My trip to Dubai in summary: camel races, surprise boxes of baklava, and up-close-and-almost-personal sheikh encounters. Yes, yes, I might just have to stay.
The traveling turtle
Welcome to La Tortuga Viajera (the traveling turtle). It’s a travel and Spanish food blog based on my experiences as an American living in Madrid with my Madrileño husband. Who would have thought a 15-minute bar conversation would change my life forever? Join me on my journey through Spain and its top spots, best-kept secrets, culture and cuisine.
Wafts of tasty fumes seeped from my friend Nacho’s outdoor brick oven. It was 2pm and if my stomach could talk it would have said, “oh yes, come to mama.”
But there was a slight problem: Cooking inside that oven were two of my biggest food foes.
You might remember that years ago, after pretending to be a shepherd for a day, I fell in love with sheep. I snuggled with lambies and made buddies with a sheep named Numantina. Since then, I decided that – as illogical as it may seem – I would not, could not, eat lamb (except for that trip to Turkey, during which exceptions had to be made, obviously). And I’ve stuck to it pretty steadfastly, even putting in special effort to avoid forming relationships with other lovable-but-tasty animals, like full-grown Wilbur-style pigs (lest that leave me feeling compelled to give up my beloved jamón).
Last weekend I was faced with two baby farm friends, though, that would challenge my resolve: a suckling pig, called cochinillo, and lechazo, a lamb that had only drunk its mother’s milk. Inside that oven, the cuddly little critters roasted. Yes, I would eat bread and salad, and nothing more, I affirmed to myself.
Oh but then came lunch, in a setting that infused me with me Spanish-ness. Warmed by a glowing fire, my mind danced with images of a castañuela-clicking flamenco dancer, and a bullfighter waving the electric-pink cape that hung on the wall beside me. It was as though the room were filled with propaganda solely for the purpose of converting me into a lamb-loving, baby-pig-craving, meat-eating Spaniard. Grrr, Spain!
The others at our table of eight relished each bite of the clay-pot-cooked creations. Meanwhile, I cowardly dipped and dunked my bread in the lamb broth, savoring the rich flavor without fully committing. Jacobo wouldn’t let it be so, though, oh no. He taunted me with me a fork-full of lechazo, insisting, deviously, that I try it.
And then it happened: I indulged in a few beautiful, perfectly cooked, decadent bites of lamb. It was brief and magical, and, like (the country of) Turkey, a worthy exception to the rule.
Now, being the completely contradictory eater that I am, I think I’m going to treat myself to a fat plate of jamón ibérico. All this talk of pig and Spanish food has really made me hungry.
I found a hidden wonderland here in Madrid, but I’m a little hesitant to tell anyone about it. I know I’m not the only one who’s discovered it, but I’m certain most tourists never make it there. So promise me you’ll keep it our little secret and not tell a soul?
I’d heard whispers about this mystical place before, but, until recently, I never knew where it was. And that’s because it basically hides inside a city block, like a parallel universe revealed behind a magic closet door. In fact, having recently moved to this secret spot’s neighborhood, I’d actually walked by it for months, not even realizing it was there. It’s that secret.
But then one day last autumn, I peered down an alleyway from which I regularly saw Spanish grandmas depart with grocery trolleys brimming with fresh vegetables. There was a certain hustle-and-bustle that indicated the alley was more than just a breezeway, but rather a tunnel to awesome, unexpected things.
So I wandered down it like Alice in a fantastical Wonderland adventure (and if you know me, then you know that the discovery of fresh and exotic foodstuffs is nothing short of Wonderland). And there it was: the most beautiful market in Madrid, Mercado de la Paz!!! I almost shed a full, proper, drip-able tear (not even close to exaggerating). One kiosk after another glowed with expertly arranged fruits and vegetables, fish that gawked at me with blank-but-tasty stares, and mountains of round, square and triangle blocks of cheese that tempted to timber into my mouth (these things are possible in Wonderland, you know).
The Art Nouveau-style market was constructed in 1879 in the residential/shopping neighborhood of Salamanca, and has around 60 kiosks. And while I’ve noticed a couple of the them are closed (a sad and probable outcome of la crisis), you’ll still come across almost every goody your market-loving heart could desire: vegetable sellers, butchers, fish stands, an herbal shop, a cobbler, dry cleaner, hair salon, bakeries, a couple cheese Meccas, gourmet products, and even a few tapas bars for good measure. Basically it’s heaven crammed into a small Spanish city block.
You’ll discover my hidden market paradise concealed between the streets Claudio Coello, Hermosilla, Ayala and Lagasca, with entrances on Lagasca, Ayala and Claudio Coello (the last being the most discreet of the three, despite its fat “MERCADO DE LA PAZ” sign, which I somehow managed to initially miss).
Now go find your market bliss amongst the La Paz kiosks, but just don’t go telling anyone about it. It’s our little secret, remember?
I think I ate an entire tortilla española last weekend. Yeah. I hadn’t eaten any of the egg-and-potato omelet since my return to Spain after the holidays, and so I really made up for it. Like a lot.
Now I realize you too may be longing for Spain a bit – after all, my blog posts these days have been filled with more about places like India and Morocco than anything to do with Spain. And I think we can both agree that this is pretty tragic. So allow me to beg your forgiveness with a little talk of tortilla and, more importantly, a list of my favorite places in Madrid where you can get your hungry hands on some.
First, let’s address what makes a good tortilla. The most telltale sign of a good or bad Spanish omelet is its juiciness. Almost nothing in the world is worse than a dry tortilla, and anyone serving one as such should immediately be exported from Spain!!!!!!! (Can you tell that I’m passionate about this?)
A distant second to juiciness is the subtle flavor of caramelized onion (mind you, some tortillas are served without onion, which I think is just silly and unreasonable). Other components come into play of course, but for me, these are the main points that — *in my opinion* — tortillas tend to hit or miss.
Enough of that — let’s get down to business. Here I present you with my list of best places in Madrid to get yourself the perfect Spanish tortilla.
1. Wherever my mother-in-law is (LOVE her). I know everyone thinks their Spanish mother or mother-in-law makes the best tortilla, but you’re all wrong . Glad that’s settled. Moving on.
2. Juana la Loca in the La Latina neighborhood serves up proper pincho-style tortilla, with its gooey masterpiece delicately balanced on a slice of baguette bread. In terms of flavor, this one ticks all the boxes. The only downside is that the portion is rather small and, while I realize I can simply set my bread aside (like it is often served), I would prefer this tortilla beauty as a stand-alone.
3. Txirmiri has four brag-worthy locations, making it a great go-to in times of tortilla desperation, which can, honestly, strike at any moment. But truly, they may very well have the most reliably delicious Spanish omelet in town. The portion is generous, always juicy, and salted and onion-ed to tortilla perfection.
3. La Ardosa in Malasaña wins for over-all tortilla experience, though. While theirs can occasionally miss the salt-mark (too much or too little), the quintessentially Spanish bar filled with tiled and dusty-bottle-covered walls makes up for anything that its egg creation lacks.
4. My runner-up is Sylkar in the Chamberí neighborhood, which I lived practically next door to for almost a year without even knowing it (thanks, Colleen, for making that discovery!). The juiciness of their omelet is on point, but often lacks that subtle kick of onion that could elevate it to best-tortilla status.
Alright tortilla fans, I set you free to get your tortilla fix, whether making it at home, or hunting it down here in Madrid.
The Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, the Sistine Chapel: Iconic masterpieces like these often seem larger than life. But then you see them in person and, well, there they are, larger than something and no doubt impressive, although maybe not as large and magnificent as you’d anticipated after all those years of hype and history books.
The Taj Mahal, however, is not one of those places.
I initially saw the Taj while seated on a distant rooftop, where I munched on a lunch of spicy rice and yogurt-dipped naan bread. The architectural marvel, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to commemorate his *favorite* wife, peeked above the skyline like a mirage amidst a sea of trees. It was intriguing to be sure, but still a distant, almost incomprehensible speck, like trying to fathom the size of a city from a plane 35,000 feet above.
Tummies full, we joined the groups of Indians trekking down a long road to the Taj. The families were making the pilgrimage from all around the nation – an irony not lost on me considering that Candace and I had recently completed our very own pilgrimage on the Camino only months before.
Along the way, we folded into the crowd, joining them like family, making friends, sharing snap shops of who we, where we were from and why we were there. Oddly enough, not unlike the Camino, I felt bonded to my walking companions in an impossibly short amount of time and, in many cases, without even exchanging any words. I think we all shared the same enthusiastic twinkle in our eyes born out of an eagerness to know one another, not to mention the treasure at the end of our path. So it was bittersweet when we arrived at the Taj entrance and had to part, Indian citizens going through one line and Candace and I through another.
I don’t much remember the moments between leaving my new Indian friends and those few that followed; I was too distracted by what lie ahead. While I’d seen the Taj from a rooftop, once I was on street level it had disappeared, tempting me in its absence. But finally it appeared once again, revealed through a key-hole gate, where it grew larger and more radiant as we crossed the threshold.
And there it was. Somehow all the tufts of trees seemed to fall away – it was as though the skyline that I’d seen from the rooftop had vaporized into nothing, and that the Taj were now sitting on a gigantic platter for all to see. There must have been thousands of us scattered on the land that surrounded it, and yet we somehow fell away too, insignificant and nearly invisible in comparison (well, except for this darling little guy below).
Indeed, it was large and it was magnificent. And it turns out that even hype and history books can’t overstate the magic that is the Taj Mahal.