If I could turn back time I would love to see the look on my face when two amazing people invited me to lunch at the 3 Michelin Star Arzak in San Sebastián. Even better, the look on their faces when my original response was a no. I must have had some type of momentary mental lapses or something of the like. Good thing I quickly came to my senses and accepted their extremely generous invitation.
Juan Mari Arzak celebrated his 80th birthday on July 31st. I still can’t believe that just a few months ago I was actually standing in the kitchen of his restaurant. Arzak became the co-innovator of New Basque Cuisine after taking over his family’s business. In 1897 his grandparents opened a wine shop and tavern from the same building where Arzak stands now and his parents turned the tavern into a local restaurant. He earned his first Michelin star in 1972, when I was just barely a 1 year old. I don’t think you can talk about the Basque Country or Basque Cuisine without thinking of Juan Mari Arzak. He learned how to cook from his mother who would take him to the market to select the very best products. This is the prime principal of Basque cuisine. Juan Mari then spread his love of cooking to his daughter Elena who now co-runs the kitchen at Arzak. It’s also nice to mention that 80 percent of the team at the restaurant are women.
Eating at Arzak felt like being in someone’s home. The atmosphere is relaxed and humble. It also felt like a dream come true, because it was exactly that for me. When Juan Mari showed up in the dining room I was completely star struck. Luckily my extremely generous hosts shared the feeling with me or they were just kind enough to not make me feel like a total nerd.
We had the degustation menu with the wine pairing. It was like a finely tuned symphony of traditional Basque cuisine seasoned with the heart and soul of Elena and Juan Mari Arak. I really could not think of a better way to spend an afternoon in San Sebastián. We relished in every course while enjoying great conversation and laughter.
Just in case I wasn’t at my highest nerd level from meeting Arzak, one of the desserts was a medley of chocolate columns and ruins, a history dork’s dream!
After our first two desserts our server asked if we wanted to go down into the kitchen to have a photo with Juan Mari!! IN THE KITCHEN!! I had tears in my eyes, I have to admit, when I met him. He looked me straight in the eyes and said to me, “Contigo me iría al final del mundo”. I would go to the end of the earth with you. Our server was taken aback and said, I have never heard him say that to anyone. It was definitely love at first sight. A moment I will never forget and will always be truly grateful for, thanks to my wonderful hosts who quickly became friends.
I do regret not taking a photo with Elena because she is a true star. Maybe I will run into her in the market or walking through the streets of Donsoti one day. Here is a photo of the menu in English. Thank you from the bottom of my food nerd heart to my lovely hosts!
Last August we had a 50th birthday celebration for one of my dearest friends in Granada. It was very special on many levels. We celebrated her 50 years on earth and also celebrated being together for the first time in so long! Darn Covid . My close friends, Javier and Charo, made the trip from Reus in Catalunya to be here for the occasion! Javier greeted me with his huge smile and hug as always and he also held two bottles of golden Vermouth in his hands! He had brought the best of the best. Vermouth from the town of Reus, where this beverage was introduced by the Italians in the 19th century. Reus is only two hours south of Barcelona and at one point it held at least 30 Vermouth distilleries. With time, the beverage began to spread further into Spain and has become an important aperitif in many cities and towns.
When we feel like enjoying a vermouth here in Granada, we have a few places that we head to immediately. Our favourite is Bar Albergue. It is a classic in the center of Granada, just perfectly located outside of the main tourist area. I went to this bar for the first time over 26 years ago as an innocent and probably clueless student. At the time, in my mind, vermouth was an ingredient in the many martinis that I served working in restaurants and bars in the US. Who knew that I would learn to enjoy vermouth as an aperitif in so many different bars and cities?
Many people go the Bar Albergue for the vermouth and their fried salt cod. Bacalao frito. As I’ve written before, my Italian Nana would use the word bacalao when she joked about giving us a “spanking”. I’m going to give you a “bacalao” she would laughingly say as we imagined a huge dried fish in her hand. In Granada, neither of these words are a laughing matter. We take our vermouth and fried cod very seriously and in Bar Albergue you can enjoy the best. Luis is always behind the bar ready to serve you. Each tapa here is different. You might be served fried hake or fried cod, fresh fried anchovies, or “callos”, a traditional tripe stew. They also serve some of the best “fritura mixtas” in Granada just in case the tapas aren’t enough for you!
Fun fact. The word vermouth comes from the German word wermut which means wormwood, the important ingredient that gives vermouth its bitterness. Salud!
Before the pandemic I had started my own little tradition of taking early morning walks in all the cities where I sleep. I love the peace and the silence at this time of day. Each city has a unique feel when it is empty, and it takes on a different personality. A few weeks ago I went for a long walk through the empty streets of Bilbao. There was hardly a soul on the street and none of the bars or cafeterias were open yet. It was so pleasant that I walked for much longer than I had planned.
As I walked that morning I was bombarded with different memories from my countless visits to this city. My thoughts included nights out with friends in the Casco Antiguo, walking to the Guggenheim for dinner with my groups, getting a cast put on my leg in the local hospital, drinking Txakoli with colleagues and sharing my love for this part of Spain with so many people.
I have been blessed to travel with many people who have touched my heart in different ways. Many have repeated tours with me or have come back to visit. We communicate through email and I receive holiday cards from them by snail mail. Several have become close friends and I think of them often. Throughout the pandemic so many of these people went beyond what it means to be caring and generous and it brought me to tears on occasions. I have thought about my guests and prayed that they have were healthy and safe throughout the past two years and I get worried when I don’t hear from them.
In Spring 2016 I had a mini group within one of my groups. During the welcome dinner in Lisbon they came up and asked me to guess which of the six of them were blood related. From that moment on we had a permanent connection. On one of our free nights in Bilbao they invited me to dinner at one of the Michelin star restaurants, Extanobe. Unforgettable doesn’t even begin to describe that evening filled with laughter, friendship, storytelling and amazing food. There are some guests that seem to emotionally adopt you and you are connected for life.
After each tour is over I receive many emails from my guests. This email is from one of those amazing people who I shared dinner with in Bilbao.
Margaret, None of us will ever forget you. Nancy and I had been to Spain four times to Spain before that trip. Yet you took a wonderful trip and made it the trip against which we we measure not just trips to spain but all others. So to us, you are unforgettable. We all hope to see you, your husband, and beautiful daughter someday in San Antonio. Nancy says she gets hungry every time she reads one of your stories. Con abrazos,Al and Nancy Karam P.S. I still remember the first words I said to you, “I already don’t like you because you live in Granada and I don’t!”
On my birthday last week I received a message that Al had passed away. My heart broke in two as I took myself back to the memories of his kind smile, laughter and all of the stories that he shared with me. We had a special connection.
“Margaret, here’s a little thing you may find interesting. We first arrived in the evening in Granada on our first trip to Spain summer 1994, our 25 anniversary . Since it was our anniversary, we had a room in the Hotel Alhambra…uh…what was the working class Leb. boy doing in this hotel? Since we were just relaxing we went to the grounds and started walking around for about an hour or so. There was hardly a soul there. We later learned that the place was closed and how were we able to sneak in? No sneaking, just walk into, I think, the Fatima gate. Ah… to be young and unknowing.” Al Karam
Many years ago I saw a movie called Atún y Chocolate. It is the story of three fisherman from the town of Barbate in the province of Cádiz. It is a comedy about these three men who are trying to survive a fishing crisis. That was my cinematic introduction to one of my favourite areas in Southern Spain. I had visited Cádiz on my way to Portugal a few times but I didn’t have a good understanding of the people and culture until about 17 years ago. Thanks to a dear relationship with a person from the town of San Fernando in Cádiz, I was immersed into this beautiful area of Spain. The food is amazing, the beaches are incomparable to others, the history is deep and intriguing, and the people are the friendliest and funniest I have found. The jovial and passionate accent accompanies these affable traits.
Cádiz is one of the oldest and continuously inhabited cities in Western Europe. It was founded by the Phoenicians in 1100 BCE and its strategic location on the Atlantic Coast has marked a spot in the history of Spain and the rest of Europe ever since. You could easily spend days visiting monuments and learning about the history of the city and province. The yellow/gold dome of the New Cathedral is a symbol of the the city’s Golden Age it experienced in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The contrast of the dome with the blue Mediterranean Sea and sky is absolutely beautiful. The Theater (only a portion of it is has been excavated) was one of the largest in the Roman Empire. I love to wander the narrow streets and visit the market where you can get a glimpse into the gastronomy of the area, heavy on fresh tuna and other seafood.
One of my favourite times to visit Cádiz is during Carnaval which is one of the biggest in Spain. This is a completely different experience. For two weeks you can enjoy the Chirigotas, satirical folksongs often using political figures as the focus. The streets come alive with floats, musical groups and gaditanos dressed up in their best costumes while drinking glasses of dry sherry from small cups and munching on fritters made from little shrimp. These are called Tortillitas de Camarones and are made with chickpea flour, baby shrimp, parsley, chopped spring onions and GOOD Spanish olive oil. VIVA EL CARNAVAL!!
Another important gastronomical treasure in this area is the Atún de Almadraba. The word almadraba meaning to fight or strike comes from Arabic and refers to the fishing technique used to catch this highly prized red tuna. After the full moon in May and again in September and October fishing nets are strategically placed in the Atlantic waters close to the Straight of Gibraltar by fisherman from towns like Barbate, Zahara de los Atunes, Conil de la Frontera and Tarifa. The tuna are caught in the nets on their passage to or from the Mediterranean. The nets are lifted by the fishermen into a circle of boats surrounding the nets. In May the tuna have extra fat and are more succulent where as in the fall the tuna tends to be drier. The fall meat tends to be sent to the canneries. The tuna from the month of May is sold at high prices with about 80 percent being exported to Japan.
On my most recent trip to Cádiz we had an excellent lunch in a restaurant called La Marmita. The local wine was 80 percent Merlot with a small percentage of Petit Verdot and Syrah. I loved the name, Garum. Garum is the fermented fish condiment that was used in Phoenicia, Greece, Rome and beyond. With our wine we enjoyed the high quality red tuna prepared two ways, sashimi and tartar. Exquisite. We also had raviolis filled with pringá de Berza Gitana. This is a stew prepared with collard greens, onion, squash, tomato, peppers, chorizo, morcilla and beef shank. It is then chopped finely and used to fill the raviolis. I can’t wait to go back and repeat both dishes and more!
Two of my other reasons for being truly in love with Cádiz are…………..
Yes, you can start the Camino de Santiago here! This part of the camino is called the Via Augusta, which was the longest and busiest of the Roman roads that connected the Pyrenees and France to what is now C´ádiz.
And…………you can enjoy the most beautiful sunset in Spain! One that just keeps on giving.
Side note – The title of the film I mentioned at the beginning refers obviously to the famous Almadraba Tuna. Chocolate? Chocolate is the word used for hash that for many, many years has found its way to the coastlines of Southern Spain from Morocco.
A small miracle occurred in the month of July! I actually had the opportunity to organise and accompany a group throughout Andalucia. It is hard to explain how good it felt to plan visits and excursions to the places I love. Calling my local guides (friends) to let them know I would need them for a visit was absolutely the best! I am so grateful for this opportunity after all of this time “off” the road.
One of my favourite parts of traveling with others is sharing the local foods. Gastronomical history is my passion. Through this history we learn about the people and their lives and customs. I love receiving emails from guests who have travelled with me that contain photos of the dishes they learned about while we traveled together. They get to relive beautiful experiences by preparing these dishes at home!
My colleague and I went to lunch in Córdoba the other day. I took her to one of my favorite places, Casa Rubio. I always have a hard time deciding on a place to eat in Cordoba because there are so many amazing bats and restaurants.
Córdoba is known for salmorejo! You can read about it in the attached biog posts above. I love salmorejo and I prepare it a lot at home. But, when I’m in Córdoba I have to order MAZAMORRA, especially if I am with someone who has never tasted it before.
Long before the tomato arrived to Europe, people were preparing dishes that involved the mashing or creaming of many products, like almonds and bread. The word mazamorra either comes from Arabic or the Greek “mâza” just like in the word mazapán (marzipan). Amasar in Castilian Spanish means to mash or to knead. Different types of mazamorra are also prepared in different South and Central American countries. It can be a salty dish, dessert or a drink depending on the country. The mazamorra cordobesa is completely different from these. In Córdoba, it is a cold cream served with bread or sesame breadsticks. It is simply prepared with almonds, olive oil, salt, and garlic. There are also different variations. More than likely this dish dates back to the Roman times when a dish was made using bread. It is a cousin to “ajo blanco”, “porra” and “salmorejo”. Please read about these in the attached posts above.
The preparation at Casa Rubio is perfect. It is very light in garlic (although I prefer it with more), and it is garnished with almonds, apples, and raisins. The texture is smooth as silk.
Córdoba was very quiet but it was nice to see some people traveling again. I am so grateful that I was able to be on the road for a few days! We need to stay safe and take care of each other to keep moving forward.
If there is one place I don’t like spending my time, it is at a hospital. I doubt many people do. Going to the hospital is not usually a joyful experience unless you are having a baby or receiving the “you are cancer free” news. Those are my only two truly joyful hospital experiences up to now. I have spent quite a bit of time in hospitals in the past 11 years and I am happy to say that the majority of that time was spent in Spanish hospitals, except a brief experience in Switzerland. Spain has an exceptional healthcare system. It ranks extremely high both in Europe and worldwide. I realize that there are many different opinions about universal healthcare and also people who may have had negative experiences when dealing with the system. However, this is about my experience and I only have positive comments to make about Spain and its healthcare system. I am happy to say that my daughter has had minimal reasons for care except for her birth, a pulmonary stenosis that cleared up in a few years and her random visits for a common illness or vaccinations. That pretty much sums up her experience until now and I hope it stays that way. With an exception to this past Covid filled year, we are always able to get an appointment either the same day or the next at our local health clinic. My daughter only had two different pediatricians in her 14 years here in Granada and we loved them both! This year she has now moved up to a general practitioner. How did that happen so soon?
I am a freelancer so I pay Social Security through my monthly “autonomous” payments. However, let me state that healthcare in Spain is socialized and FREE! During the times when I was either unemployed or too ill to work, my healthcare was completely and 100 percent covered. The only exception to this was when I chose to do necessary treatments with a private doctor so I would be able to keep my promise to one of the companies that I worked for and have available dates to be working. In retrospect, I would never do this again. Our health should always be number one and most of the best medicine practice exists at the public hospitals, many of which are connected to the university medical school which is the case here in Granada.
Healthcare is a touchy subject for many people so I am only going to share my personal experience. Thanks to our lovely pandemic my last necessary surgery was put on a waitlist a year ago. Basically, if you were not going to die without it, all procedures and operations were waitlisted and with good reason. I had been told that I would probably have my surgery in July or August of 2021. In my mind I imagined receiving the call that I would finally have my regular job again and receive a call from the hospital on the same day. Murphy’s Law. Thankfully that wasn’t the case. My last doctors visit set off an alarm of urgency and I was called in much sooner. With just two days to prepare I notified friends, filled the refrigerator for my daughter, received my negative Covid test and took my last long walk for awhile making my way to the hospital. You are not allowed to have a companion unless completely necessary and if you do, the companion must be “admitted” and “discharged” with the patient. I was not about to subject anyone to sleeping in one of those chairs for who knows how many nights even if they are fed three meals a day and able to choose the “diet” of their choice. And in the end the care I received was above and beyond what is expected.
I was asked to arrive at 11 am the day before my surgery in order to have some necessary tests done and to speak with my group of surgeons. Apart from that I was free to enjoy the view of the mountains, eat when served, and binge on Netflix. In the public hospitals the rooms are shared. The number of patients can vary. A few years ago I spent a week in Cardiology in the old hospital and shared a room with three other women. This room was for post op and had only two beds. During my stay at the hospital this month I was blessed to share my room with 4 different women with 4 different stories. (they came and went during my stay) We shared our fears and pain and life stories. There is something about being nervous and alone that really unites people.
As I read my book and played with my bed remote on that first day watching the various hospital staff come and go, I was reminded of an important word in Spanish. Convivencia. Convivencia means living together or coexistence. However, this word has a different significance here since it is often used when speaking of the time in history when the Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together on the Iberian Peninsula. I don’t add the word “peacefully” to this statement because that would be incorrect for many reasons. For me this word also represents a very important aspect of the culture here and the healthcare system is a big part of this. Sharing a hospital room when you are very ill or about to go into or come out of an operation can be a delicate situation. I am happy to say that my experiences have been nothing but positive and enlightening. A genuine interest in helping one another and taking care of others becomes the most important concept. Not only was the hospital staff extremely attentive and kind at all moments but my roommates were also a crutch of empathy and kindness in my weakest moments.
My surgical team was outstanding. My operation was extremely difficult and had complications, 7 hours instead of the usual 2 hours. Everybody in the room introduced themselves kindly calling me by my name and reassuring me before the anesthesiologists sent me off to la la land. In the public hospitals you don’t choose your doctors or surgeons. I had met three doctors the day before but the other two I met just before surgery. Being a university hospital and my case being quite unique, I had extra people in the operating room to learn and observe. Everyone in the post operation recovery room was equally compassionate as they kindly injected me with “ALEGRÍA” , otherwise known as morphine. That part is all a bit hazy.
Lucky me! I had some minor complications in the days after surgery so I got to spend some extra time in my 5 star hospital room. This also meant that I finally graduated from a liquid diet to a “semi-bland” diet. These are the moments that I always remember for some reason because they remind me of where I live and why. My liquid diet consisted of decaf coffee with whole milk, juice boxes and clear broth. But, my semi bland diet was a major improvement. Many dishes that are served seem like they came out of someones Grandma´’s kitchen, like the great soups and meatballs! Actually, the meatballs were served to me the day before surgery. But, my other “bland” meals consisted of different vegetable purees, a garbanzo, potato and spinach soup, fish soup, grilled fish with parsley and olive oil, grilled chicken breast, grilled tuna with peppers and onions and a cute little omelet shaped like a cupcake. Oh, and we cannot forget the late afternoon snacks of “Galletas Maria” served with decaf and whole milk of course and breakfast with decaf and magdalenas “mini muffins”. And, every night at about 11 pm you are always offered a cup of tea or a yogurt as a good night snack.
I am now home and recovering. I still have a bumpy road to travel but I am seeing a bright light that I have not seen in many, many years. I am grateful to the healthcare system in Spain and all of the amazing people who give all of their energy everyday to the care and wellbeing of the people they encounter. Especially after this past year. They should be exhausted and over it all! But, what I encountered was only true kindness and professional healthcare workers who are dedicated to what they do. The aids who took care of me when I was passing out and seriously sick were attentive to every detail. They even arranged my flowers carefully in water and placed them where I could enjoy the view! Of course I am even happier to be home with my gorgeous daughter. Soon, I will be making new Youtube videos for you all and eventually back to travel and life as usual. It is important to remember the idea of “convivencia” and to learn to live together and take care of each other. Hopefully what we have lived in the past year has helped many people to take a deep look at how we coexist with others.
Some places just feel like home from the very first moment you arrive. I always say that I have many different homes across Spain and Portugal. They are places that I can walk into year after year and and always feel greeted with warmth and friendship. In the Basque Country, up in the hills and looking over the Cantabrian Sea there is a small boutique winery that captured my heart from the very first moment that I arrived over 8 years ago. A winding road takes you up to this magical place that is not visible until you are at its doorstep, not unlike the Guggenheim Museum upon your arrival in Bilbao.
In this paradise, smack in the middle of the Urdabai Biosphere, this boutique winery produces Txakoli. This is the wine unique to the Basque Country, along with its own language, culture, food and sports. It is a wine that has been produced for centuries in the Basque Country. The wine was originally made by and for the families, a yearly production to be enjoyed with the local food. It was produced in Baserris, or farmsteads. The grape, Hondarrabi Zuri, is indigenous to the Basque Country. Txakoli should be served cold, always a short pour and maintaining the correct temperature. It pairs perfectly with seafood and especially a nice cheese such as the Idiazabal cheese, made from the local sheep. It also pairs well with the heavy dishes in this area prepared with ingredients like the local pinto beans from Tolosa. Txakoli cleanses your palate and invites you to indulge more and more, while enjoying the next pintxo that calls your attention! If you really want to enjoy the perfect pairing with a cold glass of Txakoli, you should prepare Bacalao al Pil Pil to accompany. Salt cod with garlic and chili peppers. It is the ideal combination.
Bodega Berroja is a short drive from Bilbao, and here you will meet José Ángel, the owner of the winery. I find myself at a loss for words to describe José Ángel. Those of you who have been lucky enough to meet him already know what I mean, and those of you who will be fortunate enough to visit in the future will be endeared by his kindness and authenticity. There are few people in this world like him and he has always encouraged me to live my dreams, just as he has, since the moment that we met.
Originally, Txakoli is and should be enjoyed as a young and sparkling wine. It will accompany your fantastic pintxos as you wander through the streets of Bilbao, Vitoria or Gernika. It is unusual to be able to enjoy a glass of Txakoli outside of the Basque Country unless you are lucky to be in a Basque bar in a city like Barcelona or are lucky enough to know of a great wine importer in your local area! Nowadays, wineries like Berroja also produce Txakoli that can be enjoyed with a long, sit down meal as well. They even produce a rose if that is what you fancy!
Yesterday, March 19th was Father’s Day in Spain. It is also the day of San José. Happy Father´’s Day and Happy 80th Birthday to my Father who recently celebrated in February!! I hope you are enjoying that glass of Txakoli right now.
Read more about the Basque Country in these posts……………….
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.
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.
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.
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.