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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
One of the most important things I have learned is to appreciate the smaller moments in life. To be present and relish the time we share with others and also alone. In Spain we have a saying that expresses this perfectly. “La vida son cuatro dias.” Life is only four days long.” Enjoy, and don’t let life pass you by without experiencing it to the fullest. In Spain much of this theory revolves around sharing food and drink. We can always find time to enjoy just a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I have many favorite places where I do this in Granada and in the cities that I pass through frequently.
There is a beverage and a small bit of something delicious to fit any moment or feeling. A chilled glass of dry sherry served with olives and cheese filled peppers served by a gentleman in a white jacket and bowtie is a nice way to share a conversation with a friend an early evening in Barcelona. Or a bit of hard cider before lunch while peacefully looking out at the Bay of Biscay. And in Sevilla, I love to have a glass of sweet sherry accompanied by a bit of fresh cheese with quince paste and rosemary as I kick back and listen to the lively atmosphere around me. These are just some of the moments that I have treasured along this beautiful road we call life.
At the beginning of the summer Luna and I were blessed and invited to the beach with some dear friends. We had a wonderful time enjoying great food, laughter and plenty of “mini-people” conversations. The big people conversation usually happened after midnight and only if we lasted that long after a day of eating, drinking and swimming. If I were to describe all of the amazing food we ate I would have to write a book. Between the homemade Italian-accented dishes of my friend Carmen and the beach restaurants, my palate, tummy and heart were in heaven. The homemade recipes are a secret of course. But I have the flavors memorized in my mind.
Two of our favorite Spanish staples are seasoned fresh tomato salad and fried eggplant. Usually they are pretty straight forward and simple. But, at the chiringuito (beach restaurant) in Malaga we had the absolute best of both. The “Tomate Aliñado” was a pleasant surprise. Usually this “salad” is simple sliced tomato with olive oil, salt and fresh garlic. But this one was extra special. Fresh tomato, capers, toasted garlic, parsley, balsamic dressing and the perfect bit of anchovies on top. The surprises didn’t stop at the tomato.
The same afternoon we also had Luna’s all time favorite, fried eggplant. Under the batter fried eggplant covered in sugar cane syrup was a surprise slice of goat cheese. When cut up and mixed together the goat cheese and sugar cane syrup made the perfect combination. Although I always enjoy the traditional recipes in Spain, an imaginative variation can definitely make a difference. Especially when sharing it with friends and enjoying the sound of waves and sea water on your skin. A view of the Mediterranean also adds a nice touch, especially with a gorgeous woman passing by. She looks like she needs a cold beer! Lucky for her the beach bar has a special cooler to take one down to the beach!!
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!
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.
Some of my favorite tapas are on the coast of Granada. Since it is still around 90 degrees everyday here, I have the beach on my mind constantly. In any of the beach restaurants or “chiringuitos” you can sit down at a table with your feet in the sand, order a beer (or whatever it is you desire), and enjoy a wonderful tapa. Fresh fish and seafood are the norm here. I love when I am surprised with a small plate of grilled shrimp or fried, marinated dogfish.
I remember my first couple years in Granada when we would take the bus down to the beach for the day. There was something liberating about enjoying a cold drink with a free tapa of fried squid and then jumping into the Mediterranean sea merely 5 feet away. My excitement about this has not faded a bit in the past 16 years. Swim, tapa, swim, sun, tapa, swim, tapa, sun, swim…………ahhhhhhhhh!!
During the summer months the “chiringuitos” set up an open fire to grill the fresh sardines. We call them “sardinas al espeto”, sardines on a skewer. For most of my life I thought I hated sardines (?). Little did I know about the delicate flavor of these healthy fish. I prefer the smaller sardines to the larger ones. The larger ones tend to be oilier and have a stronger flavor. A favorite tapa here is “migas” or sauteed breadcrumbs and garlic, topped with grilled sardines. Sometimes a bit of melon is thrown in. Delicious!
My favorite time to be on the beach is at the end of the day when the sun has just barely set in the distance. I love the sluggish manner that the families pack up to go home almost with regret or “sin ganas”, without desire. The end of summer, the shortening of days. After surviving some of the hottest days of the year, we were met yesterday by clouds on the beach. Last night the air smelled of cool rain followed by a nice morning breeze. It was cleansing, but if it were up to me I would extend summer just one month more. I tend to spend the hottest of the Spanish summer working and then as soon as possible we go straight north to enjoy a bit of cooler air. Avoiding the Southern beaches in the summer has become a habit. Too many people, too expensive, too many umbrellas on the beach, and difficult to find an empty bit of sand on any beach. However, in early fall all of this disappears and the beaches are left wide open to enjoy. The water has a perfect temperature and the sun still warms enough of your body to enjoy the full day.
The coast of Granada tends to be filled with local people. The beaches have pebbles instead of sand which at times can be a bit agonizing for the feet but I prefer to look at it as reflexology. The service in restaurants tend to be typical “estilo granadino” with a bit of grouchiness thrown in with your fried fish. But for me, it is simply home. Once you cringe over the pebbly entrance, the water is cool, deep and so salty that there isn’t a need to move a limb to float. I can swim for hours. Over the years I have fallen in love with many secret coves in Granada. Even on a day where we have little time to go hiking and driving about, in 35 minutes we can be on a beautiful, relaxing beach. The food comes next…………