Andalusian Days (V): Rustic Mystique and Country Cooking Around Seville
Into marshlands of wild rice, gothic small towns, idyllic orange farms and haunted royal estates
Julian and I stand at the edge of a dirt field as a tractor roils up trails of brown clouds. We must look conspicuous to the farmer driving the tractor: two strangers observing him intently on a deserted expanse of flat fields. Muffled music from radio or television escape the cafe-bar our car is parked by, at a junction of two country roads. Adjacent to it is a courtyard with plastic tables and chairs, empty. Sun rays filter through the woven partition that quarters the property off from the fields, slanting onto stillness.
The tractor climbs out of the field and parks not far from us. The farmer, a youngish man with dark hair, steps onto a ledge outside the door of the tractor, shoots us a look, and stretches.
It’s like stalking a lion in its habitat — waiting to see if we have trespassed, or if our presence has been noted but ignored, and if the camera can approach.
“Julian! Aube! Where are you?” we are yanked back by Trini’s cry, and look back wistfully at the farmer, who climbs back into his tractor. We may see another, but we are not sure. All around us are flat, immense fields, endless fields, with few other signs of humans in sight. Only great storks abound, perched high in their nests on lone, skinny trees.
Wild rice grows in abundance in the outskirts of Sevilla, along the Guadalquivir river, amounting to over half of Spain’s national rice production. Early June is not yet the season for tender green sprouts, and we drive through endless fields of scorched earth, labored over and over by tractors turning over the soil to prepare for planting season.
Once the rice cultivation begins, the area transforms into vast marshlands, stewing in the inland heat of Sevilla. Isla Mayor, the village where most farming families nearby live, captured Spain’s imagination with the 2014 movie “Isla Mínima” (Marshland), much akin to how Louisiana swamps gained a menacing mystique with Cary Fukunaga’s “True Detective”. The movie resembles the series in both aesthetics and casting, and more nakedly so in plot: a pair of cops, one lanky and bearded, the other snippy and balding, investigate the murder of a teenage girl during the annual town celebrations of the “forgotten” village. Moody, panoramic shots of the mysterious marshes conjure an isolation lost in the beauty of the marshland. We climb onto the truck of Isla Mayor’s environmental official, an old man darkened and spotted by the sun. “Don’t worry about that,” he snips as I attempt to buckle my seat belt. There would be no other cars for miles and miles.
We cruise on straight roads that line one field after another. A clump of low, blocky houses come into view, dwarfed by an industrial complex for grain storage and processing. Isla Mayor proper, with its one main street flanked by closed storefronts, resembles a deserted border town. It is here, surprisingly, that you will find one of the finest rural restaurants of the Sevilla region, Estero. The restaurant’s interior comprises of a large wooden bar and a spartan side room with aged furniture. By the entrance, a wall of fame with photographs of famous visitors, perhaps local politicians and celebrities.
Estero, by unapologetically drawing eaters into the desolate heart of the marshes, establishes its identity as a restaurant of the terroir, a strictly traditional affair of country cooking using the surrounding estuaries’ fish, ducks, red crabs, and wild rice. The elderly chef with hawkish features, Enrique Santollo, directs me through the preparation of arroz caldoso, or “soupy rice”, stewed in great clay pots in two famous iterations — duck and crab. Onions, peppers, and garlic are first sauteed in olive oil, then the duck and crab added to the pot and simmered in a thick, savory soup with wine and stock. The crab rice is lighter to allow for the subtler taste of crab flesh, while the duck rice is a brown, gamey, intensely salty marvel. With cold white wine and toasts topped with thick slices of cured white fish drizzled with olive oil, as well as sunny eggs atop of bed of fried baby shrimps and peppers, this is a rural feast at its heartiest.
On my way out, I spy plates of sliced tomatoes bathing in golden olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, awaiting departure as appetizers to other tables. The simplicity of the other dishes here neatly draws out the privilege it is to witness the lengthy and expert stewing process of the famous soupy rice, with its myriad meat juices, wines, and herbs.
The orange orchards at the Ave Maria farm, sprawling around a hill where a majestic red-tiled villa stands, form a rural utopia of perfumed air and rich dark soil.
Out by the patio, a placid turquoise pool and tables under the shade of centenarian trees. Pitchers of fresh squeezed orange juice clinkering with ice, large wooden bowls piled high with mandarines, clementines, navel oranges, pomelos, and Ave Maria Farm’s specialty — bitter oranges, also christened by adoring Brits as “Seville oranges”.
So bitter they are that these oranges are slated to meet one fate only — transformation into translucent, angelic marmalade, thin strips of orange zests suspended in almost liquid gelatin.
The art of marmalade involving these oranges, mostly elaborated in the isles across the English Channel, holds weightlessness and transparency as the utmost standard of a quality spread. Forget about thick, sweet, clumpy jams — these jars, when held up against the immaculate blue sky, allow the light to gleam through like glowing jars of sunshine.
José, who oversees the farm with his partner, Amadora, cuts us thick, luscious slices of country bread that we spread with butter or, for the adventurous, olive oil. The marmalade, when topped onto the bed of butter or oil, forms a shiny and clear coat; the only indications of its citrusness the zesty orange peel confetti, sparsely laid out, adding a faint hint of bitterness to balance the sweetness of the marmalade. When drizzled with olive oil, the country bread absorbs a spiciness that also combines extraordinarily with the spread.
An afternoon tea, a picnic in the shade, a goûter by the pool — sitting there, basking in the intimate idyll of the moment, there is a peace reminiscent of childhood afternoons in the south of France, returning from school amidst the buzz of cicadas and sitting on the shaded terrace that overlooked olive groves and distant hills, gluttonously plunging my mug into a glass of cold milk into which I dipped petit écolier cookies or tartines drooping under the weight of a mound of nutella. The beauty of the estate and spirit of sheer gourmandize — enjoyment of one fruit, one ingredient, one heavenly nectar adoringly scooped, schmeared, savored, a paradise that unfurls only in the late afternoon heat, presaging the nascent anticipation of savory smells from the kitchen as dinner simmers on the stove. Joy and tranquility radiating from this one scene; a luminous painting with strokes of warm, sunny Andalusian colors. If one can lapse into sentimentality because life has so scarcely resembled, say, a Sorollan scene or pure summer and insouciance, it is now.
The aura of mystery that surrounds the Andalusian countryside inspired Federico García Lorca’s rural trilogy, which includes the much celebrated Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding) — plays intent on exploring hidden folklore, pagan traditions, and agricultural livelihoods of the region. It is true that there are hidden treasures everywhere, splendid yet lonely secrets locked away behind walls and rows of tall cypresses. Torre de la Reina, a plain, quiet town bisected by a single artery devoid of buzzing commerce, is the seat of a royal countryside estate, the Hotel Cortijo Torre de la Reina, with an ancient tower dating back to the 1200s, when it served as a caliphal defense fortress for the Moors. After its reconquest by the Catholic Kings, the property became a hunting outpost for the Spanish royalty, with medieval dungeons, steep staircases descending into unknown depths, and hectares of hidden courtyards and gardens teeming with lily ponds, fountains, roses, lilac, and heavy, blooming clumps of bougainvillea.
We are the only guests in the hotel, and do not see a living soul other than an occasional gardener and the estate’s two hunting dogs, Concord and Tura. They gambol and howl, dragging bloody bird carcasses across the courtyard.
We prepare dinner with a seventy-two year old chef, a woman who lives across the street and was hired thirty years ago to clean and help around the kitchen, and subsequently became a reputed cook heading the estate’s restaurant, which serves typical home-made Andalusian cuisine. Tonight, we make a creamy white soup called ajo blanco, a mixture of almonds, olive oil, bread, garlic, and a dash of vinegar, served chilled. The main course is a roasted chicken sitting atop a bed of potatoes, carrots, celery, and sliced apples, doused generously with white wine and olive oil, then wrapped six of seven times in tin foil and roasted in the oven for over two hours. The meat, simmering in the spices and its own juices without losing a drop of moisture, falls away from the bone with extraordinary tenderness. For dessert, the orange flan with sliced cake at the base. We eat in an otherwise empty dining hall, royals flags and crests ornamenting the walls, a white moon shining outside the French doors.
Noella, the chef’s granddaughter and a girl with laughing long-lashed eyes and a blue-and-white maid dress, brings us bottles of red and white wines and charcuterie. Since there is no other staff on the premises, she’d agreed to come fill in as a waitress for the night to help her grandmother.
After Noella leaves the room, Trini leans in: “there’s something peculiar about these rural hotels, especially when you are the only guest. I once stayed at one with two women reporters, and a tall, pale man with the looks of Dracula checked us in, but then said he’d be spending the night elsewhere. The hotel was also centuries old, with hidden rooms and dusty paintings, in the middle of a silent countryside, miles away from other houses. Just imagine. We barely closed an eye that night.”
When Noella returns, Trinidad asks her, half-jokingly, if she’s ever seen a ghost on the premises.
“No,” the girl smiles sweetly, before slinking away with our empty plates. “Not so far.”
This story was originally published on World Nomads, whose support and generosity made the project possible.