Gatherings & Celebrations: The Spring Fiestas of Seville - #119

Seville is the capital of the region of Andalucia in southern Spain.  It was from this province that Christopher Columbus set sail.  And it was right here to Seville that he returned with his treasures.  For decades Seville had a monopoly on the commercial action between Europe and the New World.   The city of Seville is like a magnificent layer cake.  Each slice has a base that was put down during the ancient Bronze Age.  Then there were layers set down by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Moors, and Christians, one right on top of the other.  And when you take a bite of Seville, it all blends together.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One of the best times of the year to see these layers of culture in action is during the weeks of the Spring Fiestas.  There are actually two weeks, and they are very different.   One is the week of the Seville Fair; the other is Holy Week.  Holy Week is actually a week of symbolic conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  There are stories told of tremendous heroism.  There are also stories of tremendous terror. For a while things look pretty bleak -- but in the end, the forces of lightness and goodness triumph over the forces of evil and darkness.

During the 1300’s the people of Seville began to group themselves into brotherhoods.  Each brotherhood agreed to produce an image from the Passion of Christ or a sorrowing Virgin and to venerate that image throughout the year.  Today a brotherhood might have up to three thousand members, and include both men and women.  The most important acts of veneration each year are the fifty-five processions, one for each brotherhood. They take place during Holy Week.  Each brotherhood owns from one to three floats with scenes showing Christ’s Passion or the weeping Virgin.  All the statues are very realistic and must be approved by the general public.  If the people don’t like the new image, it’s removed, no matter how expensive it was to build.

Each float weighs between two and three tons and is carried through the streets of Seville by groups of young men.  For years the floats were carried by professional stevedores.  Eventually, however, their fees became too expensive for the brotherhoods.  People thought that carrying the floats through Seville would come to an end.  But the young men of each brotherhood came together to do the job and the general opinion is that the young men do an even better job than the stevedores did.  And there’s an art to carrying the floats.  The trick is to make them swing and sway so the figures seem alive and moving.

.”  It’s an ancient technique for a festival:  the town where the festival is going on is turned into the town where the original events took place.

The members who actually walk in the procession wear long robes in the colors of the brotherhood.  The pointed headgear, which looks rather terrifying, was originally designed to hide the identity of the person inside.  That gave them a chance to withdraw into themselves.  There’s a theory that being disguised in this costume gave men the opportunity to act in a very religious way, which was not an easy thing to do.  This is a culture that has often seen religious behavior in public as not-macho.  Under the hood, their emotions remain private.

There are people who are wearing the robes of the society but have taken the cones out of their hood.  They want the hood to hang down so they look more humble. These are people doing penance.  The visual symbol is like that of the cock that has become crest-fallen and is therefore no longer “cocky.”

The floats that pass through the streets of Seville express suffering and pain in two different forms.  There are the images of Christ -- images of pain in action --    and there are the images of the weeping Madonnas, images of the pain of looking on, knowing that you are helpless to prevent the suffering of someone that you love. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  This can be a very emotional experience for the crowd.  There are moments of sympathy, sorrow, and gratitude, and at the most intense points, a sense of almost direct contact with the love of Christ.  There is also a great appreciation for  the floats, the decorations, and the music.

It’s called a saeta, which is the Spanish word for “arrow.”  In this case it is an arrow of emotion, of passion, of sentiment.  And it passes between one of the statues being carried through the streets and one of the people watching the procession.  The viewer has been overwhelmed with feeling, and she expresses herself by singing the story of her love and her sadness.  Writing and singing saetas is an art form.  They’re one of the truly climactic moments in the whole celebration, but they are also very personal moments, and usually it is only the singer who knows when and where a saeta will take place.  And sometimes the singer only finds out because he or she is suddenly singing!

The processions go on all day and all night for seven days.  Each one takes from eight to twelve hours to complete.  Each float must pass through a pattern of specific streets and every float must stop at the Cathedral. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  It reminds everyone that there are journeys in life that we must make if we are going to learn to find our way in the outside world and other places that we must visit if we are going to learn to find our way into our inner heart.  Holy Week concludes with a final procession that ends up at midnight.  The Cathedral bells start to ring; Easter has begun.  Light and life have triumphed over death and darkness.

Shortly after Holy Week ends, Seville turns to Fair Week.  This is a celebration of life, of the sensuous aspects of existence.  It started hundreds of years ago as a cattle market and some of its rituals are designed to show the superiority of humans over animals.  There’s a celebration of the way horses increase human power by raising us up, and lending us their strength.  Bullfights take place to illustrate a man’s skill and daring in the face of extraordinary animals.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Fair has always been involved with sort of a balancing act with Holy Week.  Holy Week is religious; the Fair is secular.  Holy Week takes over the streets of the city for its festival; the Fair moves outside of the city and sets up a “pretend Seville.” 

Each year an enormous, newly-designed entrance gate is made for the Fair.  The actual design of the doorway is of considerable interest to the people of Seville, and its presentation and opening a major public event.  One of the strategies of a festival is to produce elaborate architecture and then tear it down as soon as the event is over. 

Taking away the physical elements that contained the celebration is a way of keeping each occasion unique and memorable.  The setting disappears with the end of the festival.  You are bound to the event by memory and that makes it even more special.  It’s also in the tradition of sheer extravagant waste that is often a “must” for a good festival.

On each of the six days of the Fair there is a parade along the main street.  Men in leather pants, boots and stiff-brimmed hats ride along on horses.  It is considered extremely chic to have a woman sitting side-saddle behind the man.  No unisex imagery here.  This is a clear gender-differentiating picture.  It is meant to be sexy.

One can also ride a horse-and-buggy in the parade.  These are driven by men in somber, dark clothing and black hats, with women in bright-colored dresses in the chariot proper. 

The basic structure inside the Fair is a little canvas house called a casita.  Casita actually means “little house.”  Inside, the casitas are furnished with all the elements that you would expect to find in one of Seville’s homes.  Curtains, carpets, mirrors, tables, chairs, pictures, and places to cook.  The furnishings, however, are only emblematic of a “typical” Seville house.  It’s just a summary, a work of art, not the real thing.  The family or business that has set up the house invites people to stop in and have something to eat and drink.  The people of Seville see themselves as great presenters of dramatic displays.  They need an audience nearby to share the experience, and so in many ways they are very open and hospitable.  But Seville has had a long history of invasion by foreign powers, and so the individual family of Seville has become somewhat closed, except for the immediate membership.  Everyone is ready to go out eating and drinking and dancing.  But the operative words here are go out, rather than go home.   It’s a special occasion when an old and prominent Seville family entertains at home.  The “pretend houses” at the Fair give everyone a week to make believe that they are going to each others’ homes.

There’s music and dancing until just before dawn.   Then everyone finds a soft spot and sleeps for three hours, at which time the Fair begins again.  This goes on for six days and six nights.

Just south of Seville is the town of Jerez, and just outside of Jerez, the restaurant El Faro.  It’s one of the most picturesque restaurants in Spain.  The art on the walls of the front room will give you a quick idea of the restaurant’s specialty.  But the walls in the back room are just as important.  El Faro has an extensive collection of the wines, sherries and brandies of Spain.  Fernando Cordoba is the owner and the chef, and he comes from a family of restaurateurs.  He likes to take the classic home recipes of his native region and adapt them to our more modern tastes.  More of the natural flavors of the foods are allowed to come through.  I asked him to prepare some of the dishes that are typically served during the weeks of the Fiestas.

The first week of the Fiestas, Holy Week, is also the last week of Lent.  Recipes that contain meat or animal products are usually not on the home menu during Lent, but in their place are some outstanding vegetable dishes.  This one is a spring vegetable stew.  Three quarts of water go into a large stockpot, along with two cups of coarsely chopped onions... two cups of peas... and two garlic cloves that have been cut into slices.  Fernando continues to add the ingredients, which consist of a quarter of a cup of olive oil, one whole dried pepper, and three bay leaves.  Next in -- two cups of hearts of artichokes.  Fernando uses fresh baby artichokes, which are wonderful if it’s spring and the artichokes are available.  Otherwise, your best bet are frozen artichoke hearts.  Those are followed by four cups of broad beans, the younger the better.  Then four whole cloves of garlic and five slices of bread.  The heat comes up and the water is brought to a simmer.  Everything cooks along, uncovered, for an hour.  At which point the stew has thickened and it’s ready to serve.  A quick tasting for salt and it’s into a serving bowl... where neatness counts.

Fernando’s second dish is a whole fish baked in coarse sea salt.  It looks a little strange, but it tastes great.  A half-inch layer of sea salt goes down on a heat-proof dish that can hold the fish in a single layer.  Then the whole fish goes on.  It’s been gutted and cleaned inside, but the scales have been left on the outside.  The scales help prevent the fish from absorbing the flavor of the salt.  The primary role of the salt in this recipe is to conduct the heat to the fish in a way that is controlled and even.  Additional coarse salt is placed on top, until the fish has a generally even coating of salt, about an inch thick.  Then it goes into a 425 degree Fahrenheit oven for about twenty-five minutes.  When the fish comes out of the oven, the salt has formed a hard crust.  Fernando cracks through the outer surface and removes the salt.  Then he peels back the fish skin and serves the top filet.  The bones are gently removed, the head and tail taken off, and the other filet is placed onto the serving dish.  It’s served with a light sprinkling of olive oil and some lemon juice.  It’s quite amazing -- there’s virtually no taste of salt in the fish.  The salt acts like a pot, and that’s it.

For dessert Fernando is preparing a recipe that is somewhere between a flan and a cheesecake, taking the best parts of each.  Five eggs are broken and set into a mixing bowl.  Four cups of cottage cheese are added.  The cheese has been drained of moisture by letting it sit in a sieve, over a bowl, in the refrigerator overnight.  Then one cup of heavy cream and one and a quarter cups of sugar go in.  Fernando uses his industrial mixer to blend everything together.  The mixture is then poured into a glass loaf pan that has been set into a second pan with enough water in it to go halfway up the outside of the glass pan.  All that goes into a 325 degree oven for twenty minutes.

While the cheese mixture is baking in the water bath, Fernando makes a sauce.  A half cup of honey and two cups of orange juice are heated together in a saute pan until the mixture comes to a boil.  Then it’s allowed to boil until it thickens into a sauce.  That takes about ten minutes.  When the cake is ready, it’s turned out onto a plate.  Two slices are cut and set onto a serving dish.  A few tablespoons of the sauce are drizzled on top.  A little fresh mint and it’s ready to go.  The sweet return of dairy products after Lent.


Many of the most unusual pastries in Seville are made in the convents of closed religious orders.  The recipes are transmitted by word of mouth.  They’re closely guarded secrets.  Perhaps the most famous place to buy this type of pastry is the convent of San Leandro in Seville.  There’s a list of what’s available on the wall and a revolving door.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Mediokilo, por favor.  Si.   (It’s kind of like the world’s oldest vending machine.)  Gracias.  (It’s one of the few places in the world where you don’t have to count your change.)

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For well over a hundred years,  the sherry  companies used real egg whites to clarify their wine.  That left them with a lot of egg yolks, which they donated to the local convents.  The convents would use the egg yolks to make candy like this.  Then in the 1980s, a new technology arrived.  They no longer used egg whites, they no longer donated egg yolks.  But the convents kept making the candy -- though, uh, slightly more expensive.

Over two thousand years ago the Greeks were shipping wine out of southern Spain and the region is still a wine-producing area.  But the most unique drink to come out of this part of the world is not just wine -- it’s wine that has been fortified to become sherry.  The world’s largest producer of sherry is a company called Gonzalez Byass.  They are the producers of Tio Pepe, the world’s most popular sherry.  Tio means “uncle”, and it’s made in the town of Jerez de la Frontera, just down the road from Seville.  The soil is filled with the fossilized shells of the marine life that lived in the sea that once covered these hills.  The shells keep the soil rich in limestone, which is good for the winemaker because it helps hold moisture in this hot, sunny climate.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  On a day of the winemakers’ choosing, the grapes are picked and crushed.  As soon as the grapes are crushed, the process called fermentation begins.  It’s actually kind of easy to understand.  On the outside of the grape, there is a natural yeast.  When the grape is crushed, the yeast comes in contact with the grape juice.  The juice contains sugar, which is the favorite food of the yeast.  It turns the sugar into carbon dioxide gas, which just floats off in the air, and alcohol.  What you have left is alcohol and grape juice, which, in its most basic form, is wine. 

The cellarmaster selects the best of the winemakers’ work and determines which sherry shall be made from which wine.  Sherries are usually not wines made from the harvest of a single year.  They are a blending together of sherries from different years.

During the fermentation of a wine that is destined to become a fino or an amontillado, a flower-like yeast forms spontaneously on the top surface of the wine. It’s called the flor and has a yeasty bread-like aroma that it gives to the wine. And as far as we know, this flor forms only in the area around Jerez.

The aging of the wine takes place with a method that is used only in the making of sherry.  It’s called the Solera System.  The wine barrels are held in rows, one on top of the other.  The newest wine, from this year’s vintage, goes into the cask on the top.  When the producer is ready to bottle the sherry, a portion is drawn off from the bottom.  The portion that was drawn off is then replaced with wine from the barrel just above.  And that’s repeated until all the barrels have been refilled from the row above except for the row on top.  That’s refilled with new wine.  At this point, the wine is fortified with distilled grape alcohol made from the same type of grape that made the wine.  The addition of the alcohol to the wine is one of the essential elements in the production of sherry.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Which returns us to the story of Tio Pepe.  Tio’s nephew, who was the founder of the firm, was making a fine sherry, but it wasn’t exactly what Tio had in mind.  Tio remembered the flavor of his youth, and that was the taste that he wanted.  So his nephew made a couple of casks for him.  Tio kept those casks in the back of the winery and put his name on them so nobody would get into his stash.  He’d come around with a few of his friends and have a drink.  Everybody who tasted Tio’s sherry loved it.  It became quite popular.  As a matter of fact, today Tio Pepe is the most popular sherry in the world.  Don Mauricio Gonzalez-Gordon is a member of the present generation of the family, and in charge of the business.

DON MAURICIO:  This was my great-grandfather’s sample room.  He was the man who started this company.  And when he died, over a hundred years ago, in 1887, his son, my grandfather, decided that everything should be left as he left it; that is, not even dusted.  So these bottles have never been dusted since more than a hundred years ago.

BURT WOLF:   Wow. 

These days there are four basic sherries made in Spain.  There’s the fino, which is light and dry and delicate, and has the flavor of almond.  And it’s what most people think about when they talk about sherry.  Next is the amontillado, which has a hint of hazelnut, and then the oloroso, which tastes of walnut.  Finally there is the noe..

DON MAURICIO:   -- the man in the ark, who we used to always say was our first customer.  But that is a very, very sweet wine, made from a different grape.  It’s a beautiful dessert wine, something I many times will substitute for the dessert!  I just have my glass of noe.

People who like to keep track of things like this tell me that during the week of the Festival of Seville, more sherry is poured in this town than in North America during an entire year.  The only thing I can say to that is... cheers!

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  That’s a look at the two celebrations that make up the Spring Festivals of Seville.  Together they compliment and balance each other.  But they also mark a great passage -- from winter into spring, from darkness and sadness into light and joy.  And the foods that are served at the festivals help mark that change.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking at the gatherings and celebrations, rituals and recipes that mark the passages of our lives.  I’m Burt Wolf.