Legendary guitarist, Paco de Lucia, who died this week. Photo by Tony Bryant.
Today is Andalucia’s regional holiday, Dia de Andalucia, 28 February, when green and white flags are proudly flown from Huelva to Almeria.
But today’s celebrations have been tinged with sadness by the death this week of one of the region’s most famous and respected musicians: flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, who came from Algeciras.
He was a hugely influential man who brought flamenco to a massive global audience, but who also introduced his own interpretations and styles to this art form, merging it with other genres of music to create a new type of flamenco.
For my own part, one of his pieces was played at my wedding (in England) by a talented young guitarist called David Buckingham. The piece of music is a rumba called Entre Dos Aguas, and is one of his most famous compositions – you’re sure to recognise it. David played this tune so beautifully, in the high-ceiled hall of the Norman keep where we had the wedding, that my husband’s (Spanish) aunt was reduced to tears. Still gives me the shivers.
A feast of orangey tapas at over 30 bars and restaurants in Sevilla, until this Sunday.
Every year around this time – January and February – the newspapers are full of recipes featuring Seville oranges, the small, bitter fruit so highly valued by the British for making their beloved marmalade – on toast, for the classic English breakfast. Of course, it’s a fruit which is closely associated with the city – not surprising, considering there are 40,000 orange trees in Seville. And at this time of year, they are covered in bright orbs, which stand out against the dark green leaves and azure sky.
Here, the orange season is celebrated in a more typically Spanish fashion – with a tapas festival, called Jornadas Gastronomicas Naranja de Sevilla, or Seville Orange Days. This is now in its third year – I wrote about the first such festival, back in 2012. The festival is on until 23 February – this Sunday.
This year, there are just over 30 restaurants and tapas bars taking part; you pay either 2,80 or 4,00 euros for a tapa with a drink. I tried some of the dishes out yesterday, accompanying one of the judges – since, like all the other tapas events in Seville, this is also a competition. As I’m a fish-only eater (no meat), we were slightly limited – bacalao was ubiquitous. Not that I’m complaining, as cod is a good, firm-textured tasty fish, but a little variety would be most welcome.
Cod croquette with caviar of orange. Beautifully presented, but short on taste.
A little underwhelmed by this ´fruity dry´ white wine from neighbouring Huelva province.
First we visited one of the raft of new tapas bars in Seville, situated on the site of the old Irish bar, Flahertys, opposite the Puerta del Perdon of the Cathedral. Don Juan de Alemanes has a beautiful, light patio, decorated with shabby chic mismatched chairs. Their Orange Days special was a croquette (yes, just one) of cod and orange with its caviar. Full marks for presentation and visual impact, but the taste was disappointing. This was one croqueta with a smidgeon of pretty orange-ness on the side, plus a glass of sub-standard white wine (a seco afrutado – fruity dry – from Huelva), for 4,00 euros. Not good value, my companion and I decided. Service was reasonable, but the muzak was dire (Could it be I’m falling in love? )
Orange on the bar at Casa Robles, one of the three bars where I sampled the Orange Days tapa yesterday.
Perfecto de pez limon - baked fish.
Then we went round the corner to Casa Robles, one of the most well-established dining options in the city. A warm welcome with smooth, professional service, not to mention one of the best seafood displays in the city: cigalas, carabineros, cañaillillas - from the most enormous prawn-family crustaceans to little curly, spiky whelks. Their tapa was a pastel - a small baked egg-based dish, it’s hard to translate. But the pez limon was light and tasty, and its mousseline was delicious.
This was the favourite of the three - cod with a tangy orange sauce.
After this, we walked through barrio Santa Cruz – always a delight – to a street just off the Plaza de los Venerables, where we ate at a table in the street. This tapa was another cod one, but this time it was confitado – stewed – in orange juice, with a creamy sauce. The bright yellow colour put me off, but the flavour was the most orangey of the three – with a sharp tang of bitter orange. It was unapologetically citrussy, but not in an unpleasant way; quite the opposite, in fact. And the crispy, sweet onion bits were the perfect foil. Not a fan of balsamic drizzled all over my plate – so 2010, my dear – but this was a properly orangey tapas. We had an excellent albariño to accompany it. Well done, El Jardin de las Tapas!
There are 28 other bars taking part in the Jornadas Gastronomicas Naranja de Sevilla, so you can find them all over the centre of Seville. Here is a list of the participating restaurants, with the tapa each is offering, so you can plan ahead according to your meat/fish preference, where appropriate.
Spain - now the biggest wine producer in the world!
Spain has taken over from France and Italy as the world’s top wine-producing country, with its production increasing by over 40% in 2013. This is just a few weeks after the news that Spain is now the third-most visited country for tourism.
Spain has moved into first place in terms of world wine production for the first time ever, with a 41.4% increase in wine production since 2012, and a total of 50.6 million hectoliters of wine produced in 2013. Andalucia’s production rose by more than 20% in 2013.
A Spanish wine bodega, stacked with barrels.
According to information published by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food and the Environment, and gathered by the Spanish Wine Market Observatory, Spain has become the world’s number one producer of wine.
Usually France and Italy have taken turns as numbers one and two, while Spain has been top in terms of total surface area covered by vines. In 2013, Italy produced 48 hectolitres, and France 42.3 hectolitres.
According to one source, “Spain’s newly established position at the top of world wine production is due to the investments and improvements implemented in this sector in Spain, as well as this country’s favourable climate and growing conditions over the past year.”
In particular, the regions of Castile-La Mancha (up 64%), Extremadura (up 28%) and Catalonia (up 25%) were responsible for much of this production growth, while Andalucia’s production rose by a very respectable 22.6%, to 1.4 million hectolitres.
A large majority of people have smart phones these days, and apps have become part of our everyday lives, especially for finding out information when travelling.
So if you’re planning a trip to Seville, you’ll be pleased to read that there’s a new free official app for the city – simply called Sevilla.
Released a few months ago, it covers areas such as events and monuments, as well as museums, churches, and areas of the city such as Triana. The app comes in English and Spanish.
These are the sections covered so far in the new Sevilla app.
While not including by any means all of the wonders which the city has to offer – the two “Points of Interest” listed in Triana are both churches – it is a base to work from, and the information offered, while limited, is mostly useful. Some tends towards the dry, heavy on technical detail – heaven for architecture fans, a little dull for the rest of us.
This is one of the plaques with a QR code which will soon be posted outside 100 of Seville's main monuments.
I can also reveal that a programme is underway to install plaques with QR codes on 100 buildings in Seville, with the first 50 of these due to be installed shortly. Square black and white codes which you scan with your smart phone, they take you straight to relevant information (the scanner is, handily, included in the app). There will also be downloadable audio guides available in the future.
Seville’s establishments are also well geared-up for other Social Media like foursquare, where you can see tips on restaurants, shops and attractions, and find out if fellow foursquare users (or your own friends using foursquare) have visited a specific establishment, and left tips and photos about their favourite dishes. Find everything from places to go running and settings from the opera Carmen.
These days Social Media can help you get the most out of your visit to Seville, and the rest of Andalucia, with the latest and most up-to-date information, but without having to carry around bulky guidebooks.
Relief ceramic tiles showing Spanish traditions such as bullfighting and flamenco. In El Pimpi, Malaga
Spain’s economy may still be struggling, but tourism continues to establish itself as one of the country’s main driving forces in keeping the wheels rolling. In fact, this particular Iberian industry is healthier than ever. Spain, the holiday destination, goes from strength to strength, with the Brits still the biggest customers.
According to figures released a few days ago, Spain received more than 60.6 million international tourists in 2013, a 5.6% increase on 2012. Domestic tourism is going through a challenging time, so visitors from abroad are manna from heaven.
It was also announced that Spain is now the third-most popular country for tourism in the world, after France (83m) and the US (67m). The country which Spain pushed off the number three spot was China.
And even more good news: foreign visitors to Spain splashed more cash than ever in 2013, with a total of over 59 billion euros spent, up 9.6% on last year. The average spend per trip went up to €976 (a 3.7% increase) with a daily outgoing of €109 (up 3.3%). Visitors from cooler northern European countries such as Britain, France and Scandinavian countries were the highest-spending in Spain last year.
More than 14.3m Brits visited Spain in 2013 – 23.6% of all visitors and up 5.2% on the previous year. British visitors aren’t feeling the pinch on their holidays: they accounted for one-fifth of money spent while in Spain last year, an increase of 7.8% on 2012, representing a contribution to the Spanish economy of more than 12 billion euros in 2013.
Two other countries which also saw a notable increase in tourism to Spain – both up over 20% – were Sweden and Norway. Together they accounted for 5.3% of total visitors.
The Russian market continues to grow apace, with a 31.6% increase on 2012′s numbers.
This week, the Junta de Andalucia (Andalucian Government) announced the “Plan Andaluz de la Bicicleta”. This ambitious but admirable project aims to complete a network of over 5,000km of cycle lanes and routes throughout the region, in cities and countryside.
The investment is 420 million euros, with benefits including job creation – not just in the construction of the cycle network, but, in rural areas, long-term employment at cafes and hotels along the routes. It is estimated that 15,000 positions will be created. Not to mention the advantages for the environment – less traffic on the roads, less pollution, and of course a healthier, fitter population. Many of the routes link towns just outside cities, in suburban areas, or in the case of Seville, the Aljarafe area to the west, with the nearby provincial capital where many residents in the surrounding area commute to work during the week. Instead of driving a car, why not ride a bike?
Plus for tourists, an ever-great number of whom are looking for activities as part of their holiday experience, there is the opportunity to explore more of Andalucia’s stunning and varied countryside. Tracks include easy, low-gradient paths, as well as steeper, more challenging routes. So families can take a relaxed ride, while those after something more spectacular and gruelling will find the path they want.
The date given as the target to complete this network is 2020.
I think the Junta has realised what a massive untapped resource tourism is for the region, that it will take time, money and planning to reach its full potential, and this seems a good starting point. Yes, Andalucia is already extremely popular with tourists – 22.5 million visited in 2013 – but it could be considerably more visitor-friendly.
You can see all the details, including plans for all eight provincial capitals and their surrounding areas plus the Campo de Gibraltar here.
Jamon iberico - one of Spain's most famous gastronomic products. Photo: Michelle Chaplow
Last week, the Spanish government approved a new colour-coding system for Iberian pork products.
Jamon iberico is probably the most popular and highly-prized food in Spain, and nowhere more so than here in Andalucia, where the Sierra de Aracena produces first-class cured ham from acorn-fed black-hoofed pure-bred Iberian pigs – the famous pata negra. Prohibitively expensive (a kilo costs between around 40 and 70 euros), jamon iberico is internationally renowned as a “star produce of Spanish gastronomy,” said the Agriculture Minister Miguel Arias Cañete at a press conference to announce the new grading system. For many, Spanish jamon iberico is simply the best in the world.
The previous rules for labelling jamon iberico, and other Iberian pork products, were confusing, leaving consumers unsure of what quality of ham they were buying. But some labelling was also actively misleading – a label showing a happy pig grazing contentendly on acorns (which produce the white fat and sweet taste) didn’t neccessarily mean that the animal had been allowed to roam on the dehesa (savannah-like open woodland), nibbling bellotas (acorns) under oak trees.
As well as mislabelling, the amount of “jamon iberico de bellota” on sale didn’t tally with how many acorn-fed Iberian pigs were being reared. The number of pure-bred Iberian pigs in Spain has dropped substantially during the crisis, with fewer than 115,000 being produced in 2011, down nearly 60% on 2008′s figures. This is as compared to over 2.5 million Iberian (mixed-breed) pigs. So as well as ensuring that only genuinely acorn-fed pure-bred Iberian ham is labelled as such, another aim of the new rules is preserving the Iberian breed itself.
Spain's finest ham comes from these acorn-fed Iberian pigs in the Sierra de Aracena. Photo: Michelle Chaplow
There are two DOs (Denominacion de Origen) of jamon iberico in Andalucia: Jamon de Huelva and Los Pedroches (Cordoba). In the Alpujarras, the village of Trevelez is famous for its ham made from white pigs, but they don’t come under this system as it’s only for ibericos.
The new system makes jamon iberico product labels much simpler, so you know exactly what you’re buying – what the animal was fed on and where, and its breeding. The labelling takes into account three main factors:
* the breed of pig: the Iberian pig, the small brown breed native to Spain, is the finest jamon producer. Some pigs will be 100% Iberian, with both parents pure-bred. Others will be part Iberian mixed with another breed – mother pure Iberian and father mixed; the percentage of Iberian must be specified so its exact genealogy can be traced.
* what it was fed on – there are now three categories, down from four: bellota (acorns), cebo del campo (natural grazing) or cebo (fodder).
* where it was raised: allowed to roam free (eating acorns or grazing naturally), or kept enclosed in a pen (and fed fodder). When being raised free-range, the number of pigs allowed per hectare is 0.25-1.25. For those in captivity, pigs weighing over 110kg must have a minimum of 2 square metres each.
These are the colour-coded labels:
BLACK LABEL - Jamon 100% Iberico de Bellota
This is the top category – the finest available – and indicates a pure-bred Iberian pig which has been fed only on acorns during the montanero period (October to February). It is free-range, being allowed to roam around the dehesa.
RED LABEL - Jamon Iberico de Bellota
This is a pig which is part-Iberian – the percentage of Iberian breed must be specified. The pig has been allowed to roam free, eating acorns.
GREEN LABEL - Jamon Iberico de Cebo de Campo
This pig is at least 50% Iberian, and has been allowed to roam freely, eating both natural grazing and fodder.
WHITE LABEL- Jamon Iberico de Cebo
This pig is at least 50% Iberian, and has been kept enclosed in a pen and given fodder.
Another aspect of Iberian pork products which will be more tightly controlled under the new law is the length of time ham is cured for, and a minimum weight of leg will be introduced.
The system also applies to paleta (smaller front legs – jamon is typically the hind leg) and caña de lomo (loin) made from Iberico pigs.
Images, logos and symbols will be limited to avoid the sort of misrepresentations mentioned above – pictures of acorns and dehesa can only be used on the label for a Iberian pig which actually ate bellotas, and roamed on this type of land.
The labelling will come into force gradually; all newly produced Iberian hams will have to bear the colour-coded labels, but those products already on sale will not. So until all existing ham products are sold, some will remain that aren’t coded as per the new system.
This Informe Semanal programme from RTVE explains the new system.
Informe semanal – Jamón Ibérico, la calidad por norma
The oil refinery section of the spectacular ASAF model railway.
Location of the model railway - ASAF (Seville Association of Railway Friends), at Santa Justa station.
Of the many attractions on offer in Seville over the Christmas and Reyes period, one of the least well-known, but most enjoyed by my seven-year-old son, was a spectacular model railway. Like something out of Harry Potter, it was to be found at the end of Platforms 8/9, at Santa Justa Station, from where trains depart towards destinations all over Spain, including high-speed, snub-nosed AVEs taking passengers to Cordoba, Madrid and Barcelona.
Starting the journey at our local Cercanias train station - the first time we've ever used it.
To complete the train experience, we travelled by Cercania (local surburban train) from our nearest station on the new C5 Line, about 15 minutes’ drive away. It was the first time we’d used the station, as there’s only one service per hour, but our train was punctual and clean, with plenty of seats.
Mountain village in the model railway...
... and its ski station, complete with lift.
One of the favourites with all the children was this car transporter.
The model has been built over several years by ASAF, the Associacion Sevillana de Amigos del Ferrocarril, founded in 1959. It measures an impressive 22m x 3.5m, took more than 10,000 hours to make, and has more than 450m of track, including tram and funicular, various different types of model train including AVE, as well as signal box watching over the entire area. One of my favourites features about it – and as someone with no interest in trains whatsoever, I was enthralled – was the detail.
Miniature steam engine and truck used in the Expo 1929.
But before we’d even seen the model railway, there was an extremely cute mini-steam engine outside the ASAF HQ. The man at the door, who sold us our tickets (1 euro each), told us that it’s one of the miniature locomotives from the Expo 29, which took visitors from Plaza de España, the centrepiece of the expo, along a track to Heliopolis and the Betis Stadium. Popularly known as a “tren Liliput”, Niña is a little piece of Seville’s history, it was welcome surprise to have encountered it.
Amazing scale model of Santa Justa station.
A very 21st-century feature - a field of solar panels, as seen in nearby Sanlucar La Mayor.
A familiar feature of the countryside in southern Spain: the Osborne bull.
Moving on to the model – it has not one but two Osborne bulls; a replica of Santa Justa station; a field of solar panels; the aforementioned trams and funicular railway, as well as moving buses; a funfair which lights up at night; and many other extraordinary details I probably missed.
Lake and dam, with one of the many tunnels.
Factories complete with chimney.
The model featured types of landscapes – town, city, Victorian-looking factories with tall chimney, a mountain with ski lift, tunnels (of course), a lake with dam and boats, sidings, a repair shed…
Resplendent in his scarlet uniform, the station master keeps an eye on the action from his signal box.
For added authenticity, the railway even had a (live human) station master, reminiscent of the Thomas books, dressed in a zingy scarlet suit, who stood in the signal box and announced the departure of the AVE from Santa Justa, and the arrival of night, when the room lights were dimmed and the funfair and buildings lit up. I wasn’t surprised to hear that he used to work on the railways.
The AVE, Alta Velocidad (High-Speed), pride of Spain's railways.
Just along the platform from the exhibition at Santa Justa station, we saw this real-life AVE high-speed train. They travel at up to 300km/h.
Note: I was given to understand that while the model is only officially open to the public at Christmas, visitors can be accommodated at other times. If you’re a train-spotter, or just an enthusiast, I urge you strongly not to miss the opportunity to see this object of wonder.
Christmas lights in Seville.
Orange and lights – Christmas in Seville
Singing zambombas, Christmas songs, in the street.
Holy family in belen (nativity scene), found across Spain in homes, schools and offices.
Part of nativity scene made entirely of chocolate, in Seville.
Convent pastries at a Christmas sale.
With Christmas falling on a Wednesday this year, for many people the festive season started at the end of last week, with today and tomorrow, Christmas Eve, being non-starters in terms of work.
In Andalucia, Christmas is all about El Gordo, the lottery whose million-euro winning tickets were drawn yesterday; sitting down to eat and drink with family on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve); pastries; belenes (nativity scenes); singing villancicos (Christmas carols) and zambombas (flamenco Christmas songs).
The festive season stretches on through New Year’s Eve (Noche Vieja), with the 12 grapes, until 5 January, for the Reyes Magos. These three kings appear on camel, horseback, trailer or float on every town throughout Spain, hurling sweets at the crowds accompanied by numerous helpers, some with blackened faces.
If you live in Andalucia, you’ll find this to be a joyous time of year, where you can enjoy the festive atmosphere out in the streets, thanks to the mild winter temperatures.
Wishing all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy 2014!
The Reyes Magos (on camels), or Three Kings, make an appearance all over Spain on 5/6 January.