By Jo Cooksey
Virtually every year since I was 18, except when my daughter was little, I have taken myself off for a ’me break’. This involves travelling solo, visiting places that interest me and taking time out from detritus and chaos of the everyday, giving my brain a chance to remove all the unwanted clutter. It gives me time to think, to read, to relax and to eat of course, whilst not having to be at everyone’s beck and call. It is the most soothing, yet productive time of the year for me and I always look forward to it.
This Year’s ‘Me Time’
Last year’s trip was to the exotic and mesmerising Marrakech and this year I decided to follow the progress of the Moors, the ancient peoples of North Africa, in to Seville in southern Spain, to see the effect they had Andalusian culture, architecture and food. They had an 800-year tenure in the region so they must have left their mark.
Usually, I would book a cookery class when abroad, whether I was travelling alone or not but whilst researching options in Seville a foodie tour really caught my eye. Run by Devour, a company who operate gastro excursions in most major Spanish cities, the tour I chose combined food, history and culture. Three of my favourite things. We were to visit eight different establishments in three neighbourhoods to try a range of food and drink, whilst our guide filled us in on local traditions, celebrations and history. The tour would last approximately four hours, from 10.30am to 2,30pm and cost €75 for adults.
Off On The Tapas Tour
My tapas tour was the day after I arrived and I made my way to the meeting point on the Plaza de la Encarnación, in front of the ‘mushrooms’, arriving in plenty of time. Google maps works perfectly in Seville but don’t expect good Wi-Fi connection…anywhere. Thank goodness roaming charges have been scrapped for the moment. Our tour guide, Elena, was waiting with a little sign and we were soon joined by our other tour mates; a Canadian girl in Seville to study Spanish and a family of six from San Francisco and Hawaii.
Elena gave us a potted history of Seville and explained about the ‘mushrooms’ in the Plaza and we were off to our first port of call, Bodega El Picadero. All the places on the tour are small, independent concerns, often long established and El Picador was one such establishment. Owned by the same family for the last 75 years this stop served us Café con leche and our first taste of Pringa, which is basically leftover stew or roasted meats and veg, served on a small, hot, toasted roll or montadito. These savoury delights often include some Morcilla or black pudding. Yum! I love the stuff but then I was raised in Lancashire. Everyone has their own Pringa recipe and the one at this bodega was gorgeous. Salty, garlicky and very moreish. I know what I’ll be doing with the Sunday lunch scraps from now on.
Ibérico Free Range Ham
On to our next stop, the market under the ‘mushrooms’, back in the Plaza de la Encarnación. We wandered round whilst Elena pointed out various types of Spanish produce and frankly I was agog. I have never seen such amazing displays of fresh produce, anywhere in the world before. The fish and seafood stalls were a wonder to behold. Lots of things I recognized and lots I didn’t, including Percebes or gooseneck barnacles, which frankly look like something created in the BBC props department for an episode of Dr. Who. Our sampling stop was at Corta y Cata, a stall selling the finest jamón ibérico de bellota, or acorn fed Iberian ham, which tasted truly superb. This ham comes from the Black Iberian pigs, who are allowed to roam free on the Iberian Peninsula, whilst consuming their own body weight in acorns, herbs and roots. Their contented, unfettered rootling shows in the rich flavour and the fat that melts in the mouth. These were happy pigs.
A Surprising Stop
Our third stop beckoned and we followed Elena back out into the sunshine, happily chatting away to each other. Initially, when I booked the tour I was expecting all the places we visited to be tapas bars, so after the unexpected but welcome market stop the next one was even more of a surprise. Elena took us to a convent, Convento Madre de Dios de la Piedad, where the nuns bake sweet treats to supplement their income. The convent is housed in an old synagogue, which was given to the church in 1496, after it was seized during the Inquisition. However, it still retains it Jewish symbols on the exterior walls. Elena choose a box of biscuits for us to share, Bocadito Arabe, a fragrant, crumbly combination of chocolate, cinnamon, sesame, anise and clove, dusted with icing sugar.
Our blood sugar levels replenished we made our way to tapas stop number four. Bar Fresquita, a quirky little place that also doubles as a museum to Seville’s Holy Week or Semana Santa celebrations. Every wall of this tiny bar is bedecked and bejeweled with icons, photographs and paintings. Holy Week is a big deal here and the churches vie for attention while processing their huge floats or pasos, which are carried aloft by small armies of men and depict lifelike and life size carved images from the Holy Week story. The men practice all year to be fit enough to take the weight of their floats. The bill of fare here was mantaditor, the small sandwiches, this time with chorizo & Roquefort and carne mechada or slow cooked, shredded beef. I passed on the chorizo and Roquefort, as I really dislike blue cheese, so bless them they made me one without. The carne mechada was delicious; rich and flavoursome. Here I also found my new favourite summer drink, Tinto de verano, a mix of fruity red wine and Fanta Lemon. Ooo, this goes down nicely and I urge you to try it. Perfect for a summer barbecue or get together. I was getting full now and we still had four more stops.
A New Tipple
The next visit was probably my favourite and it was because of a drink and not food for once. Taberna Peregil (La Goleta), is another tiny bar, which boasts the world’s small toilet. Basically, a wee cupboard in a corner of the bar, no pun intended, that houses a teeny urinal. It’s no longer in service but is still draws a crowd. This place has been run by the same family since 1904 and was originally a wine store. The reason to visit here is the vino de naranja or orange wine. This is liquid gold. Olorosso sherry, aged for 5 year and then the bitter peel of Seville oranges is added to the casks and left to steep for a further 18 months. This is Christmas in a glass, yet surprisingly refreshing. So popular is this fortified wine at La Goleta, that the bar sells 80% of the vineyard’s annual production of it. However, it is possible to find it in the UK through online wine merchants, Vinissimus , if you fancy giving it a try.
Something Fishy Here
Refreshed and restored, we skipped off to stop number 6, Freiduría La Isla. Similar to a British fish and chip shop with seating but serving a much more exotic menu, such as fried hake roe and fried cuttlefish. They sell by the ¼ kilo rather than by the piece, as they do in Britain. Despite being over 90km from the nearest coast, Seville is noted for its fish and seafood. Before the advent of a road transport system, the fruits de mer would be transported up the River Guadalquivir, into the heart of Seville’s thriving port. Today, we were sampling Adobo, chunks of marinated then fried sand shark or dogfish, as we more commonly know it in the UK. I haven’t eaten a member of the shark family before and wasn’t sure what to expect. It was fabulous. Meaty, yet light and moist. It was served with a lovely, dry Manzanilla sherry, which was a really good pairing.
A Good Choice
At this point, I got my second wind as we weaved our way through the narrow streets towards our penultimate stop. Enrique Beccera, is a restaurant rather than a bar, where we were served an array of marvelous tapas dishes. This was the first place where I came across a truly Moorish dish; Cordero con miel or lamb and courgette kebabs drizzled with honey and served on a bed of cous cous. Very, very tasty. There were also beautiful, crunchy filo parcels stuffed with salt cod and a dish of grilled red tuna with Salmoerjo, a tomato sauce similar to Gazpacho. Everything was delicious and I went back there the following evening for dinner.
So this was it, our last foodie stop of the day. We were all trying to guess what it would be and some of us were correct. It was ice cream time. Not any old ice cream though, this was artisanal ice cream and sorbets created by Master Heldero, Joaquín Liria, at his ice cream parlour La Fiorentina. Made fresh on the premises daily, the flavours available span the easily recognisable to the ‘wow! The lady behind the counter was happy to let us try a few samples before we chose our cone or tub. I tried the Lemon & Basil sorbet which was amazingly refreshing and subtle. I was told that the Chili & Chocolate ice cream had a real kick with it. In the end I chose Crema de Sevilla, a smooth, creamy gelato flavoured with Seville oranges, of course.
That’s where our tour ended. I cannot praise it and our wonderful guide Elena enough. She obviously loves her city and her heritage and was very knowledgeable. The tour was thoroughly absorbing, extremely interesting and I left with a very full tummy. We visited lots of different and some quite unexpected establishments and tried all manner of local delicacies, both food and drink.
The tour is great for learning about the history of Seville and the various ruling factions that have fought over it for hundreds of years. It is also perfect for orientating yourself with the city. I went on the tour the day after arrived and it gave me the confidence to navigate my way round in the following days. If, or rather when I return to Seville, I would consider doing another tour with Devour and I would definitely use them in the other Spanish cities they serve.
Seville is a stunning and beautiful city, with a wealth of history and culture waiting to be discovered. It has quite captured my heart.