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.
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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 the pandemic could dampen the city's appetite for good food.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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