In Spain, Life’s a Beach

It’s Sardine Week here at Spain By Mike Randolph! Discovery Channel has Shark Week, I have Sardine Week. I don’t have any video of sardines jumping out of the water to chomp down on, well, whatever it is that they eat, but how can you not get excited by the prospect of an espeto de sardinas? Okay, maybe I won’t write every single day about sardines, though I could and I really don’t think it would be too much. Let’s settle then on Chiringuito Week. It’s holiday time, summer is in full swing, and in Spain, summer is not summer without a trip to the beach, and having lunch at a chiringuito–the beachside huts that serve cold drinks and seafood–is a fundamental part of the package.

Espetos de sardinas are a specialty of Málaga. The city even has a statue to honor the espetero, the man who spears the fish onto a spit of cane, tends the fire, and brings joy to many. The smaller the sardine, the better. They’re grilled whole, and you eat them with your hands. Salty, crispy skin and rich, oily flesh. They’re not only delicious, they’re also good for you. Order the house salad, a pitcher of tinto de verano, and hunker in to enjoy.

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How to get your point across in Spain, 101

You may know how to speak Spanish, but if you don’t know how to use it, you won’t be talking for long. But I’m here to help. So hear me out. Okay? Just hear me out. What I’ve got to tell you might be a big help, so just hear me out. (Spoiler alert: that was your first lesson.)

The thing is this. Spanish people love to chat. If there’s one defining characteristic of Spanish people in general, it’s that they are extremely social people. It’s one of the joys of living in Spain. The simple act of asking for directions can often lead to a lively and wide-ranging discussion of everything from Continue Reading →

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The Laredo Express

English Thoroughbreds race along the five-kilometer-long Salvé beach in Laredo, Cantabria. Click on image to enlarge. Photo ©Mike Randolph

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The Great Tortillita Tasting Tour

A tortillita de camarón is one of my favorite things to eat in Andalusia, but deciding whether or not to order one is a decision that I tend to weigh carefully. To the dismay of my eating companions, this process can take some time. It’s not whether or not I want one, because invariably I do, and usually more than one. But I’d rather not have a bad tortillita, and sadly, they’re more common than good ones.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t eat a so-called bad one, because I have done so and I think it’s safe to say that I have not had my last. Bad ones, by my criteria, are Continue Reading →

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Shade and Marmalade

Buy a limited edition print of this image

Some 14,000 orange trees decorate the streets of Seville. The bitter oranges aren’t very good for eating, but because of their high content of pectin, they do make great orange marmalade. More important, orange trees provide shade from the fierce Andalusian sun, and in the springtime, when they bloom, the heady perfume of orange blossoms fills the air. Photo ©Mike Randolph. 

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Summer Storm in Los Monegros

A bruised sky brings some much-needed rain to Los Monegros, near Zaragoza. One of the least-populated areas in Spain, Los Monegros is often thought of as barren and worthless. But if you explore its empty backroads, you are often rewarded with moments of rare, if austere, beauty. Photo ©Mike Randolph

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Exploring Catalonia: A letter to my friend Chris

Dear Chris. I’m hoping we can make it up Barcelona way to take you up on your offer of inviting us out to dinner. Especially since you mentioned that you really feel like doing it up in style! Hold on to your wallet. I know just the place.

It’s not actually in Barcelona but you mentioned you also want to explore Catalonia a bit. While you’re zipping around here and there you might find yourselves in or near Gerona. It’s a great place, a mid-size town that has enough to offer on its own for a pleasant afternoon stroll through the casco antiguo. (Don’t miss the iron bridge by Gustave Eiffel. It looks like his slightly more famous tower, but smaller and red and, obviously, horizontal.) But the outskirts of town are also home to the world-famous, undiscovered Celler de Can Roca. I know that sounds contradictory, but let me ask you this: Have you ever heard of it? Not only is it a three-star Michelin restaurant, last year it was voted number 2 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I thought I’d put dinner at Celler de Can Roca right at the beginning because you have to have your priorities in order. One last thing: make a reservation ASAP. It’s not exactly a secret in Catalonia.

I’m going to jump around here and there because I know you’re a busy guy and plus, you have probably already thumbed through a few guide books, so here are some highlights.

So for now, let’s get back to the big city. I know you mentioned you wanted to walk down the Ramblas. Okay, do that and get it over with. It’s famous, one of those things you have to do, but really it’s not a big deal and the throngs of tourists can sometimes be overwhelming. On your way down to see the statue of Chris Columbus, tick off another classic and explore the Boquería market. If you sharpen up your elbows a little you might be able to get a bite for lunch at the also-classic and very popular Pinotxo Bar. You might even get served by Juanito himself, in which case, don’t bother trying to order anything. He’s the owner, an older gent usually in a bow tie. He’s just going to size you up, and start serving you all sorts of delicious things. The beef stew I’m not that fond of, but the mongetes y chipirones (beans and baby squid) are outstanding. He uses a type of bean called Alubia de Santa Pau, which you can buy at a few stalls in the market. Get some to take home, they are buttery heaven.

Other quick and random things in Barcelona: I don’t have to tell you to go and visit the Sagrada Familia or other Gaudi buildings, because that’s a given. But also leave some time for the slightly less-well known (and not Gaudí but Lluís Domenech i Montaner) Palau de la Música. A masterpiece of modernista architecture and a memorable place to take in a performance. The Born area is an interesting spot for a tapa or some shopping. It used to be a sketchy barrio but now it’s home to ultra-chic stores and bars. Another very cool area you won’t want to miss is the Gracia neighborhood. Lots of great shops and the restaurants range from stand-up Chinese noodle places to muy elegante candle-lit parlors. The heart of the barrio is the pleasant Carrer de Verdi–don’t miss it.

One of Gaudí’s masterpieces, the Casa Batlló, Barcelona.

Eating and drinking: things to try include vermut de Reus, butifarra, escalivada. Place to try them plus a whole lot more is one of my favorite tapas bars, the superb Cervecería Catalana. It’s on the Calle Mallorca, number 236. Be prepared to wait if you get there right at lunch or dinner time. (More on this later.) While the Cervecería Catalana offers outstanding yet simple fare, for food unlike anything you’ve ever eaten, try to get a reservation at Tickets. It’s not easy, though. The Adrià brothers of El Bulli fame serve up their greatest hits from one of the greatest restaurants of all time (now closed, sadly). If you can’t get in, you can always drown you sorrows next door at their swanky cocktail bar 41º, which is a pretty good consolation prize if you ask me.

Barcelona is a big place with lots to see and do, but you don’t have a ton of time so let’s move on to the beaches of the Costa Brava north of Barcelona. You might want to pull out a map or have Google Earth handy because this might see a little confusing.

So. Which would you like first, the good news or the bad news? Let’s start with the bad news, I guess. You’re going in August, so it’s going to be crowded. On some beaches, you might not be able to see the actual beach itself, but you’ll know you’re there when you get sand in your shoes. Okay, it’s not that bad, but keep it in mind. The good news is that the Costa Brava is drop-dead stunning and with a little effort you can still find some quiet spots to lay down a towel. A lot of the coastline is studded with rocky, imposing cliffs with villages tucked into small coves. Near the town of Begur, there are hiking trails along the coast that go from one village to the next. They see very little use and even better, many of them lead to small beaches where there is no road access–as in, delightfully secluded.

Two towns a little farther south come to mind in the “must see” category. Tossa de Mar and Calella de Palafrugell. Tossa de Mar is in one of the most spectacular settings imaginable, and the winding mountain road along the coast is a treat for everyone but the driver, who won’t get a lot of chances to look at the scenery. There are some spots to pull off the road and take some pictures, however.

They called it the Costa Brava for a reason.

Smaller and less crowded but also every bit as worthwhile is Calella de Palafrugell. It’s the quintessential Mediterranean fishing village. If you can tear yourself away from there, also visit the nearby town of Pals. It’s not on the beach, but it’s worth the trip. They also have excellent rice there, so plan to take a kilo’s worth back with you. It’s sold in most of the shops.

You mentioned you were thinking of going to Roses. There’s a big beach there, but the town is not particularly interesting in and of itself. But if you want a really big beach, go to Sa Punta. From Sa Punta to L’Estartit, the beach is a nearly ten kilometers long. Even on the busiest days, the sheer size of the beach defeats the crowds. For a cultural break, north of L’Estartit near the town of L’Escala, wander around the impressive Greco-Roman ruins of Empúries.

If you do go to Roses, you might consider a detour to Figueres to see the Dalí Museum.  Walking around the Dalí museum is like a tour of his mind. Decide for yourself whether he was crazy or a genius, but it’s time well spent. On the coast, farther east of Roses, Cadaqués is tempting. All the good things they say about it are true, but keep in mind it’s a torturous mountain road to get there and it will take longer than you think.

Some final thoughts. I promised more on lunch and dinner times. Here’s the thing. In Spain, everyone does stuff at more or less the same time, and that includes eating. My best advice to you is to get on the Spanish program. You won’t be able to eat lunch at any decent place at noon, and you won’t be able to have dinner at seven. Lunch starts at two o’clock and dinner is served from nine until eleven, sometimes later. So have a tapa or two at midday and then sit down for a big, long lunch at two. Most stores close from two to five and it’s too hot to be outside anyway. Then you can work in a nice siesta, do some shopping in the evening before tapas again at eight, and then walk around a bit to work up an appetite for dinner later on.

This is far from a comprehensive list, just places that I like. If anyone else has suggestions for Chris, please share them in the comments. I hope to see you there, amigo. Have a great trip.

P.S. Yesterday’s Photo of the Day was Besalú. Add it to the list!

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Exploring Catalonia

My friend Chris is off to Barcelona in August. He’s never been to Spain before and he’ll be travelling with his wife and kids. He wrote to me and asked for suggestions on where to go, where to eat and anything else I could think of.

Stay tuned Chris. I’m working on a raft of suggestions and travel tips for you. You’re going to have a great time. Coming soon!

In the meantime, does anybody know where the above photo was taken?

Photo ©Mike Randolph

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Approaching Maximum Density

Officials in Pamplona say that the crowds during the Fiesta de San Fermín reach maximum density when there are five people for every square meter. The crowd in this image of the opening day celebration looks as though it’s just about there. Photo ©Mike Randolph

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The Bullfighter’s Tailor

A while back I was commissioned to do a short video on a tailor who specializes in making suits for bullfighters. Daniel Roqueta has been making trajes de luces, or suits of lights, for more than 25 years. I followed the process over several weeks, starting with the selection of materials and colors by bullfighter Carlos Gallego, the making of the suit, right up to the day Carlos wore it for the first time in the ring.

 

Music: “Nerva” performed by Soria 9 Sevilla
Special thanks to Daniel Roqueta, his team, and Carlos Gallego.

 

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Two Continents, One Image

I’ve been trying to get this image for a number of years now. But every time I’ve driven along the twisting mountain highway at the southern tip of Spain, it’s been either overcast or too hazy. Finally, however, I got lucky with a very clear day. I was also lucky that a Guardia Civil did not witness the, um, creative driving and parking that was involved in getting the shot.

The Strait of Gibraltar, separating Africa from Europe, is less than 15 kilometers across at its narrowest point. The mountain seen in the distance is one of the Pillars of Hercules; the other one is the Rock of Gibraltar. It was here that the Berber general Jabal Tarik, who gave the Strait and the Rock his name, crossed from Africa to invade the Iberian Peninsula, starting nearly eight centuries of Muslim rule in Spain. Today, many Africans still attempt the crossing in small boats, seeking new lives, but the treacherous currents make for an extremely dangerous voyage.

Photo ©Mike Randolph

 

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Pollo (chicken) al Chilindrón

Healthy. basic ingredients.When my mother found out I was making Pollo al Chilindrón with green peppers, she put her foot down. Sort of.

“Well you can put in whatever you want, but then it’s not Chilindrón.”

“Yeah but I have a bunch of different recipes from respectable authors who all say to use both red and green peppers,” I told her.

“That’s because they don’t know the authentic chilindrón,” she said.

Pollo al Chilindrón is a classic Spanish recipe for chicken. It originated in Aragón or Navarra or the País Vasco, depending on whether you ask, as I did, people from Aragón, Navarra and the País Vasco. I’m going to have to go with Aragón, because that’s where my mother is from and I lived there myself long enough that it felt like home. So make of it what you will, but Chilindrón is definitely from Aragón.

It’s a simple recipe, but still there was the matter of pepper choice to consider. “Call uncle Michael,” my mother said. “He’s got a recipe book from abuela Andréa.”

Abuela Andréa was my great grandmother. She was born in Morata de Jalón, about 70 kilometers south of Zaragoza, and legend has it she was a great cook. While my uncle went to look for the book, he passed the phone to my aunt. Ilse is also a great cook and she said that Andréa always used just red pepper. By this time my uncle had returned with the book–sadly there was no recipe for chilindrón in it–and I could hear him in the background voicing objections to the red-pepper-only approach and then suddenly he had the phone.

Abuela Andréa made it all three ways. With just green pepper, a mix of green and red, and just red pepper. The green peppers came in earlier in the season. She just used what she had.”

That seemed pretty sensible to me so I used what I had too, and it so happens I had them both. If that’s the way my great grandmother made it at the turn of the last century, well that’s authentic enough for me. Click on photos for written steps.

Pollo al Chilindrón is a great recipe for a number of reasons. First, it’s surprisingly delicious. Second, it’s easy. And third, it’s a healthy mix of vegetables and chicken and a little olive oil, which also makes it economical. Not only is it a complete meal, but it can be made ahead of time, re-warmed the next day and it’s just as good if not better. Chilindrón refers to the sauce; abuela Andréa also made Cordero al Chilindrón, which substitutes lamb for chicken.

 

Pollo al Chilindrón

Serves 4 to 6

Notes: If you don’t have any jamón, that is truly unfortunate, but you can get by with other dry-cured hams such as prosciutto or even bacon, though you might want to fry it a little first. I prefer quarters of chicken leg and thigh, but some people use boneless breast instead. Just make sure it doesn’t overcook and dry out.

Ingredients

Olive oil

1 onion

4 cloves of garlic

2 green peppers

2 red peppers

4 tomatoes

100 grams of Jamón Serrano

1 cup white wine

4 chicken quarters, cut into small pieces

In a saucepan big enough to hold all the ingredients, pour in a few good glugs of olive oil and sauté the chopped onions until glassy, about five minutes. Add the garlic and peppers, both chopped, and cook for another ten minutes or so. Add the tomatoes, de-skinned and chopped, a little salt, the jamón (preferably diced, but strips work fine too) and then the white wine. (My abuela didn’t use wine but I think it adds a lot.)

Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, brown the chicken pieces in abundant olive oil. When the chicken is nice and toasty, add it to the pepper mixture and cook for another 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked and the sauce has thickened.

Traditionally served with French fries or rice.

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Tomatoes I Have Known

Not perfect, except when it comes to taste: Tomate Rosa de Huesca. Photo ©Mike Randolph

Whenever my family gets together and the subject of tomatoes comes up, one of us is sure to bring up the tomatoes we all once had in Almería. The Almería tomatoes are something of a legend in my family. We were on vacation there and tucked in for lunch at a place that was more of an old man’s bar than an actual restaurant. It had a few well-used card tables covered in paper tablecloths and metal napkin dispensers, the kind of place where Continue Reading →

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