Scribbler in Seville

The reluctant chef cooks up a storm

Travel&Cuisine, cooking, cookery, cocina, kitchen, class, lesson, Spanish, aubergine

An organic aubergine.

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.

sardine

My son is partial to a nice, juicy barbequed sardine.

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.

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Cheese from Cadiz in Triana market, where we started our culinary extravaganza.

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.

The kitchen - light and spacious; you eat on the balcony, where the marquee is visible through the window.

The kitchen – light and spacious; you eat on the balcony, where the marquee is visible through the window.

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.

Travel&Cuisine, cooking, cookery, lesson, class, tomatoes

Preparing the tomatoes for the salmorejo.

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.

George adds vinegar to the salmorejo - controversial.

Jorge adds vinegar to the salmorejo – controversial – as Meli looks 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.

rice, arroz, mariscos, seafood, cooking, cookery, Spanish, cocina, Travel&Cuisine, lesson, class

Ingredients for the arroz con mariscos.

cooking, cookery, Spain, Spanish, Travel&Cuisine, cocina, gourmet, class, lesson

Frying the onion for the sofrito, the base of the arroz.

cooking, cookery, class, lesson, Spain, Spanish, rice, arroz, mariscos, seafood, Travel&Cuisine

Adding the stock to the rice, sieving it first.

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.

aubergine, berejena, fried, frying, cooking, cookery, class, lesson, Spain, Spanish, Travel&Cuisine

Frying the aubergine.

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Rolling out the tortas – you flatten them by hand first.

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.

The aubergine (presentation courtesy of George)

The aubergine (presentation courtesy of Jorge).

cooking, cookery, spain, Spanish, salmorejo, berenjenas, aubergine, soup, summer, Travel&Cuisine

Salmorejo, with berejena (my idea – they’re often paired; went perfectly together, the freshness of the soup cutting through the crispy crunchiness of the fried vegetable).

cooking, cooking, Spanish, Spain, Arroz con mariscos, rice with seafood, arroz bomba, Travel&Cuisine

The arroz meloso con mariscos. How do they get it looking that nicely shaped? A simple metal mould.

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.

Time to try it at home - Lola makes the masa for the tortas.

Time to try it at home – Lola makes the masa for the tortas…

... and this is how they turned out - a little small.

… and this is how they turned out – a little small…

They went down a treat!

… but they went down a treat!

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.

22 thoughts on “The reluctant chef cooks up a storm

  1. Mad Dog

    That sounds like a wonderful class 😉
    Have you read the detective novels written by Catalan writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán? His detective Pepe Carvalho cooks and eats his way through every page, not to mention the Boqueria. He’s the inspiration for the Sicilian detective Montalbano written by Andrea Camilleri – recently shown on BBC 4.

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      It was, and as I said I’d thoroughly recommend them to anyone who wants to do a cooking class in Sevilla. No, I haven’t heard of the Montalban books – will have to look them up – are they’re available in an English translation? My Catalan’s not up to much 😉 Will check out on Montalbano on iPlayer – thanks for the tips!

  2. the artichoke adventures

    I am a terrible cook and a fantastic consumer of all types of food. Julia(and my mother in law) is a good cook so I am very lucky but must try a few more dishes. The other day Julia taught me how to do a Paella Valenciana and I was very chuffed with the outcome so your article has inspired me to try another dish.

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Paddy, you post the most mouth-watering food pictures on FB of anyone I know – now I know your secret – the women in your life!!! Let me know how you get on with your other dish, although I will no doubt see it on FB…

  3. Sue Sharpe

    Great post! I love cooking and I’m always looking for something new to try. This looks like something I could really enjoy. Thanks for sharing your expereince.

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Thanks Sue! If I check with the company, would you be interested in the full recipes? I don’t think they’d mind. I don’t know about you, but I need a well-explained recipe – my husband thinks recipes and maps (and any other kind of written instruction) are a waste of time, but I need my hand holding all the way until it’s well embedded in me ‘ead.

      1. Sue Sharpe

        If they are OK with it, yes, I’d love the full recipes thank-you! I do tend to go a bit ‘off-piste’ with recipes sometimes, but that’s usually after I’ve stuck to the original for a while!

  4. mmtread

    Looks like a great course! As a former chef, I do all of the cooking in my household, and my wife and I are, though I loathe the term, foodies. I’m very much looking forward to exploring Spanish markets and trying my hand at some regional dishes. I’ll have to see if there’s a course in Sitges. Given the tourism there, I have to imagine that there is. Thanks for the post, and happy cooking!

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Yes, it was. I didn’t realise you used to be a chef – nothing wrong with being a foodie, better than being an alkie or a plane spotter. The markets here are amazing, they deserve a blog post in fact… the variety of fruit, veg, fish etc is extraordinary. Do you want me to ask around about cooking classes in Sitges? Someone in the writing-and-blogging-in-Spain community is bound to know.

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Thanks Carol, yes it was great making the tortas at home with Lola – like many kids she adores helping me in the kitchen (not quite tall enough to tackle the washing-up yet though, sadly).

  5. Matthew Hirtes

    Fascinating post, Fiona. I’ve become a better cook living over in the Canary Islands. Especially as I’m vegetarian and their concept of veggie-friendly food is very different to mine. Interesting comment about the pigs’ ankles. I thought they would have got bigger with all the exercise, as in more muscular.

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Thanks Matthew – I guess the pigs must be like long-distance runners…!! I find getting motivated to cook at the end of a long day soooo hard!! What great veggie dishes have you found in the Canaries?

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