March 30, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Spain, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Spain, Video

Because words can’t really capture the spectacle that is Fallas, I’ve put together the below video. To read more about Las Fallas and my great “unexpectations,” check out this week’s blog post, which is being featured on Gogobot.

If you are having trouble viewing this video, please click here.

March 24, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Spain

I went to Valencia last weekend to experience Spain’s famous fire-filled festival – Las Fallas. Forget Fallas, though – the fire part anyway. I think there are more important subjects to discuss here, like the abundance of churros con chocolate. You knew I’d find a way to make this about the food, didn’t you?

Us Americans (or Californians at least) have grown up with some version of the Mexican churro – that crispy but chewy fried stick of dough rolled in layers of cinnamon and sugar. Sure, those are pretty darn good, but they aren’t the churros I’m talking about here. Spanish churros, like their Mexican counterparts, are also made of fried batter, but are instead shaped like a looped raindrop. And while they don’t come with a dousing of sugar, they do come with a side of hot chocolate, which, let’s be honest, totally beats those amateur wannabes that we eat in the US. The hot chocolate is a treat unto itself – it’s dense and somehow light (to taste anyway), and ready to be dipped, drank or downed.

So what has this got to do with Valencia and Las Fallas? Well, it just so happens that during this festival (and many of Spain’s festivals for that matter), Valencia converts into a churros and chocolate wonderland. Halelueia! For every falla (the structures errected throughout the city and burned at the week’s end), there certainly must be at least one or two churros stands just ready and waiting to serve the hungry (translation: drunk) masses at all hours of the day.

These stands don’t just stop at serving the typical churros and hot chocolate – they also tempt us with their chocolate covered churros, and ginormous churro-y tubes stuffed with something (who cares what, really) and then topped off with sprinkles (SOLD!). Then there are the porras – a fatter, less attractive version of the churro, but equally delicious.

It turns out that the already over-the-top selection of sweets mentioned above just isn’t quite enough for this festival of flames, fireworks and apparently fried foods. There is one more detail you might notice at these stands – it’s the hanging pumpkins (which naturally got my American attention, causing visions of Halloween and pumpkin pie to dance in my head). This is because Valencia happens to specialize in buñuelos de calabaza (basically pumpkin donuts).

Before you get all geeked out about the pumpkin part (like I did), let me clarify – these pastries taste nothing like pumpkin. Tear, I know. The good news is that they are basically the most amazing donut-like concoctions on the planet. Fresh out of the fryer, they throw them into a bag with sugar, shake them up, and hand them over so that you may commence with your heart attack. You can imagine my disappointment when I accidentally ordered a bulging bag of twelve…

I realize this begs the question – where is a picture of these pumpkin-y treats? I would have taken one, but I was kinda busy eating. Priorities.

*Have I left you longing to learn more about Las Fallas?? Stay tuned – in the coming days Gogobot will be featuring a blog of mine about the festival (I will post a link here once it is up). You can also see pictures on the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page.

March 17, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Spain

We recently moved house. Along with that came more space, a central location, and the image of a fellow on my front door. Yep, it’s Jesus – make that Door-Jesus.

Door-Jesus reminds me that I am indeed in a country predominantly filled with Catholics. That’s cool. I like Door-Jesus and I’m down with all religions, so no problems here. These last days, as I unlock my front door he stares back at me, Door-Jesus has also been reminding me that it is lent. That time of year when Catholics and often non-Catholics alike make 40-day resolutions. (Incidentally, I’m also reminded of the last time I observed lent, which was in college. I abstained from chocolate for 40 days and finished the stint by binging on my forbidden friend and gaining some 10 lbs. No more lent for me!) Along with this tradition, people typically forgo eating meat on Fridays. So, in that spirit, my mother-in-law has a slew of vegetarian-ish dishes that she serves this time of year. Last year I introduced you to potaje de vigilia, and this year I present you with purrusalda. Ta da!

Purrusalda, meaning salsa de puerro (leek sauce) in Basque, is a Spanish stew originating from Basque Country (duh). Its main ingredient is leek, but many ingredients can be used from other veggies, to meat, to fish. It’s not terribly attractive (particularly in this picture), but it’s tasty, healthy, and super easy to make.

Let’s get to it – here are your marching orders:

    5-6 yellow potatoes (in Spain they call them potatoes for cooking)
    2 leeks
    4 pieces of de-salted cod
    Olive oil

For the cod, you will want to make sure to either de-salt it, or buy already de-salted cod…or if this seems too intimidating (I’m intimidated just typing it), pick another ingredient (our housecleaner swears that clams beat cod when it comes to making an amazing purrusalda).

Chop the leeks, dice the potatoes, and break the cod into bite-sized pieces. In a large pot, fill the bottom with olive oil, about a centimeter or so high, and heat it up. Saute the leeks in the olive oil until they’re soft. Then add the potatoes, followed by thoroughly mixing in a couple heaping spoonfuls of flour (to add thickness). Now, fill the pot with hot water until it covers the potatoes. With the temperature on high, stir the mixture. Once it comes to a boil, turn down the temperature and cover the stew so that it can cook slowly. When the potatoes are just about cooked (about a half hour or so), add in the fish, which will take only a few minutes to cook. Finally, add salt if needed.

And there you have it – purrusalda! Door-Jesus will be so proud.

*Speaking of yummy Spanish dishes, have you checked out the new La Tortuga Viajera recipe section?

March 5, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Madrid, Spain

I’m at a loss for words, so I will keep this short. Austin Bice, an American study abroad student in Madrid, has been missing for the last week. He’s 22-years-old, 6’5″ and 230 lbs. Whether in Spain, or Europe, please do what you can to spread the word so that he may be found. Meanwhile, if you are in Madrid and have a free moment to help with the search, please do. Today they conducted a search for him and, as far as I understand, these searches will be ongoing until he is found. For the moment, there only appear to be Facebook event pages (here’s the one from today) set up for the searches, so if more details become available, I will update this post.

Unbeknown to me, I’m connected to him via a couple of friends from back home – they’ve described him as a “good kid” and “just an all around great guy, excellent basketball player, super smart.”

Below are links to a few articles with more details about his disappearance. Please send good thoughts for a happy ending.

SDSU Student Studying Abroad Missing for a Week
Huge search mobilizing for missing SDSU student
Familiares y amigos de Austin Bice buscan al joven en la Casa de Campo

Update: Very sadly, this story did not have a happy ending. My thoughts have been with the family and friends everyday, throughout the day. That said, I can’t really bring myself to write a jolly, light-hearted blog about Spain right now, which would just seem so trivial in light of this news. So, until next week…

March 2, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Recently, I’ve met a slew of new American expats, both firmly and not so firmly planting their feet in Spain’s red soil. Like myself, many move here hoping for adventure, others arrive following romance, and, almost always, everyone dreams of speaking the Spanish language overnight. But then, reality hits, and suddenly you’re in a foreign country, adapting to an odd food schedule, bizarrely inefficient processes, and smoky bars (wait, no, NOT smoky bars as of January 2nd of this year! Just had to rejoice in declaring that news again). The first months and even years are full of growing pains. You often don’t feel you belong, you feel like you will quite simply never speak the language, and you begin to miss good sushi with every ounce of your being.

And then, you remember that you are in SPAIN. Every day, for the last three years, I kid you not, I remain grateful that I’m here. Through the blunders, kleenex and curses, I try to remind myself of my favorite things (and we’re not just talking raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens here). And, sure enough, with time my favorite things have begun to heavily outweigh my “unfavorite” things.

So, when the Spanish dog bites, and the madrileña bee stings, here is the list of fantastically Iberian things that keep me singing the country’s praises.

The food. Period.

Duh. Really, do we even need to go over this? If I weren’t married, and could marry a physical object, it would be the tortilla española. And not just any tortilla, but rather my mother-in-law’s tortilla. Yes, it’s that darn good. It transports me to food heaven – furniture starts to look like bars of chocolate, people look like gingerbread men, and my beloved tortilla is the center of my universe. Joining this food love affair, as I’m sure you all know, is manchego cheese, jamón, croquetas and even pulpo (octopus). Spain, dear Spain, my life wouldn’t be complete without these delicacies.

The people

While waiters may not be the warmest of folks (they don’t really get paid tips – you’d be bitter too, right?), rest assured that most any given stranger will go above and beyond to help you. Three years of living here and I’m still blown away by the fact that when I ask for directions, people often either walk with me to my destination or even drive me there (remember the fellow with the mystery zucchini?). I remain in awe of the over the top hospitality I receive when visiting an acquaintance’s home. And then I’m just plain comforted by the simple way a group of people I hardly know always makes me feel like I’m part of the club. In fact, when my father visited Spain for the first time last summer (for that trivial little event of ours), he felt so welcomed and embraced by the culture that it has literally taken him months to stop marveling over Spanish hospitality.

Rhythm of life

What rhythm? You don’t hear it? I hardly do either, and that’s because the rhythm is ever so faint. If the US were a fire hydrant, Spain would be a rusty faucet slowlllyyyy dripping water. At first, this drove me mad, MAD I tell you. Why doesn’t the line go faster? Why is EVERYTHING closed on Sunday? And why isn’t anything open between 2:00pm and 5:00pm!??? But then, my rhythm slowed too, and gradually, with the surprise of frustrating idiosyncrasies having worn off, I now no longer get fussy. Here, people live in the moment, and that’s OK – they take time (LOTS of time) to have the most basic of lunches, they walk slowly through the city streets, they always pick up their phones to chat with a friend. Sometimes it can be positively aggravating, but now, more than anything, it makes me a better person because I’m able to enjoy life more fully (that’s what I tell myself anyway).

Car lifestyle

Yes, I’m following the heartfelt bit about me being a better person, with my perspective on car lifestyle. Sounds shallow, but hear me out. In Spain, people pretty much don’t car about their cars. Bump, ding, scratch, scrape, dent – no pasa nada. Double-park for an hour? Sure, why not. Park over a crosswalk? Meh, go for it. This probably sounds like the makings of chaos, but for me, not so! For every time I’ve been blocked in a parking spot by a double-parked car, I’ve probably conveniently gotten 50 things done by being able to do the same myself. Meanwhile, when I get a scratch on my own car, I laugh and chalk it up as another fabulous battle scar. I guess I just never realized how liberating driving could be until experiencing the stress-free disorder of the Spanish roads. Again, it’s all about living in the moment. Who gives a flying tortilla about my silly car?

The Metro

Seriously, the Metro is Dios‘s gift to Madrid (just as the tortilla is to my food universe). What a magnificent system it is – and I can say this too as I’ve seen a metro/subway or two in my day. New York, London, Tokyo – all just child’s play, really. The Metro, in all its glorious efficiency, can take you virtually anywhere in Madrid for a euro (sometimes more if you leave the city limits). Everything is immaculate, clearly marked in Spanish and English, and bedecked in colors and numbers so that you never get confused. I love my car (to the extent that I don’t care at all what happens to it), but my life could easily go on without it given this city’s spectacular transportation.

There you have it. My favorite things about Spain. I would advise that you keep this list handy in case you too get blue, but I realize that might be counterproductive if you don’t actually live here. Instead, I prescribe a trip to the España ASAP! I’ll treat ya to some tortilla while driving you around wildly on the Spanish streets and talking on my cell phone with a friend. You’ll feel right at home, I promise.