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
Serious ambientación courtesy of Emily’s resourcefulness.
Top-notch hostess Sam introduces the best of American cuisine to Madrid:
caramelized corn with fresh mint
cranberry sauce spiked with orange zest
buttered green beans tossed with slivered almonds and cranberries
pumpkin cloverleaf rolls
fiery sweet potatoes
green bean casserole
brined and dressed turkey (!!!)
brined and dressed chicken
And the encore:
fresh whipped cream
The darkest day of the American calendar must be shared with the hundreds of sugar-starved kiddos of José Luis Sampedro. No, not the day after Election Day – I’m talking about Halloween (c’mon, people, catch up).
The auxiliares – that is, Laura, James, Heather, and I – have spent several commutes ruminating on costumes. A theme eventually emerges: American Superheroes. Heather snags Catwoman, which Laura combines with Poison Ivy to make villainous feminine duo. James calls Batman, and as such I am assigned the lowly sidekick role of Robin.
Oh please. Robin is just about the least amount of super you can get. I sneakily plan an alternative get-up.
A couple chinos later, and Captain America is ready for battle.
Laura and I construct cardboard onomatopoeia, then emerge from our dark tower to the center of the recreational area during the afternoon break. We are immediately swarmed – we have informed the students that we will offer candy to anyone else who remembers to dress up. No one has, but hundreds of little ears are buzzing with the promise of sweet, sweet sugar, and we draw an unbelievably enormous crowd within seconds.
Whamm-o! Bam! Pow! Zing! The good guy triumphs in the end (of course) and the bad guy (as punishment?) holds aloft a bag ripe with Sugus. She is MOBBED, a thousand nasty smelly little fingers clutching at her wig and brambles, scrambling for a chance at the prize.
Batman and Catwoman make a late entrance, and we snap a few shots (which Heather still needs to put online, dammit) and offer one more lucha before the bell.
My own Halloween fiesta was low-key-esque. Two highlights include:
Alex as beaker-toting mad scientist, and –
– Sam‘s impeccable attention to detail, from her winged cheeks to her ghostly pumpkin-spiced cake.
Ganas are one of my favorite aspects of Castellano. Tengo ganas means that I feel like doing something, that it sounds good to me, that I am anticipating with glee. Me faltan las ganas means that I’m lacking the lil’ puppies, and as such am disinclined to rise from my snuggly bed.
From whence do these ganas come? And when they lack, where is it they hide?
Neither Em nor I is privileged with knowledge of the mysterious mundo de las ganas. All we know is that tonight we’ve got a bad case of ’em for a dinner of chocolate y churros.
My favorite photo from Spain thus far – gonna get it blown up to poster-size.
We get the skinny on Madrid’s best chocolatería from Fausto; however, he refuses to join us as “chocolate is a winter thing.” We care little. The ganas don’t take no for an answer.
Sam texts at precisely the perfect moment and joins us at Sol’s bear statue.
Chocolatería San Ginés is tucked in a surprisingly snug street branching off from the main arteries of Sol. Chatty tables line the corridor, and the magic of ganas makes one of them immediately available.
There’s no need for a menu here – even if San Ginés offers further goodies, you’d be nutty not to get the eternal hot Spanish chocolate and fried churros combo. We tack on an order of porras – which are basically oversize churros – for good measure.
Not so drinkable as much as dippable and perhaps spoonable, Spanish chocolate is thick and darkly sweet. The churros lack the crunchy sugar coat of their Mexican cousins, upon which the three of us reminiscence about with great fondness, but it’s hard to complain when they’re accompanied by a cup of liquid gold.
It’s far from my favorite Spanish treat – I’d choose llao llao over churros any day – but who am I to deny the honeyed allure of the ganas?