I have to admit that for many years I could not comprehend why so many people got all worked up about visiting Gibraltar. Was it the stamp in the passport (that you don’t get anymore), the view of North Africa, or the monkeys stealing their potato chips??? I’m truly passionate about the places that I visit on tour, but it took me years to warm up to Gibraltar. My first memories involve a temperature as hot as hell with humidity, being crammed into taxis and shuttled up to the top of the rock to have a Chevy Chase like view of Africa, a quick stumble through a cave and then hassled by some monkeys before heading down to Casemates Square for lunch. I always spent the entire visit dreaming about the next stop on tour, the beach, where I could recharge my batteries a bit and have a swim in the water instead of just looking at it from a rock. And the Costa del Sol is definitely not lacking in fish n chips if someone really had a hankering.
Many many years have passed since those first visits to the rock. And at some point my perception changed and I began to appreciate this quirky and unusual bit of the peninsula. The people from Gibraltar are known as Juanitos. They are laid back, interesting and always open to a nice chat. I’ve had some great taxi drivers who were like walking history books. They have shared their family history with me along with some great anecdotes about Gibraltar. I’ve enjoyed some amazing conversations with more than a few Juanitos in their mixture of Spanish and English, not that different from my own way of speaking. The monkeys are adorable. It is pretty difficult to dislike a monkey butt.
My friend Todd shared a gastronomical secret spot with me many years ago. It is now one of my favorite places to eat on the entire peninsula. Really. I love Spanish food but I truly suffer at times without spice and hot peppers. My body needs it, craves it and basically cannot live without it. Introducing Mumtaz!! Mumtaz is a tiny, hole in the wall take-away Indian restaurant tucked away off of Main Street. It has two plastic tables, a few chairs and the best damn Indian food I’ve had in a long time. I eat here every time I go to the Rock and enjoy every bite. The sad part, is that I’m always alone which means I have to be limited to one dish with a bread. I’ve slowly been eating my way through the menu. Tour by tour. On my last visit I indulged in a great Sag Paneer, a chapati and an ice cold Cobra as I read an article about Mumtaz in some Gibraltarian magazine. I can’t wait to go back!
We don’t use the television in our house unless there is an emergency of some sort. But, my new friend, influenza, and I have become quite bored during our required resting period. So, I took the advice of a dear friend and watched an episode of Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsey. Just by chance, the episode that showed up first was titled Spanish Pavilion. On Chef Ramsey’s first visit to the restaurant he ordered the garlic chicken or pollo al ajillo, a very well-known dish here in Spain.
The name of the dish first brought up a fond memory in a bar years ago when I was still a tried and true vegetarian. My friend Cristi, also a vegetarian at the time, and I were out with a group of random people. We ended up in a conversation with a woman who was completely dumbfounded by the mere thought of us not participating in any carnal consumption. She went on and on for an extremely long time with every possible proposal to convince us to change our ways. My friend and I nodded and smiled politely for as long as we could. But when the woman, disheartened, expressed her true sadness that we would never try her “pollo al ajillo” we lost it and continued on laughing about it throughout the night and for the next five to six years. Actually, we still laugh about it.
Back to the Nightmares. When Chef Ramsey tasted his garlic chicken at the Spanish Pavilion, he lifted up a wing and unveiled about two cups of olive oil on his plate. I almost spit my chamomile at the screen. I was immediately taken to one of my favorite towns near Granada, Guejar Sierra. The amount of olive oil on Chef Ramsey’s plate didn’t even compare to the amount of olive oil in the majority of the typical dishes in Guejar. Pollo al ajillo being one of those. The food is delicious in the town but my husband and I often giggle about the amount of oil used. And one afternoon having lunch with my Mother along the river near Guejar we calculated 1 cup and a half of olive oil per dish that we ordered. We have no shortage of olive oil here. I need to take Ramsey to Guejar.
Winters in Granada are not as horrible as they can be other places I realize, but nonetheless I get tired very easily of the cold. I prefer heat, hot sun, sand on my body and a cool drink in my hand. So, after all too many days of battling a nasty winter flu I have been dreaming of summer. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sweet and enjoyable summer. I have many food and cultural posts still for winter but today I need to feel the hot sun on my skin. If only through a blog. So, my dreams take me back to Asturias where we enjoy spending a bit of each summer vacation. Hard cider, great food, and a sunny day on a pristine beach are what brings us back year after year. The sunny day can be a give or take since Asturias tends to be fairly rainy. But, we usually luck out with sun for 90 percent of the time.
Each year we return to the same rural hotel (another post) where we always feel welcome and have a chance to decompress between campground and campground. From this beautiful home there are hiking trails that will take you to different towns, beaches, restaurants, and the breathtaking look out at Cabo Penas. One of our favorite beaches to walk to is Verdicio. First we stop at a nearby restaurant along the national highway and then we make our way down to the beach area which kindly offers a small hut serving hard cider whenever you feel the need.
We had a fantastic meal at a cider house, La Fustariega before heading down for a swim. French fries ( or chips) smothered in a sauce made with the best cheese in Spain, Cabrales. Cabrales in its pure form will make your eyes water, nose run and your stinky tennis shoes smell like roses. It is delicous. A raw milk cheese that is cured in an extremely humid cave in the high Picos de Europa Mountains until it is covered in mold and striped with lucious blue veins. Asturias is famous for its cheese and Cabrales is one that is honored in competitions each year.
The other typical dish that we devoured before ordering desserts was Pastel de Cabracho. According to gastronomical history this dish was first prepared by the famous Basque Chef, Juan Mari Arzak. The fish (black scorpian fish) is boiled first in a stock, deboned and then mixed with a mixture of tomato, heavy cream and sometimes leek and carrot. It is formed into a pudding and cooked in a double boiler. It is normally served as an appetizer with homemade mayonnaise. When it is prepared well, Pastel de Cabracho is not to be missed.
We ended our meal with two mouth watering desserts. Simple and delightful. A creamy rice pudding topped with cinnamon and a typical Asturian cheesecake. It was the perfect meal to fuel us for our short walk down to the beach where the sun and a cold bottle of hard cider awaited us.
Breakfast has always been my favorite meal. I have many memories connected with morning delights. Watching the snow fall accompanied by a latte and an almond cream cheese danish at Macy’s, the best coffee shop in Flagstaff, Arizona , a comforting sweet roll and omelet at Lou Mitchell’s in Chicago with my sister George the morning after I witnessed the birth of my first niece, a toasted ham and cheese sandwich on the train from Granada to Madrid with my daughter (her favorite), cinnamon coffee with a side of refried beans, a side of tortillas and salsa before class at Kathy’s diner in Flagstaff , a simple baguette with laughing cow cheese and marmalade at many group hotels in Paris, and the amazing and unforgettable Chilaquiles with green sauce at Martan’s in Flagstaff followed by a hike up the San Francisco peaks, to mention only a few of the best.
Here in Spain, breakfast is delicious and unique. In Granada and Southern Spain in general the norm is a nice toast topped with what pleases you most; paté, butter and jam, cured ham with tomato and olive oil, or my personal favorite of tomato, olive oil and salt. You can always opt for a croissant that will remind you that you aren’t in Paris or a big plate of churros and a cup of warm chocolate, but the majority order a toast. “Café con leche y una tostada con tomate por favor.” Whole wheat is even readily available these days.
When on tour one of my favorite stops for a great toast is on the way from Sevilla to Gibraltar in the Cork Tree National Park. In December we stopped for an early morning toast on our long drive to Salamanca and I actually remembered to take a picture. The enormous toasts are served with a bottle of grated fresh tomato, two huge bottles of local olive oil (one with garlic) and salt. You can dress it up as you desire. Washed down with a Spanish coffee with milk it is the perfect Andalusian breakfast.
In other parts of Spain, breakfast takes on a whole new air. In Madrid and most of Castilla Leòn y Castilla La Mancha morning fare tends to be much heartier. The weather tends is harsher and people bulk up with extra girth and fat. Our first morning in Salamanca we went to a nice classic place for a “light” breakfast. A delicious tortilla española with chorizo (spanish potato omelet) and a plate of churros. For those who are low carbing it, you can go for the very typical chicharrones (fried pork rinds) and torreznos (fried slices of pork fat) which my husband chose to order for day two breakfast. As they say in Spanish, “Sobre gustos, colores” or “there are as many tastes as there are colors”. To each his own. Either way, I’ll stick with the tortilla which is an artform in Salamanca, tall and juicy and filled with all kinds of treats. It was perfect to battle the bitter cold that waited for us outside that day.
If there is one place in Granada that has never let me down, it is Cayao. We were lucky enough to stumble upon this gem when we moved into our second to last neighborhood. It was love at first sight and we continue to be faithful through the years. The tapas and specialty dishes are based on local cuisine, homemade, and always delightful. The owner and son of a bullfighter, Mariano, treats his clients like close family. I’ve brought groups, family and many friends here and everyone has always enjoyed every minute and morsel.
It is best to arrive early to Cayao to enjoy a tapa of their fantastic rice with alioli. But if you don’t the replacements are just as good if not better. On my last trip before Christmas with my partner in crime we were lucky enough to be in time for the rice. Our palates were also blessed with the best Tortilla Española in Granada slathered in Salmorejo ( a thick tomato, garlic puree) and accompanied by a cabbage salad dressed with oil, vinegar and pomegranate seeds. Our last tapas surprise were small sauteed potato cakes topped with spinach with raisins and pine nuts and served with a perfect Manchego cheese. Thanks Mariano.
The regular menu at Cayao is filled with wonderful options that include Salt Cod with fried garlic, fondue, and Iberian pork cheeks in a Pedro Jimenez sauce that is out of this world. One of our standard favorites is their special Pisto (vegetable stew) which they prepare heavy on the zucchini and garnished with fried slices of bread or “picatostes”. It is pretty much impossible to go wrong. They also offer a different daily dish which varies from lentils to a Gypsy stew made of white beans, garbanzos and many pork surprises.
For me Cayao is a mixture bar/museum. I love to wander around and look at the bullfighting posters, newspaper articles and amazing artifacts that are hanging on the walls. One of my favorites is a menu from 1957 that posts the prices for Tapas in pesetas. They prices range from 4 to 20 pesetas which nowadays works out to approximately 2 – 12 cents. Wow.
Cayao is a must visit in Granada. If there is a Cheers for me in Spain, this is it. Happy New Year!!!
Spotting a great tapas bar in Spain is not that difficult if you know what to look out for. Number one is the “Spanish Servilleta”. This is basically a very small, see through, and non absorbent excuse for a napkin. However, it is key to spotting a good bar. While enjoying tapas one may go through 50 of these napkins to clean their fingers, and then proceed to toss them one by one onto the floor. The floor in any popular tapas bar in Spain is completely covered by napkins, toothpicks, shrimp heads and tails and olive pits. The cigarette butt is now excluded from the list. Number two is to look for places that are crammed packed with people to the point that many are spilling out of the front door and windows. Within the bar you will find many groups of friends and family balancing their drinks along with a plate of communal tapas. When we go out as a group in Spain we almost always collect a “fondo” or collection of money that one person is in charge of throughout the afternoon or evening.
There are some old yet unchanging tapas bars in Granada that I love to visit every once in a while. A place like “Diamantes” is one of them for me. It started as one very narrow bar that is constantly filled to the brim with a mostly local crowd enjoying their perfect and light fried fish. There is now a “Diamantes 2” as shown above with a bit more elbow room. Both of the bars are incredibly efficient, friendly and filled with local flavor. The most frequent tapas that are included with your drinks are fried eggplant, shrimp in garlic sauce, fried dogfish and fried shrimp. There is nothing better than a midday “tapeo” starting at Los Diamantes.
It has been raining for the past four days and we have been enjoying the fireplace, playtime and a great variety of home cooked food. Finally, there was a break in the clouds and we decided to go for a stroll up the river. Walking about 2 1/2 miles along the river from our house we have a couple of great restaurants. Today we chose one called La Huerta del Fraile, The Friar’s Garden. Across the street from the restaurant there is a huge pumpkin patch along with many vegetable gardens and orchards. The rain started up again as soon as we walked in, so we tucked in next to their fireplace. We had planned on having one tapita and then moving on but we were so relaxed and the first tapa was delicious and unique. So we stayed for a bit.
The first tapa was a surprisingly scrumptious version of one dish in Spain that I have always disliked. It is called San Jacobo (Saint Jacob). Usually it is a slice of chicken wrapped around ham and cheese then breaded and fried. Basically, the Spanish version of Cordon Bleu. Most of the Saint Jacobs that I have met have been in low cost hotel buffets where basically everything is disgusting. Needless to say, I had never once enjoyed a San Jacobo in all of my years in Spain until La Huerta del Fraile’s version. It was made with cheddar cheese, eggplant, mushrooms and ham and then covered in a crunchy coating. Tapa number two was also the best version I’ve ever had of a very typical dish, Migas. Literally, migas de pan are the soft breadcrumbs from fresh bread. The preparation of the dish known as Migas can vary depending on the region of Spain that you are in. In Granada they are the breadcrumbs or leftover bread sauteed in olive oil with garlic, green peppers and a variety of pork products. On the coast they are also served with sardines (see toes in the sand, shrimp in my hand). These definitely ranked the best that I have had. Usually Migas are prepared on an open fire out in the country. A typical dish prepared for hard workers.
Off the regular menu we ordered a salad with tomato and goat cheese and a plate of fried berenjenas (aubergine or eggplant) with sugar cane honey. Fried eggplant deserves a post all to itself. My 5 year old daughter wants to dedicate an entire blog to this favorite dish of hers. They are typical in Cordoba but here in Granada we have also found some amazing ones. For me they are a mixture of dessert and pancakes. A light fluffy batter, eggplants, and sweet dark honey. Another fried delicacy here in Spain.
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.