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 Madrid, Spain: Flavorful food memories

Yearning for a great arroz dish, after much reading, we settled on a Madrid classic – El Caldero. The paella pan of beautiful looking rice arrives tableside, and, with much formality, the waiter divides it up and then tops it with the seafood in a dark, rich broth. As we looked at it, we were happy he divided it fairly because there really was not much there, considering the price, once you removed the shells – a small piece of bonito each, one or two shrimp, maybe two pieces of squid. The rice was good, but did not bowl us over. The fried eggplant appetizer, however, was heavenly. Most of the people in the restaurant were suits conducting serious international business of some kind or another. In other words, El Caldero was a bit stuffy for this pair of travelers.

The place we preferred down the street a few blocks definitely was more casual. In fact, it was chaotically crowded, with walls covered with funky collections of random things. The place was inexpensive. Dishes arrived in no particular or predictable order. The seating was upon uncomfortable wooden stools at wooden tables too small to accommodate all the pots of food presented. But we really liked this place, Taberna Maceiras, enough so that we ate there at least three times. A skillet of sizzling padron chiles made for a great starter. We enjoyed Galician style octopus rice, fried calamari, traditional bean stews, meat stews and perfectly prepared mussels in this polar opposite of El Caldero.

Another wonderful rut we slipped into was Gastromaquia Chueca. Maybe it was the grilled goat cheese caramelized with honey and topped with a glistening pesto. Or the scoops of lemon basil sorbet with rum poured over them tableside for a refreshing mojito-style desert. Guacamole was served with ultra-thin plantain chips; seafood arroz topped El Caldero; and richly curried mussels were moist and plump. And, as we were regulars, we enjoyed sipping Spanish liqueurs offered us at the end of our meals. Please, fly me back there today.

Croquettes can be found everywhere, but many of them are not worth the calories. We opted to go to the specialists, La Croquetta. Squash and eggplant croquettes arrived with a refreshing sauce of yogurt and mint, and the jamon Iberico ones were perfect. Melting goat cheese in one was studded with nuts and raisins, and fried eggplant was drizzled with honey.

Salmorejo is a seasonal favorite in Madrid. The creamy rich cousin of gazpacho traditionally arrives with bits of chopped egg and thinly shaved jamon Iberico in the middle. One of the places we spooned into this was a.n.e.l., a popular neighborhood tapas spot a block from our apartment. This was a nice stop for lightly battered vegetable tempura, fried calamari or sliders; although I never understood its name.

Directly across the street from our apartment in the Casa de America cultural center was Le Cabrera. The comfortable patio offered bargain lunch specials, many of which emerged from the kitchen of the extremely tony restaurant next door, Cien Llaves. Grilled asparagus topped with thin slices of parmigiano reggiano and grilled trout were among the dishes we tried. We probably would have eaten there again, but, by lunch time, we generally had wandered far from home.

Also close to home was La Vaca y la Huerta, a place that fills up completely at prime times. Here the Mister could find beef entrecote served as rare as he wanted, while I could get a beautiful plate of grilled vegetables or salmon.

We enjoyed the comfortable atmosphere of Saporem during two of our lunches. While the bowl full of vegetables looks bland, they were wonderfully prepared. Shrimp tempura atop rice was nicely presented with a spicy sauce.

In a capital city, one needs to experience some of the cuisines imported from abroad. We loved both the look and food of Arabia, but photos turned out too poorly to share. Falafel and grilled eggplant topped with fresh chopped tomatoes were artfully presented, and the lamb couscous was tender.

Then we decided to dip into Sub-Sahara African food at Kim Bu Mbu, easier to type than say. The small intimate restaurant is nothing short of handsome inside. Among the specialties were fish croquettes with eggplant sauce and fish steamed in a banana leaf.

Now, I’m stopping because I have made myself starving.

If you know us at all, you are probably wondering where are all the photos from Italian restaurants. Believe it or not, we didn’t find an Italian restaurant in Madrid we liked enough to include.

If you are staying in Madrid for any length of time and read Spanish, revolt against TripAdvisor. Guia Metropoli Comer y Beber en Madrid is written by locals for locals and is updated radically on an annual basis. The paperback doesn’t have quite enough information to replace internet research, but it doesn’t just rattle off the tired top 10 tourist favorites.