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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Smell of Winter Sunshine

It's probably only a matter of time before we have scratch'n'sniff technology through the Internet, and when we do, I'm going to send scratch'n'sniff e-cards to all my friends and even to myself as a tonic during hectic times. My e-card scratch'n'sniffs will release that delectable odor that bursts out and floats up to your nostrils when you first dig your thumb into the skin of a ripe mandarin orange. Can you smell it now?

Mandarin oranges, and especially the variety known as clementines (supposedly after graftings originating from St. Clement) are widely available in Spain at this time of year. I've just bought my third big net bag of the season, each bag weighing at least three kilos, and I think at least one of the prior bags was five kilos. Mandarinas are about the only fruit that I peel and eat as a snack. I routinely keep a couple at my work desk, as well as a bowl on the coffee table in front of the television. Fresh mandarinas adorned our Christmas brunch table and are a staple in our almost-daily fruit salads. They are so easy and not-messy to eat on the spur of the moment--unlike oranges, which I never peel myself and rarely eat. They taste sweet, but not too sweet, and they smell like sunshine. I am not the only one in our household who eats mandarinas as a snack, as occasionally I find the peel of one or two lying exposed on a table several hours after it encased the small half-moons of fruit. It's one of the few food leftovers I love to sweep into the garbage under the sink (garbage disposals being unknown here, at least to anyone I know), as I imagine that its odor masks those from the more prosaic leftovers.

A Wikipedia article says that clementines began to be popular in the United States when the harsh winter of 1997 temporarily devastated Florida orange production, and that may indeed be the time when I first started noticing them in U.S. grocery stores. I have bought small crates of Spanish  mandarinas (or were they labeled clementinas?) in the Stop and Shop in Middletown, Connecticut, in Butson's Supermarket in Littleton, New Hampshire, at Marsh in Indianapolis, and at Meijer in Cincinnati, Ohio, usually for $5.99 or $6.99 for five pounds. I pay a little less than that--€2.69 for the last three kilos here. Maybe next year I won't even have to do that--we have a mandarin tree in our front yard. It only yielded two mandarins this year, but we are hoping that a forceful pruning will improve production next winter.

Photo by Trevor Parker [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Decorating for Christmas

It's hard to decorate for Christmas when you have two masons with all their equipment building an arch in the main downstairs area of your house. Before the arch came there was an incongruous plywood board at the top of the wall in the ten-inch deep passageway between the dining room and living room. Painted a brownish orange color, the board extended about a foot in each direction beyond the five-foot wide passage and was about ten inches in height. The same construction appeared on the "other" side of the passage; that is, you could see it from both the living room and the dining room. It was boxed in at the bottom. Maybe it was meant to look like a rough natural timber in a timbered ceiling. It didn't. Nor did it serve any functional purpose, we were convinced, as it sounded hollow when we knocked on wood.

We investigated other houses in our neighborhood and they all had such a structure. The aesthetics didn't seem to bother anyone we talked with. Some houses had a wallpaper border at the top of the wall, just below the ceiling, leading to and from this construction, and that made it look less out of place. Probably our living and dining rooms had had the same trim when first constructed, but any remnants of a border were long gone, and our walls were a clean, cream-colored "drop" paint finish from floor to ceiling.

In late fall our holiday-only neighbors had some construction work done on their basement, and they asked us to observe the process and report by email, as the builder could only do the work while the owners were scheduled to be at home in England. That was how we found our master builder, an immigrant from Bulgaria. It turns out that he has worked on an awful lot of the houses in our neighborhood in the ten years since they were first built and since he has been in Spain.

Christo assured us that the passageway box was empty, not load-bearing, and he liked the design that Johannes had planned for replacement: a curved archway built of and supported by brick. He could do the work any time, but we had house guests in November and early December. So that is how it came to be that only ten days before Christmas, instead of arranging Christmas decorations, we were draping plastic over the chairs and television in the living room, removing bookcases, tables, and lamps, and generally making a mess. The displaced furniture had to go somewhere, and the men had to have space in which to work, so that pretty much rendered the dining room useless. They came at 9:00 Thursday morning, removed the old structure, and placed the brickwork on either side of the doorway. Friday they built the temporary white support for the top arch, and put in the arch itself. The whole thing needs to dry over the weekend, and Friday evening we carefully uncovered two chairs and two small tables so we can sit in the living room and enjoy some weekend television, a glass of wine, and the gas fire, which we need for warmth.

Tomorrow they are supposed to show up to do the final mortar work between the bricks, "drop" paint the wall area above the archway, remove the three steel rods and white plywood that currently are holding up the top bricks, and clean up. I think it's more than a one-day job. I figure that by Wednesday, the 22d, I'll be able to get my Christmas decorations in order in those two rooms. I'm scouting around for an archangel.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Day Trip to Calasparra and Caravaca

On Wednesday this week we took a coach tour to two interesting towns in Murcia, the province to the south of Alicante. Calasparra lies in the mountains in the northwest part of the province, and it was a pleasant one-hour drive through lots of lush green farmland after we finished our pick-ups along the coast just south of Torrevieja. We saw fields of melons, lettuce, and cucumbers, we were told, though I would have been hard pressed to point out which was which. It was easier to identify the orange and lemon trees--oranges are turning from green to orange now. Peaches and apricots are also grown in the area and preserved by one of the largest fruit processing companies in Spain. The other important crop of Calasparra is Calasparra rice, a short-grained rice prized for its super-absorbent properties--the better to soak up delicious broth in a paella.

Photo: Johannes Bjórner
PhotoBut we were not in Calasparra for the rice. Instead our goal was the Sanctuary of the Virgen de la Esperanza (Virgin of Hope). I wasn't sure just what the "sanctuary" (santuario) referred to. The small church itself was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, with stone walls adorned with a relatively modest amount of gold paint and stained glass windows. This sanctuary was built into a stone canyon by the banks of the Segura River. The entire walkway from the bus and car park area to the church and its accompanying restaurant (there is always a good restaurant and bar next to a church in Spain) was a beautiful natural area of stone, green shrubs and trees, flowers, and the bubbling river waters. We were visiting, coincidentally, on a big Spanish holiday, the Fiesta de la Inmaculada Concepcion, and even though there were lots of people, the surrounding natural area was still as much of a peaceful sanctuary as the sanctified one.

Our afternoon visit went just twenty minutes away to the town of Caravaca de la Cruz, surprisingly one of the top five holy cities of the world, according to the Catholic Church. This has to do with the vera cruz (true cross), which reportedly is the same wood as the cross on which Jesus was crucified, and which later was part of a miracle that continues to be celebrated here each year on May 3. Caravaca de la Cruz celebrates a prilgrimage year every seven years, and 2010 is one of the pilgrimage years. But we were not in Caravaca to see the vera cruz or as pilgrims, either. Rather, our aim was the medieval market, a huge outdoor market with stalls of handmade crafts and local foods for purchase, as well as musicians, camel rides for the children, and much more entertainment. We spent three and a half hours there and were sorry that we had eaten so much in Calasparra, for there was little room for the delicacies we encountered in the market. By the time we had to board our bus for the return journey, the glorious sun of the day had disappeared and twinkling lights had come on, lighting the small stalls and illuminating the castle of Caravaca in the distance, but not quite strong enough to reveal the camel droppings in the cobble-stoned roads.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Torrevieja Tapas Trail 2010

We seldom go in to the city of Torrevieja, which is the largest seaside city in our area, for anything other than shopping. The western part of town is the commercial area, where we find Carrefour, the largest hipermercado, which supplies us with everything from computer paper and cartridges to canned atún en aceite de oliva for our lunchtime salads. Right next door is the Habaneras shopping mall with most of the small specialty shops and department stores popular in Spain, and nearby is the favorite bricolage (hardware store) of the project master of the house, and Iceland, the British Overseas Market supermarket that I use to fill my food freezer on occasion. But we rarely venture beyond this shopping area into the old part of the city, with its narrow streets, tall buildings, and wide open seaside promenade.

So last Wednesday morning, when we and our Danish guests had been holed up in the house for two days straight competing in a coughing and sneezing marathon, and the sun came out briefly for the first time since Sunday, we drove in and parked along the promenade and took a cautious walk along the harbor. That lasted less than a half hour before we decided we needed to replenish the supply of cold medicine, an item not available from any of the small white tents along the waterfront offering crafts, copies (probably illegal) of music and videos, and other merchandise. A postal carrier pointed out the closest farmacia, and that's what made us walk through a side street just two blocks in from the water. We also found a delightful hole-in-the-wall Taberna Tipica where we warmed up with a cup of café con leche at the bar. It was just after noontime, and we watched the bar staff preparing huge casseroles of delicacies for the tapas and lunchtime trade that would commence in a couple of hours.

I thought of that bar yesterday when once again, finally, the sun came out blazing and I remembered that this was the last chance for the special tapas marathon in Torrevieja, running this year from Thursdays through Sundays only for three weekends. Our house guests had gone home, fortunately making it out just prior to the wildcat strike by Spanish air traffic controllers and after piles of snow had been cleared in Denmark. But we picked up English friends, once again a little after noontime, headed into town, where we were lucky enough to find a legal street parking place just across from the café bar where we had drunk coffee earlier in the week. The interior was still dark with rich wood furnishings and hams hanging from the ceiling. But we ate outside, because today there was an empty table in the sun among one of the four or five in the street, which is where Torrevieja establishments customarily place them on good days, which is most days.

The idea of a special tapa trail, or marathon, or festival, is that various establishments, usually within walking distance, offer a tapa and a drink (wine, beer, soft drink, or water) for the bargain price of 2 euros. You go from bar to bar, sampling, and getting your tapas card stamped to show that you were there. If you get nine stamps, you can vote for your favorites, and the establishment and you might win a prize.

At the Taberna Tipica, we had poached white fish and boiled potato in sauce, served in the typical round clay tapas dishes, all carried out on a single plate, with the traditional chunks of a baguette. Perhaps we should have stuck around for a second one, which I realized later would have been the innovative tapa, as opposed to the traditional one. Instead we walked a half block to another place on the corner. By this time it was cool enough to go inside, and we clustered in a large wooden booth after the server explained that we could have either of two tapas for today, or we could try the specials featured last week, too. Our first, a meat tapa, came on individual small, square, white plates, with knife and fork. Serious eating, and it was good enough that we ordered a second. This one, also a knife-and-fork tapa, was one beautiful large shrimp, resting on its side on soft bread, spiced and sauced nicely, with a few gulas as a garnish. I had to look up gulas in the dictionary, and it wasn't there, which was just as well, since I was able to enjoy the baby eels (they looked like spaghetti) without thinking about baby eels.

Our server told us that the restaurant that had won last year's contest was just around the corner, so off we went. By now business was picking up, the bar was crowded, and we had to stand next to the wall counter that so many Spanish bars have--just wide enough for a glass and a small tapa plate. My friend and I looked at each other and agreed that the vino tinto that we had been drinking was just a little taste in a very large glass, so we could continue, though our driver by this time had switched to Sprite. I'm not sure what I ate here--I pointed to something round that had a fried quail egg on top, but when the tapa came it had morphed into what appeared to be a mini Scotch egg covered in another delicious warm sauce.

Around the corner once more to an ultra-modern, glass-surrounded bar, with high tables and high stools. Two of us ate the traditional tapa here, a substantial one with a bite of rabbit, pork, chicken, and duck, and the other two had the innovative one, which turned out to be a mini apple dumpling in milojas (puff) pastry. The bartender told us that cava was available in addition to the wine, beer, etc., so I finished off my tapas trail yesterday appropriately with dessert and Spanish champagne.