wow……..how did that happen? I guess you just never know what is going to happen in life. I had to take a detour for almost two months for many reasons but now I’m back and with so much to share! I have many gastronomical and cultural adventures in my notebook. Little by little they will trickle into your hearts and tummies!!!!
Last summer I spent a lovely day with two wonderful friends in the town of Figueres in Northeastern Spain. The town on its own is small, yet sophisticated with many nice shops and restaurants. One time a few years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Castell Sant Ferran which is an enormous structure outside of the main town that was built starting in 1753 in honor of King Ferdinand Vl. It was later used as a prison until 1997. However, the castle is not the main reason that people visit the town of Figueres. It is known for being the birthplace of the Catalán artist Salvador Dalí and home to the most unusual interactive museum I have ever visited. The theatre/museum was built while Dalí was still alive and offers a wonderful walk through the life of this surreal and completely “out there” artist. Amongst other things Dalí was known for his exotic moustache, strange fetishes and curious relationship with his wife, Gala. For me he is one of the most fascinating artist to be born in Spain.
Since one needs to eat as well as enjoy art, my friends and I found a nice little “pinchos” bar in town. “Pinchos” or “Pintxos” as written in Euskadi, the Basque language, are small snacks eaten in bars or taverns. They are originally from the Basque country but also enjoyed in other areas of Northern Spain. They usually have a toothpick through the center attaching the snack to a piece of bread. Pinchar means “to poke”. You can choose your pintxos from various plates along the bar and at the end the bartender will count your toothpicks to tally your bill. The honor policy is very important in Spain. My friends and I enjoyed (too) many pintxos along with a few glasses of a smooth Ribera del Duero. Being health conscious as we are, we also ordered a grilled vegetable plate which was served with a Romesco sauce. Romesco sauce is typical in Catalunya and made from some variation of dried red pepper, garlic, olive oil and hazelnuts. (photos by my dear friend Melissa)
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.
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…………
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!!!!