Steering clear of bullfights in Spain is as tricky as side-stepping doggy doo-doo on Paris streets. With bullrings in every city, the fights are as much a part of life in Spain as hockey is in Canada (don’t get me started on comparisons). I immersed myself in Andalusian culture by watching a bullfight, then wolfing down beefy tapas while quaffing companionable wines. To all three, I say, “Ole!”
The bullring was a few kilometres north of Seville at 5000-acre Lora Sangrán Ranch (also called Dehesa La Calera), where bulls are raised expressly for fighting. I toured the ranch, then watched the fight with owner Joaquín Sangrán, whose family has been in the bovine business for generations.
Blond bullfighter Juan Pedro Garcia wore boots, high-waisted pants with suspenders, and a crisp baby-pink shirt that looked like it had never seen sweat, let alone blood. His yellow and fuchsia cape was casually draped over one arm, like he was going to a Halloween party and not facing possible injury, pain or (worse), disgrace in the ring. Calerito (his bullfighter name) was only 10 years old, but he strutted like a seasoned professional. Even though the so-called bull was a two-year-old cow, I was instantly nervous for Calerito, as she was big enough to do damage. And had horns. And looked seriously vexed.
There was a hush as the cow entered the bullring. Calerito was at the ready, his chest puffed, his cape undulating seductively to catch the attention of the animal. She dashed forward, head down to gore the cape with her horns, but it moved effortlessly away, leading her in a semi-circle around the boy. Olé! The livid cow charged again and again, but the boy fluidly deflected her advances every time. He had a very macho attitude, and at one point even turned his back on the cow to spit on the ground. His show of bravado earned him an extra olé!
The fight ended when it was determined that the cow was aggressive enough to stay on the farm. She could look forward to happy years of raising babies and grazing outdoors. Tired and thirsty, but still irate, she left the ring unharmed to join her friends.
At any given time there are about 600 cattle on the ranch, with 400 males and 200 females. At the age of two, all animals are tested in the bullring to see if they are aggressive enough to stay. Feisty females are kept for breeding and combative males are kept for the bullring. Passive ones become tapas.
I asked Joaquín Sangrán if the animals were really attracted to red. “Bulls are colour-blind. What attracts them is the movement of the cape. The red is for the people.” He could have also been referring to the Spanish wine, an excellent match to beefy dishes.
At many Jerez and Seville bars and restaurants, it is surprising, but not unusual, to be served red wine directly from the refrigerator. I suppose that in the summer when temperatures hit 45˚C, cold red wine is refreshing, but in September’s more pleasant weather, I warmed every glass in my hands before drinking. Fortunately, dining in Andalusia is measured in hours, and not minutes.
In sherry-centric Jerez, I noshed al fresco at Meson Reino de Leon, a little resto with tables that spilled into a narrow side street teaming with diners, amblers and families. I started with Fino and tapas, then moved on to chef-recommended grilled beef tenderloin topped with a slab of foie gras, accompanied by a bottle of 2006 Bodegas Beronia Crianza, a popular wine from Rioja. Mostly Tempranillo with touches of Garnacha and Graciano, its acidity balanced the richness of the dish wonderfully. Although the body was a little light for the meat, it suited the warmth of the evening and the leisurely dining pace.
While wines from Rioja are plentiful in Andalusian restaurants, red wines from Cataluña are rare. I was introduced to one at La Azotea, my favourite supper spot in Seville. A hidden treasure with an open kitchen, it is always packed as it has very few tables, a small bar, excellent food and unusual wines, most of which are served by the glass (about €3.30 for a generous pour). I had a Cataluñian wine there one night with braised ox (buey) medallions that tasted like macho beef. Coddled in olive oil until they melted, the accompanying potatoes were a rich sidekick for the saucy meat, and a close amigo of the mysterious 2005 Reverse 6 from Winery Arts. A blend of Tempranillo and Merlot from old vines of low production, it promised black currants on the nose, delivered fruit, silky tannins and a good acidity, then ended a bit abruptly. It suited the evening’s fare very well, but I would have liked a longer finish.
On another occasion at La Azotea, I ordered their mini hamburguesa tapa, which, as it turned out, was seared on the outside but thoroughly bloody inside. Although I deigned to court E. coli, my fellow eater fearlessly gobbled the burger down in two bites and declared it excellent. As compensation, I devoured the crisp, thin frites on the safe side of the plate and half of his foie gras. Although I chose the glass of Cellar de Capçanes 2008 Mas Donis Barrica as a match for the burger, it also performed admirably with the fries and foie. A well-crafted blend of Garnacha and Syrah from Montsant, it first caught my nose with berries, chocolate and wild flowers, then followed with more of the same combined with sweet oak and fresh acidity. I was sorry to see the bottom of my glass, so ordered another, along with a zesty cheese dish. When in Spain …
I loved the tapas, vino and weather in Andalusia, but beyond that, I also enjoyed dining late at night under a star-strewn canopy in plazas teeming with babies, grannies, lovers and busy waiters. There is a unique style to life in Spain … a joyous one. Even bullfights have happy endings. Olé!
So this tourist races from a Spanish bullring into a nearby tapas restaurant and takes a seat before anyone else can enter. “I’m the first one here, so I am claiming the criadillas” (traditional dish of fried gonads). The restaurant owner, acknowledging the tourist’s right to them, instructs him to wait as the bullfight is only just ending, and some time is needed to get and cook the delicacies. When at last the plate is brought to the table the tourist is upset. “These can’t be right. They are only the size of prunes.” The smirking restaurant owner assures the tourist that they did indeed come directly from the bullfight. “You see Señor, sometimes the bull wins.”
Criadillas – Bull Fries
1 lb bull testicles
2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 slice onion
1 tsp salt
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/4 tsp thyme
1 egg, beaten with 1 tsp water
Olive oil, for frying (you’ll need about 1/4 inch in the bottom of the frying pan)
Lemon wedge, for garnish
1. Remove the membrane from the outside of the testicles. Bring a pan of water to a boil with vinegar, onion, salt and bay leaf. Add meat and simmer for 10 minutes; remove from liquid and pat meat dry.
2. Slice into 1/4 inch slices. Combine the breadcrumbs and seasonings. Preheat oil to 350°F in a frying pan. Dip slices in beaten egg followed by a dip into seasoned breadcrumbs. Fry until golden brown and serve immediately garnished with lemon wedges.