Chef Oscar González Moreno offers up Andalusian delights for discerning travellers and taste buds with his latest endeavor: Spain and the Chef.
I met professional chef Oscar González Moreno, at the entrance of the famous Triana Mercado in Sevilla, Spain, on an unusually cloudy morning.
Though the weather was warm, it was late autumn and the locals were dressed for the season in cozy sweaters and boots. Oscar ushered me through the market, which happens to sit on top of the Castillo San Jorge, a medieval fortress and the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition.
We passed the fish stalls, vegetable stands, and butchers hawking pig ears, which Oscar explained is good for our bones due to the high gelatin content. As we continued down one aisle we stopped to admire, or at least pay respect to, whole rabbits with their fur still intact.
When we reached a small table at the back of the market we ordered espresso and indulged in the traditional Spanish breakfast of tostada con tomate y aceite – toast with crushed tomato and olive oil.
A personalised experience
Oscar completed his training at the prestigious Escuela Hacienda La Laguna in Baeza, Jaen, and has prepared a myriad of dishes in Spanish tapas bars around the globe. He recently opened his own private touring company called Spain and the Chef in Sevilla. It’s designed for small groups and solo travelers interested in one-day experiences or multi-day immersions, such as learning about Spanish wine, day-tripping to Jerez for sherry tasting, or simply exploring why Spain has some of the best olive oil in the world.
As someone who dislikes large tours and prefers to delve into the history of a place through meaningful conversations, I had high hopes – which is why I was thrilled to discover that Oscar didn’t have an agenda. He personalises each tour, generously offering up culinary secrets from how to make the best paella (it’s in the broth) to how to tell which is the highest quality Iberian jamón in the market.
To the untrained eye, the pig legs hanging everywhere looked identical, but Oscar solved the mystery. The secret lies in the color of the hooves. Black hooves suggest the pigs are free range, spending their time endlessly foraging for acorns.
After breakfast, we stopped at one of the fruit stands where he pointed out regional selections and told me that Calanda peaches, some of the best in Spain, are wrapped in plastic while still on the trees to help them grow.
When I asked why Oscar caters to individuals rather than large groups where he could potentially earn more money, he said he’d rather spend time with travelers who want to take a deep dive into the nuances of southern Spain’s culture. He prefers to spend time with people who are open to slowing down instead of jumping from one tourist attraction to the next, and most importantly, who appreciate the little things, like the smooth texture of the payoyo cheese he ordered for us. Made from goat milk this semi-hard cheese offers a subtle mixture of herbs with a hint of nuts and has a lovely finish.
Two hours flew by as we spoke with vendors, Oscar happily translating. At the fish stall he explained which fish were the freshest. We agreed on the hake, and though I was hesitant to buy the whole fish with its beady eyes and sharp threatening teeth, he assured me that the fishmonger would filet it for me if I asked, but I would still be charged for the head and bones, so I was welcome to take them with me. Reader, I did not.
Diving into Spanish cooking
I ended the tour having learned so much, days later I found myself attending Oscar’s cooking class where four of us made Solomillo al Pedro Ximenez – a classic pork dish made with sherry – along with seafood paella, and salmorejo, a cold soup consisting of tomatoes, bread, olive oil, garlic, and sherry vinegar, topped with chopped hard-boiled egg and ham.
As we sat down together to enjoy our labour of love, including a delicious sherry from Jerez, the conversation turned to the history of the popular bacalao, a white flaky codfish that is almost predictably on the menu in tapas bars, usually fried, but occasionally in a pisto, or vegetable stew. Oscar said, historically, bacalao is considered the fish of the poor because it’s easily transportable, and, because it must be preserved in the intense Andalusian heat, it’s packed in salt, a more economical choice than ice. We polished off our meal with the perfect crema Catalina, a custard with hints of citrus and cinnamon.
Stepping out of my culinary comfort zone
A week later, a friend and I signed up with Oscar for a personalized tapas tour, which took me significantly out of my culinary comfort zone. Our first stop was a small tapas bar that served classic espinacas con garbanzos (spinach with chickpeas) with just the right balance of cumin, tomato, and olive oil.
Next, we headed down a side street to a tiny place packed with locals ordering fried delights. Oscar opted for the popular adobo, fried fish dressed with vinegar and spices, once again explaining the history of this Andalusian staple. Our last stop was a fusion restaurant that offered twists on traditional tapas, including a blood pudding ravioli, which I politely declined, a tasty broccoli salad topped with plantain chips and caviar, and thinly sliced smoked salmon finished with a delicate mustard sauce and dill.
As we wrapped up our tour sipping café con leche and sharing sweets that Oscar picked up at a famous bakery, I suggested that cooking is an art, but Oscar scoffed. He said that first and foremost, cooking is about nourishment, which is what Oscar is doing with Spain and the Chef; nourishing the souls and expanding the minds of people who visit this beautiful, lively city.