El Rastro: Photojaunt Meetup

6 05 2012

OKCupid’s overdone, intercambios are insipid, and you’re seriously cansada de Couchsurfing? Meetups are one solution. Folks of all ages and origins rally around shared interests, a proposal which manages to simply and swiftly avoid attracting the typical monochromic backpacking/expat crowd. My own meetup inauguration comes in the form of a photography scavenger hunt proposed around a Rastro afternoon. A prize is promised. I’m in.

We’re about a dozen that gather in Tirso de Molina at noon, the majority of necks slung proud with elaborate SLR electronics. My beat-up point-and-shoot Canon S90 is at the ready, though, and I all but ignore the proffered hunting list in favor of snapping a few choice frames in my own style.

Weary white tees in contrast to persistent yellow facades in contrast to struggling blue spring skies.

I got yelled at for this one. It’s true, I took it so I could copy the designs for personal profit.

Deals everywhere.

If you’ve got the time, they’ve got the heel.

I think this elegant guy works here – he looked to be sorting the records.


Gitanerias. Piles of books and records and postcards abound in El Rastro – discarded media from a different age.

What the gastronomically inclined did pre-internet.

The butt end of El Rastro, in a plaza near Puerta de Toledo. We’re talking serious opportunities here, ripe for hardcore combers and bargainers of all variety. I may have negotiated a capricho or two.

Afterwards, cheapo eats and drinks at 100 Montaditos, plus travel tips, official photo judging, and cell number exchanges. I didn’t win, but neither did I lose.

2012-13 Fulbrighters to Spain: Hola!

24 04 2012

Fulbrights to Spain for the coming 2012-13 academic year – HOLA QUE HACE?

No but really. I can hear you hovering. Spain’s sent that mystical fat envelope your way at last, hooray and enhorabuena!! However, now that the seemingly endless limbo has graciously come to a close, your inner anxious academic takes over once more, peppering the innocent consciousness with queries.

What I mean is, I see you – I’m a WordPress stats nerd, and I check out what folks search for that guides them in a tomato-y direction – and I know you’re nervous. A handful of you have actually written me emailed queries regarding what’s in store for the coming year, and I figure it’s highly likely there are more who have considered it.

This post is an open invitation to ask questions of me regarding my experience, as well as what you might anticipate from yours. I’m no expert, but I’ll tell you just about anything you’d like to know according to my own time spent in Spain.

Janel Torkington, A Professional Primer:
I graduated from Earlham College with a degree in Spanish Language and Literature in May of 2009.
I spent the following year adventuring around Thailand, then received word of a Fulbright award in April 2011.
I was a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant for the 2010-11 academic year.
I was assigned to one of the older bilingual high schools in Madrid, IES José Luis Sampedro.
Along with the other Fulbrighter at IES JLS, I took responsibility for the Global Classrooms (Model UN) project in my school.
I was nominated as one of two Fulbright representatives to accompany the top ten Madrid students to the international Model UN conference that year, which took place in downtown Manhattan in May of 2012.
I had such a positive experience my first year that I renewed at the same high school for a second term.
The second year has continued to be enormously rewarding, and I plan on remaining in Madrid for the time being.

I’d be more than happy to answer questions as I receive them in the comments, as well as through email (contomates [at sign] gmail [dot] com).

quicknote: probably a good time to re-mention the bit they ask you to put on the blogs – I’m in no way an official Fulbright rep, and my views don’t have to do with their official positions on anything whatsoever. That’s a good thing! You can ask me about stuff like the truth about oreja, how much hell finding a piso actually is, and where exactly to get your hands on elusive ground cardamom. Fulbright Inc. doesn’t have a heap to say about any of those.

Pan con Tomate at El Brillante

15 12 2011
Photo stolen, mercilessly, from about.com.

El Brillante is a Madrid institution, famous for its bocadillo de calamares (just ask them). I’m here writing about it never having tried the acclaimed sandwich, nor having been tempted, nor anticipating sampling said squid in any foreseeable future. The gaudy, neon-coated front is just outside Atocha metro station, a stone’s throw from la Reina Sofia, and neighbor to 100 Montaditos. It appears specifically designed to lure in the tourist crowd fresh from out the museum, eager for a Real Madrileño Experience.

All this slagging has a point. Friend Sevi, not nearly as over-the-top jaded as I am with regards to the local/tourist divide, insists several times that’s she’s located the best pan con tomate in the city. She calls it her “dirty old man bar,” in which the misplaced modifier ought to be taken as innocently as possible – less lechery, more stainless steel counters, kept sanitary through the age-old tradition of dropping used napkins directly on the tile floor.

At 11 AM, the scene is chaotic. Newcomers pause in the center clearing, uncertain of their destination, while scores of late breakfasters, folks on their merienda break, and unmistakable Old Spanish Men crowd the bar stools lining the walls. The ceiling is ringed with dated, unappetizing photos of what’s available: gray boquerones in a thin soup of vinagre, traffic-cone orange mussels pursed like wrinkly relatives’ lips, congealing brava sauce blanketing pasty potato chunks.

As soon as the aged crew behind the metal counter notices our entrance, they call out a hearty: “¡Hola, jóvenes!” Untrusting trepidation ever-so-slighty eased, I shuffle up behind Sev to just-freed barside seats. Contrary to characteristic Spanish style, we’re immediately asked what we’re having; the mood is affable but all business. The drinks – I go café con leche in lieu of my usual cortado – are made at the bar, and the chapatas con tomate order is projected vocally across the room to the kitchen, walled in by transparent plastic sheets.

The best part is almost the people-watching. The barmen are a serious spectacle in themselves, high energy just on the verge of hectic, calling out orders and greetings in between trading day-to-day remarks with what seem to be regulars, all while slinging hot coffees and keeping the rapidly moving counter clear. The crowd isn’t all tourists like I was picturing – perhaps about a 50/50 split at this mid-morning hour – and, despite ample opportunity for foreigner confusion, everyone is playing it pretty cool. Families split raciones of the patatas (which, thankfully, bear little resemblance to their unfortunate photo representation) and strollers mingle in the open central area. The ghost of cigarettes past hangs nearly palpable over the mellow regular crowd, who read newspapers and sip caffeine and/or booze (SEE: carajillos).

But the scene isn’t the best part, not to me. Not two minutes of acclimation go by when our breakfast is carted over to the bar, complete with miniature plastic salt shaker and a Trina bottle filled with olive oil. I make a move to unscrew the lid and am practically leapt upon from across the bar – “No no NO, hay ajugeros en la tapa, ¿¿ves?? ¡Si la quitas todo va a salir a la vez!” Somehow missed those ingenious little holes poked in the metal lid, yes. Not that the bread needs any more oil anyway; it’s come already inundated, yellow and toasty, crowned with a healthy smear of garlicky grated tomato.

And yes, this is the best part. The crunch and the yeast and the heat of the bread, air pockets bursting with nutty, earthy olive oil, rounded out by sweet and fragrant tomato essence, concentrated and rich, accented by salt granules and invisible garlic. The bread absorbs the oil’s potentially objectionable slickness and amplifies instead its flavorful depth of character. The textural contrast digs in its hooks and doesn’t let go. I’m normally a very light breakfaster, and these two fat slices simply vanish.

Beginning the day this way FEELS wholly Spanish, regardless of tourist presence, irrespective of arbitrary judgements of authenticity. We’re not in Cataluña, home of the original pa amb tomàquet. We’re not in some hole-in-the-wall that lay simply waiting for discovery. This is El Brillante, shiny like a quartz diamond across the way from internationally famous Atocha train station. And this is me, re-evaluating what it means to live here, how I’m seeing and interacting with Madrid, what kinds of assumptions are worth swallowing along with totally unfounded pride.

Are their famous bocadillos any good? Still couldn’t tell you. They look okay; I would try them if prompted. Hear they’re pricey, though.

Adventures in Spanish Eats: Oreja Edition

6 10 2011

Morcilla: What Your Study-Abroad Teacher Warned You About. The not-so-secret ingredient that gives this Spanish sausage its characteristic blackish hue and earthy flavor is pig’s blood, which somehow manages to give many foreigners the heebie-jeebies. However, having already fallen in spicy vampiric love with Thailand’s nam tok – spicy soup deepened in flavor by the addition of fresh sangre – I remain free of such tikismiquis qualms; morcilla is one of my absolute top Spanish dishes.

There are two common variations, the kind made with onions and the Burgos variety made with rice. Burgos’ is best and has the rep to back it up. Lateral‘s version, pictured above, is total offal magnificence.

These gorgeous green puppies are pimientos de Padrón, and I think there’s some kind of blogging law about including the following gallego couplet in their description:

Coma os pementos de Padrón,
uns pican e outros non

The wiki claims 1 in 10 are unexpectedly hot enough to rattle your bones, but personal experience slates it at more like 1 in 20. Either way, the majority of the sautéed (or sometimes grilled) peppers taste of charred vegetable sweetness, accented perfectly by unmistakable Spanish EVOO and crunchy crystals of salt; it’s only when you’ve finally given up on seeking out any lurking Scoville beasties that they come out to play.

Funnily enough, I encountered these the last time I was back in the states, there marketed as Exotic Shishito Peppers From Japan. Munching them with mom and bro was magnificent in Greensburg back in June; the most recent Iberian iteration was the pictured plateful from Bar El Jamón in Lavapiés.

Couchsurfer Eddie convinces me to order up a ración of oreja along with the beloved peppers, and I savor hot, gooey, greasy gelatin vaguely reminiscent of animal product for the first and last time.

Semana Santa: BuenBlogging

29 04 2011

con tomates lives!! But was hanging out at Buen Camino for a spell during Semana Santa.

16/04/11: Barcelona: No Reservations (part one)

“No camera crew. No entourage. No screaming gobs of fans. Just Tony and Jose, checking out what’s new and old at La Boqueria. Jose’s talking jamon, then olives.”


16/04/11: Barcelona: No Reservations (part two)

We thank the guy sincerely – I’m sure he gets tired of dealing with fangirls, but was extraordinarily courteous about it nevertheless – and head back to our awaiting baby quail with smiles plastered across our faces.


18/04/11: Barcelona: #munching

Its appetizer twin is a cool cube of tuna accented with olive oil, a sliver of crunchy red onion, and an unmistakeably lettuce sorbet. We speculate as to why Eric doesn’t whip up lettuce sorbet at home for frequently.


21/04/11: Donostia: Seeking the Holy Grill

Etxebarri is absolutely legendary for its revolutionary grilling techniques; mastermind Victor Arguinzoniz designs innovative mechanisms specifically suited to ingredients never before subject to smoke and flame. We’re talking oddities like egg yolk, here, along with caviar – for the intrigued, our now intimate friend Tony Bourdain investigates in an excellent episode of No Reservations.


24/04/11: Madrid : Madrid :: Madrid : Madrid

Upon our arrival yesterday, I find myself filled with an enormous energy – I am in my city again. I know these streets, and they know me; we convene. MP has some big must-do Spanish Cultural Experiences sketched out as well, but I’m jazzed simply to be able to maplessly navigate again. Give me six more months and I’ll print up Experta Madrileña business cards.