Friday, April 27, 2012

Espana 2012

About this time two years ago, Rebecca and I were finishing up planning our honeymoon, set to take place right after our late May wedding. But as any of my regular readers know, those plans were cut short when I was in a pretty bad motorcycle accident exactly four weeks before the wedding. Besides many changes that have followed that accident, we also had to cancel our honeymoon. It was to be two weeks spent in the Northern half of Spain. I couldn't fly. Neither my tending physician nor my overall comfort would allow the 8+ hour flight. Plus driving, walking and general mobility were an issue, since I was on crutches. Did I mention heavy drugs and a major loss of appetite yet? Well, anyway, almost 2 years later, most of those problems have been remedied.

We flew into Barcelona on a Saturday morning. I hadn't slept a wink, and Rebecca got some shut-eye, but I don't think it could be called good sleep. We gathered our baggage and took a bus into town and found the apartment we rented. We spent the next 48 hours there eating tapas, drinking large cups of cafe con leche and small glasses of cerveza, touring the mercados and trying to communicate as well as we could since neither of us speak español.

One of many walls of ham in a Barcelona ham shop

Monday morning we picked up our rental car and headed north out of Barcelona. I had come across a web article about touring Spain's most diverse sausage region, which just happened to be not-too-far-out-of-the-way on the road to our next stop. I should add that there is no shortage of sausages across the Iberian peninsula, but the concentration and variations in Catalonia are astonishing! About 45-60 minutes north is a small town called Vic and it is home to a designated regional sausage called Llonganissa de Vic. While the article named a couple places to check out, the most appealing one was Casa Riera Ordeix. They have been making their salchichon (dried Spanish sausage) in the same manner since 1852. And mostly in the very same building we visited. We were so lucky that when two -no-Spanish-speaking Yanks walked in and inquired about tours, they greeted us warmly then rocked our sausage loving world!

Me with the "technical director" of Casa Riera Ordeix in Vic
Our next stop was a small village in the Pyrenees Mountains, barely south of the French/Spanish border. This began the part of our trip that was based on the Spanish Parador system. Paradores are a chain of fine "hotels" that we learned are run by the Spanish government. What makes them special, beyond the government part, is that they are all historical buildings of some form. They are former abbeys, castles, monasteries and the like. The first one we stayed at was in Bielsa. Perched high in the mountains it was more of a relaxation/get-away stop than a culinary destination. We woke up the first day and took a 3 hour hike up into the mountains and picnicked on the treats we brought with us from Casa Riera Ordeix.

Rebecca at our picnic site nearly atop the Pyrenees Mountain range
From Bielsa we had to decide between traveling along small country mountain roads through the Spanish side of the mountains or crossing into France and hopping onto the national highway system to get to our next stop of San Sebastien in Basque country. The French way was an hour quicker, through a country I love and cheaper on expensive gas. But realizing that my Garmin map was only good in Spain and Portugal persuaded me to give it a go south of the border. Once we arrived in San Sebastien we wasted no time digging in. We got a map of town from our hotel and headed to area they recommended, the Old Quarter. While it was full of tourists, there were plenty of locals enjoying their afternoon drinks and tapas all around us. Looking through a guidebook from the hotel, one street in particular, Calle 31 de Augosto, listed many of the more appealing tapas bars in its pages. It was even less touristy than the streets only blocks south. After eating and drinking through about 6 places we finally decided on one to come back to the following night. Gandarias Jatetxea was gonna be the spot. Unfortunately the very kind barman warned us in the most simple Spanish (the only kind I understand) that they would be closed the next day. We were confused and disappointed: the next day was Thursday, why would they be closed?

Rebeeca's favorite Pinxto in San Sebastian, the Solomillo from Juantxo's
As it turned out, the entire country of Spain was closed for the day due to a labor strike. Originally, we were pretty annoyed. My time spent in France had taught me about their use of the greve to make a stand/point. I was a bit surprised to find it taking place in Spain as well. After venting a bit, we seized the opportunity to do what we had chosen not to do the previous day. We went to France! Being a short 15 minute drive to the border we passed through the empty toll booths (everyone was on strike!) and into La Francia. During my time living in France I had visited St. Jean-de-Luz, a coastal town just across the border from Spain, and I always enjoyed my visits there, so why not show Rebecca this cute town? We shopped, we ate and I could actually talk with the people, unlike Spain!

Basque charcuterie shop in St. Jean-de-Luz, France
One area we both wanted to spend some time in was Galicia, the north-western most province of Spain. Time simply didn't allow everything we wanted, so we found one city that was just within reach of our plans to check out in the northwestern quarter, Leon. Since there was an absolutely gorgeous Parador there, we booked it. But there was one stop we had to make along the way. I had seen a restaurant featured years ago by Anthony Bourdain that I hadn't been able to stop thinking about since. When we were watching Made in Spain from Jose Andres to learn more about Spanish food, he went there too. So after some begging and pleading with Rebecca to drop a pretty penny for one meal, she agreed. I made the reservation via email the day before we were to leave San Sebastian and on Friday I finally got to dine, er, lunch, at Etxebarri. With a place that boasts the quality of their ingredients more than anything else, and the fact that almost everything is cooked over wood coals, one of my culinary dreams was finally coming true!

Etxebarri, well beyond "worth the trip"
Leon was the site of, by far, the most glorious Parador where we stayed. It's a former monastery that was centrally located in the large city. But it was also a sign that we may have been over-shooting our ambitious plans. By the time we rolled in, unloaded the seemingly growing car, and took a deep breath, we had missed most of the day. There were two things we wanted to experience in Leon. For Rebecca it was the Cathedral, and for me it was the famous cecina dried beef (neither jerky nor Budig lunch meat). Two things didn't seem like too much, but it was quite the day-trip for only those two things. It turned out that our first night there was the highlight. For the first time in our visit to Spain, we experienced a tapa as it was originally meant to be enjoyed, free. For each round of drinks we ordered we were offered a plate of bite-sized goodies. If you ordered another round, you got another plate! And we also discovered vermut, the local vermouth that offered that little something extra.

The famous Cecina de Leon
Our next leg (haha, that's punny) of the trip was down to Caceres, along the Ham Trail. We chose Caceres for its central location in the ham producing region of Spain that runs along its western border with Portugal. Because of this, its main city-center area was lined with the usual shops but also an even greater abundance of shops featuring hams, sausages, pates and even non-pork goodies like licor de bellota, a liquor made from the same acorns on which the famous ham pigs feed. It was in Caceres that we had one of the better meals of the trip and also found my favorite charcuteria.

The cochonillo at Meson El Asador in Caceres
The area around Caceres is rich in culinary treasures. But the reason that we were there should be obvious. It's at the north end of the Ham Trail. Our first full day was spent in search of all things porcine. An hour drive south took us to a string of small towns whose main thoroughfares were lined with signs heavy with images of jamon, embutidos, cerdo and the word Iberia in some variation or another. But once again, our travel habits lead us there smack dab in the middle of the midday three-hour lunch break. But this didn't bother me too much, as it wasn't the shops I was looking for. We were on a hunt for the famous pata-negra Iberian pig, alive and in person. The region is known for its dehesa, a hilly terrain covered with Holm Oaks that shed their acorns and help to create some of the best pork in the world. The landscape itself is gorgeous. Beautiful Oaks, bare for the first 7-8 feet then trimmed to provide a wonderful cover for the green rolling hills that are home to free-range pigs that eat, sleep and play, but mostly feast on nature's treats. It took some patience and persistence on our part, but we found several, and they were happy to pose!

Iberian pigs grazing on the dehesa in Extremadura
On our way to Madrid, we stopped in a small town that was home to a royal vacation palace, but it was not really worth the journey that took to get there. But if you are a Madrileno and in need of a spa retreat or to visit a former palace, then La Granja is your place. It was bittersweet to arrive in Madrid. It's the party capital of Spain's mainland, it was the end of dealing with a confusing road system and expensive gas, but it also marked the end of our Meatmoon. But for us it was likely the best possible ending! We made some friends, I/we rediscovered Mercado San Miguel, much changed since last time I was there in 2004, and we actually felt like we were ready to get back to normalcy. But not before continuing to stuff ourselves silly! Some recommendations from our hotel concierge proved to be better than expected.

Iberian Pork Rinds at the Mercado San Miguel with some Vermouth
My intention is to make a full posting on each of these sections above. I will link to each one from this post as they are completed. This is to serve as a teaser until I can make time in-between the full-time job, expanding the Low on the Hog stall at the local market and trying to actually post older things I have done for the blog, all while continuing to create more tasty morsels! Be sure to keep checking back. Thank you.

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