got the mojo…………………

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!

The Madroño, it’s not just a legend…..

Everyone who has visited Madrid has seen, photographed or met up with friends at the famous Bear and Madroño Statue.  A cute little bear trying with his paw to grab a bit of this unusual and fairly unknown fruit.  This symbol, along with the seven stars that have been known to represent either the Ursa Major Constellation or seven castles that used to surround Madrid, make up the Coat of Arms of this capital city. There are many different versions about why the bear and tree also became part of the Coat of Arms. Some say it is the symbol of possession and power.  My favorite interpretation so far was one that my sister Denise was given late one night in a bar in Madrid.  Something about bears molesting trees. Anyhow, I would imagine that for most visitors this statue in the Puerta del Sol is their first and last contact with a Madroño Tree. But, they can be found all over the country.

The other day we went for a walk with friends near the Alhambra.  We eventually found ourselves wandering through the Carmen de los Martires.  “Carmenes” in Granada are typical homes with beautiful garden areas.  Sometimes Granada is referred to as The City of Carmenes.  This particular Carmen is  very large and open to the public at certain hours during the day. There are beautiful views of the city, extravagant gardens and even peacocks.  It is the perfect place to enjoy peace and quiet or read a book.  With three kids in tow we had less peace and quiet but we did enjoy the views and had fun tasting the funny fruit off the Madroño trees.  I heard once that if you eat too much of this fruit it can actually intoxicate you.  We didn’t have time for that but it was fun to taste.


wine, history, and nature……….

Is there anything better than the smell of a wine cellar? For me, there are few smells that are equal to that complexity.  A sweet yet profound passion that slowly intoxicates your soul. Usually the first thing I do when I step into a wine cellar is close my eyes and slowly inhale.  It is an aromatic reminder that something beautiful is about to happen.

Recently we enjoyed a visit to a beautiful Wine Hotel just outside of Salamanca. The enchanting Hacienda Zorita is home to a unique winery, hotel and spa.  It was, in the 14th Century, a Dominican Monastery and you can still visit the chapel “San Nicolás de las Viñas” which is home to some of the best wine in the country along with a collection of religious artwork from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.  Jaime, one of the founding partners of the Hacienda took us on a guided tour of the winery and then hosted one of the finest wine, olive oil and cheese tastings that I have ever experienced.

After the wine tasting we were treated to a relaxing and informal dinner in the River Cafe.  Since my truly angelic daughter had sat through the very long tasting while quietly nibbling on pieces of apple and delicious bread dipped in golden organic olive oil, it was the perfect meal for us.  A simple cheese plate and delicious arugula salad were her personal favorites of the evening.

The grounds of the hotel were so beautiful that regardless of the subzero temperatures we took full advantage of the walking trails and the beautiful sound of the River Tormes. I look forward to my next visit to Zorita.


monkeys and a little sag paneer………..

I have to admit that for many years I could not comprehend why so many people got all worked up about visiting Gibraltar.  Was it the stamp in the passport (that you don’t get anymore), the view of North Africa, or the monkeys stealing their potato chips???  I’m truly passionate about the places that I visit on tour, but it took me years to warm up to Gibraltar.  My first memories involve a temperature as hot as hell with humidity, being crammed into taxis and shuttled up to the top of the rock to have a Chevy Chase like view of Africa, a quick stumble through a cave and then hassled by some monkeys before heading down to Casemates Square for lunch.   I always spent the entire visit dreaming about the next stop on tour, the beach, where I could recharge my batteries a bit and have a swim in the water instead of just looking at it from a rock.  And the Costa del Sol is definitely not lacking in fish n chips if someone really had a hankering.

Many many years have passed since those first visits to the rock.  And at some point my perception changed and I began to appreciate this quirky and unusual bit of the peninsula.  The people from Gibraltar are known as Juanitos.  They are laid back, interesting and always open to a nice chat.  I’ve had some great taxi drivers who were like walking history books.  They have shared their family history with me along with some great anecdotes about Gibraltar.  I’ve enjoyed some amazing conversations with more than a few Juanitos in their mixture of Spanish and English, not that different from my own way of speaking.  The monkeys are adorable.  It is pretty difficult to dislike a monkey butt.

My friend Todd shared a gastronomical secret spot with me many years ago.  It is now one of my favorite places to eat on the entire peninsula.  Really.  I love Spanish food but I truly suffer at times without spice and hot peppers.  My body needs it, craves it and basically cannot live without it. Introducing Mumtaz!! Mumtaz is a tiny, hole in the wall take-away Indian restaurant tucked away off of Main Street.  It has two plastic tables, a few chairs and the best damn Indian food I’ve had in a long time.  I eat here every time I go to the Rock and enjoy every bite.  The sad part, is that I’m always alone which means I have to be limited to one dish with a bread.  I’ve slowly been eating my way through the menu.  Tour by tour.  On my last visit I indulged in a great Sag Paneer, a chapati and an ice cold Cobra as I read an article about Mumtaz in some Gibraltarian magazine. I can’t wait to go back!

my #1 for traditional food in Granada……..CAYAO

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.

PISTO

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!!!

The Friar’s Garden

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.

My Favorite Places in Spain………. #1 Toledo part 2

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…………

sometimes “pijo” can be 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.

mountains, rivers, and hot peppers


peppers, cherries and pumpkin
peppers, cherries and pumpkin

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.

pimientos de padrón
pimientos de padrón
poor man's potatoes
poor man’s potatoes

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!!

my favorite places in Spain…… #1 Toledo part one

full moon from the gate of bisagra
full moon from the gate of Bisagra, Toledo

It is inevitable that at one point during every tour someone will ask the question, “What is your favorite city in Spain?”.  This  is almost impossible for me to answer. Certain cities become a favorite because of their magic and beauty.  Others become a favorite because of memories and moments.  And some embrace both for me.   Although my list is ever changing, there are always a few that rank at the top.  I never include Granada because it is a constant in my life, an ongoing affair of love and life.

Toledo caught my heart from day one not due to its beauty and history, but because it proposed a great challenge to me.  The incredible ease at which one could get lost within its streets.  And lost, I have been.  Luckily I have been blessed to have spent many nights in Toledo and now it is a rarity that I get lost in its labyrinth of small passageways and dead ends.  For me, Toledo is an outdoor museum.  Sometimes I close my eyes as I wander about and I can feel the history that has passed through it’s cobblestone streets.  Last March after being under the city to visit the old Arabic baths we climbed up to the top of one of the main gates of Toledo, La Puerta de Bisagra.  The city was bathed in the light of the full “super” moon.  The immense beauty caused our group of 30 thirteen year olds to fall silent.  Something quite difficult to achieve.

Apart from the city itself, friendship has also tied me to Toledo throughout the past 15 years.  My friend Mario is one of the people in Spain who has taught me how to really enjoy the moment.  No matter where we meet up to have a beer or eat lunch he always has one of those flashes where he looks up, nodding his head and says, “has visto que bonito es?”.  Can you see just how beautiful it is? Not only has he shown me some of the most wonderful views, restaurants and bars in the city but he also reminds me continually about how to savor every second of life.  In 2011 I spent the night in Toledo with 4 different groups and all of them coincided with a full moon. I realize this is just coincidental but it adds to the magic. In June I watched the entire lunar eclipse from a beautiful lookout point over the city. Accompanied by a friend and a gin tonic garnished with black pepper.   As I fell asleep that night my life felt like a bit of a dream.