A century of tradition: Seville’s olive oil biscuits go global

Ines Rosales, tortas de aceite

Sweet and savoury: from top left, cinnamon, almond (the latest), orange, and rosemary and thyme hand-made tortas de aceite (olive oil biscuits), individually wrapped in greaseproof paper with original design from the early 20th century.

The new foil packaging, used for the new flavours which are exported abroad, gives the tortas a longer shelf life, protecting them from damaging bright light.

The new foil packaging, used for the flavours which are exported abroad, such as Seville orange, gives the tortas a longer shelf life, protecting them from damaging bright light. It also features a full visual run-down of exactly what goes into your torta: olive oil, orange, sesame seed, aniseed, and wheat flour. That is all (except the sugar – oops).

Ines Rosales (far left) founded the company in 1910 in a town near Seville.

Ines Rosales (far left) sells her wares – the writing behind her reads “OTRA MARAVILLA DE SEVILLA” (another marvel from Seville). Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

Over 100 years ago, a young woman in a town near Seville started making and selling snacks called tortas de aceite, using an old family recipe. Made from nothing more than flour, water, sugar and olive oil, with a little aniseed and sesame for flavouring, these thin, round biscuits were individually wrapped in greaseproof paper, printed with their inventor’s distinctive logo, to protect them.

The tortas soon became popular and gained fame beyond Seville to the rest of Spain. Over a century later, the olive oil biscuits are still produced nearby under the founder’s name: Ines Rosales. These days the company sells 12 million packets a year all around the world.

Delivery Ines Rosales tortas in the the early days. The transport has changed, but the recipe's still the same.

Delivering Ines Rosales tortas in the the early days. The transport may have changed, but the recipe’s still the same. Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

The fact that a woman managed to start a business in 1910 is cause for astonishment, and celebration, in itself. Sadly, Ines Rosales died too soon, aged just 42. The business stayed in the family until her son sold up in 1982.

The tortas de aceite from Castilleja de la Cuesta have become a global success story. Adapting to more modern, international tastes, in 2009 flavoured versions were introduced, in both sweet (orange is my favourite) and savoury (rosemary and thyme). The “sweet olive oil tortas”, as they’re known in English, are a hit from Japan to the US, the biggest export market, where they’ve been sold since 1999; cinnamon flavour is the top seller (you can buy them at Whole Foods Market). China offers a set of up-and-coming new customers eager to sample these unusual snacks.

Working the super-glam factory visit look.

Working the super-glam factory visit look – no photos allowed inside, so this is the closest my camera got.

I was curious to see how they’re made, and since the Ines Rosales factory is very near my home, last summer I went to visit. The factory outgrew its high street location nearly two decades ago, and is now located in a town about 20km west of Castilleja, though the company’s official headquarters is still in the town. (Interesting facts about Castilleja de la Cuesta, which is in the Aljarafe region to the west of Seville: it was the home town of Rita Hayworth’s father; and conquistador Hernan Cortes, who conquered Mexico, died here.)

It is always intriguing to learn about a company which is expanding, despite the crippling economic crisis which has been affecting Spain for nearly five years. Each day 350,000 tortas are made by the nimble hands of local women, working on a production line behind a window. Men don’t make the grade for manual dexterity, when it comes to flattening the tortas, as with Carmen’s 18th-century cigarette factory in Seville.

torta de aceite, Ines Rosales

These women each make more than 20 tortas per minute. Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

These Sevillanas deftly transform the little balls of dough into flat pancake-type rounds so fast you can barely see them doing it. You have to watch very carefully – blink and you’ll miss it.

Fresh out of the oven.

Tortas fresh out of the oven. Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

Then they sprinkle sugar on and the tortas are baked, so the sugar melts and goes crispy. Oh yes. And since each torta is hand-made, they all look different. This is one of the main selling points of these traditional snacks – they’re not made in a mould – a cookie-cutter, literally. They’re shaped by human hands into individual biscuits.

Original ads decorate the walls at Ines Rosales.

Original ads decorate the walls at Ines Rosales -  see how little the packaging has changed?

I had a go at making tortas de aceite in a cooking class last year. Mine were passable, but I only made about 20, and had plenty of time to make a hash of it. These ladies are on a production line and make 21 tortas per minute each. Quality control is strict, with photos being taken of the tortas to ensure they meet exacting standards of size and shape. Those which don’t make the grade – purely for aesthetic reasons – are donated to an NGO to distribute, while 100kg a week are given away to the most in-need families.

Enjoying a torta in the Ines Rosales canteen, after my factory visit. Well, it would be rude no to.

Enjoying a torta in the Ines Rosales canteen, after my factory visit. Well, it would be rude not to.

The company is unusually forward-thinking for Spain, in that some years ago they introduced a sugar-free torta, while other traditional biscuits, normally laden with manteca (lard), come in non-animal product varieties.

The mark of a traditional product.

The mark of a traditional product.

Last year the tortas de aceite of Seville province were officially registered by the European Union as an Especialidad Tradicional Guarantizada - which translates as Traditional Speciality Guaranteed. This tells consumers that it’s a product made from traditional raw materials, produced using a traditional method. Basically, the tortas  have been made the same way for a very long time – on a larger scale now, but using the same ingredients and hand-made process.

The orange tortas are one of my family’s top merienda (tea) choices, while the rosemary and thyme ones are a fab accompaniment to that well-earned Friday evening glass of wine. Or put some grated cheese on top and grill gently for an instant, super-tasty pizza. Ines Rosales have loads of recipe suggestions on their website, suggesting the savoury ones (sesame and sea salt is the other non-sweet variety) as ideal summer-time outdoor nibbles. A little piece of Andalucia to impress your guests.

While the classic tortas are widely available, as Spanish like them with their coffee (I don’t like aniseed, which is why the new flavours are more to my taste), not all the other varieties are easy to find, even a few km from their home-base where I live. For this reason I was very excited to hear that the first-ever Ines Rosales shop is opening soon in the centre of Seville – in Calle Hernando Colon, near Plaza San Francisco to be exact. Be sure to visit when you’re here.

My most popular posts of 2013, plus a mini-review

Colourful Spanish wear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

Spanish swear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

You lot seem to think I’m quite amusing. What am I, funny like a clown?

En serio – my most popular new posts, published last year, are mostly silly ones. Well, not silly – highly intelligent, witty and astute, of course.

Plus a bit of culture – phew! I wouldn’t like to think you come to my refined blog just for some light entertainment. Por favor!

So what can’t you get enough of? Let’s find out.

The top five most-viewed Scribbler in Seville blog posts of 2013 are (drum roll):

1) Five Things Spanish People Say (And What they Really Mean) 

This is also my all-time most popular post. A controversial look (see comments) at how to know when someone means something totally different from what you think they’re saying. OK, so it’s actually about swearing, exaggeration/fibbing – and jamón. The stuff of real-conversations life here in Spain.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers' interpretations of Zurbaran's saints.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers do Zurbaran’s saints.

2) Art+fashion+religion=a richly-textured show in Seville

Frocks by contemporary designers reinterpreting famous paintings of saints by 17th-century Sevillano artist Zurbaran. Dead clever. This one was “Freshly Pressed” (as in the badge, top right), which means it’s one of only eight posts chosen by the kind folks at WordPress to feature each day from the tens of thousands posted daily. Which was nice. So if you found my blog through Freshly Pressed, a special hello – it’s good to have you.

3) False Friends and other Fine Messes

We’ve all made an arse of ourselves by mixing up two similar-sounding words in a foriegn language – one innocuous, the other devastatingly embarrassing or offensive. If you haven’t let us in on your experience yet (the comments are much more entertaining than the post, believe me; careful you don’t spill your tea on your PC or tablet as you chortle), then come on over and join the group therapy session – it’s time to spill.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

4) Celebrating Seville’s azulejo heritage: a sneak preview of Centro Ceramica Triana

Ah, some more history and culture *breathes a sigh of relief*. This museum of tiles, with a winning mix of groovy contemporary architecture, original Moorish brick kilns and some exquisite antique azulejos, was scheduled to open in September 2013, then October, then November, then December, and it’s still not open in January 2014… you get the picture. Well, what do you expect? We’re in Spain, people! Which makes this post even more valuable, as it’s all you can see of it for now.

cadiz, carnaval

The Queen with her Beefeaters. Sort of.

5) Carnaval de Cadiz, family style

Where can you find sea urchins, sand architecture, man-sized bumble bees, and the Queen in drag? At Spain’s craziest carnival, of course. Probably our best daytrip of the year, out of many. And we even dressed up, sort of.

I know I’m also supposed to say Where I Went and What I Did last year in the round-up, so here goes with my new discoveries: Doñana National Park; Ubeda, Baeza, and picual olive oil; Paul Read; Latin-American belenes; the Feria de Jerez; Mr Henderson’s Railway; Costa Ballena, and a cooking class. As you can see, an international jetsetter I am not (used to be, many years ago). National neither; daytrips in Andalucia, often with the family, is more my thing.

I hope you enjoy reading these posts. As long as at least one of them raises a smile, I’m doing my job.

Interview with Paul Read, the Gazpachomonk. #WABAS12

Paul Read - writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

Paul Read – writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

As a blogger and tweeter, I follow and read many other expats here in Spain. One who has intrigued me for some time is the Gazpachomonk. Apart from the obvious appeal of the name, I was delighted on meeting Paul at the recent WABAS weekend in Malaga recently to find that he is different from other expats – he has fresh and fascinating views on living here in Spain, coloured by his experience of Tai Chi, his love of history, and his wonderfully dry humour. I enjoyed Paul’s book, Inside the Tortilla: A Journey In Search of Authenticity, and am avidly watching his series of videos on Spain in the WABAS12 series (12 bloggers-on-Spain each posting a video every day for 12 consecutive days), so I decided to ask him some probing questions about authenticity, gastronomy, and eyewear.

Why are you called the Gazpachomonk?

In a parallel universe I am known as the “teapotmonk” (where I write about Eastern philosophy, teach Tai Chi and spout Taoist nonsense). When I moved to Spain, I wanted to keep something of this identity, but as I was now working in an Iberian context, I exchanged the tea for gazpacho. Critics argue that I still spout the same nonsense, it just has more of a garlic flavour these days.

How long have you lived here in Spain?

In 1994 I spent a year in Seville as part of a degree course I was taking. I returned to Spain in 1996 with my partner, Cherry, and we have been living here since then.

the town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

The town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

A previous chapter in Paul's life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

A previous chapter in Paul’s life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

Where have you lived, and which place(s) have you liked most, and why?

Ohhh, big question. The year in Seville was exciting and it still remains one of my favourite cities in the world. In 1996 we moved to Tarragona, but just for four months. Loved the place and the people, but couldn’t get work, so shifted to Madrid. However, found that too hectic, noisy, expensive and it reminded us too much of London. So we moved to Toledo – atmospheric and medieval and a really convenient place to buy a suit of armour and marzipan. However, it wasn’t too long before we realised it wasn’t so good for getting a pint of milk or a loaf of bread.

After two years without bread and many adventures later, we fled to Castille and Leon. But it was too quiet and too cold, so we headed south and in 1998 found ourselves in the coastal resort of Almuñecar in Granada. We stayed there working the markets for seven years until we couldn’t stand the ebb and flow of so many people – it was a bit like living in a big bus station, just more watery, and so we fled the coast and found ourselves here in Loja, where we’ve been since 2006.

What still frustrates you most about living in Spain?

When I hear people complain about either Spanish bureaucracy, corruption or oily tapas, I tend to want to poke them in the kidneys – not because of what they are saying, but because I find such posturing ultimately disempowering.

If frustrating things happen – and obviously they do to everyone – I’m convinced it’s as much to do with ourselves as our chosen country. Clashes of culture, language, social differences will inevitably lead to misunderstandings. How we respond is the only tool we have – and it comes down to this: how do we wish to play out our life here? Is it going to be an obstacle forever, or will it be a challenge?

What do you think of the expat scene?

Let’s be honest, we are all expats, and we all operate in some circle or another. Some do so on the coast, others in the campo or inland. Some are bound together by their inability to speak or contextualise the affairs of the country, others by their – often misguided – belief that they can actually do so.

Yet we all need to touch base now and then with our past, with people who share our history, our cultural or social reference points, wherever we find ourselves. In a way, I can understand the expat communities of the coastal strip who honestly make no claim about learning the language or integrating into another lifestyle. I may not be in agreement with their aims, but I respect their honesty. On the other hand, a lot of other expats – particularly those who boast of their ability to conjugate an irregular verb or publicly rejoice in shunning the rest of the foreigners in town – are simply hypocritical. It’s pure class politics raising its ugly head once more.

Paul's book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from flamenco to

Paul’s book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from siestas to Semana Santa.

Which Spanish dish do you make best? (apart from gazpacho!)

“Sopa de ajo” is my winter favourite right now. Whatever is in season is the base of all my favourite recipes – and of course that changes with the time of year – Ive a section on my website with all my best recipes – if you want to check that out.

Where did you get idea for your series of #WABAS12 videos?

I’d been doing podcasts for the last couple of years and had based them on the concept of trying to understand the foolishness of our present lifestyle choices by looking for explanations in the past. History is not about answering the questions of when or where, but rather why and how? These questions bring history alive, particularly when you can relate universal themes to somewhere as specific as the town you live in. So when the WABAS12 project was born, I decided to try and apply these ideas to the medium of video, and try my best to portray one small town in the most universal of ways. I wanted to show that you don’t need to be living in a major city to see the history of the world in front of your eyes.

Why do you always wear shades in your videos?

There are two possible answers:

1) Robin, Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man – they all hide behind something when publicly fighting injustice, right? Well the Gazpachomonk wears shades.

2) “Uveitis Anterior” is an eye condition that dilates the pupils of the sufferer and makes sunlight almost unbearable.

Why don’t you mention your partner in your book, Inside the Tortilla?

It’s true that my partner, Cherry, was by my side during many of the episodes in the book, and her presence is there if you look for it. But I chose not to include her directly because the emphasis of the book is themes and not characters – hence we never get to know a lot about the narrator, and the Hound has no name. Even the identity of the town is never mentioned, other than by its fictional name of “La Llave.” In this way I hoped the book would not fall into the pit of two bumbling expats “Year in Andalusia, Driving over Figs” home-improvement yarn so prevalent since the last wave of North European immigrants discovered blogging.

Do you have any future book or video ideas/plans? You mention a sequel at the end of Inside the Tortilla: The Labyrinth Years.

The Labyrinth book was co-written by Cherry and I during our Toledo years and sits as an unfinished manuscript at home. Whilst we ponder over its future I’m working on a new book for 2014 called Voices, in which a series of historical characters describe what keeps them sane in an insane world: themes of love, passion, migration, gazpacho, corruption, churros. Meanwhile, I’m still working on my Tai Chi series of books with the teapotmonk – and a selection of videos and podcasts that accompany them (http://teapotmonk.com/).

How and where do you find authenticity?

Authenticity is an endangered species these days. Like people, towns have their authentic voices – at times loud and clear, other times silenced in the rush to embrace the latest expression of modernity ( eco-tourism and Facebook pages come to mind). My search for authenticity arose because I felt myself drowning in this sea of nonsense.

When any place or person engages in the exploitation of people or the land, and tags it as something new and trendy, they suppress its unique voice, its character, and we all lose out. I hope the greed we have seen exposed politically these last few years encourages us to look once more at the uniqueness of where we live and who we are, and not to fall back on the old cycle of unfettered growth in a world with finite means. Have I personally found it? Let’s just say it’s an ongoing project.

What advice would you offer for those thinking of moving to Spain?

If I had to give two piece of advice I’d say…

1. I know this is difficult, but try not to move to Spain without renting for a full year first. Yes, it means paying out cash, but it will give you so many advantages over buying. You can move around and check out the area, the town, the people, the dialect, the weather, the noise, the heat, the health services, the working possibilities etc without committing yourself to a huge investment that would be difficult to change later on.

2. Language – forget the imperfect subjunctive, just get familiar with the basics and let your new world teach you the rest. This of course means that if your new world is composed of satellite TV, internet news and watching rugby in the local Sports Bar, then you may have to make a bit more effort. Think of language as a useful app on your smart phone. It’s a tool that’ll help to contextualise this strange new world, explain it to you and help you explain yourself to others. Moving to Spain without the language is, as I’m often prone to say, akin to taking up golf and then pulling your arms of their sockets just before your first round.

You can find out more about Paul’s Spain-related books, ebooks, podcasts and videos at his website, Speaking of Spain: Resources on Living, Working and Sweating in Spain. (Paul has a great line in subtitles, as you can see.)
Watch his WABAS12 videos on his YouTube channel.
Other links: Paul’s books and his blog about Tai Chi.

What to do in Seville during the December Puente – and over Christmas

navidad, navidades, Christmas, Christmas lights

Typically understated lights on Avenida de la Constitucion.

Christmas, Navidad

One of the fabulous bell-stars (not to be confused with the 1980s all-girl pop group) on Calle Sierpes.

This weekend is a bank holiday in Spain – a double one, with two (legitimate) days off – today, Friday, and Monday. First, Dia de la Constitucion (6 December), celebrating Spain’s Constitution; then Dia la Concepcion Inmaculada (8 December) – a Sunday, which is carried over to Monday 9 December.

Traditionally, the Christmas buzz gets going after this puente, but in Seville it’s already happening now thanks to a broad range of events - some regular annual ones, and some new. In any case, the Christmas lights are already up, so make sure you make at least one visit in the evening to get the full festive effect.

Here I will list my pick of the markets and other attractions this puente, and in most cases, throughout the Christmas season until Reyes – 5 January.

MARKETS AND FAIRS

I love a good browse – especially when there’s so much variety on offer. You can get all your Christmas presents here – books, handicrafts, food, wine. Chatting to the owner/designer/maker of a piece is all part of the experience.

dulces, claustros, dulce, navidad

Convent pastries, made by nuns in Seville province.

Convent pastries market in the Alcazar – 6 – 8 December.
Get your Christmas yemas and lardy goodies - mantecados and polvorones – made by nuns from nearby convents. Some are available in vegetarian versions too. An essential part of the seasonal diet for many Spanish.

Antique book market – Plaza Nueva – until 9 December
Great for quirky presents for hispanophiles; as well as books, you can find postcards, prints, maps, posters and comics.

belen, belens, nativity scenes, nativity figures, nativity, feria del belen

Fish stall at the Feria del Belen (nativity scene fair). They’re half the size of your finger.

belen, belenes, nativity scenes

Colourful Mexican belen. Stand 14, Oscar Lazarte. He also has some wonderful Cuban and Peruvian figures, including Noah’s Ark.

belen, belenes, nativity

Houses for your nativity scene.

Feria del Belen – Nativity scene market – Avenida de la Constitucion – until 23 December
Come here for figures for your belen (nativity scene) – most homes, offices and shops have their own. Rivers with flowing water, all the complementary figures including the cagon (pooing man), and foodstuffs – mini-fish and legs of jamon (widely available in Jewish Bethlehem in 0AD), to complement Jesus, Mary and Joseph with the animals, shepherds, and three kings.

Christmas market – the Alameda – until 5 January
This market features children’s attractions, ponies, dromedaries, and a Grand Flea Circus. Slightly apprehensive about the animals’ treatment; have yet to see.

NAvidad, Christmas

The super-sparkly Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) in Plaza Nueva, where the book and handicrafts markets are held.

Handicrafts market – Plaza Nueva – 13 December – 5 January
Great for unusual Christmas and Reyes presents – stalls mostly belong to designer-makers. Good buys (though less portable) include handmade ceramics and wooden toys.

Gastronomy and Handicrafts of Seville Province Fair – Diputacion de Sevilla – 12- 15, 19-22 December
Find gifts here for foodie friends and family – look out for Ines Rosales tortas de aceite, Colonias de Galeon organic wines from the Sierra Norte, and extra virgin olive oil from Estepa (Oleoestepa) and Carmona (Basilippo).

Independent designers market – Muchomaskemarket – El Arenal – 14-15 December
This two-day event takes place at a co-working space in Cuesta del Rosario 8 (4o) and features 29 stands of fashion, gastronomy and interiors, including recycled materials and cakes. Also workshops – learn how to make baby shoes out of felt, and how to print textiles.

Christmas market with live Nativity Scene – Plaza Encarnacion – until 6 January
Go skating, buy some presents, visit the animals at the Belen Viviente.

SPORT

Whether you’re a wobbler like me, or an elegant glider, skating is fun. And when it’s in such beautiful surroundings as these, even more so. And when it’s followed by a well-earned copita or three with friends – well, that’s a top evening in my book.

Ice rinks – until 6 January
In the Prado de San Sebastian and Plaza Encarnacion. For opening times, see here. The one under the Setas is interesting because it’s ecological synthetic ice, made by local Sevillano company Xtraice.

CULTURE

The programme is less varied at this time of year, as the spotlight falls on seasonal concerts, but there are some star events.

Sara Baras in her flamenco show La Pepa - one of the many highlights in Seville this Christmas.

Sara Baras in her flamenco show La Pepa – one of the many events in Seville this Christmas.

Flamenco – Sara Baras – Fibes – 13 December
The innovative dancer brings her new show, La Pepa, to the Seville Conference Centre. Set in Cadiz city in 1810-1812 – the time of the historic First Constitution and War of Independence against France – it also stars bailaor Jose Serrano. More information: Fibes.

Handel’s Messiah – Maestranza Theatre - 19 and 20 December
The great choral work performed by local amateur choral associations – a “from scratch”. Humming along is positively encouraged. More information: Teatro Maestranza.

Quidam – Cirque du Soleil – Palacio de Deportes San Pablo - 18-22 December
If you’ve never experienced a Cirque du Soleil show, I’d highly recommend this – a unique combination of music, dance, theatre and circus acrobatics. Thrilling and great fun, and worth the hike to San Pablo. More information: Cirque du Soleil.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7uc9lUuJQpE&w=560&h=315]

OTHER EVENTS
Finally, two free events/experiences to round off your Christmas visit to Seville, whether it’s a quick visit of a few hours, a weekend break, or you live here and want to try out everything that’s on offer. 

EVOO, AOVE, olive oil, extra virgin oilve oil

The four types of olive oil on offer, from smooth arbequina to strong picual.

Tasting the olive oil, at the mobile catas around the city this and next weekend.

Tasting the olive oil, at the mobile catas around the city this and next weekend.

Olive Oil Tasting Carts – all over the centre – 5-7, 12-14 December
Nothing to do with Christmas, but a great initiative worth mentioning. All around the centre, from Plaza Encarnacion down to Plaza Juan de Austria, you can find 50 carts each offering four types of EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) to taste; the idea is to introduce people to the delights of distinct varieties. They’re in place from 10.30am to 2.30pm and you can see a list of all the carts’ locations here. I’m a big fan of picual, having seen it being made on a farm in Jaen where I stayed recently; you can also taste smooth arbequina, peppery cornicabra, and fruity hojiblanca. I love this mobile cata idea; you are also given a brochure containing recipes using each type of oil to try at home. I’m tempted by the buñuelos de bacalo.

Mapping – Plaza San Francisco – until 5 December
This fabulous laser show is projected onto the back of the Ayuntamiento building. Dates aren’t 100% confirmed yet, but this year’s show, “El Espiritu de Navidad” (The Spirit of Christmas), will probably kick off on Tuesday 10 December, until Reyes (5 January); last year they were every hour from 6pm to 11 or 12pm. One of the Christmas season’s most popular events, with 700,000 watching the show last year, which won a European Best Event Award. (No, I’ve never heard of them either – no matter. Awards are a Good Thing.) Here’s a taster from last year.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrHuF0Lyheg&w=420&h=315]

What do they do in your town or village at Christmas? Here’s a listing for Granada by Molly.

The underside of Seville: City of Sorrows, inside the gypsies’ world

The daughter and granddaughter of Maria, the 116-year-old gitana woman I met in El Vacie.

The daughter and granddaughter of Maria, the 116-year-old gitana woman I met in El Vacie. Gypsies suffer extreme social and economic exclusion in Spain.

The popular image of Seville, the one tourists see, and which appears on blogs like this, in guidebooks and apps, in newspaper and magazine articles, is of lively fiestas, fragrant orange blossom, windy cobbled streets, beautiful patios, tapas, and bullfighting (yeuch).

Most visitors to the city are unaware of its less picturesque underside. Some years ago, pre-blogging, I visited El Vacie, a shanty town in northern Seville where gypsies live, to meet a very elderly gitana woman, Maria.

A street in El Vacie, an area of Seville home to around 1000 Spanish and Portuguese gitanos.

A street in El Vacie, a shanty town in Seville where around 1500 gitanos live. It has been there for over 80 years.

The reason for my visit was to write a news story for an English-language newspaper. Maria was allegedly the oldest woman in Spain, at 116 years old, and her family was lobbying the ayuntamiento to give her a vivienda digna to live out her days in comfort  (sadly Maria died, still in El Vacie, a year later). My friends and boyfriend (now husband) were horrified, warning me that it was an extremely dangerous place, and insisting that under no circumstances should I go there. In the event, I did, together with another journalist and a woman from an NGO who works here. Maria lived with her daughter, granddaughter and great-grandson in a small, spotlessly-clean prefab, with (cold) water but no loo, and intermittent electricity. The sitting room, where we sat, was bright and homely, with a large TV, pictures of the Virgin, and children’s toys. A typical Spanish salon.

The gitanas were polite but guarded, understandably suspicious of payas (non-gypsies), and even more so of foreigners; they were more willing to talk to the Spanish reporter from El Pais who was also there. Although I never felt frightened, I was aware that my safety depended on staying with my companions (the other journalist and the NGO worker), and not being overly inquisitive or taking too many photos. The news story was duly published (the print version was much fuller), but with a rather different angle about where Maria wanted to live; the paper obviously had its own agenda.

A few years later, I went to see a production of Lorca’s The House of Bernardo Alba performed by illiterate women from El Vacie, a stone’s throw from the theatre. It was a startling experience, watching these barefoot, strong-voiced gitanas acting out the words of this much-loved Granadan writer, who advocated the rights of gypsies. Then earlier this year, someone left a comment on the blog post I wrote about the play, saying that she had worked and lived with gitanos in Las Tres Mil Viviendas (three thousand homes) to the south-east of the Seville. Tres Mil, as it is known locally, is huge housing project notorious for its violence and drug-dealing. She was clearly an unusual person.

That person was Susan Nadathur, an American author who has now written a novel using her experiences of living with, and learning to understand, the inhabitants of Tres Mil; very few people (still fewer non-Spaniards) have had lived with gitanos, and been so accepted by them. Her novel, City of Sorrows, follows the lives of three men in Seville: two Spanish, from different ends of the social spectrum - a pijo (posh boy), and a gitano from, you’ve guessed it, Tres Mil. The other man is Indian – no coincidence, as this is where gitanos originally came from, 1000 years ago; and Nadathur’s own husband is Indian.

Each man in the book is an outsider in his own way. The Indian is an outsider in a strange country, and speaks no Spanish; the pijo is an outsider in his own home, since his mother is dead and he detests his father, whose mistress is a gitana; and the gitano is an outsider simply for his race.

City-of-Sorrows-by-Susan-Nandathur

The story starts with a terrible tragedy, which colours the lives of two of its protagonists; while the third main character eventually brings them together, to resolve their conflict provoked by a moment of thoughtless cruelty, and find some peace. Each character is struggling to survive without people close to them, from whom they’ve been parted, whether violently or otherwise. Each has their own way of dealing with their loss, whether turning to crime, drugs, alcohol… or unexpected but welcome friendship.

I found City of Sorrows a gripping read, a real page-turner; I wanted to know what happened, how these complex problems would resolve themselves. The ending managed to provide an unexpected twist, with the wronged man offering his tormentor a redemption I didn’t feel the other character deserved. Clearly I’m more hard-hearted and vindictive than Susan.

The book offers a valuable insight into the closed, secretive world of the gitano. Leaving aside the classic cliches of gold medallions, drug-dealing and flamenco, she gives them everyday, human identities – rounded personalities, in strong family units, ruled over by the intriguing, all-powerful patriarch, whose word is law – unquestioned. His sound, common-sense and empathetic judgement saves the protagonist from a dark future, as he spirals downwards, unable to cope with his terrible loss; given a second chance, he is ready to start again.

There are some memorable scenes which show up the prejudices of Spaniards/Sevillanos: the stubborn, determined gitano who refuses to be ignored by the waiter in a bar, sitting out his protest until he is finally served, kind of; the drunken, self-destructive pijo making an idiot of himself while trying to seduce a young American girl; the young Indian student sacrificing his religious beliefs to fit in with his new Spanish friends.

Soon after I finished reading this book (in a few days – it was a real page-turner) last summer, its events were reflected in real-life news reports from Seville about disturbances in the Tres Mil caused by a firearms incident, in which a child was killed. This novel is a fictional story, but it could so easily happen in real life. That’s why it’s such a good read – you believe the characters and their motivation; they are flawed and imperfect. Real people. Gypsies shown not as a two-dimensional, meaningless cliches, but as fully-fledged characters from loving families with strong morals: “We gypsies are many things. Stubborn. Proud, Vengeful. But we respect our elders and our laws.”

You can read more about Susan’s experience of living with gypsies in Seville here.

On October 30, 1996, the Andalusian Parlament declared that November 22 should be celebrated as “El Día de los Gitanos Andaluces”. This day celebrates the arrival of the first group of Gypsies to Andalucia, and their friendly reception by Don Miguel Lucas de Iranzo, governor of Jaén, in 1462. Today there are around 350,000 gitanos in Andalucia, about half of Spain’s gypsy population.

To celebrate Dia de los Gitanos Andaluces, City of Sorrows is available at up to 40% off the original price from Amazon until 22 November 2013 – see Susan’s website for direct links to buy the book (Kindle or print) from Amazon UK or US. Plus I have one copy of the book to give away, in either digital or print format. To win a copy, just leave a short comment below, before 30 November 2013, saying why you would like to read this book.