The idea that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” was invented by 19th century cereal manufacturers, most probably John Harvey Kellogg, a religious zealot who believed eating breakfast cereal would make Americans strong enough to stop thinking about sex. (It didn’t. Go figure.) The Spanish, who have no such Puritan goals, enjoy their version of breakfast so much they indulge in it twice every morning, with great enthusiasm.
At home, Sevillanos typically start the day with a first desayuno of coffee and toast topped with olive oil and ham or butter and jam. They then head to their workplace and put in an hour or two of labor, after which they’ll refresh themselves with a midmorning break at a nearby café, enjoying another round of coffee and toast to fortify themselves until lunch.
To accommodate the second-breakfast habit, the city has café-bars on practically every block. Some are grand, an increasing number are corporate efforts, and the hipsters outdo one another in providing quirky environments, flat whites, and wifi workspaces. But the mainstay continues to be modest little neighborhood places you wouldn’t look at twice in the US. To American eyes, inexpensive furnishings suggest substandard coffee and cheap food, but that’s not the case in Seville.
The other morning we tried the Bar Algabeño, tucked between the Feria Market and the 15th century palace of the Guzmanes of La Algaba (now municipal offices and a museum). We found the Algabeño’s coffee and toast delicious, and the back alley location (which in the US would be another red flag) makes it a great place to watch locals going about their day.
The Catunambu, on the bustling shopping street Calle Sierpes, couldn't be more visible, yet many Americans bypass it for the nearby Starbucks. So you’ll mostly find Spaniards at the Catunambu, taking a leisurely second breakfast to restore themselves after the rigors of a shopping spree. In the photo below, the individual in the big orange hat is almost certainly a foreigner, as local women never wear hats in town unless dressed to the nines for a fancy wedding, and Sevillano guys, if they wear hats at all, stick to Panamas.
So what’s everybody ordering for their second breakfast?
The choices may be simple, but to get it right requires a fair amount of vocabulary. In Seville, you always order your drink first. The classic is café con leche, half espresso and half steamed milk. Too much milk? Try a cortado, a shot of espresso with half as much milk. Need even more of an eye-opener? Ask for a café solo, a straight shot of espresso. Prefer something lower octane? Café Americano is plain black coffee, and leche manchada (literally “stained milk”) is half an inch of espresso and plenty of milk.
I’ve never seen low-fat milk here, but hipster and tourist coffee houses may offer milk alternatives. However, no one will understand a request for “leche de soya” (soy milk), “leche de avena” (oat milk), or the like because everyone knows milk is produced by lactating mammals, not plants. The barrista will be dumfounded by your ignorance but too polite to say so. Ask for bebida de soya (soy drink) or bebida de avena (oat drink) instead.
It’s even more complicated if, like me, you happen to like tea with milk, which is unheard of here. Ask for té con leche (tea with milk) and you’ll be served a glass of steamed milk with a tea bag in it. If you ask for té con leche aparte (tea with milk apart or on the side) they’ll bring you tea but not the milk, assuming you’ll drink that later in the meal or want it left in the kitchen for esoteric reasons known only to mad foreigners. Té con leche aparte para añadir (tea with milk apart to add in) should do the trick, although you may have to repeat it several times to be understood. You can see why I gave up and switched to café con leche.
As for food, toast is such a given you don’t even have to say tostada; you simply order a media (half a small baguette) or entera (entire baguette) and name your toppings. The most common are jamón (thin slivers of Spanish ham), tomate (tomato) which can be ordered with or without the ham, and mantequilla y mermelada (butter and jam). If you want heartier or more familiar fare, such as eggs, avocado toast, or corn flakes, you may find them in places that cater to out-of-town visitors, but you won’t see a lot of Sevillanos eating them. I once made pancakes for a Spanish house party, and they all looked aghast, took one courtesy bite, and went back to their tostadas with sighs of relief.
Some years ago, when I did a post about Spanish breakfasts, my long-time reader Vera wrote in to ask why I didn’t mention churros and chocolate, and I had to agree this was a serious oversight on my part. To my brother Mike, a devout chocaholic, this is undeniably Seville's breakfast of champions. You start with churros — sizzling fried tubes of dough — which you proceed to dunk in hot chocolate as dense as pudding. I know, right? Possibly the most decadent breakfast ever invented and naturally a huge favorite with the Sevillanos. It’s mostly a Sunday indulgence but is occasional used to reanimarse (reanimate yourself) en route home from a party at six in the morning or eaten as your marienda, the post-siesta snack that’s essentially a third breakfast.
“Rich,” I said, “we have to go out for churros and chocolate. It’s research.”
“I am willing to make the sacrifice,” he said. “For your readers.”
The article 5 Places for the Best Churros in Seville named El Pilar numero uno, and as this is a favorite of ours, Rich and I headed there directly. Unfortunately we arrived during the second breakfast rush, and every outdoor seat was taken. As we hovered uncertainly on the outer edges of the small crowd, an older gentleman rose slowly to his feet and said, “Please, take my table. I insist.” He picked up his half-finished coffee and headed indoors, our fulsome thanks ringing in his ears.
The churros and chocolate were first rate: hot, dense, and fortifying to the physique. The bill came to 5.60€ ($6.47), and when Rich handed the waitress a 5 euro bill and a euro’s worth of change, she counted the money and exclaimed, “Sir, you have overpaid me!” And tried to give back the 40 centimos. You have to love a place with that kind of attitude.
For Sevillanos and others who love the city, desayuno is one of life’s great treats and once a day simply isn't enough. Most of us have a regular café where we no longer have to order our second breakfast; the camarero automatically places our favorite configuration of coffee and toast on the bar, perhaps nudging a bottle of olive oil in our direction so we can drench our toast even further. I can only imagine how John Harvey Kellogg is turning in his grave at the very idea of all that pleasure packed into a morning meal. But hey, it works for me.
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As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape. But don't worry: not even Covid could dampen the city's appetite for good food.
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on Seville, travel to Europe, and where to find good eats and survival comforts.
Coming home after a long absence is like Christmas. I run around for days exclaiming over clothes and crockery and books that seem to have come into my possession by magic. When did I buy red boots? What’s this yellow bowl doing in my cupboard? Have I read this Agatha Christie? But this time, what really stopped me in my tracks was a near-empty glass jar labeled “whole wheat flour.”
Suddenly I was back in the early days of pandemic lockdown, baking constantly so Rich wouldn’t risk his life running out for fresh bread, watching my supply of whole wheat flour dwindle as shortages set in throughout Seville. Looking at that jar, I was swept with a powerful feeling of gratitude that those times were in the rear view mirror. Every morning for a week I gazed at that jar, thanking my lucky stars and the research scientists who developed the Covid vaccines. And on the eighth day, I tossed away that handful of old flour, collected my husband, and went out to lunch.
One of my happiest recent discoveries was that Seville has not lost its appetite for good eats in convivial social settings.
Modest café-bars still offer a solid bedrock of classic fare, often prepared by someone’s abuela (grandmother) using her abuela’s recipes for such classics as solomillo al whiskey (pork loin in whiskey sauce), colo de toro (stewed bull’s tail), and carrilladas (pig cheeks). When I first arrived in Seville, I was a vegetarian, and somehow I survived for a couple of years on espinacas con garbonzos (spinach with chickpeas) and pisto (vegetable stew). Then I came to my senses, decided my plant-based diet was more of a guideline than a rule, and devoted myself to enjoying everything on the menu.
Around eight years ago, innovations began sneaking in: sprigs of fresh herbs beside the solomillo, a bed of arugula under the pig cheeks, chopped chives in the tortilla de España (potato omelet). I worried that the abuelas’ abuelas were spinning in their graves. Pretty soon the old tile-walled café-bars were rubbing shoulders with sleek new restaurants offering wildly innovative menus and amusing napkins, often with presentations involving smoke-filled domes or shrimp shavings that appeared to be fluttering in the bowl.
Arriving in Seville again after 16 months away (months in which the entire world reconfigured itself) I braced myself for unwelcome changes in the city’s taverns, cafes and restaurants. Being selflessly devoted to keeping my readers informed, I decided it was my duty to check out as many as possible right away.
Yes, a few had closed and will be missed, but I was overjoyed to discover how many old-school eateries survived the recent upheavals. Bodeguita Romero (Calle Harinas, 10) is still serving their signature carrilladas, which Sevillano friends Isabel and Julio introduced me to years ago as the best slow-cooked pig cheeks in the city. Los Coloniales (Plaza Cristos de Burgos, 19) is still dishing up generous portions of solomillo al whiskey smothered in garlic and drenched with whiskey and olive oil. And Casa Morales (Calle García de Vinuesa, 11) is still full of visitors squealing at the sight of gulas, fake baby eels made of pressed fish (like “krab” in the US), a popular replacement for anguilas (real baby eels), a delicacy that’s become prohibitively expensive.
I wasn’t surprised that local customers would keep the traditional eateries alive, but what about the trendy new places, with higher prices and more exotic menus, which cater largely to foreign visitors?
You’ll be happy to know that most of my favorites are still around, including Contenedor (Calle San Louis, 50), the restaurant whose roast pork convinced me to become a carnivore again. It’s known for its slow cooking, relaxed atmosphere (they don’t allow bachelor parties or other rowdy groups), and some of the best food anywhere. I was longing to dine there again, but it’s always been strictly indoor seating, which I’m still avoiding. I could hardly contain my joy when friends told me Contenedor has added a handful of sidewalk tables.
Like many cities, Seville is allowing restaurants to set up outdoor dining wherever they can squeeze in a tabletop, and to build parklets in the street despite the chronic shortfall of parking spaces. Another of my go-to hotspots, Castizo (Calle Zaragoza, 6), has added two tiny tables by the front door, and we were lucky enough to get one of them for a recent lunch with a friend visiting from San Francisco.
“The food in this town is extraordinary,” John exclaimed. “I’ve never tasted anything like it.” Now, I often get remarks like that when I pass around a plate of gulas, but this was different; he made it clear he considered Seville’s cuisine a hot rival to anything back home.
We ate plenty of jamón (Spanish ham) while John was in town, and he wanted to take some along when he left. With some difficulty, Rich and I managed to persuade him it was impractical to smuggle a whole pig leg onboard an airplane, even in checked luggage. He decided instead on a vacuum pack of freshly sliced jamón, which is how practical locals tend to transport it. An American restauranteur once told me he used to import his jamón vacuum packed and hidden in the pages of a magazine, so officials didn’t see it and airport dogs couldn’t sniff it out; I have never personally put this to the test.
I took John to the market in Plaza Encarnacíon beneath the Setas (a hideous, mushroom-shaped monument to the egos of civic leaders) to buy some jamón Ibérico (the good stuff). Slicing jamón cannot be rushed; it is an art form requiring graceful cuts resulting in paper-thin slivers that melt in your mouth. I was glad to see this was another local food tradition that hadn’t changed one iota.
Jamón is the ultimate comfort food for many Spaniards and quite sustaining. A few slices on your breakfast toast can keep you going all day, if need be. A Spanish friend explained to me that one of the reasons meat features so prominently on local menus is that everyone here was raised on stories of the post-Civil War era called The Hunger, when nobody had enough to eat, especially here in Andalucía, the poorest part of Spain and one which stood against Franco. “At home you eat vegetables,” she said. “When you go out, you want something special.”
Sevillanos are experts at making do with less; with nothing on hand but a few tomatoes and vegetable scraps, they created the cold soup known as gazpacho. In a place that has known real hunger, every meal is cause for celebration, whether we’re feasting on roast pork or eating bread made with the last whole wheat flour we’ll see for months. Food is about comfort, nourishment, and pleasure, a time to lay down our responsibilities, our worries, and our phones so we can appreciate the gift of this small, perfect moment while it’s right in front of us.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape. But don't worry: not even the pandemic could dampen the city's appetite for good food.
CLICK HERE TO RECEIVE FREE UPDATES
on Seville, travel to Europe, and where to find good eats and survival comforts.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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