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.
The 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.
They 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.
Save 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!!
I’ve expressed before my obsession with spicy food and the lack there of it in Spain. I am eternally searching for the exceptions. After 20 years of searching I get extra excited when I find a good spicy dish in a typical place. Because finding spicy food in an Indian or Mexican joint is pretty much a given. The other day we stopped into one of our favorite local bars in our old neighborhood. If you don’t get here by 1:30 in the afternoon you can find yourself with your face plastered against the window as you scream out to the bartender for another beer. Well, the other day we were pleasantly surprised by a new tapa on their list. PAPAS EN MOJO PICÓN!! I’ve talked about Patatas Bravas before. These are not the same. The flavor is completely different. Mojo Picón is a spicy sauce from the Canary Islands that is made with garlic, cayenne peppers, cumin, vinegar, olive oil and salt. Or any other variation on the theme. The name comes from the Portuguese word Molho (sauce). And these potatoes were particularly delicious with their homemade Mojo Picón!! Thank you Granada for the mojo!
If there is one place in Granada that has never let me down, it is Cayao. We were lucky enough to stumble upon this gem when we moved into our second to last neighborhood. It was love at first sight and we continue to be faithful through the years. The tapas and specialty dishes are based on local cuisine, homemade, and always delightful. The owner and son of a bullfighter, Mariano, treats his clients like close family. I’ve brought groups, family and many friends here and everyone has always enjoyed every minute and morsel.
It is best to arrive early to Cayao to enjoy a tapa of their fantastic rice with alioli. But if you don’t the replacements are just as good if not better. On my last trip before Christmas with my partner in crime we were lucky enough to be in time for the rice. Our palates were also blessed with the best Tortilla Española in Granada slathered in Salmorejo ( a thick tomato, garlic puree) and accompanied by a cabbage salad dressed with oil, vinegar and pomegranate seeds. Our last tapas surprise were small sauteed potato cakes topped with spinach with raisins and pine nuts and served with a perfect Manchego cheese. Thanks Mariano.
The regular menu at Cayao is filled with wonderful options that include Salt Cod with fried garlic, fondue, and Iberian pork cheeks in a Pedro Jimenez sauce that is out of this world. One of our standard favorites is their special Pisto (vegetable stew) which they prepare heavy on the zucchini and garnished with fried slices of bread or “picatostes”. It is pretty much impossible to go wrong. They also offer a different daily dish which varies from lentils to a Gypsy stew made of white beans, garbanzos and many pork surprises.
For me Cayao is a mixture bar/museum. I love to wander around and look at the bullfighting posters, newspaper articles and amazing artifacts that are hanging on the walls. One of my favorites is a menu from 1957 that posts the prices for Tapas in pesetas. They prices range from 4 to 20 pesetas which nowadays works out to approximately 2 – 12 cents. Wow.
Cayao is a must visit in Granada. If there is a Cheers for me in Spain, this is it. Happy New Year!!!
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.
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.
It has been raining for the past four days and we have been enjoying the fireplace, playtime and a great variety of home cooked food. Finally, there was a break in the clouds and we decided to go for a stroll up the river. Walking about 2 1/2 miles along the river from our house we have a couple of great restaurants. Today we chose one called La Huerta del Fraile, The Friar’s Garden. Across the street from the restaurant there is a huge pumpkin patch along with many vegetable gardens and orchards. The rain started up again as soon as we walked in, so we tucked in next to their fireplace. We had planned on having one tapita and then moving on but we were so relaxed and the first tapa was delicious and unique. So we stayed for a bit.
The first tapa was a surprisingly scrumptious version of one dish in Spain that I have always disliked. It is called San Jacobo (Saint Jacob). Usually it is a slice of chicken wrapped around ham and cheese then breaded and fried. Basically, the Spanish version of Cordon Bleu. Most of the Saint Jacobs that I have met have been in low cost hotel buffets where basically everything is disgusting. Needless to say, I had never once enjoyed a San Jacobo in all of my years in Spain until La Huerta del Fraile’s version. It was made with cheddar cheese, eggplant, mushrooms and ham and then covered in a crunchy coating. Tapa number two was also the best version I’ve ever had of a very typical dish, Migas. Literally, migas de pan are the soft breadcrumbs from fresh bread. The preparation of the dish known as Migas can vary depending on the region of Spain that you are in. In Granada they are the breadcrumbs or leftover bread sauteed in olive oil with garlic, green peppers and a variety of pork products. On the coast they are also served with sardines (see toes in the sand, shrimp in my hand). These definitely ranked the best that I have had. Usually Migas are prepared on an open fire out in the country. A typical dish prepared for hard workers.
Off the regular menu we ordered a salad with tomato and goat cheese and a plate of fried berenjenas (aubergine or eggplant) with sugar cane honey. Fried eggplant deserves a post all to itself. My 5 year old daughter wants to dedicate an entire blog to this favorite dish of hers. They are typical in Cordoba but here in Granada we have also found some amazing ones. For me they are a mixture of dessert and pancakes. A light fluffy batter, eggplants, and sweet dark honey. Another fried delicacy here in Spain.
I could probably write a book about Toledo and all of my lovely experiences I’ve had there but that will have to wait for another point in my life. After all, it did rank number 1 for many reasons. Toledo is one place where I never tire of wandering through the streets and monuments. Every time I walk through the city I see something new and learn more about the history and layers of this medieval treasure. One night many years ago as I was strolling through the narrow cobblestone streets with some students I ran into my dear friend Mario leading his group on a nighttime tour. From this moment on I decided to include this as part of any tour of mine that sleeps in Toledo. Each city takes on a different persona when the sun goes down. The moon, darkness and city lights completely change the feeling and security that daytime holds. A nighttime visit in Toledo is filled with legends, mysteries and intrigue. One of my favorite expressions in Spanish is “pasar una noche Toledana” which describes when one has had a sleepless night for one reason or another. Historically, the saying refers to a bloody massacre that occurred in the year 797 when a cruel Governor invited all of the nobleman of Toledo to his home for a banquet. As they entered his home one by one, they were beheaded and tossed into a ditch.
On a lighter note, I’ve enjoyed some great meals in Toledo with many wonderful friends. I’ve also enjoyed some quiet afternoons and nights alone with a tapa and glass of wine. This past June I went for a cold beer at a restaurant that I have frequented through the years because it is next door to the hotel where I often sleep. It is a bit of a dive and I usually only go in for a quick drink. Well, in June I was surprised with a tapa of one of the best Croquetas I have ever eaten. It was quite ugly as you can see, but the flavor was perfect.
I’ve had a few memorable meals at a restaurant named Casa Aurelio where they serve tender meat that you cook to your liking on a hot brick. Another favorite place of mine is El Hostal del Cardenal which is a breathtaking hotel and restaurant connected to the walls of the city. The restaurant offers beautiful gardens where you can enjoy a wonderful meal or cold drink and feel as if you are part of a medievil film. However, there is a place that I always tend to go to when I am up near the main plaza of the city, Zocodover. It is called El Cason de los Lopez. This building from the XVI century is located on a street that was once famous for typical “mesones” or a XVI century bed and breakfast, where Miguel de Cervantes used to eat and rest. The main floor of the building is part of an interior patio with a bar and rustic, informal dining area. In the bar you can order a mixed plate of Manchego cheese and cured local sausages. It is delicious. My friend Alex and I discovered it while catching up on each others lives over some local wine from Castilla la Mancha. And I ordered it again to share with two of my favorite dining partners this summer. The picture is taken by my friend Melissa. After we had already eaten more than half of the plate…………
Sundays invite adventure and escaping from the city center. Even though we all laugh and criticize the “domingueros” or “Sunday drivers”, we end up being one many times during the year. So, today we went up just a bit into the mountains to breathe some fresh air and see what the day would bring. Basically it is hard to go wrong around here on a weekend. As long as you have good company and some open space for the kids to play, the day is pretty much set. Lucky for me I have friends who also have a damn good sense of humor which makes the day just that much brighter. Even with the clouds. We ordered some food to share and then just as I was mourning the lack of homemade croquetas on the menu, this tapa appeared on the table. It was as if they had read my mind. My friend Annette and I both have a bit of an obsession with ordering homemade croquetas when available. I think we are trying to find the best. There is a lot to know about the “croqueta” in Spain. Croquetas can be real crap sometimes. Frozen and produced by a machine. Or just plain bland, boring, and disgusting. But, when you find a good croqueta, it is like a delicious bit of fried love.
I was truly blessed to live with an amazing woman here in Granada. Carmen taught me a great part of what I know about this city. She hated to cook. But her croquetas were seriously the best I have ever had. I would hang over her as she made the bechamel, added the leftover meat from the stew cooked the day before and toss them in the egg and flour. I watched the patience and love she put into those delicious rolls. When they were ready we would all line up to taste as she fried them one by one. I would always get back in line for seconds. And with that bit of energy we would be off to go out for the night.
The croquetas today were homemade and fresh. They weren’t as good as Carmen’s, nor where they as good as the one I will put in my next post, but they did hit the spot. The company was even better…….a bit crazy……..but good.
The word “pijo” is used in Spain with various connotations, both positive and negative. Most commonly it describes a person or a place that is classy or fashionable. However, quite frequently in Granada “pijo” can also be equivalent to tacky and tasteless. Sort of the wannabe of posh that never really gets to that level. Therefore, most of the “normal” people try to avoid any place or situation that may involve anything “pijo”. In fact, some may go to great extremes to not rub elbows with those who wear long sleeve pink oxfords with a sweater wrapped around their shoulders. But, in my search for unique tapas in this city I have wandered into many a “pijo” establishment. Most, I have to say are a disappointment. Too many pink Polo shirts and not a decent tapa in sight.
I have found the exception, or at least one of them. We found “Oryza” because we used to live around the corner. Every once in a while we would pop in on a Saturday afternoon for a glass of wine and a tapa which were always delicious. When they opened, the prices were quite high and I was worried that this little place might not make it. But since then they have lowered their regular prices and also included a great bar and terrace menu along with a below 10 euro wine list. The reason we kept going back is because they have always treated us like family. The last time I was there I was treated to the best guacamole I’ve had in Spain, a delicious plate of meatballs, and a small plate of grilled vegetables with a hard boiled partridge egg.
I was up late last night after taking a wonderful client up to the caves for Flamenco. So when the alarm went off this morning I was happy to see that the rest of my family was still asleep and I rolled over hoping for a nice lie in. It didn’t last long of course. Before I realized it I was up making breakfast with the company of my neighbor’s two year old and then quickly we were all off to school.
Amazingly, a friend and I both found the energy to grab our bikes for a short ride and went to a beautiful town, Pinos de Genil, on the way to the mountains. After drinking fresh cold water out of the town’s fountain we decided to have a quick beer at Bar Ricardo next to the river. The moment improved when our server brought us a plate of delicious olives that had been seasoned with cumin and paprika and a bit of salchichón (salami). I had one of my “I heart Granada” moments listening to the sound of the river and recalling my Gypsy bliss from the night before. To prolong the feeling we decided to pick Luna up from school early and take her to another beautiful town up in the mountains for lunch and a hike.
Guejar Sierra is a cozy mountain town about 10 miles from Granada. It has great restaurants both within the town and along the river that serve traditional food with an abundance of olive oil and local products. It has also been a favorite place of mine to go and enjoy the many hiking trails that take you along the river and into the mountains. There used to be a tram that went from the center of Granada to the start of one of the main trails, La Vereda de la Estrella. In the early 70’s the tram ceased to function due to lack of profit. The older people in the town are still quite disturbed about this, understandably so.
We stopped in one of the restaurants along the river to eat something before our hike. We ordered the obligatory and delicious local potato dish, poor man’s potatoes. Patatas a lo pobre. They are thinly sliced potatoes, green peppers and sometimes onions sauteed in an generous amount of olive oil. Simple and always gratifying. Luna had a hankering for chicken so we ordered a small dish of chicken in garlic (and plenty of oil) which was delicious with just a bit of white wine and about 10 cloves of crispy garlic. But the star dish today was the Padrón peppers. These peppers are named after a town in Galicia and were originally brought to Spain in the 16th century from Mexico. The ones we had today were grown locally. There is a saying about these peppers, “Pimientos de Padrón, algunos pican algunos no”. “Padrón peppers, some are hot, some are not”. They are served after being fried in olive oil and lightly salted. My friend took a bite out of the first pepper and handed it to me immediately. Usually these peppers leave me craving spice. If you are lucky, one in 15 is hot. Not today. They were all fire. And I mean FUEGO!!! I’m a spicy food addict and these were mind blowing. All of them.
After our hike along the river we stopped in a local shop and bought some local treats. Onions, tomatoes, apples, pumpkin, cherries in strong alcohol, and pickled spicy peppers. The pickled peppers aren’t from Padrón but they are just about as picante!!