“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!!
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 mule transporting 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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For most people travel is a major adventure. A way to experience new cultures, people, food and traditions. Is there anything more exciting than the unknown? I love to get lost in a city, to order from a menu without really being sure of what will be served to me, or to miss a bus or train and hang out in a sketchy station waiting and people watching. However, many travel for business. They look for comfort, good wifi and on time transportation. In my work I get to enjoy a combination. I return to the same places year after year and they feel like home to me. But, I get to share the excitement of seeing it through the eyes of travelers who are experiencing something or a place for the very first time.
Some people need to follow a routine when they travel. Most people in my business tend to feel comforted by repetition. The same meals, drinks, repeating the same hotel room and the same walks during free time. It gives you a sense of home and stability which we lack when traveling many months out of the year.
I find my peace in the warm smiles of the friends I encounter while I’m on the road. Being welcomed with open arms and great conversation keeps me feeling at home when I am very far away. Besides that, I try to mix some spice into my routine. Discovering new restaurants or a far off neighborhood on my walks are a couple of my favorite things to do. I rarely repeat a meal. I have a friend who almost always goes to the same restaurants and orders the same dishes. Not me. Well, not usually anyhow. I secretly have a couple rituals of my own.
When I pass through one of my favorite cities in Galicia, Pontevedra, I always meet up with a friend who lives there. It has become our routine. She catches up with me just as I’m finishing a walk with my group. We sit outside at a local bar and enjoy a wine or beer and one of the great free tapas they give to you in Pontevedra. At one of my favorite places they always have some type of stew as the first tapa; garbanzos, lentils or white beans. Sometimes her family meets meets ups with us as well, especially if it is a Sunday. And many of my colleagues who travel with me have enjoyed this time together as well. A close friend and colleague of mine has repeated many times with us.
There is nothing like a great Tortilla Española in Galicia. It is one of the places in Spain where I always love how it is prepared. It is never dry or flat. It is jugoso and soft and shows the color of perfectly fresh eggs. In Pontevedra I systematically order a tortilla española and polbo a feira (Galician prepared octopus) for this lunch that is enjoyably filled with philosophical conversation. The boiled octopus is served on a wooden tray with boiled potato, olive oil and spicy paprika. Perfect with a local white wine, Ribeiro, traditionally served in a cunca galega. I would transport myself to Pontevedra right now and hug my friend Yayi tighlty before we began our sacred ritual.
I was so blessed to be invited to Seattle this past January. Right now it actually seems like a dream. Positive energy and uplifting are the words to describe the experience. First of all, I was able to share it all with some very close friends and as a big bonus met so many outrageously friendly people while I was there. Genuine, that is another word to describe my experience those 10 days. Most of the time was spent in Edmonds where Rick Steves Europe is based. It is a gorgeous town North of Seattle and reminded me a tiny bit of Flagstaff, Arizona with a lot more rain. I also got to spend a bit of time enjoying the city of Seattle. I had never been to this part of US so it was like a whole new world for me. Every bit of it. The only reason this is titled “sleepy” is due to the brutal jetlag that I had for days.
The day we arrived was a bit rough after my 3 flights but we managed to get ourselves out and about to eat and enjoy this rocking city. It was Sunday so we were lucky to bump into a great brunch at one of the cool downtown hotel restaurants. My friend had eggs benedict and potatoes and I had an avocado toast with chilis and perfectly boiled eggs and a super spicy bloody mary. Yes, it was after 12. Yum! That was the first of a few I had while in the states. Welcome home Margaret! We made our way to Pike Place Market and enjoyed the fish tossing, great street performers and ambience and then walked and walked enjoying the beautiful downtown area until we finally needed to collapse.
While we were in Edmonds we were taken care of and fed very well. So unbelievably well that even on our free nights we did not need to eat out. We had food from Mexico, Uzbekistan, Korea, England, India, Vietnam and much more. On our last afternoon my friend who has been here many times rushed me over to “The Market” in downtown Edmonds for a lobster roll. They were so good that our conversation completely stopped and communication remained only with looks of serious pleasure as we wrapped our mouths around those delicious sandwiches. I can’t wait to go back and repeat.
Seattle and the Pacific Northwest are obviously known for its home brews. I liked the vibe at one of the breweries close to our hotel in Edmonds and went back a couple of times. Being in a brewery makes me feel like home and takes me back to some great memories in Flagstaff, AZ during my university years. It was extra special to share it with one of my closest friends from Spain who had never had a good brewery experience. Brigids is both a shop and a bar with a great open space with couches and tables to hang out and play games or chat. The bartender was probably a bit confused as to why an obviously American woman would be so in awe and open mouthed when reading the selection of beers. I tried to explain to him that we don’t have this where I live. I’m pretty sure he still thought I was from Mars. Their “Mexican Cake” brew was insane. It was like a meal and dessert in a beer. Chilis and whiskey. Spicy and thick. I went back a few days later for a repeat.
I loved the weather while we were here. I haven’t seen that much rain in an extremely long time. And walking around Edmonds is so beautiful. They are completely inundated with Europeans for 10 days and the people are so welcoming and friendly. We got stopped on the street many times by people wanting to know about Spain (our name tags had the flag) or to share their travel experiences. The rain held back a few times so we could walk along the beach and even see the mountains peaking through the clouds. The area is popular with divers since Edmonds is home to an underwater park with two and a half miles of trails. The train also runs right along the water. Trains and school busses are always two things that quickly snap me into the reality of being back in the US.
Sorry about the detour to the US but I had such an amazing experience here that I wanted to share. Part 2 coming next. I’m grateful to my daughter and partner for supporting me and letting me take off for 2 weeks. And to all the great people at RSE who made us feel so welcome and filled us with positivity and great energy, especially Rick! I even have a new partner in crime based in Seattle.
Oh, and dinner at Rick’s house was especially cool!
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.
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!
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.