Category Archives: Food & Drink

Five Michelin Stars for One Catalan Lady

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One lucky lady has good reason to be cheerful. She is the only chef in the world, male or female, to be given an accolade of five Michelin stars. Her name is Carme Ruscalleda.

Carme Ruscalleda is a Catalan lady, who was already proud about her three star Michelin rating for her ‘Restaurante Sant Pau’, in Sant Pol de Mar, some 35 minutes east of Barcelona. The restaurant is set in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean sea. But now, she has also been given two more Michelin stars for her relatively new venture, the ‘Restaurante Sant Pau de Tokio’, opened in 2004 in Tokyo, Japan. Mrs. Ruscalleda admitts that she had hoped for a one star rating for her Tokyo restaurant. She says that she was surprised but delighted to have been handed two stars.

 

Ferran Adrià, eat your heart out. 

This fancy Tokyo branch of Carme Ruscalleda’s famous restaurant serves some serious Catalan cuisine. The tasting menu is ¥21,000, whilst main dishes are around ¥7,000 each. The lunchtime “Bento menu” is ¥8,000. There’s a more informal wine bar downstairs, with some 350 varieties of mostly Spanish wines and a menu of light tapas.

Senyora Ruscalleda was raised in a family of farmers and began cooking as a young girl. Later she studied Charcuterie technics. After marrying a grocery shop owner in 1975, she convinced her husband to open a restaurant. The ‘Restaurante Sant Pau’ opened in 1988. Just over two years after its inauguration, ‘Sant Pau’ won one Michelin star. In 1996, Carme Ruscalleda was given a two-star rating by the Michelin critics. She finally obtained a third Michelin Guide star in 2006.

Carme Ruscalleda is one of Spain’s top and most international women chefs. She is best known in Spain for having been chosen in 2004 as the chef for the wedding celebrations of Principe Felipe and Letizia Ortiz. Her restaurant ‘San Pau’ in Sant Pol de Mar is a convincing example of how to create unique dishes by combining a sense of imagination with traditional Catalán ingredients.

If you want to test Mrs. Ruscalleda’s fine art of cooking yourself, or if you have a wedding celebration coming up, here are her details:

Restaurante Sant Pau

08395 Sant Pol de Mar (Catalunya)

Tel.: +34.93.760.0662

Restaurante Sant Pau de Tokio

Coredo Nihonbashi Annex 1/2F

1-6-1 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku

Tokyo (Japan)

Tel.: +81.03.3517.5700

 

If you enjoy eating out you probably know that Spanish gastronomy as a whole is highly esteemed by the gurus of le Guide Michelin, especially so if chefs from the Basque country and from Catalunya are involved in the cooking. 

Guide Michelin rated a total of 134 Spanish restaurants with either one, two or three stars, in their new Guide Michelin Hotels & Restaurants for Spain 2008

Six restaurants (three Basque and three Catalán) were confirmed for 2008 for their high food standard. These restaurants are those of chefs, Juan Mari Arzak (restaurant ‘Arzak’, San Sebastián); Santi Santamaría (‘Can Fabes’, Sant Celoni, Barcelona); Ferran Adrià (‘El Bulli’, Roses, Girona); Martín Berasategui (‘Martín Berasategui’, Lasarte, Guipúzcoa); Pedro Subijana (‘Akelarre’, San Sebastián) and Carme Ruscalleda (‘Sant Pau’, Sant Pol de Mar, Barcelona), mentioned above. Well done, and congratulations to all. There was no change to the 2007 compilation. Against all expectations, no additional Spanish restaurant was rated highly enough to rise to the top accolade of three stars.

These are the current two Michelin star restaurants in Spain: ‘Tristán’, in Portals Nous (Mallorca, Baleares); ‘Atrio’, in Cáceres; ‘El Poblet’, in Dènia; ‘Mugaritz’, in Rentería; ‘El Celler de Can Roca’, in Girona; ‘La Broche’ and ‘Santceloni’, in Madrid; ‘Zuberoa’, in Oiartzun, and ‘La Alquería de Hacienda Benazuza’, in Sanlúcar la Mayor (Sevilla), as well as now, for the first time, ‘Abac’, in Barcelona.

There are fifteen new one star eateries in Spain, according to the Michelin opinion, bringing the total of one star rated restaurants in Spain to a stunning 119. Ten previous one star bearers have lost their star rating.

The new one star rated restaurants are ‘Comerç 24’ and ‘Lluçanés’, in Barcelona; ‘Yayo Daporta’, in Cambados (Pontevedra); ‘Kokotxa’ and ‘Kursaal’, in San Sebastián; ‘Arrop’, in Gandía; ‘Massana’, in Girona; ‘Azurmendi’, in Larrabetzu (Vizcaya); ‘El Club Allard’, in Madrid; ‘Calima’, in Marbella; ‘Els Casals’, in Sagás (Barcelona); ‘Retiro da Costiña’, in Santa Comba (La Coruña); ‘Villena’, in Segovia; ‘El Molino de Urdaitz’, in Urdaitz (Navarra), and ‘Ramiro’s’, in Valladolid.

The following restaurants lost their single star, ‘La Posada de la Casa del Abad’, in Ampudia; ‘Aldebarán’, in Badajoz; ‘Jean Luc Figueras’, in Barcelona; ‘Gallery Paladares’, in Gijón; ‘Carballeira’, in Lleida; ‘Casa d’a Troya’, in Madrid; ‘Mesana’, in Marbella, ‘Chez Víctor’, in Salamanca, ‘Lluçanès’, in Prats de Lluçanès, and ‘Koldo Royo’, in Palma de Mallorca, where I live. Oh, well. It has to be Marc Fosh then, at Read’s, in Santa Maria, I suppose. About him, some other time, soon.

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Funnily enough, Tokyo was rated with a surprising total of 191 Michelin stars, a record, given that Parisian restaurants were only awarded a total of 94 stars (New York has a total of 54 Michelin stars, just for the record). Japan is a new departure for le Guide Michelin but, no doubt, food lovers will flock there soon to try out the culinary delights, of eastern as well as western inclination, of the great gastronomic treats of Japan. Some connoisseurs consider some restaurant food in Tokyo as amongst the best cuisine in the world.

 

Others, of course, take objection to a European venture daring to consider themselves capable of judging traditional Japanese cooking.  

 

According to Restaurant Magazine (not related to le Guide Michelin), Spain has four establishments in the top eleven restaurants in the world, with the unique ‘El Bulli’, in Roses (Girona) being rated the world’s best restaurant for two years running. I have not eaten there myself, as yet, I must admit, but I do give the highest of my own ratings to Ferran Adrià’s lavishly edited El Bulli books. Always a sensual delight. Mouthwatering, again and again. 

 

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Some volumes are available in English language editions for your convenience (as well as in Spanish, German, French and Catalán).

 

Time to Talk About Salt: Flor de Sal

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Nothing enhances the taste of food like salt.

We all use salt, sometimes without knowing it, every day of our life. Without salt, animals cannot survive, and this includes the human animal. Too much of it can be dangerous and cause illnesses, and too little can cause dehydration.

 

If we need to use it, does it matter what salt we use? Or is salt just … salt?

 

The answer is, of course there is a difference. 90 % of salt today is refined, the same as sugar. The refining process kills all the goodness, in sugar as well as in salt. Natural salt consists of 84 different minerals and trace elements, which all occur naturally in the human body. However, according to the European Union food regulation, 82 of these 84 elements are lost from the salt when refining it to common table salt. Common table salt consists of almost 100 % sodium chlorine. Sodium chlorine from a medical point of view is a pure cellular poison and hence unhealthy for our bodies.

 

Enter two German ladies, Katja and Sabine, who a few years ago started to harvest the Queen of Salts, or Flor de Sal, on the island of Mallorca, Spain, near the Nature Reserve of Es Trenc.

 

Flor de Sal is an age old extraction method originating from the French Atlantic coast. Here, only the precious flakes of the first layer on the surface of the salt marshes is tenderly crystallized. Once harvested, this salt, pale pink in colour, becomes whiter when it is dried, naturally, in the sun. The salt obtained is 100% pure and it reaches your palate without having suffered any alteration.

 

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Flor de Sal is the purest of all salts. Leading chefs all over the Balearic Islands recommend Flor de Sal d’Es Trenc.

 

If you happen to live in Mallorca, like I am in the lucky position to state, Flor de Sal d’Es Trenc comes to a market, or a delicatessen, near you. It is available in four flavours: Natural, or with extract of black olives, or Mediterranean (herbal), or with Hibiscus (flowers). It retails for about 6,80 €.

 

If you live elsewhere, check the Internet and the Flor de Sal website, and enquire about distributors. The two ladies’ set-up is getting better and better all the time.

 

Give it a try. Flor de Sal d’Es Trenc is the purest salt imaginable.

 

You may never again say that salt is just salt.

 

I know, all of this sounds like a commercial endorsement. Well, it isn’t. The two ladies don’t even know me. They certainly don’t pay me. I discovered their salt a few years ago. I have used it ever since. I have recommended it to friends and relatives. Everybody likes it.

 

Now you can consider yourself a friend as well.

 

Manna From Heaven

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Do you eat the Algarrobo fruit? Perhaps without even knowing?

At this time of the year you will see farmers in Mallorca, where I happen to live, beating long dark locust beans off their trees with long sticks. Now is the time for the annual algarrobo harvest.

The Algarroba tree, or Carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua), is native to the Mediterranean region, and is also prolific all over the Middle East, where it has been in cultivation for at least 4,000 years. The plant was known to the ancient Greeks who planted the seeds in Greece and Italy.

 

There are references to the carob in the Bible. For example, this plant is also called ‘St. John’s Bread’ or locust bean because of the pods which were thought to have been the locusts that were supposedly eaten by John the Baptist in the wilderness. Some people think that it is the carob fruit that is referred to in the Bible as the ‘Manna from Heaven’, both, for its nutritional value and also for its easy availability.

 

The seed of the Carob tree is the ancient weight used by goldsmiths in the days of yore to weigh gold and precious stones. The seed of the carob fruit is always of the same weight, hence the word carat (from Ceratonia).

 

Mohammed’s army ate kharoub, and Arabs planted the crop in northern Africa and Spain when the Iberian peninsula was invaded by the Moors. The Spanish later carried carob to Mexico and South America, and the British took carob to South Africa, India, and Australia.

 

Carob trees grow well where citrus fruit is grown. They prefer dry climates that receive more than 30 centimetres of annual rainfall. In other words: the Mediterranean-type climate.

 

The fruit of carob is a pod, technically a legume of 15 to 30 centimetres in length, fairly thick and broad. Pods are borne on the old stems of the plant on short flower stalks. Carob trees have both male and female flowers. The dark-brown pods are eaten directly by livestock (horses, mules, sheep, pigs, goats), but us humans know carob mainly because the pods are ground into a flour that is a cocoa substitute. Good for people who suffer from diabetes, for instance.

 

The carob bean is widely used as a substitute for chocolate. Although this product has a slightly different taste than chocolate, it has only one third of its calories. It is virtually fat-free (chocolate is half fat), is rich in pectin, is non-allergenic and has no oxalic acid, which interferes with absorption of calcium. Carob is also rich in sucrose (almost 40 %, plus other sugars) and protein (up to 8 %). The pod has vitamin A, several B vitamins, and a number of important minerals. As a consequence, carob flour is widely used in health foods for chocolate-like flavouring.

 

There are plenty of other uses of carob as well, medicinal, pharmaceutical, cosmetic and industrial.

 

Some nutritionists claim that from the nutritional values of the carob fruit and its extensive availability worldwide, hunger throughout the world could be combatted if the fruit would be used to feed humans instead of animals.

 

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If only our local farmers would know that. Over the last few years, the Mallorcan algarroba trees get more and more neglected. The cost of manpower is too high to harvest the locust beans whilst the wholesale price per kilo of carob beans is as low as 30 Cents. Not worth anybody’s while getting out of bed for.

 

Hmm.

 

Tomatoes Anybody?

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Most people think of tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) as a food item and even a culinary symbol. But wait a moment. This blog comes to you from Spain.

The tomato probably originated in the highlands of the west coast of South America. After the Spanish colonization of the Americas, the Spanish distributed the tomato throughout their colonies in the Caribbean. They also took it to the Philippines, from whence it moved through south east Asia and then the entire Asian continent. The Spanish also brought the tomato to Europe. It grew easily in the Mediterranean climate, and cultivation began in the 1540s. It was probably eaten shortly after it was introduced, though it was certainly being widely used as food by the early 1600s in Spain. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692, though the author had apparently obtained these recipes from Spanish sources.

If ever you have travelled extensively in Spain or if you even live here, you might have become accustomed to the fact that Spain is different. How the tomato is typical of such differences you will discover as soon as you hear about the Tomatina.

La Tomatina is held in Buñol, a small town about 50 kms west of Valencia. It takes place on the last Wednesday in August every year. It has been held there ever since the end of the Spanish civil war, possibly as a celebration of life at the end of all the misery and pain endured in Spain before 1940. Yesterday, it was Tomatina time, once again.

I have to admit that I did not make it to Buñol yesterday and I do not have first hand experience of the Tomato Battle, but I cannot hide an eagerness to see it for myself, one day.

Buñol is a small Spanish town of perhaps 9,000 inhabitants, but every year, at Tomatina time, some 40-50,000 people congregate to celebrate the ultimate tomato festival that man, or woman, has ever invented.

Imagine the combined effect of San Miguel, sangria, sweltering heat, a profuse dousing with water from the public water hoses (lots of wet t-shirts there) etc. and you get a party atmosphere that easily rivals the running with the bulls party in Pamplona, also in Spain, but without any of the risks of physical harm that a fast moving object of 750 kgs or more could inflict on you.

Add to this some 120 tons of ripe tomatoes, streets crammed shoulder to shoulder with people and the senseless spirit of a party made up of Buñolians, Valencianos, Spanish, Germans, Brits, Americans, Australians, a Kiwi or two, plus a surprisingly large number of Japanese and Asian visitors, and you have probably the most insane thing you are ever likely to witness.

The blood-like red colour of the tomatoes suggests violence and injuries, but everything is totally good natured with almost no incident in this peaceful annual tomato throwing fight of tens of thousands of people. 

You will need a good and proper wash at the end of the fiesta, though. The combination of tomatoes, sweat and alcohol amounts to a very smelly and sticky matter, exciting as it may be.

 

A Tribute to Olive Oil

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In a restaurant on the island of Mallorca, a small saucer might be put on your table before the menu arrives and before you even make your choices for the meal you are going to want to eat. You might mistake that small plate for an ashtray. Not so funny if you don’t smoke, or, as the new anti-smoking laws in Spain would have it, are not allowed to smoke. You push the small plate to the edge of the table.

Now some unsalted bread arrives. You might be surprised when, at the same time, the saucer is being placed in front of you, again, and a generous helping of pure virgin olive oil is being poured into the small bowl.

The idea is that you are encouraged by the friendly restaurant people to awaken your taste buds for the culinary delights still to come.

You dip some of the bread into the olive oil. You may not have thought of tasting olive oil on its own, ever before, but hey, why not?

Hmm, this tastes good. Your taste buds actually like the stuff.

I’ve been to a very nice Mallorcan restaurant, a while ago, where three different types of olive oil where being offered in three small compartments of a molded, longish glass-plate. They all tasted of oil, yes, but each one had a distinctive taste, a slightly different colour and a varying consistency.

What you see is not what you get, here. You get much more than what you see. You get some medicinal virtues for your heart, and for your blood, and for your digestive system, as well as the delicious taste.

Ok. To start with, I live in Spain. Spain is a country that borders on the Mediterranean Sea, and it was here, possibly in Greece or on the Greek island of Crete, where olive oil was first invented, let’s say, 6,000 years ago. An estimated 900 million olive trees are currently cultivated worldwide, with about 95 % in the Mediterranean region. Some of them are right outside our front door. Well, almost.

Olive oil is a prime component of the Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is a natural juice which preserves the taste, aroma, vitamins and properties of the olive fruit. Olive oil is the only vegetable oil that can be consumed as it is – freshly pressed from the fruit. And it is so healthy it might make you want to move straight here, to the Mediterranean Sea.

The greatest exponent of monounsaturated fat is olive oil. And we all know that monounsaturated fat is widely regarded as being protective against cardiovascular disease. And a report was just published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in August 2007, claiming that olive oil is rich in phenols, substances that are thought to have beneficial effects on the heart. Phenols may help ward off harmful blood clots in people with high levels of cholesterol, according to reports published there by Spanish researchers.

Now, you may not like the idea of drinking the stuff in its pure form and shape or, simply, dipping some dry bread into some oil. The good news is, that you don’t have to. Just buy a bottle of some good quality olive oil, and add it to your normal cooking habits. If you eat a salad, add some extra-virgin olive oil which comes from the first pressing of the olives. It doesn’t have to be Mallorcan or Spanish. Good if it was, but not necessarily. The Italians and the Greek do some fine stuff as well. Why not check your local Delicatessen and see what they have on offer?

Your children might inherit your legacy a few years later but, what the heck. You might have a bit of fun, a little longer. It’s almost like a non-prescription Viagra.

 

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One of the best olive oils anywhere is Made in Mallorca. Aubocassa is made of 100 % arbequina olives. It is produced on the eastern side of Mallorca, near where I live, on an ancient estate that cultivates about 8,000 olive trees. It takes over 9 kgs to produce 1 litre of this rich buttery oil. Aubocassa retails at about 13 € per 500 ml bottle. It’s worth every penny.

Scrumptious.

A Perfect Spanish Summer Drink

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One of the many good things about Spain is the abundance of some very decent vino tinto. But let’s not forget the other great Spanish drink: Cava.

We went to a Spanish wedding yesterday. It was good fun. A very lovely couple. There was a nice church service; not too solemn. Then there were drinks in the local Palmtree square. The weather was hot, but not too hot. The air was not too humid as it often is, on the island of Mallorca. Then it was off to the wedding reception, and after that dinner for 200 or 300. I did not count the invited guests, but weddings are usually big social events in this predominantly rural society. A great affair overall, and very pleasant all round.

Mind you, it can’t have been too fancy an event because Maria Antonia Munar wasn’t there. But I must say sorry. If you are not familiar with the situation here in Mallorca, you won’t be able to get the pun.

Back to my musings. The point I am trying to make is about that great Spanish drink, especially now, in summer: Cava.

A toast in Spain is practically always accompanied with Cava, the sparkling wine made by the Method Champenoise, and especially so on the occasion of a happy wedding. Most people know Cava, when the New Year is brought in with the twelve grapes chewed in time to the chimes of the clock in your Spanish town plaza or in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol.

But now in summer, do not be fooled into thinking that Cava is just right for Christmas or New Year. It is the perfect Spanish summer drink, wherever you are, wedding or not.

Cava proves to be a very acceptable alternative to French Champagne, in my opinion, and not only so when you are in Spain. It should also be said, that Cava is much better value for money. Almost all Cava is produced in Catalunya, especially the Penedés region, although eight different provinces are included in the recognized Cava producing area. The grapes traditionally used – Macabeo, Xarello, and Parellada – make Cava a light, white, fruity, perfumed sparkling wine.

Documents show that wine with a certain amount of effervescence has been made in Catalunya since the 14th century. But it was not until the 1850s that serious attempts began to produce a wine with the same characteristics as Champagne. Production did not begin until the 1870s. Since then, Cava has become tremendously popular and vast amounts, over two hundred million bottles annually (2002), are made for both domestic consumption and export.

You can distinguish Cava by the cork, which is always marked with a four-pointed star. It is often thought that Cava Brut is somehow superior to the others, which is not quite true, although it may be more versatile. Because of the custom of saving the Cava for the toast at weddings and other social occasions, it is also thought that Cava is only suitable for the end of the meal, which is emphatically not the case.

Cava is sold ready for drinking. It does not really improve with being kept, but rather deteriorates with age: It is best to buy it, store it upright in a cool, not cold, place, for as little time as possible, and drink it, preferably in the same week. The sweeter the Cava, the cooler it needs to be served: a Brut Nature can be served at lowish temperatures, but a Semi-Seco must be well chilled.

Cava is usually made by the Coupage method, whereby ‘must’ (grape juice) from different varieties of grape is subjected to the first fermentation, then mixed until the blend is consistent with the wine to be produced.

The advantage of this is that a particular brand of Cava will taste the same every year. It also means that most Cava does not carry a year on the bottle, as ‘must’ from different years is often used. Some are always made using the same grape variety, in which case the year will be indicated on the bottle: these are superior and thus, more expensive.

After the Coupage the wine is bottled and yeast and sugar are added. It is then left for the second fermentation and ageing. This lasts a minimum of nine months and maybe up to three or four years, for a very special Cava. A process called ‘riddling and disgorging’ is then carried out. The bottles are stored nearly upside down so that the sediment settles on the corks and ‘riddled’ (turned) for a period of thirty days. ‘Disgorging’ is when the corks are removed, together with the sediment (usually with the help of a freezing process).

Expedición, ‘passing liquor’, a blend of the same wine as that in the bottle and others, together with the required amount of sugar, is then added in order to replace the lost wine and make the final flavour. Evidently, this process needs to be carried out very quickly. New corks are then put in and fastened on with the wire clasp before the bottles are labeled. And off you go.

As time moves on, some of the traditional process is now being automated. This is particularly true for the ‘riddling’ procedure. The big Cava companies cannot afford to manually hand turn each and every single bottle. But the wine cellars with a smaller turnover and lesser well known Cava still retain the traditional methods, and if you ask me, they easily make it worth your while spending one or two Euros more for a better tasting product.

My personal favourite is Raventós i Blanc and one of their Gran Reserva choices. Depending on the occasion and on your personal preferences, you can get a superb Raventós i Blanc Cava of a Gran Reserva quality for between 15 € and 30 €, and I would be surprised if you would not like it.

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If you do not reside or travel in Spain, you could still get some decent Cava in most well stocked wine merchants all over the world, but expect to pay a little bit more. Whichever way, Cava is worth the experience, in my opinion.

¡Salut!

 

12 Places I Want to See Once More Before I Die

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You might know the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

Well, here is my list of 12 places that I would like to go back to and see once more before my time is up. They all are places that I some way or other associate with moments of happiness during my life’s journey, so far:

1. Aleppo, in Syria (see above photo), and its souks. And Damascus, on the way there. And some Chai tea. Without sugar.

2. Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock), in Australia. And the Ghan train ride from Darwin to Adelaide, on the way to Uluru.

3. The pyramids, in Egypt. And the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, opposite Khufu Pyramid, also known as Cheops Pyramid, to spend the night. And some Meze.

4. Jerusalem. This time with peace all around, if possible. And some Falafel.

5. Ensenada, in Baja California, Mexico. This time with an outing to Cabo San Lucas in Baja Sur, Mexico. And some Mango with sweet red pepper.

6. The Zzyzx salt desert, California. And some ice cold water.

7. Mount Fuji, Japan, also known as Fujiyama. And on the way, O-cha tea in Kyoto. And Toro Sushi. And Sake.

8. The Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey. And a visit to Topkapı palace. And some Rakı. And some Lokoum.

9. The Grand Hotel, Taipei, Taiwan. The best hotel experience I’ve ever had. Well, not quite true. But definitely the best Dim Sum meal that I have ever had, except for a wonderful prawn Wanton soup that I once ate in Chinatown, Los Angeles.

10. Kars, the ancient capital of Armenia. And Mount Ararat, on the way there. Or on the way back. And Erzurum. Only this time, without going to the hospital.

11. Inverness, in Scotland. And the Highlands. This time with a detour to the Isle of Mull. And a Single Malt, or two.

12. A Spanish choice, at last: The Alhambra, more specifically, the Lions’ patio, in Granada, Andalucía. Divine. Thank you, al-Andaluz.

 

Not a place to visit but a thing to do once more would be the Camino de Santiago. But next time a different route, and a longer one.

 

What would your own list be like? Do you have a list, somewhere in the back of your mind?

A Word About Spain (or Two)

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What a beautiful country Spain is.

I travelled a bit in northern Spain just recently, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, mainly. And the Basque country. I did the ‘Camino de Santiago’, as you might already have discovered yourself, given my recent musings.

The Atlantic coast in the North and in the West of Spain are so markedly different from the Mediterranean shores where I normally live. The Atlantic side of Spain feels as if in a different country. It seems appropriate that one speaks a different language there as well, in some parts anyway, or so it would appear.

The food is different too. No Sobrassada, no Frito, no Butifarron. No Ensaïmada, either. Suckling Pig, yes, sometimes, and the omnipresent Paella. And the good quality Vino Tinto is also ever present. At 60 cent a copa, sometimes even at 40 cent.

What you will find along this Camino, or – in my opinion – on any walk and any journey really, is the amazing beauty and diversity of this vast country. This is a country contrary to the image that Spain has from the outside in.

Spain is often seen as a hot, blistering country. Go to the North of Spain, however, such as the Atlantic coast, and you will find the opposite: rain, quite a bit of snow, much more so than in Britain which is much further to the North, and a soothing lushness of green, wherever you look. Or in the South, in the Sierra Nevada, in Andalucía: snow on mountain tops, virtually all year round.

Go to the Picos de Europa, and you might feel as if in Norwegian mountain ranges, or in the Alps, rather than the heartland of Spain.

The variety of people is as unexpected as the multifaceted diversity of Spain’s landscape. You may have come across the difference between Madrileños and Barcelonian Cataláns already, noticing the elegant and businesslike attitude in the nation’s capital versus the sparkling creativity in Barcelona, but go to places like Extramadura, Cantabria, Galicia, Santander or Bilbao, and you will understand that there are different people living here with different backgrounds, different historical events and different tribal characteristics.

Yes, now it appears easier to see why in some parts of Spain different languages are spoken. Autonomous idioms, not variations of dialects.

The friendliness of some of the people in the regions, of which I had first hand experience, can be touching, even overwhelming. It may have to do with the fact that, deep down, Spain is a conservative country where close family ties have not been lost and where social patterns and peer influence appear in place, that other European nations seem to have phased out some 20 or 30 years ago.

 

It comes as no surprise to me then, that so many Mallorcans seem so adamant that they have little in common with the rest of Spain.

On the outside, the country seems united and unified, probably thanks to the iron hand of El Caudillo, but deep down there are differences and peculiarities that to me seem greater than perhaps in France or Britain or Germany. It may well be that the integration of Spain into the European Union has done more to Spanish unity and national appeasement than has the force and often brutality that ruled the country for forty years under the dictatorship, now history since thirty years.

If ever you have a chance to travel in mainland Spain, may I suggest that you grab the opportunity. It will be worth your while, believe me.

The Apricot Conspiracy

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My wife is into making jams and marmalades.

 

In her laudable efforts she prefers to use local produce and ideally, to use fruit that we have hand picked ourselves or that someone nice like a neighbour might have picked and given to us.

Mallorca, the Mediterranean island where we live, is particularly reputed for its almonds, strawberries, figs, oranges and apricots. Now the apricot season is upon us; now is the time to harvest apricots. This time last year we went out with our children and friends and an armada of plastic buckets. We came home, proudly, with perhaps a hundred kilos of the ripe little Prunus Armeniaca. We could have had more, but my wife could not see herself making tons of apricot jam.

But this year it is all different. There are no apricots this year in Mallorca. On a tree that might have been laden with thousands of apricot fruits last year, there may be five or eight or eleven fruits this year. Or one, or none. So there won’t be any home made apricot jam in our household, this year.

We are all a bit puzzled about this apparent conspiracy of the apricots. But we have an inkling that a similar disappointing thing may have occurred a few years back.

Our local farmer friend, Sebastian, who so generously offers us the free range of his apricot orchard every year, knew what all this was about. The apricot tree, he said, usually has a cycle of two good years, followed by one poor one. The tree needs some time off to regenerate. Isn’t nature clever?

Apparently there are other trees that have a similar crop cycle, such as plums, or the edible acorn of the Mediterranean oak tree. Most people here do not eat the acorns any longer but the farmers’ sheep and pigs do, and there is a great commotion amongst sheep (and pigs) when there is a year with no acorns. Well, there is a great commotion amongst pigs this year as well, due to the lack of apricots.

 

As the Latin name for the apricot suggests, Prunus Armeniaca, this fruit belongs to the family of prunes and has its origins in Armenia. To make today’s post a slightly more interesting one, you might be interested to learn that my wife has Armenian roots on her mother’s side. Hence, you might want to read about an Armenian apricot jam recipe:

 

In order to make the best Armenian apricot preserve, called Korizov Tsirani Mooraba, you have to have large, mature apricots. The recipe is unique in that it includes the sweet kernels of the apricot pits, a delicious touch virtually unknown in the West which gives the jam a surprisingly slight hint of almond flavour. Pits from small, runty apricots don’t yield an adequate nut when cracked.

 

But whatever, it is bad apricot news, this year. At least where we live.

Scrumptious Kumquats

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Not many people know that the Kumquat fruit also grows in Spain. Come to think of it, not many people know the Kumquat fruit. If you have never tried a Kumquat, now is the time. The little gem originates from China, but some enthusiast brought it to the Mediterranean a long time ago. Here in Mallorca, the last five weeks have seen the peak of this year’s Kumquat season, and what a delight this fruit is. Beautifully scrumptious! 

You can eat the whole fruit, skin and all. Well, not all of it, because the pips you do not want to swallow, but the rest of these tiny citrus fruits one can eat. You will be surprised that the skin tastes less acid, if not sweeter than the Kumquat‘s flesh. 

 

You will find that the Kumquat is perfect for making marmalade, compote or preserve. For Kumquat marmalade you put 1 kg of the clean fruit, sliced and pips removed, and add 1 kg of sugar, plus one package of setting agent. Maybe you want to add the juice of 3 fresh lime fruits. Cook until tender. Fill into jam jars or old household jars of the right size. It is better to use jars of a smaller size. Your accomplishment will delight your family and those of your friends that you have chosen to give presents to. 

The Kumquat fruit can also be used in a delicious Kumquat Fruit Cake or a Middle Eastern inspired Kumquat and Almond Cake. Or try other kinds of deserts, such as Kumquat in Brandy. For this, you would need about 2 kg of Kumquats, 1 kg of preserving sugar, 2 litres of water and 250 ml of brandy. But you would have to wait for at least one month before you really could enjoy this concoction.

The recipe for this and some other interesting tricks and treats can be found on the Kumquat growers homepage.  Check recipes out there and let your boldness reign. And surprise your loved ones, maybe by serving a fabulous cup of Kumquat tea.