I promise to go back to my regular posts this week! Excited that the Alhambra is open again!!
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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Summer in Spain means gazpacho. I’ll never forget my first year in Granada when I studied at the Centro de Lenguas Modernas. I actually did study and go to most of my classes. We had great professors from the University of Granada. My Islamic Studies professor ended up being an advisor for my Master’s degree years later. We also went out a lot. I’m sure I saw the sun rise more that year than I ever have since. Bar Alfonso was a great family restaurant in the Realejo quarter with a menu of the day for about 600 pesetas. When the weather got warmer and I was in need of some serious vitamins I would go to Bar Alfonso for a tall glass of his wife’s gazpacho. It would revive me and give me the energy to make it through my classes.
In my mind, gazpacho is a beverage served in a glass with ice. I never translate it to “cold soup” which has never sounded appetizing to me. You will find it served in a bowl in some restaurants but that still doesn’t make it a soup in my eyes. My daughter’s Grandmother prepares Gazpacho a la Antigua which is similar to a salad with all the gazpacho ingredients chopped and served in cold water with the addition of cumin. You could call it gazpacho, salad or salsa depending on where you are from. In the south of Spain we also have a unique variant of gazpacho called “ajo blanco” prepared with garlic and almonds. You can read more about it here. https://mooninspain.com/2019/09/01/historically-refreshing.
My favorite relative to gazpacho is the Salmorejo. Salmorejo is deeply rooted to the city of Córdoba where it is a regional specialty. My dear friend Charo from the town of Cabra in the province of Córdoba was my first Salmorejo instructor over 20 years ago. Unlike it’s cousins, gazpacho and ajo blanco salmorejo is not usually considered a seasonal dish even though the base is tomato. The ingredients are simple: tomato, bread (no crust), olive oil and salt. Blended to a cream and garnished with egg and strips of jamón. In Andalucia you will also find Porra in Antequera, Loja and Granada. All very similar to their cousin, salmorejo.
My friend Charo sent us a recipe the other day for a healthier version of Salmorejo substituting the bread for avocado. I made my own Gazpacho Asalmorejado adding a bit of red pepper, cucumber and a splash of vinegar. My daughter Luna requested it 3 days in a row for lunch and snack. She claims that she only wants this version from now on.
Reminded of my above post including habas I decided to prepare the Moroccan dish Bessara. It is a puree of dried habas with olive oil, lemon, garlic, cumin and red chili. It is a dish that reminds me of traveling through the small towns in Morocco. I garnished ours with a bit of yogurt, red pepper and cucumber.
All of these dishes will find their history before, during and after the period of Al-Andalus on the Iberian Peninsula and beyond. Bessara can be traced back 4,000 years to Egypt and the idea of breaking down food items can be traced to the Neolithic Age. Ajo Blanco is connected to the Roman age. It is beautiful to savor all of this history in our local dishes.
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I was in Seattle for a summit when the Coronavirus first hit the news. There was one patient already detected and being treated at a local hospital. At one of our meetings we were greeted by the COO of the company, “there is now a strange virus from China and the first case in the US is right here in Washington. Welcome”. His charismatic humor was welcoming and innocent. As we all were.
Two months later as all of my tours were slowly being cancelled and I was helping my oldest niece get out of Spain before the borders closed, I started to become conscious of what had begun that day in Seattle. The reality started to set in little by little. And then the impossible happened, the Alhambra closed. The Alhambra. The Red Fortress. Qa’lat Al Hamra. Closed. Gates locked. Silenced in all her glory. Empty of tourists, busses, local guides and groups. The hotels and restaurants are closed and boarded up. The gypsies have gone home with their rosemary and Diego is no longer there soliciting groups for the flamenco shows. The Alhambra had gone to sleep.
My relationship with the Alhambra is long and deep. On my very first night in Granada over twenty years ago we went up to the rooftop terrace of a friend’s apartment and I met the Alhambra for the first time. She was my solid introduction to Granada. A few days later my friend Kerri and I rented an apartment in the Albaicín neighborhood with a perfect view of the Alhambra from our little balcony. We lived on Calle San Juan de los Reyes, known then as la calle de las putas. I would walk to class everyday and wave hello to the prostitutes sitting out on their chairs waiting for customers, mostly older gentleman from the neighborhood. They would be casually sitting on their chairs in the narrow street in front of their doors , enjoying a cigarette and café con leche. In the late afternoons we would greet each other again, their café now replaced by a vino tinto. I used to see Rafael chatting with the ladies quite a bit. He was well known in the neighborhood and a couple of friends lived in the same building as Rafael so he had become a close aquaintance. A character to say the least, with his rough voice from smoking the black Ducados cigarettes for most of his lifetime. A true Albaicinero. I no longer see prostitutes when I walk down my old street but those memories stand clear in my mind.
From that first apartment I used to go for a daily run down the Cuesta de Chapiz and up the Cuesta de los Chinos to the Alhambra. The Cuesta de los Chinos used to be called the Cuesta del Rey Chico, named after Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada. I would run up past the San Jose Cemetery to the Silla del Moro, which used to be a guard’s outpost for the summer palace in the Xlll century. In the Springtime I would come across older gentleman picking fresh asparagus for their lunch or taking a break under the olive trees. These runs were my escape from the city, all social activity and the struggle to understand the thick accent of the Granaínos. The Alhambra gave me piece of mind and serenity then as it still does today.
The entrance into the Alhambra was free on Sundays when I first moved to Spain. Nowadays, this is an unbelievable memory of mine. The hours and energy I have spent trying to purchase tickets to the Alhambra for groups over the years is exhausting to event think about. And to imagine that I used to stroll up there every Sunday with my books to spend hours studying in the Generalife and simply wandering about the palaces is amazing. I clearly remember reading one of my favorite books, A La Sombra del Granado by Tariq Ali, as I rested in the gardens. No tickets and no lines. Back then the security was also so low that we could even sneak into the summer palaces at night through a hole in the fence. A couple of my friends had grown up in the area of the Alhambra and they knew every way to enter. One night we even went through one of the secret tunnels below the city. These tunnels were used during the Nasrid Dynasty for inhabitants of the Alhambra to enter and exit without being seen. They are all closed off by gates now so we were lucky to have those wild adventures. We would have the summer palace to ourselves sitting under the stars. It was like the lyrics from a Joni Mitchell song.
When I lived in Sacromonte, the cave neighborhood across from the Alhambra, we had an outdoor terrace with a panoramic view of the Alhambra. On the second floor of our home there was also a loft bed, with a perfect view, that we named la cama de la reina. The Queen’s Bed. The Alhambra was the first thing I saw in the morning when I slept in that bed and my free time was spent reading, writing or drinking wine on that terrace. The Alhambra was the backdrop to my daily life for those years. It is still our favorite place to take a walk. Up the Cuesta de Chapiz, into Sacromonte to pass by my cave house and then up the Cuesta de los Chinos to the Alhambra.
She’s resting now, our dear Alhambra. Similar to the years when she was abandoned in the 18th century. But soon she will reopen and we will again feel her vibration over the city. Enjoy the peace for now elegant lady. This type of calm never lasts forever.
I know that so many people are thinking of places they would rather be right now than their own living room but I’ve actually taken to looking at this as a gift. Obviously the economic effects will be brutal but I’m using it as a long needed time for healing and to be with my family at a time of year when I am usually MIA. We are enjoying the time together playing games, cooking, exercising and laughing a lot. We have also been reminiscing a lot about past trips, planning future travels and deciding where we want to run away to first. I would happily walk 1,000 miles right about now. And repeat.
One of the places on our list is in the province of Jaén, and about 2 hours Northeast from Granada where you will find The Natural Park of Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas. This is the largest UNESCO protected area and natural park in Spain made up of 810 square miles. It is one of our favorite places for a getaway that is close to home and offers peace, nature and great food. We have entered the park from different sides but our favorite is through the town of Cazorla, paying a visit to my daughter’s birthplace of Úbeda on the way.
During the summer months it tends to be filled with people so we choose different times of the year to visit. In the dry heat of September the natural park is an oasis with its cold water streams and shaded hiking paths. We love the trail to the source of the Borosa River with its wood plank walkways and waterfalls. But, my favorite hike that we have done was from the Parador of Cazorla to the source of the Guadalquivir River. Most have seen the Guadalquivir River passing through the cities of Córdoba and Sevilla in all of its splendor but the source of the river is found here in the Cazorla mountains.
We have been lucky to spot a lot of the local fauna during our adventures. We’ve seen mountain goats, deer, wild boar and even a friendly wolf. This is also home to the golden eagle, the griffon vulture and the bearded vulture otherwise known as a lammergeier. I’ve become so familiar with the vultures during my travels in the pyrenees so it is wonderful to spot them here in Cazorla as well.
We usually travel in our trusted van, Amelie. She has taken us further than we had ever dreamt providing us with our own hotel wherever we park and homemade meals along the roadside. With Amelie we have been all over France, Spain and Portugal with only a couple of complaints by her along the way. Cazorla is great for this type of travel providing beautiful campsites and gorgeous overnight areas for camper vans.
However, at the end of a mountain road in Cazorla you will find a Parador de Turismo. It reminds me so much of the Parador in Monte Perdido. At the end of the road and absolutely beautiful. The views are spectacular and they have a gorgeous swimming pool for the summer months. The people who work here are exceptionally friendly and the food is excellent! We have slept close to here in our van many times and also spent a few nights here during a great snowfall. It was the perfect place to be. The Parador has the feel of a mountain lodge with a nice fireplace and the building is similar to an Andalusian country home. The gastronomy is based on seasonal game and local ingredients like figs, thyme, rosemary and quince. Our favorites were the wild boar paté, a local stew made from pasta, rosemary and rabbit and their homemade croquetas. The red wine, Marcelino Serrano, is from the province of Jaén as well.
The town of Cazorla is our favorite in the area. The history here dates back over 2,000 years. There were important Iberian and Roman settlements here and the Moors used Cazorla as a stronghold until 1235 when it was reconquered by the Christians. The Castle of the Yedra towers high over the town. Originally built by the moors in the 11th century, the castle we see today is a Castilian reconstruction from the 13th and 14th centuries. Cazorla is a small town of just over 8,000 inhabitants and has a comfortable family atmosphere surrounding its main squares. Besides enjoying the town and local hikes the best visit in Cazorla is the Church of Santa Maria. You begin the visit in the church and are taken to the ruins below the church and the boveda of the Cerezuelo river. It was constructed in order to build the church above and is the only one in the world like this.
We have eaten in many different restaurants in Cazorla since one of my dear friends is from the town and gives us great recommendations. Our favorite always remains the same, Mesón Don Chema. It is a rustic place and the ambience reflects the cuisine that is based on local game. We have worked our way through the menu during our many visits. My favorite are the sautéed potatoes and squash that they serve with the dishes. Simple and seasoned with thyme and onions. They have excellent homemade paté and cured sausages made with local game. And an original way to serve them.
We can’t wait to go back to some of our favorite places when things go back to the “new normal”. For now, enjoy being together and dreaming!
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!
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!
It’s amazing what we do throughout our life to move forward and keep on top of our game. I’ve always felt fortunate that I was obligated to become self-sufficient at a young age and although I’ve crashed a few times and came out with some bruises I won’t ever regret all the experiences I’ve had. When I was working on my Master’s degree here in Granada I did some extra odd jobs to keep myself afloat besides my regular job as a Tour Director. I taught English like everyone does at some point when they first live abroad and I disliked just about every minute. I also took care of my friends little girls and prepared their weekly meals for lunch and dinner. They were quite lucky because at the same time I was working on my fresh pasta business, so they enjoyed homemade ravioli, tortellini, linguini and spaghetti in all variants. A great friend came to live in Granada at this time and we worked on this business together. Using my large living room as our factory, rolling out kilos and kilos of fresh pasta to sell the next day and collapsing at 2 am in front of a bowl of some awesome pasta and sauce that we had created ourselves. It wasn’t easy work. There was a wonderful woman Paquita, who had a fruit store down the street from my apartment. As a small business owner herself she took me under her wing and sold the pasta from her shop in exchange for some free bags for her own family. My business eventually faded because of my regular job and studies but Paquita and I remained friends. I remember her dearly each fall when I prepare a recipe that she taught me.
Granada in Spanish is the word for pomegranate and this fruit is the symbol of the city of Granada. We are surrounded by pomegranate trees here, especially up on the hills of the Alhambra and in the surrounding areas. The symbol is displayed on fountains, ceramic tiles, street signs and of course, the Spanish Coat of Arms. When we think of the history in Granada we are reminded that the pomegranate is also an important Jewish symbol for different reasons. One is that a pomegranate is said to have 613 seeds which coincides with the number of commandments in the Torah. They are also eaten on Rosh Hashanah as a symbol of fruitfulness. The pomegranate reminds me of one of my favorite historical novels that I read about the same time that I met Paquita many years ago. The name is Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali and it tells the story of a family trying to survive after the fall of Granada to the Catholic Monarchs.
I prepared Paquita’s salad the other day along with another dish that I learned how to prepare during that stage in my life. It was a nice meal to represent the history of this beautiful city where I am blessed to live. The salad is prepared with raw escarole, pomegranate seeds, fried garlic cloves, olive oil, vinegar and salt. I served it with a second course of Moroccan Chicken Tagine prepared with preserved lemons, olives and onions garnished with cilantro and spicy malagueta peppers from Portugal.
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.