Archive for the ‘Spain’ Category

Madrid at Christmas (By Guest Contributor Alyssa Powell)

In Spain, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are celebrated with gifts and treats, feasts and parties, just as we do back home in the USA, but with a difference. It’s a great time for anyone lucky enough to be in Spain for the holidays  I’ve been living here in Madrid for a while now as a teacher, and keep discovering new twists.  They vary around the county, but here’s my version:

On Christmas Eve, my friend Alberto and his family and friends got together in their home village for a big meal, a marisco (seafood) feast. We had a brothy, delicious soup with clams and fish, and ate lots of shrimp, which we beheaded and peeled and dipped in sauce. All this was prepared by Alberto’s mom. Next came traditional, typical treats: a kind of nougat candy called turrón, chocolate truffles,  little cakes and pastries, and the best red wine they could afford.  Some very good red wine comes from Spanish vineyards.

The Catholic church is a strong influence, and many people go to church several times during the season.  Some who are less religious attend mass because it’s traditional, while others don’t go at all.

The next day, Christmas, people usually hang out with their families and open their boots (not stockings!). I had set out one of my own boots and found candy and chips inside. The family Roconas del Reyopened a few presents from Papa Noel, but most gifts are opened January 6,  Dia de Los Reyes, or Three Kings Day.  That day there was a parade in the streets, with men costumed as the Three Kings (Three Wise Men), and after the parade the kids hurried home to open their best presents.

Then it was time for another festive meal, ending with a traditional dessert:  roscón de reyes, a round cream-filled pastry with a hole in the middle and dried fruits on top. It looks a bit like a crown, and maybe that’s what it represents. Inside are hidden figures and a bean. Whoever gets the piece with the bean pays LiveBelenfor the roscón, and the one who gets the figure can expect to have good luck all year. My piece had a little duck figure. We weren’t through yet. After the festivities we took a walk to see the Belén displays around town. These are nativity scenes, some very elaborate, in shop windows. My favorite included dinosaurs. In one village I visited, there was a living Belén, with villagers playing the roles of Mary, Joseph, and shepherds.

Between Christmas and Dia de Los Reyes we celebrated New Year’s Eve, complete with fireworks, immense GrapesAtMidnightcrowds in the plazas, food and drinks. We watched the clock in Puerta del Sol, Madrid, but instead of counting down and cheering, Spaniards wait until midnight, and as the clock strikes twelve they eat one grape for each chime. You have to chew fast because if you do it correctly, you’ll have good luck all year.  Then everybody drinks champagne and heads for the bars.

Whew. All the world should enjoy the winter holidays as much as the Spanish do.  Feliz Navidad and Feliz Año!New Year's Eve


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After reading The Forgery of Venus, by Michel Gruber, I was eager to take The Prado museumanother look at the paintings in The Prado museum, in Madrid, Spain. This time with new eyes. The book is fiction, but it told me more than I ever thought I wanted to know about how artists paint and the materials and styles of 4 centuries ago.  With intriguing characters and time travel, Gruber makes the whole subject fascinating.

So here we are, fortified with a lunch of Serrano ham on crusty rolls, slices of Manchego cheese, and glasses of crisp white Spanish wine, ambling around one of the greatest museums of the world. We’re looking for Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), painted in 1656 by Diego Rodriquez de Silva y Velazquez.  And there it is on the wall, a masterpiece. It’s complicated. There’s the young Infanta Margarita, there are her maids and bodyguard, the dwarves, the dog. But there too is Velazquez himself, painting at an easel, and a mirror reflecting the king and queen. It’s unusual, to say the least.  The artist was showing what he could do with portrait and perspective, and a whole lot more.

The Prado has many more works by past masters, and we gawk until we can’t admire another amazing canvas or intricately carved piece of silver. It’s museum overload. Mercado de San MiguelSo we meander over to Mercado de San Miguel to join the crowds sipping wine and espresso and nibbling tapas at stand-up counters.  Those little plates of cheeses, ham, bits of vegetables and olives are works of art themselves. I wonder if Diego Velazquez ate them and admired their artistry, back in 1650. I’m betting he did, between brushstrokes and dinners with royalty.

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Spanish hams, Iberico jamon, Madrid, SpainThe pampered pigs of Spain live exceedingly well, up to the moment when they are “sacrificed,” as the Spaniards say, and become delectable hams. The noble pig, we learned recently in Madrid, is classified by breed, diet and region and taken as seriously as wines are in France. Ham is served in almost every restaurant; there’s even a chain, Museo del Jamon, where haunches hang by their feet on every wall.Museo del Jamon, Spain restaurants, Spanish ham

Serrano ham comes from a white pig bred in the mountains. The fresh ham is rolled in sea salt and hung to cure for 6 to 18 months, at different sea levels depending upon the region. The ham-master knows if it’s cured by inserting a splinter of cow bone into the meat and taking a sniff. When the ham is sliced, it’s dark red, not the pink of American hams which usually have nitrites added.

The ultimate ham, sweet and, it’s said, tasting of the Spanish countryside, is Iberico del Bellota.  This one comes from huge black hogs that eat nothing but acorns (bellota). All day they snort and forage around oak trees, rapidly gaining weight, until they’re ready for slaughter–traditionally, the entire family gathers to cut and preserve every precious bit of the meat. The hams are cured for up to 2 years, drying and dripping fat which changes, because of the acorn diet, to unsaturated fats high in healthful oleic acid. Spain ham, tapas, jamon

Paper-thin slices of ham are often served as tapas, great with Manchego cheese, Spanish olives and tomatoes. I’m ready to go back right now for those tapas with a nice glass of chilled white Verdejo wine.

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