“Is there anything you will not eat? “ Shawn emailed from Seville.  “Octopus and anchovies,” we responded. 

IMG_2626

DSCN1204It was all about the food and wine.  A chance to visit the south of Spain spurred research trials at local Spanish restaurants and tapas bars in southern California. Serrano ham, mussels, sautéed calamari, sausages, bacon-wrapped Rioja short ribs, patatas bravas, mushrooms al ajillo, mushroom empanadas, Manchego cheese and almonds were complemented by house sangrias and sherry.

Taste buds prepped, we explored Andalucia both on our own and with the help of two guides with whom we’d booked Tapas Tours in Granada and Seville.

DSCN1233

In the U.S. and abroad, today’s tapas have evolved from a piece of bread or cheese to cover a glass (to keep flies or insects out; the verb TAPEAR=to cover).  A plate of olives or aged cheese is typical and delicioso.  Iberian or Serrano ham carved from one of many hanging in a taberna is unparalleled. Claims of the best in Spanish hams are traced to specific regions and type of acorn ingested by the pigs. 

Exploring Andalucian seaside towns in the off-season yielded empty beaches, blue skies, surprising sunshine and restaurants competing for business. Internet research and engaging concierges aided our decision-making.  A fair grasp of Spanish was key. We deferred to our daughter-in-law here and there. 

IMG_2498La Barca at the promenade in Marbella welcomed us with fresh, succulent grilled turbot and garlic.
IMG_2424It was the rioja, raciones of baby pig, cheese, olives and aubergine with honey at La Taberna de Lucia in Estepona that truly reeled us in. 

On a self-driving tour of the stunning Pueblos Blancos, parking at a 45 degree angle in gorge-ous Ronda, we somehow found Traga Tapas. The albondigas, Iberico ham, tomatoes con queso, IMG_2414and asparagus cano were delicious midday. Along the way, we were treated to Miradores (outlooks to the white villages)and vistas to the Atlantic and Gibraltar.

 

A few miles inland in Benahavis, we were drawn upstairs to La Escalera’s music and warmth, good food and after dinner caramel liquer on the house. 

DSCN1127Gayle Mackie communicated online to create a customized tour for four in Granada. From Scotland, her passion for this city and insight were a bonus even as we arranged tickets and timing for the monumental Alhambra, and particularly for parking savvy.  As we DSCN1186drove northeast to this destination, hills, olive trees and Sierras framing the landscape were a striking contrast to coastal palms, rocky cliffs and sandy beaches.

She collected us at Isabel La Catholica Statue and Fountain. “Do you know Granada means pomegranate in English?”  Combining charm and historical perspective, Gayle’s walking tour took us on winding streets and into plazas, by churches, museums and through the Arab Quarter. Sampling tapas and beer and ribera and rioja from DSCN1141rthree bars on our journey, we soaked up a bit of culture and fortified ourselves for the Alhambra and Generalife.  In these venues, wine or beer was purchased by our guide after determining our preferences.  House tapas were brought to our table, including fried potatoes, ham, olives, bread with goat or blue cheese or mousse with chorizo. This all-inclusive two and one-half hour tour for four was a value @ 85 Euros, a fine glimpse of the heart of Granada before heading above into the hills of the Palace, gardens and battlements of the Alhambra.  

IMG_0883In Estepona, we were overcome by chocolate and churros, a traditional Andalucian breakfast.  Oranges studded the trees that lined streets and plazas on a self-guided walking tour. People strolled hand in hand and embraced each other. The lifestyle appears unhurried, relaxed. In opposition, the food bursts forth with indigenous ingredients (olive oil, nuts), bold flavors (garlic, cheeses), sweet joy (dates, honey). Greek, Phoenician, Moorish, and Roman influences are present in food, architecture, and culture.

IMG_7582IMG_2598

 

Marbella’s Old Town found Taberna del Pinxtos for their tapeo selecto, Bodega La Venencia (with its wonderful barrels, where we ate cheese and olives and house red wine with complete satisfaction), and Café Bar El Estrecho (with gambas al ajillo: shrimp in a garlic and olive oil sizzle). Capping the night was Hugo at Tierra Aranda, pulling food from all directions to delight.

After the children departed, Los Albanicos in Benahavis enticed us with oh-so-satisfying paletilla de cordero (shoulder of lamb).

IMG_2656Beginning the next step of our journey, heading west from Costa del Sol, we were properly introduced to sherry at the Tio Pepe Factory tour in Jerez.  

Circling Seville, we succumbed to the incongruence of detailed city maps, our Navi, i-phone navigation and street signs. Finding our marvelous boutique hotel (Las Casas del Rey de Baeza) in the wonderfully alive maze was sheer luck.   

IMG_2686DSCN1238Shawn Hennessey met us here for our evening Gourmet Tapas Tour, arranged in advance, for four hours beginning at 8PM.  She provided sound advice including a preference for Saturday over Sunday night outing because many proprieters were closed on the latter. The adventure took us to her favorite venues and hosts. Here we encountered the full tapas spectrum, from the finest Jamon Iberico del Bellota, and bulltail croquettes @ Becerrito, to fritos variadas, including boquerones (yes, we did anchovies!), cazon en adobo frito (marinated dogfish) at Modesto.  Then sophisticated grilled langoustine with alioli rice & knock-your-socks-off Involtini: grilled squid ribbons with asparagus and bacon with Crianza Rioja at Albarama.

DSCN1240

DSCN1243A rustic, unforgettable pringá montadito (mixture of pork, black pudding and chorizo in a small bun), eaten outside, standing up near a window ledge, was a highlight, too. Wandering Seville desperately the next day, we found the Bodeguita Romero, again standing room only on a Sunday afternoon.  Manhattans on the 4th floor of a speakeasy-like bar (Lab 4) topped the evening nicely. Along the way, Shawn shared tales of Seville’s culture, history and food under sparkling lights, with La Giralda as our guidepost. This tapas tour was more costly at 100 Euros plus all food and DSCN1248beverage costs (at least 100 Euros more), but the outrageousness was perfection.

Exploring Seville in daylight, we accessed the Hop On, Hop Off bus and explored more on foot that glorious Sunday afternoon, with thousands of others. 

DSCN1358Additional days in Andalucia were celebrations on country roads with impromptu stops at ruins and intricate medieval towns amongst miles of olives.  Paradores in Jaén and Málaga were worthy destinations where we found excellence and tradition at grand restaurants and bars in these historic castles, palaces and fortresses. 

Andalucian gastronomy did not disappoint.  We learned to appreciate the basics: robust red wines, meaty Spanish olives and fragrant olive oil (to be poured, not dipped, was my husband’s takeaway), cheeses and ham. Exposure to a new breed of tapas was a treat, too.  The desire to return is strong. 

DSCN1325

IMG_2826If you go:

Granada info: http://granadainfo.com/alhambra/

Spanish Paradores: http://www.paradores-spain.com/

Boutique hotel in Seville: https://bookings.ihotelier.com/Hospes-Las-Casas-del-Rey-de-Baeza

Shawn Hennessey, Azahar Sevilla: http://azahar-sevilla.com/sevilletapas/

Gayle Mackie, Granada Tapas Tours: http://www.granadatapastours.com/