Twenty three years ago, Welshman Roger Davies fell in love with Spain. Today, thousands of hungry travelers are glad he did.
When Davies arrives at the Seville tourist apartment we’ve rented, it’s 8 p.m., the official starting time for “el paseo,” the nightly street parade of locals and tourists from bar to bar for a drink or a bit of food. His flaxen hair is beginning to grey, but his open face is boyish and quick to smile.
Davies came to Spain as a teacher, intending to stay for two or three years. More than two decades later, he’s married to a Spanish woman, his close friends and neighbors are Sevillians, and he’s made experiencing authentic Spain his business. For the past eight years, Davies has operated A Question of Taste, offering guided culinary tours and cooking classes throughout Southern Spain. While there are plenty of other culinary tour operators in Spain, what makes Davies stand out is that he’s made himself a real local expert on the Andalusian cuisine he’s passionate about.
Roger expertly leads us through narrow, winding Sevillian streets to El Rinconcillo, a bar that’s operated continuously since 1671. Since the mid-19th century, seven generations of one family has run the restaurant. They offer traditional Spanish tapas (small plates), but their specialty, and the reason Davies has brought us here, is their spinach and chickpeas. On first glance, the stew of spinach with a few chickpeas, served in a small, shallow bowl, looks unimpressive. But the first bite convinces us that this classic Sevillian dish, and El Rinconcillo’s interpretation of it, is something special. Though it contains no meat or fish, the dish is rich and hearty, tasting like it was cooked in beef stock. “This is the place to come for spinach and chickpeas,” says Davies confidently, taking a bite.
The place is crowded with mostly locals eating, drinking, and enjoying themselves as they’ve done here for generations. Above the 400-year-old wooden bar hang dozens of acorn-sweet Iberian hams on big metal hooks. A barman carefully cuts the prized ham into paper-thin slices. Behind him, floor-to-ceiling shelves at least 15 feet high hold bottles of wine and spirits. Ancient wrought iron chandeliers, updated with eco-friendly light bulbs, bathe the place in soft light and make the intricate blue, white, and copper Spanish tiles that decorate the walls glow.
“The story goes that to keep the dust and flies out of your drink, people used to put a small cover or tapa on their glasses,” explains Davies, passing us a plate of croquets, lightly fried béchamel sauce with cheese and bits of ham. “Then someone thought to put a piece of bread or a bit of ham on the cover and tapas was born.”
The other reason tapas are so popular in Spain, Davies tells us, is that being drunk is frowned upon, so eating something with an alcoholic drink helps keep one on an even keel. Bars in Spain are like mini-restaurants, with their food offerings often lining the bar.
We finish El Rinconcillo with a plate of Iberian ham cheeks, chunks of sweet, tender meat that literally melt in the mouth. With each dish or drink, the barman marks our tab with chalk on bar on front of us, a simple record-keeping system that’s worked for hundreds of years. Davies settles up the bill and we head for our next culinary adventure just a few doors away.
As we enter El Tapeo, the staff warmly greet Davies. He’s well-known throughout town and, in a culture that values relationships, Davies has made a good friends with the businesspeople he works with.
Different tapas bars offer their own specialties, says Davies. Barbiana is the place for seafood as evidenced by the case displaying various fresh fish. Davies orders three dishes – a crispy shrimp pancake (tortilla de camerones), a white fish in garlic sauce with potatoes, and cuttlefish balls. While dishes like cuttlefish balls may seem unusual, travelers should dive in unfamiliar dishes. The cuttlefish is mild and sweetsalty and, frankly, you’d never know this is a “meatball” (albondigas) is a second cousin to squid.
The highlight of the tapas tour is our next stop, La Flor de Toranza, a place renowned for its excellent Iberian ham. The Spanish are famous for these special hams that come from a particular breed of pig that’s fed acorns, which gives the meat a characteristic sweet, nutty flavor. The long salting and curing process takes three to four years and the results – sweet, slightly salty, paper-thin meat – is worth the wait.
We watch with anticipation as the barman prepares our plate. People who slice Iberian ham are specially trained – much like sushi chefs – since how the ham is sliced impacts its taste. Our order arrives – a dozen or so paper-thin pieces of deep red meat and marbled fat, glistening with natural oil, on a sheet of waxed paper and accompanied by thick white crackers.
“I like this place because they serve only the best ham and they go through 400 hams per year,” says Davies. “That’s more than one a day, which means their ham doesn’t sit around getting dried out.”
The ham, which costs 8-10 Euro for a half portion (media ración), is just enough to whet our appetite. The salty-sweet, chewy ham is addictive. It’s a bit like prosciutto only better. It’s no wonder this meat is a national obsession.
Davies bids his friends at the ham bar goodbye. This is the good part of his job – moving from bar to bar, seeing his friends, having a drink, and eating terrific food.
Our last stop is for cheese, the traditional end-of-meal course, at Casa Morales, Davies orders us a large plate with four different cheeses, each served on a small slice of bread. We start with torta de la serena, a cheese that looks like it’s been melted onto the bread, only it hasn’t. During the cheese-making process, a bacterium in the milk prevents the cheese from hardening and the result is a soft, mild cheese.
The slices of manchego cheese, Spain’s most famous cheese, are sharper and more defined in flavor. Round disks of goat cheese, their tops glistening with olive oil, come from the mountainous area around Ronda, and are buttery soft. We end our tasting with thick chunks of cabrales or blue cheese from northern Spain. Unlike some blue cheese, this variety has the characteristic complex flavor of blue without the bite, and is the finest blue cheese this reviewer has ever tasted.
As we stroll through the streets of Seville and prepare to bid Davies goodbye, we’re feeling surprisingly full. We’ve been tasting for a couple of hours and have experienced some of the very best food Spain has to offer. In the process, we’ve learned a lot about Seville’s cuisine, its culture, and its people. And Davies has come to feel like an older brother, knowledgeable and wise. As he gives us a European style farewell, pressing his cheek against ours, we know we’ve made a friend we will miss. – BH
A Question of Taste Calle Alcázar