Article appeared in the Toronto Star
Dishes, glasses and menus fly past my head as I try to hold on to my corner spot at the El Rinconcillo bar in Seville, Spain. One man slices jamon, or ham with olympian dexterity, while another chops bread with equal precision. The waiter spins the glasses he has cleaned before placing them on the shelf. Hams hang from the ceiling above the bar and wooden shelves with bottles of wine and sherry line the walls. Waist-high sherry barrels serve as stand-up tables. Sevillians generally stand, their drinks resting on the sherry casks, although the bar gives me a better spot for soaking up the atmosphere.
The first thing I learn about etiquette in Spain’s oldest tapas bar is there is no etiquette. No ashtrays. Cigarette butts, olive pits and mackerel exo-skeletons all go on the floor. Spaniards are happiest standing, packed in like the sardines they so love to pop in their mouths whole. The bartender finds it amusing that I keep looking for places to stash my refuse. He gestures to the floor, which has a thick carpet of debris.
The tapas bar tradition in Spain dates back to the 15th century when they were known as “spit and sawdust” bars, probably because everything was thrown onto sawdust floors. Tapas bars feel a bit like pubs in England or Ireland, where the term “spit and sawdust” originated, although the floors are no longer sawdust. El Rinconcillo is the oldest tapas bar in Seville, the town where tapas originated and given the age of this bar, which dates to 1670, the tradition may well have begun right here. Seville, Spain’s fourth-largest city and the capital of Andalusia, has 4000 tapas bars and tabernas – about one for every 200 locals. “Trying to find a bar in Seville is like trying to find a man in a suit on Bay Street.” says my Canadian friend.
As I sip my Rioja, three large-bottomed ladies are laughing me out of my hard-won corner, so I order a plate of tapas to establish my presence. Spanish taverns used to use slices of ham or cheese as lids (tapas) on the tops of wine glasses to keep insects out; a free snack. The small plates known as tapas aren’t free, but the ritual “el tapeo”, or eating on the go, is still very much alive.
The house specialty at El Rinconcillo is a rich, dark vegetarian stew with chickpeas, wilted spinach, olive oil and pimientos. Another is fat, salted anchovies. Barreled sherries from nearby Jerez and Sanlucar are popular and the locals drink cold, dry fino with their tapas, especially with caramones or shrimps, or the local Cruzcampo beer. The wine served is generally oaky Rioja, which is delicious, cheap and abundant.
“A tapas bar is like the female heart,” observed a mustachioed patron sitting near the door, “it will always let in one more person.” The volume increases and the smoke gets thicker as the place gets busier. The serious-minded, middle-aged men working the bar are sweating as the pace of ordering and consuming becomes frenetic. By 10:00 p.m., the place is bursting at the seams. The density of human bodies, and general chaos of ordering and consuming, brings to mind Picasso’s painting, “Guernica”, as hands reach above the sea of heads to grab dishes from waiters, bodies twist and turn and heads, arms and torsos appear to be floating. A visit to the toilet is an expedition, as I try not to be spilled on, stepped on, burned or bruised en route. It comes as no surprise there is no toilet paper.
The bartender keeps track of my order on a tab written in chalk upside down on the wooden bar in front of me. The tab grows longer with each item consumed, graphically demonstrating my excesses. When a patron leaves, the tab is added up and erased. Not an expense-account place; no receipts are proffered. You have overstayed your tapas time when your list grows too long for the width of the bar. It is time to move on to the next bar.
Severe rainstorms make the streets of Seville rivulets, and the downpour means all the bars are packed to the rafters, people laughing and hanging out the windows, getting very wet. The bar next door is called Bar los Claveles, although part of the letters are worn away so it reads just “Aveles”. I edge my way in, and watch the news of the flooding on TV. The staff and clientele are friendly and I feel instantly like a local.
Most tourists hang out in the Santa Cruz area and leave the older barrios of La Macarena and its subset, Santa Carolina, where El Rinconcillo is located, alone. Santa Carolina is where the locals go. The narrow streets barely allow a car through, and people are forced to cling to the crumbling, colourful buildings every time one attempts to pass. The 600-year-old Santa Carolina church is nestled up breathing distance from El Rinconcillo.
As I leave another tapas bar in the wee hours of the morning, one bartender confessed to me he deliberately messes the place up if it is too tidy, spreading cigarette butts around the bar area and strewing toilet paper on the floor of the bathroom, to make it look as though hordes of people have just left, on to the next bar. So, tour the tapas bars, but don’t forget your toilet paper.
Pack your bags:
Seville is in Andalusia, in southwest Spain, a 2-½ hour express train ride from Madrid:
El Rinconcillo, Gerona 40, Alhondiga 2, 41003 Sevilla, Tel: 954 223 183
Where to Stay
Hotel Don Pedro, Gerona 24, 41003 Sevilla, Tel: 954 29 33 33, Fax: 954 21 11 66, www.hoteldonpedro.net – charming, renovated, family-run hotel
Hotel Baco, Plaza Ponce de Leon, 15, 41003 Sevilla, Tel: 954 56 50 50, Fax: 954 56 36 54 – charming, friendly hotel
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