During and after the holidays is a time for me to regroup a bit and enjoy some down time before the tourist season begins. The weather has been unusually beautiful even for Andalucia. We always take advantage of the warm sun to explore some of the small towns and nature that we have a stone´s throw from Granada. We can hike or bike to Pinos Genil which is a beautiful small town on the river known for its outdoor terraces where you can enjoy lunch or just a small tapa. The “huevos rotos” are especially good at La Taberna de Guillermo. Sauteed potatoes with excellent Serrano ham and fresh eggs. The eggs are served fried and whole on top and you cut everything up with a knife and fork hence the name, Broken Eggs. Here they let us use their homemade hot peppers to put on top which makes us extremely happy.
Since my daughter Luna “adopted” my bike a couple of years ago I have not had my own until this Christmas. Thank you Santa. To celebrate we biked to Fuente Vaqueros, the birth town of Federico García Lorca, a prominent poet and playwright who was assassinated by the Nationalist troops in the Spanish Civil War. From the path along the Genil River you have a perfect view of the snow covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada. In the afternoon we stopped to talk with a shepherd who was out walking with his 180 goats. He was a happy man who mentioned that the day would be perfect if he could spend it sitting on an outdoor cafe drinking beers with his wife.
One of the most pintoresque drives in Andalucia takes you from the city of Granada down to the Mediterranean Coast passing through the mountains and the Tropical Valley. It is called the Carretera de la Cabra, or the “Goat Road” in English. There is a beautiful hike down to the Rio Verde and a few small white towns that are yet to be discovered by the masses. We usually stop in a couple of those along the way to the coast. In the town of Otívar we have a glass of one of my favorite wines which is quite strong. It is called vino de la tierra, wine of the land. Here it is pink and harsh. A dear friend from another town close by laughingly commented, “be careful or you will end up asleep in the valley.” That same friend directed us to a bar in Otivar to taste their award winning tapa, grilled eggplant with goat cheese.
“UNDERSTAND ONE SINGLE DAY FULLY , SO YOU CAN LOVE EVERY NIGHT”
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.
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.
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Basque Country. This area of about 20,000 square kilometers is rich in its own tradition, culture, politics and gastronomy. Something special about their gastronomy is that men tend to be the cooks, not just in restaurants but in private homes and families. This is a unique part of their culture and what is the history behind the “Txoko” or closed gastronomical societies that were orignially only open to male members. The Txoco originally began in San Sebastian in the late 1800’s. A restaurant or a basement with a kitchen is rented by the society to cook, eat and socialize. Nowadays many Txokos also allow women to drink, eat and socialize within the txokos but not to cook.
Another great part of the Basque gastronomical tradition is the Txikiteo (chiquiteo). Friends gather in the early afternoon to go from bar to bar and enjoy small glasses of wine or beer accompanied by the ever elaborate pintxos (pinchos) which are usually small slices of bread topped by any artistical combination of ingredients. A pintxo could be pate with an anchovy, goat cheese with carmelized onion and cured ham, or wild mushrooms with garlic. Really there are no limits to the pintxo; sushi, grilled vegetables, a lebanese kebab. I have tried it all. For me they always go best with a glass of Txacoli, the typical white wine from the Basque country (more to follow).
The top of a bar all throughout the Basque Country is a colorful procession of pintxos and some of the best “food art” I have ever seen. In most bars you are given a plate and take what you like from the assortment on the bar. The bar person will then charge you by the amount of toothpicks on your plate. All on the honor system. Just the way life should be!
I have a serious problem. I am an obsessive menu reader and am yet to find a 12 step program to remedy this. It is impossible for me to just walk into any restaurant and sit down and eat, even if the establishment has been highly reccomended. I need to read the menu. Either the the actual menu itself or simply the food on display. It is one of my favorite aspects of traveling. However, my decision isn’t only based on what is offered on the menu but my simple instincts and how the bar or restaurant makes me feel upon entering. Trusting your food instinct is an art and one to believe in and to keep finely tuned.
On a recent trip to El Puerto de Santa Marìa in Càdiz I had one of these special moments. We had a great lunch at one of the most typical restaurants in El Puerto for fresh fish and seafood (recommended by my dear friends who are on a plane to Thailand at this very moment). After lunch, happily filled on wine, clams and baby squid we decided to take a long walk to the beach. As we were wandering through town I caught eye of a beautiful street sign, Calle Luna, and a great little bar right on the corner. I knew we would have to go back after the beach.
While my daughter dug into a garbanzo and shrimp stew the owner prepared a marinated salmon with avocado for us that was simply beautiful and delicious. Accompanied by a glass of local white wine for myself and a cold beer for my friend, it was the perfect end to our daytrip.
A high of 73 degrees during the first week of November is an open invitation to spend the weekend on the coast. I have become a complete beach whore since I moved to Southern Spain. And I can’t break myself of this addiction. Why would I want to? Our beaches in Granada are pebbly, hardly a grain of sand. Sometimes this can cause excruciating pain as you hobble from your towel to the sea. You simply adapt. And what small bit of foot ache can’t be cured by some great food and wine?
No meal on the coast of Granada is complete without an “espeto de sardinas” (sardines grilled on an open fire). You have not had a real sardine until you taste these with a slightly smoked flavor. And wash them down with a cold glass of San Miguel beer. This is true beach food.
A local winery named Calvente produces the perfect dry yet fruity white wine to accompany some clams in garlic sauce and the best octopus I have ever had in my life. Here it is smoked for hours over an open fire then tossed with garlic and parsley and served with a cabbage salad and alioli. This is what weekends are made for!
No reason to skip the cheesecake or crema catalana for dessert. A glass of my all time favorite liqueur over ice to help digestion? Yes please. Patxaran is made with sloe berries (endrinas) and produced mostly in Navarra and the Basque Country but Granada has it’s own small production as well. The best way to enjoy the sunset over the Mediterranean.
My dear friend Alex and I spent a few days kicking around Madrid this summer. We have spent loads of time together in Madrid in the past 10 years but normally we are trailing around with group of 13 year olds. This time we were alone and free to do as we liked. Needless to say this involved quite a bit of wine and some great food to go along. I think the first time that Aex and I met I took him and the other teachers to one of my favorite places in the center of Madrid, La Casa Del Abuelo. I have been there with many people and it is also a favorite of my Mom and Sisters when they visit.
La Casa Del Abuelo opened in 1906 and began to offer wine and “bocadillos” or small baguette sandwiches to clients. During the Civil War and after there was a shortage of flour in Spain and bread became worth more than gold so El Abuelo began to offer shrimp with wine. To this day generation after generation have been enjoying their special house wine and shrimp and prawns served grilled, in garlic sauce or fried and served on a stick with a spicy dipping sauce. The latter is my personal favorite. Paired with a “chato” of their sweet house wine is a bit of heaven. A couple of the other “Abuelo” restaurants have a more extensive menu (with the same delicious wine) but I prefer the original spot, standing up and tossing the shrimp tails on the floor.
There are a few luxuries that I admit I take for granted living here in Spain. Cheap olive oil, cheap (and excellent) wine, and rest stops along the highway where you can actually eat a great meal of traditional and homemade food. When you travel as much as we do the latter becomes extremely important. Like anything else in life I have my favorites, but I also like to discover different spots. I like to get out of my comfort zone sometimes and stop at a place that may not be estetically attractive on the outside and find out what is in store (or bar).
On a recent trip home from Madrid we decided to stop for a quick coffee some place in La Mancha. When we walked in I knew that the coffee would have to wait. I saw a huge bowl of my favorite olives and knew exactly what I wanted with my caña (little beer). I wasn’t driving by the way. My daughter decided she needed a few meatballs to make it all the way home and she happily sat down to devour the entire serving herself. Meanwhile I walked around and marveled at the offering of random items for sale. These vary from region to region, rest stop to rest stop. Here they had great hiking boots and knives along with a variety of local pastries. But, what caught my eye the most was the huge loaf of country style bread and wood burning oven with a huge variety of meats and sausages to choose from. I’m not a major carnivore but I can still appreciate good meat and a great way to prepare it. I would definitely stop here again for the olives and with any friend who loves carne!
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.