The day I finished writing a novel about the us-and-them of our terrorist times, I went for a walk over to the other side of Montmartre, the back of the Butte, where the 18th arrondissement descends into an immigrant neighbourhood and wondery tourists are replaced by African and Maghrebi faces. I mingled among the market bustle, the piles of plantain and the bottles of orange palm oil. Traders hawked handbags and bunches of mint and there were flurries of activity when the police appeared. France is still under a state of emergency. As I sat in an Algerian cafe, I heard the news of the attacks in Brussels. Initial reports said 13 dead, but I knew the number was sure to rise.
#JeSuisHungry. I had an idea to go to Seville to explore the overlap of Moorish Andalus and Christian Spain. What was left from the last time our cultures spent several hundred years living together before they fell back onto the spikes of intolerance, forced conversion and expulsion?
Inadvertently, we arrived during Easter. Maundy Thursday lunchtime, a crowd gathered on the street outside a church next to a tapas bar. The men wore well-pressed grey suits and Easter egg coloured ties and expensive sunglasses. The women wore voluptuously tight black dresses, high heels and tall tortoiseshell hair combs draped with black lace mantillas. The harried waiters behind the ancient scuffed bar of the Casa Vizcaino pulled glasses of frothy Cruzcampo lager and distributed little plates of jamon. The floor was strewn with the husks of sunflower seeds.
“There isn’t much left over from the Moorish times in the local cuisine—apart from a few desserts,” Dimitris Kyriakou, my friend and a Greek economist-foodie transplant to Seville, told me as we drove to lunch the next day along the Guadalquivir river. “It’s almost as if there was a deliberate avoidance, to create a dominant Catholic culture,” he added. The Caliphate in Seville was reconquistador-ed in 1248; in 1483, Jews were expelled from Andalusia under the auspices of the Spanish Inquisition. “Here, pork is king.” Plans to build a mosque for recent Moroccan immigrants were abandoned after local people slaughtered pigs on the site.
Dimitris took us to one of his favourite restaurants, Trabevo, hidden behind a modern block of flats in a middle-class neighbourhood. It was clean and modern with stripped wood tables and a blackboard menu of dishes from the new global cuisine that celebrates the local and is inspired from the far exotic: marinated sardines, fried anchovies, octopus, papardelle al curry con salmone infusion de eneldo. (Eneldo is dill.) Innovating after all is an old Sevillian tradition. Christopher Columbus sailed from the Andalusian coast to discover the new world, gold, tomatoes and potatoes.
We ate lightly cured tuna, a nod to Peruvian ceviche, served with Japanese zen-like precision with dots of guacamole, pickled sweet chillies, and topped with a crunchy pangritata, fried aubergine with a red pepper tomato dip reminiscent of the Levantine Mohammara. It was all delicious. I closed my eyes to savour the edge of crusty, molten, fatty Aragonese lamb napped with a sip of very fine rioja. Dimitis laughed at me, “in Greek we have a word for this; the ‘don’t talk’ moment.”
Semana Santa, Holy Week, in Seville is a serious thing. The city is given over to religious processions. Hundreds of penitents wearing long robes and tall pointy Ku Klux Klan-like hats that cover the face except for two small eye holes, slowly walk through the streets accompanying the massive gold and silver litters carrying Jesus and his cross and Madonna. The litters can weigh a ton and are carried on the backs of parishioners hidden by drapes. Sometimes the processions are reverently silent and shuffle slowly. Some take 12 hours to complete their circuit. Occasionally, spontaneously, a lament cries out from a balcony. The crowd hushes and the high warble of the human voice, pained and pure, sounds out. It reminded me of the ululations of Arab grief.
The processions continue into early Friday morning, the cafes were full of exhausted penitents, rosaries dangling from their wrists, tucking into a breakfast of churros and cafe con leche. The shops were closed but the bars and tapas places overflowed. At the chic “No Kitchen” we ate monkfish liver marinated in whiskey, smoked eel with saffron and green apple and seared Iberico pork tataki.
Seville was founded by Julius Ceasar (or Hercules, according to another legend) and its architecture maps centuries, Roman pillars, Islamic geometric tiles; rococo and baroque lintels; modernist Franco facades. Echoes of Las Tres Culturas that co-existed—not always perfectly—between the eighth and 15th centuries are faint: tiled courtyards and fountains, the scent of orange blossom, the matador’s cry of ole! that comes from the Arabic yalla! Seville’s food seems to have forgotten its history.
One day we walked across the river into Triana and found one of Dimitris’s recommendations, Casa Ruperta, King of the Quails. Essentially a tapas counter with tables but no chairs, it is famous for its exotic spice rub, one of the few vestigial Moorish influences to be found on a plate. We pulled apart the crunchy grilled quail with our fingers and ordered “a skewer.” Smoke and cumin kebab, a little drier and more fried than its Araby counterparts. It was good; it was pork.