Since my new friend Influenza introduced me to her friend Pneumonia about a week ago, I’ve had to spend way too much time in the house and on my comfy couch. I’ve read at least 10 books and had time to do about three different meditations a day. Since we haven’t been able to enjoy our usual “Thursday Tapa Til We Drop” day, my Partner in Crime has come over to spend a couple of exciting afternoons on the couch with me. The other day she brought Anthony Bourdain No Reservations in Madrid to entertain my pathetic self. Since then I have become an addict. I’ve watched every possible episode on Spain that he has made. After being completely nauseated by the Spain On The Road series I had vowed to stay away from any glam meets flan food show about Spain. But Bourdain is hilarious and makes me want to get off the couch and go out to eat!!!
I have to admit that for many years I could not comprehend why so many people got all worked up about visiting Gibraltar. Was it the stamp in the passport (that you don’t get anymore), the view of North Africa, or the monkeys stealing their potato chips??? I’m truly passionate about the places that I visit on tour, but it took me years to warm up to Gibraltar. My first memories involve a temperature as hot as hell with humidity, being crammed into taxis and shuttled up to the top of the rock to have a Chevy Chase like view of Africa, a quick stumble through a cave and then hassled by some monkeys before heading down to Casemates Square for lunch. I always spent the entire visit dreaming about the next stop on tour, the beach, where I could recharge my batteries a bit and have a swim in the water instead of just looking at it from a rock. And the Costa del Sol is definitely not lacking in fish n chips if someone really had a hankering.
Many many years have passed since those first visits to the rock. And at some point my perception changed and I began to appreciate this quirky and unusual bit of the peninsula. The people from Gibraltar are known as Juanitos. They are laid back, interesting and always open to a nice chat. I’ve had some great taxi drivers who were like walking history books. They have shared their family history with me along with some great anecdotes about Gibraltar. I’ve enjoyed some amazing conversations with more than a few Juanitos in their mixture of Spanish and English, not that different from my own way of speaking. The monkeys are adorable. It is pretty difficult to dislike a monkey butt.
My friend Todd shared a gastronomical secret spot with me many years ago. It is now one of my favorite places to eat on the entire peninsula. Really. I love Spanish food but I truly suffer at times without spice and hot peppers. My body needs it, craves it and basically cannot live without it. Introducing Mumtaz!! Mumtaz is a tiny, hole in the wall take-away Indian restaurant tucked away off of Main Street. It has two plastic tables, a few chairs and the best damn Indian food I’ve had in a long time. I eat here every time I go to the Rock and enjoy every bite. The sad part, is that I’m always alone which means I have to be limited to one dish with a bread. I’ve slowly been eating my way through the menu. Tour by tour. On my last visit I indulged in a great Sag Paneer, a chapati and an ice cold Cobra as I read an article about Mumtaz in some Gibraltarian magazine. I can’t wait to go back!
We don’t use the television in our house unless there is an emergency of some sort. But, my new friend, influenza, and I have become quite bored during our required resting period. So, I took the advice of a dear friend and watched an episode of Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsey. Just by chance, the episode that showed up first was titled Spanish Pavilion. On Chef Ramsey’s first visit to the restaurant he ordered the garlic chicken or pollo al ajillo, a very well-known dish here in Spain.
The name of the dish first brought up a fond memory in a bar years ago when I was still a tried and true vegetarian. My friend Cristi, also a vegetarian at the time, and I were out with a group of random people. We ended up in a conversation with a woman who was completely dumbfounded by the mere thought of us not participating in any carnal consumption. She went on and on for an extremely long time with every possible proposal to convince us to change our ways. My friend and I nodded and smiled politely for as long as we could. But when the woman, disheartened, expressed her true sadness that we would never try her “pollo al ajillo” we lost it and continued on laughing about it throughout the night and for the next five to six years. Actually, we still laugh about it.
Back to the Nightmares. When Chef Ramsey tasted his garlic chicken at the Spanish Pavilion, he lifted up a wing and unveiled about two cups of olive oil on his plate. I almost spit my chamomile at the screen. I was immediately taken to one of my favorite towns near Granada, Guejar Sierra. The amount of olive oil on Chef Ramsey’s plate didn’t even compare to the amount of olive oil in the majority of the typical dishes in Guejar. Pollo al ajillo being one of those. The food is delicious in the town but my husband and I often giggle about the amount of oil used. And one afternoon having lunch with my Mother along the river near Guejar we calculated 1 cup and a half of olive oil per dish that we ordered. We have no shortage of olive oil here. I need to take Ramsey to Guejar.
Winters in Granada are not as horrible as they can be other places I realize, but nonetheless I get tired very easily of the cold. I prefer heat, hot sun, sand on my body and a cool drink in my hand. So, after all too many days of battling a nasty winter flu I have been dreaming of summer. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sweet and enjoyable summer. I have many food and cultural posts still for winter but today I need to feel the hot sun on my skin. If only through a blog. So, my dreams take me back to Asturias where we enjoy spending a bit of each summer vacation. Hard cider, great food, and a sunny day on a pristine beach are what brings us back year after year. The sunny day can be a give or take since Asturias tends to be fairly rainy. But, we usually luck out with sun for 90 percent of the time.
Each year we return to the same rural hotel (another post) where we always feel welcome and have a chance to decompress between campground and campground. From this beautiful home there are hiking trails that will take you to different towns, beaches, restaurants, and the breathtaking look out at Cabo Penas. One of our favorite beaches to walk to is Verdicio. First we stop at a nearby restaurant along the national highway and then we make our way down to the beach area which kindly offers a small hut serving hard cider whenever you feel the need.
We had a fantastic meal at a cider house, La Fustariega before heading down for a swim. French fries ( or chips) smothered in a sauce made with the best cheese in Spain, Cabrales. Cabrales in its pure form will make your eyes water, nose run and your stinky tennis shoes smell like roses. It is delicous. A raw milk cheese that is cured in an extremely humid cave in the high Picos de Europa Mountains until it is covered in mold and striped with lucious blue veins. Asturias is famous for its cheese and Cabrales is one that is honored in competitions each year.
The other typical dish that we devoured before ordering desserts was Pastel de Cabracho. According to gastronomical history this dish was first prepared by the famous Basque Chef, Juan Mari Arzak. The fish (black scorpian fish) is boiled first in a stock, deboned and then mixed with a mixture of tomato, heavy cream and sometimes leek and carrot. It is formed into a pudding and cooked in a double boiler. It is normally served as an appetizer with homemade mayonnaise. When it is prepared well, Pastel de Cabracho is not to be missed.
We ended our meal with two mouth watering desserts. Simple and delightful. A creamy rice pudding topped with cinnamon and a typical Asturian cheesecake. It was the perfect meal to fuel us for our short walk down to the beach where the sun and a cold bottle of hard cider awaited us.
Breakfast has always been my favorite meal. I have many memories connected with morning delights. Watching the snow fall accompanied by a latte and an almond cream cheese danish at Macy’s, the best coffee shop in Flagstaff, Arizona , a comforting sweet roll and omelet at Lou Mitchell’s in Chicago with my sister George the morning after I witnessed the birth of my first niece, a toasted ham and cheese sandwich on the train from Granada to Madrid with my daughter (her favorite), cinnamon coffee with a side of refried beans, a side of tortillas and salsa before class at Kathy’s diner in Flagstaff , a simple baguette with laughing cow cheese and marmalade at many group hotels in Paris, and the amazing and unforgettable Chilaquiles with green sauce at Martan’s in Flagstaff followed by a hike up the San Francisco peaks, to mention only a few of the best.
Here in Spain, breakfast is delicious and unique. In Granada and Southern Spain in general the norm is a nice toast topped with what pleases you most; paté, butter and jam, cured ham with tomato and olive oil, or my personal favorite of tomato, olive oil and salt. You can always opt for a croissant that will remind you that you aren’t in Paris or a big plate of churros and a cup of warm chocolate, but the majority order a toast. “Café con leche y una tostada con tomate por favor.” Whole wheat is even readily available these days.
When on tour one of my favorite stops for a great toast is on the way from Sevilla to Gibraltar in the Cork Tree National Park. In December we stopped for an early morning toast on our long drive to Salamanca and I actually remembered to take a picture. The enormous toasts are served with a bottle of grated fresh tomato, two huge bottles of local olive oil (one with garlic) and salt. You can dress it up as you desire. Washed down with a Spanish coffee with milk it is the perfect Andalusian breakfast.
In other parts of Spain, breakfast takes on a whole new air. In Madrid and most of Castilla Leòn y Castilla La Mancha morning fare tends to be much heartier. The weather tends is harsher and people bulk up with extra girth and fat. Our first morning in Salamanca we went to a nice classic place for a “light” breakfast. A delicious tortilla española with chorizo (spanish potato omelet) and a plate of churros. For those who are low carbing it, you can go for the very typical chicharrones (fried pork rinds) and torreznos (fried slices of pork fat) which my husband chose to order for day two breakfast. As they say in Spanish, “Sobre gustos, colores” or “there are as many tastes as there are colors”. To each his own. Either way, I’ll stick with the tortilla which is an artform in Salamanca, tall and juicy and filled with all kinds of treats. It was perfect to battle the bitter cold that waited for us outside that day.