Roman Wine Tasting

Text by Peter Tatford
Photos by Shawn Hennessey

As all you erudite folks probably already know, Seville was in antiquity a Roman city, probably the most important in Western Europe outside of Italy itself. It’s official name from the time of Julius Caesar was “Julia Romana”, but as often happens it was the city’s older name, Hispalis, which remained in popular use, and is preserved in altered form in the modern name. It was an important trading, manufacturing and administrative centre with extensive commercial links with Rome, exporting wine, oil and fish products back to the Imperial capital.

baetica wines

But what was daily life like in Hispalis during the six centuries of Roman domination? Recently my friend Shawn @azaharSevilla and I were lucky enough to be invited to a rather special wine tasting event at Gastrosol, atop the Metropol Parasol. It was put on by the people responsible for Cotidiana Vitae (Daily Life) at Italica, the well-preserved Roman residential city at Santiponce, just outside Seville. Roman wines were provided by Baetica, who have done excellent work in recreating the styles of wines that would have been drunk in those far off times, drawing on the knowledge of winemakers, historians and archaeologists to make them as authentic as possible.

First though, it was down into the basement for a tour of the Roman ruins discovered when work to redevelop the site of the old market in Plaza Encarnación began back in the nineties. The ruins are now a well restored and preserved archaeology museum with some fascinating things to see. These include a fish salting plant that must have been a smelly neighbour for the residents, a house with an unusual (to me at least) raised platform for dining set into a semi-circular alcove, restored mosaics, and some crude gaming tables, as well as glimpses of the stratification (new bits built over old bits) of the site as it developed.

antequarium tour

Then it was time to go upstairs for the wine tasting. Our hosts, Manuel León Béjar and Alejandro Vera had chosen four wines for us to sample, Mulsum (fermented with honey), Sanguis (steeped with rose petals), Antinoo (steeped with violets), and Mesalina (flavoured with cinnamon, and named for the wife of the Emperor Claudius), which became very popular in the later Roman Empire. It’s not really known how close these are to the Roman originals, especially as many of the old grape varieties have sadly disappeared, but extensive research into the wine making techniques of the time and descriptions of the grapes that were used gives us considerable confidence, and the use of the various flavourings is well attested to by writers and commentators of the time.

roman wine tasting

Now, I have to admit that I’m not really a wine expert, so for proper tasting notes and pairings I’m going to send you over to these good people (the notes are in Spanish), but I will say that it was a fascinating experience, and that the wines were quite distinctive compared to modern ones. My favourites were the Mulsum, which did have a definite tang of honey without being overly sweet, and the Mesalina, which was the most intensely flavoured, and was apparently mainly used at the end of, or even after, the meal. Maybe next time we’ll get a complete Roman banquet, though I’m still not convinced about the advantages of eating lying down.

For more information about activities at Italica, including tasting events, you can visit the Cotidiana Vitae website.

Los Reyes Magos

reyes-magosAlthough Father Christmas/Santa Claus has been gaining ground in recent years, in the south of Europe, and particularly the Spanish speaking world, the bringer-of-gifts is a much older figure, or more properly some much older figures, as there are three of them – the Three Wise Men of Biblical tradition, now more popularly known as Los Reyes Magos, the Magic Kings (Magos can be translated as either wizard or wise, and given that they “followed a star” they were probably astrologers). Although unnamed in the Bible, they have been popularly known since times immemorial as Melchior, Gaspar and Baltasar, and, despite the Pope’s recent assertion that they were Spanish, every Spanish child knows that they actually come one from each of the three continents, Melchior from Europe, Gaspar from Asia and Baltasar from Africa (no America or Australia in those days).

They don’t come at Christmas either, but on Epiphany, January 6, at the end of the holiday period, and they travel by camel, but they do visit every house in a single night. In the days before Reyes children must write a letter to the kings, so that they know what presents are to be delivered, but if they’ve been bad they may find that their only present is a lump of coal.

In Seville (and many other places in Spain) there is a big parade, the Cabalgata (cavalcade) de los Reyes during the afternoon and evening of January 5, and large crowds line the streets to watch the parade go by. The unique feature of these processions are the sweets that are thrown into the crowds for the children to pick up.

One last tradition is the food. Roscón de Reyes, made almost everywhere in the Spanish speaking world as part of the celebration of the Three Kings, is like a large doughnut with candied fruit (and these days, chocolate). It is common for these (if home-made) to contain “surprises”, small items for the children to find when the cake is eaten.

A Brief History of Tapas

We probably all know what tapas are (if you don’t they are those little plates of food that come with your drink, popular all over Spain, particularly in Andalusia, and even more particularly in Seville, the “home of tapas”). But why are they called “tapas”, how did they originate and why have they become such an integral part of the lifestyle?

wine glasses and tapasThe first of these questions is relatively simple. In Spanish a “tapa” is a lid or cover, and the story is that tavern keepers would give their customers a slice of bread or ham to cover their drinks to keep out the dust and the flies (fruit flies are partial to a bit of sweet wine or sherry). It’s also possible that something strongly flavoured, like cheese, could be used to disguise the taste of poor quality wine.

This is also part of the answer to the second question, but not by any means the whole story. The most general reason probably goes back to Spain’s agricultural past. In the summer heat workers in the fields would start early, but the main meal of the day would be eaten just before the hottest part of the day, and was followed by the siesta, so to keep them going during the long mornings they would eat small snacks.

1-jamon ibericoThis is also a tale of three kings (but not The Three Kings). It is said that when the 13th century king Alfonso X “The Wise” became gravely ill his recovery was aided by eating small quantities of food and drink throughout the day, instead of full meals, while Felipe III in the early 17th century decreed that tavern keepers had to serve food with their drinks as a measure to combat the problem of drunkenness, especially among off duty soldiers and sailors. Later Alfonso XII (or possibly Alfonso XIII, an indication that the story may be apocryphal) is claimed to have been visiting a tavern in Cádiz and was served his drink with a slice of ham to keep out the sand blowing in from the beach. When he ordered another drink he asked for it with “the cover”. Over time the food that was served became more varied and more substantial, and going out for tapas became a common practice. The activity is also a very social one, and families and groups of friends would share their tapas while socialising, making this a very convivial activity in a way that is unusual for a more formal meal.

Introducing our History and Tapas Tour – a unique way to experience great food and learn about the history of both tapas and Seville

Eating times in Seville

As the observant visitor to Seville will quickly notice, the day here has a different rhythm from what’s typical in either North America or the countries of Northern Europe. Most of the shops close for the afternoon, and then open again late into the evening, and the streets start to fill with people just when the guiris (foreigners) are heading home to bed. A lot of this has to do with the weather, of course. In summer (basically from April to October) it makes good sense to be out and about in the cool of the morning and the cool of the evening, and the consequent short nights and the afternoon heat means you really need that afternoon siesta.

This Mediterranean timetable also affects the times that people normally eat meals. Naturally this varies a bit from person to person according to circumstance, as it does anywhere, but there are some regularities. Meals are generally eaten later here than in northern Europe.

Breakfast (desayuno) is often not much more than coffee and a quick bite, eaten at home, and equally often is repeated in a bar or café around 10.00 – 10.30 am (so not the best time to go to the post office or bank). For children a typical breakfast would be cola-cao (a chocolate milk drink) and a sweet roll or magdalena, a typical Spanish cake. The famous churros and chocolate will usually be reserved for weekends (it’s a great hangover cure).

The main meal of the day is lunch (almuerzo), usually eaten between 2.00 and 4.00 pm. For working people who have to eat lunch out on a regular basis most tapas bars have a menu del día (a daily special), a two or three course meal with several options and usually including bread and a drink, costing between 6.50 and 12 euros. Don’t confuse the menu and the carta (main menu).

It’s common to fill in the gap between lunch and dinner with a merienda, the Spanish equivalent of the now sadly almost defunct English high tea. This takes place between 5.00 – 7.00 pm and is typically a light snack, or more often, a cake with coffee.

Dinner (cena) tends to be a lighter meal and starts around 8.00 in the evening, or even later if you’re eating out. At home this will be something like an omelette, or maybe some soup or salad. If you’re out with family or friends, tapas is the name of the game. For most people full restaurant meals will be for special occasions only.

Opening Hours:
Tapas bars and restaurants are usually open from 1.00 to about 4.00, and again from 8.00 to about 11.30. Some will stay open all day but few have all-day kitchens, other than very touristy places. If you stick to earlier mealtimes than what’s normal locally the bars won’t be busy when you arrive, and if they get busy later you’ll already have the best seats.

For more about tapas and tips on how to order them, take a look at Tapas 101.