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In line for lottery, churros, cod………

Line for Bocadillo de Calamares at La Campana, just off Plaza Mayor.

We always find ourselves in Madrid during the holiday season. Whether it is to take a plane somewhere or to take Luna to her Grandmother’s town we always spend a couple of nights here to enjoy the lights and holiday madness. I usually avoid crowds at all costs and I get to spend plenty of time in Madrid throughout the year to enjoy the city but Luna and I still love being here at the holidays. We wander around to see all the lights and decorations at night, enjoy our favorite Chinese restaurant for lunch and our usual breakfast each morning. Exhausted from the wave of humans we usually have dinner quietly in our room with a movie or Masterchef Junior which airs during the holidays.

dispenser for numbers to buy lottery tickets at Doña Manolita

One thing you will find in Madrid at the holiday season are thousands of people standing in lines and near to them, many tourists standing about wondering why these people would be spending hours in each line. To the foreign eye some might be fairly obvious but many are not at all. After 25 years I’m still completely entertained with these lines. Luna and I made it a game this year to find the most interesting ones.

The longest line you will find is for the Doña Manolita lottery sales. Lottery is a big deal in Spain and at the holiday season it takes on a completely different dimension. In December we have “el gordo” which refers to the largest prize that is given out in the Christmas lottery. That would mean the “fat one” in Castellano. Every December 22nd in every bar, on every television and radio you hear the school children from San Ildelfonso in Madrid singing out the winning numbers and prizes. This Christmas lottery started in 1812. Doña Manolita is where the most winning tickets have been sold and so each year people try to get a ticket from here. It is located on one of the busiest pedestrian streets in the city. The line for Dona Manolita goes all the way around a city block and you can either choose to stand in line or try to get a numbered ticket from the machine and be advised by a text message when it is your turn however these tickets run out very early each morning. They even have security guards to make sure that people can still enter the local businesses and hotels that cross with the line. On January 6th we have the lottery “el Nino” since it is held on the day of the epiphany, the arrival of the three kings to visit baby Jesus. This is also the most important day of the holiday season in Spain. On the night of January 5th the Three Wise Men arrive to every city and even smallest town in Spain with artistic parades, tossing hard candies and bearing gifts for all, especially the little ones.

With your hope of winning the lottery now in hand it is time to get some traditional Madrileño snacks. But, don’t be in a hurry because you are sure to find a couple more lines. The “bocadillo de calamares” is the most famous sandwich in Madrid. There are many favorite places and each person has their preferred choice. “El Brillante” near the Reina Sofia Museum is a popular place but if you are up near the Plaza Mayor you have quite a few options where you can enjoy these perfectly fried squid rings on a baguette with a squeeze of lemon or mayonaise, ALWAYS accompanied by a cold beer. Stand in line to grab your sandwich and then find a bench or simply stand around at an outside high table to enjoy your snack.

You are not even closed to finished after that sandwich. You must get in line at Casa Labra just off Calle Preciados near Puerta del Sol. Casa Labra has been here since 1860 and is known to be the place where the Spanish Socialist party (PSOE) was first formed in 1870 by Pablo Iglesias Posse. Nowadays everybody stops by here to stand in line for the excellent fried cod (called tajada de bacalao), cod croquetas or marinated tuna accompanied by a nice vermouth. It also has a gorgeous restaurant serving a great variety bacalao, such as the one with oyster mushrooms and capers. In Spain don’t ever be turned away by all the crunched up napkins on the ground. This is a sign of a great place to eat. Things have changed a bit in past years but all good bars used to have a layer of dirty napkins on the floor.

You are not even close to full enough! Once the sun starts going down and the air gets colder in Madrid it is time for the best treat of all, churros y chocolate from San Ginés. To make the time in the lines a tiny bit shorter, the Chocolatería San Ginés has different places all in the same tiny pedestrian street, including one in part of the major discotec that is next door. This chocolatería was opened in 1894 and is visited by thousands of people each day. So, get in line and prepare your stomach for some more fried Spanish goodness. You can choose the long thinner churros but our preference are the porras which are a bit fatter and lighter, dipped in the thick chocolate of course!

Line for churros and doors to the Joy Eslava discotec next door, open for churros as well.

Once you have your lottery tickets and your stomach nice and full from sandwiches, fried cod and churros you can move on to other lines if you wish. One extremely long line is for the Cortylandia which is the holiday musical presentation outside the Cortés Inglés department store. You can also visit the messengers for the Three Wise Men waiting for your gift requests. And, if you are feeling like some ramen you can now wait in line at one of the Japanese noodle shops here in the center of the city as well. There are lines for all types here in Madrid at the holidays. Like we say in Castellano, “Para gustos, colores”.

The Year of the Metal Ox……………

Carmelized Pork Belly with Bak Choi

We can say many things about 2020 and 2021. There must be a million words we can use to describe the pandemic. The word that I can relate to the most is reinvent. What do you do when your entire profession and income completely disappears from one day to the next? Many of us in the world lived through this at the beginning of the pandemic and many of us are still waiting for some normalcy to come back to our work life. It continues to be a long road. I taught yoga online during our first lock down as a way for my students and friends to have some type of tension release and to share some time together. And once we were allowed outside again, I began to make videos about travel and history to share with people who have traveled with me before and for anyone interested in learning a bit more about the Iberian Peninsula. It helps to keep me connected to my continuing studies and to my job. But, I really needed a temporary income. Anything at all. I searched and searched like so many of us did. Maybe it is ironic that the way I finally found to survive was by teaching online to students in China. Obviously, the income can’t compare to my regular career but I actually found a job and I love it! I love to teach and I enjoy my students so much. I feel like I have virtually traveled around China and I have learned so much more than I ever knew before about the country. I have always been interested in Chinese history and of course, Chinese food but that interest has been deepened in a way I had never expected.

Mapo Tofu and Sticky Ginger Beef

Spring Festival was this past month. The Chinese students have one month of vacation which means they study, A LOT! But, they also partake in all of the festivities that go along with Spring Festival including the Laba Festival, Chinese New Year and the Lantern Festival which marks the end of the holiday! They clean their homes, shop for food and new clothes, share grand meals with their families and receive the lucky red envelopes! I have had so many great conversations with my students about how their particular family celebrates this important holiday. I even got to spend time in the kitchen with one family on New Years Eve and watched as the vast variety of dishes come flying out to be served!! One mother sent me beautiful photos of the food she prepared with her family. Everyday I learned something new about Spring Festival.

The spread for Chinese New Years Eve

I make a lot of Chinese food. It is one of my favourite cuisines to prepare. For years I have been trying to perfect my Mapo Tofu. But, for the Lunar New Year I had to try some new dishes. In the past month I have made homemade vegetable and pork dumplings (they design needs improve), caramelized pork belly, grilled chicken skewers (one of the dishes I saw fly out of my students kitchen), Kung Pao pork, Cantonese Steamed Sea Bass, Ginger and Garlic sticky beef and of course, more Mapo Tofu.

Kung Pao Pork

This is the Year of the Metal Ox. According to the Chinese Zodiac, this year will bring us career advancement, prosperity and wellness. That was how my 2020 was looking last January, so lets hope and pray that this rolls over into 2021 for everyone! So, cheers to all of you who have done something to reinvent yourself this past year. I know I am not alone with this word!! May 2021 bring us health and prosperity.

Lucky Money Envelopes!!

I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet…..

Just when you think that nothing else could possibly happen, it does! At 12:30 pm on Saturday, January 23rd as I was taking a much needed and too short of a nap in between my online English classes, the bed began to rock back and forth. I sat up quickly and realized that it wasn’t just my bed, but the walls also seemed to be moving and then something crashed to the ground somewhere in my apartment. Big earthquake number one for this year, magnitude 4.4. I have lived through many earthquakes here in Granada and I remember each and every one of them. The biggest was in 2010, with a magnitude of 6.3, but I don’t remember feeling it as I have felt the quakes this year. I don’t know how to explain why, but this one felt different to me. I felt it in my core and it left my hands trembling. I taught my next four classes with my feet planted firmly on the ground.

A Peaceful Sierra Nevada, Granada

Earthquakes are no surprise here since Granada is the most seismic area in Spain. This is where the African and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and have formed many faults. According to experts, these two plates are constantly approximating to each other by 4 to 5 millimetres each year.

3 days pass after that first big quake and the aftershocks continued daily. Some we could feel, some not. Then, on the following Tuesday night I was happily brushing my teeth in our bathroom when I heard my family shriek! I had not felt a thing in our bathroom but when I walked into the hallway I could hear the cracking sounds and see the walls moving once again. We live in on the 7th floor of a 10 story building with 100 apartments in all. It has a big open courtyard in the center which allows for fresh air and easy communication with the neighbors. Since we still have a 10 pm curfew in Granada, all of the neighbors were home and the sound of conversation in the corridors grew and grew. In the next 12 minutes we had 5 more sizeable quakes, ranging from 3.6 to 4.6. Needless to say, these left an uneasy feeling in everyone who felt them! Well, we finally had a reason to forget about COVID for awhile. Two days later an even larger one shook the city and surrounding areas. These were felt as far as the city of Cordoba and even North Africa.

Just in Case you are caught in an Earthquake

There was no major damage in our neighborhood but the towns that are built right on the faults did suffer damage. The Cathedral, the Saint Jerome Monastery and a part of the Alhambra are also being repaired from damage. Many people left their homes and went to second homes near the coast or to stay with family or friends. There have been 1,600 earthquake registered in Granada since January 23rd. We are still trembling a bit and this past week I was woken up on 3 separate mornings with my bed swaying forward and back. However, they are getting smaller. At least for now. And at least until this very second as I write!!! Literally, this very second another earthquake of magnitude 3.5 just shook our apartment once again. It has almost become normal to hear “earthquake” shouted in our home, just in case somebody didn’t feel it. We all felt this one and so did my other friends in Granada since the messages are rolling in.

I am forever thankful to these friends who make it just a bit more relaxing with their contagious sense of humour. We have laughed together through many earthquakes this month! Let us all keep the laughter going throughout whatever this new year holds for us. Peace and calmness from Granada.

Building with Full Moon
Indoor Patio

When you live below one of the marvels of the world….

On November 3rd the city of Granada was closed to any “outsiders” due to the high amount of Covid cases in the city. For one of the largest holiday weekends of the year, All Saints Day, Granada would be sacred only to those of us who live here. I received an email from the Parador of Granada saying that they had a special just for residents of Granada. With all other guests having to cancel, this historic hotel would be empty once again. But, I will save that surprise for another post.

How could I sleep in the Parador de San Francisco and not spend a day at the Alhambra? Not just spend a day in the Alhambra, but an almost empty Alhambra. As I’ve mentioned in other posts the Alhambra used to be free on Sundays when I first moved here. My memories of studying in the gardens of the Generalife for hours on end are ones that I will cherish for my lifetime. I don’t ever remember crowds of people visiting during those years. As time has passed things have changed drastically. It is almost impossible to visit the Alhambra without it being sold out, even in the winter months. However, the other day I had it almost to myself.

Located on top of the Cerro del Sol, or Hill of the Sun, the Generalife was the summer and rural palace of the Emirs during the Nasrid Dynasty in Granada. It is possible that the origin of the word Generalife comes from the Arabic Yannat al Arif, the arquitects garden. It was built during the 13th and 14th century. Just like the entire area of the Alhambra is our oasis from the noisy city, the Generalife was their oasis during the extremely dry and hot summer months. The ever flowing water and lush gardens are calming at anytime of the year. We will also find the most photographed Patio de la Acequia and the Sultans Garden with its famous cypress tree. The legend says that it is under this cypress tree where Boabdil’s wife used to meet up with her lover from the Abencerraje tribe eventually resulting in the death of this entire family.

Two of my favourite parts of the Generalife are those that many visitors may just pass through without much thought. To arrive at the high gardens of the Generalife we take the Escalera del Agua, the water staircase which is one of my favourite places. Broken into three sections, the water from the acequia real (royal channel) flows down on both sides of the staircase. Water is brought to the Alhambra by this water channel from 6 kilometers away. The staircase is also protected by a dome of laurel trees.

Escalera de Agua , Generalife

The Paseo de las Adelfas, The Walk of the Oleanders, is a 19th century walkway that was built in the 19th century as a romantic entrance to the Generalife. The name itself is passionate and picturesque. It connects to the Path of the Cypresses which will lead you back to the palaces. The visitor should not forget to enjoy these simple pleasures of the Alhambra.

Path of the Oleanders
Path of the Cypresses

When you exit the Alhambra near the Generalife and cross the street you will see a sign that says, Jardines de Alberto. Located in the home of the 19th century painter, Ramón Carazo, you will find a lovely restaurant that specialises in Nasrid cuisine. The home is a Carmen, a typical house in Granada. The word comes from the Arabic word for vine, karm. It has a garden with high walls. Traditionally the garden would have fruit trees and grape vines. In the garden of this Carmen is where the restaurant is located. Sit down and have a drink, a tapa and a great meal. You won’t be deceived. You may be served a homemade croqueta or some marinated and fried monkfish. I highly recommend the menu of the day. If you are lucky you can try the roast pork with a puree of sweet potatoes and squash. For desert you must have the Andalusian cream topped with croutons and sugar cane honey. Is there a better way to end a morning in the Alhambra?

Homemade croqueta tapa, Jardines de Alberto
Fried monkfish
Roast pork with an Autumn Puree
Andalusian Cream

History, memories and fried pork…….

Torreznos de Soria at Bodegas La Mancha, Granada

Lately I have been reading through a couple of my favourite books about culinary history focussed on medieval cuisine. One is about the Islamic World and the other is about Sephardic cuisine. I plan on making some of the recipes that I have been reading about in these amazing books. So, why the heck am I writing about fried pork belly you might ask??

Well, while recording my YouTube video last weekend we decided to include one of my favourite bars in Granada to end on a local gastronomic note. Nothing gourmet. Just a long and true old time taberna near Plaza Nueva called Bodegas La Mancha. I used to live on the street where La Mancha is located, Calle Joaquin Costa. On this street you will also find the historic Hotel Inglaterra designed by local arquitect Angel Casas in the 1920´´’s, the Hotel Anacapri (a Rick Steves hotel) and the Hostal Colonial, my home for many years which deserves its own blog post.

When I lived on this street over twenty years ago we used to frequent La Mancha. Carmen, (may she rest in peace) who ran the Hostal Colonial would send me down the street to grab our dinner on nights that we were feeling too lazy to cook. I would push through the crowds to order our usual. Carmen always wanted a bocadillo with jamón Serrano y roquefort. And I would annoy the men in white shirts and black ties by asking for something ¨”strange” in their eyes. Back then they wouldn’t ever vary off the menu. But, since I lived with Carmen they put up with me and would prepare my bocadillo con queso, tomato y lechuga. Both me and my sandwich were very odd to them back then. We would also get a liter of Jumilla wine to go. I remember paying 115 pesetas for the wine. That was less than a dollar during those years.

Beautiful wooden bar….

For many years now when I go into La Mancha I am always greeted with warmth and good memories. The older gentlemen still remember me and they still remember Carmen, of course. So do many of the fixed customers who spend time drinking Vermouth or a Palo Cortado (a variety of sherry) at the beautiful wooden bar. Everyone knew Carmen from el Hostal Colonial.

Carmen and I in El Hostal Colonial 1997

Nowadays we stop in here when we take a nice walk up into the Albaicín or Sacromonte to have a bocadillo and a wine or vermouth. The old tabernas like La Mancha near Plaza Nueva are the best places to really feel what Granada should feel like regardless of the times we live in now.

Usually we stick to our favourite bocadillo made with thinly sliced grilled beef, roquefort cheese and a couple of guindillas (pickled spicy peppers). But, last weekend since we were filming the video we went out on a limb and got a plate of Torreznos from Soria. Torreznos is not a food that I consume often. I can probably count the amount of times I have eaten them on one hand. The last two times I ate Torreznos before last weekend was with the same friend. Once in Pamplona and once in Madrid right before confinement. I can still hear Paco saying, “Vamos a ese bar dónde el dueño es Segoviano y tiene unos torreznos buenísimos!”

Torreznos in a bar in Chueca, Madrid with delicious empanada behind them!

A torrezno is basically fried pork belly, or sometimes described as fried thick bacon. Torreznos can be cut and prepared differently depending on what part of the country you are visiting. Even the name can change. However, it has been eaten in Spain since the Middle Ages since it is mentioned in certain works of literature such as Lazarillo de Tormes. Author anonymous. It is eaten especially during the time of year of the Matanza when a pig is killed. Every bit of the pig is used for different preparations and delicacies. Matanzas are held all over Spain and Portugal and in other countries. A torrezno should be eaten at room temperature to enjoy its flavour best. You can have it with beer or wine but for me, wine is the only way to wash it down. Practice moderation when consuming torreznos. Remember your heart and your arteries but enjoy every delicious moment!!! And don’t forget to watch my video about the Realejo neighbourhood in Granada where we end at Bodegas La Mancha. Salud!!

https://mooninspain.com/2020/10/15/a-walk-through-granada-el-realejo/

Memories of Santiago…….

I woke up the other morning after an unforgettable dream of arriving to the Parador in Santiago de Compostela with my family. It was fairly surreal as many dreams can be but the emotion and feelings of reunion stayed with me long after I woke up. I miss many places during this annoying pandemic but Santiago de Compostela comes to my mind more than most. The stone walls of the city, wandering through its streets, watching pilgrims limp about searching for the Pilgrim’s office and of course the Hostal dos Reis Católicos (the parador) and the amazing food everywhere! I could write a weekly blog post about Santiago de Compostela with all of the history, memories and gastronomy it beholds.

Today I was reminded of two of my best meals (not counting the two restaurants in the Parador which are where I’ve had hundreds of my best meals) that I had on my own in Santiago. Chef Marcelo Tejedor has been running Casa Marcelo since 1999. The concept is simple and delicious. One long and high table, a couple small one, the bar area overlooking the kitchen, a tasting menu of fusion Galician/Japanese delicacies and excellent service. And, no reservations. I thought I would just give it a try one day and see if I was lucky enough to get in. Sure enough, one place at the small bar overlooking the kitchen was available in between two couples. No problem, I was happy to be inside and seated! And, I love this type of seating. It is probably my favorite even when I am not alone. I like to be where the gastronomic action is happening. After I sat down I was asked if I had any food allergies or major dislikes. Minor seafood allergy? Nah, not today. I could deal with it to fully enjoy whatever they wanted to set in front of me. I forgot to take photos of a couple of the dishes that I ate because I was so wrapped up in the environment and that fact that I was so excited to be tasting his food, finally! I also got to enjoy my neighbor’s dishes visually. The concept is to share, so more people equals more dishes.

Spicy Asian style Oyster…….the best I have ever had!
Steamed Hake

Everything was perfect. From the wine to the dessert. I was served five dishes, perfectly sized for one person to enjoy them all thoroughly. The first was an Asian style oyster which was followed by a smoked sardine, steamed hake, steak tartar prepared with Galician beef and, for dessert their version of an Indian Gulab Jamun. I would go back to Casa Marcelo time and time again without hesitation.

So exciting! About a year after that meal I was thinking about lunch and chatting with my friends at the reception desk of the Parador like usual and one of my friends said, “you should go and try the new restaurant by Marcelo!!” “What?” A new restaurant. She told me that it wasn’t officially open yet but that if I rang the bell from outside that they would let me in.

Welcome to Mr. Chu!! I wasn’t sure if I was at the right place because there was no sign outside. I asked a nice elderly man who was sitting up on his balcony and told me, “oh yes, just ring the bell right there!!” The door opened and I entered into a completely different world from the old Santiago de Compostela. Funky design and cool lighting. I knew I was going to love everything about Marcelo’s new place. And I was completely alone in the restaurant for the entire meal since they were not officially open. My own little oasis for two hours. Phenomenal!!

High class Chinese. 8 dishes and dessert. Each one better than the next. It was fun and different compared to the traditional food I enjoy so much of in Galicia. Seaweed and sesame salad, Cucumbers with Kimtchi, White miso soup with Dimsum, Shrimp Har Gao with garlic and chilis, Hoisin Stew Bao, Chinese Dumplings with a brochette, Grilled Gyozas, Sichuan Wok and Vanilla and Salted Caramel Ice-Cream!

And, the coolest bathroom. Why didn’t I take more photos? If you are ever in Santiago de Compostela and craving something different and amazing then go to Casa Marcelo or Mr.Chu. You won’t be let down. I can’t wait for my next visit. I really can’t wait!

Bathroom at Mr.Chu