Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Your First Time

You always remember your first time. It marks a rite of passage. For some it's a pleasant memory. For others it's a little harsh. You can imagine my surprise today when I was walking home from shopping the Rastro (Madrid's 500-year-old flea market) and turned a corner to find myself in front of the very spot it occurred: La Taberna Real

It was almost startling and definitely emotional. All the details of the event came flooding in. . . . I was with my mom at the time. Wait. . . What?! . . . What did you think I was talking about? . . . I don't know where your mind is, but I was referring to the first time I tasted orujo de hierbas!  

It was 2005 and my first trip to Spain. It was actually my first day in Spain. It was a gloriously sunny and warm June day. My mom and I had just landed and were embarking upon a 2 week gastronomic tour. We were a little bleary-eyed but too excited to rest. Our friend and guide, Genevieve of Cellar Tours, took us for a little walking tour of Madrid near the Palacio Real. We did need a little liquid sustenance, so upon Genevieve's suggestion we popped into the Taberna Real. The first thing you notice when you walk in is this beautiful candelabra hanging from the ceiling. Not exactly your typical bar decor. 

Genevieve took the liberty of ordering for us. You can image our surprise when tiny shot glasses of neon yellow liquid appeared. 

We toasted to our gluttonous trip ahead (with countless wineries and Michelin-starred restaurants on the agenda) and sipped on our orujo de hierbas, which is affectionately translated as "firewater from herbs." Being from the South, I've had my share of grain alcohol so was skeptical at first. But I really didn't think a luxury tour company would be pushing the Spanish equivalent of moonshine down our throats. 

Orujo de hierbas is a Spanish liqueur made from the solid remains of grapes after pressing. It's quite high in alcohol (100 proof), so a little goes a long way. It has a distinct herbal bouquet to it, which I know sounds like potpourri but thankfully doesn't taste like that. I can still recall that very first sip. It is typically served cold but with the high alcohol content you get both a refreshing and enkindling effect on the way down. It has a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity from the herbs, with a slight undertone of anise. You're left with this amazing soothing after-effect, which you can feel all the way down in your toes. You can literally feel it moving through your body. I can see why it's such a popular digestif. 

In many ways, it felt like a little initiation. We'd crossed some threshold and were now a little closer to the spirit of Spain. It was a wonderful start to an amazing trip, and also began a ritual of una copita de orujo at the end of each day. No matter how much we ate or drank, we always felt like a million bucks the next day. I'm giving all the credit to the orujo

So today when I happened upon the Taberna Real, I couldn't help but wander in, take a seat at the bar under the beautiful candelabra, and order a little shot of orujo. I took a sip, and the memories of my first time came pouring in. For me, orujo encapsulates Spain. It's colorful, energetic, and warm, but leaves you relaxed and with a smile on your face. It does something good to your soul. And that is exactly how I felt as the fiery liquid ran through my body.  


Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Taste of Summer

I've made a wonderful discovery in Madrid. The locals call it tinto de verano, but I call it Quite Possibly the Most Perfect Summertime Drink. 

It's similar to sangria and is served all over Spain in the summer. It's 1 part red wine and 1 part La Casera, which is Spain's version of Sprite but less sweet. To replicate it, a bartender told me you could mix Sprite with seltzer or club soda. He also swore to me that it tastes best when cheap wine is used. Pour into a glass filled with ice, add some lemon slices and take a swig. You'll soon see what I'm talking about. 

It just doesn't seem like a simple wine spritzer could be that refreshing and delicious, but this easy-drinking cocktail is the ideal liquid refreshment for a hot summer day. It's actually quite easy to throw back several. I think drinking it while sitting in an outdoor cafe in Spain only improves the taste, but I wouldn't say it's a mandatory ingredient. 

I know you've probably got a bottle of Two Buck Chuck hanging around the house, so crack it open, pour in some club soda and savor the summer. 

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of champions, Spanish style:

Snails . . . 

. . . Sardines . . . 

. . . and of course Cerveza!

Happy Sunday!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Low and Slow

Low and slow. Is there a finer way to cook pork? My argument was further cemented when I had the chance last weekend to visit Segovia, home of the roasted suckling pig. 

Segovia (about an hour north of Madrid) is an enchanting town, with twisting alleyways, pedestrian streets, and beautiful vistas. The locals are known for being perpetually happy. How could they not with the enticing aroma of suckling pig around every corner? It's not unusual to see an impromptu concert with dancers or a little parade. No special reason. It's just another day in Segovia. 

After a bit of sightseeing, I could no longer resist the intoxicating scent and begged my travelmates to stop into restaurant Jose Maria, a spot known for their cochinillo asada (roasted suckling pig). I'm not sure why the waiter even bothered with menus as it would be near sacrilege to eat something else. 

When our meal was presented to the table, it came out whole. I know it's a little piglet but I promise once you taste the succulent meat that literally melts in your mouth you're immediately transported to a happy place.  

But the true sign of tenderness is demonstrated by the waiter cutting the whole pig up table side — with a standard dinner plate. It's the signature ritual of a good restaurant. 

By roasting it "low and slow" for hours with a simple olive oil basting from time to time, the skin has the most delicate crunch to it, and the meat is incredibly juicy. I've never tasted such sublimity. 

With full stomachs, we continued our exploration of the town. Having been a trading center under the Roman Empire, Segovia reached its period of greatest splendor during the Middle Ages and is well preserved today. The Romans' most distinct mark is a still functioning aqueduct that stretches from the walls of the old town to the edges of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, about 11 miles away. 

It was built at the end of the 1st to early 2nd century AD during their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. What an engineering marvel! It has 166 arches and 120 pillars in two levels, and is comprised of 20,400 rough-hewn granite blocks joined without mortar or clamps reaching a height of 100 feet. 

Another beautiful sight is the Cabildo Catedral, which is the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain and fronts the Plaza Mayor. Although not Catholic, I have to admit I did go inside and say a little prayer that I would one day be back in Segovia to savor its suckling pig. 

Friday, July 3, 2009

Independence Day

It's funny. You can just tell when a holiday is afoot. Everyone has a little skip in their step; is a bit more forgiving; and is cutting out of work early. The sun shines brighter; the sky is bluer; and the birds chirp more loudly. In the States, I know people are getting out their flags and preparing for a July Fourth barbeque. But as I walked around Madrid today, you could sense we were also on the verge of a celebration. 

Indeed. While my friends and family in the States will be donning their red, white and blue and jockeying for a good spot to watch the fireworks, more than two million people (gay, straight, and undecided) will descend upon Madrid to participate in or watch Orgullo Gay (Gay Pride). In 2005, Spain's government and parliament approved some very progressive laws supporting gay marriage and anti-discrimination. As a result, Madrid's been the favored spot to host this celebration in Spain and all of Europe. In fact, Orgullo Gay has been the largest party in Europe for the last four years running. 

The main attraction (the parade) will take place on July 4th. The procession begins at 6 PM in Independence Square and moves north to Chueca ("chu-eck-a"), a West Hollywood-meets-Soho neighborhood, where a major party will rock well into the night. It's legendary. This week, I've been staying at a hotel in a different part of town, but am moving tomorrow to an apartment in Chueca for the next month. I think I'll have quite a welcoming committee, although it seems unlikely much sleep will be coming my way on Independence Day. 

But things definitely got underway tonight. While Dublin may have its pub-crawls or the U.S. its bar-hopping, Madrileños enjoy the tapeo. With the Spanish practice of eating tapas (appetizers) before a fashionably late dinner, each bar (tasca) gains a reputation for its rendition and people move from bar to bar tasting a bite and enjoying a drink. The streets were teeming with people. Unlike the States when you feel you're caught in a maddening mob scene, there is something strangely peaceful yet joyful to be amidst the ocean of people in Madrid. I decided to stop into Casa Alberto, one of the oldest tascas in my neighborhood. It first opened its doors in 1827 and has thrived ever since. Filled with bullfighting memorabilia and reproductions of El Greco and Goya, you squeeze in to find a spot along the bar, which offers a generous view of the tapas, such as fried squid, mussels in a vinaigrette dressing, or ham and cheese croquettes. 

You'll find no questionable dish of beer nuts, which has been "double dipped" in God knows how many times. Typically you receive a dish of Spanish olives or a few slices of chorizo and cheese when you sit down. Tonight I received a lovely pincho (the Spanish version of the amuse bouche) of cornichon, pepper and anchovy to whet my appetite. 

With the heat and saltiness, it was the perfect foil to my cold caña (a draught beer). Upon the suggestion of my new friends/bar-mates (from Germany, Turkey, Holland and Spain. ¡Que global! ), I ordered a tapa comprised of potatoes, chorizo and grilled peppers known as pimientos de Padrón

These tiny green peppers (roughly the size of a jalapeño) hail from a medieval town in the Galicia region and are often a tapa by themselves. Sauteed until blistered in olive oil and then lightly salted, you'll find them sweet with a delicate flesh. You eat the whole pepper except for the stem, but eating them is considered a culinary form of Russian roulette. Approximately one in ten peppers is hot enough to keep you humble. It all made for a tasty night of eating, drinking and merrymaking, which pretty much sums up Orgullo Gay

It's already July 4th here in Spain, so as I turn in for the night, know I'm wishing everyone back home a Happy Independence Day!