Visitors arriving in Seville usually love the idea of tapas but are easily confused by the traditional tapeo. I explain it’s an evening spent visiting a series of tapas bars, nibbling small portions of food and ordering a round of drinks in each one. While guests always express enthusiasm for the concept, the plan often bogs down as soon as it’s implemented.
“Move on?” they say, bewildered, when it’s time to leave the first bar. “But we just got here. We’ve hardly eaten anything. And I’ve only had a half pint of beer. We can’t go yet!” They dig in their heels and refuse to budge until the evening is well advanced and the only thing left on the agenda is a nightcap.
Living in Seville, where most people eat five times a day and tapeos are common, I’ve adopted the nomad’s approach to eating. I graze and move on, like the sheep, yaks, and other creatures that roam the earth in search of ever-more-tempting foraging conditions.
Some Americans do seem to resonate naturally with the mix of nibbling and wandering so dear to the Sevillano heart. I encountered one such like-minded grazer last Saturday, when I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in a test run of a new food tour that’s launching in Seville. The grazer-in-chief was Lauren Aloise, co-founder with her husband Alejandro of Devour Seville’s new Tastes, Tapas & Traditions of Seville Food Tour.
By wild coincidence, our first stop on the tour was the small café near my old language school where my classmates and I used to take our morning breaks. It was here that I first attempted to order tea with milk, a request generally greeted with disbelief and incomprehension by Sevillanos. When I said té con leche (tea with milk), the helpful staff produced a tea bag stuck in a cup of boiled milk (horrible!). Next I tried té con leche aparte (tea with milk apart, or on the side), and they brought me tea, but not the milk. Apparently by “apart,” they assumed I meant in another room, or on someone else’s table. To be as clear as possible, I learned specify té hecho con agua, con un poco de leche aparte para añadir (tea made with water, with a little milk on the side to add in). You can see how rapidly my vocabulary advanced thanks to this trial-and-horror method and the endless patience of the waiters.
On Lauren’s tour, we sampled slivers of freshly cut jamón (ham), orange-flavored almond cookies baked by nuns, fried sand shark marinated in cumin and vinegar, and other treats. Mostly we grazed on the hoof, but from time to time we settled around a table for heartier fare, such as the robust mantecado de lomo al whiskey. I’ve often dined on lomo al whiskey, pork loin in a garlicky whiskey sauce, usually accompanied by French fries and a small basket of bread for sopping up any leftover sauce. Here, they combined it all in one huge sandwich. I have to admit I was skeptical. French fries inside a sandwich? Why, that’s flying in the face of nature! But I had to admit it tasted amazing.
Another surprising highlight came in a dim little bar I’d walked by hundreds of times without noticing it. There we tasted the house specialty, orange wine, made from the rind of Seville’s bitter, ornamental oranges. It was unexpectedly wonderful, and I instantly added it to my list of favorite tapas bars in this city.
Tapeos are all about this kind of delightful discovery. Sadly, not every city lends itself to nomadic foraging. One night, Rich and I met up with friends in San Francisco to attempt a tapeo in an Asian neighborhood. Our various Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean hosts appeared gobsmacked, and not a little peeved, that four adults were proposing to share a single appetizer and two beers. We soldiered on, but it was hard to maintain the fiesta mood under the waiters’ withering glares. But I suppose it could have been worse. At least I didn’t try to order the dragon tea with milk.
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. Right now we're on our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture.
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