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It is winter in Seville and the sky is a startling, southern Spanish blue. It’s balmy enough at midday for a pre-prandial “gin-tonic” in the rooftop bar of the Hotel Amadeus but when night falls you’ll need to wrap up warm for your evening tapas crawl. This seductive city straddling the Guadalquivir river, with its Giralda tower, whitewashed rabbit-warren streets, smouldering flamenco and formidable food, beckons at any time of year. Many people – too many, perhaps – come for semana santa (holy week) or for the feria in April. But midwinter is my favourite time to visit, when the branches of the city’s famous orange trees hang heavy with the dimpled fruit.
Oranges are to Seville as canals to Amsterdam – they are part of the fabric of the place. We’re talking bitter oranges, of course – not the sort you squeeze for their juice but the kind destined for marmalade, that indispensable, sweet-sour component of any self-respecting British breakfast. Today, no fewer than 25,000 Seville orange trees grace the city’s streets and gardens, and this is their moment.
The Romans introduced citrus fruits to Spain, followed by the Arabs who planted them lavishly throughout Al-Andalus (modern-day Andalucia) for both ornamental and edible use. Over the centuries the naranja agria has become the emblematic fruit of Seville and the trees, valued for their compact size, vibrant fruits and exotically perfumed flowers are now the urban planting of choice. In the next few weeks the fruit will be harvested and 90 per cent of the crop will be exported, much of it ending up in preserving pans the length and breadth of the UK.
The people of Seville (not to mention visitors to the city) appreciate the beauty, fragrance and above all the shade cast by the trees in summer, when temperatures climb to 40C. But as Pedro Sánchez-Cuerda, restaurateur and head of Seville’s hotel and restaurant association, observes, the fruit itself has never featured much in the local cuisine. Now, thanks to a joint initiative by his association and the tourist office, a lively event known as the Jornadas Gastronómicas de la Naranja has come into being, a sort of orange-flavoured gastro festival in which the celebrated fruit takes centre stage.
For the duration of the Jornadas (from February 14-23 this year), a range of innovative tapas based on the fruit is offered in the city’s bars and restaurants. Their objective is to showcase the orange at its piquant best. Seville is no slouch where tapas are concerned – it’s one of the reasons why I keep going back – and the Jornadas provide its chefs with the perfect opportunity to bring to the fore the fruit’s alluring aromas and flavours. To the jury of 12 seasoned taperos falls the onerous task of tasting their way around the participating bars and restaurants in search of the tapas that best display the chefs’ talents and bring out the best from the orange.
To give you a sense of what is on offer, last year’s first prize (the naranja de oro or golden orange) went to Asador Salas for its seared duck liver with a syrupy reduction of Pedro Ximénez wine and orange marmalade. Hot on its heels, with the silver orange, came a crisp morsel of lamb with a Seville orange butter from El Giraldillo, followed in third place by El Candil’s taco of salt cod with a mayonnaise spiked with bitter orange juice rather than the customary lemon.
This year is the third edition of the Jornadas and the city and its chefs are visibly hitting their stride. Enrique Becerra, owner of one of Seville’s most famous tapas institutions and author of El Gran Libro de la Tapa y el Tapeo, is offering his version of remojón granadino, a succulent, orange-perfumed salad of potatoes and salt cod. At Los Corales (owned by Pedro Sánchez-Cuerda), there’s the promise of a nugget of pork with raisins bathed in a Seville orange jelly. But the tapa that’s beckoning me back is an orange-flavoured salmorejo (a denser, smoother version of gazpacho) topped with flakes of salt cod and frizzled leeks. Find it at Dmercao, a newly opened Mediterranean-Asian fusion tapas place in the San Lorenzo neighbourhood.
The Jornadas Gastronómicas de la Naranja continues until February 23. Long-time Seville resident Shawn Hennessey offers bespoke food and wine tours, featuring many of the bars and restaurants participating in the Jornadas: azahar-sevilla.com/tapas-tours