think glittery deely-boppers
think slinky golden leggings
think neon supernova
think aluminum foil
think mad false eyelashes
think glittery deely-boppers
think slinky golden leggings
think neon supernova
think aluminum foil
think mad false eyelashes
Both el País Vasco and La Rioja are internationally famed for their gastronomy, the former for its cutting-edge kitchen techniques and the latter for its age-old vineyard traditions. Here’s a peek into what we munch.
The Bilbao weather that greets us can be gently described as “blustery with a hint of hail,” and we take early evening refuge from the ice onslaught in a covered barbeque stall at the end of a river fair. Huddled up in a mass of mujeres around the space heater, we request a little bit of everything, accompanied by a miraculously warmth-bestowing bottle of wine.
The waiters bat their lashes at us just enough to keep things playful, but we only have eyes for the mountain of meat. Chorizo, torreznos, and ribs roasted over the fire, accompanied by the crustiest of hearty Spanish bread and salty year-old sheep’s milk cheese (not pictured) makes for supreme satisfaction, medieval carnivore style. At some point during the fleshfest, a troop of trolls comes bounding past, skipping and jiving to vaguely Celtic tunes despite the hostile weather. The wine invites me to high-five them, and I do so with enormous joy and a bulging belly.
Upon arrival in Donostia-San Sebastián, we head towards La Zurri, recommended as an inexpensive menú del día of “delicately cooked Basque food” on WikiTravel. Emily zeroes in right away on the volovanes con foie, puff pastries overflowing with incredible cream sauce, marvelous mushrooms, and decadent duck liver. Yes. Welcome to town.
As Spanish cuisine ekes its way into the international mainstream consciousness, it becomes more and more chic to “go out for tapas” – which probably doesn’t mean what most Americans think it means. Rather than mere “small plates,” tapear is a social bar-hopping activity, where each bar gifts you some kind of edible along with your caña or vino. In Madrid, this is not all that common a practice, although post-Rastro Sundays in La Latina are certainly worth a jaunt or two; Granada to the south and León to the north hold much more claim to tapas fame.
In País Vasco, tapas are not called pintxos. Pintxos are called pintxos. Vital differences:
while pintxos are:
In pintxo bars, just like in the huge majority of other eating establishments ’round these parts, you tell the bartender what you’ve consumed at the end and pay accordingly – none of this cash-up-front crap. If you encounter a pintxo bar where you are handed a giant plate and told to go to town on your own and pay according to toothpick, you may also want to look for the door – custom is to eat one pintxo (and down one small beer – known as a zurrito – or glass of wine) per bar, then scoot, or stumble, to another locale.
Leah informs us that it is mushroom season, and the champis on a stick – accompanied, inevitably, by a salty slice of jamón – is a crowd favorite. The shrooms’ already meaty flavor blossoms into fully-fledged fleshiness on the grill, accented by a healthy drizzle of sharp garlic sauce. We devour them with our first sip of txakoli, a very dry and slightly bubbly Basque wine.
I can relate to a people this serious about their garlic.
Occasionally the girls would even convince me to go for sweets. But when they’re this elegant, who can stand to eat them?
… what? You say that’s mango sauce? Where’s my fork?
Recently I’ve been remembering the Histories of Spain days with Chris, those endless Friday afternoon classes in Carpenter achingly watching spring come to the Heart through windowpanes. You wouldn’t believe just how many rich and detailed tales weave together the intricate Spanish fable that I managed not to retain whatsoever. I feel it can only be partially attributed to the oh-so-distracting allure of frisbee in the sunshine; the central issue was that the stories lacked tangible context. Even the following semester in Valencia didn’t provide more than a seriously myopic understanding of the country; anyone who has had the pleasure of Jesús’ Historia y Cultura de Valencia lectures will cringe at the very mention of the Riuà.
Despite the inundación innundation, I’ve been exploring bits and bobbles of the Iberian Peninsula for three years now – holy jamón, Batman! Valencia served as intimate introduction, with weekend sneak peeks at Andalucía, Barcelona, and Cuenca. El Camino de Santiago took me through a snippet of Castilla-León followed by a healthy slice of Galicia, which was further augmented by the following year’s summer stint just outside of Lugo. Through Fulbright, I’ve established my own nooks within the sprawling cosmopolitan center of Spain; I now feel I can rightfully call Madrid home.
Yet the more destinations I explore, the more I realize there is to this amalgamation of autonomous communities than meets the average traveler’s eye. The word choice truly suits: the various puzzle pieces of Spain were brought together under one flag chiefly due to historical agreements made by those in power, most recently serious baddie General Francisco Franco. Under the Franciscan dictatorship, all languages apart from Castellano – incidentally, what English speakers often think of as “Spanish” – were forbidden. The fact is, there are plenty of Spanish languages, among them Catalán, Gallego, and Basque, this final one especially intriguing to linguists as it has no known roots in common with any other language on earth.
The first thing Americans tend to learn about El País Vasco – in Basque, Euskadi – is something about terrorism having to do with the Basque separatist movement. (“Didn’t they blow up that Madrid metro train? And they have something to do with Al-Qaeda, I think.“) Even the Jornada de Auxiliares gave ETA a nod; in addition to not getting too tipsy on the cheap delicious wine, we foreigners have got to be ever! cognizant! of the threat of lurking evil where we may least expect to find it (under the bed, maybe? god forbid, 100 Montaditos??).
Like a good liberal arts grad, I keep questioning everything, particularly my own suppositions. When considering where to visit over the long break from work in December, I know I want to stay in Spain for convenience, and I find myself wondering why el País Vasco seems to be shrouded in eerily foreboding mystery. It’s funny what you’ll pick up when you’re not paying attention – most of my mental Spanish map is coated with thick rays of sunshine, but this unassuming little section to the north is marked off as somehow darkly threatening, or, at the least, somewhere you’d probably not choose to go voluntarily (however, the devious Basque separatists, decked out in black bandito masks, might sequester the less vigilant American tourist up there in the night).
After a few hours’ investigation into the area, it is obvious I can await my would-be kidnappers no longer – sequestering must be done through SpanAir, and in cahoots with the loveliest of girlfriends, Sam, Emily, and Leah. What better way to eradicate absurd preconceptions than to walk through a place in your own rainboots? We split into two pairs and seek Couchsurfers with whom to lodge in Bilbao, Donostia-San Sebastián, and Logroño – the last of which is actually in La Rioja, famed for its wine production and unmissable given that we are going to be just a few hours away by bus.
In Bilbao, Emily and I are welcomed by local Oihane; in Logroño we will stay with Polish Erasmus student Justyna. None of us manages to find any leads in Donostia, so we book a shared hotel room slightly out of town but well-connected by train. I still want to kick it with CSers – my experience tells me that you ought to take full advantage of any time you can involve yourself with knowledgeable locals – so I make a post on the boards inviting any and all in town to a Saturday night pintxos crawl. The responses come pouring in, we confirm a time and place to meet, and that’s the extent of the planning we do for the entire trip. Yup, I fall heavily in the “spontaneous” camp, and I arrive at the airport Thursday evening hot on the scent of the promise of possibility.
Nibbling the North
Brushstrokes and Spraypaint
Explored Toledo one week back with Emily, Leah, and Casey. Met up with Couchsurfer Alvaro and amigos for a day of dando vueltas in the former Spanish capital, including a veritable feast of a lunch consisting of platos typical to the region.
It was simply lovely to be back in small(er)-town Spain. The big-city bustle of Madrid definitely jives with my lifestyle, but my aesthetic sense is more satisfied by curving corridor streets and beige brick facades.
It’s touristy for sure, although some of the knick-knacks do manage to be beautiful in spite of their overwrought themes. Oh Quijote, you must be so exhausted.
We minimally tour, poking our heads into the famous cathedral and posing outside like good guiris. Meeting up with Alvaro was a stroke of brilliance on my part; it transformed the day from blindly following a map from the tourist office into strolling casually with friends.
Alvaro took us to an excellent vista of the entire city, marginally captured in my photo but stunning in reality. On the right is some kind of military building – Toledo is still used for training soldiers to some extent.
Trips to Toledo must always involve either swords or marzapan. We opted for the latter, which was marvelous with hot tea.
It’s the kind of day when your energy is such that there is no option but to bake.
Lightly sweet and eggy challah bread is what comes immediately to mind. I’ve never made it before, but it can’t be all that tricky. The braiding looks fun.
One major sticking point is that we lack an oven. No matter, we’ll need to involve nearby friends as baking buddies.
I know yeast is “levadura,” but if you pick up a box of “levadura en polvo,” you will end up with a baking soda mixture of dubious origin. Acquiring this refrigerated fresh yeast means making a special Mercadona excursion while Em readies the rest of the ingredients. If you’ve never encountered fresh yeast before, do not fear – one of these lil puppies is equivalent to the packets Americans are more used to.
While the dough rises for the first time, Fausto makes good on his promise to take Emily out for her very first kebab. We are joined by Leah, Kate, and Sam. Top-notch conversation accompanies the delicious cheap eats in Lavapiés.
On the walk back home, I discover yet another manifestation of Madrid’s constant vigilance.
Our doughbaby is now enormous, and it has managed to fill the entire piso with the sweet fragrance of yeast. It’s time to punch it down, which Em does with fervor. The recipe doesn’t call for a second rise here, but we want a siestita and do it anyway.
Perhaps forty minutes later, the moment of transportation has arrived. Sam runs out to a tienda chino for baking implements in anticipation of our imminent arrival.
Leah snaps a photo of the two giris with dough on the metro. Em and I not only match each other, but also our doughbaby’s blanket. It’s slightly sickening.
In Sam’s gorgeous and spacious kitchen (…), we form three doughsnakes, which Em proceeds to braid beautifully. It cradles snugly into the glass breadpan Sam found in the chino.
I lovingly brush the top bits of the braid with an eggwash, ensuring a shiny golden coat once baked.
Here the recipe suggests a final rise of an hour. We tuck our baby into bed, then know exactly what to do with the time:
The enticing scent of honey wafts into our nostrils as soon as we open the door. Our baby has gotten nearly too big for its britches.
What a beautiful beast. Sam cranks the oven to 190°C, and we pop it in. It needs twenty minutes of direct heat, then an aluminum foil tent prevents the top from charring too much.
We play Uno impatiently. Tragically, Emily has to head out during this time to make it to her very first Spanish class somewhere in the center – I promise her a challah feast upon returning to the piso later tonight.
After a series of unfortunate losses on my part, the time feels ripe.
Our breadchild could not be more beautiful. The product of a drizzly day’s work of slow efforts brings smiles all around, and even draws one of Sam’s housemates out of her room to investigate.
The honey and extra yolks in the dough give this dense bread a richness that pairs most sweetly with the semi-cured sheep’s milk cheese we brought over, and we also sample it with strawberry jam, honey, and a nutella-esque chocolate spread of Sam’s. A very well-dressed Kate comes over from a day at the museum and munches with us as well.
I awake from my siesta – I don’t think I will ever stop deriving enormous pleasure from spending 6-7:30 PM deep in dreamland – to find the piso transformed.
I’m far from a good Hippiehamite; it never occurs to me to decorate with a few candles. The soft flicker they cast on the kitchen is is gorgeous, though, and a marvelous way to ease towards full wakefulness.
I tell Fausto I love them, and he proceeds to get quite bashful (“ah lo que pasa es que no suelo usarlas, que no son nada, asegurate que las apagas cuando salgas,” etcetera etcetera). They’re so classy-grunge. I love my stylin’ piso.
Tonight I’ve done my research on the Couchsurfing Madrid message boards; there is a fiesta going down tonight in La Latina in celebration of El Grito, Mexican Independence Day! I’ve told Alice about it, and then Emily, and then Sam and Leah and Charleen, and then Jaselyn, and soon enough there is a whole troop of Fulbright ladies hankering for a Mexi-style get-down. I explain what Couchsurfing is, but I get the sense that it’s tricky to understand the vibe of it without experiencing an event for yourself – so plunging ahead blindly it is. Fingers crossed that the Madrid group is as warmly inclusive as the Bangkok bunch.
We convene in La Latina, bustling tapas-central of Madrid (still need to do this! weekend plans, anyone?), and head down Calle Cava Baja towards the deceptively named Chez LouLou, which turns out to be an itty-bitty bar/restaurant completely overflowing with chatty revelers. I approach decisively, stowing my trepidation and boldly introducing myself and my compatriots to some eccentric-looking tall man with a frizzy afro.
A beat passes – then – “Eres de Couchsurfing?”
“AHHHHH CHAN-EL DORK-INK-TOHN!!!”
“Uh. Me investigaste?”
I guess I invited it when I posted on the event listing that I was going to arrive with a plenitude of amigas. Oh Couchsurfing, always toying with that fun little line between informative and creeptastic.
Luckily for all involved, no one else attending is quite THAT well-versed in who I am, although there are a handful of others who recognize my face from the board (“Eres la con las gafas!!“). The atmosphere is totally bumpin’, both in terms of energy and running into other bodies attempting to occupy the same sweaty space, and I quickly move outside with my cool Coronita.
Couchsurfing events are unlike any others I’ve ever experienced; everyone is looking to meet you but (normally) sans flirtatious overtones. There’s a general appreciation of working together to have the best time possible, rather than each-man-for-himself, and just about everyone wants to know your story. Plus, because we’re all connected on this network of references, anyone who makes a bit of a cabron@ out of him/herself is then subject to nothing but the truth the following morning.
As a group of seven attractive chicas (Sam’s brought along a British newbie to Madrid), we are quickly invited out for drinks/dancing following the fiesta. None of us has anything slated for the morrow, so we accept and march our way towards the center.
It is ladies’ night at Dreams, which means the mere presence of your twin mammary glands nets you a free drink every fifteen minutes. None of us go quite that hog wild, but the emphatic booty-shakin’ definitely revs up as the night wears on. Interestingly, the tradition here seems to be that the men dance in front of the womenfolk, showing off their finest groovy maneuvers. For the most part, everyone cycles around the group, trying out different style combinations to the familiar American beats (“heyy! must be the monayy!“).
We duck out around 2:30 AM or so, quite early by Spain standards, but it feels sufficient tonight. The metro’s closed by now, but the 20-minute walk back to Calle de Las Delicias isn’t so bad – although Em and I are certainly enthusiastic about kicking off our heels once happily back in the piso.