April 27, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Spain

Ahh, Northern Spain, why do I love you so much? (I suppose I could say the same about Eastern, Southern and Western Spain as well, but never mind that) After my recent trip to Santander, I just couldn’t turn down another opportunity to head up north and discover some new cities and pueblos. So when my friend Sophia said she needed a road trip getaway, we quickly managed to narrow our sights on the provinces of León and Asturias (which is actually a community as well). León is a city that I’d heard of a million times, but had never actually been to, and therefore it remained one of my must-visit spots in Spain. Knowing little about it, we went there with pretty much no expectations – we had our bags packed, our reservations at the Parador of León booked, and a whole lot of road trip spirit.

Arriving in León we were greeted by the impressive facade of the Parador that we would be staying at. Its lengthy exterior is proceeded by a large plaza full of bubbling, small fountains that recall summertime and kids splashing through them in the hot sun. The Parador itself is housed in what is called the Monastery of San Marcos, which was originally built in the 12th century as a church and hospital to shelter pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago. Then during the 16th century, the building was demolished and reconstructed as a monastery, and since then has been used for a variety of other purposes, including as a prison. Then finally, in the 1960s, it became a hotel and also home to a city museum.

After admiring our new digs, we set off to discover a couple pueblos. We chose these pueblos based on an El Mundo article (one of the top newspapers in Spain) listing the top 30 pueblos in Spain – so expectations were high as we left León. Our first stop was Astorga, a city which was not only on the list, but one that received raving reviews from several people we’d spoken to. We arrived in the pueblo’s historic quarter and found it to be a near ghost-town, so we wandered its streets in search of the treasures that made this a top 30 spot in Spain. We eventually came upon its grand, baroque-style cathedral built in 1471. Then sitting right next to it was actually an Episcopalian Palace designed by Gaudí, which was an impressive castle-like building that bore pretty much no resemblance to his famous works in Barcelona. Other notable sites were its third century walls, in addition to a small exposition of Roman ruins. The rest of the town was of course charming, but admittedly nothing entirely different than any other historic Spanish city, and therefore left us a little bewildered about the top 30 title (how Astorga beat out places like Toledo or Segovia, just to name a few, is beyond me). We also managed to try the regionally famous cocido maragato (cocido being one of Spain’s famous garbanzo based stews), which featured seven mystery meats – and seriously, what the seven were was a mystery to me. It was yummy, but I wasn’t brave enough to try the meats (sorry Spain, I’ll eat just about any of your food, but I had to draw a line on this one).

Our next stop was also on the list of top 30, so given our previous experience, we set our expectations to “average, but optimistic,” and hit the road. This pueblo’s name was Castrillo de los Polvazares, and the minute we approached it, we knew we wouldn’t be disappointed. Rocky streets that looked to be cobbled together by green moss were bordered by equally stony looking houses trimmed with matching green doors, shutters and balconies. The village seemed vacant of people, but somehow bustling with pickup-truck traffic, which I’ve later learned is likely because the city is full of what they call “arrieros maragatos,” which are basically mercantile transporters specific to that region. The houses there are called “casas arrieras” because they were built to serve this merchant activity, and therefore have large doors making way for ingoing and outgoing transport. We made our way rather conspicuously through the pueblo, hobbling our way down the cobbled streets as we balanced on the uneven stones in our ballerina flats – we definitely got some sideways looks from the locals.

That evening, back in León, we enjoyed tintos de verano (a favorite Spanish beverage of mine) in the Plaza de Regla as we watched the sun set on the spectacular León Cathedral, and eventually as the lights flickered on to illuminate it. With my front row seat of the cathedral, I marveled at its oddly large number of windows and how radiant the whole building was – I was certain we had to see the inside before leaving, although that would have to wait a day or two.

The next day had a new journey in store for us – a drive north to the community of Asturias, which is known for its green, mountainous landscapes as much as its delicious foods. First we headed to Oviedo, where we took in the sights despite the unrelenting misty rain – the lush and gorgeously manicured San Francisco Park (what a lovely name!), the 8th century cathedral, and even the Boulevard of Sidra (cider) where we finally had lunch. During lunch we tried the famous Asturian dish fabada (a stew made of large white beans) as well as sidra, which is a regional beverage that is often served in a unique way such that the cider splashes in the bottom of the cup in order to oxygenate it (this requires expert skills, no joke, as one must pour into the cup from the bottle at a great distance – it’s an art, seriously). We also picked up some of the most divine pastries I’ve tried in Spain – especially the carbayones, which are typical from Oviedo (Santumede, Calle de Jovellanos 14).

From Oviedo, we moved up toward the northern coast about 15 minutes to the city of Gijón. We arrived knowing that it would be a big beautiful city on the coast, but without any set itinerary, so we immediately set out to find the office of tourism. When we couldn’t find it, we stopped in a pharmacy and asked the pharmacist for recommendations or directions, but he only proceeded to stare at us blankly before finally stating, “ummm, ummm, well you could go see this building that is down the street – it’s large.” We left there more confused than when we had entered. We finally found an old, jolly couple who pointed us in the direction of the historic quarter, but basically confirmed that there wasn’t a terribly large amount of sites to take in outside of what we’d already seen. So we did what any smart tourist would do – we shifted the focus from sites to food! We sat down at the first restaurant that we could find that would serve us some arroz con leche (also famous from Asturias). What a brilliant decision this was as this arroz con leche was surely the best I’d ever had – which is an especially big complement since I pretty much consider myself an arroz con leche expert at this point (Entreplazas, Plaza Mayor, 6).

On our drive back to Leon, we stopped in the outskirts of Oviedo so that we could see the church of Santa Maria de Monte Naranco. It was originally built as palace for King Ramiro 1 in 842, but was eventually converted into a church in the 12th century. Just up the street was the neighboring San Miguel de Lillo church, also built in 842, for King Ramiro I. Must be nice to have your own little palace and church with beautiful views of the valley below!

The following day, before departing León, I was intent on visiting the inside of the cathedral. Something about this cathedral fascinated me – I could tell it was different than any of the others I’d seen in Spain. So after a cappuccino and pastry breakfast (the breakfast of champions, of course), we showed up at the cathedral right as it opened. I was hypnotized by the abundance of stain-glassed windows covering every wall from top to bottom and casting colorful prisms of light in every direction. This wasn’t a Spanish cathedral(!) – Spanish cathedrals are dark, stony and low on stain-glassed windows. At the moment, the cathedral is being restored, including its more than 1,800 square meters of windows, so lucky for us, we were able to access one of the construction platforms to view the interior from a different vantage point (take note – the opportunity to do this won’t last forever, so if you’re anywhere near León, go check it out!). We were fortunate enough to have one of the cathedral employees join us and explain to us in great detail the construction and layout of the church, in addition to the fact that it has one of the largest collections of stained-glass in the world. It is different than other cathedrals in Spain because it’s just one of two legitimately Gothic cathedrals (the other being in Segovia), which therefore means it has a lower nave, and ultimately windows on more levels of the church. Anyway, long story made a little bit less long – the cathedral was absolutely captivating and made the trip to León more than worth it. I will for sure be going back!

I’ve finally just created a Facebook page for La Tortuga Viajera and will be posting pictures there soon from the trip – be sure to check it out!

April 19, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Madrid, Travel, Travels in Spain

Miraflores de la Sierra, that is (Miraflores meaning “look flowers”). The pueblo, which was founded in the late eighth century, was originally named Porquerizas, but had its name officially changed in 1627. Legend has it that when Queen Isabel (of the famous Catholic Kings) was heading to the nearby El Paular monastery, while resting she saw the area and exclaimed, “Look, flowers!” Those that were with her overheard this and suggested the name change. Apparently its original name, Porquerizas, is derived either from the fact that they raised a lot of pigs there, or that there was just a ridiculously large abundance of wild pigs. The connection to pigs seems fuzzy to me, though, as the term “porqueria” actually refers to a very dirty place (so I guess pigs liked it?). In my opinion, a floral name definitely seems like a step up, but considering this country’s love of pig, it’s possible that a place with an abundance of pigs (even though apparently dirty) might not be such a disappointment.

Moving forward some 500+ hundred years, we find ourselves in this little pueblo perched on a mountain side – views of the vast valley in one direction, and views of the steep mountainside in the other. This particular day, last Sunday, the sun was shining and Spring was in full force (which I’m especially reminded of as I look out the window at the cold, rainy day right now). Why the trip to Miraflores? Well, while I’d like to make every weekend a “road trip weekend,” I’ve realized that just isn’t possible (not for lack of trying though!), so the alternative is to discover new spots in the community of Madrid which you can get to within an hour or so. So next up on this list was Miraflores de la Sierra, which is about 40 minutes north of the city of Madrid.

Upon arriving we set off to discover what there was to see in the tiny village, but before getting too far, we came across an old man (clearly a pueblo native) willing to guide the way. He proudly declared what a lovely pueblo it was, how well you could eat there, all while leading us toward the Plaza Mayor. With the arrival of the toasty weather, the plaza was full of children running around and their parents spectating from nearby terrazas. Our new friend carried on explaining to us the many places we could have a good lunch, warning us of those restaurants that were just way too expensive.

Our first stop was lunch at a restaurant that our new friend recommended, Melfi (C/Mayor 19), where we had pimientos rellenos – really only to prove to ourselves that Jacobo’s mom’s are a million times better (recipe coming soon!), although these ones were pretty darn good too! After lunch we took a walk through the historic quarter of the city, visiting its church and just enjoying people watching. It’s always refreshing to immerse yourself in the slow rhythm of pueblo life – grandpas strolling aimlessly through the quiet town, neighbors having impromptu gatherings in the street….and then there’s us, the crazy tall Spaniard with the blond American (nooo, we don’t stand out at all). Nothing beats beautiful weather and a small little town to discover.

Where to next? This week I’m taking a proper road trip up to the province of León, where I’ll be visiting several pueblos (and hopefully even make it up to Oviedo, in Asturias). Also on my calendar in the coming month or so is a trip to Luxembourg in addition to some shepherding in the province of Soria – yes, I’m going to go chase some sheep (I’m unnaturally excited about this)!

April 12, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine

Every two weeks (give or take) for the last couple of years, Jacobo and I have been going to wine tastings at one of our favorite restaurants in Madrid, Rubaiyat. At these tastings we usually try five to six wines, usually all from Spain. Sometimes the wines all come from one bodega or sometimes there is a theme (Riojas, for example), and usually the wine is presented by a sommelier, or an expert from either the bodega or the industry. So I decided that I should share these wines with you since there is so much to discover about Spanish wine, not to mention that you can find many of them in the US at very reasonable prices.

This last week’s tasting was of Gramona wines, a 130 year old bodega located in the Penedès wine region of Barcelona and that is considered the most well known bodega in Spain for cava. What is cava you ask? Well, it’s basically like champagne – the only differences being the place the grapes are grown, the climate, and the grape varietals. The method for making cava, however, is exactly the same as champagne. All of the wines we tried were quite good, my favorite being the fifth – the Gramona Argent. Now let me tease you by telling you about each of them.

    Gessamí 2009. This white wine, made from Muscat, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon blanc grapes, was described as a walk through a garden – the perfect wine for spring. It smells of white flowers and seeded fruit such as apricots. In the mouth there is a balance of sweetness and acidity, which makes it particularly refreshing. This is a wine typically best consumed within a year or so of its vintage.
    Gramona Sauvignon Blanc 2008 has been aged three months in the barrel. It smells of fruit and wood and has a denseness to it that makes it a great pairing with a fatty fish. It would also pair well with shellfish or a salad with tropical fruit. This wine can age up to a couple of years before drinking.
    Gramona Rosado Pinot Noir is a Rosé which has just a tinge of pinkish-brown and is made only using Pinot noir grapes, which is entirely unique to this bodega. It has a strangely familiar scent of sweet red fruit and is creamy in the mouth, with a subtle, light bubble. The wine would pair well with appetizers (think Spanish-style appetizers).
    Gramona Imperial 2006 was voted best cava in Spain for that same year. It smells of toast, cookies, nuts and even a touch of apple and is creamy in the mouth. With its fine bubbles, it is easy to drink. It’s versatile and would go well with lunch or with appetizers.
    Gramona Argent 1998, my favorite, is a cava made with Chardonnay grapes and aged 36 months in the barrel. It’s a wine with more volume in the mouth and flavors of toasted hazelnut (which I love!), bread crust, and pastry. Like the others, it would pair well with appetizers, or in my opinion, nothing at all – I could be perfectly happy drinking it all night long just by itself!
    Vi de gel Gewürztraminer, our final wine, is an ice wine made with 100% Gewürztraminer grapes. An ice wine is a dessert wine made from grapes that are still frozen on the vine. The idea is that the grapes are full of frozen water, but the sugars and other solids remain unfrozen so that when the grapes are pressed you end up with a more concentrated amount of sweet wine. This wine in particular smells of flowers and honey. With a nice balance of sweetness and acidity, it would pair well with a blue cheese, foie gras, or chocolate cake (oh that sounds just horrible doesn’t it!?!!).

Now, don’t you think it’s time to try some Spanish wine?

April 7, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Travels in Spain

After a long, delayed flight back to Spain, I figured what better way to get back into the swing of things than a mini-road trip to Ávila!? So, I arrived in Madrid at about 9am Monday morning, dropped off my bags, freshened up, and headed downtown to pick up a friend’s mother and father-in-law who happened to be in town and eager to see some place new. I am no stranger to Ávila at this point, but as with most of Spain’s charming cities, there’s always more to be discovered and appreciated.

After my GPS mistakenly took us to a deserted looking pueblo (except for a dog laying in the middle of the street that refused to budge at the site of my apparently nonthreatening looking car), we finally ended up in front of the famous walled city. We wandered the city streets, stopping first for yemas de Ávila (the city’s specialty sweet, which is made of sugar and egg yolk and mostly just tastes like….well, sugar).

Ávila is known for its impressive 900+ year old medieval wall which you are actually able to walk on. As we arrived at the entrance to the wall, we realized we had left our treasured yemas at the restaurant. So since I´d walked the wall a time or two I offered to head back to the restaurant and meet my travel companions across town at the opposite end of the wall. Walking the city streets by myself I was able to inconspicuously (I like to pretend I can be inconspicuous with my blond hair and pale white skin!) observe the world of Ávila go by me. Grandma with her groceries, a father enjoying the afternoon with his sons, a grandpa showing his grandson how to paint a watercolor of the wall – or at least these are the stories I made up in my mind, but wouldn’t you too?

The sun was fighting the thinning clouds like I was fighting my heavy eyelids, and with the chilly breeze it could remind me nothing more of San Francisco (but really, a slight incline in a street will remind me of San Francisco…it is where I left my heart, after all). I found my way to the other side of the city as the sun managed to peek through the clouds – my, my that little spot in the sun looked like a great place to take a nap…but before I knew it I spied my guests on top of the wall ready to meet me.

After dropping them off at the train station to head to their next stop, I got back in the car for the long drive home, made especially longer by the fact that I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. Lucky for me though, there was a mix CD full of very nostalgic, fast-paced songs which kept me rocking out and lucid the whole way home (and probably entertaining a lot of my neighbors on the freeway as well). ♫ Video killed the radio star ♪………

April 3, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Traditions

Potaje de garbanzos
There are many Spanish dishes that I’ve fallen in love with since living in Spain, so I have a pretty set list of favorites. What I didn’t expect was to be adding this easy-to-make stew to the list, but it so yummy and healthy that it just knocked my socks off. As usual, Jacob’s mom, a Spanish cuisine expert if there ever was one, taught me how to make this delicious dish.

Potaje refers to the base of the stew which usually is always made with water, flour, onion, garlic and garbanzos. But really you can add a variety of things to it, from different vegetables, to even meat. Often this dish is called “potaje de garbanzos” or even “potaje de vigilia” (meaning potaje of abstinence or vigil) as it is typically made without meat and during lent to be eaten on Fridays – a time when the Catholics do not eat meat. It’s a hardy, healthy dish that is especially perfect for the cold days of winter (and apparently the cold, early days of Spring as well!). Even better, like most all stews, it keeps well and tastes more delicious with each day!

    500g dried garbanzo beans
    1 onion
    2 bags (10 oz) of frozen chopped spinach
    Cod (optional)
    2 hard-boiled eggs
    A few cloves of garlic
    A couple large spoonfuls of flour
    Olive oil

First, it’s important to note that the quantities above are approximate. When Jacob’s mom cooks, she uses a little of this, a lot of that, and very rarely a specific amount. So feel free to alter these quantities, as they are just estimations.

The day/night before making your stew you’ll want to soak your garbanzos in hot water (must be hot and not cold!). Be sure to cover them thoroughly with water as they will expand and grow, and be sure to use a large pot as this will be the pot you use for your stew. If you decide to use cod, which usually comes salted in Spain, you will also want to put the cod in cold water the night before in order to extract some of the salt and return moisture to the cod (I’m truly ignorant as to how cod is sold in the States – this process would not be necessary if the cod is not salted). You may also want to hard-boil your eggs so that they are ready for the next day.

The next day, when you’re ready to make your dish, your first step will be to dice your onion and chop a few cloves of garlic. Then you will want to saute these in ample olive oil (at least enough to cover the bottom of your frying pan), as you will also use this oil for the potaje.

Once the onions and garlic are golden, you will want to start adding the flour to the same frying pan. During this process, you’ll want the oil to be warm, but not super hot (as it could burn the flour). Be sure that you mix in the flour well so that there are no remaining chunks. Once it is fully mixed in, add some dashes of paprika and mix thoroughly.

Now you’re ready to combine your mixture with the pot of DRAINED garbanzos (that you’ve let sit over night). After everything is well mixed, you will want to add HOT water – enough to cover the garbanzos, and then some. Stir your mixture and add salt to taste. Once it has sufficient salt, you’ll want to cook your stew – if you have a pressure cooker, you’ll cook it for about 35 minutes. If you don’t and you’re just cooking it in a regular pot, then it will take about an hour and half, and you will just need to taste it regularly to see if your garbanzos are cooked (softened, but still slightly firm).

While your stew is cooking, you can prepare your spinach by draining it of any water and then cutting it into smaller pieces, if necessary. You will also want to do the same with the cod so that it is in very small chunks. Set these ingredients aside while you remove the hard boiled eggs from their shells, and chop the eggs up into small pieces.

Once your stew is done cooking (your garbanzos are softened, but firm), turn off the heat so that your stew stops boiling. It is important to note that once you stop boiling your garbanzos, they will stop cooking (and not get any softer), so if you decide during this process, and before the garbanzos are finished, that you need more broth/water in your stew, then be sure to add only boiling water. At this point, by allowing your stew to stop boiling you will maintain the firmness of your garbanzos while you cook your stew further (with the spinach, fish and eggs).

Once your stew has stopped boiling and cooled, turn the heat back on so that you may add and cook your spinach and cod. You will want to let them cook for about 10 or 15 minutes before finally adding your chopped hard-boiled egg. Don’t forget to continue to taste your stew to ensure it has the right amount of salt (if it has too much, just add more water).

Now your stew should be ready. Hopefully warm weather is right around the corner so that we can replace this yummy potaje with some refreshing gazpacho!