“Food Tastes Better with Sand Between Your Toes”. Anthony Bourdain
I was raised between Chicago and Arizona so beach was not really a part of my life growing up unless you count shivering with blue lips in Lake Michigan or tubing down the Salt River. So, when I first moved to Granada (25 years ago) and was able to be on the Mediterranean in 45 minutes I found a whole new world. Not like I had not been to a beach before, I had been to many. But, the coast of Granada is a big swimming pool. Most beaches are pebbly or rocky for that matter but in three steps you can no longer stand and are free to swim for as long and as far as your body will take you. I’m pretty sure the only reason I ever got out of the water my first year in Granada was that I realized I could have a cold beer and a free tapa and jump back in. And then repeat. Thank you to whoever opened that first beach bar in Sitges, Catalonia. The Chringuito is a way of life in Spain. The word comes from Cuba, a place where people who worked on the sugar plantations would rest in the shade to have their café.
I remember thinking to myself how absolutely delicious every tapa tasted to me with my feet buried in the sand, my hair and skin salty from the sea. I couldn’t imagine enjoying food more than at a Chiringuito. Tired from swimming and looking out at the sea. As a student, I could easily survive on the tapas. Fresh shrimp or some fried fish. It was all perfect, and still is.
Every once in a while you might get a tapa of ham or cheese or russian potato salad. But, for the most part the tapas go with the atmosphere. Clams lightly sauteed in a parsley sauce or mussels fresh from the sea. Sometimes they serve the mussels with pipiranna which is a light salad of tomato, onion, cucumber and bell pepper. We also eat a lot of fried fish in Southern Spain. It was never common for people to have ovens in their homes so frying was an easy and quick way to prepare certain proteins and vegetables. Some might even say it is healthy! In Granada, fried fish is commonly served with a raw cabbage salad marinated with olive oil, vinegar and garlic. Anchovies are one of the best fried fish you can find!
The Phoenicians founded the city of Cádíz in 1104 BC and established small towns such as Almuñecar along the Mediterranean coast of Spain. They elaborated Mojama, a salt dried tuna. Although the name comes from Arabic, the process began under the Phoenicians. Mojama is still prepared and consumed all along the Atlantic Coast of Spain as well as along the Mediterranean Coast. This tecnique is also used in Portugal, Morocco and Italy. Mojama is served like a slice of ham; alone, on a piece of toast, in a salad or to flavor other dishes.
The coast of Granada is full of surprises and history. These are just the “tapas” which will open your palate for the rest of a wonderful meal on the coast. Buen Provecho!!
I miss the Basque Country even when I am there for work every few weeks. It has now been almost 8 months and I am having serious withdrawal for pretty much everything Basque. Today I was reminded of two of the best things to have ever touched my lips. And I mean that, because they provoked a feeling that is difficult to describe in words. These are only two of many amazing dishes I have had in the Basque Country.
Bilbao, or Bilbo in Euskera, is the city of my dreams. I loved Bilbao even before the Guggenheim was built when it was still a bit gritty and grey around the edges. The casco antiguo has always intrigued me with its Catedral de Santiago, Plaza Nueva, winding streets and fantastic pintxo bars. I remember wandering through those streets on my first visit to Bilbao and taking in its bohemian feeling, an industrial city still struggling to exist. But, nowadays Bilbao is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. A true example of class, elegance and ingenious infrastructure. The Guggenheim and the Andoibarra neighborhood neighborhood surrounding it are phenomenal. Its streets will welcome you to pasear and take in the fascinating architecture and green parks that it offers. And don’t forget to eat. Eat a lot. Remember, you are in the Basque Country. https://mooninspain.com/2015/08/18/tourist-remember/
Inside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao you will find two restaurants. One is Nerua, a Michelin star restaurant where I hope to dine one day. The other is The Bistro which you fill find at the level near our friend, Puppy, by Jeff Koons. Here you only need to order two items off the menu. The roast deboned lamb and a torrija for dessert. The roast deboned lamb is a masterpiece served with a squash purée and it will make you want to kiss the chef. A work of art worthy of a photo.
Now, the torrija. For a bit of background, in Spain we eat torrijas during the Easter holidays. You will find them in every pastry shop, especially in Madrid. Traditionally it is stale bread soaked in either milk or wine, dipped in beaten egg and fried and sprinkled with cinnamon. One might compare it to french toast. This year my daughter was unable to visit her Abuela in Madrid for easter so she took it upon herself to prepare a large plate of torrijas that she has become accustomed to consuming during that visit.
Now, the Guggenheim Bistro takes the torrija up about 20 notches or more. It is pan fried and carmelized and served with ice-cream. The flavor of the ice-cream can vary but my very favorite is when it is served with an “helado de queso“, ice-cream prepared with a local cheese. This takes the torrija from an ordinary local pastry to something sinful and provocative. It is the torrija of all torrijas and you will never forget it. I hope they never change the menu at the Bistro.
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June 10th is the Day of Portugal, Camões and the Portuguese Communities. Luís Vaz de Camões, author of the epic poem Os Lusíadas and considered the greatest poet of Portuguese and the Portuguese language, died on June 10th, 1580. The use of this day, June 10th, has had a long and weathered history since it was first chosen in 1640 after Portugal’s independence from Spain. It is celebrated in Portuguese Communities around the world. In 2018, the Portuguese President and the Prime Minister were received in Providence, Rhode Island by the Governor and the large Portuguese community in this area. The celebrations included music, dance, Portuguese wine and a lot of bacalhau along with many other traditional foods.
The other day I was reminded again that we still can’t cross the borders and thought we could use a bit more Portugal in our home. What better way to celebrate Portugal than a BIFANA? The bifana is one of those foods that we run to as soon as we arrive in Portugal. We have our favorite places in Lisbon but we really like to stop in the town of Vendas Novas in the Alentejo region if we are driving through Portugal. Everybody stops in this town for a bifana, petiscos and a bowl of soup. The last time we passed through here at 10 in the morning the places were packed with locals and travelers alike getting their bifana fix on. Next time we make that stop (please be soon), I will film a video of the scene.My bifanas were made by slowly cooking the thinly sliced pork loin in white wine with a lot of garlic, smashed piquillo peppers, dried Ñora peppers, bay leaves, spicy paprika, lemon juice and a some butter even though it calls for lard. Salt and Pepper of course. There are different recipes but we like this one best. And, they are amazing. I rarely use my twitter account but I randomly posted a photo of this and it received a ton of likes and comments by people who know their bifanas. The only thing missing was that incomparable Portuguese roll.
On Monday the province of Granada entered “phase 3” of Spain’s de-escalation plan, or so we call it around here. We are slowly moving into some type of normalcy and the weather invites us to sit down at a local bar for a tapa. Since supporting local business in our neighborhood is important these days, we did just that. Unemployed as I am, I thought to myself “what goes around will surely come around”, right? This thought turned out to be a great coincidence in retrospect. (keep reading) Either way, I’ve been cooking for almost 3 months straight: breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was finally time for a tapa.
We are lucky that our neighborhood bars serve great tapas. They are simple and traditional. I need to remind you that in Granada you get a free tapa with each drink ordered. At most local places you get to choose from a list of their special tapas. I don’t know what it is about the papas con huevo at Pedro’s bar on our street that makes me feel like everything is going to be alright. It is always the same, never fails. Perfectly sautéed potatoes and onions with a fried egg on top. Pedro also has Victoria Beer from Málaga which I happen to love. It is basically sacrilegious to not drink Alhambra Beer in Granada but we can make just this one exception.
There is a another tapas bar around the corner from Pedro called La Croqueta. I have a few ties with the woman who owns it. Our children went to the same nursery school and her father is one of my most beloved yoga students, sweet Manuel. Bea has a long menu with different types of croquetas (I explain these to my guests as fried bits of love) made with bechamel and different fillings. Read more here https://mooninspain.com/2011/10/30/introducing-the-croqueta. She also has a great variety of other tapas to choose from and serves an extremely cheap plato del día. The other day I felt the need to try her plate of the day, Bacalao Ajoarriero. I have to be extremely compelled to order bacalao anywhere unless I already know it is excellent. The last and quite possibly the only time I had Ajoarriero was in Cuenca, with my friend Miguel, where it is also called Atascaburras (to trap a donkey). The original recipe in that area of Cuenca is made of potatoes, garlic, egg and bacalao originating from a dish eaten by the Sephardic Jews. There are many variations of the recipe throughout the Northern and Central part of Spain.
An arriero or mulero was somebody who traveled by muletransporting goods from one place to another. The Arrieros Maragatos are likely the most well-known in Spain. The Maragatería is located in a small pocket of Castilla y León where the town of Astorga is located. The Arrieros Maragatos would transport fish and other goods from Galicia in the Northwest to the areas of Castile. They were so well known in this area that on top of the Cathedral in Astorga you will find a statue of an arriero. The English writer Richard Ford commented on the Arrieros Maragatos in his book The Handbook for Travelers in Spain, “The Maragatos take precedence on the road: they are the lords of the highway, and channels of commerce in those parts where mules and asses represent railway luggage trains.” There were other arrieros who traveled from Bilbao to Zaragoza passing through most of the Basque Country on their way to Aragón carrying cod and other merchandise. It is is most likely on these roads where the recipe that I enjoyed in my neighborhood came about. This Basque recipe includes salt cod, tomato, garlic, two types of local red peppers (choriceros and piquillos), onion, egg and a bit of cayenne pepper. The Bacalao Ajoarriero prepared at La Croqueta was absolutely delicious. I plan on making it at home or for my mother in law very soon.
Though the arrieros that I have been writing about here worked in the 19th century, we still have arrieros today in Southern Spain and Portugal. One of my closest friends actually worked as an arriero in a small town in the province of Almería. He may be the only American arriero in Spanish history. There is a lovely Spanish proverb that says, Arrieros somos y en el camino nos encontrarémos. In English we can easily translate this to, “What goes around, comes around.”
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Summer in Spain means gazpacho. I’ll never forget my first year in Granada when I studied at the Centro de Lenguas Modernas. I actually did study and go to most of my classes. We had great professors from the University of Granada. My Islamic Studies professor ended up being an advisor for my Master’s degree years later. We also went out a lot. I’m sure I saw the sun rise more that year than I ever have since. Bar Alfonso was a great family restaurant in the Realejo quarter with a menu of the day for about 600 pesetas. When the weather got warmer and I was in need of some serious vitamins I would go to Bar Alfonso for a tall glass of his wife’s gazpacho. It would revive me and give me the energy to make it through my classes.
In my mind, gazpacho is a beverage served in a glass with ice. I never translate it to “cold soup” which has never sounded appetizing to me. You will find it served in a bowl in some restaurants but that still doesn’t make it a soup in my eyes. My daughter’s Grandmother prepares Gazpacho a la Antigua which is similar to a salad with all the gazpacho ingredients chopped and served in cold water with the addition of cumin. You could call it gazpacho, salad or salsa depending on where you are from. In the south of Spain we also have a unique variant of gazpacho called “ajo blanco” prepared with garlic and almonds. You can read more about it here. https://mooninspain.com/2019/09/01/historically-refreshing.
My favorite relative to gazpacho is the Salmorejo. Salmorejo is deeply rooted to the city of Córdoba where it is a regional specialty. My dear friend Charo from the town of Cabra in the province of Córdoba was my first Salmorejo instructor over 20 years ago. Unlike it’s cousins, gazpacho and ajo blanco salmorejo is not usually considered a seasonal dish even though the base is tomato. The ingredients are simple: tomato, bread (no crust), olive oil and salt. Blended to a cream and garnished with egg and strips of jamón. In Andalucia you will also find Porra in Antequera, Loja and Granada. All very similar to their cousin, salmorejo.
My friend Charo sent us a recipe the other day for a healthier version of Salmorejo substituting the bread for avocado. I made my own Gazpacho Asalmorejado adding a bit of red pepper, cucumber and a splash of vinegar. My daughter Luna requested it 3 days in a row for lunch and snack. She claims that she only wants this version from now on.
Reminded of my above post including habas I decided to prepare the Moroccan dish Bessara. It is a puree of dried habas with olive oil, lemon, garlic, cumin and red chili. It is a dish that reminds me of traveling through the small towns in Morocco. I garnished ours with a bit of yogurt, red pepper and cucumber.
All of these dishes will find their history before, during and after the period of Al-Andalus on the Iberian Peninsula and beyond. Bessara can be traced back 4,000 years to Egypt and the idea of breaking down food items can be traced to the Neolithic Age. Ajo Blanco is connected to the Roman age. It is beautiful to savor all of this history in our local dishes.
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