by Oliver Smith, The Telegraph, March 9, 2018
An incense burner swung from the ceiling, filling the air with sweet smells. Images of Christ and the Virgin Mary covered all four walls of the crowded little room. A small television showed a hooded penitent straining under the weight of a giant wooden cross. I ordered another lager.
This wasn’t your average tapas bar. In the shadow of Seville’s Santa Cruz church, La Fresquita is devoted to all things Semana Santa, the city’s annual Holy Week. It is also the sort of place you’d never discover without help from a local. Luckily we had Javi, who knows it better than most. Every Easter this genial, rugby-mad Sevillano becomes a costalero, one of those tasked with carrying one-tonne floats, or pasos, over the cobbled streets to Seville Cathedral. It’s a role he was born to play (he’s a front row forward, after all) and this is where the costaleros meet to talk tactics (and drink beer).
Fortunately, the rest of Javi’s time is spent taking visitors to the city on gastronomic jaunts for Mimo (mimofood.com), which specialises in culinary tours. The company started life in San Sebastian in 2009, but has since opened branches in Mallorca, and - in 2018 - Seville, where it occupies an office in the lobby of the opulent Hotel Alfonso XIII .
Mimo’s success isn’t surprising. Finding trustworthy restaurant recommendations online can require all the skills of a private detective. This was perfectly illustrated by our first lunch in Seville, before we had met Javi. My girlfriend Sophie and I steered clear of the city-centre tourist traps, carefully consulted the online reviews, and perused the menus, interiors - and the faces of the diners, in an attempt to gauge satisfaction levels - in half a dozen restaurants before taking the plunge. The result? Wasted effort and a meal to forget. Instead, Mimo promises to silence the white noise of the internet and put you in the reliable hands of a resident expert. Simple.
The premise, of course, is only as good as the guides in question. And in Javi, we had the perfect host: passionate about his city, a fan of meeting new people, and a lover of good food.
Our first stop was Las Teresas, a stone’s throw from the Real Alcazar, where we indulged in a trio of the city’s tapas staples: manchego, marinated anchovies, and thick succulent slices of dried salted tuna. Our preconceptions about sherry were also cast asunder with a couple of glasses of crisp Tío Pepe Fino – a far cry from the sickly stuff my grandma used to serve up at Christmas. Topics of conversation: the complexities of grading Iberian ham, Russian tourists ordering champagne instead of sherry, and how an Irishman named Patrick O'Connell led his beloved Real Betis to the Spanish title in 1935.
Next up was the aforementioned icons and thuribles of La Fresquita, the most atmospheric tapas bar I’ve ever encountered, with delicious - but suitably ascetic - food to boot. We ate a simple spinach and chickpea stew, ratatouille topped with fried egg, and bite-sized garlicky prawn sandwiches, or montaito. Topics of conversation: Semana Santa, why they wear those pointy hats (to conceal their identity), and Harry Kane’s future at Tottenham.
Third up was traditional Casa Román, where we had the tastiest dish of the evening: cazón en adobo (dogfish marinated in garlic, cumin and paprika). Topics of conversation: the year Javi spent living in Cardiff, and why the three key ingredients for an authentic tapas bar are blue tiles, oil paintings on the wall, and hams hanging from the ceiling.
Our final stop was more modern: La Azotea, where we somehow found room for two more tapas dishes and a delicious and elegant pud that combined orange cream, mint sorbet and gin “slush”. The memory of our disappointing lunch was forgotten. So too is my memory of our conversation that evening. Because by 11pm, with a belly full of tasty food and wine, the three of us were like old friends, talking easily about nothing in particular – but almost certainly putting the world to rights.
This is perhaps the best thing about Mimo’s tours. It sounds a little cheesy, but as well as revealing Seville’s best places to eat (they can also arrange sightseeing, shopping and flamenco tours), we had a friend for the evening who, over the course of three hours, told us more about the quirks, joys and pitfalls of life in the city than you’ll find in any guidebook.
This secret to Mimo’s success was further demonstrated the following night. We returned to Casa Román, for another taste of that incredible dogfish, and spied Javi in the corner with a new group of travellers. “These guys did a tour with me in San Sebastian a few years ago,” he explained. “They insisted I show them around Seville too.” How’s that for an endorsement.
“You’ve had your chance with him already,” joked an American in the group, protectively putting his arm around Javi’s shoulders. “He’s ours tonight!”
How to do it
Mimo Sevilla, based at the Hotel Alfonso XIII, offers three-hour tapas tasting tours from €115 (£102) per person. Vegetarian tours are possible but they are not recommended for vegans.
It also has a cookery school at the hotel, with three-hours classes, including lunch, from €125 (£111) per person.
Hotel Alfonso XIII Seville, Andalucia, Spain
8Telegraph expert rating
Just as Paris has the George V and London The Ritz, Seville has the Alfonso XIII. Since the eponymous King Alfonso built the hotel for VIP guests to the 1929 Expo, this grande dame of a hotel, just a few hundred yards from the cathedral, has become synonymous with the ultimate in palatial luxury. Read expert review. From £208per night. Check availability. Rates provided by Booking.com.