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'We met over a delicious plate of grilled sweetbreads'

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'We met over a delicious plate of grilled sweetbreads'
James and Lauren (left) with their business partner Alejandro Cabrera. Photo: Devour Spain
06:59 CEST+02:00
In this week's my Spanish Career, The Local chats to American Lauren Aloise and New Zealander James Blick, who run Devour Spain food tours.

Where are you from originally and what brought you to Spain?

Lauren: I´m originally from a small town in Massachusetts and came to Spain in 2009, officially to teach English, but actually to learn more about Spanish cuisine and wine - I wanted to return to the US and become a chef. I was placed in Seville, and that's where I met my Spanish husband. In 2011 we moved to Madrid to search out better career opportunities - ironically we both ended up becoming entrepreneurs! 

James: I'm from New Zealand, and came to Spain by way of France. I often joke that I moved to France to meet French women, and I met a Spaniard. My wife is from Madrid, and we came here in 2011 after a while living together in New Zealand. In the end, New Zealand was too quiet for us. We thrive on the gloriously erratic energy of this country.

What do you love about Spain/Madrid and what do you loathe?

J: Spain is just a wonderful invigorating place to live. The people are welcoming, the country is so varied, the history fascinating, the food so good. And not only is the food good, but the way it's regularly eaten - standing in busy bars, rubbing shoulders with strangers - that's part of what makes the gastronomy so great. What do I loathe? I don't loathe anything. Cultural differences can at first be frustrating, but once you adapt you're away.

L: I love the food and wine, of course! Spain's regional diversity is spectacular, the landscapes change so drastically as you drive around the country. There's honestly nothing I loathe about Spain - I only wish flights were faster and cheaper to be able to see my US based family more often. 


James sampling some of Spain's finest jamón. Photo: Devour Spain. 

How did you come to start Devour Spain?

L: I had just relocated to Madrid from Seville and was jobless. My background was in hospitality and tourism management, and my dream was to work in food and travel. I began by creating a brand as a Spanish food and travel expert with my blog, Spanish Sabores. As I began to write about the fantastic food and wine all over Spain, I realized it would be even better to show people these things first hand. So I designed our first tour in Madrid and Devour Spain was quick to follow!

J: Lauren and I met on Facebook over a delicious plate of grilled sweetbreads (she posted a picture asking what they were and I was the only one to get it right). And I partnered with her in Madrid, designing our popular Tapas, Taverns & History Tour. And from just a couple of tours in Madrid, we now run over 20 different food and tapas tours a day in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Malaga, with more coming soon. We are constantly evolving and expanding our brand and are excited about the myriad of ways we can share Spain with our guests.

How was the experience of starting a business in Spain?

L: A lot of entrepreneurs complain about the infamous red tape around starting your own business in Spain. Without anything to compare to (I never started a business elsewhere) I haven't found it too difficult. I think the important thing is to surround yourself with great people, and take every challenge on quickly and efficiently. It's also important to make sure you are working responsibly, and we choose to use a local accountant to ensure we are adhering to all local tax and employment laws. We pride ourselves on operating an ethical business in Spain. 

How does Devour Spain differ from other city tours?

J: On a Devour Spain food tour you will taste fantastic local food. That's a given. But great food is just a beginning for us. You'll also learn about the traditions and the rich history of Spain and you'll meet and hear the stories of the wonderful chefs, shopkeepers, bartenders in the places we visit. We don't just aim to fill bellies, we aim to fill minds as well. And, of course, our guides are a class act - we hire selectively and pay well, meaning they're smart, passionate Spain experts and gifted storytellers. Because, at their core, great tours are really great stories.

We've also invested heavily in providing first-rate customer service, available seven days a week. Because although it might be the weekend for us, it's not for our clients. They're on holiday!

And importantly, our food vendor partners will find a transparent and ethical partner in Devour Spain. We want to be good stewards in our community. There is a big cash economy is Spain, and we've been vigilant not to go there. It´s not always easy, but this means paying our talented guides legally and very well, paying 21 percent IVA on the full price of every ticket sold, and never operating on a cash basis. This side of things is very important to us and we're not afraid to talk about it candidly.


The tours involve visiting bars that have often been in the same family for generations. Photo: Devour Spain

Do you think it can often be difficult for tourists to see the real Spain and eat where the locals eat? 

L: Absolutely. It frustrates us to hear that visitors might spend two or three days in a city and never get to know any of the amazingly atmospheric locally-owned establishments. It's a shame that many people are asking for paella and sangria in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Malaga - each city has a local gastronomy that is so rich and unique, and easy to discover if you know where to look. 

And beyond the actual food, there are so many rich stories and deep-rooted cultural experiences that can be unleashed by the power of sharing food and drink. It's so important to us that Devour Spain is a way for people to share these moments and get a true understanding of Spain's incredible culture.

How do you decide where to take people on the tour, how do you source your tour partners?

J: Great local food is obviously key. When in Barcelona, you've got to try a bomba. And we believe we've found the best one (and we tried quite a few looking for it!). Or in Madrid, the cocido stew is iconic, and we take guests into the traditional kitchen at famous restaurant La Bola to taste it and see how it's made the old way. But it's about more than just the food. We partner with establishments that are unique, are family-run and are excited about sharing their food and their story with our guests.

Do you think, compared to other countries, Spain still has a lot of independent bars, restaurants and shops?

J: I know certainly compared to the United States and New Zealand (two places I've lived) it does. This is a country where many people carry on the family business, meaning places we visit on our tours have been in families for generations. We work with a number of establishments where parents and children run the place together. I love working with Bodegas Ricla in Madrid, where mother Ana lives upstairs, and makes the most amazing off-menu meatballs, while her two sons run the bar. I guess the whole world used to be like that, but in places like New Zealand we're more likely to break away and do our own thing, and not follow in our parents' footsteps. Neither way is right or wrong, but part of the beauty of Spain is that the old way still exists. Have said that, it is changing here. Traditional establishments are under threat. I've seen a massive number of chains move into Madrid over the last five years (especially since the rental control laws lapsed recently). There's nothing wrong with a chain per se, but they never have the wonderful idiosyncrasies of a small business.


A group sampling some vermouth on tap. Photo: Devour Spain. 

For someone visiting Spain for the first time, what food/drink should they not leave the country without trying?

L: Many visitors leave Madrid without ever having tried vermouth on tap, which is such a shame! I am a huge fan of what was once considered to be an “old man” drink, and has now seen a resurgence of vermouth bars in Spain's cosmopolitan areas. I also love Madrid's calamari sandwiches, a bowl of cold salmorejo with diced ham and egg, a gooey slice of tortilla, and fried cod fritters - another Madrid classic. In Barcelona, skip the paella, but don't leave without trying fideua, in Seville be sure to sample the different styles of dry sherry wines (accompanied by cured Iberian ham, of course!), and in Malaga there is nothing more traditional than espetos (sardine skewers) by the beach or a glass of sweet Malaga wine in a rustic tavern.

Who are your typical customers on the tour? Why should people take a tour instead of braving the tapas bars alone?

J: The sheer fact that Spain has approximately one bar for every 130 people (the highest rate of bars per capita in Europe) makes it overwhelming to know where to start.  You can try braving the food scene on your own. You'll have a few hits, a few misses. But what you won't get on your own is context. That's what you'll get on a Devour Spain food tour - we'll give you the backstory of the food and connect you with the families that are creating it. We'll help you understand the city's historical and cultural nuances. I like to think that we help our guests see a city with fresh eyes… that the afternoon or morning after their tour, they'll experience the city more fully - whether they're eating in a tapas bar or exploring an art museum.

And our typical customers? Curious travellers who want to have a fun, enriching experience, who love to eat well, and who want to understand Spain more deeply. And they're people who realise that if they brave the food scene on their own, it's likely they'll only scratch the surface of what the country offers.

What are your plans for the future?

L: It's a really exciting time for Devour Spain right now! We have a lot of new products and projects in the works; from a new concept store office space in Madrid, expansion into new areas such as large events, and a new line of wine experiences under the brand Spain Uncorked. What we've realized is that there are so many wonderful ways we can deliver on our mission of matching guests with unforgettable experiences that will help them better understand Spain. Whether it's food, wine or travel throughout the country, we really are only at the beginning of what we want to offer - the future is very exciting!

Devour Spain was founded by Spanish food lovers as a way to connect hungry travellers with the local, family run businesses that make amazing food. Offering award-winning fun and delicious food tours and tapas tours in Malaga, Seville, Barcelona and Madrid. Follow them on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter for Spanish food news, tips and recipes.

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