Author Archive for AnneInSpain – Page 2

Camino Inglés – the English Route

Traditionally English pilgrims (when England was still Catholic) or other northern European pilgrims (ditto) sailed to the ports of El Ferrol or La Coruña and journeyed south from those points on what we now call the Camino Inglés (English Route). It’s a north-south route straight into Santiago without coinciding with the French route.

Nowadays the Camino Inglés is a lot less travelled than the other historical routes like the French, Portuguese or coastal routes. If you’ve done other Camino routes, or have not (yet) but want a shorter or less travelled option the Camino Inglés is a good choice.

Guidebook: John Brierley’s book on Sarria – Santiago – Finisterre, including the Muxia circuit and the Camino Inglés.

When walked: July 7-11, 2017

Route: Ferrol – Santiago, about 123 kilometers. Another branch starts in La Coruña, about 76 kilometers so does not qualify for the Compostela certificate (if that is important for you), though La Coruña is a nicer city than Ferrol.

What’s good and less good: I really liked the mixture of sea and mountains first three days, then the transition to countryside. Lots of varied forests, including chestnut trees at a low altitude. Less good: walking Ferrol – Fene (about 20 kilometers) has a fair amount of industry (old shipyards) and warehouses. Part of that is unavoidable but I can’t help wondering if they could have routed around instead of through some of the warehouse areas.

Usual stages and other ideas: Brierley’s suggested six stages are probably the best for distances and infrastucture: Ferrol – Neda (15.5k), Neda – Pontedeume (16k), Pontedeume – Betanzos (20.7k), Betanzos – Hospital de Bruma 28.4k, big hill), Hospital de Bruma – Sigüeiro (25.2k), Sigüeiro – Santiago (17.2k), all distances as per Brierley. I did it in five stages (Ferrol – Pontedeume first day), and it’s also possible to break Betanzos – Hospital just short of the halfway point.

Important note: route changes in near future: if you are planning to do this route soon: some routing changes are planned and will be marked this fall, so be aware that current guidebooks will not be 100% accurate. New route will hit all the major towns and many of the smaller ones; in some places changes will be minor and in other places more important (one local woman says the new route from their town into Sigüeiro is much better than current route). At least one change has already been made: shortly before Hospital de Bruma (well after Casa Julia): the official signage seems to disappear, replaced by handmade yellow arrows nailed to trees and newly painted arrows with slightly different color of yellow. Fear not, the apparent improvisation is the real route (for now) and re-connects with official signage.

Signage: Better than expected but not perfect. There are lots of crossroads and you have to watch carefully, sometimes signage is there but not immediately visible from your angle or covered by vegetation. Lots of arrows painted on the asphalt.  Going through industrial / warehouse areas can be tricky, especially just outside Santiago, where there is almost no signage (basic idea for Santiago warehouse area: after turning left into warehouse area stay straight ahead through two rotundas, walking on left side of the road, warehouses are on the right side of the road. Signage reappears shortly after last warehouses).

Infrastructure: Fewer supermarkets, albergues, pensiones, hotels, bars than on the Camino Francés, Camino Norte or Camino to Finisterre. Not a deal-breaker, but you do need to be more aware of your supply places.

Places to sleep: Most of these places are listed in Brierley book. Ferrol: I stayed at Hostal La Frontera, good location but a little minimalist and bar doesn’t open until 8am. Nearby Hostal Zahara (not in Brierley) looks nicer and bar opens at 6am for breakfast (excellent tomato toast). Camino friends recommended La Almendra. Pontedeume: I stayed at Hostal Norte and wouldn’t repeat, no elevator, very minimalist, bar opens at 8.30am. Nicest hotel Eumesa is at a very busy intersection, Pension Luis is well located but looks very small. My pick here would for a repeat visit probably be Hostal Allegue. Betanzos: I had a reservation at Posada Cheiño, but switched to Hospedaje Betanzos, where a little more money got me a huge room with bathroom (other place didn’t have bathroom) and access to a full kitchen. Camino friends say the municipal albergue here is excellent. Hospital de Bruma: I stayed two kilometers up the hill at Hotel Canaima (Alto do Viento), nice room with full bathtub to soak your weary body after long day and big uphill – though neither dinner nor breakfast at the hotel was memorable, and price was a little high. Almost right across the highway from the hotel: Pension o Meson Novo, less expensive though no idea on what it’s like (you do not have to return to the albergue to continue the Camino, there’s a paved road that does a diagonal to join the Camino several kilometers beyond the albergue). Same Camino friend who recommended Betanzos albergue says the Hospital de Bruma albergue is very good, but there are only 22 spaces so the hotel / pension are good to know about. Sigüeiro: Stayed at Sigüeiro hostal and really liked it, this was my favorite accommodation on this trip. New with modern design, nice bed and interesting bathroom setup (shower and toilet in one space, sink outside in the room, much more efficient for sharing a room), very good dinner and good breakfast.

Places to eat / have coffee: Surprisingly, I did not see any “menu del día” deals. This fixed price menu idea is all over Spain, not just on the Camino, and not seeing any at all was strange. That has price implications, since the fixed price menu is usually a much better deal than ordering off the menu, so you will need to pick and choose both your places and what you eat. Places to stop on the trail: The Brierley book is pretty accurate though not 100%, due to scarcity of stopping places it’s good to plan ahead to be sure you have water and food. Places I stopped showing my stage breakdown, either memorable or not in Brierley or not well described in Brierley, other bars exist most days: Day 1: Neda-Santa Maria, no bar at Neda pedestrian bridge by the albergue, continue another 15 minutes to find a bar just beyond Santa Maria church (not in Brierley), Vilar de Colo bar is in the warehouse area, not in the town. Day 2: Miño: bar Green (memorable), turn right down short flight of stairs when you see the basketball court-square, bar is under arcades on left side of the square. He gave me a chunk of homemade poundcake (bizcocho) and slices of melon and watermelon for free, plus some tourism pamphlets (supermarket in same square). Day 3 ( Killer Day Betanzos – Hospital de Bruma): Only two bars on a long and challenging day, first in Presedo,  Xente do Camiño (memorable) which is well after the sign for the local albergue, good place with food and big outdoor sitting area and second in Vilacoba, Casa Julia which is small place right on the highway, easy to walk past but a stop is highly recommended since (for now) this is last stop before Hospital de Bruma. Casa Julia is also the place they count pilgrims, see below, if you speak Spanish chat with the young man. He was making filloas (local version of crepes) when I went by on a Sunday, handing them out to all customers. Day 4: Centro/Calle, bar Cruceiro, friendly with good potato omelette, empanada and poundcake, a classic Camino stop. Day 5: Hotel Castro (not in Brierley), about 2-2.5 hours from Sigüeiro. Places in towns (mostly dinners), I ate at these places: Ferrol: bar-restaurant near main square, right in front of Pescaderia fish market, excellent seafood, big outdoor sitting area. Pontedeume and Betanzos both dinner spots were forgettable, both towns have a lot of options. Breakfasts in those towns: Pontedeume, Café Martinho is right in front of the bridge, opens 6am. Betanzos, Churreria-cafeteria just to the left of calle Rollo (Camino street), near though not on calle Venezuela, opens 6.30am except Sundays when 7am or in fiestas when 8am. Hospital de Bruma, there’s a restaurant right by the albergue that my Camino friend likes, I didn’t stop since I was going on to the hotel, where dinner was forgettable. Sigüeiro: cruised town and did not find many options, perhaps because of Monday closings, ended back and Sigüeiro hostel and had a yummy dinner of mushrooms and potatoes, good food at a good price AND they have a secret back terrace that you do not see from the front, very good choice for dinner.

Beaches: Weather was not cooperating during my walk so I didn’t even dabble my toes in the sea but here are my observations: several beaches on the way out of Ferrol, excellent La Magdalena beach in Cabanas just before Pontedeume, and just after Miño near Ponte do Porco.

Fiesta Betanzos: My trip coincided with the Medieval Market in the medieval town of Betanzos. Market was cute and had nice things – but backpacking you have to think at least twice before buying anything. If you are planning for the future and want to see this or avoid it (town was packed to the rafters), check the dates: it’s probably the second weekend in July.

People on the trail: This route is a lot less travelled than other routes – my “bubble” (people more or less in same space on same day) was about 25-30 people. The young man in Casa Julia (see above) says he counts pilgrims and that day (a Sunday) he had seen 21 so far – he counted 2000 pilgrims last August (about that many daily arrive in Santiago early July). Obviously 25 people a day is not a lot – but several albergues are about that size so good to plan accordingly and know your options.

Going alone? I saw two other women walking alone, and two other Italian women who were sort of together and sort of not together. I felt completely safe, but it must be said that women alone are still a little unusual here so if you are a woman and go alone you might get some comments (like I did). For that reason, if you have never walked alone and are feeling a little uneasy about it, perhaps a more-travelled route would be better for a first solo experience.

Want more walking? Before your Camino Inglés: San Andres de Teixido is about 50 kilometers from Ferrol, according to the Ferrol tourism office marked all the way with stone pillars with a red fish (see photo). Actually, if you want to put together a longer route, part Camino de Santiago and part local custom, start here: https://caminoasanandres.com/ (Spanish only, sorry), scroll down a tiny bit and click on Caminos de San Andrés: if you know your Camino de Santiago routes you’ll see Ribadeo (north route) and Ourense (Via de la Plata / Sanabres route), as well as other towns on the Camino Ingles as starting places to walk to San Andres, so you could put together a longer combo route in this area. Galician lore says that if you don’t visit San Andrés while living, you must visit after death, so locals often make pilgrimage to this site, more important for them than going to Santiago. Learn more about the San Andrés route: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Andr%C3%A9s_de_Teixido     After your Camino Inglés: what better choice than Santiago – Finisterre – Muxia? The journey to Muxia for Virgen de la Barca / Virgin of the Boat is again more important for locals than Santiago – celebration date is the first Sunday after September 8. For more about this shrine go to http://concellomuxia.com/en/item/santuario-da-virxe-da-barca/

Cabo de Gata: Sea and Sun – and lots more

 

 

Like sun? Like nature? Like outdoor sports? Like lesser-known destinations, and don’t mind a longer drive or figuring out some transportation options?

 

 

Then consider Cabo de Gata, the southeast tip of Spain. Almost desert-dry, with the lowest rainfall in all of Europe, so your chances of warm, dry weather are pretty good most of the year, and there are things to do if the sun doesn’t shine during your entire stay.

So exactly where is this? Between Mojácar (south-ish on Spain’s east coast), and Almeria city (east-ish on Spain’s south coast), and everything east of a line through Níjar connecting the two places – plus a bit north of that line (Sorbas and Tabernas).

Cabo de Gata Natural Park: One of the main attractions of this area is the Cabo de Gata Natural park, declared in 1987. Thanks partly to park zoning, the coast between Mojácar and Almería has mostly escaped excessive development; farther back in time the lack of water also hindered development, so now you can enjoy a relatively pristine coast. “Relatively” pristine, as ironically, the park did bring some rather unfortunate building in urban areas, along with much needed money from increased tourism. Hopefully the park zoning and environmentalist interest will help guide the area’s development in the future.

So what’s to see?

Along the coast

— Villages or man-made: Mojácar, charming white village on a hill overlooking the sea. Agua Amarga (south of Mojácar) and Cabo de Gata (south coast, east of Almeria), two old fishing villages, now developed but still with a bit of old flavor. Cabo de Gata lighthouse on southeasternmost tip, placement and view. Cabo de Gata saltpans, probably used in Roman times and still in operation; saltpans are between lighthouse and village. Almeria city, castle and Cathedral built on site of a 10th century mosque; can see bits of mosque but not as spectacular as Córdoba. Almeria city also has a museum with some archeological artifacts from the area, though the best pieces are in Madrid.

— Nature: View from Mesa Roldan lookout. Rock formations, all along eastern coast but especially between San José and the lighthouse, in the sea and on the beaches. Crater of old volcano, northwest of Los Escullos. Flamingos and other bird life in salt pans near Cabo de Gata village. Sand dunes, especially Playa de los Genoveses. Best beaches: Monsul and Genoveses beaches near San Jose. Agua Amarga beach, small but nice, and beaches south of that village, some only accessible on foot at low tide. El Playazo, near Rodalquilar village. Cabo de Gata village beach is long but rather rocky. Some nice beaches near Carboneras (east coast) but nearby cement factory is a bit off-putting. Mojácar’s beaches are smallish and outside town. San Pedro nudist beach just north of Las Negras (nice walking path to get there, 40 minutes); this used to be a lovely, almost pristine beach but has some issues now –illegal bars, “alternative lifestyle” settlement that is not terribly respectful of the environment.

Inland

— Villages or man-made: Near Tabernes: several US – Western town film sets remaining from the 1950-1970’s era of “paella westerns”, host to stars like Clint Eastwood, Brigitte Bardot, Harrison Ford, Raquel Welch and others. Nijar village, one of largest in the area and typical of inland Almeria. “Norias” or water-wheels to draw water for irrigation from underground, one of the best is in Pozo de los Frailes. Abandoned gold mines near Rodalquilar. Cortijo del Fraile ruins near Rodalquilar, site of the events described in Federico Garcia Lorca’s tragedy Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding). Archaeological sites (prehistoric and Roman), interesting for history buffs.

— Nature: Tabernas desert, limestone “karst” formations around Sorbas: at least Aguas and Covadura caves, also some gorges so narrow they look like caves.

Environment / sports: There are lots of opportunities for activities in nature (diving, kayaking, hiking, cycling, horseback riding, caving in Sorbas) BUT please remember this is a natural park in a fragile environment, with permit requirements or restrictions for some activities. As always, leave no litter, and if you see any left by less considerate visitors, perhaps you could do a good deed and pick it up. Information on active travel companies in links below.

Shopping: Traditional crafts include ceramics (often cream and blue, some greens and grays). Rag rugs called “jarapas”: these rugs were often used on beds to protect the bedspread. Woven grass mats and baskets. “Indalo” fertility goddess symbol, a stylized stick figure with outspread arms. Good places for shopping: Níjar, Sorbas, Mojácar, San José.

When to go: October – May, with early June and late September a possibility though with higher temperatures. I have swum in the ocean in December (and don’t consider myself especially fond of cold water). BUT….. If it rains, it (usually) pours: Yes, this is the driest part of Europe, but when it rains, it is often a downpour that can cause flash floods. Notice the number of no-bridge stream crossings, where minor paved or unpaved roads dip down over a gully. Heavy rains can and do fill these empty gullies with roaring rivers (hard to believe but true). If that happens, do not try to drive across what was yesterday a dry gully. Ask locals about alternative routes, or even better, ask local police or Guardia Civil; they’ll be in charge of any rescue operations so give them a chance to stop the rescue situation before it happens.

Best villages to stay: Mojacar, Agua Amarga, Las Negras, Rodalquilar (a little inland), San Jose, Cabo de Gata all have hotels of different styles and prices.

How to get there: By car: Fastest but less scenic: southeast to Murcia, then south through Lorca; this is the best route if you plan to stay in Mojácar or Agua Amarga. Most scenic, more challenging driving: to Granada then south through Sierra Nevada and southeast to Almeria through the Alpujarra mountains on smaller roads (several possible routes). Other transportation: Almería station is centralized for train and bus. Madrid – Almeria is a very long trip, so direct bus not a good idea, but Alsa buses run from Jaen, Granada, Sevilla and Malaga. Renfe has direct Madrid – Almeria train service, usually one or two trains a day, sometimes more April-September (www.renfe.es); alas, the convenient night train seems to have disappeared. Almeria does have an airport, and flights may be cheaper than the train. Many towns in this area are connected to Almeria by bus, so if you don’t plan to move around much, public transportation is possible.

And last but definitely not least, that question you may be asking yourself: Why is this called Cape Girl-kitty? And the answer is: the name doesn’t come from “cat” but from “agate” (semi-precious stone) that used to be found along the coast. And yes, if you know your rocks and you’re really lucky, you still might find an agate or two.
Websites for more information / pre-trip planning: English version not always available or complete.

https://www.cabogataalmeria.com/ Good general site with lots of links, well organized. This would be my first pick. On this site, info on the “Western” towns: http://www.cabogataspain.com/Gata-Nature-Reserve/Activities/Leisure/Western-Village-Tabernas.html

Other sites:
www.cabodegata-nijar.es
www.degata.com
https://www.turismodealmeria.org

http://www.museosdeandalucia.es/cultura/museos/MAL/      Website for Almeria Archaeological museum.

https://www.turismodealmeria.org/prepara-tu-viaje/como-llegar/    Some info on bus lines in the province of Almeria.

More information, once you’re there:
Park visitor’s center: Centro de Interpretación de la Naturaleza Las Amoladeras,
Highway AL-3115, Tramo Retamar-Pujaire Km. 7.

Other places for additional information (park or general tourism), take your pick here: https://www.cabogataalmeria.com/Cabo-Gata/Parque-Natural/Puntos-Informacion.html

 

Hike Like a Girl

Hike in a skirt? Really? The same thing you wear for dress-up days at the office, to church, out on a special night on the town?

Yes. Oh my yes. I’m a total convert.

Hiking skirts came across my screen many years ago and I sort of laughed off the idea, but it stuck in the back of my hiking-brain. Last year I did my first serious forays into the world of skirt-hiking. It only took a few days on the trail to realize what I’d been missing all along.

And we’re talking skirts, not skorts. Skorts are fine for many things, excellent for travel or if skirts just feel too airy for you in some situations. Skorts also let you go with a shorter length, if that’s what you want. But when it comes to hiking, skirts have some real advantages over skorts, shorts and long trousers.

 

So why hike in a skirt?

–   Ease of pee: it’s a lot easier to flip up a skirt and drop the undies than to unsnap, unzip and drop trousers or shorts as well as the undies. It’s also faster and more discrete – less likely you’ll get caught showing the unshowable if you’re wearing a skirt.  And wedgies? Less likely in a skirt, less noticeable and easier to fix.  Ummm.  Some women even talk about going commando (no undies). I’m not ready for that, at least not yet and maybe never, especially in a knee-length skirt.  But it’s an idea.

–   Temperature regulation: in the summer skirts are much cooler than shorts. In cool weather, wear with leggings, and if it gets warm, just pull off the leggings without having to change everything.

–   Less washing: Since skirts are less in contact with your body (especially the sweaty part of lower body) they stay cleaner for longer.

–   Go everywhere. If you are on a multi-day hike / cultural trip and trying to pack light, a skirt goes more places than shorts or even trousers. Yes, you can wear trousers or shorts many places, but not in all countries or all situations. And even if there are no cultural issues, skirts are nicer and you might feel better at a restaurant or cultural sight wearing a skirt, especially if your other option is shorts (because skirts are almost always cuter than shorts, right?)

 

Making your trail skirt selection:

–   Length: Best is between just above the knee and about mid-calf: shorter and you need to be careful about sitting down or legging up on the trail, longer and you might trip over it – unless there’s an easy way to shorten temporarily like the Macabi skirt.

–   Style: too straight / tight will restrict movement, extremely loose may get tangled on trailside vegetation. Some of the straight designs have kick pleats or shaped hem that gives a little more freedom of movement, but generally speaking flared, gathered or with gores are a better choice. Especially good: a style that is not too obviously for the trail – or at least something you feel ok about off-trail if you will be doing any multi-faceted trips.

–   Waistband: many skirts are designed to ride on the hips instead of the waist – is that ok for you? Some skirts have fold over knit waistbands instead of woven waistband – that probably means pull-on style and adjustable length by folding over the waistband – is that ok with you? If the skirt has a waistband and zipper, look at zipper placement: zippers and buttons in the back or side might not be comfortable wearing a big pack and hunky waist belt. Personally I prefer a real waistband with belt loops, letting me adjust the waist size with a tug on the belt -on long hikes my waist measurement can vary somewhat, so having a real waistband and a belt (just one tug to change size) is better for me – but a waistband and belt is just a bother for other women.

–   Fabric: As for any trail clothes, all cotton is not the best because when it gets wet (sweat, rain, washing) it takes forever to dry. Better to look for blends of some cotton but more synthetic , or a technical textile like supplex nylon – feels almost like cotton but zap dries (technical textiles are not as cool as natural textiles, but zap-dry is a real advantage). Some trail skirts are wool, which I’ve never used but people who have absolutely rave about wool (cool, warm, doesn’t get stinky, etc) . Some trail skirts are knit, which I probably would avoid because knits usually take a little longer to dry, snag more easily (brambles, oh dear), and get stretched out or baggy more quickly than woven fabrics.

–   Pockets: Yes, yes and yes. It’s especially nice to have at least one security pocket closing with a zipper or snaps. Check pocket design and location – will the pockets interfere with a big pack? Are the cargo pockets nicely designed and in a place where they don’t emphasize the widest part of the anatomy?

 

Try skirt hiking before you buy: If this is starting to sound like a good idea but you’re still not sure, check your closet. Maybe you have a skirt to test the idea on a few day hikes: pick something you already have that is more or less right for the job and go for a hike, maybe with shorts or trousers in your pack in case it really doesn’t work. And if it really doesn’t work, ask yourself why. Are trail skirts just not for you, or was your skirt not the right thing? If it was the skirt, what wasn’t right?

What I’ve used: Macabi original skirt and Kuhl Splash skirt. For me, the first is better for spring and fall, it’s a little hot for summer in Spain (though I love it for general travel in the summer). For summer hiking my favorite is the Kuhl Splash skirt (thanks to the person who clued me in, you know who you are). It’s cool, cute and the right shape for my body – only negative aspect is that it has a little too much cotton so it takes a little longer to dry. Alas, this skirt has been discontinued, you still might find on dealers like Campmor, Sierra Trading Post or Zappos.

Some brand names for hiking skirts: Some of these are general sportswear manufacturers so you may need to filter a little to find the skirts (no websites, sorry, but a quick google will turn up any of these, perhaps adding the word skirt if you don’t find on the first try): Purple Rain / Macabi / Sierra Designs / Mountain Hardware / Patagonia / Exofficio / Kühl / Columbia / Marmot / Royal Robbins

Can’t find what you want on these sites, or looking for deals? Look on end-of-line places like Campmor, Sierra Trading Post, Zappos, Moosejaw, Shoebuy.

Not thrilled with the style of the hiking skirts you see, though you really like the idea of hiking in a skirt? Look at the more general sites for travel or urban leisure clothing like Travelsmith, Lands End, LL Bean. Especially if you end up on one of these sites, before deciding what to get think how you’ll use your skirt. Fabric content and pockets (for example) are less important on a skirt for day hikes than for long, self-contained through hikes.

Not just for girls: Some secure and forward thinking men have posted their skirt-hiking experience on websites and gear reviews. Ease of pee is not an issue; most have tried and liked skirt hiking because it’s so much cooler –avoiding what some call “crotch rot”

La Latina Like a Local

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The secret is out. La Latina is the best ‘hood in central Madrid.

Actually, the secret has been out for a while. La Latina Locals have known for a very long time, it’s just the non-locals who have discovered us recently. And while not native Spanish, as a thirty-two year resident of La Latina – and two additional years in nearby Tirso – I’m totally a La Latina Local. I’ve seen kids grow up; spry adults turn into creaky elders; and commerce appear and disappear, all in the heart of this fabulous neighborhood.

So what is so special about La Latina? Read on for the scoop from a local.

It’s super-central – about a ten minute walk from the Plaza Mayor – but mostly quiet, a village inside the city (except when non-locals arrive en masse to have fun).

It’s cool in temperature as well as vibe – we get cooler winds almost direct from the mountains by way of El Pardo, the Casa de Campo and Las Vistillas park.

It’s friendly – the locals know and greet each other on the street, in the stores and in the bar-cafés, striking up conversations on every imaginable topic.

It has everything that La Latina Locals need within easy walking distance, including access to Madrid Rio and Casa de Campo parks.

 

Visitors tend to stay in a few specific spots – so where do the La Latina Locals live their lives?

Bars / cafés: Muñiz (own churros in the morning, coffee, a quick beer and hanging out); old style Almacen de Vinos (Gerardo) and “Vinos” for beers and hanging out; all on Calatrava street. J.Blanco on Tabernillas street for aperitifs or beers. Paco on Humilladero is another traditional spot, now discovered by non-locals so in transition. All these spots are very authentic and very different from less-local spots around Plaza Humilladero – Tomas, Tomasa, El Viajero or designer tapa spot Juana La Loca which alas, took over the locale of a traditional tapa bar.

Food shopping: Best bread bakery in La Latina: Tahona del Capricho on Humilladero street. Best pastries at + Que Pan (More than Bread using plus symbol) on Plaza de los Carros (good bread, excellent pastries and cakes and a nice small coffee shop). Cheese and cold cuts at Los Andes on Toledo street (excellent selection of Spanish cheese, some foreign). Best wine and liquor shop: Vinomania on Humilladero, corner Sierpe (not huge but very good, varied selection of Spanish wine, including some nice surprises from places you would not expect). All the local mom-and-pop grocery stores have disappeared, but some of the Chinese, Latino or Moroccan-run places have strong La Latina Local support (Chino on Toledo corner Sierpe, Ay Madre la Fruta and two small supermarkets on Humilladero to name a few). And of course the La Cebada market: it’s ugly from the outside and a little sad inside with lots of empty stalls, but the overall quality and service is very good.

Other shopping: La Latina is not a destination for shopping-shopping, though there are two interesting jewelry stores (Ruda and Almendro streets) and some fun and useful traditional shops (candles, espadrilles, baskets), though many other traditional shops have disappeared (cork store, wine-barrel maker, etc).

Churches:  Three La Latina chures are special for the neighborhood and for the entire city: La Paloma (south end of La Paloma street). The real name is San Pedro el Real, but everyone knows this church as La Paloma, home to the image of the Virgin of the Dove (La Paloma), Madrid’s true if unofficial patron saint. This area is Where it Happens for the crazy fun La Paloma street party in mid August, and the church isstart and end point for procession on August 15. San Isidro (calle Toledo). Final resting place of Madrid’s male patron saint San Isidro; this is start and end place for May 15 procession and where the faithful can venerate San Isidro’s tomb. San Pedro El Viejo (Nuncio street). This church is home to the image Jesus Nazareno el Pobre, one of Madrid’s most beloved religious statues, used in the very popular Thursday procession during Easter week.

Other noteworthy La Latina churches: San Andres on square of same name and San Francisco el Grande on south end of Bailen street (see post on this church at http://www.bridgetospain.com/san-francisco-el-grande/)

San Isidro museum (The Origins of Madrid) on Plaza de los Carros. While less local, this is a must-do for visitors to see the model and map of old Madrid (including most of today’s La Latina) and to learn about Madrid’s patron saint San Isidro, who was an 11th century La Latina Local.

The Barley Field: our empty lot. La Latina neighborhood has a huge empty lot between La Cebada market and Toledo street. It’s the site of the old sports complex, torn down in 2009 after several inoperative years. Theoretically the lot and the spectacularly ugly market next door are part of an urban renewal program (new market and leisure center) – but Madrid is still emerging from the Crisis and until there is more money we have….. a hole in the ground.

That’s the un-cool part. The cool part is that the hole in the ground is also the Campo de Cebada (The Barley Field), named for the surrounding “La Cebada” square and the market. Operating since 2010, it’s a citizen-run outdoor cultural project, with concerts, story-telling, basketball, occasional circuses or mini-markets; the concept is a shared space where people can get together, chat, have fun, share ideas. Oh, and sometimes have August “pool parties” in protest for the delay in creating our leisure center – wear your swimsuit, bring buckets of water, squirt-guns and your towel. City Hall has given its OK on the Campo de la Cebada for now, though probably no funding for activities. It’s not clear when / if the urban renewal project will happen or what will happen to the Barley Field when (if) the project happens (go to http://elcampodecebada.org/ and “Agenda” to see upcoming events at The Barley Field).

Practical information:

Geographical limits: La Latina borders are more or less these: from Plaza Segovia Nueva (just south of Plaza Mayor) south along Toledo street, Estudios street and Ribera de Curtidores to Ronda de Toledo, then west to Glorieta Puerta de Toledo, north-northwest along Gran Via de San Francisco and Bailen to the Viaducto over Segovia street and Segovia street east back to Plaza Segovia Nueva. That’s the big picture: many locals would say that the part between Toledo and Ribera de Curtidores is Rastro, not La Latina, others would end the neighborhood at Cava Alta / Almendro in the north instead of Plaza Segovia Nueva. And take note: central Madrid La Latina neighborhood takes its name from the subway stop, and is completely different from City Hall administrative district La Latina, a southwest slice of the city, not in the center.

What’s in the name: La Latina metro stop takes its name from Beatriz Galindo, founder with her husband of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción convent. Beatriz was a writer and teacher, most notably to Isabel La Católica (who ruled 1474-1504) and Isabel’s children; Beatriz’s nickname was La Latina due to her skill in Latin from a very young age. The convent was founded in the early 16th century on Toledo street next to Plaza de la Cebada, outside the city center of that time and next to a small hospital. The original building was torn down in 1904 to widen Toledo, and shortly after that a new convent built in a neo-mudejar decorative brick style. Fiestas Paco party-ware store is at street level of the current convent, which bears a plaque explaining the founding of the original convent.

Metro stops: La Latina in the north, Puerta de Toledo in the south and Tirso de Molina a little out of neighborhood to the east.

 

Cider in Spain

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What traditional Spanish beverage needs a good eye and steady hands to be at its best? What traditional Spanish beverage is almost a sign of identity for its region? And what traditional beverage has a long list of health benefits?

The answer to all three questions is: sidra: hard apple cider, popular in many European countries and to some extent on the other side of the Atlantic. Here in Spain it takes on a personality all its own, with legends and lore galore.

Spain’s cider-land is mostly along the north coast: Basque region, Cantabria and especially Asturias, where about 80% of Spain’s cider is produced – and drunk, with about 90% consumed right in the region. For that reason we’ll talk about Asturias in this article – though by all means you should try sidra when traveling in other cider regions.

So what is sidra like? It’s a lightly alcoholic beverage made of fermented apple juice – in Spain usually 4º – 6º (like a hearty beer); alcohol content is sometimes higher in other countries, where the espumoso (bubbly) cider is more frequent than the natural that is so popular in northern Spain.

Cider apples are usually not table apples – they’re a little smaller and juicier. The Regulation Council for Asturian Cider accepts 22 varieties of local apples, rated as tart, sweet, bitter or mixed.

Like wine, cider makers use different mixtures of apples to get the final product they want. That’s quite an art: like grapes, apples are different every year, with varying sugar content depending on the weather, so finding the right mixture of still unfermented juices is a delicate process.

Depending on the manufacturing process and apples used, sidra can be very pale yellow to dark gold in color, and clear or slightly cloudy. Some ciders are bubbly and some are not – see the end to learn about different kinds of cider.

201612ciderpressMaking sidra natural The process is simple – many tiny cider houses and even country families and make their own for family and friends: see photo of Guillermo showing the traditional crushing – he’s made his own and explained the process, which is not very different for the industrial process.

Apples are harvested between September and late November, depending on the year’s weather and the variety of apples. Apple trees yield differently alternating years, with the even-numbered years a smaller harvest and the odd-numbered years cosechonas (big harvests), when the much larger harvest can last until early December.

First the apples are washed, then crushed to pulp separately by apple variety. The next step is pressing – the apple pulp is layered in a press that works with weight or a screw system and pressed several times to get all the juice. What comes out is apple juice, ready for the fermentation process (the almost dry apple pulp is often fed to livestock).

The juice is placed in stainless steel or chestnut wood vats to ferment for three to five months – shorter aging for a sweeter cider or longer for tarter cider, always varying with the kind of apple used. Cool weather is good for fermenting, so the temperature is controlled carefully during this time. After fermentation comes bottling in the traditional green bottles, taking care to not stir up the cider too much.

At bottling time, traditional llagares (cider houses) often still have a cask-tapping party called espicha for the holes in the cask. The espicha had – and still may have – the practical purpose of finishing off the unbottled cider in a cask or as a taste-test before buying a whole cask, but more than anything it’s a big party, with cider is drawn directly from the cask into pitchers or e traditional big glasses. Long ago, revellers would pay a flat fee into the cider house to drink all they could – and would pay again when returning after a potty break.

Sidra is as Spanish as vino  (wine) – and maybe more so in the north. So be sure to try it during your time in Spain – preferably up north, or at least in a Madrid cider bar.

Basic kinds of Asturian cider

Sidra natural is the traditional, most popular kind of cider, rather tart, even somewhat bitter if not poured correctly. Variations on this kind of cider: Natural ecológica, made with apples from orchards with ecological certification; Natural de manzana seleccionada, made with specific varieties of apples that have undergone an even more rigourous selection process.

El escanciado (pouring): Sidra natural should be poured from a bottle held arm’s height above the head into a big glass held at a slant at thigh level. That aerates the natural cider, making it a little sweeter and raising some bubbles – and that’s when true cider buffs can evaluate the cider for color and aroma. The sidra should be poured in a thin stream directly in front of the body, just hit the edge of the glass – and just enough for a few swallows as the bubbles soon disappear. After drinking, the last swig is poured on the floor to rinse the edge of the communal glass.

That’s the technique – but good escanciado is more than just technique. Style and ritual matter: a good pourer is admired for the ability to pour without looking and without splashing too much on the floor. The way the bottle and glass are held, even the flourish used to present the glass to the drinker, all are important parts of the escanciado ritual. The communal glass itself is part of the cider lore: sharing a glass puts everyone on the same level and last – but not least – lore says that pouring the last bit onto the floor thanks the earth for the cider, returning to the earth a bit of what the earth has given.

Obviously, drinking sidra natural the traditional way is a messy business. Inevitably some splashes during the escanciado, and pouring that last bit on the floor – well, cider bars always have sticky floors. Some cider bars now use the traditional glass and mechanical pourers, less fun but less messy, and smaller bars may use a plastic spout that does an ok job even with a regular glass, though without the charm of the traditional escanciado.

Sidra espumosa is a less-messy kind of cider. Like sidra natural, it’s made from fermented apple juice – then undergoes an additional process to create natural bubbles. This cider should not be confused with sidra achampañada, usually made with apple juice concentrate and added gas – the label should tell you what kind is in the bottle. Both kinds are bubbly, and often drunk at Christmas as a “poor man’s champagne” – but don’t wait for Christmas to share a bottle with friends – the bubbly goes really well with cheesy popcorn and a good movie.

Sidra natural nueva expressión A new product – it’s like sidra natural, but needs no special pouring. The manufacturing is slightly different, including a filtering and stabilization process. Supposedly this cider is fairly dry, with a hint of natural bubbles. It’s marketed as a lighter wine or “restaurant cider”. Hard to find in Madrid.

Coming in the future: ice cider (already made in Canada), brut cider (like cava), light cider, good quality cider vinegar and a lot more!

Cider trivia
– Apple varieties in Asturias: 2500 DIFFERENT kinds of apples!
– Cider manufacturered in 2015: more than 2.8 million liters (almost a million liters more than previous high-yield year 2013)
– Apples to cider, yield: it takes a little more than a kilo of apples to make a liter of cider
– Measurements big glass for sidra natural : 12 cms high, 9 cms wide at the mouth and 7 cms wide at the base (about 5 X 3.5 X 3 inches).

 

Fat One Christmas Lottery

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The Fat One is coming. 

Every year, on the morning of December 22, Spain virtually stops.  Childish voices singing out numbers are everywhere: all radios and TV’s are tuned to the same station.  Everywhere people are listening, watching, waiting, sometimes with slips of paper on the table by them.  Waiting to know if their lives will change that day – or not.

It’s the Gordo, the “Fat One”, Spain’s annual Christmas lottery.  And winning the coveted first prize can indeed change lives – 400,000 euros (about $422,000) would be very appreciated in most Spanish households.

The Gordo, some history:  The Spanish lottery started in the late 18th century under Carlos III as a less painful way of collecting taxes – part of the money was for prizes and the rest went to the Spanish Treasury.  That first lottery was a pick-some-numbers lottery (similar to powerball lotteries and Spain’s current Primitiva).  In 1811 Spain was partially under Napoleon, and the Congress of the still-Spanish part of the country (based in southern city of Cádiz) created a new kind of lottery with printed tickets and an assigned number – again to collect tax money.  The first Christmas lottery was that system, held on December 18, 1812, with top prize for number 03604.

Those childish voices are the lottery singers from San Ildefonso primary school (located on Plaza de la Paja, one of the prettiest squares in Madrid). With 400 years of history San Ildefonso is one of the city’s oldest schools; until the late 1970’s it was for orphans and mostly boys, with the goal of giving disadvantaged kids a better start in life. (Nowadays some of the students have families and of course there are lots of girls.)  Students from this school have been singing out the lottery numbers since 1771, with girls participating since 1984. Children are chosen for their voices, and practice handling the lottery balls all year so the Gordo drawing goes smoothly.  In 2016, there are ten boys and ten girls between the ages of nine and thirteen, most of them repeating from 2015.

How the Gordo works: The Christmas lottery is basically the same system as the twice-weekly Lotería Nacional that happens all year, except with much bigger prizes and more numbers in play.  Since 2011, numbers range from 00000 to 99999 (Spanish lottery lore says that 00000 always goes to the King but that may be myth).  For the Gordo this year, every number has 165 series and every serie has a billete and every billete has ten décimos, so there are 1,650 décimos for every number 0000 – 99999. The serie number and the décimo number are both shown on the ticket as well as the number, so every single ticket sold is different. If you do the math, you can see that means 1,650,000,000 décimos on sale for the 2016 Gordo lottery.  Each décimo costs 20 euros, so that’s potentially 33,000,000,000 euros in play.

Who buys and where:    Everyone buys, or almost everyone. Most individual people get at least one décimo, some workplaces get entire billetes or even the entire number if the company is big, with employees participating or not – but most do in this situation, probably to avoid that potentially awful situation where everyone wins except the non-players.  Families often get a few décimos, and friends frequently exchange halves of décimos with the idea of getting parts of many numbers  in hopes that at least a few will win something.  It’s also traditional for neighborhood stores, markets or bar-cafés to have several décimos and sell small portions or give them away to favored customers.

Spanish lottery lore claims that specific places are “better” to buy than others. One place is a village in Catalonia called Sort (luck in Catalonian language) where indeed they got a big prize some years ago – busloads of people now go to that village every year to buy lottery. Doña Manolita lottery stand in Madrid is another example – lines are blocks long at Christmas, and street-side lottery sellers claim their tickets are from that same stand.  And another bit of lottery lore: lottery falls (or should fall) in disaster areas, so if there have been floods, fires or another catastrophe in the preceding year, people try to buy there thinking that the Universe will somehow even things out by throwing luck to a hard-hit area.

What number to buy?  There are several schools of thought for picking a number. One way is to go in with a close idea of what to buy, or at least choosing the last digit, even looking up where to buy an exact number on Internet.  Another way is to go to a favorite lottery stand and look at what numbers they have and choose a “pretty” number or at least avoid an “ugly” number, whatever that means to the specific buyer.  And the last way is to trust Lady Luck completely, letting lottery seller make the selection.   Lottery trivia: statistically, the Gordo has ended in five more often than any other digit, so that’s either an excellent or very bad choice, depending on the buyer’s point of view.

Mechanics of the drawing:  There’s a complicated, super-secure system for prior to the Gordo drawing, now done in the Teatro Real Opera House instead of the lottery building. On December 22, there are two big cage-like spheres with wooden balls, all laser cut with numbers, one sphere for the prize numbers and the other for the prizes.  The spheres are spun and balls fall down into trays under each sphere and are called out by the children lottery singers in a traditional tune and rhythm.  The drawing is entirely random, so the first prize could be the first or the last prize chosen.

Once the lottery drawing is over, the prize list is drawn up rapidly and with the lottery sellers by the afternoon of December 22, as well as in all the newspapers on December 23.  Prizes are listed in columns by the last number, and chronologically from the top in each column 0 to 9. Special prizes are listed at the very bottom of the column.

So what are the prizes?   The Gordo actually refers to first prize – 400,000 euros for a décimo (20,000 euros per euro played).  Second prize is 125,000 euros, third 50,000 euros, two fourth prizes of 20,000 euros and eight fifth prizes of 6,000 euros for a décimo.  After the big prizes there are the “almost” prizes (numbers before and after the main prizes) and the “same ending” prizes, where winners get prizes if their number shares one, two or three last digits with the big prizes.  And the pedrea, 1,794 random numbers that win 100 euros for a décimo.

All in all, that’s seventeen different kinds of prizes, with a total of 2,310 million euros in prize money, about 70% of the total projected intake for the special lottery (the remaining 30% goes to commission for the lottery sellers and directly to Spanish Treasury).  And yes, sometimes tickets go unsold so the intake is less, but sometimes those tickets have prizes that do not need to be paid.

The take-home is the full amount won up to 2,500 euros – after that the State keeps 20% of prize money. That’s relatively new – until 2012 lottery prizes were tax-free. Critics of that newish policy say that the 30% intake going directly to treasury is already plenty of tax withheld, but the decision to add additional tax was made in times of crisis with the government looking for any possible way of increasing revenue.

The last, smallest prize is the reintegro – the get-your-money back prize, where a décimo wins exactly the 20 euros it cost.  When that happens, almost everyone “reinvests” in the Niño lottery (January 6) – décimos cost exactly the same and while prizes are lower, there are more prizes so there is a better statistical chance of winning.

But if nothing “falls” in the Gordo or the Niño, there’s always next year….

 

Lottery trivia: The Gordo is the most famous lottery drawing in a country that dearly loves games of chance. All the lotteries below are state-run:

  • Loteria Nacional:  similar system as the Gordo and the Niño. Twice a week.

Prizes accumulate on the following if no winner happens at first drawing(s).

  • Loteria Primitiva: powerball type lottery, pick six numbers. Twice a week.
  • BonoLoto: powerball type lottery, pick six numbers. Six days a week.
  • Gordo de la Primitiva:  pick five numbers and one in a separate column. Once a week, guaranteed prize of five million euros.
  • Euromillon: pick five numbers and two in a separate column. Twice a week, guaranteed prize of fifteen million euros. As name suggests, this is played in most European countries.

 

Eat like a local: Menú del día

201611menuSpain is a foodie nation. So how do the locals eat?

The outside world knows about tapas and pintxos, the little bar snacks that can easily be a roving meal. Everyone knows about paella, gazpacho and maybe even about potato omelette.

But most non-locals do not know about one of Spain’s favorite eating styles: the menú del día.

Menú del día, some history:
Spain’s tourism industry took off in the early 1960’s, with number of visitors almost tripling between 1959 and 1965. That took some adjustment for infrastructure, and thus the menú turístico was created by then head of tourism Manuel Fraga.

(We can also thank Fraga for the tourism slogan Spain is Different and for expanding the Parador hotel system, but let’s leave those stories for another time).

So what was the menú turístico? The goal was to offer local-style food quickly and economically to the mass tourism market: by national law, all bars and restaurants had to offer a set meal, with starter, first course, second course, dessert, (usually with several choices for each), bread and beverage. Prices were fixed for the full meal, and were the same for all establishments in the same restaurant category.

The downside was that the fixed price was so low that restaurant owners tried to discourage clients from ordering the menú, or added supplements to some of the choices offered, so only the most basic meal was available at the fixed price. Another outcome was that to save work and money, some restaurant owners dumbed-down their menú food to the lowest common denominator of local cuisine (bad paella, bad gazpacho and greasy fried food), instead of celebrating the rich and not-always-expensive variety of Spanish food.

In 1970 the menú got a makeover: higher though still fixed prices, slogans to encourage locals to order the daily deal and menú del día as its new name. The focus was still local cuisine, and with locals ordering too, the menú started working better for everyone. When Spain reorganized after dictator Francisco Franco’s death, regional governments took over tourism administration (1978) and fixed prices disappeared in 1981.

Nowadays:
The menú del día is immensely popular among locals – over 50% of Spanish workers who eat out choose this option. It’s fast and usually excellent, with food varying from traditional home cooking to some very imaginative twists on the classics. Even non-classic restaurants like Indian, Peruvian, Chinese or vegetarian (to name a few) have adopted this system.

The exception to the prevalence of the daily deal: high-end or luxury restaurants, where the menú is absent entirely or has changed into a more elegant and more expensive menú de desgustación (tasters’ menu) or another kind of fixed or semi-fixed daily deal.

Tips and tricks for the best menús :

The menú usually changes every day – you can find it chalked on a blackboard outside, on a handwritten photocopy in the window or on the table. Some restaurants don’t change the menú so frequently, so it’s part of the printed menu. And in some smaller places, the waiter will tell you the daily deal instead of a printed menu.

Usually the price includes two courses, dessert, bread, beverage and tax – but not always! Sometimes beverage or VAT tax is not included (10% for restaurants). The written menú must say what is included and what not – be sure to check as this can change the overall price considerably. (I got caught once when beverage was not included and wine was expensive).

If there are several restaurants in an area, take a stroll to evaluate your options. With the menú posted outside you can see what’s available and select your favorite foods or avoid something you hate, not to mention comparing prices.

Sometimes this is called menú de la casa instead of menú del día, and on the Camino (Road of St. James) it’s usually called menú del peregrino (pilgrim’s menu), but the idea and the format is the same.

Some restaurants only offer the menú at lunch on weekdays, or have a higher price at night and on weekends. If you are a local or semi-local and find a place you like, take note so you can take advantage of this great deal.

The menú del día cannot be shared between two people, though many places have half-menus at lower (but not half) prices. Many places have special kids’ menus.

Not too hungry, or food restrictions? You can order two first courses, often more than enough since firsts can include pasta, rice, beans/legumes, soup, veges, salad and sometimes eggs.

Really not hungry, or in a huge hurry? Look for platos combinados (combined plates, badly translated): A one plate meal with some kind of protein (fish, eggs, sausage, chicken, meat), some kind of carb (usually fried potatoes, sometimes rice) and maybe some salad. These are less expensive, but do not include beverage, bread or dessert. In my experience these can be good, but usually the food is usually not quite as good or as healthy as a well-chosen menú del día.

Olive Oil, Always

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Whether living in Spain or traveling in Spain, we all know that olive oil is king. Miles and miles of olive groves in the south, in the center, east and west; olive oil on almost every salad; as an option for breakfast toast; included in some form in almost every meal (if only a drizzle to do the fish); many meters of shelf space in most supermarkets…. yes, olive oil is very, very important in Spain.

Yet outside Spain, Spanish oil is only starting to be known for quality and quantity. How can this be? Let’s learn a little about olive oil in Spain.

Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil, by a large difference. In 2013-2014 world production of oil was around 3,252,000 tons, with Spain at 1,781,000 tons; Italy was second with 463,000 tons and Greece third with 132,000 tons. Most of the other top producers were around the Mediterranean and a few in the Americas – USA came in far down the list with around 12,000 tons.

Digging a little deeper, statistics show that in the same year Spain consumed about 525,000 tons, Italy 641,000 tons and Greece 140,000 tons (both more than their production). Those figures look odd, don’t they? Especially thinking of the amount of olive oil that Italy exports?

The answer lies in the imports: Italy imported 268,000 tons of oil from a variety of countries, mostly in bulk and a lot from Spain. Italy exported 233,000 tons of oil in the same year, so at least some of the oil that Italy exports is not Italian oil at all, only bottled in Italy, something obvious when reading labels carefully, and even by looking at a map – there’s just not enough land in Italy to produce enough oil for local and export markets.

Yes, Spain does import some oil – around 144.000 tons in the same year. But they export a lot more: almost 280,000 tons in the 2013-2014 season. Traditionally that export oil has been in bulk to countries unable to satisfy their own demand, but finally Spanish oil is starting to get a name for itself, selling more and more bottled oil and less bulk, reaching 140 countries including many countries in the EU and as far away as Asia (China, Japan, Australia, India). Alas, the USA market takes only 92,850 tons of Spanish oil (lots in bulk), while Italian oil sells around 150,000 tons, and mostly bottled for consumer use. Hopefully those numbers will improve in the future, the USA is a huge market and very appreciative of good olive oil.

But while we’re in Spain, and here we can enjoy a wide variety of Spanish olive oils, and help spread the word to the world. Let’s see (and taste!) what Spain has to offer.

Kinds of olives: There are more than 200 varieties of olives in Spain. Some are small production or very local; about 20 varieties are used frequently to make olive oil. Often these varieties are associated to a region: Cornicabra is usually south-central Spain, Arbequina is traditionally found in Catalonia though now also in the south and Picual is frequent in the south.

Of all those varieties, three are most important and easy to find in stores all over the country:
– Arbequina: mild flavor with a nice fragrance
– Picual: Stronger flavor and perfume, a little peppery.
– Hojiblanca: stronger flavor without the peppery taste. My favorite, excellent on salads.

Other olive oil varieties that are relatively frequent and easy to find: cornicabra, empeltre, picudo, lechin, manzanilla.

Kinds of oil: Olive oil can be mono-varietal (made of just one kind of olives) or a coupage or mixture of different kinds of oils. Coupage olive oils try to bring out the best in the different oils used, and try to compensate for seasonal variations in production or flavor.

That’s important to remember: like wine, olive oil is a natural product and can vary widely from season to season, or even within the same season: oil pressed on the same estate early in the harvest and late in the harvest can vary in flavor. Or regional differences, since oil from a specific variety (say, Arbequina) can be different if produced in Catalonia or in central Spain.

Kinds of oil, part two: Olive oil comes in many different qualities with different names. To get the best, you should always get Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This specific name indicates manufacturing process – just mushing the olives and filtering the oil, no heat, no chemical process – and should (but alas, doesn’t always) indicate specific parameters about acidity and fragrance. The label should say Aceite de Oliva Virgen Extra and “Aceite de Oliva de categoria superior obtenido directamente de aceitunas y solo mediante procedimientos mecánicos” (superior quality oil obtained directly from olives and only using mechanical procedures) – so really it’s olive juice with nothing added and nothing subtracted, except filtering the gunk left over after pressing the olives. Next step down is virgen oil – the manufacturing process is the same but it doesn’t quite meet the other parameters. Below that is just plain olive oil and other names. Don’t go there. Stay with Extra Virgin or if you cannot find it, Virgin olive oil. There really is a big difference.

Olive oil in cooking: A short note on the rumor that we should not use Extra Virgin olive oil for cooking: like all oils, olive oil breaks down if heated past the smoke point. But the smoke point is not really low: 160º-207º C (320-405ºF) for extra virgin, depending on quality, with virgin olive oil at a slightly higher smoke point. So it’s just a question of watching your pan to make sure temperature doesn’t get above that, or use a different oil if higher temperatures are needed. (oil with highest smoke point on my list? Avocado oil! Who knew?)

Eeek! So what should I get? All this may sound confusing, but it isn’t. Once you discover your favorite oils, you can have a lot of fun exploring the differences, or testing and tasting oils that are completely different from the one you usually use. Nowadays more and more manufacturers show the olive variety on the label, so if you know you like Arbequina you can go with that one (noticing what manufacturers you like best) until you are ready to try other kinds. Soon you’ll discover what kinds work best for different uses, and you may end up with several kinds of oil on hand, one for salads, another for doing fish and yet another for your morning toast.

My own choice? I always get mono-varietal, usually Hojiblanca. When really organized, I also have Arbequina for some uses. I’ve tried and like Empeltre, Alfafarenca, Cornicabra and Picudo. And yes, always always Extra Virgin. I use olive oil for almost everything, except a few odd recipes that need a no-taste oil to pull everything together.

Get more info at:
International Olive Oil Council: Headquarters in Madrid, logical after what we’ve seen. Lots of information on their website http://www.internationaloliveoil.org/    Source for statistics used here for other countries http://www.internationaloliveoil.org/estaticos/view/131-world-olive-oil-figures

 

Loads of bulls……

 

Loads of bulls. Loads and loads of very large bulls.BullNew

What’s with Spain’s huge roadside bulls? Surely it has something to do with bullfighting?

Well, no. The bull silhouettes started as roadside advertising for brandy. Originally they showed the word Veterano, one of several kinds of brandy made by a Spanish company named Osborne.

First created in 1956, the bulls were working billboards until 1988, when a European Union law prohibited advertising for alcoholic beverages near roads. Technically that should have been the end of the bulls, but there was such a huge public outcry against taking down the bull-billboards that the court (eventually) pardoned the bulls, declaring them to have “surpassed their original advertising function” and to be part of the landscape, both cultural and physical. The word “Veterano” was painted over and the bulls remained, observing the Spanish landscape from hills along the highways.

Now the bulls are almost an unofficial, tongue–in-cheek logo for Spain, at least for the bulls-and-flamenco version of Spain, which of course is not the only version of Spanish-ness. Watchbands, mugs, tee-shirts, ties, bookmarks, stickers, keychains, lighters, shelf-size replicas and lots more can be found at tourist shops and official Toro de Osborne shops. Oh, and I’ve heard tell of bull tattoos, on public and not-so-public parts of the anatomy.

The bull almost-logo has had some backlash, equally tongue-in-cheek. Regions with strong not bulls-and-flamenco identity have created their own animal silhouettes, most notably Catalonia, where a donkey silhouette mimics the bull quite closely. (I’ve also seen sheep and goats, not as well done and not as frequent as the donkey spinoff, but maybe that’s only a question of time). So far, the donkeys are only for bumper stickers and small items – no donkey billboards, though some good Photoshop photos show large donkeys standing on roadside hills.

Travelling around Spain it seems the bulls are everywhere, but that’s not quite true. There are loads of bulls in Andalucia (23), Castilla-Leon (north-central plains, 14) and Castilla-La Mancha (south central plains, 13). Interestingly, these are the stereotypically “Spanish” landscapes of wide rolling plains, where the bulls look best. Aragón and Extremadura, both bordering previous regions and with at least some of the same kind of landscape have 6 and 5 bulls respectively.

Following that theory, it’s puzzling to see 11 in the Valencia region (eastern seaboard, almost no rolling plains), especially when Murcia, neighbor region to the south has none – so perhaps the number of bulls in a region has something to do with fondness for brandy, absence of that fondness, or just speedier action taking down the billboards in 1994. And knowing about sharing or not sharing the bulls-and-flamenco identity, it’s not surprising that there are no bulls in Catalonia, only one in the Balearic islands (sharing many of Catalonia’s identity issues) and also only one in the Basque region.

So as you travel around Spain, do some bull-spotting. Can you find all ninety-one?
Bull trivia: These critters are big – 14 meters / 46 feet tall and 4000 kilos / 8818 pounds. They’re anchored with a lot of cement, and a full metal support structure on the back side, also painted black so almost invisible from most angles. The bulls are ummm anatomically correct, as you can tell at a quick glance.

Learn more: http://www.osborne.es/en/toro-de-osborne/

Sandwich Story

Bocadillos and tortilla, courtesy of cafeteria Desiree*

Bocadillos and tortilla, courtesy of cafeteria Desiree*

 

Pan con pan, comida de tontos (bread with bread is food for idiots), but bread with something on top is a fast and filling meal in many countries of the world. Spain is no exception: the issue is how to navigate sandwich, bocata, montado and pulga to get what you want.

Here in España, what’s inside your sandwich depends at least partially on the sandwich style you choose. There seems to be a rough division between the classic Spanish sandwich styles (bocadillo, montado) and international or “modern” styles (sandwich, tosta). For example, Spanish classics like potato omelette, pork tenderloin and squid rings do not appear between slices of white loaf bread, only in bocadillos. Lettuce, asparagus and mayonnaise are rarely used in bocadillos but frequent in sandwiches, tostas and even pulgas. Tomato is more universal – frequent in sandwiches, not infrequent in bocadillos and montados; in Cataluña bocadillos are automatically served with tomato-rubbed bread (not sliced tomato) unless you specifically ask for plain bread.

So how to get your sandwich? Here’s a fast guide to some of Spain’s sandwich styles.

Sandwich: In a cafeteria or restaurant this is usually made with toasted white loaf bread, and usually with hot filling (grilled ham and cheese, bacon) except for vegetarian options or chicken, also with toasted bread but usually cold. This is a casual sit-down meal, usually eaten with a knife and fork, though it’s no longer odd to eat as finger food. Some places like Rodilla and Vienna Capellanes chains do cold sandwiches to go, often made with a mayo-based sandwich spread and sometimes with other kinds of loaf bread. Trivia: the phonetic or half-English spellings can be confusing: samwis, sanwhis, sandwish are all logical spellings in Spanish. And don’t forget bi-lingual slips: hay sandwiches means “there are sandwiches”, not sandwiches made of hay.

Bocadillo: A hearty sandwich on baguette bread. The bread is usually cold though what’s inside might be hot (sausage, pork tenderloin, fried squid rings). Finger food, easy to eat while standing at the bar or perched on a stool. Trivia: the slang word for bocadillo is bocata, usually indicating a larger-than-usual size. Oddest bocadillo filling ever seen: patatas bravas (fried potato chunks with hot sauce).

Montado, montadito: Usually but not always open face, a slice of cold baguette bread with something on top. Frequent for lomo (pork tenderloin). Montadito is the smaller version.

Tosta: Almost always open face, baguette bread or slice from a big round loaf, grilled so bread is at least warm if not toasted and what’s on top is warmed up.

Pulga: Small bocadillo, usually cold, often on softer dinner roll instead of a miniature baguette. Trivia: pulga means flea in Spanish, and the dinner rolls often used for these sandwiches are called medianoches (midnights).

And a few with-bread concoctions that are not quite sandwiches:

Empanada, empanadilla: Originally from Galicia in northwest Spain, Spanish empanadas are not the same as the Latin American version. This is kind of a cold, covered pizza with a tomato-onion filling with tuna fish or sausage; in Galicia there are many other kinds of filling. There are two kinds of crust, one a flaky pastry, and the other a hearty though not too-thick bread. Empanadas are big and often sold by slice or weight, empanadillas are individual portions. Good for takeaway, easy to eat on the street, good party food and an easy option for a light dinner.

Pincho: If you’d rather pass on the pan (bread) you can still get a fast and light meal: just go for a pincho, something with a bit of bread on the side. Most frequently seen for tortilla expañola (potato omelette), sausage or pincho moruno (skewer of meat).

 

*Desiree, Cafeteria in Tres Cantos (calle del Viento 7, near the train station).  Friendliest people and best coffee in town! Excellent tomato toast for breakfast (insider tip: get “media”, the full size is too big for a normal person).  Good carry-out, too.  Why go to Tres Cantos if you don’t live or work there? It’s the beginning / end for some excellent hikes, and one of the stops on the yearly 100 kilometers in 24 hours challenge