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Showing posts with label Murcia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Murcia. Show all posts

Sunday, March 9, 2014

El Tiempo de Alcachofas

Estamos en Semana Santa y ya sabes que es tiempo de Alcachofas, habas y guisantes.

"We are in Holy Week and you know that this is the time of artichokes, beans, and peas."

Well, no, I have never thought of artichokes as especially a dish for the most important holiday in Spain, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, though of course I realize that eating artichokes would be appropriate for the meatless meals of Lent, or Cuaresma, as the period is called here in Spain. But yesterday morning, the first Saturday in Lent, we drove south through the countryside just to be out to enjoy the sun and crisp spring weather. We saw field upon field of large green bushy plants that certainly looked ripe for harvesting, and I suspected they may be alcachofas, or artichokes. We stopped the car for a closer inspection, and sure enough, now I am certain what an artichoke plant looks like. The leaves are quite raggedy and have prickles, sort of a combination of giant dandelions  and thistles, with, of course, a large round layered bulb, or head, growing out at angles, which is actually the flower of the plant.

Artichokes ready for harvesting. © 2014 Johannes Bjorner

Given the plenitude of artichokes, I thought I should look for some artichoke recipes to try, and given that we have just entered Lent, I figured I have five weeks in which to investigate this dish if I intend to follow local custom and serve alcachofas during Semana Santa. Truth be told, I have never found an artichoke that I really enjoyed eating. I remember the first one very well. It was in Argentina, and my mother-in-law served artichokes as a special first course. I did not even know how to eat the plant that was placed before me, but fortunately this was a very long time ago, I was young, and I was a foreigner who had not grown up on a farm, so no reason I should have known how to eat an artichoke. It didn't have to be fancy, I was relieved to see. Patiently I watched as others tore the green leaves from the bulb and dipped them in melted butter, then sucked the inside of the leaves into their mouths. Eventually I tried it myself, and they didn't taste bad as long as I soaked up enough butter. But I would just as soon have dipped anything else into the butter and then into my mouth.

Years later another neighbor made a nice bubbling hot artichoke dip, also as an appetizer, and served it informally as a spread on crackers. These artichokes were mashed, as far as I could tell, for they bore no resemblance to a solid vegetable at all. That dish was OK, too. It was pleasantly warm and had added cheese. Edible, but I didn't ask for the recipe, even though she told me that it was perfect for spontaneous get-togethers, as I was likely to have all the ingredients on hand, once I bought the canned artichoke hearts.

If I have eaten other artichokes through the years, they have been disguised and/or innocuous.

Foods from Spain tells us that Spain produces 300,000 tons of artichokes annually, making it the second largest producer in the world (I believe it follows Italy) and the largest exporter.  Moreover, our drive from San Miguel de Salinas south to Murcia province took us smack dab through the largest artichoke growing area in Spain. The Foods from Spain website also gave me some ideas about contemporary uses for artichokes, but I needed to begin on a more elementary level. I found "Twelve Recipes with Artichokes" and then "Rapid and Very Simple Recipes for Artichokes" with a Google search on alcachofa recetas. I also found directions for peeling artichokes, and this, I realize, may be one of the biggest hurdles in preparing them. Nevertheless, I will be investigating and evaluating these recipes in the coming weeks. I'll let you know if I come across something that I like. And if I don't write about alcachofas again, you'll know that I didn't find anything that seemed worth the effort. Or, perhaps that I became sated with "Ode to the Artichoke," by Nobel literature prize winner Pablo Neruda. Really.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

100 Montaditos: "The True Taste of Spain"

Two or three years ago we discovered a new cafe bar at the Habaneras shopping mall that we go to only occasionally in Torrevieja. It was 100 Montaditos (a montadito is Spanish for a small sandwich). There were 100 numbered selections on the menu, ranging from sandwiches with tuna, to ham, shrimp, salmon, beef and all sorts of good things, accompanied by salad and/or a sauce. Best of all, each sandwich only cost 1 euro, or €1.50 , or €1.80. You selected from the menu, wrote down your choices, and delivered your list to the counter, where you also paid and picked up your drink--most probably a caña of beer for €0.90 or a jarra (mug) for €1.00. A little bit later--well, perhaps longer than you would have wished, but this is Spain--your name would be called and you would get up from your table to collect your little plate of montaditos, which in addition to the sandwiches had a few potato chips on it. Just the thing for a light, interesting, inexpensive and not totally diet-wrecking snack while out shopping. We made it a practice to stop there whenever we were in the area, but alas, that was not often.

About a year ago we started driving to La Condomina shopping mall in Murcia, a city about 45 minutes away. This is a much larger mall, but the main attraction was an Apple store, where I was learning how to manage my new computer and where not much time went by before Johannes bought an iPad. We were pleasantly surprised to discover a 100 Montaditos in La Condomina and it became a tradition that every time we went to the Apple store we would get a montadito.

And then we took a trip to Zenia Boulevard, the new mega-shopping center that opened last September on Orihuela Costa. This was a bittersweet expedition, because I am convinced that this grand shopping center was supposed to be "ours." When we bought our house in Algorfa, we were told that the plans were approved for a great new shopping center within walking distance, and that construction would begin soon. That was pre-economic crisis, and the space for which our shopping center was planned is now an empty eyesore. Presumably more money flowed to the developers from the other location than from our town, so there is now a fancy shopping mall just 20 minutes down the toll road from where "ours" was supposed to be. And it's just aggravating that the toll is so unreasonably high that, on the four or five times we've gone to La Zenia, we drive out of our way to go through the free countryside and avoid the tollgate. The important thing about Zenia Boulevard, though, is that it also has a 100 Montaditos.

We made a quick trip to Murcia and La Condomina a week ago. We needed a connector for a new camera bought in Singapore to replace the one that is now resting on the bottom of  Halong Bay. We got that quickly, and we stopped for a montadito. As I scanned the 100 selections, I was surprised to see a few new ones on the menu. (Presumably some of the poorer sellers had been removed to make way for the new). The new were five sweet montaditos (numbered 95-99, all involving chocolate and all on "chocolate bread.") One was with "cookies and cream" and another was with "grageas de chocolate," which looked very much like M&Ms. Well, I didn't indulge in a dessert montadito that time, but I didn't forget them, either.

On Wednesday of this week we went to La Zenia for a very specific purpose: to look at bathroom fixtures at Leroy Merlin to replace a shower and vanity in our upstairs bathroom. We got out of the house early and were at Leroy Merlin just after they opened at 10:00. We spent a fair amount of time there and when we completed our work, we were more than ready for a cup of coffee. Does 100 Montaditos even have coffee? I had become so used to having a meat or seafood montadito and a little beer that I didn't remember if they made coffee. But as we entered, Johannes spied the coffee machine and so we ordered coffee. And I thought one of those chocolate montaditos would be just the thing to accompany coffee.

So that is what I had, a chocolate montadito composed of just-baked, or at least just-warmed, chocolate bread, chocolate cream and a thin chocolate sauce, and several M&Ms. I seldom indulge in such a treat, but chocolate genes run in my family, and every once in awhile, they assert themselves. As I bit into the chocolate montadito, I almost swooned, grinned, and said, "My father would have loved this," for that is where my chocolate gene came from. Until he died, my father enjoyed a little piece of chocolate every day, he told me--just a little piece.

As I was looking for links to the 100 Montaditos site to embed in this post so you could see the menu, I found one that I did not expect to see. In addition to the Spanish menu, I found another menu, in English. It seems that 100 Montaditos has opened in the United States to offer "The True Taste of Spain." There are several outlets in the Miami area, and one has made it as far north as Orlando. In an ironic twist, the 100 Montaditos in Orlando is located less than a mile from where my parents lived for almost 20 years. My father would have loved it.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Changing Time(s)

I went for my second One to One training session on my new Macintosh computer on Thursday this week at the Apple Store in Nueva Condomina in Murcia. Last time I worked with Miguel, who spoke excellent English. This time I worked with Maria, who claimed "poco ingles," and I was feeling adventurous, so we spoke Spanish. Maria started me out with the various features in the dock. When we looked at the Dashboard, I realized that the clock still showed Cupertino time. That wasn't useful to either one of us, and Maria quickly showed me how to change it to Madrid time.

I think she mentioned something about an alarm clock function, but I must have missed that and only heard her say that she didn't need a despertador to wake up because she had two cats. This I understood right away, as we have one cat, Goldie, who would never permit any other cat competition in the house. Goldie usually awakens us promptly at 6:00 AM to inform us that it is time for us to open the doors so she can go outside to inspect her fiefdom. "Si, entiendo," I said, laughing, "tenemos una gata y ella nos despertamos cada mañana a las 6:00."

'No," said Maria, "my cats have been waking up at 5:00 lately." And that's when I remembered that for the past two mornings, Goldie also had been making her appearance at 5:00.

I took this opportunity to verify with Maria that it was this coming weekend that Spain changes from winter time, the equivalent of standard time, to summer time, the equivalent of the quaintly named Daylight Savings Time (just how, exactly, does DST "save" daylight, where does it store it, and why does it not increase in value over six months of summer, anyway?)

Yes, Maria and I agreed, the cats must sense that we are about to change time.

And so we did, last night, or rather, this morning, at 2:00 AM. Or at the hour at which we went to bed, which was considerably earlier than 2:00 for me. And sure enough, Goldie let us sleep this morning until 7:00 AM on the clock, which was the old standard of 6:00 AM. How considerate of her!

And just as Maria had told me, the time on my new computer changed automatically overnight. That didn't surprise me--Macs are not the only computers that change time automatically as long as you have the right location built in. (What I'm waiting for is one that automatically adjusts to whatever time zone I am in without me having to tell it that I have changed locations.) I am using the new computer to write this blogpost, but it is slow going. Macs have changed considerably in the 15 years since I last used one on a daily basis, and it is going to take me some time to catch up.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Now that I've had a cataract operation on both eyes, my vision has improved so much that I only need to wear glasses inside the house to see subtitles on the television screen, and outside the house to see long distances and take advantage of their UV-protection and automatic darkening in sunlight. Last Tuesday morning was one in all-too-many cloudy days we had this week, so it was not terribly surprising that I managed to get myself outside the house and into the car for a trip to Ikea without my glasses. Four locked locks (garden gate, sunroom, front door iron grill, and the wooden front door itself) separated me from my glasses, so I just said, "I don't think I'll need them today," and decided I would be a passenger for the day.

Since I don't drive without glasses, I was not the one driving when we stopped quickly in a rotary at a crossing for the brand new tram running between the center of Murcia city and the outskirts of town where the commercial superstores are located--though I was the one who noticed that the light had turned red and a tram was approaching. Unfortunately the driver of the car behind us did not see the red light, nor the tram, and he did not stop. Smack! A collision, or choque.

This was our first choque in Spain. Spanish law allows those involved in minor accidents to fill out an accident report and file it with the insurance companies if both parties can agree amicably to the circumstances. Since the other car had plowed into our right rear fender with his left front fender, and both cars were still operable (though our tire was fast deflating) it seemed minor. But we did need to communicate.

The other driver spoke no Spanish, and no English. But we were lucky: he spoke Swedish. Native speakers of Danish can usually understand Swedish, and Swedes can understand Danish. This non-native speaker of Danish and non-speaker of Swedish had a little more trouble, especially when the Swede assumed that I understood everything and could carry on a conversation. I was in no mood to carry on a conversation, actually, and this one seemed to go on for ages. It took an hour and a quarter to exchange names and contact information, take pictures of the damage and license plates of both cars, find the insurance papers (the other driver was only borrowing the car he was driving), call our insurance company to report and verify procedure, fill out the papers (in Spanish), translate them to the satisfaction of the other driver, and get signatures. We parted amicably, though the other driver drove off and we still had a tire to change.

So now we are driving around--at no more than 80 kilometers per hour--on a little donut spare tire until Tuesday, when we meet the insurance adjuster at a car repair shop nearby and get delivery of a free loaner for however long it takes to fix the damage. If it had not been so clear that we were not at fault, we could have been liable for a 250€ deductible, but our insurance company has already told us that we don't need to worry about that. Getting a fully operating car again can't come too soon for me. Even though Spain lowered the maximum speed limit from 120 to 110 last week in a fuel economy measure, 80 kph is very poky indeed when driving along a motorway. In fact, it's almost dangerous. If you don't have blinking lights on, you might even get rear-ended.

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.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Mediterranean Breakfast at Ikea

It's been a long time since we made the little trek to Ikea in Murcia, and we have determined that the Ikea food shop has the best prices on marinated herring for our weekly smørrebrød. Of course, we were also thinking of several other small house improvements that could be made. So this morning after an early dental appointment, we headed off through San Isidro to the E15 and then south to Murcia. I examined every white storage unit on the display floor to find something for my office, and the man of the house concentrated on side chairs for the living room. When we both had reached an intolerable point of indecision, we cut through to the cafe. I had noticed earlier that they were offering coffee and a tostada for one euro per person.

Even at 11:30 AM, the special "Mediterranean Breakfast" was still available. The server placed a large baguette and a generous piece of jamón serrano on each plate, and then added two individual plastic containers of what I assumed was jam or jelly. She also gave us each a coffee cup and told us to help ourselves at the coffee bar.
We found a table at the window, looking out onto a striking display of magenta midday-flowers. And as I tackled my baguette, I realized that this was not jelly--the plastic containers cups contained generous servings of olive oil and tomato puree. This was a true Mediterranean breakfast--my favorite media tostada con tomate, with the added luxury of the slice of jamón serrano. Plus the cup of cafe con leche, and we could have gone back for seconds of that. For one euro, this has got to be the best deal on the planet! The normal price of a cafe con leche most places has slipped up to the €1.20 or €1.30 range of late, a tostada is another euro, and the jamon would cost even more. Ikea's Mediterranean Breakfast puts even McDonald's dollar menu breakfast selections to shame.

The placemat on our breakfast tray was advertising another new Ikea menu item: tapas suecos, or Swedish tapas. A selection of three, each for a half euro! The specific tapa promoted here was bacalao con espinaca, a cod and spinach ball. Alas, the tapas will have to wait for another day. Even after we decided on the storage unit, chair, and some new dining room curtains, and got everything into or onto the car, we still weren't hungry again. I barely remembered to rush back in to the food store to buy the herring we had come for, and some bottled water for the trip home.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Trip to the Bodega

Last Thursday we took a bus tour inland to the village of Jumilla, in Murcia province. It was pleasant riding up high in a large tour bus; even though some of the roadway was familiar to us, we saw vegetation from a different angle than when passing through the countryside lower to the ground in a common car.

Our destination was the Finca Omblancas, a small winery just outside the town of Jumilla, which is home to at least ten wineries and bodegas. We had a spectacularly informative tour of the winery, which was purchased by its present family owners in 2002, who have made huge investments in modernizing production methods and improving quality.

Our tour started out in the vineyards, where the slightest touch of autumn coolness was making its welcome entry after a long hot summer. We moved inside to see the chute where grapes are delivered, dumped, and inspected for the second time (the first inspection is done by hand-pickers out in the vineyard). Then we went down to the huge stainless steel vats where the grapes and their juice are collected and ferment. It was here that I learned about the monastrell grape, a variety unique to Mediterranean countries, and the only grape that survived the Phylloxera epidemic that destroyed most of the vineyards of Europe in the late 19th century.

We passed on to the wine cellar and tasting room, where we tried three of the Omblancas wines--all interesting and worth a purchase--and then on to a nearby restaurant, where we enjoyed one of those lovely Spanish menú del día three-course luncheons. I had a wonderful gazpacho and finger-licking lamb chops. And this menú featured two more Omblancas wines, in generous quantities.

If I had written this post immediately after hearing about the processing and the monastrell grape, while we were still in the vat room, I would be able to tell you many more facts about wine making and Omblancas. But since we proceeded to the wine cellar and the luncheon, those facts floated out of my head with the flow of wine, so if you want to know more, you will have to follow the links highlighted here, and also, perhaps, to an interesting book called Let's Open a Bottle: My Journey through the Spanish Wine Revolution.

And did I mention how nice it was to have someone else driving the bus on the way home?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Summer Shopping Sundays

Summer Sundays in Spain are different from winter Sundays, at least on the coast. During July and August people from the north of Spain flock to the southern and eastern costas, and people from the interior parts of the southern and eastern provinces also flood outwards to the beaches. Locals who live year-round on the coast sigh and moan about the lack of parking spaces, but they know how their bread is buttered, or more precisely, adorned with olive oil: tourism.

I have another reason to look forward to the thousands of tourists who come during these weeks. The arrival of tourists to an official tourist region means store openings on Sundays. Yes, Spain still lives most of the year with Sunday being a "day of rest" from commercialism, as long as you don't count the busy Sunday outdoor market or the hundreds of restaurants, bars, and cafeterías that do big business on the "day off." But for Sundays in December and the summer holidays, the larger grocery stores and entire shopping centers that are located in tourist areas are given special dispensation to stay open on Sunday to cater to tourists.

Everyone, I think, loves it. You do not hear just English, German, French, and Scandinavian voices comparing prices and value in Carrefours, Lidl, Consum, and Eroski on Sunday. You also hear Spanish, and you see lots of Spaniards pushing gigantic shopping carts filled with clothing, shoes, electronics, and food. The entire Gran Plaza shopping center had been open on summer Sundays when we lived in Roquetas, and we had noticed that nearly every grocery, hipermercado, and large hardware and building supply store that we have entered here on the Costa Blanca also carry signs advising that they are open on Sunday in July, August, and the first half of September.

Which is why we skipped our usual visit to the local outdoor market this morning and headed to the Ikea in Murcia. They had been out of the shelving we need for the kitchen on our last visit, and their online site now showed that stock had been replenished. We have gone so often to this Ikea that we know the shortest and easiest way, and we have it down to just about a 45 minute ride, only the last five minutes of which are heavy with traffic.

But today we noticed that there was practically no traffic during the last five minutes, and when we approached the parking lot in less than five, we realized there were no cars--none at all--in the parking lot. Sure enough, the sign on the door listed the Sundays and festivos that Ikea is open, but there was a big blank next to the month of agosto. We drove around to several other big box stores, and even parked and went into a shopping mall, to see whether there were any signs that anything might be open in the next few hours. A few other cars were doing the same thing, and the voices of disappointment we heard were Spanish.

Giving special tourism dispensation is a local prerogative. Obviously the officials who are authorized to make this decision in the province and city of Murcia have chosen not to allow Sunday opening during the summer months. Oh, the frustration! I had already been anticipating my favorite treat from Ikea's cafeteria for lunch. But that was counting my shrimp before they had nestled down on an open-faced sandwich.

Back in the car we turned again toward Alicante province and home. I remembered years ago when we lived in northern Massachusetts--still under blue laws at that time, but no more--and we would drive across the border into New Hampshire to shop on Sunday. We even bought one of our cars one Sunday in New Hampshire. Now we passed by our house in Montebello and the open-air market, which was still going strong and tying up traffic, and proceeded on to the Habaneras shopping center on the outskirts of Torrevieja. Everything was open. I noticed that even McDonald's had a sign out saying they serve breakfast from 9:00 until noon (previously they never opened until 11:00). I wonder if that is permanent, or summer-time only.

We spent an hour in the AKI home DIY center, and came out with above-bed lamps, energy-saving bulbs, and the electric cable and switches to install them. So not all was lost. At least we got something for the house, and we still had time left to do a home project on this Sunday in Spain.