Friday, March 2, 2012

Love of the Culture, Food Culture

I discovered the Chowhound board while preparing for our trip to Spain. I spent hours reading and taking notes. We are just finishing up a three week trip around Spain. Our route included: Barcelona, Valencia, Granada, Sevilla, the white villages of Andulusia, Cordoba, Toleda, and finishing up in Barcelona. Today enroute to Barcelona from Toledo we stopped in the city of Lleida, about half way between Barcelona and Zaragoza on A2.
At the beginning of our trip when we were in Barcelona we had a difficult time finding Hyssop one of the restaurants recommended on this board and the city is so full of great options that we gave up trying to find any of those recommended and instead ventured out blind. But we had good luck at the Troubador in the old city center, not far off the Ramblas. The grilled artichokes with Romescu sauce were fabulous. The Valenzian fish we had reminded me a bit of Tinken Chik, the Maya way to prepare fish, but without Achiote. (Please excuse my spelling of some these entrees!) Service was very good.
The whole time we’ve been here, we’ve had a hard time adjusting to the late dinner schedule of Spain. Arriving before 8pm at a restaurant is just not done! Actually, it won’t be open, unless it’s a fast food or touristy place.
Another food highlight was in the seaside coast town south of Barcelona, L’Ampolla at Pinyana. Our first real Spanish Paella and the Menu Del Dia. First course, second course with bread, drink and dessert for a set price. We also had the Fideua, similar to paella but using short spaghetti-like pasta instead of rice. We enjoyed the rice Paella much more. The Spanish white wine, SummaRoca was a great addition to the lunch at this sunny outdoor location. Watching our waists, we ordered tangerine sorbet for dessert but when we expressed curiosity about the traditional Catalan Cream, the waiter brought us a dish to share, compliments of the house. A lot like crème brulee without the crisp topping.
The best paella of the trip was at San Miguel Bar in the San Miguel Plaza in the old town in Valencia. Like many places, it requires a minimum of two people to order the paella because it is prepared when the ordered is placed and the pan is of the size to serve two people. We wondered why it took so long until the waiter appeared with the classic shallow pan, a good twelve inches or more in width; the rice topped with a satiny golden crust. This paella was unique in that it had large flat beans, like a fava as well as the red and green peppers and seafood and meats. It was so good, we scraped until the pan was nearly pristine.
Oh, there is one meal that was also great I nearly forgot, in Barclona, a little place down the hill from the Fundacion Joan Miro museum. It was called Bar Celona, cute! Popular place and the staff, although busy tried to help us with selections, again the Menu del Dia. Paella, roast vegetables in olive oil marinade, but what I remember the most was the fresh made strawberry Profiteroles (sp?)and fresh made sorbet. Here again the chef sent out little treats for us to try, unbidden. We loved this element of Spain….as my husband said, they don’t sweat the small stuff.
A little food strategy here too, in case you’re on a budget and want to still eat good and not be stuck with just any old fast food you can find. Go to the market and buy, good olive oil, lemon ( that’s all you need for salad dressing), some olives or other jarred pickled items (beets, asparagus, artichokes, etc.), nuts, whatever fruit is in season, maybe a good chocolate bar, a fresh baguette, and whatever else looks intriguing. I usually go to the deli counter and ask the butcher: Que es mejor cheso de Catalan (or wherever we are)? They usually give us a sample and we tell them how many Euros we want to spend and they give us that. So then if you don’t want to wait until 8pm for dinner and instead you just want to relax in your hotel room, you can enjoy tapas in your room, maybe with a bottle of wine. A traditional way to prepare bread as a tapas is to toast it if you can, cut a tomato in half and rub that onto the toast, lightly salt and drizzle with good olive oil. You can also scrub the toast with a slice of garlic for a variety.
So on to other food highlights of the trip. In Sevilla, roast shoulder of lamb at Alta Mira in the old city. Salmorejo, a cross between a light cream soup and a chopped salad (boiled eggs, bacon bits, tomatoes, etc. ) Also the venison stew at Naranjos in Sierra de la Zaharra, in the mountains of Andalusia. And the creamy dessert, possibly ricotta lightly sweetened with pineapple blended in was wonderful. Way too many great little pasteleria’s everywhere to not have a sweet pastry and coffee with warm milk blended in. In Ronda, another white Andalusian village, Restaurant Socorro, where we had eggplant sliced, coated fried then drizzled with cane syrup and their ultra sweet Chestnut cream dessert. In Toledo, quail stew with white bean soup, comfort food, especially since it was unseasonably cold while on this trip.
But tonight in Lleida, what inspired me to finally sit down and take note of these highlights was the food experience I’ve been looking for, truly ‘tipico’ dinner served by someone who really cares about the food experience. The Lladanosa family operates the Nastasi Hotel and Restaurants. Since it was Sunday the fine dining restaurant was closed but The Tram was open and Peppito was cooking. Peppito is the father and owner along with his ebullient son Pepo. These two Catalans to the soul, serve up proudly, the best local ingredients they can find; from the little jar of olive oil at the table hand labeled to inform you it’s origin, to the final liquor of the meal. We tried the Esqueixada de bacalla, a cold salad of cod that had been brined in salt and tomato and likely garlic, served with carrot and dark little olives. Very tipico! Then the best salad ever, Escalivada amb formatge de cabra, a round of goat cheese topped with roasted peppers and eggplants, baked inside a filo dough pouch served with green salad, cracklings and tomatoes with balsamic reduction drizzled over the top. Prior to all this they taught us about Pan y Tomate, the toasted bread raked with tomato I mentioned earlier. The entrée we selected was Rostit de Tira Argentina, a slow roasted piece of t-bone beef served with herb/oil sauce. The roast potatoes and tomato were on the side and nothing to ignore themselves, perfectly caramelized Yukon gold….or similar yellow potato. We were too full for dessert so Pepo treated us to a taste of the local liquor, Catalan Cream and another yellow more medicinal liquid derived from assorted local herbs. I forgot to mention the soup, since we were having such a great time discussing Spain and it’s people with Pepo, who lived for a year in Florida and is quite a world traveler. The soup, Tasseta d’Olla Aranesa, was similar to chicken noodle soup but with the addition of meatballs. Again, comfort Catalan style.
The Tram is located in what appears to be an actual train car, very charming! I hope all reading this find not only the food they crave but the experience of true love of culture to accompany that as well.  writtem Feb 12, 2012

    Friday, February 17, 2012

    Cordoba, Toledo, Madrid, Lleida and home

    Before we forget what the last week of our trip involved, I better write a quick rundown.
    Cordoba, famous for the Mosquita, a mashup of Visigoth, Moorish and Christian Renaissance.  This large  'church' spans about two city blocks with the beautiful moorish arched naves surrounded by Christian chapels to various saints.  We've seen enough of these impressive structures though for one trip and instead enjoyed the attached knot gardens with fabulous fountains and sculpted trees.

    The unique thing for us in Cordoba was trying to get the car out of the underground parking of the hotel.  The front desk came running to help and instead of our forward and backward maneuvers around the pillars, they quickly backed right up the steep exit ramp and with only two adjustments and someone to watch for oncoming traffic got us on the street and going in the correct direction.  And we only ran one red light on the way out of town, yikes!

    On to Toledo, just an hour or so south of Madrid.  Found a great hotel, that looked like an Italian villa on the hill across from the famous view of Toledo.  Took the bus into the old town on the hill and visited one of the museums of art.  The El Greco of Mary's Immaculate Conception was worth the visit alone.  Did some window shopping and found a  high end chain of Spanish food for dinner that had great Paella, beans in gravy and chocolate cake for dessert.

    The next morning we took the fast train into Madrid (half hour) to visit three art museums.  Especially the Prado, the largest art museum in the world.  We knew this would be a challenge but we didn't really want to take two days for this so we gutted it out, literally.  We could hardly walk after a day of visiting first the Joaquim Sorolla museum, then the full Prado including a special exhibit of the collection from the Hermitage of Moscow, and finally the Sofia Reina to see Geurnica by Picasso.  Too much of a good thing, definitely but I think we'd do it again.

    From Toledo, we had to drive around Madrid to go East, which was challenging. We only went out of our way a few roundabouts to find our way.  But we ended up in the small city of Lleida for the night in an interesting spa hotel, Nastasi.  Run by a family of restauranterus; we met them when we went to dinner that evening. The restaurant, the Tram, was in an old railroad dining car and thanks to the fact that the waiter had gone to school in FL many years ago, his english was good and we had a great time learning about the Catalan food his father prepared. We sampled  various things.  We also discussed the temperament of the country and our experiences.  He felt that Spain is depressed as a whole and worried, thus withdrawn. The unemployment is over 20%, prices are high and employers and employees are stretched to the limit, according to him.  We were amazed at how clean everything was in Spain, and how well maintained the highways and public facilities were.  So on the other hand, it didn't look depressed, just acted depressed.

    We only had a day left so we drove to Montserrat, a beautiful village in the serrated mountains (thus the name) just northwest of Barcelona.  We heard the boys choir in the cathedral and visited their decent art museum. I enjoyed a watercolor by John Singer Sargent, of a woman with an umbrella (all in white) and the paintings of Joaquim Mir.  The photographic views to and from the village were spectacular....another village multiple hairpin turns up into the mountains.  At the end of the day we drove to our hotel in Barcelona to try for an early night since we had an early flight.

    We're home now and it's good to be home.   When we got to the Minneapolis airport we were even treated to a couple of free bowls of chili at the new restaurant that hasn't quite officially opened yet.  The Hotdish.  It is located where Houligans used to be, at the end of ticketing at the Main Terminal.  Nice folks and good chili!

    More photos to come as well as a food blog summarizing the high points.

    Thursday, February 9, 2012

    The White Villages of Andalucia

    From Sevilla we drove just an hour or so south into the mountains to a string of white painted villages nestled up against mountainsides.  The first we came to was Arcos de la Frontera where we simply took a little tourist bus loop tour around the village.  The best thing about that town was a local gentleman, Antonio who took us under his wing and made sure we found the proper bus, in fact he waited until it arrived and explained to the driver how to 'handle' us.  Very sweet.

    Next we drove onto another, Zahara de la Sierra, up a mountain side with an ancient brick tower built by the Moors crowning the mountain.  We stayed in the most primitive place yet, the only guests at the Hostal Marques de la Zahara.  The room was freezing (colder inside than outside).  When we asked about that and the lack of hot water in the bathroom we were told in Spanish that we could use the room next door for hot water and he brought in a little electric space heater which warmed up our room by about 3 in the morning.  The next morning it was down right blustery outside.  The cold weather is still gripping Europe. 

    The night before we had a great meal after hiking up to the tower at sunset for fantastic photo ops.  The dinner was the best Venison stew ever with potatoes and veggies.  Then a nice light pineapple cream (ricotta?) dessert....always with the wine of the area. 

    Zahara below and another village across the lake.
    Although it's blustery, it's still sunny and we drove up the mountain, into a National Park, Sierra de Grazalema.. The road kept climbing and winding up up up until I , now driving for the first time on this trip, couldn't look down anymore it was so high.  We also drove through the White Village of Grazalema ending in the eastern white village of Ronda, one of the largest.  Ronda is famous for the oldest bullring in Spain and for a bridge that spans a gorge in the old village between the Moorish Village and the Christian.  A spectacular bridge, short but very tall.  In Ronda we met our first American traveling friends on this trip, Frank and Rosemary from Georgia.  It felt great to share stories and experiences as they have the traveling bug too.  Surprising how many of their recent experiences mirrored ours, especially regarding driving and finding your way in the cities.  We had dinner with them at a local Bodega, Sorcorro, last night.  The fried eggplant, thinly cut and coated was then drizzled with Miel de Cane, Cane Syrup.  Very unique.  Nearly all the soups or gazpacho in Spain are served cold, probably because it's normally a very warm place, but we were craving warm soup with the cold weather.  Yata had a great gazpacho that was essentially squash soup topped with Iberian ham pieces.  Great!  Then some fried shrimp and for dessert I tried the Chestnut cream.  Rosemary and I think is was spiced with Cloves, Cinnamon and possibly Cardomon.  Way too sweet though, all by itself.  It'd be nice on top of a warm slice of shortbread with a little whip cream.

    Ronda's bridge.
    We drove down to the coast but didn't stop since it was just built up development.  We thought we'd go to Picasso's Museum in Malaga but went a bit unprepared and had no idea how to find it, so we just kept on going to Cordoba. In Cordoba we  toured the Mezquita, another historic temple with Visigoth/MoorishChristian history. Such opulence is mind bogling. Also toured another ancient palace with fabulous Roman mosaics and a large knot garden with many topiary and fountains. Got lost coming back through the old city streets. Tonight, we just went to the grocery store again and bought lots of salad fixins' after all the meat we've had.  We got a jar of pickled beets, some of the best local cheese, spring greens and nuts and fresh baguette, satisfied! Now we're comfy in our hotel. We're staying in LaBoutique Hotel tonight, very chic!  Rico pero no caro! (Rich but not expensive)

    Did I mention that the Spanish are not big on English, compared to all the other European countries we've traveled in?  The good thing about that though, is it's forcing us to learn Spanish, fun!

    Favorite meal so far?  Yata would say the paella dinner at L'Ampola, just south of Barcelona on the coast.  I like the wine there but my favorite meals was the paella on a plaza in Valencia, althought the grilled artichoke in Barcelona was the best individual item so far. 

    Best art piece so far:  Yata: Sorolla's, Lunch on the Boat,

    but he also loved the Joan Miro museum

    and aquired an appreciation for modern art like never before. 

    Jean's: Eugenio Gomez Mir's oil paintings (post impressionist),
    sculpture on Familia Sagrada's Passion Facade by Josep Maria Subirachs