Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Foods steeped in tradition

With a month of meals in Seville under our belts, it is hard to know where to begin to talk about food. So… starting with some of the traditional dishes we encountered over and over again throughout Andalusia.

Friends from San Antonio wisely insisted we all squeeze into and belly up to the bar at El Rinconcillo. The first tavern on this spot opened in 1670, so it would be fairly impossible to find a place more flavored by its history. Although, the current owners, the De Rueda family, only have operated a tavern in this location since 1858. A platter of boquerones fritos, fried anchovies, was chalked onto the bar counter next to our beer count as the method of recording our tab. These were perfect and perfectly addictive and are an order we repeat throughout our stay in Spain.

While Antigua Abaceria de San Lorenzo might not be an establishment as ancient, it certainly feels that way. The restaurant is located in a 17th-century house in a former abaceria, an old-fashioned grocery store specializing in vinegars and oils, dried legumes and cod. Locals claim most tables, so visitors without reservations rarely can obtain a spot. People often order and eat elbow-to-elbow at the counter or take food to go. The ham is cured on premise, and the featured croquetas naturally are filled with either that or with cod.

In two months, I am not sure we have entered a single restaurant or bar in Andulusia without croquetas on the menu. Seriously. Usually multiple kinds. It almost feels as though there must be a law requiring them to be offered if a business wants a license to open. Seville also seemed to require featuring patatas bravas; a spicy blend of spinach and chickpeas; and salmorejo, a cold tomato soup pureed with bread to thicken it.

In restaurants, few customers contemplate the menu without relishing the requisite olives and downing a cana, a small draft beer, even when ordering wine next. Reasonably priced wine is available in all but the luxury establishments, with wine by the glass generally running $3 or less. And that cana? Rarely above $1.50.

And my favorite, despite that recent column disparaging the custom in the New York Times, sharing of any and all courses is encouraged. And you rarely end up with just one large entree, unable to sample other menu items. Numerous dishes are offered in three sizes: tapa, 1/2 racion and racion. Unlike at home, there is no waitstaff glaring at me for ordering only from the appetizer section. Enjoying an all-tapa meal is totally acceptable.

Casa Antonio “Los Caracoles” qualifies as a sexagenarian. The inside fills up with locals of about the same vintage who crave homestyle food the way it was served when they were young. The recipes are classic; the dishes good and fresh.

The chickpea stew here was made with cod, which was a bit of relief. The Mister is a bean stew fan, but the traditional fabadas, callos and pucheros served in Adalusiacan sometimes prove challenging with their hodgepodge of meats all thrown into the pot together – chicken, chorizo, blood sausage, scraps of jamon, stew meat, panceta and even tripas. But wowsers, the resulting thick broth always is flavorful.

Our first taste of tortillitas de camaron, crispy shrimp fritters, was at Los Caracoles. I assumed they might be a limited-edition Lenten special on menus, but they survived Easter throughout the region. And padron chiles. So simple and often the only non-battered vegetable (the battered one being eggplant sticks drizzled with cane “honey”) at pescaitos specializing in grilled and fried seafood.

And the spot to find the freshest seafood? The markets. While often getting jostled by people trying to get close enough to a counter to order, there is a civilized air to eating in markets in Spain. No paper plates and flimsy plastic forks, but actual pottery plates, metal utensils and glassware for beer and wine.

At the always bustling Bar La Cantina in Mercado de la Feria, keeping track of orders has been modernized from the chalk-on-the-bar system used at El Rinconcillo. A dry-erase board is employed. We feasted on fried boquerones, stuffed mussels and octopus, and then, for dessert, grilled sardines and cuttlefish.

While Mercado de la Feria remains a traditional food market, most cities in Spain now have mercados that function only as prepared food halls. Mercado Lonja del Barranco is found in a handsome, soaring-roofed riverside pavilion. While the look is clean and contemporary and the traditional foods abundant, one misses the authenticity provided by neighboring stalls offering produce, meats, cheeses and seafood. And locals. The crowd is almost all-tourist.

Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: A piece of a saint to answer almost any prayer

Above is simply the underside of one low altar found along a wall of San Luis de los Franceses. The photo probably is not clear enough for you to really get the picture, but the entire length of it is a repository for bones. Sacred bones. Remnants of saints. And they are found everywhere in this former church. Some shards are almost microscopic and certainly appear so in our photos.

But most people probably visit San Luis for its unusual architectural bones.

By way of introduction, the building is dedicated to Saint Louis of France, King Louis IX (1214-1270). San Luis was the favorite saint of the woman who originally donated the land to the Society of Jesus if they agreed to honor him.

The titular honor also represented a politically correct move for the always-in-trouble Jesuits as a respectful tribute to the Bourbon monarchs ruling over Spain at the time. Appropriately, a majestically crowned portrait of San Luis by the prominent artist Francisco de Zurburan (1578-1664) dominates the main altar.

The Baroque structure was designed by architect Leonardo de Figueroa (1650-1730) on the plan of a Greek cross. The cross is crowned by an ornate cupola and features major gilded altars at the end of each of its four arms. Figueroa also incorporated a heavy dose of my favorite columns – helical or Solomonic twists.

Distinctive octagonal towers top the sculptural façade, a façade difficult to appreciate on such a narrow street. The four evangelists, the three archangels – they were all meant to address a major plaza below. The plaza envisioned did not materialize. Despite their tribute, the Jesuits ran into problems with the powers that were.

With the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain in 1835, their properties came under the control of the crown. It is hard to imagine how much it pained the Jesuits to abandon the hundreds of precious relics of saints stored and displayed in every nook and cranny in this former church.

Repurposing of San Luis never resulted in irrevocable alterations affecting its original architectural integrity. The Provincial Council of Seville refurbished San Luis and reopened it to the public only two years ago.

While the former church is not consecrated, the bones still attract the faithful. Many of these probably received Vatican authentication for veneration centuries ago.

Think there is a portion of a patron saint housed within San Luis to meet almost any need for prayers that could arise.

Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Contemporary art invigorates former Carthusian monastery

The giant “Alice” by Cristina Lucas is indeed stuck in a curiously odd place on the Isla de la Cartuja. Sevilla is bustling on one side of the Guadalquivir, but crossing the river on foot to this part of the island at first appears to be heading into somewhat of a remote no-man’s land.

For centuries, much of the clay for the city’s azulejos came from the island. In 1400, Archbishop Gonzalo de Mena chose the location for a Carthusian monastery. The founding of Monasterio de la Cartuja was in the nick of time to provide a suitable permanent home for the archbishop to rest, as he died in 1401. Christopher Columbus’ body was placed in the Capilla de Santa Ana from 1509 to 1536, but the archbishop’s tomb in the Capilla de la Magdalena Chapel is not the only one remaining within the ancient walls of the monastery.

Patrons of the monastic order, members of the Ribera family reside in sculpturally rich tombs dating from the 16th century and dominating the Sala Capitular. The 15th-century chapel with its colorful tiles serves a prime example of Mudejar architecture. Some of the bizarre images incorporated in the ornate motifs surrounding the tombs appear as though they emerged from the mind of someone who swilled some Wonderland “drink me” potion.

Government seizure of ecclesiastical property in 1836 left the monastery available. Englishman Charles Pickman rented and soon purchased the property to manufacture La Cartuja de Sevilla Pottery. Enormous brick chimneys erected there demonstrate both the size and modernity of the production facilities. In addition to tiles reflecting the city’s heritage, the facility produced mass-market earthenware dish patterns. A wall of rows of tiles serves as an outdoor “showroom” of sorts of the patterns available from La Cartuja.

The pottery factory still is in operation elsewhere in Seville, while the monastery and its grounds were refurbished when the city hosted the Universal Exhibition of 1992. Today the monastery is home to Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo.

Instead of turning left into “Argadedinam” or “Ebajodelaban” to explore the contemporary cultural center, it is wise to follow the right arrow on the whimsical directional sign. In addition to visual art, the café on the grounds is often a site for weekend jazz concerts.