Art, architecture and food art in Bilbao….

I miss the Basque Country even when I am there for work every few weeks. It has now been almost 8 months and I am having serious withdrawal for pretty much everything Basque. Today I was reminded of two of the best things to have ever touched my lips. And I mean that, because they provoked a feeling that is difficult to describe in words. These are only two of many amazing dishes I have had in the Basque Country.

Bilbao, or Bilbo in Euskera, is the city of my dreams. I loved Bilbao even before the Guggenheim was built when it was still a bit gritty and grey around the edges. The casco antiguo has always intrigued me with its Catedral de Santiago, Plaza Nueva, winding streets and fantastic pintxo bars. I remember wandering through those streets on my first visit to Bilbao and taking in its bohemian feeling, an industrial city still struggling to exist. But, nowadays Bilbao is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. A true example of class, elegance and ingenious infrastructure. The Guggenheim and the Andoibarra neighborhood neighborhood surrounding it are phenomenal. Its streets will welcome you to pasear and take in the fascinating architecture and green parks that it offers. And don’t forget to eat. Eat a lot. Remember, you are in the Basque Country. https://mooninspain.com/2015/08/18/tourist-remember/

Cordero Deshuesado en el Guggenheim Bistro

Inside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao you will find two restaurants. One is Nerua, a Michelin star restaurant where I hope to dine one day. The other is The Bistro which you fill find at the level near our friend, Puppy, by Jeff Koons. Here you only need to order two items off the menu. The roast deboned lamb and a torrija for dessert. The roast deboned lamb is a masterpiece served with a squash purée and it will make you want to kiss the chef. A work of art worthy of a photo.

Amazing torrijas by my daughter, Luna.

Now, the torrija. For a bit of background, in Spain we eat torrijas during the Easter holidays. You will find them in every pastry shop, especially in Madrid. Traditionally it is stale bread soaked in either milk or wine, dipped in beaten egg and fried and sprinkled with cinnamon. One might compare it to french toast. This year my daughter was unable to visit her Abuela in Madrid for easter so she took it upon herself to prepare a large plate of torrijas that she has become accustomed to consuming during that visit.

Torrija con helado de queso, Guggenheim Bistro en Bilbao

Now, the Guggenheim Bistro takes the torrija up about 20 notches or more. It is pan fried and carmelized and served with ice-cream. The flavor of the ice-cream can vary but my very favorite is when it is served with an “helado de queso“, ice-cream prepared with a local cheese. This takes the torrija from an ordinary local pastry to something sinful and provocative. It is the torrija of all torrijas and you will never forget it. I hope they never change the menu at the Bistro.

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Celebrating Portugal…..

June 10th is the Day of Portugal, Camões and the Portuguese Communities. Luís Vaz de Camões, author of the epic poem Os Lusíadas and considered the greatest poet of Portuguese and the Portuguese language, died on June 10th, 1580. The use of this day, June 10th, has had a long and weathered history since it was first chosen in 1640 after Portugal’s independence from Spain. It is celebrated in Portuguese Communities around the world. In 2018, the Portuguese President and the Prime Minister were received in Providence, Rhode Island by the Governor and the large Portuguese community in this area. The celebrations included music, dance, Portuguese wine and a lot of bacalhau along with many other traditional foods.

A homemade Bifana

The other day I was reminded again that we still can’t cross the borders and thought we could use a bit more Portugal in our home. What better way to celebrate Portugal than a BIFANA? The bifana is one of those foods that we run to as soon as we arrive in Portugal. We have our favorite places in Lisbon but we really like to stop in the town of Vendas Novas in the Alentejo region if we are driving through Portugal. Everybody stops in this town for a bifana, petiscos and a bowl of soup. The last time we passed through here at 10 in the morning the places were packed with locals and travelers alike getting their bifana fix on. Next time we make that stop (please be soon), I will film a video of the scene.My bifanas were made by slowly cooking the thinly sliced pork loin in white wine with a lot of garlic, smashed piquillo peppers, dried Ñora peppers, bay leaves, spicy paprika, lemon juice and a some butter even though it calls for lard. Salt and Pepper of course. There are different recipes but we like this one best. And, they are amazing. I rarely use my twitter account but I randomly posted a photo of this and it received a ton of likes and comments by people who know their bifanas. The only thing missing was that incomparable Portuguese roll.

More pieces of my Granada….tapas with history and without.

Papas con Huevo from Bar Pedro with a nice view of a some local graffiti in the background

On Monday the province of Granada entered “phase 3” of Spain’s de-escalation plan, or so we call it around here. We are slowly moving into some type of normalcy and the weather invites us to sit down at a local bar for a tapa. Since supporting local business in our neighborhood is important these days, we did just that. Unemployed as I am, I thought to myself “what goes around will surely come around”, right? This thought turned out to be a great coincidence in retrospect. (keep reading) Either way, I’ve been cooking for almost 3 months straight: breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was finally time for a tapa.

We are lucky that our neighborhood bars serve great tapas. They are simple and traditional. I need to remind you that in Granada you get a free tapa with each drink ordered. At most local places you get to choose from a list of their special tapas. I don’t know what it is about the papas con huevo at Pedro’s bar on our street that makes me feel like everything is going to be alright. It is always the same, never fails. Perfectly sautéed potatoes and onions with a fried egg on top. Pedro also has Victoria Beer from Málaga which I happen to love. It is basically sacrilegious to not drink Alhambra Beer in Granada but we can make just this one exception.

Bacalao Ajoarriero in La Croqueta, Granada

There is a another tapas bar around the corner from Pedro called La Croqueta. I have a few ties with the woman who owns it. Our children went to the same nursery school and her father is one of my most beloved yoga students, sweet Manuel. Lola has a long menu with different types of croquetas (I explain these to my guests as fried bits of love) made with bechamel and different fillings. Read more here https://mooninspain.com/2011/10/30/introducing-the-croqueta. She also has a great variety of other tapas to choose from and serves an extremely cheap plato del día. The other day I felt the need to try her plate of the day, Bacalao Ajoarriero. I have to be extremely compelled to order bacalao anywhere unless I already know it is excellent. The last and quite possibly the only time I had Ajoarriero was in Cuenca, with my friend Miguel, where it is also called Atascaburras (to trap a donkey). The original recipe in that area of Cuenca is made of potatoes, garlic, egg and bacalao originating from a dish eaten by the Sephardic Jews. There are many variations of the recipe throughout the Northern and Central part of Spain.

Arriero on top of the Cathedral in Astorga, Margatería, Castilla y León

An arriero or mulero was somebody who traveled by mule transporting goods from one place to another. The Arrieros Maragatos are likely the most well-known in Spain. The Maragatería is located in a small pocket of Castilla y León where the town of Astorga is located. The Arrieros Maragatos would transport fish and other goods from Galicia in the Northwest to the areas of Castile. They were so well known in this area that on top of the Cathedral in Astorga you will find a statue of an arriero. The English writer Richard Ford commented on the Arrieros Maragatos in his book The Handbook for Travelers in Spain, “The Maragatos take precedence on the road: they are the lords of the highway, and channels of commerce in those parts where mules and asses represent railway luggage trains.” There were other arrieros who traveled from Bilbao to Zaragoza passing through most of the Basque Country on their way to Aragón carrying cod and other merchandise. It is is most likely on these roads where the recipe that I enjoyed in my neighborhood came about. This Basque recipe includes salt cod, tomato, garlic, two types of local red peppers (choriceros and piquillos), onion, egg and a bit of cayenne pepper. The Bacalao Ajoarriero prepared at La Croqueta was absolutely delicious. I plan on making it at home or for my mother in law very soon.

Though the arrieros that I have been writing about here worked in the 19th century, we still have arrieros today in Southern Spain and Portugal. One of my closest friends actually worked as an arriero in a small town in the province of Almería. He may be the only American arriero in Spanish history. There is a lovely Spanish proverb that says, Arrieros somos y en el camino nos encontrarémos. In English we can easily translate this to, “What goes around, comes around.”

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Gazpacho’s cousins……

Summer in Spain means gazpacho. I’ll never forget my first year in Granada when I studied at the Centro de Lenguas Modernas. I actually did study and go to most of my classes. We had great professors from the University of Granada. My Islamic Studies professor ended up being an advisor for my Master’s degree years later. We also went out a lot. I’m sure I saw the sun rise more that year than I ever have since. Bar Alfonso was a great family restaurant in the Realejo quarter with a menu of the day for about 600 pesetas. When the weather got warmer and I was in need of some serious vitamins I would go to Bar Alfonso for a tall glass of his wife’s gazpacho. It would revive me and give me the energy to make it through my classes.

In my mind, gazpacho is a beverage served in a glass with ice. I never translate it to “cold soup” which has never sounded appetizing to me. You will find it served in a bowl in some restaurants but that still doesn’t make it a soup in my eyes. My daughter’s Grandmother prepares Gazpacho a la Antigua which is similar to a salad with all the gazpacho ingredients chopped and served in cold water with the addition of cumin. You could call it gazpacho, salad or salsa depending on where you are from. In the south of Spain we also have a unique variant of gazpacho called “ajo blanco” prepared with garlic and almonds. You can read more about it here. https://mooninspain.com/2019/09/01/historically-refreshing.

Salmorejo variation with avocado

My favorite relative to gazpacho is the Salmorejo. Salmorejo is deeply rooted to the city of Córdoba where it is a regional specialty. My dear friend Charo from the town of Cabra in the province of Córdoba was my first Salmorejo instructor over 20 years ago. Unlike it’s cousins, gazpacho and ajo blanco salmorejo is not usually considered a seasonal dish even though the base is tomato. The ingredients are simple: tomato, bread (no crust), olive oil and salt. Blended to a cream and garnished with egg and strips of jamón. In Andalucia you will also find Porra in Antequera, Loja and Granada. All very similar to their cousin, salmorejo.

My friend Charo sent us a recipe the other day for a healthier version of Salmorejo substituting the bread for avocado. I made my own Gazpacho Asalmorejado adding a bit of red pepper, cucumber and a splash of vinegar. My daughter Luna requested it 3 days in a row for lunch and snack. She claims that she only wants this version from now on.

My friend Charo’s gorgeous and healthy Salmorejo!

Reminded of my above post including habas I decided to prepare the Moroccan dish Bessara. It is a puree of dried habas with olive oil, lemon, garlic, cumin and red chili. It is a dish that reminds me of traveling through the small towns in Morocco. I garnished ours with a bit of yogurt, red pepper and cucumber.

All of these dishes will find their history before, during and after the period of Al-Andalus on the Iberian Peninsula and beyond. Bessara can be traced back 4,000 years to Egypt and the idea of breaking down food items can be traced to the Neolithic Age. Ajo Blanco is connected to the Roman age. It is beautiful to savor all of this history in our local dishes.

Bessara with an additional garnish

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Simple is delicious and welcoming…..

For most people travel is a major adventure. A way to experience new cultures, people, food and traditions. Is there anything more exciting than the unknown? I love to get lost in a city, to order from a menu without really being sure of what will be served to me, or to miss a bus or train and hang out in a sketchy station waiting and people watching. However, many travel for business. They look for comfort, good wifi and on time transportation. In my work I get to enjoy a combination. I return to the same places year after year and they feel like home to me. But, I get to share the excitement of seeing it through the eyes of travelers who are experiencing something or a place for the very first time.

Some people need to follow a routine when they travel. Most people in my business tend to feel comforted by repetition. The same meals, drinks, repeating the same hotel room and the same walks during free time. It gives you a sense of home and stability which we lack when traveling many months out of the year.

I find my peace in the warm smiles of the friends I encounter while I’m on the road. Being welcomed with open arms and great conversation keeps me feeling at home when I am very far away. Besides that, I try to mix some spice into my routine. Discovering new restaurants or a far off neighborhood on my walks are a couple of my favorite things to do. I rarely repeat a meal. I have a friend who almost always goes to the same restaurants and orders the same dishes. Not me. Well, not usually anyhow. I secretly have a couple rituals of my own.

When I pass through one of my favorite cities in Galicia, Pontevedra, I always meet up with a friend who lives there. It has become our routine. She catches up with me just as I’m finishing a walk with my group. We sit outside at a local bar and enjoy a wine or beer and one of the great free tapas they give to you in Pontevedra. At one of my favorite places they always have some type of stew as the first tapa; garbanzos, lentils or white beans. Sometimes her family meets meets ups with us as well, especially if it is a Sunday. And many of my colleagues who travel with me have enjoyed this time together as well. A close friend and colleague of mine has repeated many times with us.

There is nothing like a great Tortilla Española in Galicia. It is one of the places in Spain where I always love how it is prepared. It is never dry or flat. It is jugoso and soft and shows the color of perfectly fresh eggs. In Pontevedra I systematically order a tortilla española and polbo a feira (Galician prepared octopus) for this lunch that is enjoyably filled with philosophical conversation. The boiled octopus is served on a wooden tray with boiled potato, olive oil and spicy paprika. Perfect with a local white wine, Ribeiro, traditionally served in a cunca galega. I would transport myself to Pontevedra right now and hug my friend Yayi tighlty before we began our sacred ritual.

Ribeiro Wine as it should be served

And she sleeps……

The Alhambra quiet in quarantine

I was in Seattle for a summit when the Coronavirus first hit the news. There was one patient already detected and being treated at a local hospital. At one of our meetings we were greeted by the COO of the company, “there is now a strange virus from China and the first case in the US is right here in Washington. Welcome”. His charismatic humor was welcoming and innocent. As we all were.

Two months later as all of my tours were slowly being cancelled and I was helping my oldest niece get out of Spain before the borders closed, I started to become conscious of what had begun that day in Seattle. The reality started to set in little by little. And then the impossible happened, the Alhambra closed. The Alhambra. The Red Fortress. Qa’lat Al Hamra. Closed. Gates locked. Silenced in all her glory. Empty of tourists, busses, local guides and groups. The hotels and restaurants are closed and boarded up. The gypsies have gone home with their rosemary and Diego is no longer there soliciting groups for the flamenco shows. The Alhambra had gone to sleep.

The Generalife, summer palace of the Alhambra.

My relationship with the Alhambra is long and deep. On my very first night in Granada over twenty years ago we went up to the rooftop terrace of a friend’s apartment and I met the Alhambra for the first time. She was my solid introduction to Granada. A few days later my friend Kerri and I rented an apartment in the Albaicín neighborhood with a perfect view of the Alhambra from our little balcony. We lived on Calle San Juan de los Reyes, known then as la calle de las putas. I would walk to class everyday and wave hello to the prostitutes sitting out on their chairs waiting for customers, mostly older gentleman from the neighborhood. They would be casually sitting on their chairs in the narrow street in front of their doors , enjoying a cigarette and café con leche. In the late afternoons we would greet each other again, their café now replaced by a vino tinto. I used to see Rafael chatting with the ladies quite a bit. He was well known in the neighborhood and a couple of friends lived in the same building as Rafael so he had become a close aquaintance. A character to say the least, with his rough voice from smoking the black Ducados cigarettes for most of his lifetime. A true Albaicinero. I no longer see prostitutes when I walk down my old street but those memories stand clear in my mind.

Walking up the Cuesta de los Chinos

From that first apartment I used to go for a daily run down the Cuesta de Chapiz and up the Cuesta de los Chinos to the Alhambra. The Cuesta de los Chinos used to be called the Cuesta del Rey Chico, named after Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada. I would run up past the San Jose Cemetery to the Silla del Moro, which used to be a guard’s outpost for the summer palace in the Xlll century. In the Springtime I would come across older gentleman picking fresh asparagus for their lunch or taking a break under the olive trees. These runs were my escape from the city, all social activity and the struggle to understand the thick accent of the Granaínos. The Alhambra gave me piece of mind and serenity then as it still does today.

The beautiful blossoms of a pomegranate tree

The entrance into the Alhambra was free on Sundays when I first moved to Spain. Nowadays, this is an unbelievable memory of mine. The hours and energy I have spent trying to purchase tickets to the Alhambra for groups over the years is exhausting to event think about. And to imagine that I used to stroll up there every Sunday with my books to spend hours studying in the Generalife and simply wandering about the palaces is amazing. I clearly remember reading one of my favorite books, A La Sombra del Granado by Tariq Ali, as I rested in the gardens. No tickets and no lines. Back then the security was also so low that we could even sneak into the summer palaces at night through a hole in the fence. A couple of my friends had grown up in the area of the Alhambra and they knew every way to enter. One night we even went through one of the secret tunnels below the city. These tunnels were used during the Nasrid Dynasty for inhabitants of the Alhambra to enter and exit without being seen. They are all closed off by gates now so we were lucky to have those wild adventures. We would have the summer palace to ourselves sitting under the stars. It was like the lyrics from a Joni Mitchell song.

The full moon over Sacromonte in May, 2020

When I lived in Sacromonte, the cave neighborhood across from the Alhambra, we had an outdoor terrace with a panoramic view of the Alhambra. On the second floor of our home there was also a loft bed, with a perfect view, that we named la cama de la reina. The Queen’s Bed. The Alhambra was the first thing I saw in the morning when I slept in that bed and my free time was spent reading, writing or drinking wine on that terrace. The Alhambra was the backdrop to my daily life for those years. It is still our favorite place to take a walk. Up the Cuesta de Chapiz, into Sacromonte to pass by my cave house and then up the Cuesta de los Chinos to the Alhambra.

She’s resting now, our dear Alhambra. Similar to the years when she was abandoned in the 18th century. But soon she will reopen and we will again feel her vibration over the city. Enjoy the peace for now elegant lady. This type of calm never lasts forever.

Alhambra and Granada May, 2020