From Cod to Albacore….

Bacalao al Pil Pil with a Gilda

My legendary Italian Nana used to threaten us when we acted like little monsters around her house. She would raise her hand with her perfectly painted long nails and wave it saying, “I”m going to give you a Bacalla”!!! I’ve never actually been smacked by that dried piece of salt cod but the image stands clear in my head. For the past 25 years of my life I have spent a lot of time in places where my Nana’s baccala is seen everywhere. Be it Baccala, Bacalao, Bacalhau or just plain salt cod; it is everywhere in Spain and Portugal. My favorite preparation of Bacalao in the Basque Country is Bacalao al Pil Pil. It has only 4 ingredients of salt cod, olive oil, garlic and red chilis. The sauce is made by the jelly released by the fish when fried combined with the oil and the constant movement of the pan. If prepared on a fishing boat, the movement comes naturally with the waves of the sea.

Bacalao al Pil Pil and wine from the market in Guernika

We spend a lot of time in the Basque Country, for both work and pleasure. Gernika is one of my favorite towns on the way to the coast. The weekly market is phenomenal and there are some amazing pintxo bars as well. This summer we visited the Peace Museum for the first time and then were welcomed with a festival of free wine and Bacalao al Pil Pil in the market area. We arrived as it was coming to an end and got the last plate of cod. It was such a perfect visit. We continued on with a few more pintxos and Txakoli, the local white wine that deserves a post all of its own. We had one more balcalao al pil pil at a favorite bar of mine. Served with a “Gilda” of spicy pepper, olive and anchovy it was just perfect. As a sidenote, the name Gilda is a reference to the role of Rita Hayworth in the 1946 film Gilda since it is salty, green and a little bit spicy!!

More excellent Pintxos at Bar Auzokoa in Gernika

The Basques adopted curing codfish with salt from the Vikings sometime in the 9th century but the history of Basque seafaring is long and deeply woven into its people and their culture. They prospered greatly from fishing thanks to the Catholic religion which required people to eat only fish on Fridays, holy days and lent. The Basque coast is dotted with prominent fishing villages like Bermeo, Getaria, Lekeiteo and Ondarroa. In the spring and summer months, if you are lucky, you can catch the fishing boats as they arrive in the ports or as they set sail out into the Bay of Biscay and beyond. Anchovies, Albacore and Blue Finn Tuna are also very important to the seafarers in the Basque Country.

Statue outside of the Jai Alai court in Gernika

This summer we parked Amelie (our van) in the fishing town of Ondarroa for the night. We took a walk through the town and watched the kids (and grown up kids) jumping of slates of wood into the water at sunset. A perfect August evening. Hungry after many stops for swimming at different coves along the coast we decided to have dinner at the restaurant right in front of where we parked our van. They were just firing up the outside grill and we were lucky enough to get a table in what turned out to be one of the best places in town. Asador Erretagi Jose Manuel served us a fantastic meal with warm and congenial service. It was outstanding to say the least. The manager told us how she would make it first to the market every morning to get the best tomatoes possible. The albacore tuna with onions was one of the best fish dishes I have ever been served. I would go back there right now if I could.

Albacore Tuna with Onions Bonito Encebollado

I am missing the Basque Country quite a bit right about now so you will be reading more about it soon. It’s the time of year when I would be spending a lot of time there. I miss my friends , the txakoli and my beautiful hotel. I miss traveling with my family through the Spanish and French part of the Basque Country and enjoying the beautiful beaches, the atmosphere and all the amazing food and wine. I would have been there quite a bit this year and will continue praying for 2021 to take me there many times like it promises. Topa!

Ondarroa

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.

Special day in Sintra…..

So, a very dear friend is going to be in Lisbon and Porto very soon. For me it would be heaven to take him out to a great dinner and enjoy his company in one of these great cities. I think the last time we saw each other we went to a Gypsy Kings concert in Phoenix Arizona. A very, very long time ago. Nonetheless he still feels like family to me and I am seriously bummed that when he is in Portugal, where I spend half my time, I will be off working somewhere in Andalucia. So, this is for you Andy. I hope you have an awesome time and I wish I could be with you! I know you are staying at a hotel in Sintra so why not enjoy an afternoon taking the tram to from Sintra to Praia das Maçãs. The tramline opened in 1904 and runs for 7 miles from Sintra down to the beach.

There is an awesome restaurant called Búzio where we had a seafood rice and a perfect salad to go with it. I like rice dishes in Portugal more than anywhere else. My favorite is Arroz de Tamboril which is a soupy rice dish made with monkfish and shrimp. It is almost always flavored with cilantro which is what makes it perfect.

You can take the tram down to the beach and have a nice walk, enjoy a great lunch and then take the tram back to Sintra for a coffee and a great Portuguese pastry like a pastel de fejião, a queijada or a pastel de laranja. You can eat 4 different pastries a day while you are there because there are so many to try.

You can be a nerd like I am and pose with the tram. Enjoy!!!!

Tis the sardine……….

The sound of the waves, the salt on my skin, and the smell of grilled sardines in the tropical air. This describes summer for me. Before moving to Southern Spain my only beach memories were blue lip freezing Lake Michigan and 3 for a dollar burritos in Mexico every once in a while. Since living here the beach has become a great part of my life and necessary relaxation. With our van we have traveled along many beautiful coast lines, but the closest to home is the Costa Tropical. Pebbly or rocky beaches with a deep shore that feels like a swimming pool at times. There is no gradual wading into the water here. One second your foot is on the bottom and the next you are swimming in the deep sea. Of course, most people come here for the beach, local fish, tropical fruits and sun but the Costa Tropical is also filled with history.

Salad with local fruits. Mango, tomato and avocado.

History here dates long before this but the Phoenicians named the largest town Sexi (now Almuñecar) in about 800 BC. In the city of Almuñecar you can visit the area where certain foods were conserved with salt and they produced garum, the fermented fish sauce that was mainly used by the Romans and Greeks. The coast line is also dotted with watchtowers (atalayas) from different times in history as well as a Roman aqueduct over the Jete Valley. In both Almuñecar and the town of Salobreña you can visit the castles that were rebuilt and used by the Nasrid Dynasty of Granada. From the 10th century the production of sugar was the most important industry along the coast and you can still visit the old sugar factories in some towns. You can trace the gastronomy in this area by following the lines of history. The fertile soil here now allows for the production of many different tropical fruits and fresh fish is the most obvious protein. However you can still find sweets dating back to Arabic and Jewish origins made with sugar, sesame, almonds and honey.

Perfectly baked fish professionally cleaned and served with garlic, peppers and potatoes

Visiting the castles and old ruins along the coast reminds of the rich history that is recorded here but the sea always calls our name so we sit down at a local “chiringuito” with our feet in the sand to enjoy a glass of local white wine and fresh fish accompanied by a tropical salad. This is the best of Spanish summer for me!

Sardine bread with sardines fresh of the bbq!

Food items that I thought I would never enjoy…………..

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I feel that I was raised in a fairly cultured world as far as food is concerned.  My Mother and Nana prepared excellent Italian food tracing our roots but they also made Chinese, Greek, French and many other ¨ethnic¨cuisines.  My parents would also take us out to different restaurants on a fairly regular basis so that we could taste foods from different countries. I have clear memories of tasting flaming saganaki, schnitzel, and cheese enchiladas as a very little girl. As a teenager my mother would rent films about food and far away countries; Babettes Feast, The Scent of Green Papaya, and Big Night come to mind. Many of my Friday nights were filled with popcorn and subtitles.

Regardless of my upbringing there were many foods that I still could not taste upon my arrival in Spain. Anchovies, sardines, octopus, and pig ears are a few on the list. Pig ears still remain on the list. The others, however I have learned to love along with many other different foods.

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I remember walking into a fish market many many years ago in Granada, and the kind gentleman offered me a goose barnacle to taste. Here and in Portugal they are called ¨percebes¨or ¨perceves. I could not get myself to put that in my mouth. They are truly horrific. I kindly refused and left the market.

Not long ago I watched a documentary about how goose barnacles are collected and found it incredibly interesting. It is a quite dangerous and tedious process. And so as life goes, I recently found myself in a market in Porto actually enjoying a plate of goose barnacles, cold albariño wine and great company. Call it circumstancial or a change in my palate. Nobody will ever know. But, I have the photos to prove it. Never say never.

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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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El Abuelo………..a favorite in Madrid.

My dear friend Alex and I spent a few days kicking around Madrid this summer.  We have spent loads of time together in Madrid in the past 10 years but normally we are trailing around with group of 13 year olds.  This time we were alone and free to do as we liked.  Needless to say this involved quite a bit of wine and some great food to go along.  I think the first time that Aex and I met I took him and the other teachers to one of my favorite places in the center of Madrid, La Casa Del Abuelo.  I have been there with many people and  it is also a favorite of my Mom and Sisters when they visit.

La Casa Del Abuelo opened in 1906 and began to offer  wine and “bocadillos” or small baguette sandwiches to clients.  During the Civil War and after there was a shortage of flour in Spain and bread became worth more than gold so El Abuelo began to offer shrimp with wine.   To this day generation after generation have been enjoying their special house wine and shrimp and prawns served grilled, in garlic sauce or fried and served on a stick with a spicy dipping sauce.  The latter is my personal favorite.  Paired with a “chato” of their sweet house wine is a bit of heaven.  A couple of the other “Abuelo” restaurants have a more extensive menu (with the same delicious wine) but I prefer the original spot, standing up and tossing the shrimp tails on the floor.

Alex enjoying his chato of vino!

classic, friendly and packed with people………

Spotting a great tapas bar in Spain is not that difficult if you know what to look out for.  Number one  is the “Spanish Servilleta”.  This is basically a very small, see through, and non absorbent excuse for a napkin.  However, it is key to spotting a good bar.  While enjoying tapas one may go through 50 of these napkins to clean their fingers, and then proceed to toss them one by one onto the floor.  The floor in  any popular tapas bar in Spain is completely covered by napkins, toothpicks, shrimp heads and tails and olive pits.  The cigarette butt is now excluded from the list.  Number two is to look for places that are crammed packed with people to the point that many are spilling out of the front door and windows.  Within the bar you will find many groups of friends and family balancing their drinks along with a plate of communal tapas. When we go out as a group in Spain we almost always collect a “fondo” or collection of money that one person is in charge of throughout the afternoon or evening.

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early afternoon

There are some old yet unchanging tapas bars in Granada that I love to visit every once in a while.  A place like “Diamantes” is one of them for me.  It started as one very narrow bar that is constantly filled to the brim with a mostly local crowd enjoying their perfect and light fried fish.  There is now a “Diamantes 2” as shown above with a bit more elbow room.  Both of the bars are incredibly efficient, friendly and filled with local flavor.  The most frequent tapas that are included with your drinks are fried eggplant, shrimp in garlic sauce, fried dogfish and fried shrimp.  There is nothing better than a midday “tapeo” starting at Los Diamantes.