thick with Spanish convivium. Old wine barrels serve as tables at which you stand rather than sit, as per old Spanish custom. Perfect strangers, as they make their way to their barreltop tables, look at you squarely and smilingly say “Buen provecho!” wishing you a good appetite.

If it could be said that there is a staple food of Andalucia it would be anything and everything from the sea. And so I have almejas naturales, raw clams, absolutely naked. Not even a pinch of salt or a drop of lemon. And they are superb. A popular variety is no larger than a thumbnail. They are tasty but often difficult to handle. A la marinera is fisherman’s style, cooked with wine and oil. And almejas con arroz is a savoury dish of rice with clams and onions. Anchoas, anchovies, are a far cry from the intensely salty and “aromatic” anchovies you get from a tin at home or in a pizzeria. These are fresh and delicious. They are served grilled over wood fires or fried in olive oil. When marinated in vinegar and garlic they are called boquerones and are one of the constants of the tapas bar. And it’s this preparation I take tonight. A few fat, rich olives, a tomato salad, and a dense yeasty bread round out the meal. And I wash it down with beer from the city’s own Cruz Campo brewery. In the minds of many Spain is synonymous with wine. But here in the sultry hot South the barley outsells the grape.

I always seek anew the essence of Andalucia, always try again to discover those secret ingredients, so I hire a car and tour the countryside. Everywhere the land bespeaks the abundance and the culture and cuisine of this heart of Spain. Toros bravos, the bulls bred for fighting, graze in the distance, now and then pawing the earth in preparation for their moment in the ring. I pass magnificent horses mounted by elegant riders from the famous equestrian schools so common here. Shepherds tend the herds of goats that will produce the fine local cheeses. And near the town of Jabugo black Iberian pigs feed on acorns so as to become the distinctive jamon serrano.

Cured ham, salted and semi-dried by the winds of the high Andalucian sierra, it’s closest relative is the Italian prosciutto. But if we could say that the pink and delicate Italian version is feminine, then the Spanish is macho, male. It’s a bold red, deep sanguine, often the colour of wine. Buttery fat streaking through the lean makes it superbly marbled. It is not tender, but neither is it tough. You might call it “al dente,” offering something to the teeth. Yet it almost melts in your mouth, dissolving upon the tongue like rich fat chocolate.

And olive trees reign throughout. Andalucia is Spain’s largest olive growing area. It basks under a leafy canopy of 165 million olive trees, half of which are in Jaen, a third in Cordoba, and the remainder spread across Sevilla, Malaga, Grenada, Huelva, Almeria and Cadiz. The province of Jaen alone produces more oil than all of Greece, to put things into perspective. And almost everything you eat here will be laden with the rich gold expression of the olive. Don’t worry, it’s good for you.

A drive through this land will always lead me to Jerez de la Frontera, the home of the famous sherry wines. Nobody knows when Andalucian vintners first began to fortify their thin white wines with grape brandy, then age them skilfully to achieve the austere yet assertive wines so emblematic of this region. But historical documents show a lively trade in the stuff between here and Britain as early as the reign of Henry I. And to ensure their supplies in later centuries British shippers established themselves here, as growers, vintners, cellerers and dealers. Hence the many families here with names like Osborne, Byass and Sandeman. (It was two sons of the Osborne family that started the Cruz Campo brewery at the turn of the 20th century.)

Any wine region will have its unique wines, as well as its unique crafts and skills with which to produce and enjoy them. When you visit a sherry bodega (winery) you will see the solera system of interlocking barrels. Usually three tiers high, the new wine is poured into the top, and three times a year the old wine is drawn from the bottom. And to judge the new wine to determine its future style and status we have the two offices of the capataz and the venenciador. And if you arrive at the bodega at the proper time you will be privileged to see them at their work.

The capataz is the blending master. It is he who will say whether a new wine will be a dry fino, a semi-sweet amontillado, or a sweet oloroso.  And to assist him and draw the wines from their barrels, the venenciador will employ his venencia, a long thin rod with a slim cylindrical cup affixed to the end. He will remove the bung from the top side of the recumbent barrel, dip his slender tool into the waiting wine, and withdraw an ounce or two. With aplomb and at arm’s length he then pours the golden liquid into a fist full of catavinos, the traditional sherry glasses. When he presents you with this bouquet of crystals, take one, and hold it by the stem, lest the heat of your palm be transferred to the wine. Sherry should always be taken cool.

Sherry’s siblings are Manzanilla and Montilla, both grown nearby. Manzanilla comes from the “Bonanza Coast,” near the town of Sanlucar. It’s very much like a dry sherry, made from the same grapes and similar process, but its taste is distinct, possessing a quality reminiscent of the sea. Some people even say that it has a salty finish, the endowment of local sea breezes. Montilla comes from the town of the same name near Cordoba, some four hours drive to the east. It is made from one of the sherry grapes, but the wine is not fortified. It produces enough sugar on the vine that the alcohol content is high enough naturally. Until 1944 much of it was blended into sherry. But these days it stands on its own.

I end my journey in Cadiz (CAH deeth). Here I find my friend Jose Grimaldi in his eponymous restaurant at Calle Libertad #9. He is up for a tapeo this evening. This is the Spanish institution that most closely resembles a pub crawl. But it involves more eating than drinking. At each tasca (tapas bar) you indulge in one or two tapas, little dishes. They could be anything small, often eaten with the fingers, thirst inducing and alcohol absorbing. Gambas al Ajo (prawns with garlic), Rinones al Jerez (kidneys with sherry), Espinacas con Garbanzos (Spinach with Chickpeas), olives, chorizo sausage, ham, cheese and fried sardines are common.

But before we go, Jose offers me his version of a very typical Andalucian tapa. It looks a bit like a sweet biscuit with chopped pecans. But the “biscuit” has been fried in olive oil, and is studded with what looks like flakes of parsley. It is a savoury treat. And the “pecans” are actually chopped prawns. And it is seductively tasty. A song of the sea in my mouth.

“Tortilla de camaron,” I say with a smile

“Yes. A very simple thing. Anybody can cook it. The shrimp were alive when I bought them, so I know they are good. The flour and the oil are the best. Such a simple thing, made from simple ingredients, ‘cosas naturales.’ But all good things. That’s our only secret here, amigo. And olive oil, of course.”