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!

November 29, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions, Video

Before last week, I’d had two country line dancing memories: learning it during PE in high school (seriously), and then one very bored night in college. Little did I know that my third stab at shakin’ it western-style would be the most memorable and awesome line-dancing experience ever.

And that it would be in Spain.

And guess what? There’s a video.

Brace yourselves, people, this is going to be good. So, so painfully good.

A few months ago I discovered a country western festival taking place near Madrid – a discovery akin to gold, calorie-less chocolate and a winning lottery ticket. I went by myself and witnessed one of the most jaw-dropping experiences I’ve had in Spain to date, but having witnessed it alone, I felt a bit robbed. I would need to return with others to both verify and revel in its legendary-ness.

Good thing my friend Michella is all about country and all about America (and baking cupcakes, and decking out her entire house every time a holiday comes around – LOVE this girl). So when her birthday rolled around, her only request was that a group of us chicas from the US go line dancing.

So we did.

About 20 minutes north of Madrid, in dark fields at the end of a sketchy pot-holed road, is El Encuentro – scene of my original discovery a few months back. We arrived for what they claimed would be an “authentic American dinner.” We also arrived in a mix of flannel t-shirts, jean skirts, cowboy-ish boots and new names: Peggy Sue, Sara Beth, Marge and Lu Lu May (that’s me!). Go big or go home – am I right?

But you know who went big? Like, really big? The Spaniards. Cowboy hats, belt buckles, boots and button-up shirts emblazoned with “Wrangler” and “Rodeo Champion.” They brought their whole families, and also a whole lot of cowboy spirit.

Seated below a giant American flag (obviously), we selected our orders from the extensive menu: the Grand Canyon nachos, a round of random burgers, and a couple of Coors. OK, so the burger tasted more like meatloaf than burger, but hey, still American, right?

Then the line dancing began. And hot dog, these Spaniards knew their stuff. The four of us girls just stared and giggled in amazement – part impressed, part confused, and mostly just embarrassed that these guys pulled off American way better than we ever could. But we weren’t going to let that stop us. At the sound of Achy Breaky Heart, we skedaddled onto the dance floor to demonstrate our electric-slide skills (which I do have, believe it or not).

As the dancing wound down, one of the owners stopped by our table to say hello. We told him it was Michella’s birthday and about five minutes later they brought out a surprise birthday brownie while the entire farmhouse sang “happy birthday” in English. No joke. This was followed by us taking pictures with Spaniards like we were an attraction at Disneyland. Who’s this guy? Who knows. Who cares. (And yes, that’s a tipi in the top left.)

We eventually realized that all good things must come to an end and that it was time to call a cab – that is, see if a cab would actually journey out to the countryside to get us. Before we found that out, though, José the bartender had offered us a ride home. Stupid? Potentially. But really, who were we to stop such a historic night from taking its natural course.

As the three of us piled into the backseat, my man José turned on the ignition, and the car filled with the familiar beats of 50 Cent. Marveling at the dreamcatcher hanging from the rearview mirror of his VW golf, it became ultra clear to me that this night was one for the record books.

Back in Madrid’s Plaza Castilla, we parted ways – Marge and Peg mosied on home, while Michella – make that, Sara Beth – and I vowed to keep the night going strong. With that, we met up with her other friends at one of Madrid’s most popular bars, where people would inevitably stare at us and our ultra-American getups.

Having had a few drinks, I didn’t even realize the irony of the bar in Madrid that we ended up at that night. It’s called – of all things – Honky Tonk.

*It might be worth repeating from my previous blog – the Spaniards unfortunately don’t quite seem to grasp the meaning of a certain flag.

August 29, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions, Video

Every year, I’m drawn back to good old San Sebastián de los Reyes for another round of watching drunken teenagers narrowly escape angry bulls. Somehow, as I hide my face behind my hands, I can’t resist the urge to peek through my fingers and watch the train wreck of an event that is the second largest running of the bulls in Spain. But rather than tell you about it, here is some footage from yesterday’s run along with a few pictures.

plaza de toros, san sebastian de los reyes, running of the bulls, encierros
charging bull, encierros, san sebastian de los reyes, plaza de toros
bull fighting, dodging bull, san sebastian de los reyes
bull fighting, encierros, plaza de toros, san sebastian de los reyes

June 28, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this sign in the suburbs of Madrid: “Potato-sack races, line dancing, cowboys.” WHAT. No, really – what???!!! I wanted to both laugh and cry. Was there really an audience for this here?

I mulled over the idea of going, first proposing it to a friend of mine who is equally unashamed of embracing her American self (her last gathering involved beer pong and jello shots. Ya). She couldn’t come, so I kind of forgot about the idea – after all, what loser would go to such a thing alone?

I know: ME.

Burning with curiosity, I finally accepted that I craved a good ol’ country-western festival. So in the eleventh hour, and totally unprepared (that is, minus patriotic paraphernalia), I grabbed the car and headed 30 minutes north of Madrid to find my inner American cowgirl.

Not far off the freeway and surrounded by waist-high grass, I discovered the ranch – the “Honky Tonk El Encuentro Territorio Dakota” (a combination of words that surely confuses you as much as it does me). Turning up dust clouds, I mowed over the field of shrubbery to park my car with some fifty others.

Following the sound of music, I moseyed up to the ranch, preparing for them to roll out some sort of red carpet for the Americana. They would clap and oooh and ahhh over my American-ness. Maybe even ask me to lead them in the “Pledge of Allegiance” and then in some classic tunes (such as “America the Beautiful” – a personal favorite, which I’ve sung for Jacobo many a time, followed by his ears bleeding).

Funny thing – no one cared.

Entering the compound, the fiesta came to life with people wearing cowboy boots, Kenny Chesney belting out tunes on the loudspeakers, American flag streamers, Harley Davidson banners, Budweiser beer. And not an American in sight – except for me, chuckling and taking it all in like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.

There was this one fellow who proudly sported a Texas-sized belt buckle, a cowboy hat and a collared white button-up with “Rodeo Champion” and the brand “Wrangler” emblazoned on the back. If anyone was American, this would be my man. I approached him and asked him if he indeed came from the land of the free and the home of the brave (in Spanish and not in those exact words – I think it went something more like “are you American?”). I don’t get it though – just like the sheep in Granada, the guy scurried away like I had some disease. I really wanted to take a picture of this fine specimen of Spanish country-western love, but I think I’d scared him enough already, so I let him be.

Bewildered by the rejection, I wandered the property to check out the kiosks selling cowboy hats and boots, arrowheads (really?) and silver midwestern jewelry. Quite the jackpot they had. Meanwhile, the kiddies were mounting ponies, and hefty Harley riders chatted it up in their leather vests. I even got suckered in to buying a raffle ticket to help a sick horse.

I worked my way into what appeared to be a farmhouse of sorts only to find a virtual shrine to the USA. Pictures of Native Americans covered the walls, a massive star spangled banner draped from the ceiling, and a few Confederate flags clung uncomfortably to the wooden columns (the Spaniards do NOT understand the significance of this flag – I’ve seen it many times here and whenever I try to explain what it represents, I realize that they are not familiar at all with its often negative connotation).

Since no one seemed interested (astonished, amazed, impressed?) by my uber American-ness, I decided to go with one of my tried-and-true “get people to talk to me” tactics (I’m not this pathetic, I swear). Basically it consists of cornering a service worker and/or buying something, therefore forcing some sort of exchange in order to pick their brain with my curiosities (this also works with SGs because they are too slow to quickly escape). The victim, eh hem beer-counter guy, was actually quite friendly, sharing with me that they do line dancing every Friday and Saturday, and no, there are never Americans. We’ll have to change that.

As much as I wanted to stick around and get sloshed on cheap beer (by myself), I decided to head home. I savored each random American detail on the way out – the “Las Vegas strip” sign, the convertible car pulling into the parking lot (overgrown field) while blaring Garth Brooks, and the aforementioned Spaniard in rodeo garb.

30 minutes later I was back in Madrid eating my manchego cheese as though it were all just a dream. But it wasn’t, so don’t you worry, I’m totally dragging all my American friends back there for line dancing (get ready, ladies – this is totally happening!).

June 22, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions, Video

You might remember that awhile back I introduced you to a few of my favorite Spanish professions. Well, with 20% of Spain’s population unemployed, I thought I’d be a little helper and share some of the other often-overlooked Spanish job opportunities out there. Seriously, though, I would happily take on any of these tasks…probably…OK, maybe not the first one.

El Chatarrero

Recently, I’ve heard someone hollering in the streets from my living room. At first I thought it was some vagrant (hey, I’m from San Francisco – totally normal), but after hearing him a few times, I came to realize he was advertising some kind of service. Already familiar with the afilador (the knife-sharpener who plays an ice-cream-man-like tune from his motorcycle), I was befuddled as to who this new seller-of-services could be.

To ease my confusion, I replicated the yell for Jacobo, and he knew exactly who it was – the chatarrero! Get this – the chatarrero is the “junk collector man” (or, if we are being politically correct – the recycler?)! He goes around screaming “Chatarrero! El Chataaaaaarrero!” so that people will come out and give him their junk and scrap (called chatarra). You’d think this would be such an unattractive job, but I’m absolutely in love with the idea and have spent the last weeks with my ear nearly pressed against our living room wall. I eagerly await for him to return so that I can run downstairs with the first piece of crap (err – scrap) I come across in our house.

What’s particularly funny is that just days after my junk-man discovery, Jacobo and I were in a bar, when low and behold a music video popped on TV called “El Chatarrero.” I clapped and jumped up and down. I couldn’t hear the music, but the video alone was enough to get me all excited about junk and stuff. And fortunately, I found a version of it on YouTube, so here you have it – el chatarrero and a whole lot of chatarra:

El Butanero

Mr. Butanero makes regular deliveries of butane tanks to those older homes that don’t have gas and, like the milkman, he is famed for being the potential father of unexpected little ones. Why the butanero and not, say, the panadero (the bread deliverer)? Well, because the butanero, with all of his muscly goodness from lifting tanks of butane, is a far more likely suspect than that weakling who delivers delicate baguettes.

Just as with the chatarrero, I’ve spent unhealthy amounts of time trying to find this fool. I’ve seen his truck filled with orange tanks many a time in past years, but of course these last weeks since discovering it’s a proper job (you know, with a fun name), he nor his tanks are anywhere to be found. Save your disappointment, however, because while trying to hunt down photos I found this spectacular music video that is pretty much too hilarious to avoid posting. It features a couple of transvestites and a questionably hot butanero – it’s totally PG and totally worth watching.

El Sereno

Yet another profession that’s kept me busy searching Madrid – el sereno. As I was doing my research for this blog (and by research I’m referring to listening for the chatarrero and chasing around random guys in the street who push wheel-barrows full of scrap metal), I heard about this other antiquated career. The job of el sereno went extinct some 34 years ago, but as a part of a recent coffee campaign by La Estrella, they’ve decided to bring him back to Chamberí (my neighborhood) for two whole weeks. So naturally I’ve been wondering my barrio trying to track the guy down.

Back in his heyday, the sereno would keep nightly vigil over the local streets. This fellow would have the keys to your house, help you with groceries, tell you the time, call the appropriate authorities during any emergencies, and was basically just awesome – clearly.

Needless to say, el sereno hasn’t turned up either. He must be hanging out with the butanero somewhere. And surprise – I found another video! The following video features an original sereno (a bona fide SG, if you ask me) and a new one. Sorry it’s all in Spanish, but Gramps is so cute that you don’t care, right?

La Peixiera

Now this is my kind of job. While regaling a Galician friend of mine with my proud discovery of el chatarrero (his eyes glazed over a tad – I can’t for the life of me figure out why), he shared with me an awesome job specific to the inland pueblos of Galicia (and Portugal) – la peixera. Oh goody goody – it sounds like a girly job! This chica apparently arrives to said pueblos every afternoon with her van full of fresh seafood. She pulls in, opens the back and starts selling away. A girl after my own heart! Originally, she’d actually carry her goods on her head in a basket, and in many cases it was seafood caught by her family and/or fisherman husband. Good thing that peixeras don’t exist here in Madrid – for the sake of what little remaining productivity I have. And no, I couldn’t find any fun fish-delivery videos. Sorry about that.

On a related note, just earlier this week I heard the familiar sound of the afilador. I quite literally sprinted out my door, following the tune of his harmonica down my block. When I finally found him, I discovered he was totally not the cute SG-like afilador I was hoping for, but rather a couple of creepy guys with a kidnapper-style knife-sharpening van – the worst combo possible. Without even saying a word to them, they asked me to get in the car. I promptly turned around and decided I wouldn’t be chasing after the afilador anymore, dull knives or not.