I could probably write a book about Toledo and all of my lovely experiences I’ve had there but that will have to wait for another point in my life. After all, it did rank number 1 for many reasons. Toledo is one place where I never tire of wandering through the streets and monuments. Every time I walk through the city I see something new and learn more about the history and layers of this medieval treasure. One night many years ago as I was strolling through the narrow cobblestone streets with some students I ran into my dear friend Mario leading his group on a nighttime tour. From this moment on I decided to include this as part of any tour of mine that sleeps in Toledo. Each city takes on a different persona when the sun goes down. The moon, darkness and city lights completely change the feeling and security that daytime holds. A nighttime visit in Toledo is filled with legends, mysteries and intrigue. One of my favorite expressions in Spanish is “pasar una noche Toledana” which describes when one has had a sleepless night for one reason or another. Historically, the saying refers to a bloody massacre that occurred in the year 797 when a cruel Governor invited all of the nobleman of Toledo to his home for a banquet. As they entered his home one by one, they were beheaded and tossed into a ditch.
On a lighter note, I’ve enjoyed some great meals in Toledo with many wonderful friends. I’ve also enjoyed some quiet afternoons and nights alone with a tapa and glass of wine. This past June I went for a cold beer at a restaurant that I have frequented through the years because it is next door to the hotel where I often sleep. It is a bit of a dive and I usually only go in for a quick drink. Well, in June I was surprised with a tapa of one of the best Croquetas I have ever eaten. It was quite ugly as you can see, but the flavor was perfect.
I’ve had a few memorable meals at a restaurant named Casa Aurelio where they serve tender meat that you cook to your liking on a hot brick. Another favorite place of mine is El Hostal del Cardenal which is a breathtaking hotel and restaurant connected to the walls of the city. The restaurant offers beautiful gardens where you can enjoy a wonderful meal or cold drink and feel as if you are part of a medievil film. However, there is a place that I always tend to go to when I am up near the main plaza of the city, Zocodover. It is called El Cason de los Lopez. This building from the XVI century is located on a street that was once famous for typical “mesones” or a XVI century bed and breakfast, where Miguel de Cervantes used to eat and rest. The main floor of the building is part of an interior patio with a bar and rustic, informal dining area. In the bar you can order a mixed plate of Manchego cheese and cured local sausages. It is delicious. My friend Alex and I discovered it while catching up on each others lives over some local wine from Castilla la Mancha. And I ordered it again to share with two of my favorite dining partners this summer. The picture is taken by my friend Melissa. After we had already eaten more than half of the plate…………
My homemade quince paste went perfectly with a sharp Manchego cheese and a bottle of Protos from Ribera del Duero. We added a light salad with pomegranate seeds and walnuts to round off this perfect snack.
Sundays invite adventure and escaping from the city center. Even though we all laugh and criticize the “domingueros” or “Sunday drivers”, we end up being one many times during the year. So, today we went up just a bit into the mountains to breathe some fresh air and see what the day would bring. Basically it is hard to go wrong around here on a weekend. As long as you have good company and some open space for the kids to play, the day is pretty much set. Lucky for me I have friends who also have a damn good sense of humor which makes the day just that much brighter. Even with the clouds. We ordered some food to share and then just as I was mourning the lack of homemade croquetas on the menu, this tapa appeared on the table. It was as if they had read my mind. My friend Annette and I both have a bit of an obsession with ordering homemade croquetas when available. I think we are trying to find the best. There is a lot to know about the “croqueta” in Spain. Croquetas can be real crap sometimes. Frozen and produced by a machine. Or just plain bland, boring, and disgusting. But, when you find a good croqueta, it is like a delicious bit of fried love.
I was truly blessed to live with an amazing woman here in Granada. Carmen taught me a great part of what I know about this city. She hated to cook. But her croquetas were seriously the best I have ever had. I would hang over her as she made the bechamel, added the leftover meat from the stew cooked the day before and toss them in the egg and flour. I watched the patience and love she put into those delicious rolls. When they were ready we would all line up to taste as she fried them one by one. I would always get back in line for seconds. And with that bit of energy we would be off to go out for the night.
The croquetas today were homemade and fresh. They weren’t as good as Carmen’s, nor where they as good as the one I will put in my next post, but they did hit the spot. The company was even better…….a bit crazy……..but good.
One of my favorite sayings in Spanish is “uvas con queso saben a beso” or “grapes with cheese taste like a kiss”. My daughter even learned this in her Pre-school at snack time. The combination of grapes and cheese really do bring to the mouth the taste of a (nice) kiss. But in reality, here in Spain there is another flavor that is most typically combined with a nice cured Manchego cheese. Dulce de Membrillo. Quince turned into a firm jelly brick. Sounds strange I know, and even I thought it was pretty odd the first timed I was offered a piece. The truth is that a chunk of quince paste with a slice of cured cheese accompanied by a glass of Ribera del Duero is an absolute delicacy.
I was just finishing my Part 2 on Toledo when I was completely distracted by gifts of fall fruits. Luna and I helped an older gentleman, Miguel, with his car the other day and so he showed us his gratitude with a bag of walnuts and pomegranates. Then, my friend Ofelia handed me a huge bag of quince last night as I left her house. Luna sat happily at the table and attempted to crack nuts while I cleaned and cored the quince hoping for some possible chance of producing “dulce de membrillo”. And so I cut and I peeled without losing a finger and then I boiled and cooled and rinsed and boiled again forever and ever with sugar, lemon, and vanilla. And now it is supposed to harden a bit. I left it chunkier than it is supposed to be because I thought it might be nice that way. We will see. Tomorrow I will have a bit with some cheese and wine. It hasn’t hardened quite yet but the flavor is amazing!!!!
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.