Category Archives: Spanish

Madrid, Avila, Segovia: May 2007

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The window above was one of a number of rich stained glass windows in an old church in Avila. Below is another window about 25 paces from the other in the same church. There was a gift shop attached where you could also look at the finger bone of the sainted nun of the church and a few other relics. As you left these churches quite often there would be an old woman in black with pictures of her family and her hand out. For some reason these struck me as much more distasteful than your usual beggars.

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That morning we decided to venture outside of Madrid and joined a day tour going to Avila and Segovia. Neither of us being particularly enamoured of tours, we still thought it was an easy way to manage our time that day. (For those considering this, and if we were doing it again, I would suggest planning it yourself; it will be quite a bit cheaper, the transportation is quite easy to arrange and the food has got to be better).

While waiting for the bus to arrive we watched a line of men passing bags of concrete from the main street down a sidestreet to a building being renovated. We saw this sort of third world work quite often in Madrid. My theory is that since the buildings are so close together and the streets so narrow, the only way to move materials is the old way. (A couple of days before we had watched six levels of men passing down planks one to the next as they dismantled some scaffolding.)

What struck us again in Avila was the size of churches in comparison to the populations. They were made so that the whole town or city could be inside at the same time. They also tended to double as part of the the defensive structure, forming part of the walls around the town.

From Avila we headed to Segovia and the aqueducts.

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When you see these, its no wonder that the word classical can be substituted for beautiful.

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This sphinx was in a square. Why do ruined faces and statues missing limbs seem so poignant? For some reason we translate this as common antiquity rather than dwelling on vandalism or erosion. The damage appears to be part of the intrinsic character or the piece rather than something that happened to it.

When we first approached it a young woman was getting her mother to take her picture near it. We had already seen her getting her mother and many others to document her time here. And you had the distinct impression that her purpose was to capture as many versions of her face as possible rather than what her face had been near. It was actually kind of funny; she seemed like a sprite of a sort, a self obsessed spirit.

The last thing we saw in Segovia was this Robin Hood type castle. Inside were all the accoutrements of the knighthood. A prince had ruled on this hilltop and one could easily imagine how this grand structure would have impressed anyone coming around the bend.

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The food you ask? Well the bunch of us were herded into what I thought might be the described feast of rural Spanish cooking. The wine was not very good which must have taken a little work in this country of incredible reds but it was passable, and the bread was warm and rich. The food would have found a good home in a trough. Fatty pig parts in some sort of gravy sauce. And the requisite local band playing for the passed hat. The only fun part was us trying to talk to our companions from Mexico (Chihuahua) (he had a wonderful bandido moustache) in our butchered versions of the two languages.

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Iberian Porkland or Spain: Land o’ Ham (May 2007)

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The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot — And whether pigs have wings.
If they did, they’d steer clear of ham loving Spain.

This is the place where it seems as though every second block has a ham emporium. Paradise of Ham, Museum of Ham or Emperor Ham to name a couple of the chains. The picture above was taken in the Museu del Jamon, a place to buy or eat ham. The ceilings are covered with curing hams and I calculated that there might be about a quarter of a million dollars of ham hanging there, and then failed to be able to imagine how many times I would have to multiply this to get Madrid’s ham supply.

There’s quite a range and a connoisseur would have a field day but we had the basic plate with some red wine. Not bad but nothing remarkable but who’s to say the ham to die for wasn’t lurking somewhere in the establishment.

Slicers of ham have their own competitions being judged on consistency of thickness as well as speed. Kind of your ham barista.

This is certainly a land where ham handed might be considered good, to ham it up would be to improve something and to be a ham might be both envied and dangerous to the health.

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Madrid: May 2007:1

That day had started auspiciously. The night before our first meal in Spain was just bloody awful. Even the wine was poor. But this morning was a rainy but warmish day and the place we ducked into was alive with the clatter of early bird workers chattering over coffees, pastries and cigarettes. In contrast to other times of the day, the turnover was fast. You ordered, a minute later there it was, and a minute after that the bill sat in front of you. We each had cafe con leches (brilliant stuff; half sweet espresso and half steamed milk (figured out to make these as soon as we got home)) and glazed croissants filled with ham and cheese. Though the latter doesn’t sound like much, trust me, they were. And like the others, we ate them with fork and knife. It made sense since the glazing made the confection sticky. We noticed that in Spain everything was eaten with utensils.

From there it was a few kilometers through the city, iron grill work everywhere, and sculptural tops to many of the buildings. This was a real Spanish city full of Spaniards. Though there must have been quite a few tourists we really only saw them at the galleries. And the people were little different than people anywhere except that they were absurdly LOUD. I don’t think you would ever need a hearing aid in this country. And it wasn’t that the restaurants and bars were all that loud but on the street. I tell you, Spaniards and cellphones, a really bad idea.

So back at the Prado. It was insanely busy. One large groups of Japanese tourists who seemed to be following us, and many school groups with teachers. This seemed to occur at all the galleries we went to in Madrid. They did more that just build world class collections; they taught the children about the art and this heritage of theirs. We flip through large books or slides on a wall or sad little reproductions on our screens and they can stand two feet away and see the brush strokes and the frames. They can see the range of an artist rather than the one or two representative works.

One thing that you could learn here as nowhere else was how artists started out together and gradually moved towards their own style. Its one of those things you know but don’t really think about much. You see all those early works where Dali paints like Braque and Picasso like Goya. At the beginning they are all like green garden shoots, all the same, and then, some earlier than others, they take on distinctive shapes and like plants, we can only think of their distinctiveness and not of those earlier manifestations.

Oneof the drawbacks of the Prado other than the sheer size of it, is that there is so little modern work. It would have been nice to break up the old with just a bit of the new. There are of course the seeds of modernism everywhere, the hallucinatory light in the El Greco’s, Goya storming the ideological barricades, Bosch’s utter lack of discretion. But the rule is big, and bigger, religious pictures. Its all a bit much, an upscale version of St Agnes where art took second seat to the correctness of the time. Symbolism over reality. And even the Goyas I found ultimately wearisome. Rooms and rooms of them, and you had the sense that were it not for his political power, he would not have quite the stature he does. Don’t get me wrong. The Prado is full of remarkable and awe inspiring paintings; this is the hall of the great ones; this was not to be missed but it is like being trapped at a really great traditional restaurant for a week with a decent range, every meal a big one, a plate buster, but boy could you go for some Thai.

Doug’s Awesome Gaspacho

Makes 8 servings

For the soup
1 egg
2 C chopped fresh plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded
½ C chopped yellow peppers
1 C chopped peeled cucumber, seeds removed
½ C finely chopped red onion
2/3 C olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon
2 C vegetable broth (you can use beef broth)
¼ C red wine vinegar
¼ C finely chopped parsley
1 tsp dried oregano
2 T Worcestershire sauce
Pepper, coarsely ground
3 or 4 cloves of finely chopped garlic
3 or 4 finely chopped serrano chilis
Salt
12 oz tomato juice
12 oz spicy V8 juice
½ C plain, fine, breadcrumbs
Hot sauce of choice
Croutons

1. Hard boil the egg and put aside.
2. Roughly chop the tomatoes, pepper, cucumber, red onion and parsley into a large mixing bowl.
3. In another bowl, hold back 1 cup of onion, cucumber, yellow pepper and serranos and chop these up finely.
4. Hold back another cup of diced tomatoes. Put this aside. (You are going to add the cup of diced tomato and the cup of finely chopped cucumbers, onion, yellow peppers and serranos at the end to add texture.)
5. In the larger bowl of roughly chopped ingredients, mix in the olive oil, lemon juice, broth, red wine vinegar, oregano, Worcestershire and black pepper.
6. Put the garlic in a small bowl and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Add the peeled, hard boiled egg to the salt and garlic and mash together with a fork.
7. Add the egggarlic mixture to the large bowl of roughly chopped ingredients. Add the tomato and V8 juice to the same bowl. Add the bread crumbs and stir until the breadcrumbs “dissolve”.
8. Taste and add salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste.
9. Using a blender or food processor, in batches, puree the ingredients of the large bowl and put into jars or some other containers.
10. Chill the whole mess for no less than 4 hours

For the Avocado – Wasabi – Yogurt Finishing Sauce

2 ripe avocados
½ T fresh lime juice
1 tsp Wasabi paste or more to taste
2 T finely chopped fresh chives
8 oz plain yogurt
Salt and pepper

1. Mash together the avocado, lime juice, 1 teaspoon of salt until smooth.
2. Whisk in the yogurt, wasabi paste, chives and pepper to taste.
3. Refrigerate.

To serve, ladle the pureed soup into bowls. Add a sprinkle of the finely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow peppers, serranos and onion for texture. Add a dollop of the avocado, wasabi yogurt finishing sauce and a few croutons.

Bon appétit!

Squid and Olives

¼ C olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped, about 1.2 cup
1 ½ T chopped garlic
¼ C large pitted Spanish green olives
¼ tsp saffron
1 T tomato paste
½ C white wine
½ C fish broth
1 pound cleaned squid, cut into rings, tentacles cut in half

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Heat the oil and add onion and cook slowly until transparent.
Add garlic and stir slightly, then add the olives and cook 2 minutes.
Stir in saffron, paste, wine and broth.
Cook for 5 minutes and transfer to an earthenware casserole.
Add squid and throw in a cork (little trick that makes rubbery seafood tender).

Bake covered for 35 to 40 minutes.
Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Serve with toasted baguette.

Cafe con leche

The best coffee in the world.

Prepare espresso but the trick is to put a thin layer of sugar in before you lay down the ground coffee. It comes out sweeter and foamier.

Try it.

And this makes the base for great Spanish coffees. Just add a little Kaluha and a little brandy. Torres 10 year is very good.