Tag Archives: Food

King Alfonso X and Tapas

The Abacería L’Antiqua was full to overflowing and heaving with activity and just as we were pondering whether or not to stay a table became available and we made ourselves comfortable. The food looked good and the bar was doing brisk trade so we selected some items from the tapas menu and waited for our food to arrive.  All around the bar there were barrels of sherry and this is something else than Andalusia is famous for.

Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that are grown near the town of Jerez on the coast. In Spanish, it is called Vino de Jerez and according to Spanish law, sherry must come from the small triangular area of the province of Cádiz between Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.

After fermentation is complete, sherry is fortified with brandy and because the fortification takes place after fermentation, most sherries are initially dry, with any sweetness being added later. In contrast, port wine is fortified halfway through its fermentation, which stops the process so that not all of the sugar is turned into alcohol.  So now you know!

According to legend, the tapas tradition began when the King of Castille Alfonso the Wise (died 23rd November 1221) visited a tavern in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the province of Cádiz, and ordered a glass of sherry.

There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting dirty.  The King liked it, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa or ‘cover’ just like the first.  This evolved into the practice of using slices of bread or meat as a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the drink. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, which are both very salty and activate thirst and because of this, bartenders and restaurant owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry, thus increasing their alcohol sales.

The menu was entirely in Spanish and that made it exciting, ordering items from the list with little or no idea what they might be.  Thankfully we didn’t get any shocks and a couple of the dishes were so good that we ordered seconds.  It was a great place and it felt as though we were eating in a traditional way and not in a place created for tourists.    The bodega was a vibrant and effervescent place with people of all age groups and whole families enjoying their Sunday lunchtime gathering and we enjoyed the garrulous atmosphere and just being a part of it all.

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Jamon Iberico de Bellota

dehesa-de-extremadura -

One of the fascinating things about the world’s great food is the way they are a product of environment, geography and history combined into one mouthwatering gastronomic experience. The western provinces of Spain, which I visited on 17th November 2009, are a good example.

About eight hundred years ago, it was decreed that every village would be responsible for maintaining a mixture of grass, for grazing; cork trees, for firewood; and holm oaks, for shade, building materials and acorns.  This woodland prairie, in effect a man-made ecosystem, once covered 90% of the region and while it is now much smaller, the dehesa, as it is called, still provides one of the world’s greatest hams: jamon iberico de bellota.

Bellota means ‘acorn’, and it so happens that the native black-hoofed pigs are remarkably fond of the vast piles of nuts that fall each autumn from the branches of the holm oaks.  At this time of year, the cattle and sheep are shut away, and the pigs are turned loose to roam, snuffle and above all eat to their heart’s content. After two months of devouring up to ten kilograms of acorns a day, they roughly double their body weight.  They get so fat that they have to be neutered because the females are too overweight to be able to run away from the wild boars who would otherwise come down from the mountains to shag them and in the process compromising the purity of the breed.

In winter the pigs are slaughtered and the legs cured with sea salt. Remarkably, though, the fattest animals are not yet even halfway through their journey from sty to plate. The acorns on which they have been feeding are rich in oleic acid, the same fatty acid found in olives and iberico pigs are sometimes called “four-legged olive trees”.

This in turn means that their meat can cure for far longer than ordinary hams, from eighteen months to two years or even more and during this time, a kind of reverse fattening process happens and the leg loses up to half its original weight, but acquires a depth of flavour unmatched by any other ham.

It is sold with its black hoof still attached, as an indication of its origins, it is kept on a special stand and carved into the thinnest of slices, to be served with a couple of eggs for breakfast, as evening tapas with a glass of salty fino sherry, or as a light lunch with crusty country bread and a little manchego cheese. The colour is a deep ruby red, the texture is dense and chewy quite unlike a silky, sticky slice of, say, prosciutto di Parma and the taste is characterised by a rich, nutty sweetness that gives way to a lingering finish, like old wine.

Not all jamon is de bellota however and there are various grades and the hams are labeled according to the pigs’ diet.

Only the finest jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de bellota and this ham is from the free-range pigs that roam the oak forests along the border between Spain and Portugal, and eat only acorns during this lastfew weeks of their lives.  It is also known as Jamón Iberico de Montanera and the ham is cured for a minimum of three years.  The next grade of jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de recebo, which is from pigs that are pastured and fed a combination of acorns and grain.  The third type of jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de cebo, or simply, jamón ibérico, which is  ham is from pigs that are fed only grain and is cured for twenty-four months.

Athens, a Taxi ride and The Plaka

Earlier in the month some terrorists had threatened to blow up some aeroplanes and had successfully disrupted check-in procedures at all UK airports so security was on high alert but Luton was quite well organised and the extra safety measures weren’t too much of a problem.

The Easyjet flight was a bit bumpy at times but we arrived on schedule. Well I say arrived on time but that’s a bit of an airline con.  The airlines schedule a three-hour flight to take four, to give themselves a huge margin of error and then claim they made it on time. I’m not complaining though, I like the budget airlines for making all this travel possible.

We collected our bags as they came round on the luggage carousel, left the airport arrival lounge and joined the queue for a taxi. When it was our turn to be directed to a vacant vehicle by the man in charge of allocating transport we gave clear and precise instructions to the driver how to get to the hotel. It was immediately clear that these were not clear and precise enough and he had no idea where he was going and he had to make a number of animated phone calls to establish its location. It was a bit nerve racking being in a speeding car on a Greek motorway in the dark while the driver used his mobile phone to make a phone call with one hand whilst holding a map in the other. Anyway, he eventually sorted it out and we arrived at our hotel without major incident. It cost €30, which was a bit of a rip off but to be fair we weren’t very convincing in our plan to pretend to be familiar with Athens and try to fool the driver into giving us a local’s rate!

The hotel was a very nice place with pleasant staff who gave us far too much information to take in all in one go after a long day travelling but it was situated perfectly right next to the Acropolis and the Plaka and we had a comfortable room but with a bit of a makeshift bed for me.

It didn’t really matter very much because suitable compensation was forthcoming in the form of a complimentary bottle of red wine. I opened it and tried it immediately of course and it was drinkable in a Greek sort of way and I made appreciative noises that are exaggeratively appropriate when getting something for nothing. Well, I say for nothing, which wasn’t exactly true of course because the room was quite expensive. We were all very hungry and in anticipation of our first holiday meal we dumped our luggage without unpacking and ventured out into the city streets to find some food.

It was hospitably warm and the Plaka was friendly and inviting, colourful and vibrant and all the tourist shops were open and there were many lively restaurants and bars to select from. After a short walk we choose a pavement taverna on a busy street and Sally & Charlotte wasted no time in ordering their first Greek salad.  The down side was that there was no Mythos available at this taverna and I had to settle for an Alpha instead, an alternative Greek beer which although inferior was ok.

After dinner we continued to explore the Plaka for a while, the atmosphere was distinctly Mediterranean and we all agreed that we liked being here. We went back to the hotel in a contented mood and I finished the wine, Sally and Charlotte got into their comfortable hotel beds with their freshly laundered sheets and I struggled into my cramped little camp bed, I tossed and turned theatrically a few times to emphasise my inferior sleeping arrangements but on getting no response I fell quickly into a deep and contented sleep.

A Francesinha in Porto

On 12th May 2009 we had spent an enjoyable day in Porto in Portugal.  The day had slipped by and time was getting on  and before we returned to the metro we needed to find somewhere to eat.  I had spotted a couple of promising places earlier this morning so we walked back briskly (very briskly actually) down the dangerous road, along the riverside, over the bridge, through the Ribiera and back to the Rua de Flores where we choose a traditional little place with basic rustic furniture and plastic red check table cloths and with no other customers quickly placed our orders.

The girls weren’t taking any chances and choose familiar dishes but Micky and I decided to sample the local speciality of Porto, the Francesinha, which is a sandwich made with toasted bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat and covered with molten cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce.

Francesinha means Little French Girl in Portuguese and it is said to be an invention in the 1960s of a man called Daniel da Silva, a returned emigrant from France and Belgium who tried to adapt the croque-monsieur to Portuguese taste.  Francesinha sauce is a secret, with each house having its variation and the kitchen was momentarily thrown into a panic when someone had to frenziedly explain to us that they had run out of their special spicy sauce and would we be alright with an alternative.  We explained that this really didn’t matter to us because we had never had one before and really had no idea what to expect anyway.

This settled things down and we were eventually served the sandwiches and I have to say that I failed to see just what all the fuss was about.

Understanding the French (1)

I have always liked La Rochelle ever since my first visit in 1996, I like the sea food restaurants, the patiseries, the busy harbour and the leisurely pace of life; so much so in fact that I have visited four times, the last being in 2007.

Our final day in La Rochelle (19th April) began exactly the same as the day before.  A Hotel Ibis breakfast and then out into the city bathed in a soft blue sky and the early morning sun burning off the remains of the sea dew.  It was going to be another fine day.  We decided to explore the town today and set off first to do that thing that has become a bit of a ritual and go and visit the local market.   And it was a very good one indeed, just the place to get our market envy fix.  The meat hall was full of interesting produce alongside the usual including big portions of wild boar, whole rabbits and bits of chickens that it certainly wouldn’t occur to us to eat. These included heads and feet, and like most people from England I always thought that the chicken leg stopped just below that meaty piece of thigh meat.  Shoppers would have a fit in England but the French seem to have an appetite for the most unusual.

In the fish market, once again as with everywhere else we have been the variety and quantity was eye-popping, there were slabs and slabs of oysters all carefully graded by size from number one to number six and the breathtaking amount of shellfish and crustaceans simply served to confirm that the French will eat anything that swims, crawls or slithers through the sea.  Outside the vegetable stalls offered appetizing produce that was all arranged in spectacular displays with much more attention to detail and presentation than we had seen elsewhere.

Out of the town we sat in a green park and ate strawberries that we had purchased in the market and were startled by the most amazingly loud croaking noise, so loud we took it to be a man with one of those duck decoy whistles but when we investigated further we located the noise from the river and were surprised to find some frogs swimming about and making a really astonishing amount of noise for such small creatures.  Obviously not very bright either because given the French habit of eating practically anything and being especially fond of these little amphibian’s succulent legs you’d have thought that they might have learned over the years not to draw so much attention to themselves.