Fruit for Breakfast, Churros for Lunch, and Futbol for Dinner

Everybody says you must have churros at least once per visit to Madrid, so on my last day, I finally caved, ate fruit for breakfast to conserve calories, ran 12k to burn calories, and then visited the famous Chocolatería San Ginés for chocolate con churros. Chocolate con churros consists of a cup of a hot chocolate/pudding-textured (think a more pudding like Italian hot chocolate for those of you who are familiar with Brunetti in Melbourne) sauce served with sticks of fried dough on the side for dipping. The churros served more as a vessel for the chocolate, rather than as valuable beings in their own right. In particular, they lacked in flavor and didn’t have a soft doughy center as I expected. I also would have preferred straight, melted dark chocolate as the dip. Although I am a huge fan of fried dough (think funnel cake), the churros were nothing special; next time I will save the calories for Mallorquina.

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As it ends up, tonight was the highlight of my visit to Madrid. I was lucky enough to score a ticket to the Real Madrid futbol game (against Rayo Vallecano). I have never followed soccer, but of course knew of the riotous and raucous games that, in some ways, define the Spanish spirit. I was not disappointed. There are a ton of police officers throughout the stadium and guards surrounding the field to protect the players from the crowd. I was allowed to take in my bottle of water, but had to leave the cap at the door so that it couldn’t be used as a projectile weapon. Real Madrid won, as was expected, although there was a bit of an upset in the first thirty seconds when Rayo Vallecano scored a goal almost immediately. Real Madrid picked up its game in the second half and won 6-2. Here are some snaps:

Me —

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Christiano Ronaldo (sigh) —

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Oh yeah, and everyone else —

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Not only was the game great fun, but I also made some friends. The girl sitting next to me was very friendly, and a local, and she, her boyfriend, and their visiting friend took me out to a Spanish late night dinner following the game. Oh, I almost forgot! I was on Spanish television! They were interviewing fans and Celia, my new friend, dragged me in front of the camera. She gave her commentary while I stood there smiling like a fool. Classic.

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I love Madrid.

Tomorrow I head to Morocco for 15 days. Internet may be a bit spotty but I will try post as regularly as possible. Thanks for tuning in.

Holy Toledo!

Today I took the high speed train to Toledo for the afternoon. As you probably know, Toledo is of major historical significance in Spanish and European history in general. It is a beautiful medieval city, which, unfortunately, makes it a bit like another Disney World (as you may have noticed, I hate that). There is a lot to see but no culture to absorb, at least not for a tourist and not in the historical area.

For the sake of the blog, I made sure to sample local delicacy – mazapan (i.e., marzipan). I also tried a Toledana cookie that is nutty, crumbly, and not too sweet, and has a thin layer of pumpkin filling in the middle. I find that marzipan is a divisive food; some love it, some hate it. I usually love it for one or two bites, particularly when it is between chocolate, but then find that it gets sickly. The mazapan cookies I had today, one plain and one with apricot filling, were really good; they were less sweet and more baked-goods-like than the sugar and almond mush I usually associate with marzipan. The Toledana cookie was good, but I wouldn’t get it again. My intent was just to have a bite of each cookie, so I could write a blog entry and save the rest for tomorrow, but then I got bored waiting for the train back to Madrid and finished them all off. I guess it makes sense that my boss once called me a sewage system.

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A Return to Form

My last few posts dabbled in a bit of non-food-related tourist mumbo jumbo (you get the point, i.e., that I also see the sites when I visit places, not just the dining table), so here, in Madrid, I will get back on track. As a quick note, Madrid is awesome and, I think, way cooler than Barcelona. It is also turning out to be culinary delight with a variety of great options, including many sans jamon (I haven’t had a piece of pork in almost three days!).

I arrived yesterday and on the recommendation of well known food writer/chef friend, whose opinion I regard highly, I visited Taberna Toscona for dinner. The restaurant is a little above my price point considering that I have to fund an entire year of travel, so I just stuck to one dish that was specifically recommended – a salad of tuna and marinated peppers. The clean, “minimalist” ingredients allowed the flavors to jump off off the plate. Needless to say, I sopped up every last bit of the marinade, including a significant amount of olive oil, with a generous portion of bread. Delicious.

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Thanks to a “hot tip” from Jane P., a fellow food lover, this morning I visited La Mallorquina, a famous pastry shop, for breakfast. What a treat! I had a chocolate “napolitana” and a cortado to go (note the lovely plastic take-away cup used often for even hot drinks) and grabbed a spot on Puerta del Sol to chow down. No question I will be back tomorrow for breakfast, and probably the next day, though next time I’ll stand at the bar.

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The Alhambra

Yesterday I visited the Alhambra, the most visited site in all of Spain. Apparently it has been even busier this year, because European tourists who would have gone to Middle Eastern countries for holidays have not this year, and have come here instead.

The Alhambra is perched on top of a hill overlooking Granada and is comprised of the Generalife, beautiful manicured gardens; the Alacazar, a fort and the oldest part of the Alhambra; the unfinished palace of Charles V; and the Nazaries Palaces. It was originally a Moorish fortress, but was taken over by Ferdinand when he assumed power. The real beauty of the Alhambra derives from its Moorish roots.

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Granada

My initial impression of Granada was accurate. I love it here. The people are warm and the city is beautiful, but in a real way where the history is underneath and surrounding the people going about their business. Yesterday I took a walking tour of the city and visited the Alhambra, for which I will write a separate post.

Granada is where Spain was born in 1492 when Ferdinand defeated the Moors, but, of course, its history extends far beyond that. There is too much to go into in a blog post, but basically, lots of Muslims and Jews lived here, and when the Moors were defeated by the Christians, Ferdinand and Isabel were initially respectful of these people. Eventually, and unfortunately, due to various factors, the Muslims and Jews were expelled to the extent they would not convert to Christianity. The north African history and influence is obvious everywhere you go — the architecture, tiling, tea and spice shops, and the souk-like street markets, as well as the Moorish quarter called the Albayzin, definitely give this Spanish city a unique twist. There is also a beautiful cathedral, the second largest in Spain, and the Royal Chapel, holding the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabel that are fascinating to visit.

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(We have all seen those silver street men, and I am sick of them, but I have never seen one with a dog who holds perfectly still playing dead for a long time — amazing!)

Across from my pension is a cute park on a square (of which there are many) that is swarmed by thousands of birds each night — Mom, you would love this. They are so loud! Needless to say, I don’t walk through there at night and am very careful where I sit during the day, as there is a plethora of bird poop.

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As far as food goes, I am thoroughly sick of pork/ham/cured ham (jamon as they say here), not that I was ever a huge fan. Last night, I made the mistake of ordering it yet again. In the U.S. when I order a “hamburger” I incorrectly use that term interchangeably with “burger,” (the latter implying beef and the former, technically, implying ham) as many people probably do because in the States, beef burgers are the norm. Well, here, a hamburguesa is actually a patty of ham, not beef as I had been craving. This was stupid of me, but I had been on my feet from 8:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. and was exhausted and hungry. To make matters worse, I ordered a “hamburguesa completo” assuming that completo meant lettuce and tomato. It did mean lettuce and tomato, but it also meant fried egg. Yuck. This experience was particular disappointing because the night before I had a “scramble” with shrimp, ham, and mushrooms, the consumption of which resulted in a stomach ache of course. The bartender (more on bartenders as waiters below) told me (well, acted out to me) that if I ate the whole portion, which was as big as my head, I would be fat. I didn’t finish it.

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One thing that I love about the food culture here is the bars and coffee shops that are usually indistinguishable from tapas restaurants (though there are some tapas places that are clearly restaurants). There is often a long bar made of wood or metal and you just walk up and order coffee (or beer, depending on the time of day) and some food. There are bar stools, but most people just eat standing up. I think this is similar to coffee shops in Italy. The bartenders are the waiters and they are usually characters — friendly, funny, and warm, but disguised as grumpy old men for the first few minutes you encounter them (kind of like superintendents in New York). There is an old world quality to these places, almost like they have frozen in time. Below is a photo of the little place I had breakfast this morning. Breakfast is plain here, usually just bread and coffee, which works for me. A few minutes after I ate, I came back with my camera to take this photo. I was a little embarrassed when one of the bartenders saw me, but I smiled and he smiled warmly back.

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Just for completeness, this is the place where I ordered lunch yesterday. It is a shop selling meat and some cheese and they prepare fresh bocadillos, or sandwiches, on a baguette. As I have said before, pork and cheese are really the only options, although there are a variety of both, but the sandwiches are good and fresh.

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A Summary of Seville

Today I left Seville, a city that, unfortunately, underwhelmed me. Sure, the historical city is beautiful, although the rest is hideous. If you ever come here, close your eyes for the ride from the airport or train station to your hotel. The city is described by many as vibrant, romantic, intriguing, but I just did not feel any of those things. Seville is a bit like Disney World, something that I hate about many places I have visited.

As far as attractions go, of course the cathedral (third largest church in the world) is stunning and the Alcazar is worth a visit. I also saw an unbelievable Flamenco show, thanks to a recommendation from a friend. It was good value and very authentic (from my very limited experience) because it was put on by Casa de la Memoria, a cultural museum, rather than a show operator. Here are some photos from the cathedral (including a photo of the tomb of Columbus – DNA verified!) and the Flamenco show:

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In general, I found Seville to be very expensive, which was a little surprising having come from two cities that I would have expected to be worse. I paid less for my accommodation in Seville, but still seemed to spend more generally (on what?…certainly no purchases). I guess it does make sense – the historical center of Seville is the only place that has any value to tourists and the only people who have reason to go there are tourists; whereas in Barcelona and San Sebastian, locals mix with tourists in most places.

The food was also little to write home (or blog) about. Deep fried fish is a specialty here in Andalusia and I tried it on my first night, but forgot my camera. Anything deep fried is good, so it was fine, but what was actually good was the cold pimento “salad” (more like a stew) that I had on the side. I was actually surprised by the amount of seafood served here, given that Seville is inland. There is great orange juice (always freshly squeezed and a lot better and cheaper than in New York). I did have a great experience with ice cream. A place right near my hotel makes it fresh daily and the owner was so generous with samples – I had to stop her at about seven (Steve K., you would love this) – that I had practically eaten a whole serving before I even placed my order (in the end I had a trio of banana chocolate, Dutch chocolate, and mint chocolate chip). I had a cheese quesadilla one night that was more like a goat cheese salad, but had won some sort of innovative tapas award. The lettuce, strawberries, and apple in the dish constituted the most fruit and vegetables I have had at once in the past two weeks — the Spanish are big on meat and cheese, not so big on leafy greens. Yesterday I had a bit of a stomach ache and needed a break from Spanish food, so I had some pizza at a highly recommended Italian restaurant. All I can say about that is no more Italian food until Italy (big fail on the pizza).

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Admittedly, I was glad to move on from Seville. I just arrived in Granada and have a good feeling about this place. When I departed the train station, I promptly walked in the wrong direction. I asked a man who was carrying two eggplants for directions and rather than attempt to explain something that I would not understand, he kindly walked me, out of his way, to the correct street. The room in my pension makes the fresher rooms at Trinity look tremendous (seriously), but I know I picked the right place, because for twenty euros per night I have my own, personally operating and virtually silent air conditioner. I’ve made it.

A guy goes over and says to his friend, “Wanna see a picture of my aunt?” His friend says, “Sure.” The guy pulls a picture out of his wallet and shows it to him. His friend says, “But that’s a picture of a fish!” The guy replies, “That’s my anchovy.”

It was a very pleasant surprise when on Tuesday, thanks to Facebook, I learned that a friend from university was also in San Sebastian for a couple of days. The world is small and Australians are everywhere. Long story short, tonight (Wednesday) despite the stomach ache I had all day (probably resulting from the fried bread dessert I had on Tuesday night), I took the opportunity to show him the ropes of pintxos bar hopping. Plus, it is my last night in Basque country so there was no way I could miss out. I had another of those Kobe beef hamburgers, a kosher prawn and Iberian ham kebab, a Basque specialty warm crab dip, a piece of cheese tempura the size of my fist, and, most notably, anchovies.

Fresh anchovies are a staple of Basque cuisine and are not cured or salted as are their U.S. counterparts. On our pintxos crawl, we visited the Mecca of anchovy restaurants, Bar Txepetxa (that is what a Basque word looks like, you see, not easy). My friend went the conservative route and had his anchovy with chopped peppers and onions. I was a bit more adventurous and had two — one with olive tapenade and the other with…wait for it…blueberry jam! And to make things even more weird, I think that it was actually my favorite jam, blueberry Bonne Maman jam, that I keep at home, when I have a home.

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I think I may need to lay off the heavy stuff for a day or two. Next stop, Sevilla!

San Sebastian and the Art of Eating

On the night of September 11, I arrived in San Sebastian, Spain, which is on the northeast coast of Spain, in Basque country, and close to France. The Basques have their own language, which is quite difficult and very unusual. I think it is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, spoken language today. The minute I arrived here, I knew this is a place I will return for holidays in the future. It is a resort town, but that is not why it exists. Basque culture is prevalent and “real” people actually live here and go about their business regardless of the tourists. It is rare to find a beach town like this. Last night I went for a walk at sunset along a promenade that extends beyond the beach around the small mountains. Today when I was on my run, I saw waves breaking, and in the spray above them, rainbows — I have never seen anything like that before. Some pictures of sunset and some general photos of San Sebastian are below:

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Basques take food very seriously. They have a saying that they have big bellies to protect the most important organ — the stomach. I take back what I said in a previous post about avoiding eating food with toothpicks from a bar. Pintxos, the Basque word for tapas, are served like that and they are amazing. The best pintxos are caliente (i.e. served hot and made to order). Typically, when going for pintxos, Basques will hop from one restaurant to the next, allowing themselves only one serving from each restaurant. It is a bit difficult going out for pintxos at night by myself, because to order, I have push my way to the bar and either grab what I want and pay later or scream across to the insanely busy barman to place an order for pintxos calientes. Between that and the language barrier, it is a struggle! People either eat at the bar, basically on top of all the cold pintxos set out (different standards of food regulation!) or find a standing table somewhere inside or outside. Unfortunately because it is so crowded and overwhelming, it is hard to savor anything. These are some fairly typical pintxos (anchovies, mushrooms, crab, cod, and as always, Iberian ham are popular):

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Today for lunch, I went to a pintxos restaurant called A Fuego Negro (“a black fire”). This particular restaurant is known for being very innovative and it was incredible. Although it is more common to have pintxos for dinner, I found it much easier at lunch because it was less crowded, I had a seat at the bar, and the barman was really friendly (even though he didn’t speak a word of English and we each had no idea what the other was saying). I had three dishes that were interesting and great, and a zurito (pronounced thoo-ree-toh), which is a mini beer. The first dish I ordered was a Kobe beef burger (remember everything is a mini portion) with a ketchup infused bun. This particular dish from this particular restaurant had been recommended to me by two people before I left for the trip. The burger was served with a few plantain chips. Next I had a trio of crab, avocado, and licorice flavored ice cream. My guidebook recommended it and it was delicious and bizarre. Finally, I asked the bartender, in broken English/Spanish combination (Basque is impossible) to choose my final dish. He brought out a glass with red on the bottom, foam above it, and some sort of nut sprinkled on top. I am still not entirely sure what I ate, other than the fact that there were two mussels on the bottom surrounded by a slightly sweet tomato and pepper based sauce. I don’t know what the foam is and am not entirely sure about the nuts either. However, it was fabulous. Unfortunately, I did not use a flash for these photos so they are not as vivid as they should be.

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Thoughts on Barcelona

Tomorrow Indi heads home to London and I begin my solo travel – fist stop, San Sebastian, in Basque country on the northeast corner of the country (and also the food capital of Spain!). I thought it might be worthwhile to do a non-food oriented post, as evidence that I do things other than eat.

Barcelona was not quite what I expected. I envisioned the city and the people to be an extension of Gaudi’s architecture (lively, beautiful, stylish) and was probably subconsciously hoping to see Javier Bardem lookalikes. While I think Barcelona is a pretty nice place to live, it lacks the atmosphere I had hoped for. There doesn’t seem to be much of a buzz other than from the drunk tourists on La Rambla and the guys pickpocketing the drunk tourists. Also, the people are not generally well dressed and mostly look like they are going to the beach in clothes that do not fit. If you want a more authentic experience, don’t stay on La Rambla. Instead, try La Gracia or La Ribera, as these are neighborhoods where the Spaniards seem to spend their time and have far fewer want-to-be bohemian backpackers stumbling around.

On a positive note, the people are generally nice and friendly and I have not felt uncomfortable at all, despite the regular creeps that lurk in every tourist destination. As I mentioned, this does seem like a great city to call home and we really got to see a lot of it. The Metro system is great, but the city is also extremely walkable. Of course the Gaudi architecture is phenomenal, particularly Sagrida Familia, an unfinished church. Gaudi worked on the church from 1883 till his death in 1926. The church is still under construction today and isn’t expected to be finished for another 30 years. It is a pretty interesting history and I suggest you read about it.

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We also took a day trip to Girona, to the northeast of Barcelona. Girona has a rich Jewish history (the Jewish quarter is well preserved and dates back to the ninth century) and also a beautiful cathedral that is both Gothic and Romanesque.

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