December 20, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Madrid, Spain, Travel

I knew l’d like my latest guest poster, Lauren. After all, she hails from the US, is married to a Spaniard, and loves Spanish food with the same unconditional passion as yours truly. With that in mind, she and I decided to swap guest posts this week, waxing poetic about none other than our not-so-secret love affair with our adopted cuisine. Once you’re done working up your appetite here, be sure to stop by her blog, Spanish Sabores, to read my post about holiday foods you should plan to pig out when visiting Spain during the winter.

As Christmas draws near, I once again find myself struggling to buy last minute gifts for friends and family. After traveling back and forth from Spain for almost three years now, the pretty fans, colorful ceramics, and cute flamenco aprons just won’t cut it anymore. So what do you do when you run out of gift ideas but your loved ones expect something Spanish? Resort to food gifts– and trust me, no one will complain!

Spain is full of potential food souvenirs. In fact, Spaniards themselves often bring a famed food from their town or region when visiting family and friends. Whether it is a homemade blood sausage, some marinated olives, or cookies and pastries made by the nuns in the local convent, Spaniards love giving food gifts.

So what can a visitor to Spain take back as a gift? Here are my five suggestions for delicious food gifts that will have friends and family wanting to hop the next flight to Spain!

Note: Unfortunately, as an American, my list cannot include any of Spain’s delicious pork products. Individuals are currently not allowed to transport sausage, ham, or other meat products into the United States. For more information about what you can and cannot bring into the US see this page.

5 Delicious Food Gifts from Spain

1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Did you know that Spain is the number one producer of olive oil in the world? Every year the country produces a variety of different olive oils that vary in taste and texture. Pop in to any supermarket and be prepared to see a wide selection.

2. Pimentón de la Vera: Pimentón is the Spanish word for paprika, and the most famous comes from La Vera in Cáceres, Spain. But if Cáceres is not a part of your itinerary, don’t worry, most supermarkets and specialty shops carry this coveted spice. Pimentón de la Vera comes in three types: sweet, semi-sweet, and hot. It adds an amazing smoky flavor and a nice orange-red color to Spanish dishes.

3. Artisan Honey: I never realized how many honey varieties there were until I came to Spain. Here you can find flavors like rosemary, thyme, lemon and orange. There is creamed honey, honey with nuts inside, and honeycomb. Different regions compete each year to be called the best honey in Spain.

4. Marzipan Sweets: Marzipan sweets are made primarily of almonds and sugar. They are most famous in Toledo, where each shop has its own special recipe, but you can find them sold all over Spain. A box of marzipan makes a delicious gift, and the sweets are also quite beautiful to look at!

5. Red Wine: Spain is the third largest producer of wine in the world and has several excellent wine regions. My favorite is the Ribera del Duero region in Castile and León. A good bottle of Spanish wine can be found for around 10€, making it worth your while to bring back a few bottles.

So forget about the shot glasses and T-shirts you were planning to buy and try the supermarket or (even better) local market instead. You’ll have some great, unique gifts and your family and friends will get a real taste of Spain!

December 14, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Expat, Spain

This holiday season, as I pack my suitcase (make that: stare at my bag and hope it packs itself) for the States, I thought I’d give you all a little gift. OK, maybe you won’t find this gift as terribly exciting as I do, but humor me here.

I’m serving you up just three of my favorite blogs. Why three? Well, because I follow maybe hundreds of blogs, and adore an impossibly large chunk of them. So rather than go on and on about why I love getting coffee with TheViatrix or talking endlessly about croquetas with The Travelling Editor (both awesome blogs, by the way), I’ve widdled them down to a digestible three quirky and perhaps under-appreciated ones. When their blog posts arrive in my inbox…errr, Google Reader…I get all pumped to open them up like long-awaited Christmas packages.

So without further ado, let’s start unwrapping them. Oh, the anticipation!!!

American in Spain
On a regular basis, Erik makes me laugh, scratch my chin and say “awww”. He gets insightful about politics, ultra-nerdy with tech experiments (which are, admittedly, pretty darn entertaining), and sentimental over his darling half-Spanish and half-American daughter, Nora. Both smart and witty, his posts are worth the read.

Pass the Ham
I recently discovered Pass the Ham, and honestly don’t know much about its author, “Hamantha” (with no “about” page, I can only “read” between the lines). Where’s she from? The US, I think. Why’s she here? Well, probably for her Spanish husband. What I do know is that she’s hilarious, she loves Spain, and her blog title has the word “ham” in it – so clearly the most important bases have been covered.

Ode to Moms
I’m making a stretch here for this selection: not only am I SO not a mother, but Ode to Moms clearly falls way outside the realm of travel and Spain. But I call the shots here, so this blog makes the cut :). Some inconceivable hybrid of fashionista, clothing designer, and super-mom, she shares tips that will make us all a little bit more put-together during everyday life – mom or not.

So there you have it. A small, readable list of blogs that you can actually consume (calorie-free!) along with all that holiday candy. Make like Santa and give them a visit. But not through the chimney, because that would be weird. Oh yeah, and impossible.

December 9, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Europe

Have you heard about Montenegro? For most of us, the name probably rings a Yugoslavian bell. That’s because the miniature nation formed part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, most recently under the name of “Serbia and Montenegro”. But in 2006, the Montenegrins voted for independence, and since then they’ve been making a name for themselves as a Mediterranean destination worth putting on your radar. Balkan border-hopping like it was our job, my mom and I decided to make it our next stop after visiting Croatia and Bosnia.

I didn’t know what to expect of Montenegro, but knew mountains might kind of be a big deal considering the country’s name literally means “black mountain”. And mountains we found. The nation in fact claims some of the most rugged landscape in all of Europe.

Steep slopes sink into the Bay of Kotor where orange-tiled roofs dot the shores – a warm contrast to the dark blue water, which, the day of our visit, sloshed around fiercely with the powerful winds. Mussel farms made of buoys, bob in all the region’s waters, looking like over-sized multi-colored tictacs….almost good enough to eat, really.

Our first stop brought us to the walled city of Kotor, built by the Republic of Venice during their four centuries of rule (more or less between 1420 and 1797). That wasn’t the area’s only brush with Italian occupation, though. For a couple of years in the 1940s, Kotor (named Catarro until 1918) was even considered an Italian province before the nation became the Socialist Republic of Montenegro as a part of Yugoslavia. Just a brief chapter in the country’s colorful history.

Walls climb up and around the city sandwiched between a steep mountainside and the Bay. The location is prime, but also prone to earthquakes: in 1979, a tremor hit the region, destroying half the town and leaving 100 casualties in its wake. Fortunately for us, the only thing rattling the city walls that day were strong winds (centuries-old cobbled buildings don’t instill in me the same sense of safety as our more earthquake-friendly versions back in SF).

We made a final stop in the beachside town of Budva. Not unlike Kotor, a wall surrounds the old quarters, but here the stony fortress blends into the sea instead of a mountainside. Empty tables line the pebbled beachfront indicating what the city is really known for these days: a killer social scene and some pretty crazy nights. Between the cold weather, and my travel companion (Mom), however, I struggled to visualize a wild Montenegrin night in my near future.

And then there was my beloved baklava. I’d learned the day before, in Bosnia, that the Turkish treat can be found throughout the region: a little treasure left behind by the Ottomans back in the day (and by “the day”, I mean the 16th century). So, in the name of historical research, I made it my duty to hunt down some of that flaky, sugary goodness – you know, to scientifically analyze its evolution over time and territory. The verdict: tasty, but my heart still belongs to some old Turkish dude selling mind-blowing baklava in Istanbul.

Enchanted by Montenegro, we border hopped back to Croatia. Three days and three countries later, our little trip to Dubrovnik had transformed into a Balkan adventure beyond anything we’d expected.

*To see more pictures from my trip to the Balkans, please visit the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page.