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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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.

3 Reasons Why Madrid Is Actually Food Heaven

During my Summer spent in Texas, the first question I was always asked after telling someone of my plans to move back to Spain was, “What is it about Spain that you love so much?” My reaction was always the same: the food. Or more accurately, the culture that surrounds creating and eating food. In Spain “slow food” is not a fad, it’s the norm. Lunches here are hours-long affairs and serving day-old bread is sin. In the rural garden-filled hills of Galicia (my home for the past school year), farm-to-table wasn’t the restaurant’s advertised enticement, it was the diner’s unwritten expectation, one I came to cherish.

Fresh Galician Food

The freshest of meats from the carnecería in Sarria.

Moving to the 4-million-strong metropolis of Madrid this year, I feared my days of abundant food freshness were over. I’ve been a Madrileña for less than two weeks and already any and all of my food fears have evaporated. Madrid is not only a mecca of fruit stands and bakeries, but a foodie treasure chest bursting with traditional tapas bars, specialty restaurants and coffee-conscious cafes. Madrid, I am coming to find out, is the melting pot of Spain’s culinary excellence. In other words, it is food heaven. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:

Exhibit A: Squid for Lunch. Claro!

Picture two American roommates in their early twenties planning a dinner with friends. What will the menu look like? As an early-twenties American, I can tell you from experience it will likely include ground beef or pan-grilled chicken, perhaps some pasta, probably a salad or maybe some homemade (and by ‘homemade’ I mean from-a-box) brownies.

Two days ago I experienced the same sort of meal with two twenty-something Spaniards. After some rapid-fire Spanish debate over what to fix, my new amigos announced it was time to ir al supermercado. At the corner market, my fearless masters of delicious cuisine marched straight up to the seafood counter, flagged down the haz-mat-style suit wearing attendant, and asked for three gooey, floppy, football-sized squid — well, technically cuttlefish — as nonchalantly as if they were ordering sliced turkey from the deli.

Package-o-fresh-squid in-hand, they strolled over to the fruteria next door to pick up fresh sprigs of parsley and cilantro, informing me that fresh herbs were clutch to making the family recipe’s sauce delicioso. An hour of kitchen-clanking and taste-testing later, my new meal-preparing role models laid a steaming pile of perfectly seared squid pieces on the table next to a dish of boiled new potatoes, a carafe of bright-green parsley-cilantro sauce and two plates of pan-fried Chanterelle mushrooms.  One bite of the crisp, yet succulent squid bearing a hint of the tart, garlicy punch of the green sauce and I floated off into Spanish food heaven…

Exhibit B: Viva la Vida, a Vegetarian Buffet

In a country where your typical bar has cured ham legs hanging from the ceiling and the “vegetarian” menus feature five kids of tuna, there exists the unimaginable: a plaza of not one, but two vegetarian restaurants. Ironically enough, these unexpected changes of culinary pace are nestled in the heart of one of Madrid’s oldest neighborhoods: La Latina.

Spanish Vegetarian Buffett

I stumbled upon the first and most impresionante of the veggie eateries last week while in search of a tasty-looking lunch spot. Inside I discovered everything I could want in a Spanish-style vegetarian restaurant. Lush green vines blanketed the ceiling and Chinese lanterns hung over the bar. Bowls of flowers floated on tables between flowy-skirt wearing diners. Along the black wall, buffet tables overflowed with vegetarian fare with a decidedly Spanish flare.

There were whole-wheat croquetas and meatless albondigas (meatballs). A clay pot of cold gazpacho was nestled alongside salads with bright red tomatoes, blocks of feta and dried dates. Every dish was bursting with color and flavor. I loaded as many kinds of exotic veggie goodness onto my plate as possible, awaited my glass of accompanying white wine, looked out over the Plaza de Paja and dug into veggie heaven…

Exhibit C: The Tomato Man

There are three fruterias between where I’m staying and the metro which means every day I’m torn between the green-and-yellow striped melons at the cavernous self-serve Rosa’s, the 2,35/kilo neon-green figs at Tomate’s and the so-purple-they’re-black bunches of grapes at Un Dia.  Trying to cover my bases, I decided to hit up each store and compare quality, variety and price. Five seconds after setting foot in Tomate and I realized not one of those three standards mattered.

The jolly round man that runs the smallest of the three produce stores, Tomate, hopped up to greet me the second I entered his shop. I asked for a quarter-kilo of figs (my new fruit obsession) and then stood dumbfounded in front of a table of six types of tomatoes. “Which is the best?” I asked after he’d carefully placed about a dozen small figs into a clear plastic bag. “These,” he said without hesitation, pointing to the least-red bunch of lopsided tomato-like forms. “They are ugly, but they are the most sweet, the most tasty.” He plucked the reddest mound from the table. It was relatively nice-looking on the top but squished on the bottom. “Eeh! Esta mal,” my tomato guru grunted, snatching instead a yellowish-red one and placing on the register with my figs.

Skeptical that such a bland-colored vegetable could be as rico as the brilliant red variety sitting next to it, I headed to the back to find a suitable salad back-up. “Toma! Probalo!” Tomato Man shouted across the store, a dripping hunk of the slightly-squished tomato extended in my direction. I rushed over before the waterfall of tomato juice could coat the entire register. Slurping, I shoved the chunk of light red flesh in my mouth. A symphony of sweet, garden-fresh flavor enveloped my tongue and I drifted off into this-is-what-real-veggies-taste-like heaven…

Delicious Tomatoes

Heavenly tomatoes on an ultra-fresh salad!

I’m Going to Do the Camino de Santiago!!!

I'm Doing the Camino!My excitement can hardly be contained. In 28 days I am strapping on my boots, cinching down my pack and setting a westward trek towards Santiago de Compostela! It will be 6 days of walking (theoretically) along the gorgeous Galician hills with my best friend by my side and the world ahead of me. I. Am. Stoked.

Catedral en Santiago de CompostelaThe camino de Santiago or Way of St. James is a pilgrimage to the catedral in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Spain’s northwest province Galicia, where according to legend the apostle St. James is buried. Nearly 200,000 pilgrims walked the route to Santiago last year. (Interesting fact: 281 of those pilgrims did the camino on horseback. 22 did it in wheelchairs.) Many people walk the route for religious or spiritual reasons, many make the trek during a turning point in their lives. I’m not 100 percent sure what my motivation will turn out to be, but I have no doubt that somewhere between the blisters and the vistas I will find out. 

I’ll be starting the camino from my front doorstep here in Sarria. As fate would have, Sarria is the closest starting point for pilgrims to begin and be considered true peregrinos (yes, there is an official certificate of completion for this walk!). My pueblita is almost exactly 100 km from Santiago along the French Way, one of six main routes. The Camino Francés  actually begins nearly 600 km east in a town called St. Jean Pied de Port along the French-Spanish boarder, although about 20 percent of last year’s pilgrims began their journey, like I will, in Sarria.

Galicia is Gorgeous

My seed of camino intrigue that is now flourishing into action was actually planted long before the fates that be (in this case, the Spanish Ministry of Education) dropped me at head of the trail. In fact, the ganas to do the camino began growing before I could even point out gorgeously green hills of Galicia on a map. This crazy adventure came about, as many of my adventures have, because of brunch. It was a marvelous sundressy day and I remember it perfectly. I rolled out of bed and over to my favorite D.C. brunch hub/coffeehouse/cerveceria/happy place, Tryst. Upon discovering that half of Washington shared my desire for bathtub-sized coffee and labneh baguettes, I strolled next door to peruse a sun-filled bookstore while I awaited an open seat.

Until that day I had never realized that a bright green neighborhood bookstore stood next to my go-to coffeehouse (apparently my perception skills aren’t as keen as I thought), let alone that it was stocked with a decent-sized travel section (lo mejor genre en mi opinión). At the time, my application to spend the following year teaching English in Spain was still pending and my desire to jump ship and move overseas was nearly at the breaking point. Within 15 minutes I had singled out every travel book having anything to do with Spain and narrowed down my purchase to an intriguing-looking specimen with a doodle-style map blanketing the jacket cover. 

The book turned out to be rather whiney, but the storyline was fascinating: a American man took a month-long leave of absence to walk across Northern Spain along with thousands of strangers. I immediately added “Camino de Santiago” to my “want-to-do” list. Four months after starting the book, I received my teaching placement in, of all places, Galicia — the Spanish province where the majority of his book (and thus the majority of the camino) took place. Coincidence? Quizas.

Scallop shell decorations

If the camino was flitting around the back of my mind if America, it was drenching my field of vision here in Galicia. Scallop shells — the symbol of the pilgrims — decorated the sidewalks and fences; bright yellow arrows were sprinkled like breadcrumbs across the city; tales of past pilgrims were told and retold by teachers and amigos. Within weeks of arriving I had resolved that one day I would do the camino, but only if the right circumstances (read: the right compadre) arose.

Enter: Jenny. A bakers’ dozen of days ago I floated the idea to mi mejor amiga of filling the gap between my last day of classes and my flight back to the states by walking the camino. It was a long shot at best. Jenny has a grown-up job, a new house and a new husband and I was asking her to drop it all, fly across an ocean and walk through the rural hills of Northern Spain with me for 10 days. Who does that?!? Apparently, we do.

Spring in Galicia!

Thus far we don’t know how we are going to do the camino, only that come hell or high water (read: airline delays and customs controls) we are throwing on backpacks and boots on June 2 and hitting the trail. I imagine this new adventure will be a lot like eating an elephant; we’ll take it one bite at a time.

Have you ever walked the camino? Do you have any tips or suggestions?!?