Back in May we spent a week in the Seville enjoying the city’s history, architecture and delicious tapas. Oh, and the absolutely roasting hot temperatures! You think I’m joking or exaggerating? At one point it reached a balmy 43°C in the shade. Not much you can do beyond sit in the shade and alternate been a cold beer and glasses of water, before wandering off for a siesta to dodge the worst of the heat.
Actually, things were not that bad at all. It was a dry weather front that had come from the Sahara and was sitting above southern Spain, so as long as we moved slowly, it was absolutely fine. And the city of Seville is a real treasure trove, full of beautiful squares, hidden streets and some absolutely stunning architecture. The highlights are the cathedral and Alcazar, two gems of Moorish architecture and we spent several hours just wandering around each. I’ve included a few pictures below to give a little flavour of the place, and if you think the gardens of the Alcazar look familiar, that’s because they stand in for Dorne in Season 5 of Game of Thrones (first picture, top left). Yes, I admit that I found that bit quite exciting.
Game of Thrones aside, the Alcazar also featured some wonderful tile work. Intricate mosaics and the typical Seville tiles, and you can see why this was a big industry there – it might have been baking outside, but it remained cool indoors.
For those with a foodie inclination, Seville and the region of Andalusia have a major draw – this is the home of tapas and many of the foods that we tend to think of as typically Spanish. This means that going out for dinner is a bit of a cultural experience in itself – find a little bar somewhere, grab a glass of vino tinto and a plate of food, then hop on to the next place and keep going until late. Of course, you will inevitably finish your evening in the small hours as this is Spain and the locals don’t really start their evening until it is already late. Indeed, given the heatwave, the Sevillanos only seemed to appear in the open-air cafés and bars once the sun was gone and the air had cooled from fiery to warm and pleasant.
As we were in Seville for a whole week, this also gave us a chance to visit some of the surrounding cities, and when it comes to Andalusia, you’re really quite spoiled. One place that I’ve fancied going to for some time it Cádiz, the city that is almost an island, connected to mainland Spain by a narrow strip of land. I’ll admit that the initial attraction of visiting was down to the unique location of the place, almost lost in the Atlantic Ocean, but it also has a fascinating history – one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in Spain, and grew rich in the 1700s on the back of trade with the Americas.
This place really was quite enchanting – there is a sort of dreamy atmosphere here, a forgotten place, but still bustling and friendly. The cathedral is made from limestone, so is slowly crumbling, but the streets are pretty and the sea offered flashes of brilliant blue at the end of most of the streets. After the hot temperatures of Seville, the cool sea breeze was very welcome. We also got stuck in at the local mercado with fruit and snacks bought to eat later on the beach.
After all that culture and history, it was a bit of a change of pace in the lovely town of Jerez, the home of…sherry! We wandered around gardens and plazas with beautiful Jacaranda trees, visited the cathedral and explored the Alcazar. But of course the reason we were here was to find out about the wine that has made this town famous.
Sherry has a bit of a bad reputation, usually due to the sweet cream sherry that is a favoured tipple of grannies and maiden aunts. However, the good stuff is very different – made from the Palomino grape variety, and then left to mature in oak barrels that develop a layer of flor (yeast) on the surface. This transforms the wine into the bone-dry Fino that goes well with tapas, or it can be left longer so that the sherry oxidises to make the darker Amontillado or Oloroso varieties. We did the Tio Pepe tour, we took the little train around the bodega and come back with lots and lots of bottles. Always nice to have a little something to drink back home to bring back those holiday memories!
Anyway, that’s enough of the tourism promotional activities. Time for the culinary element of this post, a little pre-meal nibble called picos. Whenever you sit down in a bar in Seville, you’ll order a drink while looking at the menu, and you beverage will appear alongside a bowl of picos.
If you’re sitting there thinking “these are just mini breadsticks” then you’re more or less right, but with one killer difference. While breadsticks are long, and you might think for a moment about having another, a bowl of picos are their squat cousins, and very addictive. They’re so small, surely just one more won’t hurt? And then you realise you’ve guzzled your way through an entire bowl of them. And, most likely, you’ll still want more.
Now, I did come back from Spain with bag and bags of these little guys, but I still wanted to have a go at making them myself. I thought it would be easy, but recipes seem to be few and far between! Perhaps because…eh…they’re not very expensive?
Anyway, from the recipes that I could find for picos, I noticed that they seemed to have quite a lot of salt in them. I was a bit dubious, thinking that the flavour might end up being a bit too strong, so I ummed and aaahed about how much to add. Then again, the genuine picos were fairly salty, so I figured that I had little to lose and made them with a good amount of sodium chloride.
I started this recipe with a basic pizza dough, made with some extra-virgin olive oil. I wouldn’t bother with it when making a pizza base (by the time it is smothered in tomatoes, cheese and herbs, I don’t think it makes a difference, and in any event, a drizzle of the good stuff at the end provides the magic touch). But here, the flavour would matter, so in with the extra virgin stuff we went.
What really makes the dough into picos rather than a pizza or even breadsticks is how you shape it. This took quite a bit of experimentation and lots of sticky hands. What finally worked was to pinch off pieces the size of a fat olive (but not as big as a walnut), then dust a worktop with flour. Roll the piece of dough into a ball using your hands, then drop onto the worktop and shape it into the shape of a small baguette. If you press harder and work quickly, you will get the fat middle with the pointed end, whereas going slowly and with less pressure will get a longer, more even shape. Both are good!
As you shape the picos, transfer them to a baking sheet, and once you have filled the tray, cover loosely with cling film and leave somewhere until they around doubled in size. They puff up a little more in the oven anyway, so don’t obsess about giving them too long to prove – all you want is for them to be a little bit light and crisp and not too hard when you bite into them.
So I made my four trays of picos, baked the first batch, then tried one of them. They looked like the real deal, had a lovely colour, and the crisp…well, outside was crisp, but the centre was a little soft…the texture was more like doughballs! ¡Que Horrible! But that was easy to fix – once I’ve baked all the picos, I dropped the oven temperature and left them all in there until they were nicely dried out and perfectly crisp. Success!
So now you’re made them, how do you eat them? Get the table into the garden or on the balcony, open a bottle of wine or sherry or grab a beer, and munch on them alongside a bowl of olives and some manchego cheese. And if your local climate is in the mood, you might even be able to imagine that you’re somewhere in Spain!
To make picos (makes around 80, depending on size):
• 350g strong white flour
• 180ml water
• 1 teaspoon honey
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1(a). If using a bread machine: put everything in the mixing bowl. Run the pizza dough cycle. Simples!
1(b). If making by hand: put the flour and olive oil into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until mixed. Fold in the salt, honey yeast. Mix in the water – start with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy dough (at least 5 minutes). If too wet, add more flour. Leave the dough a warm place until doubled in size (around an hour). Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.
2. Line a few baking trays with greaseproof paper and dust with flour.
3. Break off pieces of dough (the size of a very fat olive). Roll into a ball, then drop onto a floured worktop. Roll with your palm to make the mini-baguette shapes. Transfer to the baking tray, leaving space for the picos to expand.
4. When the tray is full, cover loosely with cling film. Move onto the next tray and keep going until all the dough is finished. Leave the covered picos until roughly doubled in size.
5. Bake at 210°C (410°F) until golden, 10-15 minutes, turning the tray half-way through.
6. When all the picos have been cooked, put them all on a tray and bake at 140°C (285°F) until they are completely dry and crisp.