Episode 11: Gastronomia in Seville

Food in Seville

Last Updated on January 17, 2024 by Marian Jones

‘Gastronomia’ in Seville: an important topic! A Spanish proverb says that he whom the gods favour will eat in Seville. (‘A quien dios quiere bien, en Sevilla le da a comer’) This episode offers an overview of Andalucian food, from staples like olives and fish, to the delicious and seemingly endless array of little treats known as tapas. We also solve one or two food mysteries and hear from 2 travel writers who enjoyed what they ate and drank in Seville and then wrote about it memorably.

andalusian food

Andalusia is traditionally a poor area, and so its food has always emphasised home cooking using local ingredients. In the past that meant a little meat or game from the mountains, plenty of fish from either coast – the Atlantic and the Mediterranean – plus lots of vegetables and – of course – olives and olive oil. Various methods were used to eke out meagre supplies, for example slicing ham very thinly, curing meats to last the winter and frying foods in batter to make them more filling. Some ingredients were first brought back from the New World by Spanish explorers – tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, chocolate – and there’s a Moorish influence too, seen for example rice, saffron and couscous.

To summarise, here’s Elisabeth Nash’s description of food in Seville: ‘Olives and oranges, along with saffron, almonds, garlic and chocolate are deeply embedded in the cooking and entire culture of the region around Seville’.

key ingredients

Olives: Andalusia is Europe’s biggest producer of olives. It was the Romans who originally planted olive trees here and today there are 100 million olive trees in the region. In Seville, it’s said that if you climb to the top of the Giralda you can survey ‘the finest, fattest olives in the world’.

Olive oil: it’s called ‘Aceite’, a word derived from the Arabic ‘az-sait’ which means ‘juice of the olive’. It’s sold in many different grades, the best being ‘extra virgin’ and a label stating ‘Denominacion de Origen’ is a sign of quality.

Ham, or ‘jamon’: there are many types, the most popular being ‘jamon serrano’. ‘Jamon iberico’ comes from the local black-haired pigs and the top-quality ones, with ‘5 jotas’ are free-range animals who have been acorn-fed.

Meat: beef, pork and chicken are all popular. More unusually, you may come across ‘rabo de toro’, ie oxtail, chorizo, a spicy pork sausage and stews bulked out with chick peas.

Fish: top of the list is ‘pescaito frito’, small battered fish fried in chickpea flour and olive oil. There’s a great variety of fish in Andalusia, including cod, hake, prawns, tuna and sardines, but also more unusual varieties such as squid, anchovies, oysters, clams, swordfish and octopus.

Sherry; this is called ‘jerez’ after the nearby port city where it’s said to have originated. Spaniards prefer ‘fino’, a light sherry drunk chilled, perhaps with tapas. The stronger, darker cream variety may be used in desserts, but much of it is exported to the UK!


Tapas are on offer all over Seville. A good definition is ‘snacks eaten along with a drink’. Some say they originated in the 13th century, when Alfonso X, advised by a doctor to eat something when he drank alcohol, decreed that all bars must offer snacks. Others favour the idea that they originated in the 19th century, when bar-owners covered drinks to keep the flies away, then began putting tempting little snacks on the lids to impress their customers.

What are tapas? That is not an easy question to answer and the variety is illustrated on the podcast through a list of the Top 10 Tapas from a tourist board survey. Top of this list is serrano ham and second came snails stewed with spices. Other common examples include ‘patatas bravas’ (spicy fried potatoes), ‘albondigas’ (meatballs) and ‘almendras fritas’ (fried almonds). But the range is hugeand also includes Spanish omelette, fried green peppers and ‘orejas de cerdo’ (pigs’ ears). Really, you just have to go with the flow.

sweet foods

Sweet foods are eaten far less frequently than savoury, but one popular exception are the ubiquitous ‘churros’, little deep-fried dough sticks which you dunk in chocolate. Another Sevillian speciality is ‘polverones’, a shortbread-like biscuit flavoured with almond and cinnamon. Puddings are often fruit-based, but an exception is the wonderfully-named ‘tocino de cielo’. English translations include ‘heavenly lard’ and ‘sky bacon’ – in fact it is a custard dessert with a caramel topping. Other sweet foods have an Arabic influence, flavoured with almonds, honey, raisins, cinnamon or lemon and Arabic tea rooms are popular places to enjoy herbal tea and a selection of sweet treats, often served on a silver platter.

food mysteries in seville

If you are not familiar with Spain, certain things will seem mysterious. Here are 3.

  • the mealtimes: typically, a light breakfast of coffee and churros, or maybe toast with an olive oil and tomato topping, is followed by a late lunch at 2.00pm or later. The evening meal is very late – 9.00 or even 10.00 pm is not unusual. It could be tapas. Or tapas followed by a meal. Or just a meal. As dinner is so late, a ‘merienda’ or afternoon snack might be needed.
  • portion sizes; ‘tapas’ denotes a small portion, at least in theory, but the size and quantity vary enormously. Expect the unexpected! ‘Medias raciones’ indicates a medium portion, while ‘raciones’ describes a full-sized meal.
  • unusual foods: See tapas. But also ‘gazpacho’, a cold soup which may be served in a glass. The traditional version, which originated as a midday meal for agricultural workers, usually contains tomatoes, breadcrumbs, cucumber, garlic and peppers, thinned with vinegar and oil. ‘Ajo blanco’ is a cold soup based on a blend of almonds and garlic and served with grapes floating on top.

And finally, a few cooking terms to help unravel a menu: ‘al vino’ means cooked in wine, ‘a la plancha’ means grilled and ‘rellenos’ means stuffed. Anything designated ‘a lo pobre’ – ‘pobre’ means poor – denotes traditional, peasant-like food, hearty and filling, but with no fancy ingredients.

travellers report back

Richard Ford, travelling Spain on horseback in the 1830s enjoyed ‘manzilla wine’ which he described thus: ‘delicate, pale straw colour, extremely wholesome; it strengthens the stomach without heating or inebriating like sherry.’

And Laurie Lee, who busked through Spain in the 1930s, told of an evening he spent in a taverna in Triana when a local bar-owner plied him with endless glasses of sherry, ‘golden as honey’. Meanwhile, the owner’s wife, whom Lee never actually saw, remained in the kitchen and produced an endless stream of tapas: ‘With every glass came some new delicious morsel,…. fried fish, fried birds, kidneys, prawns, chopped pork, octopus, beans and sausage’.

Listen to the POdcast

Reading suggestions

A Handbook for Travellers in Spain by Richard Ford (published 1845!)
Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural and Literary History by Elizabeth Nash
A Rose for Winter by Laurie Lee

links for this post

Previous Episode Art in Seville
Next Episode Travel Writers on Seville