País Vasco/La Rioja: Misjudgements and Re-conceptions

13 12 2010

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.

Continued in:
Nibbling the North
Brushstrokes and Spraypaint

Challah At Me Boy

17 09 2010

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.

Recipe and abridged post here.