In line for lottery, churros, cod………

Line for Bocadillo de Calamares at La Campana, just off Plaza Mayor.

We always find ourselves in Madrid during the holiday season. Whether it is to take a plane somewhere or to take Luna to her Grandmother’s town we always spend a couple of nights here to enjoy the lights and holiday madness. I usually avoid crowds at all costs and I get to spend plenty of time in Madrid throughout the year to enjoy the city but Luna and I still love being here at the holidays. We wander around to see all the lights and decorations at night, enjoy our favorite Chinese restaurant for lunch and our usual breakfast each morning. Exhausted from the wave of humans we usually have dinner quietly in our room with a movie or Masterchef Junior which airs during the holidays.

dispenser for numbers to buy lottery tickets at Doña Manolita

One thing you will find in Madrid at the holiday season are thousands of people standing in lines and near to them, many tourists standing about wondering why these people would be spending hours in each line. To the foreign eye some might be fairly obvious but many are not at all. After 25 years I’m still completely entertained with these lines. Luna and I made it a game this year to find the most interesting ones.

The longest line you will find is for the Doña Manolita lottery sales. Lottery is a big deal in Spain and at the holiday season it takes on a completely different dimension. In December we have “el gordo” which refers to the largest prize that is given out in the Christmas lottery. That would mean the “fat one” in Castellano. Every December 22nd in every bar, on every television and radio you hear the school children from San Ildelfonso in Madrid singing out the winning numbers and prizes. This Christmas lottery started in 1812. Doña Manolita is where the most winning tickets have been sold and so each year people try to get a ticket from here. It is located on one of the busiest pedestrian streets in the city. The line for Dona Manolita goes all the way around a city block and you can either choose to stand in line or try to get a numbered ticket from the machine and be advised by a text message when it is your turn however these tickets run out very early each morning. They even have security guards to make sure that people can still enter the local businesses and hotels that cross with the line. On January 6th we have the lottery “el Nino” since it is held on the day of the epiphany, the arrival of the three kings to visit baby Jesus. This is also the most important day of the holiday season in Spain. On the night of January 5th the Three Wise Men arrive to every city and even smallest town in Spain with artistic parades, tossing hard candies and bearing gifts for all, especially the little ones.

With your hope of winning the lottery now in hand it is time to get some traditional Madrileño snacks. But, don’t be in a hurry because you are sure to find a couple more lines. The “bocadillo de calamares” is the most famous sandwich in Madrid. There are many favorite places and each person has their preferred choice. “El Brillante” near the Reina Sofia Museum is a popular place but if you are up near the Plaza Mayor you have quite a few options where you can enjoy these perfectly fried squid rings on a baguette with a squeeze of lemon or mayonaise, ALWAYS accompanied by a cold beer. Stand in line to grab your sandwich and then find a bench or simply stand around at an outside high table to enjoy your snack.

You are not even closed to finished after that sandwich. You must get in line at Casa Labra just off Calle Preciados near Puerta del Sol. Casa Labra has been here since 1860 and is known to be the place where the Spanish Socialist party (PSOE) was first formed in 1870 by Pablo Iglesias Posse. Nowadays everybody stops by here to stand in line for the excellent fried cod (called tajada de bacalao), cod croquetas or marinated tuna accompanied by a nice vermouth. It also has a gorgeous restaurant serving a great variety bacalao, such as the one with oyster mushrooms and capers. In Spain don’t ever be turned away by all the crunched up napkins on the ground. This is a sign of a great place to eat. Things have changed a bit in past years but all good bars used to have a layer of dirty napkins on the floor.

You are not even close to full enough! Once the sun starts going down and the air gets colder in Madrid it is time for the best treat of all, churros y chocolate from San Ginés. To make the time in the lines a tiny bit shorter, the Chocolatería San Ginés has different places all in the same tiny pedestrian street, including one in part of the major discotec that is next door. This chocolatería was opened in 1894 and is visited by thousands of people each day. So, get in line and prepare your stomach for some more fried Spanish goodness. You can choose the long thinner churros but our preference are the porras which are a bit fatter and lighter, dipped in the thick chocolate of course!

Line for churros and doors to the Joy Eslava discotec next door, open for churros as well.

Once you have your lottery tickets and your stomach nice and full from sandwiches, fried cod and churros you can move on to other lines if you wish. One extremely long line is for the Cortylandia which is the holiday musical presentation outside the Cortés Inglés department store. You can also visit the messengers for the Three Wise Men waiting for your gift requests. And, if you are feeling like some ramen you can now wait in line at one of the Japanese noodle shops here in the center of the city as well. There are lines for all types here in Madrid at the holidays. Like we say in Castellano, “Para gustos, colores”.

Seafood at the biggest market in Portugal and at home….

When we drive south from Lisbon on our way to the Costa Vicentina we usually find ourselves in the city of Setúbal at the the mouth of the Sado river and just across from the Troia Peninsula. It also borders the Arraibida Natural Park. Sétubal used to be the center of the canned sardine industry in Portugal and you can visit a museum that is housed in one of the old canning factories. However, there is nothing better than shopping for fresh seafood at the local market. This vibrant space decorated with beautiful tiles and statues is the largest covered market in all of Portugal.

The seafood in the market is beautiful, especially the black scabbardfish. But, you will find all of the ingredients for the local seafood dishes like cuttlefish, clams, cockles, sea snails, and of course sardines. Fresh vegetables, breads, cured sausages and my favorite local cheese called Azeitão are plentiful and sold by local vendors.

A visit to any market in Portugal is not complete without a light snack. Whether you are at one of the large flea markets or a local fresh food market you always have a great choice of Portuguese dishes to choose from. Grilled chicken with a glass of local wine, sautéed liver with onions (iscas con elas), or a sandwich with fried chicken breast. Our go to market snack is always a bifana, a simple sandwich made from marinated pork cutlets served on a fresh roll with condiment options of mustard and hot sauce. With a mini Sagres beer or a glass of local sparkling wine it’s the perfect “pre-lunch” meal. You can easily have a full meal with the dishes that are offered but when in Setúbal it’s best to save room for some fried cuttlefish served with a fresh salad and roasted green peppers in a nearby restaurant.

The last time we were in Setúbal we decided to take the ferry across to the Troia Peninsula. What is now an area for luxury hotels and beautiful beaches used to be home to one of the largest fish salting and preserving workshops during the Roman Empire. These pastes and sauces, like Garum, were produced here and then exported in Amphorae by sea to the different provinces. You can visit the roman ruins here that include the fish salting area, baths and some dwellings dating that were occupied up until the 6th century.

Our van on the ferry
Troia Peninsula which was the Acala Island under the Romans.
explanation of the fish preserving area

Sometimes when we are home for too long we start to miss some of the amazing seafood dishes that we have enjoyed so many times in Portugal. After watching a travel show a couple of weeks ago we decided that it was necessary to replicate one of the dishes that had been prepared on the show. We bought some excellent prawns and clams and made this amazing dish with butter and cilantro. After a seafood meal in Portugal the most common dessert is a “prego”, a grilled beef sandwich with lots of garlic. We couldn’t leave out the dessert! With these blazing hot malagueta peppers it was the perfect meal.

Back home………more pieces of my Granada.

After realizing that we were not going to make it to the States this summer, we decided to pack up the van and head in direction of the French Pyrenees.  We spent 30 days sleeping in the van in various parking lots of different towns, beaches and mountains. It is hard to explain what it like for 3 people to live in a 1994 uncamperized Renault Trafic for a month. Three different countries and a million memories all done in what we call “plan ahorro” or “penny-wise.” There will be many future posts to come about our trip.

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My favorite part of arriving home was being able to prepare food in our kitchen with a refrigerator and a sink.  The first few days home we barely left the house, enjoying the lap of luxuries that a home offers.  But one day we decided to go out for a tapa at one of the best tapa bars in Granada which just happens to be close to home.  After paying 40 cents for a glass of wine and 70 cents for a beer in Portugal, it is hard to go back to the prices around here. However, there are always exceptions and “Bar La Noticia” is one of them.  The tapas are homemade and two will last you until dinner time.  Fava beans with an egg, excellent roasted pork, homemade croquettes and meat in a tomato sauce are just a few.  The other day we had grilled Iberian pork served with a spicy sauce (mojo picon) and Paparrones which are french fries covered in a Bolognese sauce and cheese. There is nothing sexy about this place, but for a ¨Cheers¨type environment and some great tapas, it is the place to go. Welcome home!

Trusting your food instinct………….

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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.

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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.

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Time to Beach It!

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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?

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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.

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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.

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dear friends and delicious bites………

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!!