Ten years ago my sister Georgianna came to live with me for four months. We had many wonderful moments that included sleeping on the beach, dancing on top of bars and enjoying lots of wonderful food. We also took dance classes and did tai chi and yoga together. But every once in a while my sister would wander off for a walk and adventures on her own. My sister is one of those people who will talk to anyone and would always come home with wonderful stories to tell. One day she came back from a walk along the river with a bag full of quince. A big bag. She had met an older man along the river who invited her to look at his beautiful orchard and vegetable garden. We had no idea what to do with the quince but we did go back and visit him several times. He would offer us homemade wine with slices of ham as he told us his life story. Pepe I believe his name was. Pepe from the river we called him.
Since the school year began a couple of friends and I have been walking along the river every morning before I go home to do my yoga practice. Yesterday as we admired the first snowfall on the Sierra Nevada, we were stopped by “Rafa”. Rafa wanted to know if we were tired and proceeded to give us handfuls of a small little black fruit called Almencinas. He told us to peel off the outer skin, eat the “meat” and spit out the rest. He said the fruit was sweet and would give us energy. So as we continued on with our walk we did as instructed. The miniscule amount of fruit that each tiny ball offered was sweet but I’m not sure how much extra energy it gave us. On our way back towards Granada we ran into Rafa again. He told us more about his life, how he used to play professional soccer and how much he enjoys the outdoors and the mountains. This morning as well we saw Rafa’s smiling face and he handed us more Almencinas to add to our piles. We asked him about the difference between Endrinas (sloe berries) and the Almencinas. He explained that the Almencinas are the fruit from a tree, the Almez and Endrinas are a berry. Endrinas are used to make Pacharán, which is for me one of the most delicious liqueurs ever made. It is originally from Navarra in Northeastern Spain. However, Rafa explained to us that the best Pacharán is made here in Granada in a mountain town called Monachíl. He told us the name, Espino Negro, and that we definitely needed a bottle to help celebrate Christmas. I think I will follow Rafa’s suggestion this year.
The word “pijo” is used in Spain with various connotations, both positive and negative. Most commonly it describes a person or a place that is classy or fashionable. However, quite frequently in Granada “pijo” can also be equivalent to tacky and tasteless. Sort of the wannabe of posh that never really gets to that level. Therefore, most of the “normal” people try to avoid any place or situation that may involve anything “pijo”. In fact, some may go to great extremes to not rub elbows with those who wear long sleeve pink oxfords with a sweater wrapped around their shoulders. But, in my search for unique tapas in this city I have wandered into many a “pijo” establishment. Most, I have to say are a disappointment. Too many pink Polo shirts and not a decent tapa in sight.
I have found the exception, or at least one of them. We found “Oryza” because we used to live around the corner. Every once in a while we would pop in on a Saturday afternoon for a glass of wine and a tapa which were always delicious. When they opened, the prices were quite high and I was worried that this little place might not make it. But since then they have lowered their regular prices and also included a great bar and terrace menu along with a below 10 euro wine list. The reason we kept going back is because they have always treated us like family. The last time I was there I was treated to the best guacamole I’ve had in Spain, a delicious plate of meatballs, and a small plate of grilled vegetables with a hard boiled partridge egg.
We are still waiting for fall to arrive in Granada. I’ve gotten way to used to putting on shorts and a tank top everyday and I regret postponing the purchase of new sandals until next Spring. But, last night at least the air was a bit cooler, cool enough to turn on the oven that is. We had been gifted some great apples from one of Luna’s friends grandparents and we also had three bananas that were screaming ” TURN US INTO BREAD”!!! And so we did just that. Apple Banana Bread with all local and more or less organic ingredients. Luna thought that baking it in the heart pan would make it just perfect. It turned out both beautiful and decadent.
While the bread was in the oven, Luna prepared her special crunchy chicken breasts. She enjoyed hers with sauteed mushrooms and a green salad and the adult version was a chicken salad with feta and a spicy dressing. Yum!!
Even though I love to go out and try new food and new restaurants, one of my favorite things to do is cook at home with family and friends whenever possible. Here in Granada it is fairly easy to buy local produce just about anywhere. The co-op where we shop always has great seasonal vegetables and we take full advantage of them every week. Sometimes a great dinner can be made of simple and delicious veggies with a great salad of beets and avocados. I also love to buy vegetables, flowers, and herbs from the guys who set up along the river by our house. This morning I bought two bags of the best smelling oregano from a wonderful man.
As I write I can hear the sound of a slide whistle going up a down my street. This can be heard all over Spain. The knife sharpener. Right at your front door.
I was up late last night after taking a wonderful client up to the caves for Flamenco. So when the alarm went off this morning I was happy to see that the rest of my family was still asleep and I rolled over hoping for a nice lie in. It didn’t last long of course. Before I realized it I was up making breakfast with the company of my neighbor’s two year old and then quickly we were all off to school.
Amazingly, a friend and I both found the energy to grab our bikes for a short ride and went to a beautiful town, Pinos de Genil, on the way to the mountains. After drinking fresh cold water out of the town’s fountain we decided to have a quick beer at Bar Ricardo next to the river. The moment improved when our server brought us a plate of delicious olives that had been seasoned with cumin and paprika and a bit of salchichón (salami). I had one of my “I heart Granada” moments listening to the sound of the river and recalling my Gypsy bliss from the night before. To prolong the feeling we decided to pick Luna up from school early and take her to another beautiful town up in the mountains for lunch and a hike.
Guejar Sierra is a cozy mountain town about 10 miles from Granada. It has great restaurants both within the town and along the river that serve traditional food with an abundance of olive oil and local products. It has also been a favorite place of mine to go and enjoy the many hiking trails that take you along the river and into the mountains. There used to be a tram that went from the center of Granada to the start of one of the main trails, La Vereda de la Estrella. In the early 70’s the tram ceased to function due to lack of profit. The older people in the town are still quite disturbed about this, understandably so.
We stopped in one of the restaurants along the river to eat something before our hike. We ordered the obligatory and delicious local potato dish, poor man’s potatoes. Patatas a lo pobre. They are thinly sliced potatoes, green peppers and sometimes onions sauteed in an generous amount of olive oil. Simple and always gratifying. Luna had a hankering for chicken so we ordered a small dish of chicken in garlic (and plenty of oil) which was delicious with just a bit of white wine and about 10 cloves of crispy garlic. But the star dish today was the Padrón peppers. These peppers are named after a town in Galicia and were originally brought to Spain in the 16th century from Mexico. The ones we had today were grown locally. There is a saying about these peppers, “Pimientos de Padrón, algunos pican algunos no”. “Padrón peppers, some are hot, some are not”. They are served after being fried in olive oil and lightly salted. My friend took a bite out of the first pepper and handed it to me immediately. Usually these peppers leave me craving spice. If you are lucky, one in 15 is hot. Not today. They were all fire. And I mean FUEGO!!! I’m a spicy food addict and these were mind blowing. All of them.
After our hike along the river we stopped in a local shop and bought some local treats. Onions, tomatoes, apples, pumpkin, cherries in strong alcohol, and pickled spicy peppers. The pickled peppers aren’t from Padrón but they are just about as picante!!
It is inevitable that at one point during every tour someone will ask the question, “What is your favorite city in Spain?”. This is almost impossible for me to answer. Certain cities become a favorite because of their magic and beauty. Others become a favorite because of memories and moments. And some embrace both for me. Although my list is ever changing, there are always a few that rank at the top. I never include Granada because it is a constant in my life, an ongoing affair of love and life.
Toledo caught my heart from day one not due to its beauty and history, but because it proposed a great challenge to me. The incredible ease at which one could get lost within its streets. And lost, I have been. Luckily I have been blessed to have spent many nights in Toledo and now it is a rarity that I get lost in its labyrinth of small passageways and dead ends. For me, Toledo is an outdoor museum. Sometimes I close my eyes as I wander about and I can feel the history that has passed through it’s cobblestone streets. Last March after being under the city to visit the old Arabic baths we climbed up to the top of one of the main gates of Toledo, La Puerta de Bisagra. The city was bathed in the light of the full “super” moon. The immense beauty caused our group of 30 thirteen year olds to fall silent. Something quite difficult to achieve.
Apart from the city itself, friendship has also tied me to Toledo throughout the past 15 years. My friend Mario is one of the people in Spain who has taught me how to really enjoy the moment. No matter where we meet up to have a beer or eat lunch he always has one of those flashes where he looks up, nodding his head and says, “has visto que bonito es?”. Can you see just how beautiful it is? Not only has he shown me some of the most wonderful views, restaurants and bars in the city but he also reminds me continually about how to savor every second of life. In 2011 I spent the night in Toledo with 4 different groups and all of them coincided with a full moon. I realize this is just coincidental but it adds to the magic. In June I watched the entire lunar eclipse from a beautiful lookout point over the city. Accompanied by a friend and a gin tonic garnished with black pepper. As I fell asleep that night my life felt like a bit of a dream.
Autumn entered with grace here in Granada as a nice cool rain cleansed the city on Friday afternoon. My daughter ran to put on the warmest clothes she could find along with her rain boots and we happily splashed and walked along the river. Fall in Granada tends to be a short period of time so we try to enjoy every bit of it. The blazing sun still shows its face each day, but the evenings and mornings are quite crisp and cold. Many people in the city vacation until mid-September so this is the first week that Granada feels back to full swing after the long summer. This last weekend in September is one of the biggest local celebrations in Granada. The day of the Virgin of Anguish, the patron Saint of Granada. La Virgin de las Angustias. The procession for the Virgin is held on Sunday evening (now) and the city is completely inundated by “Granainos” who come from all over the city and surrounding towns to honor the Virgin. Fifteen minutes of fireworks announced the beginning of the procession at the Basilica this evening.
The celebration of the Patron Saint is accompanied by the festival of fall fruits in the main plaza of the city.
For me the smell of the plaza brings back memories of being in an apple orchard when I was young. However, you won’t find a single apple in the plaza today. At the different posts you can find quince, beautiful yellow and black fresh dates, acerolas, and chirimoyas (custard apples). You can also taste an “azufaifa”, the fruit from a jujube tree. This reddish fruit is similar to a bitter, dry apple. Interesting. The flavors of autumn. On the other side of the plaza from the fruit stands are different associations selling various pastries and the famous “Torta de la Virgin” or Virgin’s Cake. This sweet bread made with olive oil can be found plain or filled with chocolate, cream or a unique filling made from squash. Thousands of virgin cakes are consumed by the people of Granada today.
Today we wandered back home early enough to avoid the crowds for the procession. But, we enjoyed the day in our own way by observing the Basilica and the vendors selling rosaries and long white candles. Tradition, culture and the smell of fruit filled the streets today.
Some of my favorite tapas are on the coast of Granada. Since it is still around 90 degrees everyday here, I have the beach on my mind constantly. In any of the beach restaurants or “chiringuitos” you can sit down at a table with your feet in the sand, order a beer (or whatever it is you desire), and enjoy a wonderful tapa. Fresh fish and seafood are the norm here. I love when I am surprised with a small plate of grilled shrimp or fried, marinated dogfish.
I remember my first couple years in Granada when we would take the bus down to the beach for the day. There was something liberating about enjoying a cold drink with a free tapa of fried squid and then jumping into the Mediterranean sea merely 5 feet away. My excitement about this has not faded a bit in the past 16 years. Swim, tapa, swim, sun, tapa, swim, tapa, sun, swim…………ahhhhhhhhh!!
During the summer months the “chiringuitos” set up an open fire to grill the fresh sardines. We call them “sardinas al espeto”, sardines on a skewer. For most of my life I thought I hated sardines (?). Little did I know about the delicate flavor of these healthy fish. I prefer the smaller sardines to the larger ones. The larger ones tend to be oilier and have a stronger flavor. A favorite tapa here is “migas” or sauteed breadcrumbs and garlic, topped with grilled sardines. Sometimes a bit of melon is thrown in. Delicious!
Tapas are a way of life in Spain. Small, simple dishes of food that vary depending on the region and the restaurant. The word tapa simply means “cover” or “lid” since originally a slice of cheese or ham was placed over a glass of wine. Whether this was done either to keep the flies out or simply because someone decided it is preferable to have some sustenance along with your beverage of choice, the outcome shaped an important part of this culture. This is my first of many posts dedicated to the “tapa”.
Where I live in Granada tapas are free. Not just in the city, but in the entire province (county). There are many places throughout the country where you will be given a bite of something when you order a drink, be it olives or a small dish of paella. But in Granada, the tapa enters into a whole different dimension. During “tapa time” which happens between 1 p.m and 3:30p.m. and then again from 8p.m. to 11 p.m. more or less, you are given a free tapa with each drink you order. In many bars you are simply given a different tapa with each drink where in others you are given a list of tapas to choose from. The assortment varies from bar to bar and can include anything from fried fish, meatballs, cured ham or a Spanish omelet to fried eggs with potatoes, snails in a spicy sauce or a small baguette with pork tenderloin and tomato. The list is endless.
My oldest sister Denise always says that my daughter should be a spokesperson for Asturias, as it is her favorite province in Northern Spain. We have been vacationing up north since she was a very small baby and it is something she looks forward to all year long. She will ramble on about the green landscape, the beautiful beaches, the wonderful food, and of course the healthy cows that produce her favorite milk and ice-cream. We try to spend most of our time in campgrounds while visiting the north of Spain because we love the people and the freedom that Luna has to run around. Spending the days swimming and hiking from cove to cove is one of our favorite past times. One of the most picturesque towns is Luanco, just west of Gijón. We spent one night in the town a few years ago at a beautiful hotel right on the sea where they served us breakfast as we watched the fish swim.
We always go back to Luanco for a few reasons. One, is the delicious ice-cream we have found there, my favorite being rice pudding, which is the richest most delicious bit of cream I have ever tasted. Luna always tastes a different flavor, trying to never repeat. The other reason for visiting Luanco is the wonderful family beach in the town. But, on our last trip Luna found her best excuse for visiting Luanco. Milk from Asturian cows sold in a vending machine!!! For one euro she proudly carried her liter of fresh cow milk back to the campground. Amazing. Milk from a vending machine that tasted like actual milk and even had a layer of cream on top. Does life get better than this when you are 5, or 39??????
Deep fried food. Before moving to Spain this was something I ate occasionally in a bar or to cure a hangover. In Spain however, fried food disguises itself in a way that almost makes it seem healthy. And, according to many a Spaniard, if it is prepared correctly it is healthy indeed. You may try to avoid it, try to minimize, but it is always there and always delicious. Even after 17 years I still haven’t taken up the tradition of deep frying in my own home. I prefer to leave the dirty work to someone else and enjoy my “fritanga” sitting on a beach or a pleasant terrace. The smell of my neighbor’s fried fish wafting into my open windows three times a week is as close as I need to be.
Two years ago we discovered a great campground in a national park on the Northern coast of Spain in the region of Cantabria. From the campground you can walk down to an extensive beach, Oyambre, that allows amazing views of the “Picos de Europa”, a spectacular mountain range. Last year we discovered a great little restaurant still open in the off season where we enjoyed a menu of the day that included a pinto bean stew and an excellent tuna with onions or atún encebollado, typical along this coast. When we returned this year in August, the main beach restaurant or “chiringuito” as we would call it here was open. El Pájaro Amarillo as it is called has beautiful views of the beach from its extensive terrace. We were looking to eat something “light” on our first afternoon at the beach. Since my daughter is a huge fan of fried calamares we decided to order “rabas” . They are basically deep fried squid cut to be straight instead of rings. We also ordered a “ración” of patatas bravas ( fried potatoes in a spicy sauce). The fried squid in Cantabria is one of the most tender and delicious that I have had in the country (and my daughter eats it everywhere possible). But, the patatas bravas were unbelievable. This is a typical tapa served all over the country in many different ways. Like my daughter with fired squid, I try to taste all varieties of patatas bravas throughout the country. What usually varies the most is the sauce. These were actually patatas mixtas which includes both the spicy tomato sauce and an alioli or garlic mayonnaise. Both of the sauces were so delicious that we dipped both the potatoes and the squid into the sauce. YUM!!! The alioli held enough garlic to ward off the flu for 5 years and the brava sauce was actually SPICY!!! Something very unusual in Spain. We returned the next day and ordered the exact same simple meal without one regret. The beach is beautiful and the mixture of sand, sun and fried yumminess makes it all the more worth the visit!!!