The Essence of Seville:
A Culinary Experience
By Jennifer Pruitt
Maybe it was the rows of pigs’ legs hanging from the ceiling that caught my attention. Or the smell of pungent cheese wafting through the tiny spaghetti streets. Perhaps it was the way some locals drank sangria like orange juice at ten in the morning.
It was clear: I wasn’t in the United States anymore. I was in Spain, in search of a culinary adventure, and the streets of Seville had provided me a jolt from my regular routine that even a double shot of espresso can’t provide.
Why Spain? Plan a trip to Italy or France and people might be able to guess your intentions, but Spain still seems obscure and unknown. It was even hard for us to articulate why but my husband and I desperately needed a break from our routine.
We didn’t want to visit one of the larger cities in Spain – Barcelona or even Madrid. We wanted something unique. We read about the tapas culture that exists in the southern Andalusia region of Spain, a culture that keeps a schedule like no other. We wanted a taste of that and suspected that a drastic change in our routine might catapult us back into the land of the living.
Forbidding a food is perhaps the best way to intensify a craving for it. The Andalusia region of Spain was the last hold out of Moorish rule in Europe. For nearly 500 years, pork was the forbidden fruit of the region. Now, 800 years later, the Andalusians are still craving it. It takes center plate in every meal. Tapas: Pork. Lunch: Pork. Dinner: Pork. But, breakfast?
Still slightly jet-lagged, my husband and I meandered down to the neighborhood square to jump-start our morning. Imagine my surprise when I realized one of the first things on the menu was a bocadillo de jamon y queso: a ham and cheese sandwich. I glanced around the cafe where most of the people were either eating the bocadillo or just toast and olive oil. No jam here. It was all savory.
This first morning we ordered the ham and cheese sandwich with a glass of orange juice. The ham was not like the spongy water-packed variety we sometimes buy here in the United States. Sliced as thin as this magazine page, it had taste. It had flavor. What is that? Fat?
American pigs have been bread to be so lean, we have taken all of the fat, and therefore flavor, out of our pork. It wasn’t just the fat that gave it flavor, it was the fact that it wasn’t cooked. It was cured, and it was delicious. The taste was similar to Prosciutto de Parma, but less buttery. The pungency of the pork with the punch of the manchego cheese combined with the sour-apple twinge from the olive oil made me wonder how I could ever go back to my boring oatmeal for breakfast.
I wiped the last crumbs of the baguette from my face and flamboyantly placed my napkin on my plate so the waiter who was bussing all eight tables in the cafe would see my check cue. No such luck. After a half hour of sitting there, planning our day, I realized that I would have to figure out how to ask for the check in Spanish. We quickly learned that meals, even during a busy weekday morning, were meant to be savored, and a waiter voluntarily bringing the check was akin to spitting on someone’s food. Their’s is a slower, more relaxed way of living.
When it is time for lunch, the whole town comes to a halt. Screech. Nothing is open. Museums, shops, pharmacies, office buildings. Nada. There is no such thing as a lunch hour, either. It might be referred to as “lunch hours” - three to be precise.
From 2:30 until 5:30, only restaurants are open for business. This is the family meal - not some form of a business lunch. It is not uncommon to see a dozen family members gathered around a restaurant table. Alcohol is almost required.
It didn’t matter where we dined for lunch - whether we wandered around the narrow streets and happened upon a small cafe, dined in the swank Alfonso Hotel or ate at a highly-rated restaurant, the menu largely stayed the same. The cuts of meat were better at the finer restaurants, but the cooking methods were still the same. They weren’t trying to produce some French nouveau version of a classic Spanish dish. It was as if they were saying, “This is who we have been for the past
thousand years. Enjoy.”
So, we did. The food wasn’t fancy. It was all very earthy, just like the deep red Spanish soil it was cultivated from.
Of course pork topped the menu for lunch: pork shoulder slowly stewed, pork sirloin with a Pedro Ximenez sauce (This is a type of grape grown in this region of Spain that is used to make Sherry. It has a sweet, raisin flavor that is delicious to drink for dessert or douse on meat in a thick, rich sauce.), pork chops sprinkled with a coarse Kosher salt. Egg tortillas (omelette), or fish (particularly tuna or cod) were other specialities and nearly every meal came with some sort of fried potato. Beef was noticeably absent from any menu we encountered.
Olive oil was a key ingredient to every meal. Spain produces nearly 44 percent of the world’s olives, a fact confirmed as we took the high-speed train from the airport in Madrid to Seville, where we saw row after row of olive groves.
If the meal is the painting, the people are the gilded frame that surrounds every restaurant. At one of the highest rated restaurants in Seville, Enrique Bacarra, we found the eight “flavors” coming from a table across the room just as enticing as our own food. The eight older gentlemen had started their meals with tapas and a round of beer, then an appetizer with white wine, next their hearty meat with red wine followed by a smoke, dessert and espresso, and finally sherry to top it all off. As the laughter grew and the wine flowed, it was clear they were enjoying life to its fullest - and in the middle of the afternoon. My husband joked, “I no longer want to be a race car driver when I grow up, honey. I want to be an old man in Spain.”
There is a reason for siesta after one finishes a meal with wines for every course, and since the stores, museums and general business doesn’t resume until 5:30, why not take full advantage of it?
It’s hard to imagine having a snack before dinner, but when the last meal of the day doesn’t begin until after 9 p.m., sometimes snacks are required - especially given the distance people in Seville walk daily. (The narrow, windy, one-way streets, make navigating a car almost impossible.)
That “snack” has become well-known in the United States, but only the Spanish know how to do a true tapas: cured ham, fried pork rolls with cheese, spicy sausages, fried cubes of bread and manchego cheese. The key here is serving small portions along with a drink such as beer, sangria or fino (a white sherry).
As we ordered our cured ham and manchego, we saw the bartender pull the leg of pork with the hoof still attached off the ceiling, place it on a deli slicer and shred our pork fresh. As we savored its saltiness, we wondered how in the world we could pack up a leg of pork to take home with us. Would security notice the hoof sticking out of our bag?
There is a reason why tourists typically call it a night after tapas, which usually begins around 7 p.m. Don’t even think about trying to get a reservation for dinner before 9 p.m. It is not uncommon to dine until midnight. The menu is a scaled-down version of lunch, but, frequently, it offers more courses, including a tour of cheeses.
After that, if hunger pains still call, churros and chocolate are still being served in neighborhood stands well after midnight. The fried dough comes with a mug of hot chocolate that is so thick, a spoon could stand straight up inside the mug.
Sigh, yesterday I savored the sights, smells and tastes of every morsel of my food. I wasn’t interrupted by my Blackberry beeping or a waiter asking if I was finished yet.
I reach for that shot of espresso. I’m home again.