An Upgrade, a Facelift a New Site!

Restless ForkAfter months of tweaking, perfecting and adjusting I am proud to announce my new blog: Restless Fork. It has been a soul-searching process to get this new site up and running but I couldn’t be more pleased with how it has turned out. Restless Fork is a space where I will share the scrumptiousness of living, traveling and exploring in Madrid and beyond. The road to becoming a food-obsessed expat in the food heaven of Spain is not always paved in perfectly seared portobellos, so I’ll also be sharing those moments when I stick my proverbial food in my tapas-hungry mouth. I hope you’ll come along for the adventure!

You can see the new blog here: http://www.restlessforkblog.com/

You can sign up for an email alert to see every new post by scrolling all the way to the bottom of the homepage and entering your email address in the box that says “Subscribe to Restless Fork via Email.”

Thanks for your support! See you over at Restless Fork!

 

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Yep, Burgos Deserves that ‘Gastronomic Capital of Spain’ Title

I didn’t realize until I was rolling Cristóbal (my four-wheeled red Samsonite and most trusty travel companion) across the soaking wet sidewalks along Burgos’s Arlanzón river just how badly I’d been needing a city break. Madrid is fantastic. I love living here. But it was definitely time to get outta the city for a hot second. For two glorious days I left the stress of Trinity English Exams, summer job applications and blog name frustrations behind and went on a mind vacation to Burgos. A gorgeous afternoon stroll along the River Arlazón River in Burgos, Spain

The 180,000 person medieval town is about 2.5 hours north of Madrid by bus in the province of Castilla y Leon. It has an 800-year-old gothic cathedral (named a UNESCO World Heritage site), a monastery so beautiful that kings get married there and a museum projected to be one of the most-visited in Spain within the decade.

But let’s be real. That’s not why I wanted to go to Burgos. For me, it was all about the food fame. Burgos was named the Gastronomic Capital of Spain in 2013 and I was bound and determined to see if it could live up to that title. Here’s a hint: IT DOES!

Empirical Evidence #1: The Blood Sausage

Burgos is known for three things: Ribera del Duero wine, cured sheep cheese and blood sausage. Being someone who turns pale and nauseous at the sight of blood (animal or otherwise), I have, as a general rule, steered clear of Spanish blood sausage, or morcilla. But when in Burgos I figured it was necessary to do as the Burgalese do. So I sucked it up and order a plate of the famous Burgos morcilla. Great. Freakin. Decision.

Morcilla is, at it’s most basic, a mixture of pig blood and rice (a fact I prefer not to think too much about) stuffed into pig or cow intestines. In Burgos it is typically sliced into thick medallions, seared to a crisp on both sides  and served with roasted red peppers. One bite and I didn’t care what it was made of. The crisp outside gave way to an intense, rich, slightly smokey flavor punctuated by the subtle texture of the rice. Needless to say I beelined for the first artisanal morcilla shop to stock up.

Blood Sausage and Roasted Peppers in Burgos

Where to find it: You can find great morcilla at just about any bar in Burgos. The best I had was at La Favorita on Calle de Avellanos, 8. I bought a sausage to take home at La Paloma, a small artisan shop on calle Paloma. 

Empirical Evidence # 2: El Morito

This may just be the best restaurant I have ever been to in Spain. I know! Bold statement. Without a doubt it is in the top five. El Morito is fantastically Spanish in that it has a long bar running down one side of the restaurant where people crowd three-deep to order a 1.20€ glass Ribera and a combo of highly original tapas and raciónes. A smattering of wood tables and four-legged stools line the wall and are perpetually full. Upstairs more long wooden tables are set with bright yellow paper placemats and are equally packed with people.

While awaiting our table for lunch, we situated ourselves at the far end of the bar with a direct view of the grill, where the calmest man in all of Spain was methodically cracking brown eggs, searing thick slices of goat cheese and warming piles of grey gulas, or imitation baby eels which taste like spaghetti noodles made of fish. Creatively constructed plates piled with for example, potatoes and eggs topped with grilled calamari and diced cured ham came flying past us. It was like a mouthwatering parade of food ingenuity. Ten minutes at Morito and I was convinced that Burgos was absolutely the food capital of Spain.

Smörgåsbord of seafood at El Morito

Grilled shrimp with gulas, smoked fish, salmon, crab and caviar and a salad of pickles, tomatoes and crisp lettuce.

Where to find it: Cerveceria Morito on Calle Sombrereria 27

Empirical Evidence #3: The Tapa

One of the first things I noticed in Burgos was how out-of-their-way nice the people there were. From the German-suit wearing old man (I’ll leave that insanity for another post…) to the waiters and bartenders, Burgaleses were more smiley, talkative, inviting and helpful than any other city I’ve visited in Spain.

Our camerera at La Parrilla was fantastic. She happily recommended me her favorite tapa, checked up on us to make sure we liked our food and smiled the whole time. Was this still Spain?!? Her cheerful wonderfulness aside, her tapa recommendation – an anchovy, arugula and tomato tosta- was deeelish. The small tosta was a perfect blend of crunch and fluff, with the sweetness of the ripe tomato perfectly offsetting the saltiness of the anchovy. Gastronomic Capital: 1, Rest of the World: 0.

Cured Anchovy, arugula and tomato tosta at La Parrilla in Burgos

Cured anchovy, arugula and tomato tosta at La Parrilla in Burgos

Where to find it: La Parrilla de Royal on Calle Huerto del rey, 18

Empirical Evidence #4: The Ración 

After a night of heavenly tapas, we decided to test out Burgos’ lunch menu scene on Saturday afternoon. Armed with a recommendation of a local, we headed to the narrow, bar-lined street of San Lorenzo, just off of the Plaza Mayor in search of Casa Pancho.

As luck would have it, they don’t serve their fixed menú del dia on Saturdays. Silver lining: they did have a couple seasonal lunch specials. We ordered the first on the list, artichokes stuffed with wild mushrooms atop crispy cured ham. If I could please have this every day of artichoke season that would be superb, thanks.

Stuffed Artichoke Racion in Burgos

Where to find it: Casa Pancho on calle San Lorenzo, 13

Empirical Evidence #5: The Breakfast

The typical Spanish breakfast of toasted baguettes topped with olive oil and tomato is delicious no matter where you get it. The bread is always freshly baked, the tomatoes ripe and flavorful and the olive oil, well, come on this is Spain, the top producer of olive oil in the world.

But in Burgos, this traditional morning combo was kicked into high saturation. The tomato wasn’t just red, it was blooming poppies on a sunny spring morning red. The bread wasn’t just fresh, it was perfectly toasted, crisp on the bottom and still soft and fluffy on the top fresh. And then there was the fresh squeezed orange juice. And the café con leche. And, well, just go to Burgos, okay?

Toasted Baguette with tomato and fresh-squeezed OJ

Where to find it: Delicatessen Ojeda on calle Vitoria, 5. This is also a great place to stock up on traditional foods to bring home from Burgos! They’ve got a good Ribera wine selection and a huge variety of other prepared and conserved foods!

My 6 Most Epic Fails of Living Abroad

Metro Madrid Warns You: Don't Trip BackwardsCommon sense, of which I like to think I have at least a few drops, told me that moving abroad would come with a definite learning curve. I expected to have language barrier issues. I knew I wouldn’t always know what to order at at which restaurant at which time. I accepted that I wouldn’t have the first clue when it came to flirting with Spanish men or dealing with government bureaucracy or deciding if 13 degrees celsius is jacket or coat weather.

But what I wasn’t prepared for were the hundreds of situations where I didn’t even know what question to ask, or whether I needed to ask at all. Some days I swear my Spanish-speaking self never learned the basics of navigating life from my English-speaking self. If I had a euro for every time a stared dumbfounded at a store clerk waiting for my brain to catch up to what was going on or blurted out a collection of Spanish words that five minutes later I realized made absolutely no sense whatsoever, I could take that 10-day trip to Greece I’ve been dreaming about.

In the 18 months I’ve lived in Spain I have had my fair share of mishaps and mistakes. Some of those lapses of understanding/judgement/language/common sense have cost me hundreds of euros. Others, only my pride. Some of them I’m sure I’ll laugh about later… others still make me cringe. So without further ado, here are the eight lessons I’ve learned the hard way since moving to Spain.

1. Never put your purse in a bike basket.

Spring in SpainIt was the first gorgeously sunny day since I moved to Sevilla during my study abroad in 2010. My two American girlfriends and I hopped on our bikeshare bikes and were peddling down to the park to frolic in the Springtime wonderfulness. In my sun-soaked euphoria I let me guard completely down. I was chatting on my cell phone with one hand and aimlessly steering my bike with the other when I saw a white motorcycle begin to pull up beside me on the bike path.

Even after four years I can perfectly picture the man’s face as I looked over. I smiled at him, thinking he was coming up to say hello (yep, I was that naive) and in a split second I saw his face turn from contentment to malice. He reached out his hand, snatched my purse out of the front wire basket of my bike and darted across the six-lane rotunda. My mad-woman screams were to no avail. My furious peddling after him was useless. I had just enough of my wits about me not to dart into six lanes of traffic trying to follow him.

Everything was gone. My brand-new purse from the artisan stand on the Barcelona beach, my digital camera, my flip camera (this was 2010 remember), my ipod, my credit cards and student IDs, the 50€ I just pulled out of the ATM. After my hysteria died down, the police reports were filed and my travelers insurance check to replace everything was received, I realized two hugely important lessons. First, never carry all your electronics in the same purse (duh.). Second, things are just things. They are replaceable. My life was not, as I originally thought, in that purse. I just happened to have a bunch of tools to capture the joys of my life in that purse.

2. Beware of reflexive verbs

Spanish Language ProblemsThe dread-inducing Subjunctive verb tense aside, my biggest fail in learning Spanish has been correctly using reflexive verbs. In Spanish you don’t say “I’m taking a shower,” you say “I’m showering myself.” And as if learning the insane number of commonly-used Spanish verbs wasn’t tricky enough, many of them completely change their meaning if they are used reflexively. For example, acordar means “to agree” but acordarse means “to remember.” Seems safe enough right? So I accidentally say “I remember that we should go to that restaurant” instead of “I agree that we should go.” Life goes on…

But then there is the verb odiar, which means “to hate.” It wasn’t until about seven months into living in Galicia last year that someone finally told me that odiar was NOT a reflexive verb. For months I had gone around telling co-workers, friends and waiters that “I hate myself” instead of “I hate driving” or “I hate pickled white asparagus.”

But my accidental self-loathing debacle was nothing compared to my confusion/embarrassment over the word correr. It’s one of the first words you learn in beginner Spanish classes: correr, “to run.” But add that pesky little “me” to that innocent word for exercise and the meaning changes completely. Correrse means “to cum,” as in have an orgasm. In my inability to properly place reflexive pronouns, I’m pretty sure I told our housekeeper last week “I’m going to orgasm, see you in a hour.” Oh the verguenza…. 

3. Beware of words for oblong vegetables and household objects

Typical Spanish SaladIn Spanish, seemingly everything has a double meaning. And more often than not, that second meaning is “penis.” Living with four Spaniards I’m quickly learning how to talk about fruit, vegetables and straws without calling any of them by name. “Can you pass me the thing you use to drink out of that is long and skinny?” I’ll ask. Or “I love that fresh, green, watery vegetable on my salads,” I’ll say.

I learned to avoid words for oblong objects one evening while watching a YouTube video one of our past roommates had made. In it she demonstrated how to make her favorite cocktail, a “PinkTonic.” At the end of the video she takes a sip of the finished product with a super cool brightly-colored straw. Trying to participate in the oohs and ahhs and congratulations of my other roommates once the video finished, I said (or tried to say) “I love that straw! So cool!” All four of them burst into laughter. Apparently I had said “I love to masturbate.” Paja, I learned, technically means “straw” but is more often used as a slang word for “masturbate.” Pajita, the diminutive, is what I should have said. Oops…. lesson learned.  For reference, also be careful with the words for cucumber, turnip, chicken, eggs, shell, clam and female rabbit.

4. Don’t open the door for strangers. Even strangers with official-looking Comunidad de Madrid badges

My Sun-Soaked Siesta SpotI had just finished lunch and was stretched out in the afternoon sun beams streaming through my window when the doorbell rang. I had seen workers tinkering with the elevator and construction-like cables strung through the staircase on my way in that afternoon so I assumed it was someone making sure I still had electricity or informing me that the elevator would be out for a day or two. I tiptoed to the door and peered through the peephole. It was a youngish man with a Community of Madrid government badge and clipboard. I opened the door. Mistake #1.

In insanely rapid Spanish he started telling me something about a yearly test that the provincial government requires on all hot water heaters. He showed me the three-color carbon copy paperwork, allowed me to inspect his badge and then asked to come in and perform the check. “Vale….” I said, showing him to the hot water heater in the kitchen. (Mom, please don’t freak out.)

Euros Down the DrainHe held what I’m pretty sure he said was a carbon monoxide measurer up to the hot water heater, wrote down some notes, slapped an official-looking sticker on the front and asked me to sign at the bottom of the form. Then he told me to go get my credit card. Five minutes, about five hundred extremely fast Spanish words and a 200€  charge to my credit card later, he was gone. Later that night my roommates informed me that the “test” was not obligatory, the badge was probably fake and that I had been robustly scammed. The 200€ hurt. But the damage to my pride hurt worse. Just when I thought I was finally starting to understand this new culture I was living in, a fake electrician put me squarely back into the guiri category. Ufff.

5. Go straight to a specialist

Contrary to popular belief in conservative America, the socialist Spanish health system is not hell on Earth. Quite the opposite in fact. It is efficient, massively inexpensive and usually quite good. That is, if you use it correctly.

Three weeks ago I woke up one morning and couldn’t hear out of one ear. I had been stuffed up and assumed that my cold had settled in my ear overnight. Hoping it would resolve itself, I put off going to the doctor. Fast forward one week and I still can’t hear, I feel like I’m in an airplane midway over the Atlantic and the screams of the children in my elementary English class are reverberating around my head. It was time to see a doctor.

Not having the first clue how to go about doing so, I called the number on the back of my insurance card and made the first available appointment. “Do you want the general doctor or a specialist,” the insurance woman asked. “I don’t know… whichever,” I responded. The general medicine doctor I saw was the poster child for everything that could ever be wrong with a medical system. She kept no records, ran no tests and used the “assumption” method of diagnosis. Two super strong antibiotics and two weeks of continuing deafness later I made an appointment with a specialist.

The super nice ear specialist (or otorrinolaringologista in Spanish… yikes.) informed me I’d never had an ear infection, had been taking antibiotics for no reason, and prescribed me and anti-inflammatory instead. Two days later I could hear fine, the pain was gone and I vowed to never go to a general medicine doctor again. At least all the visits were free…

6. Don’t overestimate the Schengen Agreement

ParisI remember the day my small-handed and adorable European Union professor taught us about the Schengen Agreement. The agreements stems from one pillar of the EU treaty: the free moment of people, he explained in his captivatingly cute British accent. Any EU citizen can travel between countries that have signed onto the Schengen Agreement (which includes the majority of European countries) without a passport. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention that rule doesn’t apply to U.S. citizens such as myself.

I inadvertently tested that agreement last February while trying to visit a good friend in Paris. Preoccupied with planning whether I wanted Nutella and strawberries or Nutella and banana on my first crepe, I forgot to tuck my passport into my red carry-on Samsonite. Halfway to the airport in La Coruña, about a two and a half hour train ride from my tiny Galician pueblo, I realized my error. Frantically searching my purse, I spotted my Spanish residency card, remembered the darling British man’s lecture and breathed easy.

At the airport I learned the harsh reality. No passport, no boarding pass, no Paris. Luckily, one of the teachers at the school in my pueblo lived in Coruña, ran by my apartment, picked up my passport and rushed it to the airport. Waiting the hour and a half for him to arrive, watch the “boarding” sign flicker at my gate number easily took five years off my life.

I missed my flight by, I kid you not, 6 minutes. The fantastic man at Iberia was a saint and put me on the first flight to Paris the next morning. I still got my Nutella crepes but I will never. Ever. go to the airport without my passport again.

Simon the Toledo Sword Salesman

The shop was all red and chestnut wood. The gold-inlaid jewelry sparked and the intricate steel swords glimmered. One look around and my first thought was, “Where’s the dust?” The shop looked ancient, yet everything glowed as if it was brand new. And new it was.

In the medieval Spanish city of Toledo — the perfect day trip from Madrid — this juxtaposition of ancient and modern is everywhere. Steps from 14th-century fortresses are sleek and modern cafés. Blocks from a synagogue build in the 1300s is a bank opened in the 2000s. And overlooking a plaza filled with shiny new café tables stands the old wooden workbench of Simon the Toledo jewelry maker and sword seller.

Simon's Toledo Workbench

Seconds after we stumbled into his shop — simply named “Simon” (Plaza San Vicente, 1) — the plump old artisan shuffled towards us, carefully edging around a propane heater rattling out a small halo of warmth in the otherwise drafty shop. He was  almost as round as he was tall and bald except for a wispy ring of grey hair. He had the deeply lined face of a man who’d worked all his life and the kind eyes of a grandfather whose No.1 joy in life was telling stories of times gone by.

“I’ve been selling swords in this shop for 66 years,” he told me proudly after realizing with a relieved sigh that I spoke some Spanish. He ran his weathered fingers over the intricate handles of his swords, pausing at each just long enough to mutter which historical figure or pop culture icon it was designed after. “El Cid, Ferdinand ‘El Rey Catoloico’, Lord of the Rings, the Knights Templar, King Carlos III…”

We careened our necks to examine the elaborate designs and inscriptions on each design, careful not to touch the swords. All day we had walked past souvenir shops with large paper signs warning us “No Tocar!”, or “Don’t Touch!” as if the thick steel swords would crumble under our fingers. Seeing our awkward twisting and turning, Simon chuckled to himself, grabbed a sword off its metal rack and handed it to me. “Take it! Touch it! Grab anyone you want!” he said. This was no ordinary Toledo tourist trap souvenir shop. And Simon was no run-of-the-mill sword salesman.   

Simon the Toledo Sword Salesman
While he didn’t make the swords himself (he left that heavy metal work to the world-renowned steelworkers located just outside the city), he talked about them as if they were his grandchildren.

“This is a great sword,” he cooed, “a very very good sword, designed by King Carlos III! Or this one here, a very good sword, light, beautiful, the traditional sword of Toledo!”

For him, each sword was a story, a small glimpse at history and a window into the personality of Spain’s rulers. The sword of King Ferdinand, who funded Columbus’ trips to America and was arguably one of the most powerful Spanish kings, had a funky handle where one side curved up instead of down. When I asked why, Simon matter-of-factly responded: “He was the king! He could do whatever he wanted! And he wanted his sword to be different, unique, better than all the rest.” Mission accomplished, I thought.

As my friend tested each model of sword, I inspected the cases of elaborately patterned jewelry that lined the walls. There were pendants with minuscule birds woven around blooming flowers, earrings with geometrical stars triangles, scissors inlaid with golden vines and even a golden turtle whose shell was decorated with two golden knights on horseback. Each piece was handmade by Simon.

Simon's Toledo Jewelry
As I admired his handiwork, he shuffled over with a tall stack of faded postcards. Each one was from one of his past customers. He showed me cards from Japan, Costa Rica and Mexico, telling me about the men and women who had sent them, what they had bought and when they had come to visit his store. Some cards were so old I could hardly make out the picture on the front. Others were brand new, featuring, for example, a photoshopped picture of the Taj Majal reflected in Simon’s shop window (he really got a kick out of that one and apparently had no idea how the guy had “magically” made the Taj Majal appear in a picture of his shop).

Simon's Postcards

After about 30 minutes of browsing and story telling, my friend finally decided on a scaled-down replica of King Carlos III’s sword. It was one of the thinner swords with a cupped handle intended for fencing-style combat and based on the design of the traditional  swords of Toledo, which has been the mecca of sword making since Roman times.

After wrapping up the sword, Simon looked up at us and gave us one last piece of old Spanish wisdom before we left his shop. “Men may have the swords,” he said, handing Andrew his newly purchased espada, “but women, they beat us with only their eyes.” Well said, Señor Simon, well said.

The 7 Most Ridiculously Delicious Things I Ate This Christmas

7 Best Christmas Vacation FoodsThe Spanish truly deserve a prize for how many crazy huge, fantastically raucous meals they can fit into one holiday season. Here in Madrid the cenas to celebrate Navidad start the first weekend in December and become ever more frequent as the actual holiday approaches. By mid-month every lunch and dinner Thursday through Sunday has a decidedly festive feel and ends with extra-friendly dos besos and emphatic exclamations of “Feliz Navidad! Feliz Año! Feliz Reyes!”

For me, this tasty tradition coupled with my holiday trips to two Christmas wonderlands (aka Prague and Vienna) made for a ridiculously delicious month.  This year my holiday meals spanned six restaurants (eight including my elementary school cafeteria and the kitchen in my Madrid apartment) and seven Christmas markets across three countries. It included three 5+ course Christmas meals, dozens of new ingredients and untold bottles of wine. Needless to say, I ate fantastically well this Christmas.

While nearly every meal was packed with goodness, there were seven dishes that sent my tastebuds into full-blown celebration mode. Varying from high-class cuisine to street food, imaginative to traditional, here are the seven most delicious dishes I had the sweet, sweet pleasure of tasting this Christmas. 

7. Sauerkraut and sausage potatoes at the Wenceslas Square Christmas market in Prague

Christmas Market Potatoes

I am not and have never been a potato person. In my family and in Spain potatoes are relegated to the role of  meat accompaniment. They are the white mountain of fried, mashed or scalloped starch that fills up the rest of the plate. Then I went to Prague and discovered the true awesomeness that potatoes can be. In the huge cast iron skillets of Prague’s Wenceslas Square Christmas market potatoes reached their full potential.

The intoxicating aroma of sausage, sauerkraut and spices floating up from six steaming skillets envelops the dozen or so market stalls on each side of this potato goodness. Rather than Spain’s fried slivers, Prague’s potatoes were halved, boiled and left peel-on. They were doused in spices, cheese and a sweet, tangy sauerkraut and slow-cooked into a mess of goey perfection. I opted for half sausage-and-sauerkraut potatoes and half cheesy potato dumplings. I will never look at a potato the same way again.

6. Beef carpaccio with lemongrass and a mango foam at Sticker in Madrid

Beef Carpaccio with Mango Foam

When eight food bloggers, guides and entrepreneurs celebrate Christmas dinner together there better be some downright stellar dishes. Madrid’s new gastropub, Sticker, did not disappoint for the Madrid Food Tour team’s holiday dinner.

Our six-course tasting menu was packed with creative adaptations of traditional Spanish favorites, like a Manchego cheese yogurt with cured ham dust and a peanut-crusted poached egg over chips. But by far the most tastebud-tantalizing moment of the meal was the beef carpaccio, or rather the bright yellow dollops of mango foam atop it. The espuma was both tart and sweet; it was light as air and melted in your mouth like good dark chocolate. I’m not much of a beef eater, let alone raw beef, but I’d take a plate of carpaccio any day just to get another taste of that mango goodness!

5. Homemade market-fresh sliders at my apartment in Madrid

Homemade beef sliders

After eight days of traveling, my sister and I were more than ready for a nice home-cooked meal. With no specific menu in mind, I took her to El Mercado de Maravillas, Madrid’s fresh food wonderland. Weaving through mountains of vegetables, glaciers of seafood and brightly lit displays featuring every conceivable part of a cow, pig or goat, we searched for something to tempt our growling stomachs.

We loaded up on leeks, carrots, strawberries, cheese, membrillo (a thick jam-like brick made from quince fruit). On a whim we picked up some ground-just-for-us beef. Two days later, after freezing our faces off at the Three Kings Day parade, we huddled back into my kitchen to turn our ultra-lean, utlra-fresh Spanish beef into some super American sliders. Dividing the ground beef into two bowls, Lisa seasoned her half with soy sauce, pepper and “secret ingredients” she declined to share with me. I sprinkled my half with basil, thyme, black pepper and olive oil and tucked a small square of aged Manchego cheese in the center of each little patty.

For toppings we caramelized onions, wilted spinach and toasted garlic in olive oil. By the time the table was set we had created a choose-your-own-adventure slider extravaganza with enough flavor to rival our fancy Christmas Eve dinner. Good things happen when Lisa and I cook together.

4.  Seared scallops on a mango and Thai basil salsa at Coda in Prague

Christmas Eve Scallops

For Christmas Eve we decided to go all out. I wasn’t buying a cross-Atlantic plane ticket to see my family, so instead I decided to buy an ultra-fancy dinner to ring in the holiday. After weeks of research we decided on Coda Restaurant in Prague. The seven-course Christmas menu sounded spectacular, the atmosphere looked adorable and the price was stomachable.

When we walked in on a rather frigid Christmas Eve there was a fireplace crackling, a pianist playing and a plate of Christmas cookies waiting on our table. Yep, good decision. With the help of our waitress, we chose a stellar Gala sauvignon blanc, my first Czech wine, to accompany our meal. And then began the parade of scrumptiousness… My “International Christmas Menu” included, and I quote:

  • Pan seared fresh scallops served with fresh mango & Thai basil salad and homemade chili jam
  • Farmer’s smoked trout ravioli with a light horseradish sauce
  • Traditional fish soup with bread croutons
  • Homemade orange sorbet
  • Roasted & sliced juicy beef tenderloin with truffle rissoto and foie gras sauce
  • Traditional plum jam ravioli served in plum brandy glaze with butter roasted breadcrumbs

My sister will tell you the trout ravioli was life changing. But that’s only because she has a shellfish allergy and could not partake in the pure ecstasy that was the seared scallop – chili jam combo. The mango salad played third wheel to the glorious marriage of spice and silky seafood that was blossoming between the scallops (my favorite food) and the chilies (um… yum.).

3. Pork Sausage and sauerkraut at U Tri Ruzi in Prague

Czech Sausage and Sauerkraut

As a rule, I never go to the same restaurant twice while exploring a new city. U Tri Ruzi in Prague not only forced me to break my own rule, but it shattered my stereotypes about sausage (hot dogs disguised as something edible), sauerkraut (rotten), fish soup (creamy blandness) and non-wheat beer (hop-tastic).

One bite of their thin pork sausages dipped in homemade whole-grain mustard and topped with a pinch of perfectly tangy, sweet sauerkraut and I vowed to never hate on German food again. It was real meat bursting with flavor and spices. We Americans need to come up with another name for those nasty putty-logs we call “sausage.” This was too heavenly to even share the same word.

2. Sausage sandwich at the Republic Square Christmas market in Prague

Christmas Market Deliciousness

Minutes after stepping off the airport bus into downtown Prague and we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a Christmas dream. Toys, candies, food and mulled wine peaked out from the openings of tiny wooden houses strung with garland and lights. The smell of roasted nuts, cinnamon, cider and sausage wafted around us. Our resolve to first drop our bags off at the hostel before going Christmas market exploring evaporated instantly.

The smell of pure heaven drew me in toward one of the first stalls at the Republic Square market. Somehow without using one correctly-pronounced word of Czech I managed to order a sausage sandwich. The vendor sliced the thick sausage lengthwise and seared it on a hot skillet, adding a delectable crispiness to the center. Then he threw the two juicy sausage slices onto thick, crusty bread, added two lines creamy red sauce, and a couple tomato slices and asked for the equivalent of about 3 dollars. It was easily the best $3 I spent in the Czech Republic. I think I devoured the entire saucy mess before we even got to the table.

1. Giant apricot jam filled donut at the Schönbrunn Christmas market in Vienna

Best Donut in the World

You really can’t go wrong with a jumbo donut. But this face-sized creation went above and beyond where any American donut (or Spanish donut or any donut I’ve ever tasted) has ever gone before. Besides its fantastic size, this riesenkrapfen achieved the ideal balance of crisp crust on the outside and fluffy heaven on the inside.

When my sister and I ordered our most excellent dessert, the vendor pulled out the still-steaming donut, pumped it full of sweet-but-not-too-sweet apricot jam and covered it with a healthy dousing of powdered sugar. My new life goal: to install one of these donut stalls on my balcony. Holy donut heaven!

Now, excuse me while I go for a run….

The Gypsy Who Taught Me What Christmas Is

Today I witnessed a Christmas miracle in a six-year-old who doesn’t even understand what Christmas is. She is tiny, even among her fellow first graders, and wears the same red sweatshirt nearly every day. Her black hair is always pulled back in the same long braid and her skin is a few shades darker than most of her classmates. She is a gypsy. And in Spain that makes her “the other.”

Madrid Street

Gypsies here (and in most of Europe) are not the free-loving hippie folk that I used to associate with the word. In Spain, gypsies are a separate race, both physically and culturally different from Spaniards. Gypsies — more politically correctly, and more rarely, called Roma– have lived on the Iberian peninsula for centuries, but they have never integrated into Spanish culture. Gypsies are typically migrant people, often working in traveling fairs, shows and circuses. They are stereotyped as drug dealers and thieves. From my eyes, they are the last, albeit slightly modernized, remnant of the Javelin-tournament era where traveling storytellers and dancing bears enticed village people while their cohorts pick-pocketed the crowd’s gold coins. Or at least thats the feeling I get from many of the Spaniards at school.

In a  country where every resident has access to full health care coverage, the blatant racism towards gypsies stands out like a glaring anomaly to an otherwise equality-driven society. The word alone incites a specific facial expression among most people that falls somewhere among pity, exasperation, anger and ambivalence. And that’s in Spain, where the Roma people have more rights and access to services than just about anywhere else in Europe. One of those rights, which gypsies apparently don’t have in some other European countries, is to public schools where they are integrated into normal classes.

For many at my school in the Madrid suburbs, that integration is both a blessing and a curse. For example, in fourth grade there is a gypsy boy who missed the first two months of school because his family thought it was more important for him to work at the fair than to go to school. He is ten years old, he can’t read and he can barely write. During his bilingual science class he draws pictures and traces the English words his teacher writes for him while his fellow students recite the differences between metamorphic and ionic rocks. When I asked him what his job was at the fair he said with a proud smile, “I was the dragon.”

Spanish toys and candy

Candies and toys for sale at Feria de Abril in Sevilla.

Of the handful of gypsy students I work with, not one of them can tell me the colors in English. Most can’t even write them in Spanish. The first grade girl I mentioned before can write her name but only barely. She hasn’t figured out yet what the letters mean. That stems largely from the fact that she’s continuously absent from school. In the two days per week that I am in her classroom, she is absent about a third of them.

But when she is in class, she is bounding from wall to wall with excitement. “Me ayudas?” she asks during every section of every activity, bouncing in front of me until I come over to her desk and attempt to explain which picture is the fireman. Today while the students were pulling out their English books she ran over and threw her arms around my thigh, the highest part of me that she can reach. She just stood there for awhile hugging my thigh. When I reached down to pull a stray clump of her hair behind her ear the other teacher in the room warned me to “be careful of her hair.” Apparently she’s afraid the girl may have lice. The teacher later explained to me that the child lives in what amounts to a slum outside of Madrid, where the houses are made from scrap metal and “low quality building materials.” That would explain the warts and sores I’ve seen on the girls face and hands.

Granada Gypsy Hills

Some immigrants in Granada lived in caves dug out of the hillside overlooking the city.

When I first walked into class today the first graders were all rummaging around in their bags, getting their materials out for the lesson. This gypsy girl was tugging on something in the small pink drawstring bag that she carries with her to school. She doesn’t have a backpack, or a worksheet binder or a red homework folder… or any folders for that matter. She doesn’t have any of the school goodies that pour out of her classmates roller-wheeled backpacks and trifold pencil cases. But she doesn’t know that. She has her pink princess drawstring bag and a pouch with a couple of pencils.

And today she had something else that she was struggling to pull from the pink bag. “Me ayudas?” she asked me as I walked in. I took her bag and pulled out a heavy sack of something wrapped in a plastic bag. “What is this?!?” I asked fearing that it was what it felt like: a sack of paper-wrapped ground beef. It took me a moment to understand her reply. “Es para los niños en pobreza!” she said, both pride and sympathy flashing across her face.

Then I saw it. The red lettering on the bag. This was the plastic bag teachers were handing out last week for donations to the holiday food bank. Inside the little gypsy girl’s ripped plastic bag was a brand new sack of lentils. She was donating to the poor.

Never Stop Loving

Thanksgiving in Spain: A Madrid Scavenger Hunt

I have a whole new appreciation for cranberries. And also red currants, for that matter. Which, although they are red and round and relatively cranberry-shaped and might have been on the “arandanos/cranberries” shelf at Corte Ingles, are actually nothing like cranberries.

These Aren't Cranberries

This is one of the manyyyyyyy fun little lessons I learned this year while attempting to bring all the goodies of my family’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner to a table halfway around the world. My American amiga and I invited my Spanish roommates and neighbors to celebrate their first Thanksgiving with us on Saturday (seeing as we all had to work Thursday and Friday). We promised them an authentic American holiday, and, by dios, we were going to give them all the deliciousness of a true American Thanksgiving! Pulling that off in a country were pumpkin is usually pig food and pecans don’t even have a word in Spanish took a bit more planning than just scratching out a grocery list. It was more on the scale of a city-wide scavenger hunt mixed with an opening hours roulette. The first hurdle on our list of Turkey Day adventures: find a whole turkey.

In Spain, the big box buy-everything-you-could-ever-want-at-one-time American-style stores are just beginning to pop up in the commercial (read: accessible by car only) parts of town. Being carless and having a mild obsession with food markets, food quality and freshness I was determined to get our turkey from a stand-alone butcher shop, or carneceria. Why I decided to chose a butcher that was 10 metro stops away from my apartment… well, that just adds to the adventure, right?

Weighing the Turkey

Hauling our 13-pound raw turkey 30 minutes down Madrid’s brown line turned out to be massively worth it. Señor Pavo, as the butcher told me, was raised on a farm near Zaragoza (a city in Northeastern Spain). He was butchered on Thursday, driven to Madrid on Friday and we ate him on Saturday. Hellooooo fresh! When I first spoke to the smiley, cleaver-waving butcher about our Thanksgiving experiment, he immediately picked up the telephone to call his farmer. The farmer vowed to find us a reasonable-sized turkey after my eyes bulged at the butcher’s 7-kilo suggestion. Fourteen pounds, apparently, was small. “But it’s Thanksgiving!” the farmer told the butcher, “She’s supposed to have a giant turkey!” The 6.5-kilo (13lb) pavo we ended up with was one of the smallest he had. The butcher later told me that turkeys from this farm get as large as 23 pounds!

With the most important part secured, I moved on to the sides and stuffing. Cornbread mix was my next target. Last year while living in the rural Northwestern province of Galicia I attempted to make cornbread (an ingredient for my stuffing) from scratch. It was, to say the least, a massive fail. This year, in a city of 3 million where Taste of America stores and Corte Ingleses exist, I had high hopes of having help from Mrs. Jiffy. I was wrong. I could buy gingerbread mix, funfetti cake mix, crepe mix, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, wheat bread mix and Duncan Hines double chocolate brownie mix. But nowhere in Madrid (that I could hunt down) sells cornbread mix. Our stuffing would just have to go without.

Thanksgiving Stuffing

After similarly unsuccessful city-wide wild goose chases for crystalized ginger (yes, it was a castillo en el aire kind of dream to begin with) and some serious price-gouging on pecans, yellow cake mix, karo syrup and pumpkin spice, we decided to drop all of the above from the menu. No pecan bars for us this year. But not to fear! We would still have my aunt’s famous apple pie and Maureen’s aunt’s infamous pumpkin-ginger pie. Also impossible to find were fresh cranberries, although we didn’t realize that until the night before our cranberry sauce was to make its Thanksgiving debut. While unloading the jumbo bags of supplies Maureen brought, I spotted some small, red  definitely-not-cranberry berries. Apparently the signs had been switched at Corte Ingles. Instead of “arandanos rojos” we ended up with “grosellas” aka red currants. Oops! We dashed down to the grocery store, bought some dried cranberries and tossed them in a bowl to rehydrate overnight. Crisis averted? As my Andalucian-accented roommate would say, “ma o meno.”

Mercado de MaravillasThe week leading up to our cook-a-thon I was exploring Madrid’s top food markets for a post over at the Madrid Food Tour blog. Amid the insane variety of random (and apparently edible) items at the Mercado de Maravillas I found almost all of the fresh ingredients on our list: gorgeous brussel sprouts, ecologically-produced apples, ridiculously flavorful sausage, sweet potatoes the size of my forearm, adorable little cheery tomatoes and unfairly good goat cheese. I was in market food heaven. The sausage-selling man told me all about how much his daughter loves America (she is working in New York). The ecological fruit and veggie people described the flavor profiles of their three types of tomatoes and helped me pick out the perfect pie-making apples. This, to me, is how grocery shopping should be. Each item we bought for our Thanksgiving meal had it’s own story, it’s own history and knowing those made each dish that much more delicious. That is, after all, what the first Thanksgiving was all about right?

Will the ingredients gathered (or at least we thought) Maureen and I invaded the kitchen Friday night to begin our two-day cooking adventure. The pies came first.

Thanksgiving pie crust making

What I imagined would be a quick two-hour pie making sesh turned out to be an all night pie creating extravaganza. At 1:30 am we finally pulled the last pie out of the oven and fell into bed.  Señor Pavo joined the sleepover and spent the night on my balcony. There was no way he was fitting in the fridge.

Sleepover with Señor Pavo

Saturday morning started off as all Thanksgiving days should. With mimosas. We encountered our first hiccup approximately 5 seconds after we began. We had the turkey. We had the oven. But we had no way to get said turkey into said oven. In our haste to gather ingredients, we might have forgotten to buy a pan…  Maureen frantically searched the grocery store, the convenience store and finally the everything-you-could-ever-need Chino store for a pan, while I got to work on the stuffing. Shee finally found a pan just barely big enough to fit the turkey and just barely small enough to fit in the oven. Señor Pavo made it into the oven with literally centimeters to spare on all sides. Thank the pilgrims we didn’t end up with a 13-kilo turkey!

The next five hours were a blur of chopping, sipping, laughing and explaining as my roommates and neighbors trickled in and out of the kitchen to check on our progress. Around 2 p.m. we convinced them to partake in the traditional Thanksgiving morning mimosas and before we knew it the guys were taking turns making Cava and OJ runs. I don’t think I want to know how many empty Cava bottles ended up in our recycling that afternoon…

Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner

While Maureen and I were basting turkey and stirring cranberries, my piso-mates were (unbeknownst to me) preparing their own slice of magic in the neighbor’s spacious salon. Since my apartment doesn’t have a dining room, we had asked the neighbor guys if we could have the eating part of Thanksgiving in their grande salón. Being amazing as they are, they erected a huge table and together with mis compis laid the most perfect table for our celebration, complete with starry tablecloths and candles.

When at last we decided (guessed) that our turkey was ready, a flurry of table-setting, food carrying and cork popping ensued. The second the turkey hit the table phones flew into hands as every single member of our 11-person feast snapped photos. I have to admit. It was a beautiful sight!

Our Thanksgiving Turkey

Then, we dug in. Plates filled, glasses emptied and the room filled with the rumble of mixed-language chatter and bilingual “yums and ñums.” Looking out over the scene with a ridiculously juicy, flavorful bite of turkey in my mouth all I could think was que perfecto. After an enthusiastic round of seconds, I proposed a toast to the gracious and truly amazing friends who gathered to eat our odd (to a Spaniard) food and celebrate our 100 percent American tradition. We then went around the table and each person said what they were thankful for. Some of the Spaniards made a valiant attempt at saying their piece in English while some of the Americans gave it a go in Spanish. It was a massive collision of cultures in the best kind of way. And I couldn’t help but wonder… hope… if next year we would all be sitting around the same table, raising our glasses to Spainsgiving 2.0.

Spainsgiving 2013

Escaping Madrid’s Puente Madness in Alcalá de Henares

Madrid this weekend was a madhouse. The streets of the city center were clogged with impermeable human traffic jams. The metro was so packed that security guards blockaded the entrances, only allowing 50 people at a time to enter. And the narrow, weaving streets of downtown were parking lots of honking cars inching closer and closer to each others’ bumpers.

This was Madrid on Puente, aka a three-day weekend. As Friday was Spain’s Constitution Day, a national holiday, nearly the entire country (seemingly) flocked to the streets of their capital city to stand still in the middle of the sidewalk and admire the Christmas lights or ram their strollers through packed crowds over the toes of innocent bystanders.

Feliz Navidad in Alcalá de Henares

Needless to say after a day of this madness, I beelined for the first cercania train OUT of the city. Thirty minutes later, far from the insanity of celebrating Madrileños, I disembarked into the town of Alcalá de Henares, aka the birthplace of “Don Quijote” author Miguel Cervantes.

Don Quixote statue in Alcala de Henares

Alcalá is the second-largest city in the province of Madrid after the capital city itself, although you’d never know it by the quiet quaintness of the town center, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking toward the central plaza (Plaza de Cervantes), my friend and I joked that the tinsel-style Christmas trees hanging across the avenue were straight of A Christmas Story. We ate our words as soon as we enter the Christmas heaven that was Plaza de Cervantes.

Plaza de Cervantes in Alcala de Henares

Lining the plaza were wooden Santa’s elves’ type houses selling everything from chocolate-dipped churros to knitted slippers. A train blaring Christmas music circled a giant decorated Christmas tree (made of actual branches, not metal lights like Madrid’s tree). And lights were draped from tree to tree around the plaza.

After frolicking through the plaza and admiring the Cervantes statue (in which he is perfectly brandishing his feather pen!) we headed for lunch. Alcalá is known for it’s tapas culture. Like in Galicia and Granada, tapas bars in Alcalá give you a free small dish with every wine or beer you order. Unfortunately, when the price is free the quality is also on the low side. Not in the mood for a flurry of fried potatoes and sausage, we set off in search of a more sit-down style meal.

The Best Restaurant in Alcala de HenaresThanks to the advise of a fantastically helpful and friendly Alcalá native, we wove back into the antique kitchen utensil decor of Mesón las Cuadras de Rocinante. Like the majority of the restaurants throughout the city, las Cuadras was absolutely packed when we arrived around 3:30 pm for lunch. Every table was taken and the bar area was shoulder-to-shoulder with people sipping a caña (and it’s free garbanzo-bean stew tapa) while they waited their place at one of the red-checkered tables.

One hour, a glass of wine, and about a dozen near-disastrous collisions with the two frantic waiters later, we were finally able to claim a table. Within minutes, the bright tablecloth disappeared under cazuelas of meatballs and vegetable pisto, a basket of bread and its accompanying olive oil, a plate of seared mushrooms topped with cured jamón, and a dish of delicious semicurado cheese.

It was everything I love about Spanish meals. Every item was simple, yet inexplicably packed with flavor. They were cooked to perfection, in a way that spoke to the centuries of history and practice that went into each dish. And they were presented without flourish, allowing the downright deliciousness of each plate to speak for itself. Our feast, along with two glasses of wine, set us back a mere 17 euro each.

Delicious Lunch in Alcala de Henares

The most important part of the day completed with massive success, we set of to explore the two main sites of Alcalá: the house where Cervantes was born and the insanely beautiful Universidad de Alcalá. Unfortunately, our late lunch meant that we missed the last tour at the Cervantes house by 15 minutes (it started at 5:30pm) AND the final guided tour of the University (which started at 6pm). Guess we will just have to make another day trip to Alcalá!

Universidad de Alcalá

The University of Alcalá

45 Hours in Porto, Portugal (aka ‘More Port Wine, Please’)

Portugal, in my opinion, is one of the most perplexingly over-looked travel destinations in Europe. Bold statement, I know, but my third and latest rendezvous through the dusty old streets of Spain’s western neighbor absolutely confirmed it. Portugal’s food is more delicious than Britain’s, its cities are more colorful than Spain’s,  and its sweet wine is more scrumptious than Germany’s. Not to mention a three-course Portuguese meal sets you back less than 20 euro and a night at some of the highest-ranked hostels in Europe clocks in at even less!

Porto, Portugal

So with a three-day weekend looming thanks to Spain’s celebration of All Saints Day, I booked a whirlwind weekend in Porto, Portugal, the country’s second-largest city and (more importantly) the hub of Portuguese wine production.

Despite the fact that D.C. and New York are father apart than Porto and Madrid, getting from the Spanish capitol to the Portuguese port is frustratingly difficult. This may be the only time America beats Europe at public transportation. Unlike my East Coast cities, there are no direct trains between Madrid and Porto. And while it takes a mere 5 hours to go by car (the same amount of time it takes a bus to go from D.C. to NYC), it takes nearly 10 hours for ALSA to roll the 560-odd kilometers from Madrid to Porto. Only three airlines (Iberia, TAP Portugal and RyanAir) fly nonstop between the two cities and of those only the ultra-budget, less-than-cozy RyanAir offered holiday-weekend flights at less-than-extortionist prices. RyanAir for the win, again.

An overhead bin fiasco, two checked carry-ons and a parade of duty-free perfume later, we touched down in a rainy, grey Porto. It was 10:30 a.m. on All Saints Day (or The Day After Halloween as we call in it in the States) and we had been in Portugal for less than an hour when we discovered the first of many pleasant surprises in Porto. Halfway through the hedge-maze that is the Carregal Gardens, we spotted our hostel. Tucked between brightly colored buildings with balconies overflowing with ferns and flowers was The Wine Hostel, without question one of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed in throughout Europe. Upon opening the door we found blue painted tiles and boxes of dusty Port bottles lining the staircase. Instead of numbers, each room is named after a type of Port. Our bright and airy six-bunk room was “Late Bottle Vintage,” a term I would come to appreciate during the follow day’s winery tour.

Porto, Portugal

Bags stowed and stomachs screaming we braved the wind and rain in search of breakfast. Five minutes and as many map consultations later we reached the oldest cafe in Porto, Cafe Progresso.  The menu was surprisingly modern for a café that celebrated its 114th anniversary last month, sporting the word “Brunch” at the top and “scrambled egg” not far below. After a month in Spain where eggs are strictly relegated to the afternoon hours and  brunch is a distant concept, Progresso was quickly making my life.

The Oldest Cafe in Porto

Food requirements filled, our next stop was the third most beautiful bookstore in the world, Livraria Lello. Despite crowds of revelers, the century-old bookstore is spectacular, with a huge central staircase that looks like something straight out of Cinderella, or, perhaps, Harry Potter. Rumor in Porto is that J.K. Rowling, who began writing the Harry Potter books while teaching English in Porto, based the grand Hogwarts staircases off of the huge, winding centerpiece staircase at Livraria Lello’s, where she is also rumored to have scratched out a few pages in the upstairs cafe.

One block down from the packed bookstore was an equally impressive gem, this one’s shelves filled with every imaginable Portuguese-made product from chocolate “Bomboms” to brass horns.  We spent nearly an hour sifting through tables piled with soaps and and books, clocks and kitchen cutlery at A Vida Portuguesa, a two-story shop dedicated to selling only items made in Portugal.

A Vida Portuguesa

A Vida Portuguesa

Brass horns for sale at A Vida Portuguesa.

A Vida Portuguesa

Fantastically colorful soap lined that counters at A Vida Portuguesa

With Porto a sure winner in the “gorgeous shops” category, we climbed — and yes, climbed is absolutely the right word; Porto is insanely hilly — over to the Sāo Bento train station to see how the city fared in the art department.

The station’s main hall is decorated on all sides with pearly-white tile painted in brilliant blue depicting everything from daily farm life in 18th-century Porto, to the timeline of transportation from horses to steam engines.  The hall is impressive, to say the least, but more so for me was the story of how it was made. The architect, as our walking tour guide later informed us, was fresh out of college when the king commissioned him to create Sāo Bento Station.  He worked on the building for eleven years, laying tile after the king who began the project was killed and through the revolution that overthrew his successor and ended the Portuguese monarchy. If only those tiles could talk…

Sao Bento Train Station

Those blue tiles, or azulejos, speckle the city with bursts of color. With the spitting rain and thick grey cloudy skies, the streaks of blue along the giant stone buildings gave the city an almost- eerie melancholy feel that was ironically juxtaposed with springy palm trees and vibrantly happy-colored houses.

Two Churches in Porto

Day two in Porto was dedicated to my two favorite things: eating and drinking. For lunch we stumbled upon a tiny restaurant tucked into a corner among the maze of tiny streets behind the Ribeiro, or riverwalk. Low wood-slatted ceilings and dim recess lighting gave the feeling that we were dining on board a private yacht. White and blue china painted in the same style as the city’s azulejos clinked throughout the tiny space, further adding to the upscale yachtiness of the place.

We skipped the three-course menu featuring bacalao, Portugal’s most famous dish, and opted instead for a quick and fancy lunch of Porto’s traditional soup (a thick potato broth with kale-like leaves) and a simple salad (lettuce, big chunks of tomato, olives and onion all drenched in olive oil). You’d have thought we were eating naked. The chef, who happened to be having lunch with his wife at the table next to us, chastised the waiter for not bringing us our food before realizing that we’d received all that we’d ordered. The cooks and wait staff in the kitchen took turns peering through the small window to catch a glimpse of the locas who had ordered only primer platos. The blasphemy of our meal was sure to ignite at any moment a riot among our fellow diners. Thus we high-tailed it out of our little corner of lunch luxury the second our painted china plates were cleared.

Traditional Port Wine Boat on the Duoro River

Across the Duoro River and comfortably far away from the perplexed restaurant staff, we set out for the main event, Port wine tasting. Choosing from the dozens of wine cellars at random, we ended up at Ferreira, one of the oldest cellars in Porto. While waiting for the English tour to begin, we strolled down to a bodega that served tastes of Ports from a conglomerate of cellars. Port wine is stronger and sweeter than your typical table wine having been fortified with Brandy at the early stages of fermentation. As we would later learn in the wine tasting of all wine tastings, the Brandy used in ports has a super high alcohol content (more than 70 percent), which stops the fermentation of the grapes’ natural sugars into alcohol. Depending on the type of Port and the desired sweetness level, the Brady is added at different times. The earlier in the  process that the Brandy is added, the sweeter the Port will be.

Our first two tastes were white ports,  the Burmester ‘extra-dry’ which had a strong Sherry flavor, and the Barros ‘semi-sweet’ which, as Maureen described it, tasted like a warm fire at Christmas (I’d say it’s more caramelly toast). Next we explored the difference between “Tawny” Port, which is aged in small oak barrels allowing the wine to oxidize slightly and thus turn a caramel-rust color, and a “Ruby” Port, which is aged in huge oak barrels for fewer years and thus maintains its ruby-red color. The verdict for me: Ruby Port all the way. The Ruby maintained many of the robust, fruity flavors of typical red wine but enhanced those flavors with an intense, yet smooth sweetness emblematic of Port wine.

Armed with our four exploratory tastes and an utterly basic understanding of how Port is produced, we set off on our tour of Ferreira, a company that has been producing Port wine longer than the United States has been an independent nation. We strolled through dimly-lit cellars filled with giant barrels of meticulously aging Port while our appropriately-named guide Fabio explained why the floor was made of wood blocks rather than tile (two reasons: 1) to cushion the barrels so they don’t break when rolling them across the floor and 2) the wood acts as air conditioning; if the temperature starts to rise, they douse the wood floors with water, the evaporation of which keeps the cellars cool and slightly humid).

Port Wine Tour at Ferreira

We saw giant French Oak vats where nearly 11,000 liters of Tawny Port was getting a weeks-worth of large-barrel aging before being bottled. We filed past pyramids of 350-pound barrels of the sweetest type of Port wine, Lagrima (which translates to “tear”) as Fabio informed us that the wine got its name because its sweetness caused it to run slowly down the side of the glass, like tears sliding down a face. We saw bottles of vintage Port from the 1800s, stacked on their sides awaiting the day their flavors will finally “mature” (because apparently 100 years isn’t quite enough). And finally we sat down to taste the Ferreira wine ourselves, a bright red Ruby and golden sweet Branco Lagrima.

Tasting a Ruby Port at Ferreira

After a long, hard day of wine tasting we were in desperate need of some stellar Portuguese food at my new favorite restaurant. After experiencing the wine tour of all wine tours I didn’t think it possible to fit in an “everything I want out of a restaurant” dinner into the same day. I was wrong. At Casa Santo Antonio I had to make two decisions: what type of wine I wanted to drink and when I was too full for more delicious tapas-style traditional Portuguese dishes. That, in my opinion, is how every restaurant should be. No stressing about what to order or post-plate remorse about whether I ordered the right thing. At this Porto gem of a restaurant I was worry free and ravishingly expectant. I had no idea what our most adorable waiter Nelson would bring us next, only that it would undoubtably be ricisimo.

The parade of deliciousness started out fresh with Galician-style dense bread, garlic-marinated black olives, curried cooked carrots and jumbo pickled corn kernel-type things that I can never remember the name of. Fried bacalao (cod fish) fritters of joy followed with a side of perfectly spiced and scrumptious beyond it’s simplicity red beans and rice. Next we devoured a fava bean-chorizomurcillo stew that was even more flavorful than the picture leads on.

Fava Beans and Chorizo

And as the grandest of grand finales to this most amazing meal, Nelson brought us pork cheek in an olive oil-red wine- clove sauce. It was, without question, the tenderest, most melt-in-your-mouth meat I have ever tasted. This one dish freed cloves from their corner as a Christmas-time cider adornment and propelled them into ‘fascinating spice I can’t wait to add to everything’ status, a title they will have to fight with cumin over. We decided it’s worth another RyanAir flying adventure to Porto solely to taste Santo Antonio’s pork cheek one more time…

The most delicious meat ever made

A Piano in el Salón and Politics in the Kitchen

Breaking news alerts announcing each minuscule hint of an agreement to avoid the debt-ceiling apocalypse have turned my phone into a strobe light today. “Senate close to agreement,”… “Deal is imminent” … “President Obama applauds Senate”… “House GOP now meeting,”…

Letters to the President

“Delivering” letters from Texas first-graders to President Obama in 2012.

I’ve heard this story before. I’ve written this story before. And I can picture exactly what my day would be like if I’d chosen to stay on the path that so many of my peers strived to get to. It would have been frantic and stressful, frustrating and unsatisfying. It would be hammering out headlines in moments of sheer panic, then combing through Twitter in search of an update or a new angle. I would have typed myself into oblivion and left late, feeling defeated and behind the curve. Thus is the maddening immediacy of online news.

Instead, as history repeated itself in Washington, I stuck my tongue out at a Spanish second-grader, trying to help him understand the English “th” sound. While a Twitter tizzy of took off across the ocean, I got contagion-hugged by half a class of first graders whose tiny hands could hardly reach my belt loops. Today, while my country was in a politics-driven craze, I drank my morning coffee sitting down and basked in the afternoon sun on my balcony.

Glorieta de QuevedoAnd amid the cognitive dissonance of last year versus this one, it hit me: I live in Madrid. I’m not visiting, or touring or just passing through. This is my new home. And from this distant vantage point I can see the frivolity of many of the things I used to live and die by in D.C. Is American politics a big ‘ol mess? Yes. Is the sun going to rise and the coffee going to brew and the email from my Mom going to come through tomorrow if Congress doesn’t pass a bill tonight? Why yes, yes it is.

I tried to explain to my roommate in my improving but still crap Spanish what all the fuss was about in the States right now. All the Spanish news channels are covering the shutdown and the debt ceiling debate, but let’s just say the story is about 1/100th as long as last night’s soccer match re-cap. As my voice began to rise in frustration and annoyance at the history that was repeating itself in D.C., my roommate sighed, nonchalantly plopped another piece of sushi in his mouth and said “Bienvenidos al club, Amy.” Then he told me that Belgium went two years without a government while three leading parties battled for control. He told me about never-ending-cycle of Spain’s two most powerful parties which strategically tweak the laws to keep themselves in power, “like a fish with his tail in his mouth, it just goes round and round without end,” he said. Then we got sidetracked while I tried to pronounce “pass a budget” in Spanish — try saying “se aprueba el presupuesto” ten times fast! — and ended up laughing about appliances.
Royal Botanical Garden Happiness

Afterward as I walked toward my bedroom down the long hallway of our apartment, an intricate and peaceful melody drifted from the salón. I stopped for a moment to listen to my other roommate, a concert pianist and opera singer, as her fingers danced across her new keyboard. And that’s when I knew for the first time with certainty, that I’d made the right decision.