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Touring Spain on a full and happy stomach

Lauren Aloise, owner of Devour Spain, grew up in Sutton, Mass., and now lives in Madrid.
Lauren Aloise, owner of Devour Spain, grew up in Sutton, Mass., and now lives in Madrid.Devour Spain

Massachusetts native and Madrid resident Lauren Aloise, 30, founded Madrid Food Tour in 2012, which now has expanded into Devour Spain, offering culinary walking tours in several Spanish cities. Aloise, whose first restaurant job was at a Friendly’s at the Auburn Mall, also runs the culinary tourism website spanishsabores.com, which includes information on Spanish food and culinary travel. Below are excerpts from an interview with Aloise.

Q. Did anything in your upbringing influence your passion for food and Spain?

A. I grew up in Sutton, near Worcester, in an Italian-American family where food was paramount. I remember how much I loved being in the kitchen. I also really had this need to travel and spent a summer with a family in Sicily. But when I came home, there was no one to use my Italian with, so I started studying Spanish.

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Q. How did you end up in Spain?

A. I have two degrees from UMass Amherst, a bachelor’s of science in business, specializing in hospitality and tourism management, and a bachelor’s of art in Spanish language. I spent one year studying abroad, in Buenos Aries, and Granada, Spain. After college (Aloise graduated in 2009), I had an opportunity to be a teaching assistant at a school in Seville. I was considering culinary school and thought it would be a chance to get into Spanish cuisine, which I’d starting hearing about. A week into being there, I met my now-husband. He works in IT and software, and is now one of three partners in Devour Spain. Our other partner is from New Zealand. It’s so helpful to have someone who is Spanish.

Q. What led you to start offering food tours?

A. During my first two years in Seville, I tried to learn as much about the food as possible. I started the blog to write about food and I also opened my house to expats, having people come over and we’d cook Spanish dishes together and eat. I’d stumbled upon the idea of food tours and thought, this is the most perfect thing for me — combining my knowledge of food, travel, my community. We moved to Madrid in 2011 and my first tour was in 2012. I was incredibly lucky because there was little competition and high demand. There’s more competition now, but still high demand.

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Q. How do you deal with the competition?

A. We try to stand out by working only with businesses that are family owned and operated, are unique, and of course have great food. Many of our businesses have been around for decades or generations. Our target clients have come a long way — about 60 percent come from the US — and they want to experience the old Spain.

Q. What are some common misconceptions about Spanish food?

A. Traditional paella, which is from Valencia, wasn’t made with seafood, but was farmer’s food, usually with snails, rabbit, and beans. Of course you can now find seafood paella for tourists all over the country. Also, tapas to Americans are small plates or shared plates, but if you ask 10 Spanish people, they’ll give 10 different answers depending on where they’re from. Like in Madrid, it’s the little bit of free food with your drink. In Seville, it means a size, so menus will have tapa, half, and full portions. Our most popular tours are the tapas and history tours, which is a historic walking tour with tastings at tapas bars.

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Q. Can you share a few food and travel tips from your current destinations?

A. Madrid is home to so many of Spain’s really nice restaurants. I really like the Literary Quarter, or Barrio de las Letras. It’s charming, central, with great places to eat and drink. Barcelona is really all about neighborhoods, with so many personalities, like Gracia, which still feels like a village, with great shops and restaurants. Seville is where I fell in love with Spanish food. It has some of the best food in Spain, especially if you’re interested in more modern tapas. Malaga has a great market in the tiny city center where you can see all the food that Spain produces in one place.

Q. What do your future plans include?

A. We plan to launch tours in Granada and Santiago de Compostela this year and also offer seasonal tours that show off traditions and parts of Spanish culture. Like we have a seasonal calçots tour on the countryside outside of Barcelona. Those are basically a variety of scallion and are steamed over an open fire. We hope to do something with sherry wine and the grape harvest and also with the olive harvest, from tree to oil. Within a couple years, we want to give cooking classes. For me it’s a personal thing, to get people interested in something lesser known than paella and sangria.

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Diane Daniel can be reached at diane@bydianedaniel.com.