We just got back from Seville, and, if I’m honest, I was mostly there for the food. James was very keen to go because of all the history, and architecture, and culture. I am interested in those things too. But not quite as interested as I am in tapas. Hey, we are who we are.
I did my research on the food in Seville before we left, because I cannot go to any new place without obsessively researching the food on offer to make sure I am not missing any of the good stuff. So I knew where the best markets were supposed to be. I had an idea of what the local specials were. I had a couple of restaurant reservations and a good list of places that didn’t take reservations that I wanted to try. Does anyone else travel like this, by the way? I mean, obviously I’d booked somewhere to stay and plane and train tickets too, but basically my holiday preparation consisted of learning as much as I could about the local food scene.
And the results? Well, to be honest, mixed. I’d heard so much about the great cuisine in Seville that I was actually a little surprised at how hit-and-miss our experiences were. The good stuff is definitely there, but you have to work to find it. Buckle up, because this is going to be a long and rambly post. Also probably of no interest to anyone unless you’re going to Seville in the near future, but never mind.
The first thing to get used to is that everything runs on a completely different schedule to in Britain. This may sound obvious to most of you, but I hadn’t been to Spain since I was a child and it took me by surprise. I am a naturally ‘early to bed, early to rise’ person, and unfortunately this is completely the wrong kind of person to be in southern Spain. Nothing seems to open before 10am, and most stuff doesn’t really get going until 11am. If you’re wandering round at 9am or before hoping to visit a food market or get some breakfast, then you’re going to struggle. However, if you’re a night-owl, you will be in heaven.
Secondly, most things close for siesta in the afternoons, usually from around 2-5pm. We had a few instances of going somewhere in the morning, only to find it wasn’t open yet, so coming back in the afternoon, and finding we’d accidentally hit the siesta period and missed the brief window of the place being open. You really need to plan carefully. I tried checking the times that everything was open online, but the information given was rarely accurate.
Thirdly, people in Seville tend to eat lunch around 3pm, and dinner around 9.30pm. Now, I have normally had breakfast by 7am, so if I have to wait until 3pm to eat lunch I am probably going to slaughter all the people around me. We found that most places opened for lunch around 1.30pm or 2pm and we could go then, but we’d usually be the only people there until 3pm, when things started to get going properly. Ditto dinner: most places don’t even open until 8.30pm or later, and everything is pretty quiet until 9.30pm. If, like me, you’re used to lunch at 12.30pm or 1pm, and dinner at 7pm, you really have to readjust.
The other issue we hit was that a lot of places either didn’t take bookings, or only took bookings over the phone. Unfortunately – and the fault is all mine – I do not speak a word of Spanish. Really, nothing. I did French at school and can bumble by passably in that but I know no Spanish. And, as we were told repeatedly, southern Spain is not like, say, Scandinavia, where most people speak incredible English so your lack of linguistic prowess is less stark. Generally, in Seville, people really did not speak English – and, indeed, why should they? This did mean, though, that I found it almost impossible to make restaurant reservations over the phone.
I’ll start with the bad, to get it out of the way.
One particularly memorable evening saw us first in a long queue outside a particularly well-recommended restaurant before its 8.30pm opening, only to get in and have them insist they were fully booked and turn the queue of people away. ‘No problem’, we thought, ‘let’s turn to our list of other restaurant recommendations in the area’. But the first one we tried was nowhere to be found. We walked round for fifteen minutes, puzzling over addresses and maps, but completely failed to locate the place where we wanted to eat. Seville is full of tiny, winding alleyways and hidden side-streets. ‘No problem’, we thought, ‘let’s move to the third place on the list’. This place, it turned out, was closed because it was a Monday, even though it was advertised as open online. We looked at the fourth place, only to find it was a half hour walk away, which we couldn’t quite manage, as by this time it was 9pm and we were starving (Seville hasn’t got a great public transport system and is very unfriendly to cars, so we walked everywhere throughout the holiday). So we decided to go to the local square, as it was lined with restaurants, and eat at the place that looked the most promising. Big mistake. The food we got was awful, bordering on inedible. Tapas done very, very badly. Not interesting in any way: just not at all nice.
The next night we had a table booked at a restaurant that had been highly recommended online. We started to have our doubts when we got in and saw it looked like it hadn’t been re-decorated since the late 80s. They provided us with some stale bread to gnaw at while we looked down the menu, which didn’t contain a single vegetarian dish. Neither of us are vegetarians, but it didn’t seem to bode well for the attitude of the restaurant that it didn’t cater to them.
It took 50 minutes for our bland starters to arrive. Everything was incredibly dated. My main course, advertised as the fish of the day, was a piece of hake and some plain boiled potatoes, untroubled by sauce or any vegetables. Everything was very unremarkable except for the fact that my fish was sneakily sprinkled with some sort of chilli seeds, which I didn’t immediately identify as such and so unwittingly bit into. I’m pretty good with spicy food, but this was literally the spiciest thing I have ever eaten in my life. The burning immediately spread through my entire mouth and was really quite painful. It was just such an odd thing to randomly sprinkle on top of plain white fish. James’s duck breast came, weirdly, with a border of sliced raw tomatoes and cucumber, and a very sweet sauce. The whole meal was also sickeningly expensive – the most we spent on any meal in Seville despite the fact we didn’t drink (there was no drinks list and we didn’t have the will to try to surmount the language barrier to ask if there were options). A complete rip-off and massively disappointing.
Happily, there were some food highs as well as lows. Mamarracha was the first excellent restaurant we went to, and it was a relieving balm by that point because we’d already had some bad food. The grilled squid and the Iberico pork particularly stood out, and with the bill they brought us some little shots of the most exquisite sherry. I’m not particularly a sherry fan, but it was dark and cold and satin smooth, full of toffee and plum flavours. I wish I knew what it was because I would buy a lot of it.
On a day trip to Cordoba, we snagged a table at Regadera. Meltingly tender carpaccio, ceviche butterfish on braised lettuce and teriyaki, spit-roast lamb with cous cous and pate and a yoghurt dressing, and a peanut toffee banana brownie that I haven’t really stopped thinking about since I ate it. The home-baked bread was excellent – always a good litmus test, I find – and the service was incredibly friendly.
Finally, on the last day, we managed to get into Contenedor, the restaurant we’d been turned away from on the first night. More informal than Mamarracha or Regadera, offering burgers and pastela and casual sharing dishes, but still excellent quality. It sounds odd to be very enthusiastic about rice, but they served us some of the best I’ve ever tasted: black rice, slightly crispy, topped with fried squid and aioli. Also an almost poetic hazelnut chocolate torte, and an apple cheesecake that I’m going to try to recreate. And even better, absolutely astonishingly cheap.
Finally, honourable mention must be given to Freskura. Not a restaurant, but an ice cream place a two minute walk from where we were staying. Some of the most delicious gelato I’ve ever eaten, dozens of intriguing flavours, and incredibly generous portions. I always made James come here with me for consolation ice cream after a disappointing meal and it was very cheering.
When we arrived in Seville, our host helpfully pointed out all the food markets on a map for us. It’s like he knew me. On our first morning, we headed off to the one he’d told us was the oldest and the best: Triana.
Firstly, of course, it wasn’t really ready when we got there at 10am – see earlier paragraph about everything opening late in Seville. The building itself was open and you could wander in, but most stalls still had their shutters down. So we went for a wander around the neighbourhood and came back an hour later. At which point it was maybe two thirds open.
From what we saw when we were in Seville, the food markets there are very traditional. We visited three, and they all seemed to have four types of stalls: meat and fish; fruit and vegetables; cheese; bread. These would be repeated three or four times throughout the market, and while I am sure they all had their own individual characters, the differences weren’t discernible to a passing tourist. I realise I have been very spoiled by the excellent food markets in the UK. While the produce we purchased from the stalls was of good quality, I was a little disappointed by the lack of variety. I was hoping for more unique stalls – maybe oils, spices, sauces, teas and coffees, chocolates, patisserie, or interesting alcohol on top of all the basics. There also didn’t seem to be much of street food culture – people were there to buy produce rather than eat. This is probably all to the good, because actual locals shop in these markets and they haven’t just been redesigned for tourists. Still, as a tourist, I wouldn’t have minded if they’d gone the other way a bit.
We stayed in an Airbnb rather than a hotel, so we made a couple of little supermarket trips to stock up on a few things to eat at our flat when we weren’t eating out. We never found any big supermarkets while we were there – it was mostly little local shops, although I am sure bigger places could have been found on the outskirts of the city. It’s always interesting (to me anyway) to wander around supermarkets in different countries and see what you can and can’t buy there. For example, in Seville the supermarkets all had a dizzying array of meats, particularly ham. However, we couldn’t find – literally, we couldn’t, we really looked – fresh milk sold anywhere. All that was on offer was UHT cartons. I don’t really care about this, but James drinks coffee and eats cereal so found it more problematic.
Also, generally things were a lot sweeter. I was surprised, because I wouldn’t think of Spain as a country that added sugar to things at random. But we couldn’t find any plain unsweetened yoghurt – even the stuff labelled plain Greek yoghurt was almost inedible as it was so sweetened. However, we were ‘reading’ labels purely through Google translate, so it’s entirely possible we could have been missing the good stuff. Juices and smoothies were much sweeter than our English palates were accustomed to. Good chocolate was also very hard to come by. I tried a couple of varieties when I was there and none were nice. There were piles of turron (Spanish nougat) everywhere though. This stuff is tasty, but again, pretty much pure sugar.
Bakeries and patisseries didn’t seem very common in Seville, and we only saw a couple during our time there. La Campana was excellent, and clearly beloved, because it was packed with winding queues when we visited. They sold a vast variety of little Spanish almond biscuits, and some intriguing pastries. I didn’t get to try one of those though because I was too busy eating an entire tray of the biscuits. I regret nothing.
This post probably sounds more negative than I intended it to. Of course, I am only talking about the food in Seville, and we also saw and did some wonderful things that were not food-related and so have no place on this blog. Also, we were only in Seville for four days, so barely scratched the surface of what the city has to offer. But, for what it’s worth (which I am aware is very little), these are my observations.
One final thing to add, and one of my favourite things about Seville, is that the orange trees are everywhere. Really, everywhere. Lines of them down every completely normal city street. I suppose for them an orange tree is the equivalent of our apple trees. But you don’t find apple trees flanking every standard city pavement. The oranges weren’t ripe enough for picking when we visited, but in a couple of months the sight will be even more extraordinary. It’s such a simple thing, but while we were in Spain I didn’t even come close to getting over the novelty of walking under orange trees wherever we went. It’s really something quite special.