PRESS SECTION - The Independent Traveller

Small is beautiful

Think Seville and you think flamenco, bullfighting – and tapas. The city has 4,000 venues serving some of the finest food in Spain. Terry Durack takes a gourmet tour.

My mouth is open, ready for a slice of ruby-red jamon edged with white fat. Zzzt! A tiny black gnat flies into the back of my throat and I collapse into an inelegant rictus of coughing. At the same time, I can hear my wife laughing her head off. “That’s why tapas was invented” she says, chortling away. “Probably right here”.

Sure enough, I am standing in El Rinconcillo, the oldest tapas bar in Seville, the birthplace of tapas. So it could have been on this very spot that pieces of ham or cheese were first used as lids (tapas) on the top of glasses to prevent insects from flying in.

Seville is the natural and spiritual home of tapas. It is also the home of flamenco and bull fighting, but these are merely diversions for when one is not eating. I am here to perfect el tapeo, a harmonious act of walking, talking, eating and drinking that the Sevillanos have turned into an art form – no, more of a religious procession, akin to the Way of the Cross during holy week.

Before embarking on my personal tapas marathon, however, I need a strategy. Maria José Sevilla, the knowledgeable London-based director of Foods from Spain, says that you shouldn’t take tapas too seriously. “It’s a case of ‘lets go for a stroll’,” she says. “Let’s stop and drink something, and eat something, and talk about something”.

Fine, but you don’t survive a marathon by wandering about like somebody kicked out of the pub at closing time looking for the nearest chippie. I have therefore kitted myself out with map, book, compass, sturdy shoes and pedometer and trained to the peak of my physical fitness and appetite.

It is just as well. Seville, Spain’s forth-largest city and the capital of Andalucia, has 4,000 tapas bars and tabernas – roughly one for every 200 locals. So I divide the map into barrios (districts) and plot a course, kicking off at El Rinconcillo, and moving down towards the shopping district of El Centro. Let the marathon commence. I mean, let’s go for a stroll.

Learning to crawl: Alfalfa/El Centro

Opened in 1670, El Rinconcillo certainly looks like the oldest tapas bar in Seville, with its dark wooden counters, bottle-lined shelves and handsome azulejos tiles. In front of me, the owner slices jamon by holding the leg like a cello, gracefully pulling the slender knife across it as if it were a bow. Next to him, a waiter chops bread to a furious flamenco bet. I order a local Cruzcampo beer, a tapa of fat, salted anchovies and one of the bar’s specialities; espinacas con garbanzos, a rich, dark stew of wilted spinach, olive oil, pimentos and chickpeas, and the waiter scrawls the prices in chalk on the wooden counter before me.

The place is a joy, but there are 3,999 other bars out there waiting. So I take a quick stop at El Bacalao around the corned in Plaza Ponce de Leon, a shrine to dried salted cod, one of the great tapas staples. Another beer and a dish of steamy stew of bacalao with tomato and I’m off again, heading for Plaza Alfalfa, a small square famous for its Sunday pet market. Aha, here is La Trastienda, recommended by the distinguished Gonzálo del Rio y Gonzalez Gordon, fifth generation of the Gonzáles Byass family of the Tio Pepe fame. “It’s disgusting”, he laughs, “but it is wonderful”.

By disgusting he means the sawdust floors and a lack of any décor other than barrels and bottles. By wonderful, he means the owner brings most of the seafood from Huelva on a daily basis, and cooks it with a light hand a rare intelligence. A single langostino (striped jumbo prawn) is a treat, sweetly fragrant and lightly briney. A place of almejos (steamed clams) are chosen, weighed, washed and steamed within a minute, and a platter of gambas (prawns served in the shell) are sweet and almost crunchy. It’s the best seafood I have had for years, but I can’t stay, I’m losing time. From here, it’s a short hop to Bar Estrella, a cute, tiled 70-year-old neighbourhood bar where I immediately feel like a neighbour.

With a plate of aged manchego and a glass of Anares Rioja Crianza under my belt, I’m soon making my way down to the Plaza del Salvador when I hear, two blocks away, a roaring wave of voices, in a mad crazy ridiculous street party that goes on every day and every night. There is no way I can get near the bar, so I double back to Casa Antonio Los Caracoles, famous for chef José Ramiro Garrido’s snails served with a rich, spicy sauce of green peppers, tomatoes, garlic, fried bread, pimentos and fresh coriander. Never have I seen snails move so fast – on a good day, he gets through 100 kilograms.

Hitting my stride: Arenal

Four well-padded, dark-suited men enter Bodeguita A Romero, directly opposite the mighty Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, the bullring that formed the backdrop for Bizet’s Carmen. They sit down at a prized table by the open window, orders the waiter to close all the windows, and promptly light up big, fat, cigars. It is 3pm, time for lunch

I have already waked 7km, covering much of the old port area of Arenal, once a marsh area and red-light district that is now dominated by one of Seville’s mot powerful landmarks; the Torre del Oro, built by the Almohads (Muslim Berbers) in 1220. I have stalked the length of Calle Zaragoza, dropped into La Flor de Totanzo, a casual corner bar, for a cold beer and a platter of jamon, and squeezed into the tiny tapas bar hidden at the back of the Casa Moreno grocery store for a quick glass of amontillado and a toasted chorizo sandwich.

Sevillano chefs do leftovers like nobody else, turning them into croquetas, tortillas and stew – even the tail of yesterdays bull from La Maestranza is today’s cola de toro (oxtail stew). Damn. A Romero is out of cola de toro, so I sustain myself with platters (raciones, as opposed to the smaller tapa serves) of menudo (tripe stew), albondigas (meatballs) that taste of almonds, and huevos revueltos, acelgas y agulas, a juicy, loose dish of scrambled eggs with baby elvers and swiss chard.

Then it’s back on the road to the wonderful Enrique Becerra, worthy of an entire tapas marathon in its own right, for its inspired updating of Andalucian classics. Never mind the salmorejo (a rich, thick gazpacho), never mind the girly, refreshing salad of avocado and prawn, never mind the cellar of 11,000 fine bottles, the mahogany beams, the marble columns, the 17th century townhouse… go for the brave-new world tosta de foie con higos, an amazing dish of thick grilled bread topped with atranche of warm, melting foie gras, preserved figs and a sticky, figgy syrup. Ooo-eeee.

Enrique Becerra is so exciting that I have to go and calm down at the 155 year old Bodega Morales, where I can just stand at the weathered bar, gasping, with a tiny stemmed glass of Oloroso drawn from the barrel set into the wall.

Spain’s most forward-thinking chefs are dragging tapas screaming into the future. Catalan mater-chef Ferran Adria serves his mind-bending 30 meals at El Bulli near Barcelona (pistachio tempura, jellied egg, seaweed croquante, black olive cup cakes, etc) in the style of tapas. Chef Rafa Morales serves fresh anchovies with raspberries at the luxurious tapas bar of Adria’s Hacienda Benazuza, 20km from Seville. “Tapas is a different style of eating small and intense flavours”, says Morales. “It’s a way of seeing life”.

For me however, the best way of seeing life is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the crowd in a traditional tapas bar. That means a visit to the tiny Casablanca, which has what I am fast learning is the key to great tapas; kitchen bigger than the bar. It also does el pregon, the spoken proclamation of the day’s specials, a necessity in a town where the tapas is heard and not seen. In Seville, unlike Barcelona and Madrid, there are not counters carpeted with pinchos, no heating trays of sodden fried food. You are told what is good, you order it, and it is cooked for you.

So when the barmen starts reeling off the list, I just ask him to keep it coming until I say stop. Bliss; a dish of warm, crushed potatoes with spring onions; a perfect little gazpacho, a whoopee cushion of tortilla con whisky; and some truly magnificent cubes of white tuna and whole, sweet, squishy sea anemones that have been deep-fried by angels in heaven. Oops, I forgot to stop.

Picking up the pace: Cathedral and Barrio Cruz

Most tourists around Plaza Virgen de los Reyes are there to visit the 600-year-old cathedral and its astonishing bell-tower, the Moorish La Giralda, first built as a minaret in 1198. Either that, or they are heading for the Real Alcazar (Royal Palace), with its delicious blend of Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance architecture and sweeping fairy-tale gardens. After that, it’s a fair bet to say that every single one of them heads for the near by Cerveceria Giralda.

Located in a former Islamic bathhouse, there is something of the Arabian Nights about the place with its vaulted ceilings, marble floors and colourful azulejos tiles. I meet up with my old friend Cruzcampo and a small place of homely chickpea and prawn stew.

Then it’s up the narrow street, dodging horse-drawn carriages and orange trees (road kill here is a bright orange splat under a horse’s hoof) to the Barrio Santa Cruz, stopping only for a quick glass of sangria at the permanently party-time Bodega Santa Cruz. Here, crowds of students and young tourist scoff the town’s best montaditos (toasted rolls of jamon, manchego, chorizo, etc), while flirting with the bandanna´d chefs in the open kitchen. Well, it would be more truthful to say the chefs flirt with them. Whatever.

I plunge from there into the barrio’s maze of alleyways and back streets, where neighbours chat from balcony to balcony, guitar players bare their souls in pretty little plazas and tourist get hopelessly, and hopefully, lost.

Just a tope-tapping shuffle and a dark-eyed glance away from the Los Gallos flamenco club in Plaza de Santa Cruz is Las Teresas, an atmospheric corner bar where legs of jamon hang from the ceiling like bats in a cave. It’s a casual, easy place, the perfect stop for something to eat on the way to something more to eat.

And something more to drink. The first choice of any Sevillano is sherry, preferably a fino – light, clean, refreshing and uncompromisingly dry. Their second choice would actually be another fino, but I prefer manzanilla, a fresh, crisp, almost salty sherry made from the coastal grapes of Sanlucar, near Seville.

Time to order a blotting paper of crisp golden boquerones fritos, (deep fried marinated anchovies) and secreto de cerdo Iberico, a tender scorchy, flash-grilled Iberian pork steak

Then it’s another fine fino at the Casa Placido next door, a lost-in-time fino bar with another jamon-lined ceiling. Things are getting a little soft-focus by now, but I move onward, ever onward to Casa Roman for a ring-side view of the tourist tables in the Plaza de Los Venerables and a plate of nutty, long flavoured Jamon Iberico de Bellota (cured ham from the acorn-fed Iberian pig), taken with a chilled, nutty amontillada vor tradición.

Blimey, I need a walk to clear my head. Through the lovely Murillo Gardens to the venerable La Juderia, where whole families and happy babies crowd at the bar for dishes of tiny broad beans with cubed jamon. On the edge of the gardens is Bar Modesto, the famed tapas bar that just kept on growing until it metamorphosed into tow restaurants, tapas bar and hotel. By rights, it should now be known as Bar Immodesto.

This is the place for some of the fried dishes (las frituras) for which the city – indeed the region of Andalucia – is famous. The painter Ignacio Zuloaga once said “in Seville, they even fry the breeze”, referring to the faint aroma of freshly frying fish that lurks in the streets. Bar Modesto does it well, the fried tangle of prawns and calamares de campo dry, light and crisp. Calamares de campo? Squid of the countryside? Fried onion rings, duh.

The finishing line: Triana

Just across the broad sweep of the Rio Guadalquiver, Triana has long been Seville’s most colourful quarter, being home to the gitanas (gypsies) the birthplace of flamenco, of Sevillano ceramics, and the one-time headquarters of the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. While rapidly being gentrified, the area still retains a Bohemian character, especially on a balmy night when the streets are awash with people seeking music, food and romance.

The modernised Mercado de Triana (produce market) will give you a crash course in what to order – snails, cochos (cuttlefish), wild asparagus, hake and cord – at an outdoor table at Casa Cuesta, one of Triana’s oldest bars, nearby. That’s if you can go past the smallest, sweetest tapas bar in Triana, the little Casa Peral, tucked in behind the market, and not stop for a beer and some morcillo cerbolla (blood sausage with onions) which I can’t.

Another treasure of Triana is the little Bar Santa Ana near the Santa Ana church, Seville’s oldest parish church, which dates back to the 13th century. The locals will let you squeeze in for a bowl of chickpea soup or bacalao fritos, while a statue of Santa Ana herself, looking a bit drag-queen on it in her feathery headdress, looks down at the bar between flickering electric candles.

The enormous crows that flock to Triana are soaked up by a line of huge, professional restaurants along the river in Calle Betis; the best of which are Rio Grande and El Kiosco de las Flores, home to excellent fried fish and seafood.

Unbelievably, after two days, 24 tapas bars and 31.03 kilometres, I reach my last tapas bar, the popular sol y Sombra at the northern end of La Triana. The walls are lined with bullfight memorabilia and posters, the floors are covered in sawdust, and, rather pragmatically, every table carries a roll of loo paper as an instant napkin dispenser.

It’s a good place to finish, filled with big, burly men eating rice-filled morcillo sausages, skinny students knocking back beers and olives, and tourists gazing in wonder. Here, at last, I get the bull’s tail of my dreams, in a satin, slurpy stew, some sea-salty coquina (baby clams) in gentle garlic juices, and fabada, a homely stew of giant lima beans, red pepper, chorizo and pork.

The strange thing is, I’m not really aware of the food any more. I’m lost in the moment, the conversation, the good smells, the bodies, the companionship, the waiters flurrying in and out of the door, wine, the thereness of being there. Every man looks like a bullfighter, every woman a dancer. Now I know what it’s all about – that almost untranslatable expression known in flamenco circles as el duende, a special, trance-like connection that unites performers and audience, transcending the everyday. Once you have felt this, tapas has entered your spirit and not just your body. Then there is no end, ever, to the tapas marathon, and there is always time for a stroll, time to stop and drink something, eat something and talk about something.