May 25, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Traditions, Travel, Travels in Spain

After an hour and a half drive north of Madrid that ended with a long trek on a one lane dirt road, we found ourselves out where Jesus lost his keys (one of many Spanish sayings to describe that you are in the middle of nowhere). We would soon find that it was just us, two shepherds, some 400 sheep, nearly 50 goats, and a handful of dogs.

Our first stop was the corral where we were greeted by around 30 or so one-month-old lambs. Our 21-year-old shepherd and guide, Miguel, explained to us that he was one of the rare few that both owns and herds his over 1000 sheep. Putting in 16- to 20-hour days, this job appeared to be a true labor of love.

The lambs were skittish and pranced about every time they detected the slightest movement on our part (well, and it probably didn’t help that each time one came near me, I lunged after it in an apparently uncontrollable reflex to pet and play with the cute little things). With one swift grab, though, Miguel swooped up a lamb and placed her comfortably in my arms, where she nestled in as if her previous fear had completely disappeared. She was soft and cuddly, just like a little puppy…until one of her playmates went scurrying by, at which point she started bah-hing wildly to let me know that our cuddling session was over.

Jacobo and I still hadn’t asked the burning question and didn’t really have any intention to – what were these sheep being raised for?? Hoping to get the answer we were looking for (you know, the one where the sheep live long happy lives and die of old age), we danced around the subject asking if they used the sheep for their wool. No no, explained Miguel, it just wasn’t profitable. Apparently the price for wool is less than the cost to have the sheep shaved. OK, so perhaps these little guys were used for milk – a reasonable conclusion considering all of the amazing sheep’s milk cheese that you can find in Spain! With that, Jacobo cautiously ventured on, mentioning that surely the sheep were used for milk. Miguel cut straight to the chase, as if to tell us that the guessing game were over – “we raise them for the meat.” Ouch. That one stung. Apparently the milk route was also very costly, requiring the entire herd to stop in order to be milked.

As we left the corral, my mind was racing as to how I could fit as many lambs as possible into our car. Before I had time to develop a solid strategy, though, we were on our way down the road to visit the larger sheep that were already en route, grazing the land. Seeing those much more sizable creatures quickly shifted whatever strategy I could have ever mustered up. These things were huge! OK, so once full grown, at least three sheep could fit on our balcony….
Heading out to the main herd, we could hear the both calming and deafening drum of sheep bells as the furry animals nibbled at the land. It was there that we were met by Miguel’s brother who was equipped with his shepherd stick and a slew of satchels crossing his chest, one of which, he later explained to us, could be used to hold a baby lamb should it be born while herding. Also, did you know that the shepherd stick (apparently called a “crook”) is much more than just a walking stick? The hook is actually used to grab the lambs by their necks (gently, por favor!!)!

It was time to move the pack of animals to the next pasture, so with a whistle and several shouts of indiscernible words, Miguel’s little dog was off like a race horse, rounding up the sheep. “Es pequeña todavia,” Miguel told us, “she’s still small.” At only nine months old, the pup was still learning. When it came time to circle round the sheep, she simply darted toward the back of the herd before heading straight back to her owner. It seemed like an effective enough technique to me considering that all of the sheep set off on a stampede in my direction (see action shot above).

Anabel, Milagros, Madrileña, Numantina – many of these lovable critters seemed to have names. Numantina, a pregnant, tan-colored goat, took quite the liking to Jacobo and me, following us around and headbutting any little lamb that dared to compete for our attention. Then there was Milagros, the sheep who, when she was young, disappeared for a couple of days before being found, thus earning her name which means miracles. Meanwhile, Miguel was eager to show us his prized little black lamb, shouting “Anabel” across the herd and waiting for her to immerse amidst the wall of sheep. My first thought was how can you adore these animals enough to give them names, and then sell them only to be, well, you know… Miguel explained that he keeps his favorites, so I suppose that means that little Anabel will live a long, happy sheep-life in the Spanish countryside. This gave me a little comfort, but only a little.

We spent the remainder of our time in the open pastures learning the ins and outs of shepherding, feeding the sheep and even milking them. Then, before heading home, we stopped in the nearby Roman pueblo Medinaceli (a required stop if you’re in the region!) to have lunch. I’m still actually contemplating heading back and sheep-napping Numantina. I’m just not so sure that herding her between our balcony and kitchen will measure up to her days of grazing the rolling hills of Spain.

On a related note, I never did come across Jesus’s keys.

*To see pictures from my trip, be sure to join the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page
**For more information on being a shepherd for a day please visit Pastores por un Dia

May 20, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Madrid, Travel, Travels in Spain

It was last weekend that I waited in the abnormally chilly Madrid weather for my casi-suegra (almost mother-in-law) to meet me in downtown Madrid. I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place, so I called her and was met with her quivering voice which was barely audible on the other end of the line. My first thought was that my Spanish was getting a little rusty, but in reality, I knew something wasn’t quite right with her.

Gran Vía

Five minutes later, my casi-suegra showed up, pale and shaken. On the verge of tears, she explained to me that while in a shop making a purchase, someone came in and simply ripped her wallet right out of her hands. Just like that. I started having flashbacks of my first memory of Madrid when I was only seven years old and my grandmother had returned from a trip to Spain and recounted the story of how someone had robbed her on the Gran Vía (Madrid’s busiest, most touristy, and consequently probably most theft-ridden street). For the next nearly 20 years of my life, Madrid remained in my mind as the place where people stole wallets from innocent grandmas.

Whether it’s pickpocketing, stealing a purse from someone’s side in broad daylight, breaking into cars, or even houses – burglary is alive and well in this country. The fact that the country is playing defense is evident in the abundance of steering wheel locks in cars and bars on every set of first floor windows from here to eternity. Why this is the case is indeed another story, but in a nut shell, the punitive system here for theft (along with pretty much everything else) is far too weak.

So what does this mean for you the tourist? How does one avoid being a victim? I’m pretty sure this blog post is going to jinx me, but I can proudly say that I have never been robbed here. Yes, me the Starbucks-coffee-cup-carrying American (as a Spanish fellow at the market so gracefully pointed out the other day) has somehow managed to not have “victim” written on my forehead. Maybe this is luck, but I’d like to believe that there are a couple of ways to avoid the fate of my casi-suegra and grandma. Perhaps some of these rules seem obvious, but I think they are worth elaborating on (particularly considering the number of tourists I see NOT abiding by them).

    1. Don’t let your guard down: I believe the main distinction between getting robbed and not getting robbed (aside from hanging out in dark alleys by yourself – but this falls under the category of “duh”) is not being so overly comfortable in your surroundings that you think you are in Anytown, USA and not Madrid, Spain. Always be aware of what is happening around you. Which brings me to my next point….

    2. Pretend like you know what you’re doing, even when you don’t: You always have to look more or less like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Standing on a street corner with your nose buried in a map says nothing other than “I’m confused, lost and paying attention to nothing. Please take my stuff!”

    3. Hold on tight to your items at all times: Always make sure you’ve got a secure grasp on all your goods. I’m not saying you should unearth your fanny-pack or anything, but be smart about how you keep track of your items. Ladies, this means NOT hanging your purses on the back of your chairs, or setting them beneath either – in touristy areas, burglars will take it right from you without a care in the world whether anyone sees. The best place for your purse is in your lap.

    4. Beware of strange distractions: If someone does something really peculiar to distract you, whether it’s a small child tugging at your shirt, or someone giving you a hefty shove, be aware that this may be an effort to distract you so that you let your guard down (and therefore don’t notice that someone has their hand in your pocket and is robbing you blind!).

If something does happen, you can report it at the Comisaría de Policía or call 091 from any Spanish phone (it should be free from a pay phone). On a lighter note, both my casi-suegra (when she’s sadly had her wallet stolen in the past) and my grandma have received their wallets back in the mail (minus the money and credit cards of course). The Spanish government may not be hard on theft, but when they receive a stolen wallet, they’re apparently diligent about returning it to the owner!

Now certainly Spain isn’t the only place that you should be concerned with in terms of travel safety. For this reason, a bunch of us Lonely Planet Bloggers have come together to share our international travel expertise by creating a blog carnival around how to travel safely. This blog carnival will take place this Monday, May 24th and will be followed by future carnivals focusing on a different subject each time. Come join us for the ride!

Ok, with that I’m going to go try my luck and see if I don’t get robbed for the first time.

May 18, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Traditions

Some people are born just knowing they want to be a doctor, others might be certain they’re destined to be a chef, but then there are some Spaniards who grow up just knowing that they would be darn good tree shakers – vareadores that is. In getting to know the Spanish culture, I’ve been blown away and charmed by some of the uniquely Spanish professions here – jobs that tell you so much about where the country has come from and what they’ve valued through the course of time. Sure many of these professions can be found across cultures, but the combination of them sure gives you a clear picture of what this place is all about.

The Panadero
First there is the panadero – the bread man. Who’s not happy to see the bread man, am I right? The panadero is an expert in the craft of bread and even pastries (a true hero if you ask me). Given the importance of bread in the Spaniard’s daily diet (and mine too), many panaderos, like the extinct milkman, deliver bread to people’s homes every day. In fact, when Jacobo was young, his mother would leave a form on the door everyday letting the panadero know how many baguettes to leave. Even these days, I will occasionally see a bag of bread hanging on my neighbors’ doors (just teasing me to take some).

The Vareador
I have to throw in this job, the tree shaker, because it seems like it could have been particularly fascinating back in the day (pre-machine, that is), and well because the video below somehow makes it seem especially awesome. This tree shaker fellow could be tasked with shaking many different kinds of trees, from olive trees, to even oak trees so that the hungry little piggies can chow down on acorns. Apparently, this profession used to entail shaking the trees with sticks (or so says Jacobo), but these days, it seems to involve a peculiar contraption that nearly tickles the tree to death (see video!). I can just imagine myself spending my days with my stick out in the fields shaking trees and then resting under them while I hang out with my pig friends. This is usually where my daydreaming stops though – when I realize that I like to eat my pig friends and that there is a slight conflict of interest. Somehow daydreaming about being a panadera seems a lot more “digestible.” Anyway, I couldn’t find any sort of proper history on this interesting, and yet at the same time incredibly un-interesting job, so with that it will just remain in my imagination as the man with the stick shaking trees in the countryside (oh yeah, and then this clown below too – “Sr. Vareador Profesional”).

The Mariscadora
I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t toyed with the idea of applying for the position of mariscadora – or awesome shellfish digger lady (sorry, it’s the best translation I can come up with). Sign me up – sun, beaches, and working hard for the money! Ok, not exactly. The mariscadora is a job filled by the women of Galicia, Spain’s northwestern province, and it isn’t any walk in the park (err, beach). It’s a laborious task, one which is often passed down from generation to generation, and that requires spending early hours in Galicia’s frequently inclement weather, not to mention lots of staring at muck and rocks hunting for those precious shellfish. On that note, I think I will just stick to eating the shellfish – but cheers to the hardworking mariscadoras!

The Venenciador
With his “venencia” (a wine serving tool), the venenciador extracts wine from the barrel and pours it into the glass from a great height (Benihana-style) in order to oxygenate the wine. Apparently this job, which is considered an art here, originated from the fact that historically, agreements on the purchase of wine were celebrated in the bodegas by extracting wine from the barrels to have a toast. This extraction was of course done by the venenciador, who I assume spends less time these days in the bodegas toasting wine deals, and more time entertaining easily amused onlookers like me at weddings and other events. Hey, it can’t be a bad job when people only admire your work more and more with every pour!

The Afilador
I think I might be saving one of my favorites for last, but really, who doesn’t adore the antiquity of each of these jobs? The afilador is a knife sharpener – but don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this task! You don’t just bring your knives to the afilador, oh no, he comes to you. And when he comes to you, he doesn’t simply park out front and then knock on your front door – he takes what I call a modified ice cream man approach (or maybe the ice cream man took a modified afilador approach…hmmm). That is, he has his own musical sound track that is delivered by his handy harmonica thingy (I know, my descriptive language is mind-blowing). And as if this all weren’t enough, he comes on a motorbike which has his knife sharpening machine built on back. If I weren’t certain that I’d end up chopping off a finger, then well, this might be the darn coolest job ever, largely because it’s just so weirdly charming.

My search for awesome Spanish jobs continues, so to that end, I myself am off to play pastora, or shepherd, this weekend. Yes, I will be running around chasing after sheep in the Spanish countryside. Stay tuned….

May 13, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine

So, you think you know what pimientos rellenos are? If you’ve only tried them in the US, then please forget everything you know about them as the Spanish version is in a league of its own. Growing up in California I’d tried them a million times but never was a big fan, so when I moved to Spain, I approached them with the same enthusiasm – “thanks, but no thanks.” Somehow though, I eventually tried them and realized they literally had nothing in common with what I’d tried in the past, except for the pimiento I suppose. Now they are one of my very favorite Spanish foods and a plate that I begged my soon-to-be mother-in-law to teach me how to make. You’re in for a real treat on this one folks!

In Spain, you can find the pimientos served many different ways, but my favorite version is pimientos stuffed with bechamel – yes, the same delicious, magical, creamy stuff that croquetas are made of. Just as with croquetas, the bechamel used for the pimientos can be made with virtually any type of flavor/ingredient – shrimp, jamon, chicken, cod or even mushrooms.

If you see the croqueta recipe on my site, you can learn how to make the bechamel with chicken and jamon, but this time, we’re going to learn how to make it with shrimp and monkfish. As usual, quantities here are not exact – the idea is to achieve the right consistency, so you’ll have to be brave with the amounts you choose to use. Also, note that the recipe below is for a lot of pimientos (so that you can reserve and freeze them), so obviously, if you want to make a lot less, modify the quantities substantially. Let’s get started – here’s what you’ll need:

    Shrimp in their shells (plan for about 1/2 cup shrimp once peeled)
    Fillet of monkfish
    7+/- heaping spoonfuls of flour
    30 pimientos del piquillo (you can find these jarred at the grocery store – and for sure at Whole Foods)
    One large onion
    1 carton of Tomate frito (which Heinz apparently sells in the US)
    4 cups 2% milk
    1/2 cup red wine (well, a whole bottle would be nice, then you can have a couple glasses while cooking!)
    1 egg
    Olive oil
    White pepper

The bechamel
In a medium sized pot, add a fillet of monkfish to boiling water. Once it has cooked for a few minutes, add your shrimp (with their shells!). The shrimp will cook quickly, so you will want to remove them just after a minute or so. Remove the shrimp, leaving the monkfish to cook until it’s fully cooked but still soft – once complete, remove from the water, leaving the water boiling (you will use this water to create your broth).

Now you will want to remove the shrimp from their shells and throw the shells back into the boiling water (heads and all – the Spaniards will always tell you that the heads are the best and most flavorful part!). Let the shells continue to boil in the water while you break the monkfish and peeled shrimp into smaller pieces (once done, set aside). Meanwhile, fill a small pan with milk and turn on medium heat.

After the shells have been boiling for about 15 minutes, you will want reserve your broth by pouring it through a strainer. To extract the maximum flavor, mash the shells into the strainer so that all the flavor and juices are completely removed.

In a medium pot, add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot sufficiently. Now heat it up (not too hot). Once warmed start adding your flour one spoonful at a time (plan for about 6 large spoonfuls, but it could easily be more or less depending on the amount of oil you use) – the flour should sizzle, but not so intensely that it burns. You will want to stir the flour until it reaches a pasta or dough-like consistency.

While doing this, if you see that the milk is starting to heat up sufficiently (the top is curdling), turn off the heat.

Now you will want to start adding your milk, using a strainer to remove any of the cream that has accumulated on top. The objective is for your bechamel to achieve a mashed-potato-like consistency, so before you reach that point, start adding some of your fish broth (reserve some of your fish broth for the sauce). If you ever feel like your bechamel is too soft, you can add more flour. Note that how much milk and broth you end up using will depend on the consistency of the bechamel.

Once you’ve achieved the ideal consistency, add a little bit of nutmeg, salt and white pepper, and then finally the shrimp and monkfish. Stir and then test to see if it needs more salt. Now your bechamel is done and you will want to set it aside (likely in the refrigerator) to cool while you prepare your pimientos.
Gambas and monkfish

The pimientos
The amount of pimientos you need will depend on the amount of bechamel you’ve made. Start by removing the pimientos from their container, reserving the container liquid for later use. When removing the pimientos, be sure to extract the extra liquid with your fingers, adding the liquid to the other reserved container liquid. Lay out your pimientos side by side so that they are ready to be filled. With your cooled bechamel, you will want to begin filling your pimientos fully (if you have leftover bechamel – use it to make croquetas!).

Meanwhile, fill a deep pan with oil (preferably olive oil) and heat it up on high. Separately, fill a plate with flour. Also, beat one egg and reserve it in a bowl.

Once your pimientos are all stuffed and the oil is heated, you will want to roll your pimientos first in the flour and then in the egg. The next step will be to add them to the oil, but try to have several floured and egged pimientos completed before adding them to the oil so that they are all cooking for about an equal amount of time. Once in the oil, you will want to turn them regularly until they reach a dark golden brown color. When they achieve this color, remove them from the oil and set them aside on a paper towel to drain. After you’ve completed all of them, you will want to place them side by side in a large dish (or multiple dishes) to prepare them for the sauce and finally the oven.

The sauce
In a large pan you will want to begin sauteing your diced onions and also one chopped garlic clove. While it’s cooking, add one heaping spoonful of flour and mix in thoroughly. When your onion is cooked, you will add a cup of fish broth followed by tomate frito, the remaining liquid from the pimientos and a half cup of red wine. Stir and let cook until your sauce has reached a thick, smooth consistency. Once your sauce has thickened, you will pass it through a strainer in order to remove the pieces of onion and garlic so that you are left with a smooth sauce (although, I admittedly don’t see anything half bad about a chunky sauce).

When your sauce is done, just cover your dish of pimientos fully with it. Then you must put your dish in the oven at a very high heat for about 15 minutes so that your sauce thickens even more and almost becomes crispy on top.

Now you can be a pimiento relleno lover just like me. Sadly, though, the Mexican pimientos rellenos will never be able to compete – lo siento.

May 9, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Travel

The last few months have been a bit crazy as I’ve gone from chronicling my travels for a handful of family and friends, to becoming a very public travel blogger – taking my blog from an itty bitty “Made by Mac” site, to the much fancier world of La Tortuga Viajera. In doing this, I have had the incredible honor of joining some of the world’s best travel bloggers in being featured on Lonely Planet. So now I feel as though I’m embarking on a joint world travel experience with the best of the best when it comes to sharing my adventures and taking you all along for the ride.

To that end, us Lonely Planet Bloggers have recently banded together on a slew of projects from our separate and ever changing corners of the earth. Our most recent effort has been to compile a live feed of our blogs in one place so that you the reader can sit back, relax and travel the world from wherever you may be.

So, with that, let the journey begin! World Travel with the Lonely Planet Bloggers.

Buen viaje amigos – happy travels!