Every year I travel from Palm Beach, Florida, where I write a food and entertaining column for the Palm Beach Daily News, to Arenales, the 6,000-acre cortijo (farm) where I grew up, just outside of Seville, Spain. In Palm Beach, I lead a blissful existence with my husband and our three boys, one that's full of sun and beaches, sandals and pareos. When I return to Arenales, I pull on faded blue jeans and riding boots and head out to the olive groves and bullring to reconnect with my Spanish roots.
My favorite time to visit is in the spring, which I think is the most beautiful time of year in Andalucía. The season begins early, in February or March. Knee-high stalks of alfalfa cover the rolling green meadows, wild purple irises dot the pastures, and the air is sweet with the aroma of orange blossoms. Storks land on our roof as they migrate from Africa, pink flamingos dip their long legs in our reservoir, and wild partridge share the fields with sheep, goats and horses.
The farmhouse at Arenales, which has been in my family for generations, was originally constructed on the foundation of a first-century Moorish silo. After a fire destroyed the place in 1923, my grandparents rebuilt it in a typical Andalusian style, with yellow and red stucco walls that enclose a series of courtyards.
In addition to farming olives and producing ingredients for our mealsvegetables from the gardens, honey from hives next to the sunflower fields,milk and cheese from the cows, meat from the livestockmy family breeds bulls for bullfighting. My father, the Count of la Maza, was known for raising very brave bulls. At Arenales, the library is adorned with 18th-century tiles depicting the various stages of bull breeding, antique bullfighting posters and taxidermic heads of some of the bulls that performed extraordinarily well in the ring. This room is the heart of the house.
Today, bullfighting remains one of Spain's largest spectator sports. I am always amazed at how little customs change in bullfighting culture: It is still bad luck for people to wear yellow to a bullfight (red is fine); traditional in Andalucía to start wearing summer whites on Easter Sunday, the beginning of the bullfighting season; and good luck to carry a white handkerchief to wave if the torero has done a terrific job and deserves the ear or tail of the bull as a prize.
In the early spring, before the bullfighting season begins, empresariosthe bullring managersfrom all over Spain visit the cortijos to purchase bulls. This process involves lots of conversation and haggling and, almost always, impromptu invitations for lunch to discuss the quality of the livestock. It is during these long lunches that the unofficial history of bullfighting is retold and exaggerated.
Lunch at Arenales always starts with tapas: bite-size shrimp pancakes; wild mushrooms sautéed in garlic and sherry; wedges of spinach, zucchini and eggplant tortillas, the vegetables arranged in layers. Then we might serve a creamy lentil soup with croutonsmy favorite Spanish comfort foodand a roasted leg of lamb marinated in red wine vinegar. My mother, sisters and I went to boarding school in England, so vestiges of those days sneak into our dishes, like the mint sauce for the roast leg of lamb.
After lunch, we often dance flamenco. Everyone in Seville seems to have an innate talent for itsome play guitar, others sing or dance beautifully. Flamenco and bullfighting are intertwined in the folklore and traditions of Andalucía, especially in Seville. The classic story of a bullfighter marrying a flamenco dancer may be a stereotype, but it does happen.
My parents not only entertained casually at lunch, but grandly in the eveningsmost memorably when they hosted the engagement party for the Infanta Elena, the eldest daughter of King Juan Carlos I, in 1995. More than 600 members of Europe's royal families danced from early afternoon until 3 a.m., when churros and hot chocolate were served near the embers of the bonfires.
So many of my early memories are connected with the food we ate, even though my siblings and I were never allowed in the kitchen as children. I didn't learn how many eggs went into the rice pudding, but I remember what that pudding looked and tasted like and that's how I re-create it today. That reverence for everyday foodstews made with garbanzos or alubias; roasts of lamb, pork and vealis what I write about in my newspaper column. With each recipe, I am keeping alive a way of life. I speak to my children in Spanish and try to instill food memories in them. I feel that the olive-wood spoon I use while cooking somehow connects me to the past. Every time I use it to stir a pot of stewed artichokes with ham, or lentil soup, it brings a bit of Arenales to Palm Beach.