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Monday, May 31, 2010

Meat on the Roof

My favorite image from a barbeque we had on Saturday. It was truly an orgy of grilled meat of every shape, size, species, and color. I grilled a sepia (cuttlefish) and served it with a warm dressing of olive oil, parsley, and garlic…perfect. It is the easier thing to make in the world. You just score the flesh of the sepia with a sharp knife in a checkerboard pattern and then grill it for a minute and a half on each side. With a hand mixer blend the olive oil, parsley, and garlic (with a bit of salt). Heat the sauce very briefly in a pan and then pour of the fish. The sepia will be nice and tender, I promise. You can eat this dish warm or cold and it makes a terrific sandwich.

It was a perfect day for it so I also brought along papas aliñas.  There were a lot of people and way too much food and beer. It is hard to beat these get-togethers when the sun is shining and the temperature is just right. Summer has already arrived here in Valencia, a full three weeks early. It will be full blown hot here in another few days. “Bring it on” is what I say.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Forlanification or Barney John's Diary

I have said this about one hundred times a year for too many years now: “I really need to trim down.” But this time I swear that I really, really mean it. Why are you laughing so hard? Christ, are you OK? Your face is turning freaking purple. I didn’t mean this as a joke. Are you finished? The thing is, I have said I was going to trim down before but I never truly believed that it was absolutely essential that I do it. Before I would lose a few pounds and then say, “Fuck it, good enough for government work” and then go back to my old routine. In the past I never had a precise goal on trimming down and I never really saw it as losing weight. I just wanted to look a bit better.

This time I have very precise goals I mean to achieve. These goals come in the form of clothes that I can’t or couldn’t wear before because I was too tubby. I have already lost enough that I can wear certain items in my wardrobe that I haven’t bothered even to try on in a long time. I have also bought a few things that I am using as a sort of carrot to make me realize that I have a way to go before the finish line.

It’s the new me. I’m a can-do guy. I’m a go-getter. I’m a “the glass is half full” man. You know what, fuck it, I’m going to write a book about my struggle with weight loss and make about a bazillion-trillion euros by selling it to other fatsos. I’ve already lost two and a half kilograms so I think that makes me a weight loss expert.

The title is in reference to the Uruguayan Diego Forlan who plays for Atlético de Madrid and who is prone to taking off his jersey after scoring. This would be sort of a punk move except he is a fantastic footballer (not to mention he has a hell of a gut). If I had this stomach I would never bother wearing a shirt ever again. The thing is, my legs could go with this torso. Shit, this guy might even want to trade legs with me. I think he'll keep his stomach, at least for now but...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Another Day, Another Tortilla de Patatas

A picture is worth a thousand words only if you are too busy or too lazy to write a thousand words. I took this picture of a wonderful slice of a tortilla de patatas this morning in the main square of Burjassot, about 10 kilometers from my apartment and just outside of Valencia. After I finished I went in to compliment the chef on a job well done. It turned out to be a Rumanian woman who didn’t speak much Spanish but the waiter let her know how delighted I was by her cooking. This remains one of my all-time favorite dishes.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Neighborhood Bar Taurino

Call it ambitious, even Quixotic, but one of my goals while living here in Valencia is to have a drink in every bar in town. I think I have another thousand to go even after all of the hard work I have put in these past three and a half years.

While never being an enthusiastic supporter I have also never condemned the corrida, or bullfighting as it is dreadfully translated in English. I have been to a fare share of these over the years and was never quite able to make up my mind on the matter, at least not definitively. I would never defend the corrida, at least not in discussions with my Spanish friends who are almost unanimously opposed to the tradition. I do, however, think that people who dismiss it without knowing the first thing about it are ridiculous. Once I was at a corrida and a young girl behind me was voicing her disdain for the event in English. I think she was German but she was with a group of international friends. I couldn’t help but interrupt her idiotic tirade by asking her why she had come. Did she expect a different result than the bull being killed? Did she think it would be miraculously saved by a deus ex machina like in a Greek drama?

Why do a lot of tourists feel that they absolutely must attend a corrida when visiting Spain? It surely isn’t essential in understanding the modern culture. Most of my Spanish friends, hell, almost all of them have never been and never plan on going. If you are visiting Spain and you even think that you may find this event to your disliking then don’t fucking go! It’s that simple. If you think it is cruel, or inhumane, or whatever, then you owe it to yourself to avoid the plaza de toros. It’s not as if you will be short of things to do and see here.

Whatever feelings I may hold for the los toros, I certainly don’t want it to end or fade away. The last thing that I want is to see Spain become a carbon copy of every other European country. I think what a lot of people find fascinating and attractive about this country is its contrasts, both within Spain itself but especially when compared to any other country on the planet.

A couple of Spanish people have recommended a bar in my neighborhood. Usually I don’t wait around for a recommendation to visit a neighborhood watering hole but this is a bit different. I had walked by Saxo countless times since moving to Ruzafa almost three years ago but it always looked like a private club. The blinds are always drawn so that you can’t see inside giving it a sort of speakeasy feel to it. The people who recommended I go there both said the food is really good but I didn’t know what sort of place it was until someone told me it was a bar taurino or a bar for corrida aficionados. There aren’t too many of these places around except in the vicinity of the Plaza de Toros.

A couple I met recently are huge fans of the bulls and we often talk about it. I have been by their house on several occasions and they seem to always be watching a corrida somewhere in the world on one of the pay channels. They invited me to their house to watch the corridas of San Isidro, an almost month-long yearly festival in Madrid. My schedule doesn’t normally allow me the luxury of having this part of the evening free (19:30-21:00) so I haven’t been able to take them up on their generous offer. Last week, however, I had an unexpected opening in my schedule and decided to try Saxo for the first time.

On this night there was a Corrida de Rejones which is a corrida on horseback. I still get chills watching this amazing spectacle. I sat at the bar among the handful of other patrons, all of whom were aficionados. A bottle of beer goes for 2.50€ at Saxo, a bit above the going price but it comes with something to nibble on: chips, or nuts, or olives, or something. It was ice cold and came with a frozen glass as well; 2.50€ well-spent in my book.

I have always had a fondness for bars with dead animals mounted on the walls and true to its reputation as a bar taurino Saxo has a bull’s head above one of the booths. There are also photos of corridas past and a poster for José Tomás, Spain’s living legend in the bullring (He was seriously gored recently in Mexico but is expected back to work in July). It reminded me of bars in rural Washington State, at least everything except the references to the corrida. The customers on this night all seemed to know each other and all attention was focused on the television. He has a hell of a good TV in the joint and the high definition coverage of San Isidro was spectacular. I settled in to watch.

I have never seen a Corrida de Rejones live before. The first time I saw one was on TV back when I first moved to Spain and they showed the corrida on regular television—now it can only be seen on a pay channel. The demonstration of equestrian skills at these events is nothing less than miraculous as the horse and rider move around the bull like a fly buzzing around a picnicker. The rider will even lean over and lay his elbow on the bull’s head—I suppose this is just showing off but I’m always impressed. In the end the bull meets a similar fate as in the regular corridas with matadors. The riders use a sort of lance to kill the bull instead of a sword.

The next time I dropped I was texting a friend to tell him I was watching San Isidro again at Saxo and I asked the owner if the proper verb for watching the corrida is San Isidriendo or San Isidriando. Usually my attempts at humor with people I don’t know here in Spain are met with dead stares but instead of looking at me for the idiot that I am he bit at my joke and went with it. He conjugated the made-up verb through various permutations. If you are looking to get on my good side you just need to laugh at my jokes.

After my third visit in about four days I was feeling like a regular. I think the only thing to do when you are checking out a place like Saxo, especially during San Isidro, is to just sit down, order your drink, and shut the fuck up and watch.

P.S. I came back a couple weeks later for a full-blown night of food and bulls with a Spanish friend who is a regular here. WE had a great dinner of tomatoes, followed by a plate of jamóm serrano, and then a sandwich. We shared a decent bottle of red wine. Saxo is now one of my local favorites.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Bonanza

I bought 19 books the other day. I would have bought a lot more except I was on my bike and about 15 kilometers from home. There was a book fair in Rocafort that I couldn’t pass up. All of the books were 1€ so this substantial increase in my library here in Spain came at the amazing price of 19€. As I humped home with my swag my left hand kept going numb from the pressure of holding the bag tight against the handlebar. I should have stopped along the way for a coffee or something but that would have meant thinking about how much I was going to suffer the rest of the way home as I tried to enjoy my coffee. I take things like stopping for a coffee very seriously so I didn’t want to ruin a perfectly good experience anguishing over the second part of hauling my new books back to Ruzafa. I butched up and made it home without stopping.

Then I had to carry my bike and the books up the three flights of stairs to my apartment. Is it lazier to suffer through one trip just to avoid making two trips? I could have comfortably carried my bike up first and then made a separate trip just for the books but I struggled up with my awkward load, once again just wanting to get it all over with. Had I been wearing my heart rate monitor I think it would have shown that this was the most difficult part of my day of exercise thus far. You people with elevators don’t know what you’re missing.

It was worth it. After all, great literature requires some suffering.

I picked up some stuff in English, Spanish, and French. I picked up a nice copy of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run which I read back when I was in my early 20’s. I don’t remember being affected in any way by the book but I figure that I owe it another reading. I began reading it yesterday—this is only the second book I have attempted to read in English since I arrived in Spain over three years ago. So far I have to say that I am underwhelmed. I can’t imagine anyone would rate John Updike among their favorites. I have read perhaps dozens of his short stories in The New Yorker over the years and couldn’t tell you much about any of them except they almost always involve white, Brahmin-class East Coast college professors. I will get back with a more full account of Rabbit, Run if I can finish it. I would certainly rather be reading something in Spanish.

Most of the books aren’t intended for my consumption. Most of the English stuff is to give away to friends learning the language. This covers at least half of my new collection. I picked up a Harry Potter novel in French that I intend to read as I have never read anything in this series in any language. I bought three travel books in English: Bill Byrson’s Notes from a Small Island, another about Cuba, and another about South America written by a Chilean author that I would much rather read in Spanish. Also new to my collection are a couple of Isabel Allende novels in Spanish. I don’t really care for her but the price was right and her stuff is easy to read. It looks like I have my reading cut out for me for the next few weeks at least.

I have a few sources of used books here in my neighborhood. There is a really small used book shop on the corner of Calle Cadiz and Calle Denia. The man there has a couple shelves outside the store offering books for 1€. Café Ubik is another place I troll regularly although more and more its selection of used books is shrinking and being replaced by new books. Used books are definitely harder to come by in Europe than in America where any thrift store anywhere in the country is a gold mine for cheap books. I just like having lots of books around me, the more the better. Books act as insulation against stupidity which is a state we must constantly labor to avoid.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Going Full Tilt

If I were forced to reveal one of the secrets of my personal fitness regimen I would say that it isn’t something that I do strictly for exercise. I suppose that it isn't much of a secret if I'm talking about it here. A secret also implies that it's something someone else would care to know. We will just have to assume that I have something worthwhile to say about fitness which has heretofore been kept mum.

I'm talking about something that I do on an almost daily basis. I wonder how many people never do this. What is my great secret? I ride flat out as fast as I can every time I'm on a bike, at least for a little bit. When was the last time you ran, swam, or rode as fast as you could? For me the answer is yesterday and that is only because I haven’t left the house today. I’m sure that at some point today I will be sprinting as if being chased by an Al Qaeda death squad. Like Huck Finn asking about the behavior of the genie, you might wonder why I tear around so. It’s a long story.

The movie Titanic was a long story so I will use it as an analogy. My diet can be compared to the iceberg in the movie that laid waste to the ship. Other aspects of my lifestyle are sort of like Kate Winslet’s murderous boyfriend. You may be thinking that anyone can out-run or pedal faster than an iceberg, but I live in Spain which is the cholesterol equivalent of the North Atlantic which is chock full of icebergs. Up there a penguin could skip from one iceberg to the next and never get his or her feet wet while crossing the entire ocean. What’s that? Penguins don’t live up there? Don’t change the subject. Now I forget what I was talking about. Let’s go back and read the second paragraph again.

So I ride as fast as I possibly can almost every day because I am being chased by a cholesterol iceberg and a jealousy-crazed ex-boyfriend disguised as all of the other vices in my life. So far I have kept them at a safe distance but I know that they are close behind me and mean to do me great harm. You are probably asking why I don’t eliminate these dangers from my life but I would then counter with: Where’s the fun in that? If I haven’t mixed enough metaphors already let me just say that I enjoy my life of having one foot firmly on the gas and the other pumping the brakes.

I love the feeling of making my heart pump as hard and as fast as it possibly can. I actually have a device to measure that pleasure. I guess you could say that I am addicted to the feeling. Whether that addiction counter-balances my other addictions is probably something only the coroner will be able to determine.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Paella in Monserrat and Tower in Montroy

When some friends invited me to a festival in Monserrat outside of Valencia my first question was, “How far is it from home?” 25-30 kilometers depending on the route was the answer. It sounded like a good bike ride. The problem isn’t the distance—any cyclist can manage a 50 kilometer day standing on their heads. The problem is always finding your way out of Valencia to these outlying areas. This area to the southwest is a bit foreign to me so I decided to take the metro out of town and then wing it from there. A handlebar GPS would be a great present if anyone is having trouble deciding on a gift for me. I couldn’t convince anyone else to ride with me so I headed out along at about noon on Saturday—yet another holiday in Spain (Day of the Worker).

I hopped on the metro at the Bailén station and got off at Torrent. I had a vague idea of how to get to Monserrat from Torrent, or at least I knew which direction. As I cruised through the town I came upon the Plaça Mayor (town square) with an impressive defensive tower that was once part of a much larger fortress built by the Moors. At 22 meters it is the highest structure of its type in the Valencia Community. Not a bad start for my ride. I ambled around a bit before asking directions which put me on the road to Monserrat. The traffic was rather busy because of the holiday but I felt comfort in the fact that there were literally thousands of other cyclists on the road as it seemed that every local bike club (called peñas in Spanish) was out for a ride.

I had lost my bottle a few days previous and I didn’t feel like hauling my camelback so I was without water on this ride. I had also left the house with just my Levante football jersey. I wasn’t three minutes away from the apartment when it began to cloud up and the temperature dropped a bit. I called for someone driving to bring a long sleeve cycling jersey for me just in case it got any cooler on the ride home. There is a slight elevation gain along the way of perhaps 300 meters or so. I don’t mind the hills. In fact I miss riding up mountains so this ride was pure pleasure. About eight kilometers outside of Monserrat some friends spotted me and pulled over to give a little moral support. I tanked up on some water they had and then sprinted the rest of the way into the village.

My Levante UD jersey attracted a lot of attention along my route as they would be playing a key match the next day against 2nd League rival Hércules (Levante won!) as they try to fight their way back into the 1st league in Spanish football, or La Liga as it is called. I heard a few dozen car horns in support.

There was a street in the village set up with tables and chairs for the afternoon affair along with a canopy to block out the afternoon sun. About a block from this square at an empty lot people were cooking paellas on wood fires—the most traditional way to cook this dish. I would be sharing a paella with about ten other people and the cooking was in the hands of a very able local cook. I wanted to stick around to see the paella being made but I had something I wanted to check out on my bicycle.

On the way into Monserrat I saw that a few kilometers further along the road at Montroy there was an imposing defensive tower sitting on a lonely hilltop. I couldn’t come out this far and not take a look at this Moorish ruin. Montroy is only a couple of kilometers down the road from Monserrat but getting up to the tower would prove to be a lot of work. First of all I made the mistake of asking directions from a little kid and then I was stupid enough to follow them. I humped up a narrow and very steep trail only to come to a dead end a few hundred meters up the mountain. I suppose this could be the right way if you were a mountain goat (or a twelve year old kid). I would have given that kid a beating but when I got back down I couldn’t find her.

I backtracked and then headed around the other side of the mountain and picked my way up a few gravel roads until I found the way to the tower. It was built sometime in the 13th century during the Nasri Dynasty which was the last Muslim dynasty in Spain (بنو نصر‎ ‎). The fortress is all but inaccessible from every side but one and that side can hardly be called accessible. I had to ditch my bike about a hundred meters from the summit and walk up, or scramble up to the top. The 12 meter tower has a commanding view over an area of hundreds of square kilometers.

I got back just as the paella was finishing. It was taken off the fire, covered for a few minutes, and then carried back to the table in the town square. I noticed our cook had browned the meat much more thoroughly than I usually do. She also added a few shredded tomatoes just after the meat was cooked. The end result was the best paella I have had in over three years in Valencia. I wish that I had stuck around and filmed the whole process. I should have known the paella would be excellent because she had also brought along a tortilla de patatas which was superb. Just as we were being served dessert and coffee it started to rain. We had a few false starts with the rain earlier but this proved to be the real deal. The canopy overheard was fine for blocking out the sun but was no match for the cloud burst. Everyone ran for shelter. A party pooper in Spanish is called agua fiestas, a wet party.

Someone offered to haul me and my bike back home but I preferred to ride. As soon as the rain stopped I saddled up and headed out. I should have waited a bit for the roads to dry out but I didn’t want to risk more rain. The first few kilometers back to Valencia were pretty sloppy but because it was still dinner time (1400-1800 for holidays) the roads were all but abandoned. The sun returned and dried everything out pretty thoroughly making the ride back a joy. I picked up the bike trail just outside of Torrent and followed it all the way back into Valencia. I was able to keep on the bike trail all the way back to within a block from my front door.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Gazpacho Manchego

Gazpacho manchego is yet another iconic item on the Spanish menu, not that you will see it on many restaurant menus. As you may have guessed from the name it comes from the Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain, the center of the country and considered by many to be the heart and soul of Spanish culture (as opposed to the cultures of Catalunya, Galicia, Asturias, Valencia, etc.). This dish is the very definition of hearty peasant food. There are a few basic things you need to know about gazpacho manchego.  
First of all, it is not to be confused with the chilled tomato soup sharing part of its name, gazpacho andaluz. This gazpacho is a shepherd’s stew with loads of meat.  When I began to do some research into gazpacho manchego I found that you can make it with chicken, rabbit, hare, partridge, quail, pigeon, mushrooms, onions, chicken livers, gizzards, and just about anything you can think of. So back in the old days it went down something like this:  the shepherds would blast anything that moved, throw it in a pot with whatever vegetables they had on hand, and then they added bread to the mixture. The key ingredient here being the addition of bread or dough.
In the dozens and dozens of recipes I poured over the only unifying ingredient I found was the bread that is added at the end of the cooking process.  The bread used now in gazpacho manchego (at least most of them) is called tortas cenceñas. They are kind of like crackers—unleavened, unsalted, and toasted. Besides the addition of the tortas cenceñas the other ingredients are whatever you decide. I found the same thing true concerning the spices. Some ingredients called for saffron, some cumin, and a lot of other herbs and spices. It seems to me that there isn’t a universally accepted recipe, unlike paella Valenciana, for example. I think that personal interpretation and improvisation based on whatever ingredients are available are essential aspects of making gazpacho manchego.
For my own recipe I have distilled at least 20 variations. That is usually how I begin to prepare any new dish. I search for as many recipes as I can find and take from each one anything I feel to be worthwhile. I almost never just lift an entire recipe from someone else. Each thing I cook has my own personal watermark. This is certainly true of the gazpacho manchego I make in this video.
One problem with a peasant dish like gazpacho manchego is that the final presentation is a little less than spectacular which is probably why you don’t see it in many restaurants. It ain’t yuppie food, that is for sure but if it is a cold winter’s day and you want to eat like a Spanish shepherd, this might be the dish for you.