The Last Charcoal Man of Seville

Years ago, Spanish cities had a store in every neighborhood. José Luis Aguilar is the last charcoal merchant in Seville.

José Luis Aguilar (Photo: Pepe Nieto
Aug. 15, 2016
By Alexis Kerner
José Luis Aguilar (Photo: Pepe Nieto

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When Olive Oil Times asked José Luis Aguilar why he is so pas­sion­ate about char­coal there was a moment of silence.

It seemed like it was the first time he was asked this ques­tion and by his facial expres­sion he gave the impres­sion that he thought it was obvi­ous. After a long pause, he said, I grew up here play­ing on these heaps of char­coal. It has been my family´s liveli­hood for over a cen­tury.” A friend who stopped in to say hello on her way home chimed in, it is his way of life.

Years ago, Spanish cities had a store in every neigh­bor­hood to pur­chase char­coal. Today Aguilar is the last tra­di­tional char­coal mer­chant in Seville.

His store is dec­o­rated with old objects cov­ered in black dust from years of char­coal dis­pens­ing and his prices are listed on a chalk­board. He asks for a mere €1.10 per Kg ($0.50/Lb), for holly oak char­coal, or car­bon de encina, that comes in from Zahino, a small town in Extremadura.

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He rec­om­mended his char­coal for cook­ing fish, meat or what­ever you want to taste bet­ter. There is noth­ing like slow-cooked meat on the BBQ. Customers who came in all agreed. There was noth­ing like it.

In the sum­mer, beach­go­ers stop by for a sac before head­ing out of the city. In the spring, Sevillians use it to cook favorites like mar­i­nated skew­ered chicken, sausages and pork loin. They need to eat well since they spend count­less hours at the April Fair danc­ing, singing and drink­ing. In the win­ter, Aguilar says his cus­tomers buy it for their bra­zier, a fire bas­ket that is placed under the table to keep your legs and feet warm.

José Luis Aguilar (All photos by Pepe Nieto)

When asked about eat­ing the char­coal Aguilar laughed. No. You can´t eat this. It is for cook­ing.” He thought for a sec­ond and then he remem­bered a story he once heard about a group of African mon­keys that ate char­coal to help digest a poi­so­nous plant they were thriv­ing on. Perhaps, he said, but that was with mon­keys.

Bakers and chefs, how­ever, are demon­strat­ing that char­coal is not just for the BBQ and win­ter bra­zier. Activated char­coal, spe­cially pre­pared to have a neg­a­tive charge, is now pop­ping up in breads, pas­tries and other gourmet plates. It can be fun to see an all black loaf but is it bet­ter than sliced bread?

There is his­tor­i­cal evi­dence that char­coal has been used med­i­c­i­nally since Ancient Egypt to help diges­tion. A study from the 17th cen­tury demon­strated that acti­vated char­coal had prop­er­ties that could absorb many sub­stances. The French chemist Gabriel Bertrand later demon­strated this by sur­viv­ing after swal­low­ing a lethal dose of arsenic tri­ox­ide mixed with acti­vated char­coal.

The trend of mix­ing acti­vates car­bon into the bread dough and other foods is thought to help with diges­tion, reduc­ing flat­u­lence and bloat­ing. However, many doc­tors agree that there is not enough evi­dence on its effec­tive­ness and that con­sump­tion of this ingre­di­ent should be done in mod­er­a­tion.

According to Alessandro Targhetta, a spe­cial­ist in home­o­pathic med­i­cine and phys­i­cal ther­apy, there is very lit­tle amount of char­coal in the bread dough to make the bread more digestible and even less to help reduce a bloated belly.” He believes that the only effec­tive rem­edy is to take active char­coal sup­ple­ments.

However, he advises that nat­ural reme­dies should not be taken lightly because they can cause unwanted sec­ondary effects. Daily con­sump­tion of acti­vated char­coal can reduce the effec­tive­ness of birth con­trol, dia­betic and thy­roid med­ica­tions.

Furthermore, acti­vated char­coal (E153) has been pro­hib­ited in the United States and in Europe in baked goods for its con­tent of ben­zopy­rene, a wood derived car­cino­gen.

Final ver­dict? Activated char­coal in its legal forms can add a unique ele­ment to a plate but it is not an ingre­di­ent that should be abused.



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