The Thirty Days of Christmas 23

There is a way to make it stop. A way to get out it. A place to go when you feel just can’t eat anymore. It’s not home because that’s where all the turrón is, lying there on some shiny ceramic platter just begging to be picked up. And you will succumb to the temptation. More than once. You just leave the city and flee the danger, the madness, and the disease. Boccaccio sent his characters away from the plague soy they tell their 100 tales in Decameron. Why couldn’t I skip town to stay out of reach of the nearest marzipan figurine?

     When I need a place to and get away from it all, I find it just about an hour away from the center of Madrid in a bucolic and astoundingly unspoiled valley to the north of the capital called el Valle de Lozoya, and a village known as Alameda. This time I took up temporary residence in another nearby town, the largest in the region, called Rascafría. The name translates liberally as frigid wind, which should give you an idea of the kind of climate one might encounter there, especially in winter, but rest assured that this is not the icy tundra, though it is somewhat higher and frostier than many would imagine.

     The valley gets its name from the Lozoya River, which trickles down from the lofty Sierra de Madrid and carves its way through the land. The contents of this waterway softly pass by fields, woods and hamlets before spilling into a large reservoir known as the Embalse de Pinilla. One of the few positive legacies ever attributed to Franco, and even this one is debated, is that fact he took measures to ensure Spain, a rather dry country in many regions, had a fairly extended and steady supply of water in a land where rainfall is anything but steady.

     When Spaniards are not drinking alcohol, which at this time of year seems only at breakfast, water is a common alternative. In fact, it’s basic drink on an everyday basis…not soda or milk, which was what I was nurtured on. It makes a difference. The first time I came to Spain, I lost about 15lbs in the first three months, and part of it had to do with my being nourished with simple glasses of water at every meal. That and the rest of the so-called Mediterranean diet, which is a standard regime that Spaniards tout as being the reason why they don’t have to pay for two seats when they buy airline tickets and stuff like that. The nutritional plan gets its strength from its balanced nature. It relies, sometimes too heavily, on olive oil, but also includes well-distributed amounts of fish, fruit, vegetables, legumes and beans, meat, bread, dairy…the whole deal. Basically everything you were told to do when you had your healthy eating class but never actually followed. You can in the States, but it almost sounds as if you are making a statement when you do. Here, it is second nature. That’s why some may be astounded to find kindergarten students jollily munching on chickpeas and carrots and fresh fish. They might even marvel at the sight. Especially since it’s not such an uncommon sight.

     Much as the Spanish would like to brag about how complete their diet is, and it can be despite the massive incursion of fast food over the past fifteen years, history shows it wasn’t always like that. In fact, the heavenly blend of comestibles didn’t arrive to the heart of the country until fairly recently. Up until the 1960s, Castilian gastronomy was anything but balanced, weighted in all types of beans and salted pork and fish and lacking in many vitamins. It sounded as if the Spanish ate less and farted more. The present-day setup of three square meals represents more of an amalgamation of different diets and eating habits from around the country. Together they forge one of the finest range of food available to an omnivore…by the way, if you are vegetarian, go find another country.

     And, of course, copious quantities of the old H2O never hurts. And if you live in the Madrid metropolitan area, all the better, because there you can enjoy some of the finest tap water the country can offer. Many foreigners, especially Americans, are wary of putting their lips to a glass for fear they will end up spending the weekend within the confines of their hotel bathroom. Heck, I know a lot who refuse to drink their own water let alone put their bowels on the line with another country’s version. I remember growing up hearing horror stories about France’s water, I don’t know why, but it probably explains why their bottle mineral stuff is so famous worldwide, and I can personally confirm, much to my displeasure, that everything they say about Mexico’s Montezuma’s Revenge is a reality. A very real reality. But the agua in the mountains of the Madrid, is a totally different story. It’s absolutely delicious, and it’s nearly a sin to order a bottled version from some other region when you have such a terrific hydro-delicacy at your fingertips. The fancy water with the ever-fancier packaging is becoming ever more popular in this day and age where even the most basic necessities need to be sealed in gourmet fashion. Asking for a free pitcher is now frowned upon. Alas…nothing seems to come for free anymore.

     Well, that’s where I headed. That’s where I went. I ran to the hills, for the hills, to burn off some calories, take in deep breaths of fresh air and…have some great, great meals. Guilt-free pleasures.

Spanish Meals: Some ideas for Tapas…just some…

About ten years ago a new restaurant opened up with a modern and sleek décor and embarrassingly low prices.  The place also held another policy which would prove decisive.  I like writing sentences like the one before because it makes me feel like I work for a documentary agency.  In any event, they didn’t accept reservations for two reasons:  one was to ensure at least two sittings and the second was to get the people there bright and early.  Let me put it another way, one was to ensure the people got there bright and early in order to ensure two sittings.  And it worked.  They would open their doors at 8:30 every evening to a line that nearly went round the corner and by 8:45, there wouldn’t be a table left.  What was so unusual about that?  Well, the fact that every other dining room in Madrid at that time was empty.  It wasn’t dinner time yet.  At least for the rest of Madrid. 

         I mention this case in part to illustrate yet again that there are many people out there who come up up with ideas that far outdo anything my feeble noggin could.  But that’s not the only reason.  I wanted to show you just how late dinner is in this country.  You are smarter than I am so I’m sure you figured that out, but just it case.  You see, as much as that was a feat for the establishment at the time, it hasn’t taken hold on a broader scale. It was trendy, but not trend-setting, so finding a nice place to sit down and dine before nine is still a chore for the foreigners from foreign countries in search of an early meal.   Your other choice is to go tapa-ing…which is almost always available, and just may be the lifesaver you are looking for.  Here is a small list of what you could choose from.  It should satisfy your pangs of hunger and burst your veins:

  • Spanish omelet
  • Anchovies
  • Olives
  • Meatballs
  • Potato salad
  • Ham
  • Salami
  • Sliced Chorizo
  • Fried Chorizo
  • Fried black pudding
  • Friend white pudding
  • Fried anchovies
  • Anchovies in vinegar
  • Fried calamari
  • Sepia (large squid)
  • Chopitos (Fried baby squid)
  • Shrimp
  • Jumbo shrimp
  • Fried shrimp
  • Grilled Shrimp
  • Shrimp in garlic sauce
  • Potatoes in spicy sauce
  • Potatoes in garlic and mayonnaise sauce
  • Cheese
  • Octopus in vinegar
  • Octopus in olive oil and paprika
  • Roast ham
  • Cured beef
  • Chicken wings
  • Croquettes
  • Pork in tomato sauce
  • Beef in tomato sauce
  • Fried fish chunks
  • Tomato salad
  • Green salad
  • Potatoes in curry sauce
  • Chopped pigs ear
  • Tripe with chickpeas
  • Canapé sandwiches
  • Crab meat
  • Scrambled eggs with mushrooms
  • Scrambled eggs with asparagus
  • Scrambled eggs with fries and cured ham
  • Scrambled eggs with just about anything you want

       It can go on and on, trust me…at least in these matters.

Spanish Meals Phases 6: Wrapping up the Day and Living to Tell it (part 1)

If someone were to suggest going out that evening for some tapas after all that you have been through up to that point in the day, it would be perfectly acceptable to tell them to screw off.  In fact, if you just threw up on them as a kick reaction that would do too.  There is only so much the body can take and only it knows how to defend itself with the right measures.  I can understand vomiting on another person, but don’t condone it, as a rule, unless maybe they’ve vomited on you first.  It’s just not a nice thing to do, like crucifying a saint on an X-shaped cross without nails. 

         But, the return to eating must and does come.  Thank God, there is hope.  Dinner is actually a lighter meal, at least in theory.  Most people slow down by that time of day and give their stomachs a break.  At least if they stay at home.  Fish, soup, cold meats, cheeses, salads and fruit are favorites, as well as sandwiches or even eggs.  I know someone who actually has cereal, which makes me think that maybe some are actually trying to get an early start on the next day…or that the cycle is non-ending.

         The first time I ever had dinner was when I was living with my Spanish family.  They called me to the table and slid a small plate with a fried egg on it.  At first I figured they were doing it out of courtesy because they had seen too many Hollywood movies and thought that was all we ate over there, but that wasn’t the case.  It was a common suppertime meal.  The fried egg, incidentally, is an institutional dish here and it is prepared in a special way.  They don’t use butter.  They pour a ton of olive oil into a small frying pan, then when it is hot they crack open the shell and plop it in.  The egg literally floats in the oil.  Then you take a spoon and flick bits of oil over the top half of the egg so that it is done too.  The key is to make sure the yolk isn’t too done so you can dip your bread into it.  The Spanish like dipping their bread into everything.  They are pioneers in the technique, and I bless them for it.

         Dinner is served no earlier than nine, unless you have kids who need to get to bed early.  Some foreigners from other countries do not believe me when I tell them this, but it is quite true.  Even ten o’clock is perfectly fine.  The Spanish normally don’t go to bed before eleven or twelve anyway.   

          Of course, going out for a meal is a totally different matter, as you would expect…and should.

Spanish Meals Phase 5: The Merienda

One of the daily recurring events for me as a teacher is the sight of a child (often a boy) after school parading around the grounds proudly with a large chocolate crispy pastry known as a palmera in his hand.  I grew up calling an elephant ear.  Such is its width that the kid’s face is hidden from view.  It is about the size of a manhole cover, and weighs nearly that much too.  But somehow, with great determination, the boy manages to transfer all the contents in his hand to his stomach.  He has just finished his merienda.  Finding an exact translation for this isn’t that easy because how a person celebrates a merienda can differ from age to place and calling.  In some ways it is akin to the British teatime with the main difference being that most Spaniards don’t drink tea.  Kids for the most part can’t stand it.  It’s simply that foreign to them.  My daughters accuse me of mistreatment whenever I suggest having a cup. 

       So what should we call it?  An afternoon snack?  Perhaps.  But here’s the thing: the merienda is taken some time between five and six in the evening.  I sometimes used to have dinner then when I was kid.  When I tell Spaniards this they look at me they way they do when I admit to watching baseball and even finding it intensely thrilling at times.  They don’t get it.  It doesn’t fit with their scheme of life.  They think I am pulling their leg.  But baseball can be exciting…it really can.  As long as you have a pitcher and a catcher, you have a conflict which needs resolving.  And when that resolution takes place at the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, the tension is unparalleled.  I tell them about how I remember the Mets winning the sixth game of the 1986 World Series (these are the few tales we fans have to tell so it is up to us to preserve the lore), but it’s pointless.  They say it’s interesting because they want to be kind and feel sorry for me.  Cultural stuff. 

         In any event, the merienda is exactly that; a snack to tide you over until dinner, which still looms hours away.  My job in particular drains a lot out of me, so a nice piece of fruit or some coffee and a shot of sugar does me good.  For the most part, the merienda is enjoyed mainly by students and the elderly.  Cafeterías fill up with women who gather for some coffee and a roll of some kind.  Some even go for some killer hot chocolate they serve in Spain.  It is a steamy cup of cocoa which is sometimes prepared so thick you’d think you were drinking chocolate pudding.  You dip sticks of deep-fried fritters which have been sprinkled with sugar into it and pop it all into your mouth.  Then you wash it all down with some cool water, sit back and wait for the heart attack to start up. 

         Other kinds of food include pancakes, ham and cheese sandwiches, doughnuts and, of course, those dry old croissants which need ironing before being consumed. 

         For kids, there is no limit to what they can eat to recharge their batteries.  The abovementioned qualify, but so do fruit, yoghurt, olives, cookies, salami sandwiches, chocolate spread sandwiches…and even pâté on a roll.  Now, you won’t find to many kids back home thrashing open the screen door and calling, “Mom, can I have a pâté sandwich please?”  

      “Yes, honey.  I’ve also got some fried squid too.  Want two sandwiches?”


        Yeah, right. 

Spanish Meals Phase 4: Lunch…finally

Our fourth encounter with food is known as lunch.  Lunch back where I am from refers to a rather light meal whose purpose it is to tide you over until the evening when you have dinner.  In Spain, it means addressing the main meal of the day.  And it is not to be taken lightly.  In Spain they sure don’t.  Here’s something for you to consider: the Spanish word for “food” is “comida”.  The word for “lunch” is “LA comida”. 

      On its simplest level, lunch is traditionally a three-course adventure, be it at home or in a restaurant.  You have a starter, an entrée and some dessert.  At home some people may have a little wine they way you’d expect to in a Mediterranean country, but most people stick to plain water, which, if you are in Madrid, comes straight from the faucet. 

       Tap water in this city is excellent.  Many foreigners from other countries take this bit of information with enormous skepticism, especially from back home.  Heck I know Americans who don’t even drink their own tap water let alone put their bowels at the mercy of someone else’s.  They regard any water from beyond their borders to be a potion so packed with pernicious vermin that it could floor a hippo with just a sip.  And I can’t say they are entirely off base.  In the case of an extended stay in places like Mexico, the question isn’t whether or not, but when and how bad.  I don’t state this from hearsay.  I have lived it firsthand.  No one goes unscathed.  No one. 

       But Madrid is a different matter.  The climate is so dry you’d think it would please you only if you were dark green, thick-skinned and thorny, but the water comes from the mountains just north of the capital and is of extraordinary quality, which is why it is recommendable to order a pitcher of water instead of the bottled kind; it’s cheaper and probably healthier. 

      To wrap up the meal, fruit is often the first choice in the household.  That surprised me at first because I used to eat fruit as a child about once every time the New York Mets won the pennant.  Remember I grew up in the 1970s before the health food craze began to kick in.  I certainly never drank water and fruit at a meal in my hometown.  It is possible they didn’t even exist back then.  It was more like kegs of milk and barrels of cookies, which probably explains why my host family took a step back in shock when I first entered their apartment and also why I dropped about 15lbs in the first two months I was here.  But that has to do with the everyday diet and I’ll tell you more about the kinds of food you eat here on another occasion.  Suffice it to know that you can eat a square meal almost every day.

         At a restaurant, most Spaniards like to choose a menu del día, or the menu of the day, for of you who are not enlightened in the art of knowing Spanish.  The advantageous here is that it is usually the freshest dishes of the day.  Either that or the rehashed dishes from other days.  Another advantage is that it is generally a good value.  Restaurants vary in quality and price, but the going rate in Madrid ranges from about 9-15 euros, and the meal includes a first course, a second course, dessert, drink and sometimes, but not always, coffee.  Wine can be an entire of bottle of table wine and a bottle of sweetened carbonated water called gaseosa.  Don’t be shocked.  Table wine often costs less than a bottle of Coke…but that’s another issue.  Tough to beat.  One thing to bear in mind about menus is that they are normally only offered during the week, sometimes on Saturdays and less often on Sundays. 

          Lunch on the day of the Lord can be a religious experience where diners feel that it’s time to let their hair down and indulge in food in a way they normally wouldn’t on ordinary days.  It becomes your sole aim to make the feast as pleasurable as possible.  And with a full-scale siesta awaiting you just around the corner, the chances of success increase tenfold. 

Spanish Meals, Phase 3: The Aperitivo

One thing that is important to remember is that in Spain lunch is not served until 1:00 pm at the earliest, and that people usually sit down to their midday meal between 2:00 and 3:00.  Foreigners from other countries sometimes question this scheduling because their stomachs begin to grumble an hour or two before.   They say it is time for Spain to join the rest of the world…but the Spanish don’t give a hoot and I applaud them on their decision to stick to their traditions.  Why should they?  Plus, foreigners from other countries have something they can fall back on; if only they knew it existed.  It is called the aperitivo and it is quite possibly the single most important contribution Spain has ever made not just to Europe, or dining, or culture, but to mankind itself. Its attributes, its benefits are beyond description.  It’s simply that great.

           It is not easy to define the aperitivo because it doesn’t fit into the meal scheme of most other nations.  If you are in any way familiar with Spain, perhaps the concept of tapa eating would best help you to understand what it is about.  And if you are not, well it would be best for you to come to this country and learn about it personally.  It basically consists of going to a bar, ordering a drink and getting served a tapa.  If you are looking for something more substantial you can order a ración which is a plate of some dish which is to be shared by those at the table.   Some foreigners from other countries are taken aback by the communal act, or are even horrified.  I know because I have seen it.  They think that forks were designed to belong to just one owner, as were the dishes they get food from.  This is true of certain breeds of dogs like Chows, but I am not really sure why it should apply to silverware.  But it most probably has to do with the interchange of germs and the undeniable fact that people are more fond of their own germs than of those of others, which is also how they feel about their flatulent releases.    

           Around one o’clock, the hour of the aperitivo kicks off.  During the week this can be sidestepped completely as most hold off until lunch, but just knowing it is available contents the heart.  Or you can grab a drink beer and snack and move onto lunch.  Or you can grab lots of beers and a lot of snacks and bag lunch altogether.  That’s the beauty and the mystery behind this meal. 

          There is so much to say here, I will have to tell you more next time. 

Spanish Meals: The Second Breakfast or the Coffee Break

At some time between 10 and 12 in the morning, the Spanish stop whatever they are doing and they go for a second breakfast or mid-morning snack somewhere.  They do this because they are hungry, and even when they are not.  This slot in the day, by the way, is the absolute worst time to enter a government agency expecting quick results.  About half of the country’s public servants are across the street ordering a coffee and those little electric signs in the offices that go beep and indicate who is next up and what desk they should go to suddenly come to a near standstill.  This is especially true of post offices.  You are better off taking along a nice book or joining work staff at the bar across the street and returning in an hour.  Unless of course you are at the American Embassy which has a TV screen and CNN running around the clock.  They do this because they want you to be entertained as well as help you integrate better into society by showing you how millions of Americans spend most of their day. 

        So around this time, there is a dip in national productivity, but since this forms a traditional part of the daily routine it is factored into the GNP, or whatever they call that indicator of growth.  Anyhow, the most popular choice is coffee, especially among those who enjoy the drink.  Otherwise they order something else.  In my case, this is the single most important drink of the day.  My first cup two hours earlier had served solely as a way of getting me out the door and to the streets without tripping down the stairs.  I function, but I am not really doing anything.  This second round gets me really going. 

           Other drinks include soda, chocolate milk, water and even beer or wine.  The last two are not commonplace but after I’d say eleven not frwoned upon either…as long as you haven’t had seven.   I avoid the habit because otherwise I start telling my students what I really think of their English and begin to reveal certain radical political views that are best kept to oneself.  Coffee doesn’t do that to me, thank God. 

       People often accompany the drinks with a snack of some kind, like a roll, toast (with the butter and jam), a doughnut, which is pronounced in Spanish as “doe-noose”, trust me, it’ll get you places.  Another classic is the croissant.  This classic French pastry which we so often associate with fine European continental morning fare is quite common in Spain.  The thing is, when left on its own, it’s often terrible when compared to the versions made north of the border (that’s France).  Spanish croissants, which incidentally means “crescent”, are often dry and insipid as if they were made with a mixture of some basic building materials and not enouth water.   The Spanish won’t admit to this but they prove this theory by almost never ordering one in its original state.  They have it done “a la plancha”, which means the cook cuts it in half, smothers melted butter on it, slaps it on the griddle and flattens it with a spatula and it is toasty broan.  Then he puts it on a plate and serves it with more butter and jam which you can apply according to your taste.  This procedure immensely improves the quality of the bun. 

        Other morsels include grilled ham & cheese sandwiches known as sandwich mixto, for your information, and the immortal tortilla española (or Spanish potato omelet) which is this country’s single greatest contribution to fast food, and quite possibly the item of gastronomy that sticks the longest in the memory of the foreigner who likes to eat. 

       Then people return to their workplaces and the nation’s productivity shoots up.  And everything is the way it should be in the best of all possible worlds. 

Spanish Meals: Just how many time can you eat in a day?

Yesterday’s meal nearly finished at five o’clock, and as I wandered back home with new shoes and applied two chickpea-sized blisters above my baby toes, I got to thinking.  Just how many people who have never been in Spain understand that you can depart from a restaurant at the same time most people in the world depart from work and say, “That was a great lunch.  Now what should I do?”  Aside from my dysfunctional feet, I made it home all right and basically unscathed. 

         Eating is such a serious matter in Spain that if you don’t really understand it, you risking starting you visit with a serious handicap.  This is how the typical schedule can work on, say, a workday:

  • Breakfast at home
  • Mid-morning coffee break (second breakfast – almost more important than the first)
  • Lunch
  • Mid-afternoon snack – known as the merienda (I guess it’s kind of the Spanish equivalent of the British concept of teatime)
  • Dinner

       That would be your basic 1.0 version, cost-free and with all the basic services included.  Here’s what the premium offer could have in store:

  • Breakfast at home
  • Mid-morning coffee break
  • Pre-lunch drink and snack (commonly known as the aperitvo)
  • Lunch
  • Merienda
  • Evening tapas
  • Dinner
  • Intravenous solution at the intensive care unit

          This would not be every day, of course, but it can happen.  And it does.  I can offer firsthand testimony.   So I will analyze this sector of Spanish life for your information and enjoyment and invite you to participate whenever you get a chance.  Plus, it just helps to know what you can expect before you say, as a friend of mine once told me on our way to yet another dinner, “Brian, I have not been hungry for four days.  Why are you doing this to me?  And why can’t I say no?” 

         Because that is what Spain does like no other country I know.  Just don’t tell me I didn’t warn you!