Tuesday, May 19, 2009

how about a day trip?

Another good thing about living in Madrid. To see truly magnificent relics of time, and escape the bustle of urban life, all one needs to do is hop on a bus or train for an hour or two, and there you are ... visiting a 16th century monastery , or a 13th century cathedral, or as I did this past weekend, a 1st century Roman aqueduct.

The aqueduct of Segovia, which lies in the capital city of the region by the same name in Castilla y León was used to carry water from the Fuente Fría river to the city for centuries. It continued to carry water to the Alcazar castle until just recently.

This was in fact my third time making the mini-pilgrimage. Needless to say, there were other factors motivating our trip to Segovia. My Catalan traveling companion had never been before. The San Isidro festivities were taking place in Madrid, and we were seeking a little refuge. There is also the Alcazar castle, which to my dismay did not inspire the Cinderella castle, the actual Disney inspiration lying somewhere in Germany, but could pass as a Spanish cousin.

We also stopped by the 16th century gothic cathedral.

But what was the real motivation for this adventure?

Cochinillo. Vegetarians are advised to stop reading here. Roasted suckling baby pig. A gastronomic tradition so treasured by Segovians that it merits a plaque. Tell anyone in Madrid that you're going to Segovia, and they'll ask you whether you've chosen where to have a cochinillo for lunch. The last time I experienced this culinary ritual, I was with my mother. To describe my mother in brief, she's most contented with a delicious salad and a glass of white wine. To her credit, she was surprisingly adventurous during her last visit, and didn't shy away from the plates of jamón, pulpo de gallego, and other such delights that I placed before her. However, the sight of the little baby pig face that was brought to our table side as the waiter sliced into it with a plate (so tender a knife isn't necessary) was too much for her. She held back gags as she watched her youngest darling daughter crack into the crunchy skin and relish in a plate of suckling pig.

This time around, we went to Narizotas, a restaurant in the city center that was recommended by a local Segovian. We barely looked at the menu, and opted for "el menu turística" that included a first course, wine, bread, dessert, and of course, the cochi. When the first course arrived, we were a bit taken aback. What is this red soup? Wow, those are the biggest white beans I've ever seen! But wait, what are those whitish-brownish chunks floating in a pool of red? Don't tell me... tripas! They had to be that poor pig's innards. There we were, sitting on a terrace, basking in the glorious Spanish sun, and I had to choose between manning up and giving it a try, or seeming a completely uncultured American tourist. I chose the low road. The road less traveled, if you will. And it wasn't so bad to begin with. The broth is delicious, beans are a bit unnecessarily large, but also yummy. Then, in the midst of 3 pm lunch chit chat, a silence fell upon our table. It was not a pause of ecstasy. We had both taken a bite of the mysterious other at the same time and were equally appalled by the strange texture, unlike anything I've ever tasted. It took a great deal of will power and slow breathing to continue.

The second course was much less of a surprise, the cochinillo being just as good as I had remembered it, with crunchy skin protecting the juicy tender meat underneath. My lunch date was not thrilled by it, and found his piece too overwhelmingly fatty. I can't say it's something I would ever wake up craving, but as in many foods in Spain, most of the fun is taking part in the traditions, which are ingrained in the culture. Each holiday, or festival, or region boasts a special food or drink. Although consumption is part of the pleasure, the ritual and gathering of family and friends is where the real importance lies. And I am always happy to form new bonds over plates of strange food.

An inventive dessert with a Spanish touch, coconut and saffron icecream, concluded the meal, and after a walk around the quaint streets of Segovia, we were back on the bus to Madrid. Another day well-spent and in good company.

Los Judiones de la Granja con sus Tropezones

Ración de Cochinillo

Helado de Coco y Azafrán

Don't worry ... no excursions this weekend. The salmorejo recipe is still coming... hasta prontito!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

seeing is believing at the feria

Overwhelmed. In a good way. This is how I felt when entering the feria of Sevilla. By the array of colors, the dresses, the horses and carriages, the dancing, the casetas, the rebujitos...

Fresh off the train from Madrid, we dropped off our baggage and went straight to the feria. It's difficult to process the visual stimuli of the feria on one's first time. Immediately you are bombarded with a million things to look at. Stunning women, each one wearing an unique flamenco dress in eye-popping colors and patterns, amble down streets where horse drawn carriages circle around, and people are going in and out of casetas. The casetas are tents that line the streets of the feria. Now if you're like me, "party tent" conjures up images of bar mitzvahs inside plain white tents with plastic white table cloths. Also being 13 years old and doing the electric slide. In Sevilla, it is anything but. It's quite the posh ordeal, really. Private groups rent casetas for the entire week, and they are lavishly decorated and replete with bar and food to order. Doormen stand guard at the entrances to protect these exclusive worlds from the commoners outside.This lady was stunning

So cute it hurts
The feria at night

I was lucky to have gone with my own Sevillano to get me into many of the casetas. Inside... there is dancing, family, and rebujito! Pitcher after pitcher of rebujito, which is a mixture of manzanilla, a sherry wine produced in Andalucia, and sprite. It goes down dangerously easy, causing some unanticipated disequilibiurm when exiting the casetas.

But there was much more to the feria than just drinking. Eating too. All day we picked at plates of Andalusian tapas that were passed around. To make you envious:

Puntillitas (fried baby squid)

Jamón serrano, queso manchego, caña de lomo (cured pork loin)

Tortilla de patatas con verduras (potato omelet with vegetables)

Espárragos con jamón (asparagus with jamon and crunchy sea salt)

And lest we forget the churros con chocolate at 6 am on the way home:

And perhaps most important of all - the sevillano dancing. It is a partner dance that has four sections, and involves graceful turns, spins, and hand movements for the women. It's a beautiful tradition to watch. And seemingly simple, but guess again. Yes, I attempted a dance or two. Never have I felt so ungraceful and uncoordinated, and not because of the rebujito. To my defense, the girls start dancing sevillano style when they are teeny.

With all the socializing at the feria, I got to practice my Andaluz, the Andalusians being famous for their distinct accent and manner of speaking, sometimes causing difficulty for even native speakers of Castellano. To elaborate.

Saturated. Exhausted. This is how I felt after 2 days of the feria. Pablo's parents were kind enough to invite us all to their home in the village of Gines for a delicious paella mixta, with seafood (mussels, shrimp, calamares), chicken, and some veggies, including artichokes, which I had never had before in a paella. The main ingredients in any paella are rice, safron (giving it the deep golden color), olive oil, and a meat or fish, although this isn't absolutely necessary. Last summer, I worked in the countryside in Valencia, where paella is from. Many people think that paella is a typical Spanish food, but it's actually a Valencian specialty. One day a woman that ran a hostel there prepared us paella in an enormous pan called a paellera, with rabbit, chicken, and fresh rosemary. One thing I've learned from eating many paellas is you must scrape the burnt rice from the bottom of the paellera when serving, because this part is reeeally tasty.

Our meal was followed by a much needed siesta. After watching Real Madrid lose to Barcelona in a soccer match, we returned to the city, freshened up, and went out for a late dinner. With all the people in the feria, it was a very atypically quiet Saturday night in Sevilla. We ventured to a spot of my friend Peter, who studied in Sevilla during college. It's a little place called Bar Alfalfa that's always crowded with people, and only has standing room. They prepare Andalusian foods with an Italian twist, such as bread topped with buffalo cheese, salmorejo, and bits of jamon. Sounds a little strange, the combination, but it was yummy. Although I would probably love salmorejo in any arrangement. With a tapa of plump olives and a plate of thin slices of jamón with parmesan and rucula, it was a perfect way to round off a very intense weekend.

During the 6 hour bus ride back I was going over all of the things I had to share with you, and realized it would be selfish if I were to withhold Pablo's recipe for salmorejo, which I am becoming an expert at preparing ... I will leave you hanging for now, but go buy your tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, olive oil, and green peppers, and I'll show you how to make it this week. Hasta pronto.