Friday, 14 July 2017

edible seville, cordoba and malaga

pestino; pastry fried in olive oil and drizzled with honey and sesame seeds.
we arrived in malaga on a balmy and breezy april morning. our spanish sojourn took us to seville, cordoba and malaga mostly in search of a moorish past. the roads connecting each of these cities were curvaceous, the carriageways separated by oleanders. the landscape is one of low rolling hills populated in turn by olive trees or fleeting glimpses of towns. the towns were made up of rectangular buildings save the sharp triangular points of church steeples (of which there are many). we saw a small pueblo bianco (white village) that andalusia is famed for.

we stopped for lunch on the way to seville. omair found a restaurant on the motorway. we sat on the veranda in bright sunlight. the food was simple and flavourful; hot croquetas with a punchy garlic aioli and a tomato salad dressed with olive oil and thick slices of garlic. we concluded with a cold flan heavily dusted with cinnamon along with hot, strong and yet milky café con leche. we loved the meal so much that we took to having breakfast on the motorway when we drove to cordoba and also back to malaga on the day that we were leaving. 

tostada with tomato and olive oil for breakfast
the standard breakfast is tostada (white bread toasted until the surface was golden and crunchy) along with some manner of raw tomato sauce and olive oil. the smaller restaurants would put the tomato sauce into squeezy plastic bottles at the ordering counter and one would dress their bread with it and olive oil. the larger ones would leave the tomato puree in terracotta bowls on the table along with bottles of olive oil. they would also offer more additions like fish, cheese and egg tortilla. it was not uncommon to find people having beer at breakfast.

i had planned our trip to coincide with easter. semana santa de sevilla is one of seville’s biggest annual festivals. It seemed as if the city was in the midst of an extended street party. rules appeared to be in abeyance. cars are parked on pavements, road blocks appeared and disappeared during the course of the day and families lined the streets well past midnight armed with portable stools and bags of roasted pumpkin seeds to watch the processions. i was fascinated by the scale of participation and the freedom of demonstration. i think this stems from having grown up in pakistan where the practice of religious festivals is fraught. baba told me about watching ashura processions with the zuljanah (the horse of hazrat imam hussein) during his youth. in my growing years, the fear of sectarian violence meant that these processions either did not take place or were avoided because of safety so i never got to see one. eventually, london became my home and although one is free to practice all faiths, it is rare to find large scale public demonstrations of any religion. it is evident that semana santa has religious and commercial dimensions. it brings much tourism to the region of both religious and secular variety.

semana santa procession
the processions of the brotherhoods from their home church to the cathedral of seville are at the heart of the celebrations. there was order and sequence to the marches which included floats of wooden sculptures of the crucifixion of christ or the grieving virgin mary. omair and i found the nazarenos somewhat unnerving on account of their attire. they wore long flowing robes and concealed their faces with a pointed hood and often marched barefoot. they were reminiscent of wizards and the ku klux klan. children formed part of the processions too, bearing baskets of incense. some of the processions included marching bands made up of young men in military like uniforms. it is said that processions can last anywhere between four to fourteen hours, depending on the distance between the home church and the cathedral. all around the city, the balconies were lined with maroon velvet with gold lining. windows were thrown open and old ladies of diminutive height peered over the rails to watch street life.

i was taken by the architectural aesthetic of seville. most residences had iron gates that looked onto marble courtyards brimming with plants and flowers. windows were framed with tiles, as were doorways. the underside of balconies were lined with tiles too and oftentimes the walls in alleyways had mosaics of saints. omair and i fell in love with la iglesia de san luis de los franceses, a catholic church with an intricate façade in shades of flamingo pink and pale lemon. orange trees grew with careless abandon all over the city and one evening we caught the fleeting scent of dying blossoms, making me wish that we had come earlier in the season. 

summer comes early to southern spain. in seville, we sought respite from the heat at the alcázar of seville; a magnificent palace with high ceilings, inordinate tile work and extensive gardens. the alcázar of seville is unmistakably islamic in its aesthetic. the tilework reminded me of istanbul and its many mosques and royal buildings. the gardens surrounding the palace were heady with the fragrance of blossoms and herbs. oranges and lemons hung heavy on the boughs of trees. there was bird song broken only by the planative and loud call of a peacock. later that afternoon, we found ourselves in the shaded shadows of plaza de espana. built in the 1920’s, it is a well known specimen of neo-mudéjar architecture as it combines moorish and european styles. the structure was a wonder of curvilinear scapes where light threw shadows in perfectly shaped arches.

bar santos, cordoba
by the time we reached cordoba, the sun was so hot and bright it felt like high summer. we were reluctant to leave the cool and damp symmetry of the mezquita. its inner sanctum was a place of quiet beauty. the land on which the mezquita stands has an established tradition of sacredness. its former lives include a roman temple, a mosque and a cathedral. like hagia sofia, it is a place where religions, traditions and civilisations collide and coincide. there was a small tapas place outside the walls of the mezquita called bar santos. their signature dish was a thirty egg tortilla de patatas, a single helping of which was merely two euros and was served on flimsy disposable plates. the potato and egg was soft, warm and as comforting as nursery food. space was at a premium so we chose to sit on the sides of the cathedral wall and tuck into the still warm tortilla along with a glass of tinto de verano (wine spritzer). 

we spent an evening in the company of shawn who runs seville tapas tours. our evening started with a flamenco performance, an art form where movement comes thick and fast, accompanied by the strain of the guitar and vocals and the insistent sharp click of heels. it was passionate, furious and melancholic. we were mesmerised by the skillful manoeuvre of the long tail of the female dress and the rippling musculature of the male body. afterwards, we had tapas and rounds of sherry. her recommendations for tapas bars meant that we ate well throughout our spanish sojourn. 

the tapas bars that omair and i loved were small sized affairs with densely packed tables, little room to move around and walls that were tiled with fading photographs of matadors and bull fights. take casa moreno for instance. we would have never known that this tiny grocery store has a life as a tapas bar. one walks in and makes their way to the back. this was the place for cold crisp manzanilla with small bites composed of the various cured meats and fish sold in the grocery store. we loved the cured tuna (mojama), regular tuna and anchovies. they came atop soft white bread with a small square of parchment as a plate. los golondrinos in barrio triana was bustling much like other traditional tapas bars in seville. one must abandon the hope for space to sit. we stood at the bar and ordered radishes that came in a pool of olive oil and salt. omair picked the artichokes in tomato sauce sharp with garlic and little mushrooms that had been grilled and daubed with parsley aioli. we had our first taste of spinach and chickpeas at bodeguita romero. it may seem an unassuming dish, but had so much flavour which it owes to cumin. omair asked for cod liver on a whim and it turned out to be rich and delicious. at bar alfalfa, we sat on stools with tables so skinny we did not know where to park our elbows. jazz music attempted to rise above conversation. the kitchen was a cramped space and appeared to be a one woman show. we had the salmorejo (a soup like dip made of tomato puree, bread, garlic and olive oil), bresaola with parmesan and arugula and scoops of tuna salad washed down with excellent sangria. our last lunch was in malaga at café-bar mercado atarazanas. we went somewhat overboard as we ordered cuttlefish roe, fried anchovies, octopus salad and fried aubergine drizzled with a dark local honey.

the last lunch in malaga
malaga is not as charming as seville or cordoba. many parts of it are in disrepair and it feels rough around the edges. that said, the cathedral is beautiful as is the compact and simple building that houses the museo picasso málaga. the collection is a befitting tribute to the city that picasso was born in, as it covered a range of his work speaking to the versatility of his style and technique. we spent the remainder of the afternoon on the patio of the museum, surrounded by the flutter of flying pigeons and the soft strains of a guitar from over the walls. 

i am hopeful that our next spanish despatch will come from the alhambra in granada. 

until then.

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