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Monday, April 30, 2012

Great Taste(s) from Spain

Next Sunday I will not be in Spain, but I will be thinking of it, and at least one other person at the conference I am going to should be thinking of it, too. That's because I have volunteered to bring a door prize to the meeting, and I decided to put together a basket of goodies showing the best of Spanish food products. So I have been busy, busy, busy this week, scouring all the grocery stores I know, looking for specialty shops (they seem to have disappeared with the deepening of the recession) and keeping my eyes open for local foods that are representative of the region and also appealing to those who do not live here.

The first item in my gift basket, of course, had to be olive oil. Spain is by far the largest producer of olive oil in the world, according to the Olive Oil Times. In 2010 it produced 1.4 million metric tons of olive oil; Italy, its nearest competitor, produced 460,000 metric tons. My olive oil is from Pago Baldios San Carlos, which won the Gold Medal at the Los Angeles Extra Virgin Olive Oil contest in 2011. The contents of my bottle, however, are from the first harvest (Primera Cosecha) of 2012. This is a real premium product. I have to admit that it is not the olive oil I use in my daily cooking, or even for my usual lunchtime salad dressing.

Also in the category of expensive liquids is a Tio Pepe Jerez (Sherry); Palomino Fino, Fino Muy Seco. "A classic bone-dry sherry," according to La Tienda, a U.S. importer of "the best of Spain." I became intrigued with sherry production in Spain when we passed by the city of Jerez de la Frontera on our way home from a Thanksgiving Day in Cadiz a few years ago, without taking the sherry tour. Ever since, I have been making plans to go back to this center of sherry production to learn more, tour the bodegas, and try some samples. It used to be that large Tio Pepe bottle sculptures dotted the roadsides throughout Spain, but a law banning such ostentatious advertising has eliminated most of those today. The bottle of Palomino Fino in my gift basket doesn't look much like the bottles along the roadside anyway; it looks much more refined, just like the one in the manufacturer's website ad.

Finally, there is cava, that wonderful sparkling wine that Spaniards drink instead of champagne. I have a small (375 ml) bottle of Freixenet Carta Nevada Brut. Fortunately I thought in time that I had to get my treasures through U.S. Customs, and that there is a limit on how much alcohol one can bring in without paying duty.

What would Spanish food be without saffron, or azafran, as it is called here? I put in a package of azafran hebras, saffron threads. One of the attractions of this particular package from Azafranes Sabater was that it contains instructions for use in four languages. Here's the English:
(GB) INSTRUCTIONS FOR USE: To best using the saffron threads, roast them still protected by their paper envelope, by placing them onto the hotpot. Then grind in a mortar and add the ground saffron to the food you are preparing.
This small, lightweight package the size of a deck of cards (but mostly filled with empty space) contains four envelopes. Nowhere does it say anything about how much food you should prepare for one packet, so it's a good thing I also bought a package called Paellero, from a local spice company called Carmencita. This package contains five packets, each designed to flavor enough rice for six servings (600/700 grams of rice). It also has instructions in English, though the basic instruction is "Before adding the rice, pour the contents of one sachet into the paella pan. Do not add any other spice." The ingredients list reports garlic, salt (25%), paprika, corn flour, colour, E-102, pepper, clove, and saffron (2.5%). If I had been able to read the ingredients list in the store, without glasses, I probably would not have bought it, especially since it goes on to say that E-102 may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.

If you're making paella, you need to have the right rice, so I included a 1 kg. package of Fallera D.O. Arroz de Valencia de grano grueso especial para paella. This is the large, round rice that is grown in the region of Valencia, where the conditions of heat and humidity are just right for rice, according to the package. Paella Valenciana does not have seafood in it, by the way; it has bits of chicken, duck, and rabbit.

Another main dish that requires saffron is fabada, a hearty white bean casserole from Asturias, in the northern part of Spain. A couple months ago I went to three different stores and found three different sizes of alubia fabada, or favas, the special white beans. For my basket I chose the medium-sized beans, from El Granero de Levante in Bigastro, a small town just 10 or 15 minutes away. In addition to favas and saffron, this dish needs chorizo and black sausage, and lacon, or salt pork, but none of those would pass through Customs, I'm afraid. 

Also in my basket of great tastes from Spain is a small tin of bonito del norte en aceite de oliva, an excellent tuna fish in olive oil, and mermelada de tomate, this tomato marmalade from the province of Cantabria. These, plus olive oil, are excellent toppings for a toasted bread, or tostada, that we often eat when we are out for a  late morning snack.

Last, but not least--certainly not least by weight--is the kilogram of Mediterranean sea salt I tucked in the basket at the last minute. I really didn't want to take a whole kilo, but that is how it is packaged. We live in the Torrevieja area, which is famous for its salt lakes, but the salt processed here is the type that is often found on the roads of northern Europe in the winter. You have to go a bit farther north on the coast toward Alicante to find the huge mountains that eventually turn into table salt. We see them on the way to and from the airport, and stopping at the salt museum is one of those things I mean to do some day when there is time. But there won't be time when I head up that way a couple days from now to catch my morning plane to Indianapolis. I'll be bringing some great tastes from Spain in my suitcase with me.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Callosa del Segura

Like many Americans, I spent last weekend sifting through paper receipts and scouring electronic records, preparing my federal income taxes. I made the deadline--even uploading my electronic filing "early" on April 14, but I still had to send data and a paper check for a 2011 IRA contribution before the deadline, which thankfully was on April 17 this year. (Even though I lived in Massachusetts for many years, I didn't remember until I read emails on Monday that April 16 was Patriots Day, and that was why the deadline was April 17 and not April 16). But Patriots Day is not celebrated in Spain, so off I went to the post office on Monday and mailed my IRA paperwork.

But then I remembered that I had to file a form with the state of Ohio, and this form also had to be sent by earth post, not electronically. Oh, bother! Off we were again on Tuesday morning to the post office. Going to the post office is rarely a speedy errand in Spain, and it was especially long that day. Plus there was an irate customer complaining about something for twenty minutes in front of me in line.

When we finally finished in the post office, and went out again to the lovely spring day, we both felt that we deserved a day off in the sun. So we hopped back in the car and headed out of town to the small city of Callosa del Segura. According to a regional map, Callosa is prehistoric, dating from the Bronze Age, and its name may be a Greek word meaning "beautiful place," but transmitted to modern times through the Arabic, in which it meant "fortified castle." For me, it is first and foremost the mountain I can sometimes see outside my bathroom window, or rather, the town that is nestled up next to the striking craggy mountain in the distance.

After getting to Callosa, we found a parking place on the side of the Mercado de Abastos, the building housing the indoor market of fish, meat, produce and sundry stalls. We stopped first for sustenance in the form of cafe con leche and a shared media tostada. We read the morning newspaper with its dreary news of promised cuts in health care and education as an effort to repair the economy of Spain. Depressing news, but it was not too difficult to put it behind us on such a warm and sunny day.

We walked across the street and into the Mercado de Abastos--the lightest and brightest indoor mercado I have seen in Spain. I am on the lookout for local products to take to a conference as a door prize gift basket, but they have to be products that will pass through U.S. Customs, and the fruits, vegetables, and of course the meats and fish were way too fresh and unprotected to pass that test. So we just wandered through and left by  another door, and that is where we saw the large sign saying that the mercado had recently been restored and refurbished and that was why it was the lightest and brightest and cleanest-looking mercado I have seen in Spain.

We continued wandering through the streets, and a gentleman stopped us and insisted upon helping us find whatever it was we were looking for ... and directed us to the jardin: "Turn right at the next street and walk down until you see it--it is a beautiful garden," he said in English.

And it is. One side of the plaza is bordered by the Calle del Idioma Esperanto (see below). The opposite end fronts on to the local colegio, the elementary school, and since it was 12:30 or 1:00, the area was filled with women and men standing in groups and waiting for their young children to be released from  morning classes in time to go home for the traditional Spanish luncheon meal with all the family. In between is a large expanse with all types of trees and walkways, and always, that wonderful, odd-shaped Callosa mountain in the background.

It's easy to get in to Callosa--you just follow the mountain. It was harder to get out. We turned the GPS on, but Gloria had not caught up with the construction that was happening, and we found two desvios (detours) on the way (or was it one desvio viewed twice?). At any rate, we made it home for a late lunch, even by Spanish standards, and then each went on to our usual afternoon activity, a siesta and piano practice for one, desk work for another. It was a good day.

Sign of the Times

It's no secret that Spanish time is slower than English time, or German time, or Danish time, or any of the time schedules adhered to by the mass of immigrants in this area. We recently had an appointment at 9:00 AM with a German contractor for the installation of heating panels. Since he was German we expected him at 9:00 on the dot, or possibly even 8:59. What we hadn't realized was that the installation itself would be carried out by a Spanish colleague. The installer came at 9:30.

Formal governing meetings in Spain, such as those of the apartment building association where we used to live, routinely are set for, say, 6:00 for the "first convocatorio" and 6:30 for the second. That means that if a quorum does not present itself by 6:00, the meeting does not take place, but at 6:30 the second convocatorio can take place without a quorum. A quorum almost always shows up anyway--but only at 6:30, never at 6:00.

If you are invited to a Spanish home for dinner at 7:30 PM, you run the risk of finding your host still in the swimming pool should you actually arrive at 7:30. Indeed, a former Spanish teacher once told me that the only time you would show up for dinner at the appointed time would be if you were having paella, which has a lengthy but precise preparation period, and it would be discourteous to be late.

A more recent Spanish teacher tells our class frequently that all Spaniards now realize that "English time" is much earlier than Spanish time--but she hasn't said that Spaniards actually recognize a stated English time as being the proper time to arrive for an appointment.

Therefore it was amusing, but not a surprise, to find the following sign in the local English optical shop this week:

Se ruega que llegue 15 minutos antes de la hora de su cita.
[Literal translation: It is requested that you arrive 15 minutes prior to the time of your scheduled appointment.]
 And immediately below it was the official English translation:
Kindly arrive at the appointed hour for your appointment.

Spanish Street Names

It has been twenty years since I opened a paper that I was presenting to an international conference by speaking in Esperanto. I don't quite remember the exact point I was making, or the quotation that I had gotten translated into Esperanto (through a call for help to a forum on CompuServe, a pre-Internet online service) but it had something to do with electronic networking and standards, and the fact that even if standards are developed, it doesn't do much good unless everyone accepts them more than in name only--they must learn them. Aside from the point of my conference paper, I believe in the value of a language that can be used as a second language by native speakers of any language of the world to overcome communication barriers. Rather than Esperanto, though, I have come to believe in a type of international or global English. But this is a topic for another post.

When I came across this street sign on one side of the main plaza in Callosa del Segura this week, I was overjoyed. Calle del Idioma Esperanto means "Street of the Esperanto Language." The made-up, idealistic language of Esperanto lives, at least by being honored with a street name in a small city in Alicante province in Spain.

Spain honors so many people, ideas, and causes in its street names that it can be a joyful learning experience just to drive through various neighborhoods and see the street signs. (It would be a good idea to have a 3G device with you to Google the names, though, as it is not likely that you will know them all off the top of your head).

Before we moved to where we live now, we seriously considered buying in a section bordered by the Avenida de la Opera. There we could have had our choice of living on Calle Enrico Caruso or Calle Maria Callas or the streets of other opera stars. I have a friend who lives proudly on Emmeline Pankhurst street, surrounded by streets with the names of other important female political figures. There are numerous Dr. so-and-so streets in the business section of Ciudad Quesada where I often look for parking places when I go to the post office, but since these are Spanish-surnamed doctors and the screen on my phone is too small to access the Internet, I have yet to find out who these doctors are.

A few evenings ago I noticed that the main street of one of the major residential areas through which we drive when going to the hospital is the Avenida Asociacion Victimas del Terrorismo. I am all for honoring the victims of terrorism, but I really don't think I want to be reminded of terrorism and its victims every time I give my street address, or every time I come out of my house. So I am glad that I live in a development where the street names were chosen to honor the nature that surrounds us. We have Olive Street, Jasmine Street, Mimosa Street, Eucalyptus Street, Oranges Street (inexplicably the street farthest away from the orange grove), Geranium Street, Mint Street, Lavender Street, Carob Tree Street, and another street called Galan de Noche, a plant I can't find in any Spanish-English dictionary. But they all sound more exotic in Spanish anyway. And we have two avenidas: Avenida del Romero (Rosemary Avenue) and Avenida del Tomillo (Thyme Avenue). Perhaps if we expand we can add some Parsley and Sage.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Economic Changes

One measure of the way the worldwide economic crisis has hit Spain is the statistics about unemployment: approaching 25% according to the most recent reports, and nearly 50% of youth between the ages of 16 and 24. Another measure is the general strike of March 29, which did not cripple the country by any means, but was inconvenient, especially if one was traveling, and a noticeable reminder that government workers and services are being especially hard hit in the search for remedies. The slowdown in government services was one reason we found ourselves this past week in the waiting rooms of San Jaime, the private hospital in Torrevieja, for a third cataract operation.

This operation was not for me, but for Johannes. I have had two cataract procedures in the past two years, one on each eye, both successful, and both paid for by the public health system of Spain (which generally pushes costs for non-Spanish European citizens back to the "home" European country as in typical EU fashion, but the system is administered and services delivered by Spain). In 2010 when I needed my first operation, I waited for a few months after getting approval from the ophthalmologist and then I got a letter from the hospital that was to do the surgery: since the three month waiting period had been reached, I now had my choice of waiting until my name came to the top of the list, or going to the private hospital, where an immediate operation would be performed at public cost. I did not need a second invitation, and after I had had one eye done this way, I was able to get the second done several months later by the same hospital, same doctor, and according to the same overflow conditions.

This time three months passed after approval for the procedure, but no letter was forthcoming. In due course we went to the hospital for which Johannes was in line, and they would not give even a guess as to when he would make it to the top of the list. Apparently the public system is no longer paying for overflow procedures at the private hospital, which should not have been a great surprise since the newspapers are filled with stories of short-term strikes at pharmacies that have not received payments by the provincial governments for the drugs they have delivered free to participants in the public system.

On the day of Johannes' operation, the waiting room was not as crowded as it was when I had my two procedures, and instead of waiting several hours from beginning to end, it was less than two. As I sat in the outer waiting room and listened to the voices around me, I was surprised that most of the patients were Spanish. We were surrounded by families in which the women were well-dressed, with beautifully colored and styled hair. I had expected that they were European citizens who had elected to pay for a quicker procedure. But there was only one other English-speaking couple and at least four Spanish-speaking. It seemed as though Spanish women of a certain age were the patients; as this was cataract surgery, they were probably in their seventies or near them on either side. When Johannes came out an hour later from his procedure, he gave me the inside story of the conversations in the inner waiting room.

You have to disrobe and put on a hospital gown when you have cataract surgery here, and apparently that prompted the subject of clothing. The women were chatting about how, when they were growing up, they would have been dowdily dressed in straight black, dark grey, or navy blue skirts at this age, and certainly not undressing for cataract surgery. It is true; even today you see many short, older Spanish women, whether  in cities or pueblos, in their tight black skirts, nondescript dark blouses, dark hose, and flat black shoes. I look at them and guess that they are in their seventies or eighties, but I know that some, especially in the small towns, are only in their sixties or maybe even fifties. Only a generation, or perhaps two, separated the stylish women I saw in the waiting room from their mothers or grandmothers in the old-Spanish uniform. A generation, probably an education, jobs, the invasion of their country by northern Europeans, and presumably a little more wealth.

But the younger generation of today is probably not going to see the positive change that their parents did, if the country does not find a way to save its economy from itself and from the "Overdose of Pain" prescribed by the EU.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Semana Santa

Quick before we reach Easter Sunday, I need to write a bit about Semana Santa, Holy Week. Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, of course. I really got into the spirit of Palm Sunday two weeks ago when we were in Alcalá de Henares. As we wandered through the old town on Sunday morning, we suddenly heard the sound of tambor (drum) and corneta (cornet) music, and when we followed it, we came upon a cofradía practicing the special procession that is carried out in many communities in Spain on all the days of Semana Santa, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.

Each community is different. Some put on very elaborate and expensive floats and parades; others are more humble. Generally the processions are held at night in celebration of the various events in the life of Jesus during Holy Week. Each float and procession is sponsored by a brotherhood (cofradía) and there may be more than one procession each day, leaving from different points in the city and following different routes. Domingo de Ramos, Palm Sunday, is the first procession and the parade is a triumphant one, depicting Jesus entering Jerusalem, with people waving palms in welcome. Here is a small picture of the procession as it is celebrated in Alicante, with palms from the nearby city of Elche, which are uniquely white.

Torrevieja is the closest city to where I live. This is what its Easter procession schedule looked like:

Palm Sunday, April 1
10:00 AM: Solemn Blessing of the Palms and Processional Parade
11:30 AM: Blessing of the Branches and Procession

Monday, April 2
10:00 PM: Solemn Procession of Lunes Santo (Holy Monday)

Tuesday, April 3
10:00 PM: Solemn Procession of Martes Santo (Holy Tuesday)

Wednesday, April 4
10:00 PM: Procession of Our Father Jesus, the Sentenced
10:00 PM: Solemn Procession of the Meeting in the Via Dolorosa

Thursday, April 5
10:00 PM: Procession of Silence
11:00 PM: Solemn Procession of Silence
12:00 Midnight: Solemn Procession of the Descent into Calvary

Friday, April 6
10:00 AM: Stations of the Cross
7:30 PM: Solemn and Great Procession of the Burial of Christ

Saturday, April 7
10:00 PM: Easter Vigil

Those are just the processions, not the expositions, masses, and lectures. You can see a gallery of pictures of the parades here.

I admit that I do not attend the processions. But two weeks ago in Alcalá, on Sunday morning, we heard the sound of cornets and drums and came upon a small cofradía practicing the walk for the following week. That is the picture you see at the top of this post. Twenty-four men were walking slowly, bearing this particular float on their shoulders. The ornate statues cannot be seen in advance of the day, of course, so the bags on the platform are filled with sand to simulate the weight of marble statues. A leader walked to the side, observing carefully and telling each practicant when he needed to step a centimeter farther to the left or right. Later we came across three or four more cofradías practicing. As we watched one disappear behind a metal gate into what must be a church storage yard, a bystander told us that they practice every Sunday morning between Epiphany (January 6) and Palm Sunday. They practice several hours, in silence and in dedication. You have to admire that sort of commitment.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday / Viernes Santo

Like many people in the modern world, we live within earshot of a highway. The noise doesn't bother us much--the quiet buzz from passing cars is only noticeable outside the house or, perhaps, occasionally when windows or doors stay open and all electronic devices (computers, television, and even piano) are turned off. Only once do I recall hearing a real smashup on the highway, and everyone in our neighborhood rushed to their rooftop terrace to see the damage, but both the angle and the distance prevented me from a view.

This morning I woke up, as usual, to stillness, punctuated only by the comforting tick-tock of the bedroom wall clock and the chirping of birds. We sleep with the customary Spanish rejas (metal awnings) down to prevent thieves (who have never bothered us), cold wind (which has), and light from entering. I'm not sure whether the chirping of birds comes through because the walls of the house are thin or because the kitchen door has been opened downstairs to permit mistress Goldie out for her pre-breakfast inspection tour of her extensive domain.

This morning I lay in bed longer than usual--I can do that with breakfast brought up to me--and it was only after my butler and Goldie had returned to the bed and were breathing peacefully by my side and at my feet that I realized that it was unusually quiet. No one was snoring, but I could still hear the tick-tock and the birds. I lay iPadding in the darkness and contemplating an article I am writing, and the clock moved closer to 9:00. I think that I sensed an absence of automobile traffic on the highway a kilometer or so (as the crow flies) away. I know I did not hear the school bus roaring through and turning the corner in front of our house.

It is Viernes Santo, Good Friday, and a major holiday in Spain. Last night at 11:00 in Torrevieja the Solemne Procesión de Silencio walked through the streets at 11:00 PM, and at midnight the Solemne Procesión del Descendimiento del Calvario started from the Plaza del Calvario. All cities and town in Spain have these impressive processions during the evenings of Semana Santa, or Holy Week--some more ornate and elaborate than others. But we do not customarily drive out this late at night and we were no more aware of the nearest-by festivo than we are of highway traffic. The silence has continued throughout the night and into the morning. Though most festivos are marked with fireworks and we often awaken to the sound of firecrackers in the campo around us, Viernes Santo is not, and that makes it unique.

The silence will disappear as the day goes on. I remember previous Easter weekends when nearby towns sponsored tapas festivals, and we have read that a medieval fair is scheduled in Quesada, just across the highway, today and through the weekend. But Good Friday morning is still quiet.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Alcalá de Henares

Storks in Alcala de Henares. Photo © Johannes Bjørner 2012        
Every time I see the storks in Alcalá de Henares, it is magical. How many are there? Twenty, thirty, forty? All around Plaza de Cervantes they perch on the tops of buildings, or fly, or--at this time of year, at least--build nests. We first stumbled onto Alcalá, the Plaza de Cervantes, and the storks one June afternoon several years ago when we spent the night in this town not far outside of Madrid on a trip to catch an early morning plane out of Barrajas. In June 2009 we returned to Alcalá for an afternoon and evening with a group of Danish visitors during an engineering school reunion; we were all enchanted by watching the storks in late afternoon, as the sky turned dark blue and faded to dusk, while we waited for our restaurant to open at 8:30 for Spanish dinner. Now, the fourth weekend in March, we returned to Alcalá once again, this time with a couple we have known for forty years. We spent two nights in this old city, and that gave us the opportunity to pass through the Plaza de Cervantes many times and enjoy watching the storks go about their business.

Alcalá is also famous as the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. We visited a museum in the house of his birth. Finally. As I mentioned, we had been in Alcalá twice before, and both times arrived too late in the day for entrance to the museum. So this was a must-see on this trip. Our friends humored me and we went straightaway to the house Saturday afternoon, immediately after arriving on the regional train from Madrid, checking in to our hotel, and getting a light bite to eat at a table in the sun on the Calle Mayor, between Plaza Cervantes and the little museum. I was surprised to learn that Cervantes only lived in this house for the first four years of his life, and I read on a tourist brochure just before going that "very little is known of his early life." Still, it was interesting to see the structure of a house of that period (1547-1616). It was handsomely restored, and two rooms were devoted to Quixote first editions, or other rare volumes, in various languages.

We spent quite a bit of time walking around the old city and saw some of the Jewish quarter and some churches, and other historic sites. But I still have to see Complutense university, which dates back to 1293, so there will probably be another trip some time in the future, to meander around those ancient buildings, and to see the  storks again.