October 24, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Spain, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Spain

I scarf down one, two, who knows maybe ten pinchos, and think to myself, what’s this you say about running of the bulls? Ah, right, Pamplona is known for that yearly week of runs in which hulligans from around the world try their hand at playing one-sided tag with angry bulls. But golly, with my own town’s fabulous and exhilarating running of the bulls, who needs Pamplona? Well, I do now, but not because of those silly bulls.

Back to the pinchos and my unrelenting appetite for Spanish cuisine. Pinchos, or pintxos as they are spelled in Basque, aren’t just a type of food, but a whole new eating experience. Similar to going out for tapas, going out for pinchos requires one to hop from bar to bar, sampling the food and a glass of wine or beer along the way. Pinchos are a Basque concept, and while Pamplona is in the region of Navarra, not Basque Country, there is a lot of overlap. Many areas of Navarra (particularly the northwest) are predominantly Basque-speaking and have a great deal of Basque influence, while other parts of the region are a mixture, and then the rest is more or less entirely “Spanish” (which I put in quotes given the Basque vs. Spain controversy – yet again, a subject requiring a different blog).

The pinchos themselves are appetizer-sized portions, almost always served on or with a small slice of bread. At a pinchos bar, one doesn’t sit down, crack open a menu and call the waiter over, however. Oh no, it is nothing as glamorous as this. Remember the last time you went to a crowded bar and had to shimmy your way up past the barricade of people in order to capture the bartender’s attention? (I realize this may be a more distant memory for some of us. Love you Grandma!) Well, if you’re in a good pinchos bar, then it indeed resembles this experience, although with better lighting, fewer inebriated 20-year-olds, and a much better payoff – both a drink and something to satiate your growing hunger! If you are lucky enough to secure a spot at the bar (a feat accomplished by carefully analyzing which bar-dwellers are closest to departing), you will be able to peruse the vast display of delicacies sprawled out in front of you and just start ordering away. After trying a couple, it’s time to pop over to the next spot where you can once again release your passion for pinchos by elbowing your way to the bar. If you fancy a trip to Pamplona (for the pinchos, of course – who cares about those bulls), my best advice to you when pinchos hopping is to start at Bar Gaucho (our favorite) and then just keep skipping around from bar to bar looking for those that are the busiest, and therefore most likely to have the best pinchos!

Don’t get me wrong, there is more to this city than just pinchos and bulls. The occasionally hilly city streets are filled with colorful homes that, surprise, remind me of San Francisco! Pamplona is also quite well known for one of its very famous American visitors, Ernest Hemingway, who made many trips to the city, immersing himself in Spanish culture. His legacy there is an important one as he essentially helped to raise the city’s fame to an international level, particularly with his first successful novel The Sun Also Rises (which I admittedly have yet to tackle!). Tributes to him are evident throughout the city, including where we stayed, Hotel La Perla, a hotel once host to the Nobel Prize-winning author.

I realize I’ve been quite cruel with all this talk of Pamplona and pinchos, so in an effort to tease you just that much more, I’ve posted a boatload of pincho pictures (among others) on the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page. Once again I take you on a calorie-less journey through Spanish cuisine! You can thank me later ;).

October 15, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

I’ve quickly begun to run out of top Spanish spots to see – you name the place, and I’ve probably been there. However, if you can name the place and I haven’t been there, then you can bet your bottom dollar that spot will head straight to the top of my list of sites to see! So this is why such a world famous place such as Pamplona and its region Navarra had been nagging at me – because I simply hadn’t been there, until last weekend, that is.

We set off on our four-day road trip last Saturday with Pamplona as our destination, along with a slew of pueblos. The community of Navarra, where Pamplona is located, sits right up against the French border, nestled between Basque Country, La Rioja and Aragón. The region is especially known for its amazing vegetables, but serves up loads of other yummy things as well (wine, meat, you name it). Our first stop was Tudela, a city known historically for its converging cultures – the Arabs turned it into an urban epicenter and ran the show until it was conquered by Alfonso I el Batallador (literally meaning “The Fighter”) in 1119, at which time Christians, Jews and Arabs all coexisted together until four centuries later when…well….that’s another Spanish story and a different blog altogether. Tudela would also be a place that I’d later remember as having some of the friendliest people I’d met in a long time, and quite simply for the abundance of red peppers hanging from people’s windows. Say what? Yep, in Navarra (and Basque Country), it is common to see people hanging the many varieties of local red peppers from their windows. Now don’t get confused though folks – these are not used to make food spicy! Spanish food still has practically nothing to do with Mexican (or Latin American) food no matter how perplexed you might be after seeing these hanging peppers. The spicy veggie is indeed used in some Spanish dishes, but only to give it just the slightest kick – a kick most of us would never classify as spicy.

As with any other pueblo, this one of course met all of my usual “cute Spanish pueblo” requirements – winding, narrow streets, flower-filled window boxes and cute little Spanish grandpas (including this fellow to the left who’s wearing what is called a “chapela” – a hat typically worn by Basque grandpas). So far, so good. Being the good tourists that we are, we stopped at Tudela’s 800-year-old cathedral, the city’s Museum of Modern Art and the Plaza Mayor – all the usual spots, which sure, they were interesting, but we don’t go to these places to see just “interesting.” We happened upon our fourth “interesting” spot, a humble 15th century palace (Palacio del Marqués de San Adrián), which was actually free to enter, thereby making it “very interesting.” As if its free-ness weren’t appealing enough already, we encountered our first abnormally friendly Tudelana – a petite, formally dressed, older lady who greeted us as we entered the entirely vacant palace. Eager for the company, I suppose, she enthusiastically offered to give us a tour – a tour in which she carefully explained to us every last detail of the place from its open air interior patio where visitors once tied up their horses, to the walls of painted women created to depict the virtues of the palace owner’s wife (note to self: must scope out spot in house for Jacobo to artistically depict my virtues….hey, stop laughing at my virtues!).

Aimlessly wondering the city streets, as I typically like to do, we happened upon a man in his workshop, engulfed in some unknown creation. Always eager to know about what happens beyond the tourist’s eyes, I came to an immediate halt, took a couple of steps back to peak in, and of course dragged Jacobo along with me (poor guy constantly has to humor my overly curious mind!). The old man, perched on his short ladder, looked up from behind his lopsided glasses and gestured for us to come in, where sprawled out in front of him were the makings of a miniature church model. He enthusiastically began to explain his creation, which was modeled after a local church, emphasizing that he made every last piece himself and had not speared any of the original building’s details. He did this all while simultaneously and insistently mounting together every hidden away piece of the model – from its mountain scenery background, to the interior church lighting, the miniature artisanal bake sale full of Spanish donuts and local pastries, and finally the church bell sound effects (which he proceeded to let loudly chime for several minutes as we screamed at each other about how LOVELY HIS CREATION WAS). This guy wasn’t fooling around. “Here is the pew bench and a person praying!” he declared proudly with a twinkle in his eye. Just when Jacobo and I thought we couldn’t possibly be any more tickled by this man’s gumption, he actually offered to take us to the very church of which he made the model. Never ones to turn down such an obviously awesome opportunity, we gave each other quick nod, and leapt at the chance to spend more time with this curious fellow.

Moments later we delicately squeezed our way into his ancient car, which was blanketed with layers of age-old dust both inside and out. Given that Navarra is vegetable country, I suppose we were only half surprised when we discovered a fresh, full-grown zucchini peeking out of the car’s backseat side pocket. The story of where that zucchini came from, how it got there, and where it was going is one that could certainly entertain me for days – unfortunately, we didn’t have the cojones to start interrogating him about the mystery-backseat-zucchini (I have made up my own set of charming theories though – I’ll spare you).

Arriving at the church, Barni (short for Bernardino), took us on a small tour of the property. Indeed, his mini church model seemed to have spared no detail – not the uniquely placed crosses on the walls of the sanctuary, nor the color of the barking dog that followed us relentlessly around the church property (and thank goodness he didn’t decide to add that cringing sound effect to the already over-the-top church bell). We stopped briefly to chat it up with the toothless church caretaker who sat lazily on a stone bench with a worn out sofa-less cushion, just watching the world go by. Our new buddy Barni then drove us back to the town where we would continue our aimless passage in the friendly, pepper-filled pueblo of Tudela.

One stop down, many more to go – specifically Pamplona. Rather than bombard you with my fascinating tales all at once, however, I’ll keep you in suspense for the next round.

By the way, if anyone wants a miniature version of their house made (and who doesn’t!?), I know just the man for the job! Everything in Spain already seems miniature to me (hey, I’m from the US!), so for me this won’t be necessary.

*If you would like to see pictures from the trip, I’ll be posting them soon on Facebook.

October 5, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain, Traditions

For me, one of the critical components of any culture, particularly Spanish culture, is its cuisine.  You can visit historic places and read age-old tales, but to eat a dish that has been passed down for generations and eaten by the rich and poor both in good times and bad (apparently I haven’t left the whole wedding thing behind me, have I?) is the ultimate cultural experience.  You may not be able to take the Alhambra with you back to your little corner of the world, but you most definitely can try to whip up a mean batch of gazpacho, thus transporting yourself, even just slightly, back to a scorching hot day in Andalucia.  This is what food is about to me.  So that is why I would like to take you on a little journey to experience an afternoon with a very well-loved Spanish dish – paella.  It famously originates from the Valencia region of Spain, can be cooked probably a million different ways, and made its formal debut as an official dish sometime during the 18th century.

Last weekend Jacobo and I headed to our friends Manu and Natalia’s house about 20 minutes north of Madrid on what was proving to be a perfect, sunny Autumn day.  It had been two whole years since we’d last had Manu’s paella, but our obsession with it was not forgotten – I was in fact so desperate for it that I bartered with Manu in order to get him to make it, offering my banana bread in return for his paella (a weak trade, I know, but he bought it!  Sucker!).  You see, Manu’s paella isn’t just served to you at a formal dinner table, but instead cooked slowly in his yard, all afternoon long, while the guests can see the ricey wonder transform into paella, and at the same time nosh on tapas as they throw back glass after glass of almost always delicious Spanish wine.

Arriving at Manu’s, the first line of business was pine cones.  Yes, pine cones.  Cooking the paella over them not only gives it great flavor, but the cones allow you to control the heat easily by adding more or by spreading them apart.  Nothing gets you in the mood for a good paella like working up some hunger while pine cone hunting.  Ok, who am I fooling, the hunting was brief, like five minutes amongst a small grove of trees on the side of the road, but does one really need to work very hard to build up a hunger for paella??  No? That’s what I thought.

Back at the house, Manu prepped the broth for the paella in the kitchen by filling a large pot with water, then adding paellero seasoning (a premix of paella spices – the key spice being saffron), chicken broth cubes, a whole tomato and a whole onion.  Done with his work there, he turned on the stove heat to high and headed out to the yard where the real work began (and consequently where my real work began – sampling the tapas and wine of course! A rough job, but I didn’t want to be rude and not express my appreciation for the fine appetizers).

Out in the yard, the table was set with care – and by care I mean all the essentials were present: jamón, manchego cheese, bread, potato chips (not an essential for me, but strangely enough a tapas essential in most all Spanish households), and white wine (to be followed by two other red wines).  Meanwhile, Manu prepped the BBQ with a few pine cones, lighting them on fire and placing the paellera, or paella pan, on top of the rack.  First into the pan was a touch of olive oil and four whole cloves of garlic, which he cooked until browned.  While the garlic was cooking, he chopped up a bit of tomato, and a quarter or so each of the green and red bell peppers.  Once removing the garlic from the pan and setting it aside, in went the tomato and peppers, sizzling away.

While the pepper and tomato cooked, our paella chef chopped up the pig ribs (something I could admittedly live without – I’m still working on my love of pig) and chicken (bones and all), and then mashed up the browned garlic.  After the tomato and pepper had done their time in the paellera, it was the pig’s turn (as apparently it takes the longest to cook) along with the mashed garlic.  Before too long, the sausage was added, and then finally the chopped chicken.  The smell of the intermingling ingredients and the crackling pine cones was intoxicating.

Meanwhile, the broth was merrily boiling away in the kitchen, just waiting for showtime.  So after all the meats had cooked for a bit, it was time to add that broth to the paellera so that it could boil, slurp and pop its way to perfection.  For how long you ask?  Good question, and one that I posed to Manu.  The response, “oh you know, as long as I feel like.”

You’re probably starting to wonder about that key ingredient aren’t you?  The rice!  Not just any rice though – it should ideally be Spanish paella rice as it is especially absorbent and therefore sucks up all of the mouth watering flavors.  There are two important things to keep in mind at this point:  1) don’t add too much rice – a good paella is one that has a very thin layer of rice, which ensures that it is evenly cooked, and 2) once you add the rice, no stirring as nothing makes a Spaniard more happy than the slightly crispy, almost burnt rice that is stuck to the bottom of the paellera. This crusty layer of rice is called socarrat and is indeed the most coveted part of the paella – the part which the server will laboriously scrape at so that you can have that crunchy goodness on your plate. 

Around 4:30PM, the rice had finally absorbed all of the broth, and lunch (yes, lunch!) was ready to be served.  Manu’s masterpiece had a smoky flavor and perfectly crusted bottom – I can hardly write this without contemplating heading to the kitchen to feverishly find a spoonful of saffron just calm my nerves! Mixed with a glass of wine (eh hem, or several) and the mildly warm weather, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect Spanish afternoon.  A big thanks to Manu and Natalia for making it all happen!

So brave Spanish Cuisine Chef (yeah, that’s you!), are you ambitious enough to take an imaginary journey to the Spanish countryside and try your hand at making paella?  If so, I’ve included the list of ingredients below (albeit in fairly loose quantities, but you’re adventurous, so who cares!?).  In the meantime, though, since I’ve got you all worked up into a Spanish food tizzy (I know, it was rather cruel wasn’t it?), perhaps you’d like to go grab a snack and cozy up for a little journey through food around the world!  It’s the subject of the latest blog carnival by the Lonely Planet BlogSherpas, which is hosted by Tie Dye Travels.  It’s calorie free, so why not?

Paella ingredients:

    2 tomatoes
    1 onion
    1/4 of 1 green bell pepper
    1/4 of 1 red bell pepper
    Paella spices such as saffron, paprika, thyme and garlic (or just use “paellero” if you can find it)
    4-5 cloves of garlic
    Chicken broth cubes
    Spanish paella rice
    Pig ribs
    Sausage (ideally chistorra)
    Olive oil
    Pine cones!!
    *Note that you can find various Spanish products, such as the Spanish rice or paella pan, at La Tienda