mooninspain

Food, Travel , Life and more Food in Spain

Archive for the category “Life in General”

Passion, Port and the Douro Valley

img_4830The Douro Valley in Portugal is known for its prolific wine production which is eventually taken to Vila Nova de Gaia near the city of Porto and stored in the wine cellars.  Traditionally the wine was transported there by “rabelos”, a cargo boat native to the Douro region.  The microclimate in this area also allows for the production of olives and almonds.  The rolling hills along the river provide fantastic scenery to enjoy a cruise or a train ride.  This summer we enjoyed both of these and a great pass through lock of the Regua dam, one of fifteen dams that exist on the river.

We parked our van in the town of Pinhão from where we were able to explore much of the valley and enjoy the excellent wine.  Right in the small town of Pinhão is the Quinta do BonFin, one of the many winery’s owned by the Symington family.  Eventually the grapes will end up at the Graham’s Lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia.  Here we enjoyed one of our favorite afternoon drinks, “Porto Tonica”, white port with tonic water and a slice of orange or a cinnamon stick.  The views from Bomfin were absolutely beautiful!

I have a minor addiction with tiny towns in the middle of nowhere.  From Pinhão you can hike straight up hill to the well-preserved town of Provesende, home to 356 inhabitants. This town dates back to the time of the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula.  They say that the  name comes from the last Moorish King of the area, Zaide. The town is pintoresque and loaded with history. You can see the Pillory from 1573 , the granite fountain and the Manor homes which remind us of the wealthy families that resided in this area.

 

One of my favorites parts of this town were the trash bins on the streets that are actually the baskets that were traditionally used to collect the grapes during the harvest. What an outstanding idea! We also hit the jackpot for lunch in Provesende.  The main restaurant in town was already closed but the owner offered us a “light snack”.  Before we knew it we had a spread in front of us of ham and cheese, local olives served with a sugar cane honey to dip, vegetable soup, bread and local olive oil, sliced apple sprinkled with bee pollen, and a local sausage called Alheira.  Don’t forget the wine, we are in the Douro Valley!

  • Dedicated to my Smithsonian group that I was forced to abandon due to minor injury.

 

Illegal in Lisbon……………

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One of my favorite past times is researching restaurants. Local and traditional are important to me especially to recommend great places to my guests so that they can enjoy good food in non touristic places. But, for myself and my family I love to find the best Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Indian, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, and Japanese just to name a few. I love spicy food and I crave vegetables especially when travelling. A couple of years ago we found our new favorite Chinese restaurant in Madrid and I was trying to find something equal to it in Lisbon where I spend quite a bit of time. Bingo!! What I came up with was ¨Lisbon´s Illegal Chinese Restaurant Scene¨. It sounded like my Chinese food dream as I read through the article.

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My love and I had a whole afternoon and evening free in Lisbon not long ago and I could not wait to see if we could find the Illegal Chinese Scene! He knew the neighborhood well but had never heard of the Chinese restaurants. We had a beer in the colorful plaza of Intendente before wandering down the street to hunt for our destination. We finally saw a building with a few windows where we could see a some people sitting at tables. We walked into the dark stairway and saw a black arrow pointing to one door. My love knocked on the door and said to the kind Chinese girl who answered that we were looking for the illegal restaurant. Maybe not the best choice of words but we did laugh about it quite a bit. Her answer was a simple no and she pointed upstairs. I decided to take a different approach and said that we wanted to eat to which she responded by opening the door wider and leading us to a table.

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Everything that we ordered was delicious and authentic. Pork dumplings, Tofu with Vegetables, and Kung Pao Chicken. Fresh and colorful and the by far the best Chinese I have had in years. I will return again and again. Not only is the food great in a unusal setting but the neighborhood is one of my favorites. I love the slightly grungy streets spotted with Indian and Chinese restaurants. It is worth it just for a walk and people watching.

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Slow food and slow life…………

My partner said he wanted me to have some genuine rest and relaxation before beginning the busy Fall season and that he knew just where we should go for a week or so in August.  So, we headed west from Madrid, spending one night in the beautiful city of Talavera de la Reina, before setting up camp near some of the most historical  towns in the interior of Portugal.

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Just crossing over the border from Spain a bit above the Tagus River we arrived in the small town of Monfortinho known for its hot springs.  Considering the temperature that day was about 110 degrees we decided to move on to the charming town of Idanha-a-Velha.  This town of about 80 inhabitants was founded by the Romans and is rich in history.  We arrived fairly late for Portuguese lunch standards but we were bound and determined to find something to eat.  Filipe went into the one bar in the town to ask about a restaurant.  He came out with the information that the one restaurant in town was closed because they were in the main social hall serving the musicians that were in ldanha for a week long camp.  So, feeling positive and quite hungry we went down to the hall to try our luck. The man told us that they had a buffet set up just for the musicians but he consulted with the owner to see what he could do for us.  Five minutes later we were seated at a table and presented with quite a feast by smiling and gracious people. At the end of the meal we were even offered some local cheese from friends of the owner.  Seven euros for a meal of various grilled meats, local wine, bread, olives and as always in Portugal; salad, potatoes and rice.

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Later on that afternoon we strolled through the beautiful streets down to the Roman Bridge and also listened to a practice concert  in the Visigoth Cathedral performed by the young people attending the music camp.  Right before leaving Ildanha-a-Velha we walked by the community oven as the woman was just opening the door.  She told us that they weren’t baking bread that day as it is only baked once a week but we did purchase some very crunchy cookies for our breakfasts.  The people in the town were so down to earth and friendly that for me it was the best way to begin our two weeks in the Alentejo region.

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Back home………more pieces of my Granada.

After realizing that we were not going to make it to the States this summer, we decided to pack up the van and head in direction of the French Pyrenees.  We spent 30 days sleeping in the van in various parking lots of different towns, beaches and mountains. It is hard to explain what it like for 3 people to live in a 1994 uncamperized Renault Trafic for a month. Three different countries and a million memories all done in what we call “plan ahorro” or “penny-wise.” There will be many future posts to come about our trip.

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My favorite part of arriving home was being able to prepare food in our kitchen with a refrigerator and a sink.  The first few days home we barely left the house, enjoying the lap of luxuries that a home offers.  But one day we decided to go out for a tapa at one of the best tapa bars in Granada which just happens to be close to home.  After paying 40 cents for a glass of wine and 70 cents for a beer in Portugal, it is hard to go back to the prices around here. However, there are always exceptions and “Bar La Noticia” is one of them.  The tapas are homemade and two will last you until dinner time.  Fava beans with an egg, excellent roasted pork, homemade croquettes and meat in a tomato sauce are just a few.  The other day we had grilled Iberian pork served with a spicy sauce (mojo picon) and Paparrones which are french fries covered in a Bolognese sauce and cheese. There is nothing sexy about this place, but for a ¨Cheers¨type environment and some great tapas, it is the place to go. Welcome home!

Tourist, Remember!

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Some of my favorite coastline in the Basque Country is between Bilbao and San Sebastian on the Cantabrian sea. Zarauz is a relaxing village that comes to life in the summer offering excellent food and one of the longest beaches along the Cantabrian sea.  Last year we spent a few days in the nearby fishing town of Getaria and walked the 3 mile seaside walk to Zarauz a few times to enjoy the beach and to dine at Karlos Arguiñano, a restaurant owned by the famous television chef. The walk between the two towns is right along the Northern Route of the Camino de Santiago.  We fell in love with the rhythm of Zarauz and decided to spend a few nights there in a hotel and returned again this summer with the van.

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Last year we stayed in a hotel right in the main square and there was a protest going on about the attempt to close one of the local bars due to political reasons.  In the Basque Country there are bars called “Herriko Tavernas” where members of the Basque Nationalist organization meet.  They are also just regular bars with excellent pintxos. The Spanish Government is trying to close them down. The protest consisted of the signing a proposition, selling t-shirts and live music.

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One of our favorite bars, also in the main square, has a great display of pintxos.  Everyday at 10 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. the bar was quickly covered in various types of Tortilla (spanish omelette).  Some are sliced in half and layered with different fillings like crab salad, ham and cheese or tuna salad with piquillo peppers.  Others are prepared with potato and onion, chorizo and peppers, or any mixture of fresh vegetables.  The choices are endless.

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The classic Pinxto, which should be eaten in one big bit, is the “Gilda”.  Named after Rita Hayworth as “Gilda”, this pintxo is spicy, salty and green! An olive, a spicy pickled pepper and a cured anchovy are what you get on this long toothpick.  Whether you are in Zarauz or any other bar in the Basque Country you can always find a “Gilda” surrounded by many other plates of art that are prepared to touch all of our senses.

The only way to survive this heat…………………..the beach!!!

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We have been hitting record temperatures here in Granada the past few weeks.  Having lived many years of my life in the desert of Arizona I can usually handle the heat but every year it gets more difficult.  The last couple weeks have been brutal around here and the only way to deal with this is to flee the city and head to the coast.  Lucky for us it is only 40 minutes to the nearest beaches with clear and cool water perfect for soothing the burn of the summer.

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Our very old yet reliable hippy van makes beach life a lot easier since we can now spend days on the beach without having to spend too much money or “pasta” as we would say here in Spain. One of life’s greatest joys is opening your eyes in the morning with a view of the sea, hearing the sound of the waves and going for the first morning swim with the fish.  I love the pebbly beaches of the Tropical Coast near Granada.  The water is usually like a deep swimming pool and clear enough to see your feet and the bottom of the sea.  The best beaches are found by hiking down a steep path or a curvy road.

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Of course beach life would not be the same without some fresh and local food.  Although we do enjoy preparing our own food next to the van, a good lunch at a “chiringuito” is always a treat.  At my favorite beach they have the best avocado, caper and anchovy salad.  The coast of Granada is painted with avocado trees, one of the best fruits on earth.

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I probably eat less rice than anyone else in this country.  Personal tastes and a minor seafood allergy don’t help much with this.  Lucky for me, here at my favorite chiringuito they will prepare the paella without a seafood broth so that I can actually enjoy a decent rice.  The best part of an excellent paella is the “socarrat”, the rice that gets crunchy and forms a crust at the bottom of the pan. This word comes from the Spanish word “socarrar” which means to singe.  No matter what type of paella you are eating, this is the part that should be most enjoyed!

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Vinho Verde………good for the soul.

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After leaving the Douro Valley we drove north towards the Minho river which is the natural border between Portugal and Spain.  This area of the country is absolutely gorgeous.  One of those places where you just want to unpack and stay for a very, very long while.  Lush green landscape is the backdrop for this river that is almost 2 kilometers wide where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean..

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We drove to the town of Caminha one day for lunch.  Caminha is a small but very classy town located only a couple of kilometers away from the Ocean.  We sat down for lunch at a cafe  in the in the main square which is surrounded by beautiful Renaissance and Gothic houses.  This area of Portugal is known for a type of wine called Vinho Verde.  It literally means “young wine”.  Vinho Verde should be consumed within a year of bottling and is produced in red, white and rosè varieties.  Some people think it is difficult to drink due to the rich color but we love it!

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The wine went perfect with our ¨light¨lunch of salad, a hamburger and a ¨bifana¨.  The Bifana is a sandwich of slowly simmered pork served with a mustard sauce on an excellent roll.  In retrospect we should have ordered two Bifanas and vetoed the burger.  It was absolutely perfect with a bit of ¨piri piri¨ and the vinho verde.  ¨Piri Piri¨is one of my favorite things about Portugal.  HOT SAUCE.  Always a few different varieties and always available.

After our very long lunch we ran, literally, to catch the sunset right where the Minho River meets the Atlantic.  It was definitely the perfect end to a perfect day.

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New Year’s Eve in Trás-os -Montes Portugal

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En route from Valladolid to Northern Portugal we decided spend New Years in the small city of Chaves in the region of Trás-os-Montes, just crossing over the border from Spain. The city and surrounding areas are known for it’s hot springs. The history of Chaves dates back to Paleolithic times and holds much to discover. It is also on the Portuguese Path’s leading to Santiago de Compostela.

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The holiday season brings the city back to life with many locals who have emigrated to France. They are home to visit and the restaurants were filled. We wandered into a small place with excellent homemade food. The local cuisine is heart and a good wine is necessary to wash it down. The first dish that we ordered was Alheira, a local sausage with pork, turkey, chicken, bread, garlic and paprika. The origin dates back to the 17th century when the “new Christians” were trying to disguise that they still followed Kosher rule of not eating pork. Here it was served with two types of potatoes and cabbage.

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Just in case the Alheira was not enough, we also shared a Feijoada. A dish of white beans, various pork products, tomato, carrot, and onion. It is eaten with rice. Luckily there is always a perfect green salad available to lighten up the meal.

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It was a bone chilling New Year’s Eve in Chaves so we decided to end our meal at a funky little cafe that served up a couple of excellent gin tonics with red pepper seeds. Needless to say 2014 will be a New Years’ to not forget.

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to veg or not to veg……………….

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On my very first flight from New York to Madrid I looked through a very well known travel book about Spain and Portugal.  In the food section I remember reading that it was almost impossible to find vegetarian food or a decent salad.  Being a vegetarian at the time I figured I was going to live on bread and apples for the following year.  The truth is that during my first few months here I did find it difficult to find a lot of vegetarian options.  But that was mostly due to my lack of knowledge about the food in Spain in general.  I think many vegetarians decide to survive on Tortilla Española (spanish potato omelet) and green salad, without the tuna of course.  But actually, the options are endless.

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One of my very favorite dishes, a specialty in Sevilla, is Espinacas con Garbanzos.  A hot stew with fresh spinach, chickpeas, cumin, paprika, garlic, bread and olive oil.  Served with mini breadsticks and a glass of dry sherry, it does not get much better for a veggie lover.  In the South you can also find fried eggplant everywhere.  Sometimes salty and sometimes with sugar cane honey.  My daughter loves the vegetable tajine at our favorite seafood restaurant on the coast of Granada.  It is an out of place item amongst the fresh fish and seafood but she is always happy to order it!

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Salads are plentiful and diverse.  One of our favorites is an Avocado Salad, either with fresh greens or tomatoes.   Another that we enjoy and order frequently at the beach restaurants here in Granada is a fresh fruit salad which varies seasonally.  In the fall it is filled with oranges, chirimoyas (custard apples), perssimons, avocado and star fruit.

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There are so many vegetable dishes available if you know what to look for on the menu or at a bar.  I have not yet looked to see if that travel book has changed it’s idea about food in Spain and Portugal.  The days of “jamon” being part of a vegetarian dish have long dissapeared in most places.

Food items that I thought I would never enjoy…………..

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I feel that I was raised in a fairly cultured world as far as food is concerned.  My Mother and Nana prepared excellent Italian food tracing our roots but they also made Chinese, Greek, French and many other ¨ethnic¨cuisines.  My parents would also take us out to different restaurants on a fairly regular basis so that we could taste foods from different countries. I have clear memories of tasting flaming saganaki, schnitzel, and cheese enchiladas as a very little girl. As a teenager my mother would rent films about food and far away countries; Babettes Feast, The Scent of Green Papaya, and Big Night come to mind. Many of my Friday nights were filled with popcorn and subtitles.

Regardless of my upbringing there were many foods that I still could not taste upon my arrival in Spain. Anchovies, sardines, octopus, and pig ears are a few on the list. Pig ears still remain on the list. The others, however I have learned to love along with many other different foods.

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I remember walking into a fish market many many years ago in Granada, and the kind gentleman offered me a goose barnacle to taste. Here and in Portugal they are called ¨percebes¨or ¨perceves. I could not get myself to put that in my mouth. They are truly horrific. I kindly refused and left the market.

Not long ago I watched a documentary about how goose barnacles are collected and found it incredibly interesting. It is a quite dangerous and tedious process. And so as life goes, I recently found myself in a market in Porto actually enjoying a plate of goose barnacles, cold albariño wine and great company. Call it circumstancial or a change in my palate. Nobody will ever know. But, I have the photos to prove it. Never say never.

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