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Andalusian Days (VII): Market Bar-Hopping, Tapas, and Heavy Hearts in Sevilla

SPAIN | Monday, 27 June 2016 | Views [336]

The Carmen dancer, cheeks rouged and brows charcoaled, spins slowly about herself as a guitar player raucously wails along to the rest of the band's percussive claps. The audience, in a trance, shudders in its seats as Carmen lifts her chin in rage and bursts into a hailstorm of frenzied heel taps, her footwork barely visible as she flutters over to her sparring lovers, who are busy waving quivering imaginary knives to each other's throats. Trini yawns; she's on her phone. We exchange a glance, inhale sharply, but still let a few chortles escape. Large-scale flamencos shows like this ones, housed in great "palaces" that seat hundreds of tourists, easily veer into the grandiose and melodramatic. 

I sneak out of the theatre and fall into the arms of Manuel Fernandez, a dear friend from boarding school who lives and works in Sevilla juggling a career in digital engineering and a vocation as a brilliant flutist. My plea to him, as we plotted our reunion, was to take use somewhere where young people go. It is a Wednesday night in Seville, the June air tepid. "We'll go for a beer," Manuel says, "but I have final exams tomorrow." Julian and I acquiesce, we have an early morning the next day as well. We follow Manuel through the maze-like streets of the historic center, one of Europe's largest. A sudden turn will often abut into a small but bustling plaza, warm lights gleaming from the interior of tapas bars and tables from different establishments spilling and mingling on the street.

After days of lavish meals and fancy restaurants, I recognize with a pang of glee the bar that Manuel has decided to take us to:at the foot of Sevilla's "mushrooms", a gigantic modern structure sprawling over the Plaza de la Encarnacion, nestles the Cervezeria La Surena. It is one of Spain's national chains of cheap, order-at-the-counter fast casual beer bars popular for its five-euro buckets of icy beers and dirt cheap snacks. Like the 70-cent beer pint chain Cien Montaditos, these bars are everywhere in urban Spain, with as many as one every few blocks in the biggest cities. It is in one of them that I celebrated my twentieth birthday years ago, a study-abroader at the inception of a love story with Madrid. Manuel gets an order of chicken wings and I a newspaper cone of bite-size chorizos, tiny links of cured meat that unleash soft, salty, fatty flesh under the crunch of one's teeth. "Do they have wine here?" Julian asks, and Manuel laughs. "Maybe, man, but I've never seen anyone order wine at La Surena in my lifetime." It turns out they do sell wine--seven euros for a 350 mL bottle, quite a rip-off compared to the insane beer prices here. But Julian and I have developed vinophilic palates, and soon our small outdoor table is covered with beer buckets, wine glasses, and a mix-match of empty white and red wine bottles. It is only when a cleaning lady, mop in hand, zeroes in on our table that we realize that everyone else has left, and that Manuel will definitely not be going home to rest for his exam the next day. 

So we run with the night, and end up at La Bicicleta, a dim, crammed bar where locals and study abroad students converge. Sitting on low couches, we knock back beer after wine after beer, the three of us only loosely bound to the nucleus of our table: Manuel recognizes two friends from his music conservatory at the next table; Julian, at one point in the night, migrates to another corner table to talk to fellow South Americans, and I find myself in an intense conversation with a Malaysian man named Chung, who moved to Sevilla while young and became friends with Manuel's music crowd. In the blurry progression into dawn, I note how typically Spanish the bar is: not a muted, segregated NYC cocktail bar, but no as wild and rowdy as a jam-packed pub. Instead, the drinks are cheap, the population fluid, and over a few hours it seemed that all tables had played musical seats, everybody mingling and talking. This, in my mind, is a great night out, perhaps even a cinematic ideal: boozy, social, garrulous, great conversations with old friends and many seredipidous new acquaintances. Around 4 am, Julian and I walk along the deserted streets towards the hotel, still talking, sitting on the sidewalk to digest the weight of a story, finally finding our way to the Plaza where our hotel is awaiting us for a few hours of sleep.

Rolling off my bed the next morning, I let the pounding hangover settle in, and hide my sickly complexion behind wide sunglasses. I have a sneaking suspicion, even though it is only nine in the morning, that drinking shall soon recommence. When in a large Andalusian city like Seville, and even more so Granada, it'd be foolish not to partake in one of the most ingenious Spanish culinary customs: tapear, which more or less consists of bar hopping and sampling housemade tapas in the process. For a no-frills experience, look no further than to the ubiquitous neighborhood bars that are indistinguishable from one another all across Spain, with their harsh white lighting and peppery faux-marble countertops. Most of the time, in Andalucia, plates of tapas come free with any drink ordered, and the most debauched and raucous of bars allow for incessant finger-wiping on paper napkins torn from small plastic dispensers and crumpled onto the floor, which are intermittently swept to prevent patrons from standing waist-deep in napkin-waste.


Fino sherry and jamon at a stand-only counter in Sevilla

With beautiful Marta in her neighboorhood market

In Sevilla, if you are looking for a budget-friendly route to go tapear, stray from the many small plazas and their tempting outdoor cafes and head to small neighborhood food markets, where butchers and charcuterie and cheese stalls will often have a standing-room only metal counters where you can order a cold sherry and some jamón. This is precisely where I find myself with Marta, a lanky native Sevillana with a beautiful, soulful face and a sultry voice. She sings Brazilian songs in bars at night to earn bread for her two young children after losing her Brazilian husband two years ago. There is a spring in her step, but also deep melancholy and contemplation whenever she breaks into song, walking along the cobblestone streets. Marta lives in a working class neighborhood on the edge of the historic center, and shows us around her favorite market spots: snails stewed with a spicy tomato base at a cafe at the foot of an ancient church, pork belly arepas, Chinese stir-fry, all within the perimeter of a fresh market where she picks up ingredients for our home cooked meal. Because I am so hungover, I make more random and elderly friends than I have the whole trip: at one point, as we stop by a crowded tapas bar for a glass of wine, I plop down at a table occupied by only a large, old man because I am too frail to stand. Soon enough, I meet his wife, who was shopping at the market, and all of his other friends at the neighboring tables. Turns out this old Sevillano couple are also avid gamblers and Las Vegas fanatics, and have traveled all over the US in their lifetime. Marta peels me away from my new crew, as lunch awaits. On the way to her apartment, we stop by a little bakery to buy fresh bread for the meal. Her children are at their grandmother's, and she sings out as she points to their photographs along the wall: "beautiful little mixed children". She hums as her fingers trace the photograph or her husband: "a beautiful, beautiful musician".

We make gazpacho with tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, and half a carrot and one apple to add a little sweetness. After filtering the cold soup, we fill a big bowl with ice cubes and pour the gazpacho inside to chill as we prepare another Spanish staple, spinach with garbanzo beans. While the spinach and chickpeas boil and soften, Marta blends bread and olive oil in the mixer and adds the creamy paste to the pan, along with cumin and sea salt. As she stirs, I cut up asymetric chunks of potatoes that I then pour into a large bowl of beaten eggs. The whole is then fried in a deep pan to make tortilla, Spain's world-famous potato omelette. After covering the pan and letting the tortilla sizzle, we count the minutes until it is firm enough to be removed from the pan but still runny on the inside. With Julian and Trinidad, we carry over the plates sit at a makeshift table in her living room. Marta pours us ice tea. We get seconds of each dish. "A gin and tonic around the corner?" Marta asks. I admire the view from the small balcony in her room, which overlooks a plaza where children are jubilantly running after a soccer ball. Marta looks a little tired, or a little sad. We all are; it is our last day and we have barely skimmed the surface of Sevilla's beauty, meanwhile everything seems to be coming together: at ease with the world, forging bonds, and now, heartbreakingly, we bid farewell.

Tuna tartare toast at El Traga, Seville 

But, of course, the eating and drinking does not cease. A foray into the land of fine dining, in contrast with the delightful simplicity of a homecooked meal, has the advantage of stunning the eater into an incredulous stupor: such is our last hurray at El Traga, a newly-opened tapas bar serving modernist Andalusian cuisine with an open-view into the kitchen. The original tavern of the same name was a neighborhood emblem in the later half of the twentieth century, and was owned by chef Jesus Rosendo's father--an original mural remains, a wink to the family history. The meat and fish-heavy creative fare comes in bite-size quantities, but with no lack of creativity. Although Trini protests that "tuna is coming out of her nose" after our trip along the coast, we cannot refuse the temptation of rare red tuna with sesame oil, cherry tomatoe,s and payoyo cheese on bread, as well as an exhilarating plate of salmon on julienned vegetables where the salmon is smoked in the client's plate, right as it is being served, with the help of a smoke fuse inserted into a glass plate cover over the food. For a third course, we have what is perhaps one of the top contenders for the best croquetas of the trip, gamey duck croquettes with smooth bechamel, followed by a tapas of heavenly tender sous-vide presa iberica (acorn-fed pork shoulder), a great porcine alternative to waygu, with sweet potato crisps and sea salt.


Presa Iberica and sweet potatoes at El Traga, Seville

Today is my last day in Andalucia, so perhaps it is my own projection that makes me see heavy hearts everywhere. Or perhaps it is my debilitating hangover, incurable even after Julian convinces me to chug an entire bottle of detestable pool-blue powerade.  So today I am floating. In a cloud of post-fiesta recovery, in pre-emptive nostalgia, in the high of a trip which scope will only be comprehensible much, much later in life. 

My beloved partners in gluttunous crimes, Julian and Trinidad, on our final day 

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