Archive for Spain

Aguilar de Campoó, the cookie town

Aguilar de Campoó, home to amazing old churches, is also nicknamed Cookie Town.

Yes, really: for many years Aguilar was home to the classic “María Fontaneda” cookie, a round cookie sort of like graham crackers but less crumbly. “Marías” are now made elsewhere by another company, but the cookie type is such a classic that the cookie name “María” is almost synonymous with round, brown breakfast cookie for dunking in milk.

Though Fontaneda* is gone from Aguilar, two other huge cookie factories still manufacture in the town (Siro and Guillon). For a more home baked cookie experience, the nuns at Santa Clara monastery make a wide variety of cookies and other sweets, and there’s a good pastry shop in the Plaza de España, very near San Miguel church.

While the cookie connection is sort of quirky, the old-church connection is a really big thing in Aguilar and the surrounding area. Here’s a short list of old churches and other old stones that you should try to see:

In Aguilar:

Santa Maria la Real monastery, mostly Romanesque style, on west edge of town. This was one of the wealthiest and most powerful monasteries in the area for a long time, with some ups and downs due to secular and religious politics. After the mid-19th century expropriation by the state it was abandoned and basically dismantled. Almost in ruins, there were several unsuccessful attempts to restore it, finally in the late 1970’s a private group got the rehab going. Today it is part hotel (see below), part local high school, part museum and part center for Romanesque studies. The museum includes a fabulous old cloister (photo above), the old chapter house and the church, with various models of Romanesque churches in Palencia province, some cleverly designed to open and view the interior. Alas, the museum information is not shown in English. Odd schedule to fit into the main use as a school, but they have several guided tours each day.

Santa Cecilia church, Romanesque style, on the hill above town just below the castle. Lovely, simple lines inside and out. Inside: look for the Massacre of Innocents column capital, to left of main altar.

San Miguel church, mostly Romanesque and Gothic style, in main square.

Santa Clara monastery, only the Gothic chapel as the rest of the convent is cloistered. If you want cookies, you buy them through a lazy-susan and screen arrangement so you never see the nuns. See end for website with times to buy the cookies.

Castle ruins, on hill above town. Mostly 14-15th c, on site of earlier fortress. The climb looks imposing but it’s not so bad and the view is nice. Town walls: the lower town was surrounded by a separate ring of walls, today we can see six city gates (best gates for photo ops are Reinosa, Tobalina, Paseo Real and San Roque) and a short stretch of the old wall by the Paseo Real gate.

Various for walk-by or strolling: Palaces with carved coats of arms on the façades. Plaza de España, a typical Castilian main square, fully lined with arcades and lots of typical bars or cafés. (ummm had a wine in one for 50 cents!). Riverside walkway and Isla park, nice walkway on south side of river and part of north side, pretty park on an island in the middle of the river.

 

Near Aguilar:

The area is just packed with Romanesque churches, supposedly more than any other equivalent area in Europe. That’s partly because in the centuries for building Romanesque architecture (11-13th) this area was important as border between Muslim and Christian Iberia; as history’s main events moved south it became a poor backwater without resources to tear down and replace the old churches. Take your time exploring, if you like history and architecture you will probably want to come back.

Santa María de Mave: Romanesque church of an old monastery, closed in the the 19th century expropriation. Lovely church, well worth a visit but with a quirky schedule, depends on time of year and day of the week. Ask for help at Aguilar tourism office to arrange a visit. The old monastery is now a small hotel, open April to November (see below). Near Mave, about seven kms south of Aguilar.

Santos Justo y Pastor: cave-church, probably 8-9th c, enlarged 12th c. This area has a number of cave-churches, this is one of the larger ones. Another church well worth a visit but with equally quirky schedule, though this one seems to be open more than than Mave. In Olleros de Pisuerga, about five kilometers south of Aguilar.

Mount Cildá castro, hilltop fortress town. Spectacular and easily defendable site, this village was inhabited off and on from the first century BC to 8th century AD by Celts, Romans and Visigoths. Excellent lookout for the entire area, and right over the Horadada canyon (see below). Near Olleros de Pisuerga, about a 45 minute walk, unpaved road from bridge over the Pisuerga at edge of Olleros, sign showing Castro de Monte Cildá. Loop option for experienced walkers: a much smaller, semi-marked trail starts at front door of the cave church, intersecting with the unpaved road at signpost for the fortress-town, go by the path and return on the road for a loop route.

Interesting churches a little farther away: Santa Maria de Valverde cave-church, about 30kms east of Aguilar in Valderredible / Polientes, considered the best of the area’s cave churches. San Salvador de Cantamuda Romanesque church, about 35kms upstream following the Pisuerga river.

Natural sights: The Horadada or Pisuerga river canyon is just southeast of town, excellent view from Mount Cildá, the train track goes through the canyon, too. The Tuerces near Villaescusa de las Torres, about six kms southeast of Aguilar, an area with limestone rock formations similar to the Torcal park near Antequera (near Málaga) or the Enchanted City (near Cuenca). Large reservoir about two kilometers west of Aguilar, has picnic and swimming areas. Cueva del Cobre, cave long considered to be beginning of the Pisuerga river; recent studies have proved that incorrect but the cave is still interesting, though not prepared for tourism. Near Santa Maria la Redonda, a little northeast of San Salvador de Cantamuda.

Walking and biking: Two lesser-known Caminos go through the area: the Camino Olvidado and the Camino Lebaniego. Other shorter walking routes have been marked by Aguilar City Hall or the provincial government.  There are lots of small paved and unpaved roads for biking.  One good biking route is Pedaling the Romanesque (Pedaleando el Románico), a 60 kilometer loop around the reservoir that visits many towns with old churches.

 

Nuts and bolts:

Where: Aguilar de Campoó is in the northeast part of Palencia province, a few kilometers from Cantabria and Burgos provinces.

Getting there from Madrid: Alsa bus line, station in town. https://www.alsa.es/ Train, but look at schedules carefully as some departures transfer in Valladolid. Station a few kilometers from town, taxi is five euros. Bus service for departures / arrivals of slower Regional Express trains; those are the departures with transfer. http://www.renfe.com/ Both bus and train stops are on the way to Santander.

Where to stay: in town, best is the Posada Santa Maria la Real, website: http://www.posadasantamarialareal.com/ A variety of other places in town are shown on tourism office website (my opinion: best to avoid Hotel Cortés Poza).

Where to stay, nearby: Charming small hotel similar to the Posada in Mave, 6kms from Aguilar, only open April – November, website http://www.elconventodemave.com/ . Several other small hotels or casas rurales (b&b) within 10km radius of Aguilar.

 

More information at:

Local tourism office: http://www.aguilardecampoo.com/ Very helpful website. Town tourism office is on the riverside Paseo de la Cascajera, a little west of the Plaza de España main square. Also very helpful, their pamphlet-map is informative and well-designed.

Tourism for Palencia province: https://www.diputaciondepalencia.es/sitio/turismo/ This province is relatively close to Madrid and has a lot to see; if you plan to drive to Aguilar, this website can help you decide on some cultural rest stops on your way there or return. (San Martin church in Frómista, San Juan de Baños church in Venta de Baños, just to mention ideas in keeping with the church theme of this post). There’s a provincial tourism office in Aguilar de Campoó, in the Plaza de España just to the left of San Miguel church as you look at church façade.

Santa Clara convent (for cookies and to visit the church, rest is cloistered): http://www.santaclaraaguilardecampoo.es/dulces.html Want cookies? Click on Horarios then look for “Obrador”

Notes:
Special note for fall 2018: Edades del Hombre / Ages of Man exhibit is in Aguilar until December 9. More information at: http://monsdei.lasedades.es/

*The cookie family Fontaneda bought and restored a castle in Ampudia (a little west of Palencia city), where their foundation manages and shows the castle (home to an extensive and varied private collection of just about everything) as well as renting venues for Events. This would be a possible stop if driving to Aguilar. More info at http://www.castillodeampudia.com/

Alpargatas, Spain’s rope-soled shoes

 


While August may seem late to think about alpargatas, most of Spain still has a month of nice weather – and the lines at the traditional shops are a lot shorter.

A tickle in your nose says you’ve arrived – it’s the distinctive smell of thousands of rope-soled alpargatas (espadrilles) in one of Madrid’s traditional stores.

What could be simpler? The classic alpargata is just a coiled rope sole and a cotton canvas upper. Nothing more than that – but this simple shoe is Spain’s favorite summer footwear.

Some history: The true origin of the alpargata is unclear. Some souces say Rome, some say Egypt, some say the Middle East – in any case, the most likely origin is somewhere in the Mediterreanean area, a very long time ago. What does seem clear is that here in Iberia, this simple footwear was already known in 14th century Cataluña.

Checking the origin of the word alpargata also shows differing opinions. The Real Academia dictionary (Spain’s equivalent of Oxford) shows the Basque word abarca as origin for alpargata – rather odd as this shoe doesn’t do well in wet climates like northern Spain, but interesting for the name similarity to the Menorcan sandal called abarca or albarca. People who know Spanish will have noticed the “al” that often indicates Arabic word origin; one source suggests alpargatas were adopted by Arabic speakers during the Middle Ages, and the original Spanish word changed through that contact to alpargata. The same source noted that there are dialectal variations of apargata and even pargata, without the “al”.

Originally alpargatas were worn mainly by country people, valued as inexpensive, lightweight, comfortable and for good traction on uneven surfaces. Today most country people wear modern shoes, but now and then you can still see shepherds wearing alpargatas. The rural tradition of using alpargatas survives in regional dance groups – many use this footwear as a colorful and authentic part of their costumes.

Today alpargatas can be found on many different kinds of feet all over the world. The styles have evolved as well – though the ever-popular classic style is still a solid-color cotton upper and a coiled rope sole. That sole is now made of jute instead of hemp, though Maxi in Casa Crespo remembers alpargata manufacturs with plantations of hemp to make the rope for the soles. For traditional alpargatas, the rope sole is hand-sewn to the two parts of the cotton upper but industrial models are creeping in. Laces can be decorative or functional depending on the style – some traditional styles are open at the sides and the laces keep the alpargatas in place.

Classic alpargatas can go just about anywhere – from the beach to most low-key social occasions, but if something dressier is needed, newer “fashion” styles take over where the classics leave off. Casa Crespo and Hernanz coincide that the classics sell well most of the year, with a boom between May and September, and the fashion models sell mainly in spring and summer. Both stores get new models every spring (usually in April) – different heel heights, different laces, different materials like leather or silk, patterned cloth, decorated with sequins or embroidery – the variations are endless.

Once you’ve tried these shoes yourself you’ll probably become an alpargata fan as well – and at the amazingly low price for the flat classic model, you can get a whole rainbow of colors to match all your summer clothes.

Tips on alpargatas

If you go to a traditional store in alpargata season, try to go off-hours (weekday mornings usually best) and be patient. It may take a while to get what you want. Be flexible, the shopkeepers might have suggestions.

Try on both shoes, and if the first pair doesn’t fit, try another pair in the same size. Since they’re made by hand, there may be size difference between pairs.

If you’re between sizes, get one that’s a little snug as they stretch, some styles more than others – the shopkeepers can tell you how much stretch you can expect in the model you want.

First wearing: For cotton canvas styles, to help your alpargatas mold to your feet, lightly spray the cloth uppers with a plant spritzer after putting them on – especially if they’re a little snug. If you got a classic style with no initial difference between right and left, you can use a marking pen inside one shoe to indicate right or left – after a few wearings they’ll take the shape of your feet.

Try not to get the rope bottoms wet as they may swell and disintegrate. If you get caught in rain, stuff them with newspaper, turn them soles up to dry and hope for the best.

To clean the cloth uppers, hand wash using nail brush, keeping the rope bottoms as dry as possible (this is easier than it sounds). Stuff with newspaper and let dry.

Where to buy: Getting alpargatas is almost a ritual, best done at one of the traditional stores. Both of Madrid’s traditional stores talk about multi-generational families who come together to get their summer shoes, or about people who first came to the store with grampa or gramma – and say that the place has barely changed in all those years. These stores are also a great place to people-watch – and of course to have an authentic Madrid experience.

Antigua Casa Crespo, calle Divino Pastor 29, Metro Bilbao. Classic alpargata store, founded 1863, family business in the fourth generation. Very crowded in season. Open Saturdays only May – September.

Casa Hernanz, calle Toledo 18, Metro Sol y La Latina. Classic alpargata store, founded 1845, family business. Also sells rope, baskets and many kinds of string for macrame. Very crowded in season.

Lobo, calle Toledo 30, Metro Sol y La Latina. Not a specialist in alpargatas, though that kind of shoe is one of their biggest lines (this is my own favorite). Also has Menorcan abarcas, flamenco shoes and desert boots. Very crowded in season, get your number and wait your turn.

Looking for something fancy or cannot manage the traditional stores? Go Fashion at Castañer (Claudio Coello, 51), or check out two stores just east of the Plaza Mayor (one on calle Zaragoza, another on calle Sal/Postas).

Thanks to the friends who suggested the idea for this post. You know who you are. 

Denominación de Origen / Certified Origin in Spain

Wine bottles showing labels for different Spanish D.O.

So you like food, wine, and all those good things?  And specifically Spanish food? Read on to learn about Spain’s  Denominación de Origen quality control system for agricultural products.

What is the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) system? It’s a Spanish regulatory system for some kinds of agricultural products and some kinds of food. Technically in English this is called Appellatation of Origin, but I prefer the easier to remember Certified Origin. Many other countries have their own regulation system, especially in the European Union (EU)

When was this system established? Spain’s main system is from 1996 (with some later updates) and is similar in some ways to the 1992 EU system. Two Spanish wine regions created their own regulations long before this date: La Rioja in 1926 and Jerez (Sherry) in 1933.

What are the advantages of the D.O. system? The D.O. system is a quality guarantee that protects and educates consumers. You know what you’re buying, and if you love or don’t love a product, you can read the specifications and learn for another time. The D.O. system also protects responsible producers by creating an identifiable product with a quality seal on the label, so no manufacturer can sell Rioja wine, for example (with all that name recognition) that does not meet Rioja quality specifications.

Who does the regulating? At the top is the Spanish Ministry that regulates agriculture (see suggested websites at the end). Every D.O. has a local administrative body called the Consejo Regulador; the Consejo is in charge of making sure the D.O. stipulations are followed and that the products labeled with the D.O. do indeed meet the requirements. The Consejo may also help new producers get on board, work with the government if regulations need changes, and also help promote the product outside the D.O. region. Additionally, if a private citizen sees or hears of infraction they can notify the Consejo, who should carry out an investigation and take action. (a cheesemaker I know did this when he learned that another cheesemaker was selling Torta del Casar cheese that didn’t meet the specifications and notified the Consejo of that D.O. It wasn’t a direct competitor, but the man I know said for the D.O. to work, it must be taken seriously by everyone).

Are there any disadvantages? The D.O. system imposes conditions / restrictions on producers, so there is less latitude to experiment with other raw material or other production techniques that might create an interesting new product. And while having a D.O on a product is good, not having a D.O. label can make success difficult for any product without the seal, even though it may be of very good quality.

So are there good products not certified by D.O.? Yes, many are excellent. There might be a wine producer very near the D.O. geographically, but cannot be a D.O. wine because the vineyards are not inside the geographical limitations. Or a cheese producer that cannot be D.O. because the goats are not the local girrrrls. Or products from areas that do not have D.O. certification (perhaps not enough producers or no agreement on the parameters), or the many agricultural products not covered by D.O. anywhere in the country. So a well-informed but cautious customer could make some really interesting discoveries, always with some caution and always checking for the registro de sanidad / official hygiene certificate / seal. (side note: very small family producers may not have the certificate and be fine, but buyers should always take care – best to not buy a case of wine or huge bottle of olive oil unless you are very sure of what you’re doing!).

What products are under D.O. in Spain? Most of us only think of wine for D.O., but this system also covers cheese, cured ham, sausage, seafood, olives, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, rice, saffron, paprika, honey, butter, hard cider, fruits, raw meat and vegetables.

What elements are described and regulated? As the name indicates, most important is the origin or geographical area (larger or smaller): that’s why the excellent Spanish bubbly is “cava” and never “Champagne”. Depending on the level of the regulation, the product probably must be grown (for plants) and raised (for animals) within the area; some D.O. also require the production process (if any) to take place within the area. The D.O. usually also includes requirements about the raw material – kind of grapes for wine, olives for oil, animal or even breed of animal for cheese and meats – and of course the fruits and vegetables certified are specific types. Items under D.O. that include some kind of manufacturing process (wine, olive oil and cheese, for example) also may stipulate the production process.

What else?

Spain’s certified origin system is actually more than D.O. In addition to the Spanish D.O. system, you might see European quality labeling on some products, like the European DOP or Protected Denomination of Origin; IGP or Protected Geographical Indicator, similar to D.O. but a little less specific geographically; ETC or Traditional Specialty Guaranteed, products made with traditional ingredients or recipes; PAE for natural, environmentally friendly production methods; or the two Catalonia-only categories “A” for small, family-run businesses crafting a very distinctive product; and “Q” for foods with superior raw ingredients, production methods or presentation.

In Spain the stars of the D.O. show are……

Wine has over 70 D.O, so you have opportunity for getting past Rioja, Ribera de Duero and Albariño. (try Somontano, Ribeiro, Bierzo and Priorat, for example). In addition to D.O., wine has other nomenclature. Table wine category is not usually linked to a geographical region, though often is produced in a wine region though with fewer specifications than D.O. Vino de la Tierra is a bump up from table wine, a little more specific in geography though still without all the D.O. regulations. Within most D.O. there is crianza and reserve, denoting age of the wine, and if you are travelling in a wine region you might get vino del año (year’s harvest), perhaps a glass of respectable Rioja at 0.50 centimes! And at the top of the line, some wine cellars bottle under a 2015 nomenclature called Vino de Pago, which is even smaller geographical area, sort of like terroir and estate-bottled.

Olive oil has around 30 D.O. We all know about olive oil in Andalucia, but did you know there’s also oil from the north and northeast? Usually the D.O. specifies the kind of olives, which may only exist in the D.O. region. Yes, there is a considerable difference in oil made with different kinds of olives, from mild to quite flavorful, with different oils appropriate for different uses (salad oil probably stronger than oil for making mayonnaise, for example). Olive oil is truly one of Spain’s star products, so it’s worth trying many to find your favorites – and worth having more kind in your cupboard at any one time. Learn more about olive oil here: http://www.bridgetospain.com/olive-oil-always/

Cheese has around 25 D.O.  Spanish cheese is excellent, really varied and not well known outside Spain, except for the ever-present Manchego. There’s smooth and cured, cow, sheep, goat and mixture. Get beyond Manchego by trying lightly smoked Idiazabal from the north; Majorero goat cheese from the Canary Islands; Cabrales blue-type cheese from Asturias in the north; and Torta del Casar sheep cheese from the west, a cheese so gooey that it’s best to lop off the top and serve as a spread. And that’s just to name a few cheeses of the many kinds in Spain – and not all with D.O.

Now it’s time for you to explore the world of Spanish agricultural products!

 

Photo credit: thanks to my neighborhood wine shop Vinomania for many years of good advice and for letting me take this photo in the shop. Vinomania is a small shop with a very good selection, friendly service and always good suggestions. Vinomania, calle Humilladero 18, corner calle Sierpe, one block west of calle Toledo, Metro La Latina.

 

Websites for more information, unless noted otherwise, only in Spanish (but still useful)

Our friend Wikipedia has ha good article about Spanish D.O. (English) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denominaci%C3%B3n_de_Origen

Good descriptions of many products covered by Spanish D.O. http://www.cerespain.com/denominaciones.html

Good information on Spanish wine D.O., so you can do some exploring   http://www.cecrv.eu/denominaciones-origen/

Regulatory systems in the EU and elsewhere. (English)  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geographical_indications_and_traditional_specialities_in_the_European_Union

Pages on this same site with more information on products with D.O. (English)
Cider in Spain  http://www.bridgetospain.com/cider-in-spain/
Hot peppers   http://www.bridgetospain.com/pimientos-de-padron/
Olive oil    http://www.bridgetospain.com/olive-oil-always/

The Spanish Ministry that manages D.O. is the Ministerio de Agricultura y Pesca, Alimentacion and Medioambiente (Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing, Food and the Environment). Their website is a labyrinth of pages, some very useful and some not at all. Here are a few.

This page looks like one of the better ones: you can filter by region (if you are travelling) or by product (if you are curious) to learn about Spanish products with D.O.
http://www.mapama.gob.es/es/alimentacion/temas/calidad-agroalimentaria/calidad-diferenciada/dop/default.aspx

Map of fruits and nuts with D.O. (interesting!)
http://www.alimentacion.es/es/turismo_agroalimetario/mapas_de_alimentos_con_calidad_diferenciada/frutas/boletin.pdf

Frecuent questions about D.O. (probably less interesting for most readers) http://www.mapama.gob.es/es/alimentacion/preguntas-frecuentes/faq_tcm7-48389.pdf

Statistics for some D.O. products   http://www.mapama.gob.es/es/alimentacion/temas/calidad-agroalimentaria/calidad-diferenciada/dop/htm/cifrasydatos.aspx

Madrid by Metro

Happy Hundredth, Metro de Madrid!

Well, sort of. Construction started in 1917, but the actual opening was two years later.

Getting the subway project started wasn’t easy. King Alfonso XIII (great grandfather of current King Felipe) added a million pesetas of his own fortune to the kitty to get things going – and cut the ribbon on the first 3.5 kilometers of Line 1 in 1919. It was a revolution: Sol – Cuatro Caminos in under ten minutes, instead of at least thirty minutes by tram. Line 1 was lengthened to Atocha almost immediately, and Line 2 (Sol – Ventas) followed shortly thereafter.

Of course the original subway was different: only four cars per train, train doors that opened by hand and fares that varied by distance travelled. Not to mention the stylish tile decoration in the stations, created by Antonio Palacios to help travellers over the claustrophobia of underground travel (this architect also designed Madrid’s Central Post Office, Bellas Artes and Maudes hospital).

Except for a few slow periods, the subway has continued to grow since those first kilometers. Since the 1980’s the growth has been constant – record-breaking in the late 1990’s – up to current track length of about 294 kilometers and 13 lines, second only to more populous London here in western Europe.

Veteran Line 1 isn’t the longest of Madrid’s subway lines, but it links train and bus stations, shopping areas, cinemas, restaurants, well-known sights and some fun lesser-known sights, so it has one of the highest user rates of all the lines: over 100 million people / year.

 

Read on to learn how the central part of line 1 can help you explore Madrid.

Chamartin, history: Originally a village north of Madrid where the wealthy “got away from Madrid”; village annexed by Madrid in 1948. Today: Train station for long distance and commuter lines.

Plaza Castilla, today: Underground commuter bus station for many points north, many city bus lines at stops on the surface; “leaning towers” just north of the roundabout-square.

Tetuán, history: This neighbourhood started in 1860 as a military camp for the victorious Spanish army after a war in Africa. The camp ended up being semi-permanent and infrastructure and population sprang up around it. The metro arrived in 1929, which helped consolidate the neighbourhood. Today: Tetuán is one of Madrid’s multi-cultural neighborhoods, this one mostly Latino; South American restaurants and shops abound just off main north-south street Bravo Murillo

Estrecho, today: Fun, almost unknown museum at calle La Coruña 18: Museo Tiflológico. Run by the Spanish Blind organization ONCE, this little gem has models of monuments from Spain and other countries, and an amazing section of artwork by the blind.

Cuatro Caminos, history: Ever wonder about the name of this square? The “four streets” are Santa Engracia, Bravo Murillo, Reina Victoria and Artistas, as Raimundo Fernández Villaverde was created after square was named. Today: important metro transfer – with endless escalators for line 6. Maravillas market on Bravo Murillo is one of the city’s best.

Rios Rosas, today: Old Canal de Isabel II water deposit (brick tower built 1865-1876) is an exhibit venue, worth visiting just to see how the space is used. Don’t miss the very top floor. Geology fans: Geominero museum at Rios Rosas 23 – exterior of the building is gorgeous.

Iglesia, history: Original name of this station: Martinez Campos. Today: Sorolla museum at General Martinez Campos 37. Excellent pastry shops near this stop!

Chamberi, history: Chamberí station was closed in 1966; after that, this “ghost station” was barely visible in the tunnel between Iglesia and Bilbao. Today: Now a mini-museum, with original decoration and advertising posters in ceramic tile. Guided visit (free, in Spanish), video and station visit with trains whizzing by behind a glass partition. Fun even without great Spanish. Access: glass structure on corner of Santa Engracia / Luchana. Open Thursday to Sunday, get current schedules by searching Metro Madrid Anden 0.

Bilbao, history: Site of one of the gates in the last line of city walls, called the “Snow Pit Gate” for the pre-refrigerator ice houses nearthe square. Today: best access for eating and drinking around Dos de Mayo, nearby cinemas, and one end of fashion street Fuencarral (other end is Gran Via).

Tribunal, history: San Fernando hospital was built to attend 3,000 patients and functioned until 1922; gave the subway stop its original name of Hospicio. The building is a Madrid history museum since 1929. Today: Interesting museum with good permanent collection and temporary exhibits (don’t miss the model of Madrid).

Gran Via, history: This emblematic street is fairly new, built 1910 – 1931. Subway stop Gran Via (original name Red San Luis) is right next to Madrid’s first skyscraper: Telefónica building on corner of Gran Vía / Fuencarral, completed in 1929. Today: The Telefónica building has excellent temporary exhibits, and a telecommunications. Gran Via is another shopper’s street – but watch out for pickpockets.

Sol, history: Although outside the medieval city, Sol has long been the bustling center for traffic, pedestrians, “Kilometer 0” for Spain’s radial highways, and the first major transfer point for the subway (lines 1,2,3). Remodelled and reorganized more than once over the centuries; site of all kinds of historic events. Today: Pedestrian shopping area on Carmen, Preciados and Monter north to Callao and west on Arenal to Opera. Best subway access for Plaza Mayor and for Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Alcala 13), also for Santa Ana tapa area and movies in English at Yelmo Ideal Cineplex.

Tirso de Molina, history: Original name Progreso (old name for Tirso de Molina square); the name of square and metro stop changed in 1939, shortly after dictator Francisco Franco’s victory in the Civil War. Madrid lore has two ghost stories for this station: one story claims that the bones of monks who lived in the convent that used to be in this square are under the subway platforms, placed there by the workers who built the station (and the other ghost story is too creepy to tell here). Today: The recent renovation of this square created a pleasant space with outdoor cafés and a flower market. Access to the Rastro flea market.

Anton Martin, today: One of Madrid’s first movie theaters (Cine Doré, Santa Isabel 3) is now the “Filmoteca”, running several sessions of different movies every day. Great prices and even cheaper with their ten-punch deal. Rooftop movies in the summer. A must-do for movie fans!

Atocha, history: The old part of Atocha train station was inaugurated in 1892, serving as a station for about 100 years until the new station took over. Today The old station is a greenhouse – a good place to relax before traveling or after a visit to the nearby art museums. New train station for long distance (including AVE) and commuter lines. NOTE: Direct-access metro stop Atocha RENFE better for the station, as old Atocha stop is across many lanes of traffic. Near Atocha / Atocha RENFE: Art museums Reina Sofia, Prado, Thyssen. Anthropology museum, Botanical Gardens, Cuesta Moyana bookstalls, Retiro Park.

Menéndez Pelayo, today: access for Tapestry factory and museum (Fuenterrabia 2)

Pacifico, history: Opened in the early 1920’s on the edge of the city. The “Nave de Motores” generating station, created to guarantee electricity for the subway via a combination of huge engines and transforming power from electrical companies is nearby. Today: The electrical station is newly open as a mini-museum (see Chamberi). Pacifico is an important metro transfer, one stop from Mendez Alvaro (South Bus Station/commuter train station).

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/

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 usually found in Catalonia 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
– Hojiblanca: stronger flavor with a little bite at the end. My favorite, excellent on salads.

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

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

Fundación Patrimonio Comunal Olivero: Spanish foundation to promote use of oil and educate consumers. Very good store in Madrid, everything is Extra Virgin (so it takes some of the guesswork out of your purchase). Olive oil from all over Spain, and many, different varieties. My choice for getting favorites and also for trying new kinds. Website http://www.pco.es

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/