Enjoy a stay with me in one of the most beautiful hotels in Spain!
Some places just feel like home from the very first moment you arrive. I always say that I have many different homes across Spain and Portugal. They are places that I can walk into year after year and and always feel greeted with warmth and friendship. In the Basque Country, up in the hills and looking over the Cantabrian Sea there is a small boutique winery that captured my heart from the very first moment that I arrived over 8 years ago. A winding road takes you up to this magical place that is not visible until you are at its doorstep, not unlike the Guggenheim Museum upon your arrival in Bilbao.
In this paradise, smack in the middle of the Urdabai Biosphere, this boutique winery produces Txakoli. This is the wine unique to the Basque Country, along with its own language, culture, food and sports. It is a wine that has been produced for centuries in the Basque Country. The wine was originally made by and for the families, a yearly production to be enjoyed with the local food. It was produced in Baserris, or farmsteads. The grape, Hondarrabi Zuri, is indigenous to the Basque Country. Txakoli should be served cold, always a short pour and maintaining the correct temperature. It pairs perfectly with seafood and especially a nice cheese such as the Idiazabal cheese, made from the local sheep. It also pairs well with the heavy dishes in this area prepared with ingredients like the local pinto beans from Tolosa. Txakoli cleanses your palate and invites you to indulge more and more, while enjoying the next pintxo that calls your attention! If you really want to enjoy the perfect pairing with a cold glass of Txakoli, you should prepare Bacalao al Pil Pil to accompany. Salt cod with garlic and chili peppers. It is the ideal combination.
Bodega Berroja is a short drive from Bilbao, and here you will meet José Ángel, the owner of the winery. I find myself at a loss for words to describe José Ángel. Those of you who have been lucky enough to meet him already know what I mean, and those of you who will be fortunate enough to visit in the future will be endeared by his kindness and authenticity. There are few people in this world like him and he has always encouraged me to live my dreams, just as he has, since the moment that we met.
Originally, Txakoli is and should be enjoyed as a young and sparkling wine. It will accompany your fantastic pintxos as you wander through the streets of Bilbao, Vitoria or Gernika. It is unusual to be able to enjoy a glass of Txakoli outside of the Basque Country unless you are lucky to be in a Basque bar in a city like Barcelona or are lucky enough to know of a great wine importer in your local area! Nowadays, wineries like Berroja also produce Txakoli that can be enjoyed with a long, sit down meal as well. They even produce a rose if that is what you fancy!
Yesterday, March 19th was Father’s Day in Spain. It is also the day of San José. Happy Father´’s Day and Happy 80th Birthday to my Father who recently celebrated in February!! I hope you are enjoying that glass of Txakoli right now.
Read more about the Basque Country in these posts……………….
On November 3rd the city of Granada was closed to any “outsiders” due to the high amount of Covid cases in the city. For one of the largest holiday weekends of the year, All Saints Day, Granada would be sacred only to those of us who live here. I received an email from the Parador of Granada saying that they had a special just for residents of Granada. With all other guests having to cancel, this historic hotel would be empty once again. But, I will save that surprise for another post.
How could I sleep in the Parador de San Francisco and not spend a day at the Alhambra? Not just spend a day in the Alhambra, but an almost empty Alhambra. As I’ve mentioned in other posts the Alhambra used to be free on Sundays when I first moved here. My memories of studying in the gardens of the Generalife for hours on end are ones that I will cherish for my lifetime. I don’t ever remember crowds of people visiting during those years. As time has passed things have changed drastically. It is almost impossible to visit the Alhambra without it being sold out, even in the winter months. However, the other day I had it almost to myself.
Located on top of the Cerro del Sol, or Hill of the Sun, the Generalife was the summer and rural palace of the Emirs during the Nasrid Dynasty in Granada. It is possible that the origin of the word Generalife comes from the Arabic Yannat al Arif, the arquitects garden. It was built during the 13th and 14th century. Just like the entire area of the Alhambra is our oasis from the noisy city, the Generalife was their oasis during the extremely dry and hot summer months. The ever flowing water and lush gardens are calming at anytime of the year. We will also find the most photographed Patio de la Acequia and the Sultans Garden with its famous cypress tree. The legend says that it is under this cypress tree where Boabdil’s wife used to meet up with her lover from the Abencerraje tribe eventually resulting in the death of this entire family.
Two of my favourite parts of the Generalife are those that many visitors may just pass through without much thought. To arrive at the high gardens of the Generalife we take the Escalera del Agua, the water staircase which is one of my favourite places. Broken into three sections, the water from the acequia real (royal channel) flows down on both sides of the staircase. Water is brought to the Alhambra by this water channel from 6 kilometers away. The staircase is also protected by a dome of laurel trees.
The Paseo de las Adelfas, The Walk of the Oleanders, is a 19th century walkway that was built in the 19th century as a romantic entrance to the Generalife. The name itself is passionate and picturesque. It connects to the Path of the Cypresses which will lead you back to the palaces. The visitor should not forget to enjoy these simple pleasures of the Alhambra.
When you exit the Alhambra near the Generalife and cross the street you will see a sign that says, Jardines de Alberto. Located in the home of the 19th century painter, Ramón Carazo, you will find a lovely restaurant that specialises in Nasrid cuisine. The home is a Carmen, a typical house in Granada. The word comes from the Arabic word for vine, karm. It has a garden with high walls. Traditionally the garden would have fruit trees and grape vines. In the garden of this Carmen is where the restaurant is located. Sit down and have a drink, a tapa and a great meal. You won’t be deceived. You may be served a homemade croqueta or some marinated and fried monkfish. I highly recommend the menu of the day. If you are lucky you can try the roast pork with a puree of sweet potatoes and squash. For desert you must have the Andalusian cream topped with croutons and sugar cane honey. Is there a better way to end a morning in the Alhambra?
Lately I have been reading through a couple of my favourite books about culinary history focussed on medieval cuisine. One is about the Islamic World and the other is about Sephardic cuisine. I plan on making some of the recipes that I have been reading about in these amazing books. So, why the heck am I writing about fried pork belly you might ask??
Well, while recording my YouTube video last weekend we decided to include one of my favourite bars in Granada to end on a local gastronomic note. Nothing gourmet. Just a long and true old time taberna near Plaza Nueva called Bodegas La Mancha. I used to live on the street where La Mancha is located, Calle Joaquin Costa. On this street you will also find the historic Hotel Inglaterra designed by local arquitect Angel Casas in the 1920´´’s, the Hotel Anacapri (a Rick Steves hotel) and the Hostal Colonial, my home for many years which deserves its own blog post.
When I lived on this street over twenty years ago we used to frequent La Mancha. Carmen, (may she rest in peace) who ran the Hostal Colonial would send me down the street to grab our dinner on nights that we were feeling too lazy to cook. I would push through the crowds to order our usual. Carmen always wanted a bocadillo with jamón Serrano y roquefort. And I would annoy the men in white shirts and black ties by asking for something ¨”strange” in their eyes. Back then they wouldn’t ever vary off the menu. But, since I lived with Carmen they put up with me and would prepare my bocadillo con queso, tomato y lechuga. Both me and my sandwich were very odd to them back then. We would also get a liter of Jumilla wine to go. I remember paying 115 pesetas for the wine. That was less than a dollar during those years.
For many years now when I go into La Mancha I am always greeted with warmth and good memories. The older gentlemen still remember me and they still remember Carmen, of course. So do many of the fixed customers who spend time drinking Vermouth or a Palo Cortado (a variety of sherry) at the beautiful wooden bar. Everyone knew Carmen from el Hostal Colonial.
Nowadays we stop in here when we take a nice walk up into the Albaicín or Sacromonte to have a bocadillo and a wine or vermouth. The old tabernas like La Mancha near Plaza Nueva are the best places to really feel what Granada should feel like regardless of the times we live in now.
Usually we stick to our favourite bocadillo made with thinly sliced grilled beef, roquefort cheese and a couple of guindillas (pickled spicy peppers). But, last weekend since we were filming the video we went out on a limb and got a plate of Torreznos from Soria. Torreznos is not a food that I consume often. I can probably count the amount of times I have eaten them on one hand. The last two times I ate Torreznos before last weekend was with the same friend. Once in Pamplona and once in Madrid right before confinement. I can still hear Paco saying, “Vamos a ese bar dónde el dueño es Segoviano y tiene unos torreznos buenísimos!”
A torrezno is basically fried pork belly, or sometimes described as fried thick bacon. Torreznos can be cut and prepared differently depending on what part of the country you are visiting. Even the name can change. However, it has been eaten in Spain since the Middle Ages since it is mentioned in certain works of literature such as Lazarillo de Tormes. Author anonymous. It is eaten especially during the time of year of the Matanza when a pig is killed. Every bit of the pig is used for different preparations and delicacies. Matanzas are held all over Spain and Portugal and in other countries. A torrezno should be eaten at room temperature to enjoy its flavour best. You can have it with beer or wine but for me, wine is the only way to wash it down. Practice moderation when consuming torreznos. Remember your heart and your arteries but enjoy every delicious moment!!! And don’t forget to watch my video about the Realejo neighbourhood in Granada where we end at Bodegas La Mancha. Salud!!
I woke up the other morning after an unforgettable dream of arriving to the Parador in Santiago de Compostela with my family. It was fairly surreal as many dreams can be but the emotion and feelings of reunion stayed with me long after I woke up. I miss many places during this annoying pandemic but Santiago de Compostela comes to my mind more than most. The stone walls of the city, wandering through its streets, watching pilgrims limp about searching for the Pilgrim’s office and of course the Hostal dos Reis Católicos (the parador) and the amazing food everywhere! I could write a weekly blog post about Santiago de Compostela with all of the history, memories and gastronomy it beholds.
Today I was reminded of two of my best meals (not counting the two restaurants in the Parador which are where I’ve had hundreds of my best meals) that I had on my own in Santiago. Chef Marcelo Tejedor has been running Casa Marcelo since 1999. The concept is simple and delicious. One long and high table, a couple small one, the bar area overlooking the kitchen, a tasting menu of fusion Galician/Japanese delicacies and excellent service. And, no reservations. I thought I would just give it a try one day and see if I was lucky enough to get in. Sure enough, one place at the small bar overlooking the kitchen was available in between two couples. No problem, I was happy to be inside and seated! And, I love this type of seating. It is probably my favorite even when I am not alone. I like to be where the gastronomic action is happening. After I sat down I was asked if I had any food allergies or major dislikes. Minor seafood allergy? Nah, not today. I could deal with it to fully enjoy whatever they wanted to set in front of me. I forgot to take photos of a couple of the dishes that I ate because I was so wrapped up in the environment and that fact that I was so excited to be tasting his food, finally! I also got to enjoy my neighbor’s dishes visually. The concept is to share, so more people equals more dishes.
Everything was perfect. From the wine to the dessert. I was served five dishes, perfectly sized for one person to enjoy them all thoroughly. The first was an Asian style oyster which was followed by a smoked sardine, steamed hake, steak tartar prepared with Galician beef and, for dessert their version of an Indian Gulab Jamun. I would go back to Casa Marcelo time and time again without hesitation.
So exciting! About a year after that meal I was thinking about lunch and chatting with my friends at the reception desk of the Parador like usual and one of my friends said, “you should go and try the new restaurant by Marcelo!!” “What?” A new restaurant. She told me that it wasn’t officially open yet but that if I rang the bell from outside that they would let me in.
Welcome to Mr. Chu!! I wasn’t sure if I was at the right place because there was no sign outside. I asked a nice elderly man who was sitting up on his balcony and told me, “oh yes, just ring the bell right there!!” The door opened and I entered into a completely different world from the old Santiago de Compostela. Funky design and cool lighting. I knew I was going to love everything about Marcelo’s new place. And I was completely alone in the restaurant for the entire meal since they were not officially open. My own little oasis for two hours. Phenomenal!!
High class Chinese. 8 dishes and dessert. Each one better than the next. It was fun and different compared to the traditional food I enjoy so much of in Galicia. Seaweed and sesame salad, Cucumbers with Kimtchi, White miso soup with Dimsum, Shrimp Har Gao with garlic and chilis, Hoisin Stew Bao, Chinese Dumplings with a brochette, Grilled Gyozas, Sichuan Wok and Vanilla and Salted Caramel Ice-Cream!
And, the coolest bathroom. Why didn’t I take more photos? If you are ever in Santiago de Compostela and craving something different and amazing then go to Casa Marcelo or Mr.Chu. You won’t be let down. I can’t wait for my next visit. I really can’t wait!
A walk through a dramatic town in Andalucia……..please follow me. I promise to write more. Life has been so crazy lately!!