A few years ago, I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 about an American writer who lives in Venice, and sets her detective stories there, rather like the Falcon books here in Seville.
Food was an important part of her Venetian detective’s life, as it is for everyone in Italy – you can’t investigate a murder on an empty stomach – and the writer commented that for women in southern Europe, cooking is something that they’re delighted to do; providing daily meals for their family is a task they revel in, whereas in northern Europe, it is seen as a chore, an imposition. A succinct observation which shows a sound knowledge of Mediterranean and Anglo-Saxon culture and social dynamics.
Being English, I tend to fall into the latter category; not being a natural in the kitchen is something inherited from my mother, who positively loathes cooking (her Scottish mother, my grandmother, had mostly relied on paid help, and didn’t pass on much creative culinary flair). My own Anglo-Spanish family is provided with perfectly acceptable, if not rip-roaringly inventive or exciting, healthy meat-and-two-veg-type meals. Plenty of steamed veg and brown rice, fresh Atlantic fish, free-range chicken, and no dodgy meat of dubious provenance. Barbequed fish abounds in summer – sardines are king.
Occasionally I venture into the misty hinterland of estofados and pucheros, those strange Spanish casseroles of chicken, chickpeas and pig fat, whose stock is used as the basis for pasta soup. Then I high-tail it back to familiar territory. My adult repertory revolves around rice, pasta, and my coconut fish curry might appear if my husband has irritated me less than usual that day. A gastronomic guru I am not.
However as an established writer and blogger here in Seville, I feel I should have a higher level of expertise in Spanish cooking; also, I get asked all sorts of questions by visitors, fellow residents, and would-be expats, including “Can you tell me where should I live?”, “Can you suggest where’s good to eat?” and “Do you know where I can learn how to cook Spanish dishes?” So when fellow blogger, avid foodie, and Queen of Tapas, Shawn of Sevilla Tapas, suggested trying out a new cooking class here in Seville, with a company recommended by Sam from Tailormade Andalucia, who was coming along too, I positively leaped at the chance – both for recommending to readers, and to bring some joy to my family’s palates (check out Shawn’s post here). Cooking and gastro-tourism are terribly, hugely, achingly, fashionable right now – growing, baking, decorating, Instagramming, tweeting, blogging, tasting and learning. Markets, delis, abacerias, pop-up restaurants, supper clubs. Food is IN. Out of synch as always, it was time for this reluctant cook to get with the programme.
Our class started in Triana market, next to the Inquisition Museum, where Amelia, our hostess and guide (who speaks excellent English) showed us around the extraordinary variety of food on offer. She explained about the different types of olives, manzanilla being the commonest type here in Seville; showed us local cheeses (sheep or goat+sheep; not many cows in Andalucia), and procured jamon iberico for the others to try, telling us about the terminology for the pigs’ diets, and we learned that that free-range pigs have thinner ankles – all that exercise snuffling about for bellotas (acorns).
Having bought the ingredients for some of our dishes – big, fat tomatoes, aromatic garlic, stripey aubergine, prawns and calamari – we walked back to Amelia’s apartment. Slap bang in the centre of town, it has a large roof terrace with a small (heated) marquee and a large square table – a great place to be briefed before the action starts, and to eat afterwards. Her kitchen was open plan with a long bar, so we each had our own station.
Amelia gave us an introduction to the historical and cultural background of the dishes were were going to prepare: salmorejo features tomatoes, from the New World; aubergine is Sephardic/Arabic; and tortas de aceite (olive oil biscuits) were invented by a woman named Ines Rosales, in the town next to mine, in 1910. You can see Seville’s rich past through the varied provenance of these ingredients.
We started by making the dessert: tortas de aceite, thin, round, crispy biscuits made of flour and olive oil with aniseed. I’ve tried them and am not a huge fan, so I was curious to see if they’d be more appealing when I made them myself. Amelia’s colleague, Meli, showed us how to prepare the masa (dough), explaining that it’s better not to handle it too much when kneading (I was reprimanded gently for squashing it). The masa was then set aside.
While we were doing this, Amelia explained about the process of making cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil (it’s not heated as other types are), and showed us three different brands we were going to try: an hojiblanca, a picual+picuda, and a picual. She knows her stuff about Andalucian products, having working for years promoting them around the world.
Next it was time to dice the tomatoes, the star ingredient of the salmorejo, which traditionally is a Cordoban dish. Peeling them is optional, explained her husband Jorge, who works as a chef at one of Seville’s loveliest hotels, the Casas del Rey de Baeza (he doesn’t speak English, so she translates). Amelia told us that salmorejo was a typical plato de hambre – a “hunger dish”, where all food is used – bread, olive oil, garlic, salt, from Andalucia’s lean times during the Franco years. Vinegar (from Jerez, naturally) is optional – Jorge likes it, so we added some to ours. Another personal aspect of salmorejo is whether to sieve it so it’s really smooth – we decided more textured was fine. Then it was into the blender (in past times, crushed together by hand… that must have taken a while), taste verdict (more salt), and to chill in the fridge. We were given printed version of the recipes, in English, great for writing our own notes on.
Next it was time to start on the berenjena con miel de caña, fried aubergine. I’m still trying to overcome my aversion to fried food (too greasy), but I kept an open mind. We chopped the aubergine into sticks and put them in milk, to stop it going brown (top tip from Meli). Then the prawn heads were boiled to make stock for the arroz meloso con mariscos. We chopped more tomatoes, onions and pepper to make a sofrito, the base for the rice dish (we discussed how to translate sofrito, and decided there wasn’t an English equivalent). Another interesting fact from Amelia: Spain is the second producer of rice in the EU after Italy. They grow it down the road in Corea del Rio, on the banks of the Guadalquivir, but this was arroz bomba, from Valencia.
After adding the rice, the stock came next, and then the prawns and squid (which Shawn had cleaned and chopped, lucky girl). An added ingredient was a special sauce of Jorge’s, which I won’t reveal as it’s his special touch – can’t give away all his trade secrets. While the arroz was doing, we fried up the aubergine, some in flour and some in flour and egg (I managed to do mine in just egg – oops – spot the lackadaisical cook), and divided the masa into little balls, squashed them flat and then rolled them out into tortas to bake them. They have to be extremely fine, so they’re good and crispy. You sprinkle sugar on the top, which gives them a sweet crust.
Finally it was time to enjoy the fruit of our labour. We tasted the three different olive oils – I flavoured the picual, which had a strong flavour – and then tucked into our meal. It was, obviously, delicious; the aubergines weren’t greasy, the salmorejo was on the right edge of sharp, and the rice was heavenly. The only problem being for me was that my time had run out (kids to be collected from school), so alcohol was refused, and I had to rush off, taking my tortas away with me in a very smart box.
I was delighted when the tortas got the nod of approval from my children that evening – they wolfed them down, without even leaving any for their Dad to try (and I was converted). That weekend, I attempted the rice (only short cut: frozen, ready-prepared calamari) and my husband was suitably impressed – Jorge’s special sauce provides the X factor. We also whipped up another batch of tortas to take on a picnic, which disappeared equally fast. Happy, well-fed family=happy Mummy.
Amelia’s company, Travel&Cuisine, is a professional and friendly outfit – Jorge is approachable and chilled-out; Amelia is informative and organised; and Meli provides excellent, knowledgable back-up. As well as Spanish cuisine, they offer classes in Moroccan, Japanese and French dishes, and bread and pastries too; during almadraba (Mediterranean tuna fishing) season, which is April to June, they run courses in how to prepare this most delectable of fish at their house in Zahara de los Atunes on the Costa de la Luz. I would highly recommend Travel&Cuisine for anyone who wants a fun and educational cooking class in southern Spain.