February 13, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

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.

December 2, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Spain

After my shepherd-for-a-day experience last Spring, I suppose I thought I’d somehow acquired a magic sheep touch – that I was an urban sheep whisperer of sorts. So, when we came across a massive herd of the critters crossing the road in the mountains of Granada last week, I enthusiastically leapt from the car. I was eager to impress everyone (both my friends and the sheep) with my expert shepherding skills. I placed myself in the middle of the pack, anticipating a friendly encounter with my furry friends. But I don’t know what happened – every time I sachayed my way over to pet or hug them, they all bolted as though I wanted to eat them for Thanksgiving or something! (The turkeys that I saw earlier that day were the ones I actually wanted to eat. Don’t you love how gracefully I’ve made the turn from a vegetarian blog post, to this?)

While the sheep despised me, the experience was impressive nonetheless. I was, after all, weaving through the ethereal white mountain towns of La Alpujarra with two of my very best guy friends. La Alpujarra, a region in the province of Granada, boasts spectacular white villages nestled impossibly into the crevices of Andalucia’s mountains. Walking the steep pueblo streets, I couldn’t help but imagine how the darling Spanish grandpas managed to traverse such inclines. I myself struggled not to tumble to the valley floor.

My return to the province of Granada also brought me back to its namesake city and one of my favorite places on earth – the Alhambra. Having now visited the Alhambra four times, I feel as though I’ve really gotten to know its many personalities as it evolves through the seasons (kind of like my husband, but that’s another story). The Alhambra of the hot toasty summer is vibrant, fragrant and refreshing like a cold drink of water. During the winter, it seems more pensive, humble and, well, vacant. In fact, arriving there at 4:00pm in the afternoon, we nearly had the place to ourselves! The usually crowded Palace seemed to be our own personal playground, finally allowing for photos without a million zombie-like tourists cluttering up the background.

I know what you’re thinking – the Alhambra is fascinating and all, but let’s return to the subject of the food in Granada! I agree – a visit to any given region in Spain requires excessive sampling and analysis of its cuisine (even if one has been there a million times already). And good thing Granada meets this challenge with its famed, massively portioned tapas.

You’re already familiar with the concept of going out for tapas – you hop from one bar to the next, grabbing a drink and downing a small free (or sometimes not free) appetizer. Granada, however, seems to take a Texas-approach to tapas – everything is bigger, A LOT bigger. For 12 euros total, we each had two beverages and two mammoth-sized plates of free food. After two rounds of drinks (and meals, really), hopping into bed seemed a lot more realistic than hopping to another tapas bar.

Between the Alhambra, La Alpujarra and the awkwardly large and satisfying tapas, a trip to Granada is never a disappointment – you know, unless you consider it sort of disappointing to have your hopes for becoming a brilliant shepherd crushed. It’s OK. I guess I’m coming to terms with the fact that I have a certain affect on other living things: I can’t keep a plant alive, I make babies cry, and sheep are horrified of me. I think I can live with this, as long as I have yummy regional cuisine and delicious Spanish wine to console me.

On that note, I leave you now with a video of the sheep running away from me as fast as they can.

I should mention that I did take some really oscar-worthy video footage on this road-trip, but sadly my computer is too ancient to handle it. So, for now, I only have this unedited, albeit rad, video of the sheep. I will keep you waiting on pins and needles until after the holidays when I can fully reveal my awesome video skills. You can also see pictures by visiting the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page.

May 25, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Traditions, Travel, Travels in Spain

After an hour and a half drive north of Madrid that ended with a long trek on a one lane dirt road, we found ourselves out where Jesus lost his keys (one of many Spanish sayings to describe that you are in the middle of nowhere). We would soon find that it was just us, two shepherds, some 400 sheep, nearly 50 goats, and a handful of dogs.

Our first stop was the corral where we were greeted by around 30 or so one-month-old lambs. Our 21-year-old shepherd and guide, Miguel, explained to us that he was one of the rare few that both owns and herds his over 1000 sheep. Putting in 16- to 20-hour days, this job appeared to be a true labor of love.

The lambs were skittish and pranced about every time they detected the slightest movement on our part (well, and it probably didn’t help that each time one came near me, I lunged after it in an apparently uncontrollable reflex to pet and play with the cute little things). With one swift grab, though, Miguel swooped up a lamb and placed her comfortably in my arms, where she nestled in as if her previous fear had completely disappeared. She was soft and cuddly, just like a little puppy…until one of her playmates went scurrying by, at which point she started bah-hing wildly to let me know that our cuddling session was over.

Jacobo and I still hadn’t asked the burning question and didn’t really have any intention to – what were these sheep being raised for?? Hoping to get the answer we were looking for (you know, the one where the sheep live long happy lives and die of old age), we danced around the subject asking if they used the sheep for their wool. No no, explained Miguel, it just wasn’t profitable. Apparently the price for wool is less than the cost to have the sheep shaved. OK, so perhaps these little guys were used for milk – a reasonable conclusion considering all of the amazing sheep’s milk cheese that you can find in Spain! With that, Jacobo cautiously ventured on, mentioning that surely the sheep were used for milk. Miguel cut straight to the chase, as if to tell us that the guessing game were over – “we raise them for the meat.” Ouch. That one stung. Apparently the milk route was also very costly, requiring the entire herd to stop in order to be milked.

As we left the corral, my mind was racing as to how I could fit as many lambs as possible into our car. Before I had time to develop a solid strategy, though, we were on our way down the road to visit the larger sheep that were already en route, grazing the land. Seeing those much more sizable creatures quickly shifted whatever strategy I could have ever mustered up. These things were huge! OK, so once full grown, at least three sheep could fit on our balcony….
Heading out to the main herd, we could hear the both calming and deafening drum of sheep bells as the furry animals nibbled at the land. It was there that we were met by Miguel’s brother who was equipped with his shepherd stick and a slew of satchels crossing his chest, one of which, he later explained to us, could be used to hold a baby lamb should it be born while herding. Also, did you know that the shepherd stick (apparently called a “crook”) is much more than just a walking stick? The hook is actually used to grab the lambs by their necks (gently, por favor!!)!

It was time to move the pack of animals to the next pasture, so with a whistle and several shouts of indiscernible words, Miguel’s little dog was off like a race horse, rounding up the sheep. “Es pequeña todavia,” Miguel told us, “she’s still small.” At only nine months old, the pup was still learning. When it came time to circle round the sheep, she simply darted toward the back of the herd before heading straight back to her owner. It seemed like an effective enough technique to me considering that all of the sheep set off on a stampede in my direction (see action shot above).

Anabel, Milagros, Madrileña, Numantina – many of these lovable critters seemed to have names. Numantina, a pregnant, tan-colored goat, took quite the liking to Jacobo and me, following us around and headbutting any little lamb that dared to compete for our attention. Then there was Milagros, the sheep who, when she was young, disappeared for a couple of days before being found, thus earning her name which means miracles. Meanwhile, Miguel was eager to show us his prized little black lamb, shouting “Anabel” across the herd and waiting for her to immerse amidst the wall of sheep. My first thought was how can you adore these animals enough to give them names, and then sell them only to be, well, you know… Miguel explained that he keeps his favorites, so I suppose that means that little Anabel will live a long, happy sheep-life in the Spanish countryside. This gave me a little comfort, but only a little.

We spent the remainder of our time in the open pastures learning the ins and outs of shepherding, feeding the sheep and even milking them. Then, before heading home, we stopped in the nearby Roman pueblo Medinaceli (a required stop if you’re in the region!) to have lunch. I’m still actually contemplating heading back and sheep-napping Numantina. I’m just not so sure that herding her between our balcony and kitchen will measure up to her days of grazing the rolling hills of Spain.

On a related note, I never did come across Jesus’s keys.

*To see pictures from my trip, be sure to join the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page
**For more information on being a shepherd for a day please visit Pastores por un Dia