Join me for a short trip from Granada to the Tropical Coast. More to come!!
I miss the Basque Country even when I am there for work every few weeks. It has now been almost 8 months and I am having serious withdrawal for pretty much everything Basque. Today I was reminded of two of the best things to have ever touched my lips. And I mean that, because they provoked a feeling that is difficult to describe in words. These are only two of many amazing dishes I have had in the Basque Country.
Bilbao, or Bilbo in Euskera, is the city of my dreams. I loved Bilbao even before the Guggenheim was built when it was still a bit gritty and grey around the edges. The casco antiguo has always intrigued me with its Catedral de Santiago, Plaza Nueva, winding streets and fantastic pintxo bars. I remember wandering through those streets on my first visit to Bilbao and taking in its bohemian feeling, an industrial city still struggling to exist. But, nowadays Bilbao is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. A true example of class, elegance and ingenious infrastructure. The Guggenheim and the Andoibarra neighborhood neighborhood surrounding it are phenomenal. Its streets will welcome you to pasear and take in the fascinating architecture and green parks that it offers. And don’t forget to eat. Eat a lot. Remember, you are in the Basque Country. https://mooninspain.com/2015/08/18/tourist-remember/
Inside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao you will find two restaurants. One is Nerua, a Michelin star restaurant where I hope to dine one day. The other is The Bistro which you fill find at the level near our friend, Puppy, by Jeff Koons. Here you only need to order two items off the menu. The roast deboned lamb and a torrija for dessert. The roast deboned lamb is a masterpiece served with a squash purée and it will make you want to kiss the chef. A work of art worthy of a photo.
Now, the torrija. For a bit of background, in Spain we eat torrijas during the Easter holidays. You will find them in every pastry shop, especially in Madrid. Traditionally it is stale bread soaked in either milk or wine, dipped in beaten egg and fried and sprinkled with cinnamon. One might compare it to french toast. This year my daughter was unable to visit her Abuela in Madrid for easter so she took it upon herself to prepare a large plate of torrijas that she has become accustomed to consuming during that visit.
Now, the Guggenheim Bistro takes the torrija up about 20 notches or more. It is pan fried and carmelized and served with ice-cream. The flavor of the ice-cream can vary but my very favorite is when it is served with an “helado de queso“, ice-cream prepared with a local cheese. This takes the torrija from an ordinary local pastry to something sinful and provocative. It is the torrija of all torrijas and you will never forget it. I hope they never change the menu at the Bistro.
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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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For most people travel is a major adventure. A way to experience new cultures, people, food and traditions. Is there anything more exciting than the unknown? I love to get lost in a city, to order from a menu without really being sure of what will be served to me, or to miss a bus or train and hang out in a sketchy station waiting and people watching. However, many travel for business. They look for comfort, good wifi and on time transportation. In my work I get to enjoy a combination. I return to the same places year after year and they feel like home to me. But, I get to share the excitement of seeing it through the eyes of travelers who are experiencing something or a place for the very first time.
Some people need to follow a routine when they travel. Most people in my business tend to feel comforted by repetition. The same meals, drinks, repeating the same hotel room and the same walks during free time. It gives you a sense of home and stability which we lack when traveling many months out of the year.
I find my peace in the warm smiles of the friends I encounter while I’m on the road. Being welcomed with open arms and great conversation keeps me feeling at home when I am very far away. Besides that, I try to mix some spice into my routine. Discovering new restaurants or a far off neighborhood on my walks are a couple of my favorite things to do. I rarely repeat a meal. I have a friend who almost always goes to the same restaurants and orders the same dishes. Not me. Well, not usually anyhow. I secretly have a couple rituals of my own.
When I pass through one of my favorite cities in Galicia, Pontevedra, I always meet up with a friend who lives there. It has become our routine. She catches up with me just as I’m finishing a walk with my group. We sit outside at a local bar and enjoy a wine or beer and one of the great free tapas they give to you in Pontevedra. At one of my favorite places they always have some type of stew as the first tapa; garbanzos, lentils or white beans. Sometimes her family meets meets ups with us as well, especially if it is a Sunday. And many of my colleagues who travel with me have enjoyed this time together as well. A close friend and colleague of mine has repeated many times with us.
There is nothing like a great Tortilla Española in Galicia. It is one of the places in Spain where I always love how it is prepared. It is never dry or flat. It is jugoso and soft and shows the color of perfectly fresh eggs. In Pontevedra I systematically order a tortilla española and polbo a feira (Galician prepared octopus) for this lunch that is enjoyably filled with philosophical conversation. The boiled octopus is served on a wooden tray with boiled potato, olive oil and spicy paprika. Perfect with a local white wine, Ribeiro, traditionally served in a cunca galega. I would transport myself to Pontevedra right now and hug my friend Yayi tighlty before we began our sacred ritual.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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!
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!
I’ve heard some people comment about being bored these days as we are on lock down. I believe in Spain we are now on the 16th day. As my doctor ordered, I can’t even leave the front door of my apartment for the allowed reasons so I look out onto the street from my balcony and windows. I can see the Sierra Nevada Mountains freshly covered in snow. The road up to the Alhambra is now completely still except for a public bus every few hours and the streets are silent except a random masked and gloved neighbor coming home with groceries. Police cars patrolling and a random dog walker. However, I have not been bored even for a second. I cook and write and do exercise and give some online yoga classes and enjoy other great classes along with concerts and virtual visits to many places. I was trying to remember the last time I was actually bored I couldn’t come up with anything really.
And then I remembered being in the town of Manzanares in Castilla La Mancha last August. I wouldn’t call it boring, but definitely peaceful. We spent a glorious 15 days in the Basque Country, both France and Spain. We never want to leave so we push it as much as we can and end up driving at full speed home before vacation ends. Manzanares is a bit over 2 hours from home and as we were getting close we decided we just couldn’t drive anymore. It was hot as hell and we were exhausted.
There is a Parador in Manzanares that by a miracle has not been closed down regardless of its location with a view of the main highway. Paradors for me, mean home. As my friends who work at the Parador in Santiago de Compostela tell me, I’m no longer a “friend” of the Paradors, I’m a sister. Paradors are a chain of hotels in Spain opened in mostly historical or important buildings. You can look on the internet at parador.es and discover more. The page also has a blog where you can find different bits of history and art work and routes through Spain. A couple of weeks ago they closed down all of the paradors and donated all of the food from their restaurants and bathroom amenities to help with the corona crisis.
The Parador in Manzanares was one of the first, opening in 1932. It opened originally as an “albergue” to give truck drivers a place to sleep and eat on this long, empty road. It survived the Civil War and the dicataorship. It is said that in the 1940’s when tourism began the restaurant served lunch to so many tourists that some would have to wait in busses while the others were being served. In 1979 the original albergue closed, reopening in 1980 as a “Parador de Turismo”. The Parador has fought to remain open through financial crisis and more. At first glance this Parador might not seem to be anything special. However, our short stay here was perfect. Our room looked out on the swimming pool and garden and everyone was incredibly friendly, from the front desk to the bar and restaurant. We decided to have a light dinner in the hotel due to the blazing heat and to avoid the walk into town. We are also big fans of all Parador dining. The Maitre D in the restaurant was so lovely. He made us feel like the only people in the restaurant. He invited us to a glass of sparkling wine from the local wine producing area to accompany our tapa of partridge paté and chips.
One of my all time favorite dishes from Castilla La Mancha is Pisto Manchego. My very favorite is at a place called La Venta de Quijote in the sleepy town of Consuegra. I have been stopping there for years with groups and their pisto along with the one here at the Parador are both outstanding. Pisto is a mixture of sauteed vegetables which can vary depending on the area and the chef. The original recipe is made with tomatoes, green peppers and zucchini chopped and without the seeds. Sauteed with a good amount of olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. It can be used to accompany fish or meat or on its own served with a fried egg or two on top.
If you ever find yourself in Manzanares in the dead of August when most bars are closed and the heat is unbearable please go to the Queso Manchego Museum. Manchego is one of the most well known cheese’s worldwide. Not be confused with Mexican Manchego cheese which is similar to a Monterey Jack, true Manchego must be prepared with whole Manchego sheep’s milk and aged for at least 60 days in one of the designated provinces of Castilla La Mancha. You can find four different types of Manchego: fresh, semi-cured, cured and aged. There are 26 Protected Designation of Origen (DOP) producing different types of cheese in Spain. We have an incredible variety to work your way through in this lifetime. However, Manchego is usually the one that most visitors know about before arriving in Spain thanks to our dear friends, Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quijote.
The museum is run by friendly, young people from Manzanares. You can visit for free or pay between 1 to 2,50 euros for a tasting of cheese and wine. The museum walks you through the history of Manchego Cheese dating back to the Bronze Age. It has informative plaques that explain how the cheese making has changed throughout history and also how it forms such an important part of Castilla La Mancha and the cuisine in this area.
Manchego Cheese is sliced in triangles and served as a perfect tapa with bread and wine. Add some local olives to complete your appetizer. Many times you will find it served with a quince paste that pairs perfectly with the nutty flavor of the cheese.
Another part of the museum is dedicated to temporary and permanent art exhibitions. It is like a little added surprise after you walk through the area about the manchego cheese. The temporary exhibition that we saw was a beautiful tribute to the Spanish Poet, Federico García Lorca and the Bullfighter, Ignacio Sánchez Mejías. Lorca was from a town close to Granada, Fuentevaqueros, and was assassinated in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. He was a renowned poet, playwright and theatre director. Mejías, a bullfighter from Sevilla and friend to poets and poetry, died after being gorged by a bull in his comeback bullfight in 1934. He had slept and eaten his last dinner the night before at what is now the Parador de Manzanares. He was remembered by many poets in their works but probably the most well known is by Lorca, Weeping for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías.
The entire temporary exhibition was absolutely beautiful. A wonderful tribute to many different Spanish poets as well. After we finished our tasting of cheese and wine we went for a hot walk and had lunch at one of the few open restaurants before driving home to Granada. We found this beautiful hotel which is now closed. It was all more than worth the stop!! A great break in our long drive home.
We have been eating 100 percent vegetarian at home for the past couple of months. I was a vegetarian for so many years that it is easy to slip back into this way of life. We are usually pretty veggie centered but going 100 percent has brought me back to some great recipes like Tofu Tikka Masala, Vegetable chili with TVP and an amazing Creamy Braised White Bean recipe that I found in the New York Times. It has also reminded me of a few of the last great meat and seafood dishes that I enjoyed. Not craving, just reminiscing. Some of these were on our last trip to Portugal. I’ve been missing Lisbon a bit these days knowing that I won’t be there every few weeks this Spring like I have been for the past 10 years or more so I’m reminded of this awesome meal we had a few months ago at the Time Out Market.
We love going to the Time Out market when we have some “us” time to enjoy the city. The Ribeira Velha market was the original market in Lisbon dating back to 1100. It was located at the foot of the Alfama neighborhood. The market was rebuilt and moved a couple of times. One of these times being after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. The structure we find today located in the Cais do Sodré district was inaugurated in 1882. It functioned as a fresh foods market for many years. The newly restored Time Out Market opened here in 2014. It is now home to the original fresh food market along with kiosks and shops selling regional specialties with some owned by a few of Lisbon’s most famous chefs. It’s a gastronomical festa in a lively and enjoyable space. I’ve enjoyed many great meals here. For a few years I was addicted to the Tuna “prego” Sandwich at SeaMe, an excellent seafood restaurant. I still highly recommend it!
On our last visit to Lisbon in late November it was cold and raining when we arrived. The streets were empty and dark. I hadn’t seen Lisbon like this for quite a long time and it reminded me of a novel I had read recently, The Day of Atonement by David Lis. The warm market was quiet and welcoming and we found a romantic spot at Balcão da Esquina. I’ve always loved Tasca da Esquina, one of the great restaurants by Chef Vítor Sobral, and Balcão is his place here in the Time Out Market. To start with, we went for some amazing Sautéed Prawns with Rosemary and Red Chilis (the malagueta chili). Forget about not eating bread as this sauce begs for the dipping.
We followed the prawns by one of the best dishes I have been served in a very long time. Bísaro Pork with Clams and a Cilantro Sauce. The clams were absolutely perfect and the sauce was earthy and light. But, the pork!! Oh dear, that pork was so darn good that we could have ordered one more plate. The whole dish was fantastically cohesive. And, we also learned something new. The Bísaro pigs are Indigeneous Portuguese pigs. They were actually close to going extinct because of the African plague as because the Iberian pigs were being favored. They come from a Celtic origin and reside mostly in the province of Tras-Os-Montes (see post New Years Eve in Tras-Os-Montes) where they are used in traditional dishes and to make many types of sausages in order to keep their meat year round. If you go to Lisbon and you are a meat eater and cilantro lover please go try this dish.
Oh, and the wine!! We ordered, of course, the wine with the chef’s name. First, a glass of white with the shrimp and then a red from the Alentejo region made with Touriga Nacional, Aragonez, and Trinacdeira grape varieties. Both went perfectly with our selected dishes.
Obviously we could not get out the door without a Pasteis de Nata, (egg custard) and a glass of port wine. I prefer my pastel de nata with only cinnamon but the traditional way to eat the custard is with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Everything about this evening was worth the walk in the rain. Like many cities, Lisboa has a special charm in the winter, and for me it feels more authentic during the quieter months. The grey skies make a perfect backdrop to this colorful city.