Food trips

Seville

November 28, 2010

This is a food blog about Barcelona so of course my first post will be about the famously Catalan, er, Seville…

I never claimed to be focused.

I’ve just returned from a marvellous visit where I got to see some of the best of Seville in the company of the delightful http://azahar-sevilla.com/ whose blogs on tapas and life in the city you really should be following.

Tapas aren’t something that Barcelona does particularly well. They’re not a Catalan tradition and, while the size of the city’s non-Catalan population guarantees a few decent places, they’re spread out — making tapeos (tapas crawls) either hit-and-miss or exhausting, pavement-pounding affairs.

Regardless of regional authenticity, tapas have become synonymous with Spain and tourists now demand them. And in Barcelona, what the tourist wants, the tourist gets. Almost every bar has a sad selection of mediocre croquettes, defrosted prawns and an awful potato salad with breadsticks poking out of it. Perhaps also some squashball-consistency pulpo a feira perishing in the chill cabinet for those more laissez faire about their intestinal wellness.

Discerning palates and more capacious wallets are catered for by places that offer modern tapas: mini-plates of non-traditional cuina d’autor, creative cuisine with the usual spectrum of success in the implementation. There are also unique institutions like ‘Quimet i Quimet’ (C/ Poeta Cabanyes, 25) where you can elbow yourself some standing room and eat extremely well all evening.

What you can’t find are clusters of places that offer genuinely high-quality, cheap, occasionally inventive but always rigorously prepared tapas. There are no competing neighbours, where each has its own speciality and you can drift from bar to bar ordering the very best of each.

I love tapeos. The king of the form has always been, for me, San Sebastian but I was intrigued to see how the Andalusian interpretation would fare.

In the capable guidance of Shawn Hennessey (http://azahar-sevilla.com/) I started at ‘Arenero’ (C/ Pasaje de Vila, 6) which is newly-opened. It’s an attractive space in the heart of the city with contemporary touches and an ambitious menu. New, but we wanted something old, something Andaluz, something fried. Tortillitas de camarones it was, then, and very good too.

A mention here for the wine. Botani is a dry muscatel and an absolutely splendid drinking wine. I can’t think of anything better for a long afternoon on a terrace in the summer. Perhaps slightly too floral for fried food, it’s nevertheless a wonderfully balanced white that has a full body without any hint of the usual cloying muscatel sweetness. This is a wine I’ll be looking for and pressing my local wine shop to stock.

Photo: © azahar-sevilla.com

Next up was some battered hake with curry sauce. More appealing than it sounds, this was cooked perfectly, the hake translucent and melting and the batter light and well-seasoned.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, the next dish out of the kitchen was a mis-fire. Pluma iberica — a tiny, delicious and oft-ignored fatty cut of pork from the Iberian pig — with rocket, a mix of setas (wild mushrooms), sesame and soy sauce: lots, and lots of soy sauce. The saltiness killed the dish without rendering it inedible but the young chef’s offhand dismissal of our opinions, and insistence that it was oyster sauce anyway, meant that we left the restaurant on a down note. That’s a shame, because it’s a promising place and I liked it but they still have a bit to learn before they are as good as they think they are.

It was time for unpretentiousness. Time for a classic. Time for pringá.

This slow-cooked pork with morcilla (blood-sausage) and pork fat is served thick and meaty on toasted bread at the family-run ‘Bodeguita Romero’ (C/ Harinas, 10). This is very much my kind of food. It is animal fat, heart-attack-on-a-plate, primal deliciousness like this that keeps me going back to the gym to compensate.

I’d have been happy to let Jose behind the bar keep serving me more of his treats but there were more tapas waiting for us elsewhere. I left anticipating my return the next day to see if they could match their pringá.

Buoyed by much good wine and weighed down by much good food we drifted to the nearby ‘Enrique Becerra’.

We sat at the bar where Shawn was, as with everywhere we went, recognised and warmly welcomed. We needed a short break so had some olives while we pondered our choices.

Garlicky and perfect: simple but a great indicator of attention to detail. I must, I was told, have the chips — that’s fries for my transatlantic readers. For a country that eats so many fried potatoes, Spain generally does them very poorly. Almost marinated in under-heated oil, they are too often slimy and sticky amorphous lumps by the time they reach the table. Not here.

Crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside and infused with the liquid magic of melted garlic, they went perfectly with the beef marques. Salt, pepper, nothing else needed. Amazing, and quite possibly the best chips in Spain.

We’d had as much savoury as we could take for the time being and decided to wrap things up at ‘Albarama’ (Plaza San Francisco, 5). We arrived near the end of their service but the few dishes I saw coming out served looked like the modern tapas one can find in Barcelona. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and I’d have liked to try them but it was time for something sweet,

The chocolate brownie was pleasant enough but looked better than it tasted. There was something shallow about the chocolate sauce and lacking in the crème anglaise. A glass of Pedro Ximenes washed it down nicely though, and it was with a full stomach that I said goodbye to Shawn.

She left me with an itinerary for the evening, although thoughts of more food at this point were a bit alarming. I headed to a bar to reflect on a splendid day over a couple of cañas. Shawn’s website is obviously a great resource for visitors to Seville but I’d urge people to sign up for one of her tapas tours. There’s nothing like her personal introductions to the staff of bars and restaurants to get you straight into the local swing of things.

By the time my wife arrived, the beers had washed down my lunch and I was ready to begin the evening’s proceedings. We made our way to a restaurant that came highly rated from a number of my foodie sources as well as from Shawn: ‘Eslava’ (C/Eslava, 5). We were the first ones in as service started and just as well, because very soon it was packed and the queues were stretching up the street. It’s easy to see why: the prices here are jaw-droppingly low and the quality of the food is unquestionable.

Even better, there were more offal treats on the menu. This kind of cholesterol-be-damned dining isn’t something to be indulged in daily but I was on holiday so I went for it.

Sangre Encebollada — “onioned blood” is pig’s blood cooked with onions. Then, just in case you’ve accidentally left an artery unclogged, they put some chopped egg yolk on top.

It’s rich, it’s beautifully textured, it’s delicious. Get over yourself and try some.

My wife, following Shawn’s advice, went for the honeyed ribs.

This was too sweet for me but my wife loved them. The value for money here was impossible to ignore: nothing we had here cost more than €2.20 a plate and they weren’t compensating by marking up the Ribero del Duero red I was drinking.

I was going full sail with a following wind into an ocean of gluttony by this point and attacked my plate of menudos (tripe) before I remembered to take a photograph.

They were perfectly cooked with chunks of meaty goodness and a gelatine viscosity I suspect came from a calf’s foot.  Richer even than typical callos a la madrileña, the dish made up for in flavour what even I have to admit it lacked in visual appeal. Close your eyes and eat this. Then do some exercise.

My wife decided to try the duck. Served with cheese bread and an orange sauce, it was simple but well-executed.

There didn’t seem to be much point in worrying about overeating any more so I ordered something I’d longed to try: carrillada iberica al ajillo (garlicky iberian pig’s cheeks).

Another one that tastes better than it sounds, pig’s cheeks are actually the jaw muscles and when slowly cooked are meltingly tender and flavoursome. Eslava’s are as good as you’ll find: the garlic wasn’t as strong as the name of the dish suggested and the meat was soft enough to eat with a spoon.

On another day I’d have been happy to work my way through the rest of Eslava’s menu but we only had one night in Seville so decided to push on and try another Azahar top tip in the shape of ‘La Azotea’ (C/ Jesús del Gran Poder, 31), just around the corner from Eslava.

Name dropping Shawn got us a place at the bar near the busy kitchen. I have unfortunately lost my notes on exactly what we had which is a great pity because despite the step up in price (€3 to €4.50 per plate) there was also a step up in creativity and some truly spectacular food was served here. For my wife, unburdened by a day’s eating and drinking, it was the food highlight of her trip to Seville.

The (I think) cream cheese accompaniment to the most tender squid I’ve had in Spain was simply perfect.

My wife dived into her foie before I could point the camera. Again, a bit sweet for me but she loved it and the execution was faultless.

Finally, the presa iberica (iberian pork): stunning, but I’d had enough by now.

Apologies for the missing details on La Azotea but if you’re in Sevilla, go and fill in the gaps yourself. You won’t regret it.

The next day, we had neither the time nor the inclination for another belly-bursting marathon of overindulgence. We started with tostadas and cafes con leche (coffee and toast) at ‘Horno San Buenaventura’, right in front of the cathedral on Avenida de la Constitución.

This place should be dreadful. It’s right in front of a huge tourist attraction, it’s big, busy and conspicuously picturesque. I was delighted to be charged only €0.30 for a freshly-baked tostada with marmalade (that’s not a typing mistake. €0.30. Read it and weep, Barcelona-dwellers) and not much more for one heaped with fresh cheese from the excellent in-store deli. The table service is a bit slow but the coffee’s good and it’s a great spot to people-watch while you wake up.

By lunchtime we’d decided to pick one place and rest our feet after a morning on the tourism trail. As my wife had missed out, and I was lusting after pringá like a deprived junkie, I had to head back to Bodeguita Romero.

I’d ordered it before I’d even sat down and settled with my first glass of manzanilla (sherry) since arriving in Seville.

What to have after the pringá?

How about some more carrilladas

Cooked with chorizo (paprika sausage) in a sofrito of onion and tomato they were very different to the Eslava interpretation but just as good.

I couldn’t visit Andalusia without having spinach and chickpeas. Hardly light, it was at least a non-carnivorous break from the relentless animal protein.

And finally, what else could it be but more menudo.

Less rich, more tomatoey and more reminiscent of the classic Madrid tripe recipe than Eslava’s, this was nevertheless a worthy attempt and a warm, delicious note on which to end my trip.

I fell in love with Seville during my visit. The warm people, warm winter weather, gorgeous architecture and above all the tapas — oh, the tapas — have me itching to return. There are so many places I didn’t get to try, and so much I didn’t get to see. Hopefully there will be Seville II, III and IV posts coming to this blog in the not-too-distant future.

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3 Comments

  • Reply azahar November 29, 2010 at 9:03 am

    Wow, I’m stuffed all over again just looking at the photos.

    Yeah, what is it with young chefs not being able to take some constructive criticism from their clients? I was disappointed that Rafa at Arenero didn’t take our comments about the soya sauce more seriously. Same thing happened at another bar that I’m trying to like, as it’s across the street from my house and they serve nice wine, but their fried stuff is simply awful. Turns out the very young chef there thinks that making tortillitas de camarones in a dense ball of tasteless gloop is better than the tried and true traditional way simply because it’s “different”. The thing is, it’s easy to say that everything is great (when it is) but takes effort to “complain” about a dish that you didn’t enjoy, and I think most people don’t bother. They just don’t go back. So when someone does take the time to comment on a disappointing dish it’s very foolish of a chef not to listen.

    I’m glad you managed to get to both Eslava and La Azotea after our lunchtime tapeo, and am very impressed by your stamina. And of course you had to go back to Bodeguita Romero for more pringá as you’d only got to have half of one the day before. I’m surprised that the tostadas were so cheap at the Horno – I thought they were a bit more than that. As for the slow table service, did I not say you should sit at the bar…? (oops)

    I really enjoyed this – you caught the style and feel of each place very well (and I oughtta know). Great pics too. Now looking forward to reading about Barcelona and its food…

  • Reply Jane Campbell-Howard March 7, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Great blog. Will be using it like a guidebook when we are in Seville next month. Many thanks. Am on a pre-trip diet in anticipation.

    • Reply FoodBarcelona March 9, 2011 at 1:04 pm

      Be sure to check out http://azahar-sevilla.com/ for the latest places before you go. I highly recommend booking one of her tapas tours too: you’ll get treated like royalty in all the best places when you visit with her.

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