By Robert St. John
SEVILLE— Nine days into this Spanish deep-dive, I find myself sitting in the front jump seat of a tour bus typing on a borrowed laptop because my laptop is in the possession of a sneaky thief who swept my backpack up in a hotel lobby in Valencia. I have preached over and over to my guests about holding onto their purses and wallets at every turn. I got caught in a moment of trying to solve a guest emergency and was off my game for just a second. But that’s all it took, a lone second.
Nevertheless, I will purchase another laptop when I get to the Apple store in Florence in a few days. I’ve got a job to do, and I intend to see it through.
I host groups in Europe. Mostly Italy, but some in Spain, now. I’ll be over here three months in 2022. I’m not a tour guide. I’m a host. I find great places and then turn people on to them. I hire others along the way— professionals— to help in all manner of ways.
My group and I have covered a lot of ground in the past eight days. The trip started in Madrid, and after a few nights moved to Barcelona, then to Valencia for the Fallas. When this tour was originally booked in 2020, we were to head to Cordoba on the fast train and then to Seville. Post-Covid the fast train route was closed and so I was forced to decide to load 25 people on a slow train or a bus and spend more than half a day couped up, or to look for a better option. It was an easy decision.
I booked flights for all of us to the island of Mallorca where we had a world-class meal and a great visit and then flew into Seville later that evening. We spent two nights in Seville and are now headed to Gibraltar for the day and will spend our final two nights on the Mediterranean in the beautiful coastal city of Malaga where my family and I spent Christmas in 2011.
At this point it’s probably a good idea to do an informal recap hitting the highlights, lest I forget what we’ve done during this whirlwind of a tour.
My wife and I found a great Irish Pub in Madrid and hit it up twice before the tour officially began. I am a firm believer in the when-in-Rome philosophy, but I knew we were about to do a very deep dive into Spanish cuisine and culture, so I wasn’t worried too much about keeping it pure before the guests arrived. We met Matthew, an expatriated Irishman who has been running The James Joyce Irish Pub (possibly the best name ever for an Irish pub) for years. It was the real deal and was the perfect start before our Spanish sojourn.
In addition to everything on our itinerary, there were a couple must-dos on my list for my guests — one was to take them to eat paella at 7 Portes — a place where I had eaten the best paella of my life a little more than a decade earlier. It happened to be my wife’s birthday, and the atmosphere was festive. Our group of 30 shared a room with another group of a similar size from California. The meal was excellent. Though the paella was probably the fourth best dish we ate. I don’t know if I have romanticized their version over the years or if they were just off their game due to so many large parties — understandable. We sang “Happy Birthday” twice. The group from California thought my wife’s name was Cheryl. It’s Jill (the southern drawl was lost in translation).
Our second dinner was one I have been looking forward to even longer than 7 Portes. On the six-month long 2011 family trip we visited Barcelona two separate occasions . While there, I broke my rule of only visiting a restaurant once during an out-of-town or overseas visit. The point is to get as many places in as I can. Tapeo is a place I fell in love with and visited more than a half dozen times during both of those Barcelona visits. I made friends with the chef-owner, Daniel, Rueda and have since sent hundreds of people there. Though I hadn’t returned … until a couple of nights ago.
At the end of December, I compiled a list of my top 10 dining experiences throughout the year. I think I have probably already dined in four of this year’s entries in a six-day period. Tapeo may be tops. I’ve spent a good bit of time in Spain, and I have eaten tapas across this country. I have yet to eat any that come close to every meal I have eaten at Tapeo. Rueda’s patatas bravas and his spareribs are unmatched and are in the rare category of culinary perfection. He is a master. I need an entire column to give him his due. That will come at a later date.
The next day I was able to check an item off my bucket list as I led the group to a second-story apartment — far from the madding crowd — where we had fully catered with full-bar view of the Valencia Square as we watched over 150,000 people celebrate Las Fallas and witnessed the parade after.
The next day’s lunch on Mallorca might have been one of the most popular meals I’ve ever hosted over the past few years and more than 400 guests fed. It was above the market and cooked entirely in a coal-fired Jasper oven. The dessert, an ensaimada — a classic in Mallorca — was otherworldly (I never use that adjective, but it applies here) and is also deserving of an entire column — or two — in the future. Google it in the meantime.
Back on that long family trip in 2011, my son and I visited the small town of Jabugo, which is fully focused on producing one specific food product — the best ham I the world — jamon Iberico. I gave our guests the option to take a city tour of Seville or to visit a farm and walk through the entire process from the Iberian pigs eating acorns under the cork trees to the curing process. I led the farm group which ended in a jamon Iberico tasting and a lunch that included the absolute best pork dish I have ever eaten.
So we’re headed to Gibraltar to dine, visit the World War II caves and hope we don’t get harassed too badly by the moneys on top. Tomorrow we’ll dine in another restaurant I have had on my got-to-get-back-to-that-place-one-day list where we spent a fine Christmas Eve dinner years ago.
This group has been a true joy with which to travel. They have waited two years, and I am sure many doubted the tour would ever take place after two reschedulings. But we are all having a blast, eating way too much, laughing much too loud, while having the journey of a lifetime.
10oz pork ribs in strips
1 Bay leaf
1½ Teaspoons of black pepper
2 cloves of garlic
1 Tablespoon of salt
2 Teaspoons of honey
1 tablespoon of wholegrain mustard
1 Tablespoon of Sherry vinegar
Separate the individual ribs. Put the ribs and the rest of the ingredients in a sous-vide bag. Cook slowly at 175°F in the bain-marie for 12 hours.
Take the ribs out and sear them on a griddle pan until they are well browned all over.
Put 2 teaspoons of honey and 1 teaspoon of mustard in a frying pan, wait until they start to caramelize, and then add the ribs and toss them.
When they are the desired color, stop the cooking by adding the vinegar. Let the vinegar evaporate and set up.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)