History, music, tension and ham…

Every January 2nd, the celebration of “La Toma” takes place in the plaza of the city hall in Granada. January second marks a historical moment for Granada and for the entire country of Spain. January 2nd, 1492 marks the day that Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada, handed the keys of the city to the Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando. A couple days later after Boabdil had gone into exile they entered the city through the Elvira Gate and made their way up to the palaces and compound of the Alhambra. This moment in history marked the end of the last Moorish dynasty on the Iberian Peninsula and also the uniting of Spain as a country. A few months later on March 31st the Alhambra Decree was passed demanding the expulsion of all practicing Jews from the country. They were given 3 months to leave.

To commemorate this yearly act they bring in “La Legión” to the city of Granada. Francisco Franco was the founding deputy commander of La Legión in 1920 and they served an important role in the Spanish Civil War serving the Nationalist side. Since then, they have been deployed to different areas such as Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Presently they participate mostly in NATO peace-keeping missions. They are also known for their extraordinary band playing its well known anthem and marches. The commemoration includes a parade, Holy Mass and visitation of the tombs of the Catholic Monarchs in the Royal Chapel. In all of my years living in Granada I had never attended this celebration. I luckily miscalculated time yesterday and found myself caught in the middle of this on my way up to the Alhambra. Just in time to watch La Legión departing the gates of the Royal Chapel and listen to their marches.

If we look back on history appropriately we will easily see that the culture we enjoy today is thanks to the important different civilizations that have lived on the Iberian Peninsula and in Granada. Accordingly, there is also a counter celebration of our democratic and plural society in which we live today. This act includes the reading of a manifest about coexistence and a tribute to Mariana Pineda, a 19th century heroine who fought for liberal rights. I have attended different celebrations throughout the years. Concerts, multicultural parades and talks given by history professors.

The tension in this years celebration was accelerated by the attendance of our new extreme right wing political party, VOX. Comments made by their Secretary General such as, “the reconquest of Spain is not over yet and will continue” provokes more altercations than usual on this conflictive day. However, this is not a political blog so we will continue on with history.

Once the crowds dispersed I was able to continue on with my original plan for the afternoon which was to make it up to the Alhambra. It was a gorgeous sunny day and on January 2nd they open the doors to the alter in the Gate of Justice. It is only opened once a year for a few hours and I had never made it up until yesterday. The altar was constructed in 1588 and was placed where the first Catholic mass was supposedly held in the Alhambra. On the upper and lower sides we find images of Saint Francis, Michael the Archangel, Isabel and Fernando. In the center we find an image of the Virgin Mary and below her an image of St.James represented as a warrior in the Battle of Clavijo. which is a mythical battle between the Christians and the Moors.

On January 2nd the entrance to the Alcazaba (fortress) of the Alhambra is free for those who want to make it up to touch the bell in the highest tower, La Torre de la Vela. The legend here says that all single women who touch the bell will be assured to find a partner during the coming year. I chose to take advantage of the free entrance to the Alcazaba and climb up a couple of towers to enjoy the beautiful views that they allow. The line was growing for people wanting to touch the bell and enjoy the highest tower so I just enjoyed the sunshine and the fantastic views of two of my old neighborhoods. I later found out that the line was longer than usual because one of the bell ropes had broken and needed to be mended, oops!

Line to go up to the Torre de la Vela.
View from the Alcazaba

As I walked back down into the city I found the normal holiday atmosphere that fills the streets of Granada at this time of year. Families and tourists wandering about and flooding the outdoor terraces to enjoy some free tapas and lunch. Today however, I saw some rolled up flags leaning against the tables, obviously used for the celebration. The city center during the holidays can be quite full, especially with this sunny weather. However, neighborhoods like mine provide a more relaxed atmosphere and some of the best tapas. Our favorite is just on the corner by our house at La Noticia. Roasted ham on a rotisserie served with tiny pickles and bread. It doesn’t get much better that that!

More pieces of my Granada…..Alpujarra

For me there is nothing better than going back to the places where I have spent precious time. Sometimes it takes years to get back to certain places regardless of how close they are to us. The area of the Alpujarra in the Sierra Nevada mountain range south of Granada is one of those places for me. I recently read a novel based mostly in the town of Pampaneira which spoke of Gypsies and the difficult times of the Spanish Civil War. These beautiful towns are so filled with history that one can almost feel it in your bones and you hike through the valleys and drink from the fountains. Last week I was ready to come and spend a few days here enjoying the solitude and beauty.

As an important agricultural area the Alpujjara produces almonds, lemons, figs and the most delicious cheese. It also boasts an amazing variety of cured pork products. Cured pork loin with rosemary, white sausage, blood sausage, morcón (similar to chorizo yet a bit bigger) and of course, the ham from Trevélez. You can enjoy a generous tapa with one of the local wines from Europe’a “highest vineyards”.

It’s not all pork and cheese here in this region. We ordered a great dish made with fava beans, based on a recipe that goes back generations. It was prepared with local fava beans, pods and all. Usually we only find these beans naked, shucked from their home. But here in Pampaneira they use them in their entirety and bathed in a flavorful almond sauce to make any vegetarian smile! They went perfectly with a local wine served in a glass Porrón which actually originated in Catolonia.

The poet, Federico García Lorca, referred to the Alupjarra as “el país de ninguna parte”. A NOWHERE COUNTRY. The history lingers here in the streams and the valleys. Such as the legend of Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada, going into exile here. And more stories of the rebellion and expulsion of the Moriscos and the repopulation of the area by colonists from Extremadura and Galicia. All of this and more rests here in the trees.

El txikiteo………………

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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.
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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).
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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!
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My favorite places in Spain………..Salamanca Part 2 – the food

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Taking a walk through the small yet lively market in Salamanca is the perfect way to warm up your taste buds for an afternoon of tapa indulgence. This University town has tapas to suit anybody’s taste. For a plate of the some of the best ham, chorizo and cheese you should look for Las Caballerizas. It is a student cafeteria in the old stables of Salamanca. Cheap, traditional and delicious.

We always like to make a stop in Casa Paca right of the Plaza Mayor. The pisto (vegetable stew) with quails egg is one of my favorites. My daughter loves the meatballs and the “broken eggs” with ham and potatoes. The bar is the place to be where you can easily choose from the display of tapas but a table can be nice as well to kick back and observe the local flavor.

Pisto at Casa Paca

Pisto at Casa Paca

Sometimes tapas with a modern edge can be fun as well. Last year we stumbled into a place off the Rua Mayor. It is called Tapas 2.0, Gastrotasca. We were needing something green in our lives and were pleasantly surprised by the caramelized goat cheese with veggies. After that there was no stopping us. The crispy chicken leg was delicious and the patatas bravas rank among my favorites. Slightly spicy with a hint of garlic. As my daughter dove happily into the Mac Montero burger we were offered two glasses of Cava and a piece of chocolate cake to celebrate their anniversary. Heaven for us!

Patatas Bravas

Patatas Bravas

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Salamanca never disappoints. The beauty of the city mixed with the atmosphere and outstanding food welcomes me with every visit.

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Ham or Jam, however you want to spell it…………

ImageThe only thing more important in Spain than futbol (soccer) is ham.  Jamòn, be it Ibèrico, Serrano, Pata Negra, de Trevèlez, let ham live!   I have to be honest and admit that I pretty much avoid the average tapas bars in Granada that slap down a piece of ham and bread for a tapa. I don´t like bad ham.  I´d rather drink a cheap wine than eat cheap ham. I prefer jamòn ibèrico but I have also learned to appreciate cured ham from the lower Sierra Nevada Mountain range here in Granada.  Jamòn de Trevèlez.  However, if given the choice, I prefer cheese.  Always have, always will.  All cheese.  Soft, sweet, stinky, hard. I love it all.

When “Jam” first opened in Granada I would walk by the large windows and peer in while inhaling the deep smell of cured ham.  The name of the tapas bar made me laugh.  Ham, but in Spanish with a J.  Finally, one day we decided to give it a try.  I’m yet to be dissapointed by their tapas and cheese platters.

ImageThey have an amazing wheel of Stilton cheese that they fill with Pedro Ximènez, a dark and sweet sherry.  It is out of this world and the reason to order a cheese platter.  It is accompanied by a nice selection of cured manchego´s and reggiano.  The tapas are also delicious.  On one afternoon we enjoyed a great marinated dogfish with red cabbage and teriyaki chicken with a sweet and sour cabbage salad.

ImageImageSave the best for last they say, no?  The bonus dessert at “Jam” is an explosion of flavor in your mouth.  Cured ham covered with dark chocolate and topped with a bit of stilton, a walnut, and a bit of quince paste.  It doesn’t get much better than this!!

breaking the fast…..!

Breakfast has always been my favorite meal.  I have many memories connected with morning delights.  Watching the snow fall accompanied by a latte and an almond cream cheese danish at Macy’s, the best coffee shop in Flagstaff, Arizona , a comforting sweet roll and omelet at Lou Mitchell’s in Chicago with my sister George the morning after I witnessed the birth of my first niece, a toasted ham and cheese sandwich on the train from Granada to Madrid with my daughter (her favorite),  cinnamon coffee with a side of refried beans, a side of tortillas and salsa before class at Kathy’s diner in Flagstaff , a simple baguette with laughing cow cheese and marmalade at many group hotels in Paris, and the amazing and unforgettable Chilaquiles with green sauce at Martan’s in Flagstaff followed by a hike up the San Francisco peaks,  to mention only a few of the best.

Here in Spain, breakfast is delicious and unique.  In Granada and Southern Spain in general the norm is a nice toast topped with what pleases you most; paté, butter and jam, cured ham with tomato and olive oil, or my personal favorite of tomato, olive oil and salt.  You can always opt for a croissant that will remind you that you aren’t in Paris or a big plate of churros and a cup of warm chocolate, but the majority order a toast.  “Café con leche y una tostada con tomate por favor.”  Whole wheat is even readily available these days.

When on tour one of my favorite stops for a great toast is on the way from Sevilla to Gibraltar in the Cork Tree National Park.  In December we stopped for an early morning toast on our long drive to Salamanca and I actually remembered to take a picture.  The enormous toasts are served with a bottle of  grated fresh tomato,  two huge bottles of local olive oil (one with garlic) and salt.  You can dress it up as you desire.  Washed down with a Spanish coffee with milk it is the perfect Andalusian breakfast.


In other parts of Spain, breakfast takes on a whole new air.  In Madrid and most of Castilla Leòn y  Castilla La Mancha morning fare tends to be much heartier. The weather tends is harsher and people bulk up with extra girth and fat.  Our first morning in Salamanca we went to a nice classic place for a “light” breakfast.  A delicious tortilla española with chorizo  (spanish potato omelet) and a plate of churros.  For those who are low carbing it, you can go for the very typical chicharrones (fried pork rinds) and torreznos (fried slices of pork fat) which my husband chose to order for day two breakfast.  As they say in Spanish, “Sobre gustos, colores” or “there are as many tastes as there are colors”.  To each his own.  Either way, I’ll stick with the tortilla which is an artform in Salamanca, tall and juicy and filled with all kinds of treats.  It was perfect to battle the bitter cold that waited for us outside that day.

Tapa Time!!………

Tapas are a way of life in Spain.  Small, simple dishes of food that vary depending on the region and the restaurant.  The word tapa simply means “cover” or “lid” since originally a slice of cheese or ham was placed over a glass of wine.  Whether this was done either to keep the flies out or simply because someone decided it is preferable to have some sustenance along with your beverage of choice, the outcome shaped an important part of this culture.  This is  my first of many posts dedicated to the “tapa”.

Where I live in Granada tapas are free.  Not just in the city, but in the entire province (county).  There are many places throughout the country where you will be given a bite of something when you order a drink, be it olives or a small dish of paella.  But in Granada, the tapa  enters into a whole different dimension.  During “tapa time” which happens between 1 p.m and 3:30p.m. and then again from 8p.m. to 11 p.m. more or less, you are given a free tapa with each drink you order.  In many bars you are simply given a different tapa with each drink where in others you are given a list of tapas to choose from.  The assortment varies from bar to bar and can include anything from fried fish, meatballs, cured ham or a Spanish omelet to fried eggs with potatoes, snails in a spicy sauce or a  small baguette with pork tenderloin and tomato.  The list is endless.

Ham, eggs, potatoes and peppers! A light Tapa!!