Don't dine ... graze 

Sampling tapas in Sevilla

Recently, I wrote here about the wildly popular "Body for Life" program created by Bill Phillips. I expressed my disgust with the aspect of the program that reduces food to "fuel" merely to be taken to maintain the contemporary ideal body. I called it a reduction of dining to medication. Reader Joni Lawrence, a foodie and a Phillips follower, wrote me to take me a bit to task for my assessment. I got her e-mail while I was in Sevilla on the same day I read a magazine Phillips publishes. I haven't read Phillips' book, but Joni, who finds the book helpful, also allows that I was closer to the mark than I realized. She says Phillips quotes Hippocrates: "Food is medicine, medicine is food."

Actually, the more I thought about Phillips' plan, which has you eating six small meals a day, the more I realized it was much like how I ate in Sevilla. In my time there, I don't think I had more than four multi-course meals of the type we eat here. Instead, like most Sevillanos, I basically snacked -- grazed -- every three or four hours. It occurred to me that this represented the wisdom of Phillips' idea (yeah, I actually lost weight) but certainly doesn't sacrifice culinary art.

As no place in Spain, Sevilla is devoted to tapas -- those snacks once served free with wine but long since elevated to an art form of their own. There are tascas devoted exclusively to them but full-service restaurants and less formal comedores and cafeterias also serve them. These were my main diet in Sevilla. If I had a full meal, it was usually around 2 p.m. during the city's lengthy siesta time.

My days in Sevilla usually began with me walking to the nearby restaurant El Sardinero on the plaza adjacent to the Catedral de Jesus del Gran Poder.

Unless you go to a tourist spot, most restaurants in Sevilla do not offer table service for the desayuno. You go to the bar and order your coffee and food. Probably the most popular dish, also eaten in late afternoon, is churros con chocolate. I confess I have never acquired a taste for this. Churros are long, tubular, extruded donuts, basically. The chocolate is like pudding just before it sets.

I counsel you instead to order tostadas, toasted rolls. You can have them with various toppings. Sobrasada, one of my favorites, is like a sausage spread. (OK, it's pure fat.) Or just have olive oil and tomato. Cost of a tostada and coffee is barely $2, typically.

Around noon, table service begins. Nobody has lunch at that time, but you might stop for something light if you've eaten early. I am very fond of the Spanish sandwiches -- bocadillos -- usually made on a small baguette. I often just had one with some of the country's favorite cheese, manchego, which is hard, salty and strong. Sometimes I might add ham, which the Spaniards adore -- especially jamon serrano, which is their version of the Italians' Parma ham.

If I got hungry in the mid-afternoon, I would often go back to El Sardinero or to another restaurant and order a plate of boquerones, fried anchovies served with lots of lemon, or some chipirones, whole baby squid. At all meals, you should order a plate of aceitunas, olives. They are dirt-cheap, of course, and they add a delicious note of unctuous bitterness to every meal.

If you visit Sevilla, I recommend one restaurant above all others that I tried: Casa Salva, at 12 Calle Pedro del Torno (954 21 41 15). You won't find it in any guidebooks. It is a local favorite in the city's "Centro" and features fabulous Sevillano cuisine. I spent a good deal of time hanging out with an Italian architecture student named Salvatore.

The owner prepares flawless soups, including the ubiquitous gazpacho, and second courses of amazingly seasoned meats, often stewed or slow roasted. He insisted I try little ribs from pigs raised by his own relative on the sunny side of a local mountain. Poor Salvatore, a vegetarian, watched me in alternating envy and horror as I devoured the flesh served me at Casa Salva.

Generally, despite their claims to the contrary, the Spanish don't seem to eat many vegetables. Vegetarians like Salvatore have quite a problem. Habanitas, almost like small fava beans are available here and there but, otherwise, vegetarians are stuck with iceberg lettuce.

A trendy restaurant in Sevilla you see mentioned a good bit is Sopa Boba, 34 Bailen, also in the Centro. One waiter worked the dining room -- as is often the case in Sevilla. Let that be a warning to you. If you are going to sit down and have a full meal in Sevilla, plan to be there a long time.

At La Sopa Boba I had an interesting dish of fat white asparagus split and stuffed with a puree of fresh sardines. Unfortunately, the asparagus were conspicuously canned. (I might warn you about that, generally. A lot of tapas served around Sevilla are canned food.) My second course at La Sopa Boba was the ubiquitous lomo, pork loin, sitting on a pool of unidentifiable green sauce. Salvatore ate lettuce.

Mainly, I suggest you stick to tapas. Besides allowing you to sample a variety of everything from octopus to cockles, the tapeo is a great way to meet people.

But be careful what you point at. I pointed at some delicious-looking eggplant slices one night in a bar. I returned to my table and was presented what actually turned out to be sliced kidney. A German couple, with their itty bitty little fluffy doggy, joined me at my table. The dog kept begging. I kept throwing him kidney slices ... which he refused to eat. "Your dog seems to dislike kidney," I told the couple. "I should certainly hope so," one of them replied, as I bit into a piece of the stuff.

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