Appetite for Andalusia
T+L travels to Andalusia, in southern Spain, to discover just-caught seafood, plump chorizo, charming inns, whitewashed towns, and plate after plate of prized jamón ibérico.
Every afternoon at Trasierra, a whitewashed Spanish estate about an hour’s drive north of Seville, a bounteous lunch spread arrives on the breezy pool terrace—tortilla, slow-cooked eggs and potatoes flipped out of a skillet and cut into thick wedges; ajoblanco, a cold soup made with almonds and garlic; cheese; blistered peppers; and prized jamón ibérico sourced by the proprietor’s son at El Capellán, a farm just a couple of towns away.
On my recent visit to the 18-room property, Madrid-born British expat Charlotte Scott (she left the U.K. in 1978 and raised her four children here) encouraged her guests to put down their books and wander over to the feast prepared by her eldest daughter, Gioconda. There were different varieties of the region’s peppery olive oil on the table, bottles of wine on the honor bar—it was, in every way, a perfect meal.
Scott’s olive-grove-shaded retreat, a small collection of thick-walled farmhouses and barns laced with flowering vines, may not be a temple to molecular gastronomy or have the type of Michelin-star-studded menu that draws ambitious gourmands to Spain to eat and Instagram. Like so much of the cooking in the rugged provinces of Andalusia and Extremadura, it feeds your soul. And while I love an envelope-pushing meal as much as anyone else, that wasn’t what my trip was about. What lured me to this corner of Andalusia was the prospect of eating simply and well by tapping into a heritage that connected me to the heart of Spanish cuisine. So when I picked up my old friend at the Seville airport, I announced to him that our trip had a theme: we were going to drive a lot, and we were going to eat like 70-year-old Spanish men.
It takes two hours to reach the cliff-side town of Ronda from Seville if you choose the highway, but it’s a half-day’s drive if you opt for the narrow roads etched into the sides of the craggy mountains, where cinematic vistas unfold at every turn. This part of Andalusia is known for its pueblos blancos, ancient villages populated by buildings painted a blinding white. Ronda, which dates to the sixth century B.C., is the largest and best-known; it’s also famous for its olive oil, its 253-year-old bridge across a 300-foot gorge, and for a bullring that is to bullfighting what Fenway Park is to baseball.
The Plaza de Toros in Ronda is the most historic bullring in Spain. It traces its history back to the 1573 founding of the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, a royal order of cavalry, and the patios of the equestrian school have the well-funded, well-worn elegance of a courtyard in Cambridge. Since their construction in 1785, the stone columns have been softened by time, the painted trompe l’oeil garlands and skulls faded by the sun, the thick white walls gently curving from one carved archway to another.
But we weren’t at the Plaza de Toros to see a fight. We were there to dine at the nearby Pedro Romero, a provincial restaurant with heavy wooden chairs, pink tablecloths, and varnished paneling. This is where local dignitaries take visiting luminaries, and where sun-worn toreros come to dine after a match. The walls are covered with framed photographs of noted bullfighters, yellowed newspaper clippings, and signed programs. When we arrived, a dusty TV hummed with a soccer game—Spain versus Brazil—which the waitstaff consulted as they brought us dishes that were as satisfying as they were simple: blood sausage cooked with apples and onions; stubby links of a chorizo found only here, simmered in white wine until soft and plump; a pile of the olive-oil-fried potatoes so typical of Spain topping a wide bowl of rabo de toro. (That would be oxtail from the animals that lose in the ring across the street. Olé.) Each dish, prepared with such careful attention and solid craft, was the product of centuries of refinement, an integral part of the province’s patrimony and the legacy of a region where one of the most important pursuits humanity can undertake is making things taste good.
A few fishing villages survive along the coast, but only one is as famous for its sherry as its shrimp: Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which hugs a sandy inlet where the Guadalquivir River meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Sanlúcar de Barrameda is to the northwest of Jerez de la Frontera, a larger city that’s the capital of Spain’s sherry industry. But the sherries of Sanlúcar de Barrameda are known for having a distinctive flavor, a funky dryness that comes from aging the barrels in bodegas built near the beach. According to lore, salt from the sea air seeps into the sherry. I tasted it. At least I think I did. I can’t actually say. By the time our car had carried us across the province, dropping from the high altitude of Ronda to the fields outside of Jerez, the strange sight of the enormous white bodegas lined up on the sand was so suggestive that when my friend said he could taste it, I said, “Absolutely!”
We were at a restaurant called Poma on the water and one of a dozen that looked the same: the same metal tables out front, the same middle-aged waiters working with crisp professionalism. We were told by the owners of Finca Buenvino, a five-bedroom B&B with cooking courses near the village of Los Marines, to stop here and order a glass of sherry and the shrimp cooked in sherry—an entire meal made of two ingredients. After one taste of those succulent gambas de Sanlúcar, pulled from the ocean that morning, I decided that if I were to return to Andalusia, it would be to dine again at Poma and watch the fishing boats creep up the Guadalquivir.
Heading east around Seville and then north, we arrived at Jabugo, widely regarded as the mecca of jamón ibérico, located in a high valley in the rainiest part of Andalusia, where the streams run all year and where the pears and apples are always sweet. The ham here is made from plump black pigs that spend the final, happy autumn of their lives feeding on acorns and napping in mud—but it will cost you.
At Cinco Jotas, or 5J, the bodega that stands on the edge of town, a leg can run more than $500. When we were in the company store, a group of Spanish men from the north were there on a shopping expedition. The five of them bought three hams, which came out to more than $2,000. (Part of that was for smoked chorizo and bottles of fino and oloroso sherry to drink with the meat.) Another group of men walked in and bought four hams.
I too was tempted to buy a whole ham. But my friend sobered me up and took me a few doors down to Las Bellotas, which serves 5J, and asked for a degustación de jamón, a tasting of ham. Each leg has five distinct parts: the maza, the contramaza, the jarrete, the babilla, and the punta, and the way the fat is marbled through the muscle is different in each. The maza is the fattiest and most flavorful. If you’re polite, you let your dining partner have his pick of the maza first; if you’re eating like a 70-year-old Spanish man, you just order another round.
Our server suggested we take a quick detour to visit the tiny village of Almonaster la Real, a short drive away, and to walk up to the small church that sits next to a bullring, smaller and rougher than the one in Ronda, on the crest of a hill overlooking the town. We entered up a flight of stairs cut in two by a trough of water fed by a low fountain inside the door. The original building dates to Roman times, but it was turned into a mosque by the Moors, and it has the columned arcades of an extra-small Córdoba—the majesty of an empire on the scale of a weekend house.
The church tower was unlocked, and when we climbed it we disturbed a flock of birds that dipped and flew in tight circles above the wall where the bullring met the church. To the south we saw nothing but green hills. I looked for the next road that we would take. It was still light out, but I was already thinking about dinner.
Oliver Strand is a Brooklyn-based food writer.
T+L Guide to Andalusia
When to Go
Spring or fall; May and October have fewer crowds and mild weather.
Al Lago Guest House A six-room retreat facing the Zahara reservoir. $
Finca Buenvino Los Marines. $
San Gabriel Hotel A vine-covered retreat in the historic center. $
Trasierra Cazalla de la Sierra. $$
Las Bellotas Avda. San Juan del Puerto, Jabugo; 34/95-903-2111. $$
Pedro Romero 18 Virgen de la Paz, Ronda. $$
Poma Avda. de Bajo de Guía, Sanlúcar de Barrameda. $$
Convento de San Leandro Cloistered nuns in Seville earn income by making and selling sweets. Ring the buzzer, put your money on a lazy Susan in the wall, and a sister will replace it with your treats. Plaza de San Ildefonso, Seville; 34/95-422-4195.
Mezquita Mosque ruins on a hill above a medieval town. 16 Calle Castillo, Almonaster la Real.
Plaza de Toros 15 Virgen de la Paz, Ronda.
Zahara de la Sierra A lakeside pueblo blanco 20 miles northwest of Ronda; don’t miss the impressive castle ruins.
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Appeared as “Appetite for Andalusia” in T+L Magazine