Looking for something to drink in Spain?

Soon after the late breakfast coffee is finished, people in Spain seem to begin to look for something to drink. In this season the heat begins to sap your energy already by noon. So a glass of Sangria is never unwelcome. There are as many recipes for Sangria as there are bartenders, so apart from the constant red wine and sour fruits, the proportion of triple sec, brandy and sugar vary widely. The Family had a large variety ranging from a nice bitter pre-lunch drink to a sweetish late-afternoon cooler. I tried the Tinto de Verano a couple of times. It is similar to the Sangria but seems not to have the sugar.

Late in the trip I discovered Cava. When you walk into a restaurant and they offer you a free glass of Cava, it is hard to refuse. Later, as I contemplated whether to ask for a glass of red wine, a waiter came by saying the bottle of Cava had to be finished. Again, an offer hard to refuse. Dry sparkling Champagne-like wines are not my favourite accompaniment to food, but the Spanish weather makes them more acceptable.

In a trip through Spain you will have to make a special effort if you want to miss sherries. I had an fresh tasting Manzanilla while watching the afternoon sun baking the walls of the Alhambra. In less exotic surroundings I tried out a nuttier Amontillado. I did put in an effort to avoid this and try the regular wines instead.

My trusty fall-back was the Vino Tinto, typically a Rioja or a Ribero del Duero. The ones I liked best used the grape known as Tempranillo (aka Tinto Fino), often mixed with small amounts of other varieties. A few places had Riojas made with Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz (Syrah), which also turned out to be interesting and worth trying. I was pleasantly surprised by Granada wines. They have recently been awarded the Designation of Origin (DO) status which protects their special local character. My exposure to Spanish wine is less than two weeks old. It has been a wonderful learning experience.

Interestingly beer is a common drink in Spain. It seems that Spain is the forth largest producer of beer in Europe. I found this surprising, given the deep roots wine has in the culture. The beer of Spain is light, and had in small quantities. I ordered my first beer on a blazing afternoon in Seville, and it came in a small 20 cl glass. San Miguel 1516 is a common brand, bitter and light. I was told to try the Alhambra 1925. It is very individual, and a little heavier. The bottle is very distinctive, as you can see from the featured photo.

I wish I had found good teas in Spain. There are many tisanes, but I love aromatic black teas. This is not a Spanish drink. I’m sure there’s much more to find. I cannot possibly have explored every drink in such a vast country within two weeks.

Spanish bread

The 17th century Spanish painter, Murillo, caught the texture of his country’s bread perfectly. While looking at a large canvas, I saw this detail in one corner and took the featured photo. It seems that Spanish bread has not changed in three or four centuries.

If one is used to baguettes from France or the crusty broetchen of Germany, then this seems very different. But the main difference seems to be that the crust is very soft. It is possible that this bread is baked in an oven whose temperature is much smaller. The bread is a little more doughy, which could also be due to the same low temperature baking. As a result, this bread is perfect for soaking up olive oil.

The wonderfully fresh food of Spain

This lovely plate of fresh food was part of our dinner. Olive oil is drizzled over the toast. Then it is covered with avocado and topped with salmon in one case, and a base layer of tomatoes topped with Iberian black ham in the other. Some more olive oil is poured over everything. The taste of the food preserves the freshness of the ingredients. That is what I think of as Mediterranean food, and Spain has it in spades.

As for the olives, Spain has extended the variety of olives beyond what I’ve eaten before. The ones in the plate here are spicy (you can see a bit of bay leaf in the photo).

While we shared this plate The Family said, "They deal so effectively with the hot weather in their food. Why can’t we do the same?" I held my tongue. After all she insists on scalding hot tea irrespective of the weather. She thought for a while and said "Our tomatoes are not so tasty." That was something I could agree with.

A Tapas Experience

Our first evening in Barcelona was spent in a lovely bar in the Eixample district. I understand that the notion of tapas started with bars serving little eats to customers so that they would stay on for a second drink. Unfortunately, these little eats are no longer free, or even cheap.

We sat outside the friendly neighbourhood bar. After the heat of the day, The Family wanted a Sangria. I decided to have a glass of Rioja. The little dishes kept coming: anchovies, local ham, a couple of tostadas, grilled chilis, a wonderful blue cheese. We stayed on for another glass of wine. People from the neighbourhood dropped into the bar in ones and twos. A small birthday party was in progress in a neighbouring table.

As we munched a fresh and light tostada, The Family said "It’s all so fresh and light." The toast, for example, had tomatoes, greens and smoked salmon with olive oil. Later the waiter got us a simple thing he wanted us to taste. "Totally local", he said. It was bit of toast soaked in fragrant olive oil and some grated tomato on top. Light and simple.

It was a lovely relaxed evening, exactly what tapas is designed to create.

A Summer of Tigers

Spain has lodged in my imagination since I read Pablo Neruda as a teenager, and was led through him to the Spanish poets Quevedo and Garcia Lorca. Before that was an exposure to the painters Goya and Velazquez, and then, inevitably, Picasso. So when I found I had to attend a meeting in Spain, I thought we could make a longer trip. The Family agreed.

En el fondo del pecho estamos juntos,
en el cañaveral del pecho recorremos
un verano de tigres,
al acecho de un metro de piel fría,
al acecho de un ramo de inaccesible cutis,
con la boca olfateando sudor y venas verdes
nos encontramos en la húmeda sombra que deja caer besos.

In the bottom of our hearts we are together,
In the cane field of the heart
A summer of tigers,
Lurking in a meter of cold skin,
Lurking in a bunch of untouchable skin,
With the mouth smelling of sweat and green veins
We are in the wet shadow that rains kisses.

Pablo Neruda
Furies and Sufferings

The easiest question to answer is "Will it rain in Spain?" In June it’s unlikely, unless you are in Bilbao. The temperature, on the other hand, is harder to discuss: between 26 and 18 Celcius in Barcelona, an average variation between 29 and 13 Celcius in Madrid and Granada. I was surprised that Seville could swing as high as 32 Celcius. It sounds much more comfortable than Delhi and Mumbai in the last couple of months.

The Family and I discussed what we associated most strongly with Spain. The one thing I definitely want to do is to visit the Prado in Madrid and see the painting called Las Meninas by Velazquez (picture below). The Family is looking forward to the Miro collection in Barcelona.

We ruled out bull fights; not our cup of blood. Football is definitely on the cards. We watch the football World Cups fairly regularly, but don’t watch club matches. Still, we will try to see a game.

Carlos Saura’s movies, Flamenco and Carmen are stuck in our memories. A little reading told us that Seville or Granada are likely to be best for Flamenco, although Madrid as the capital will also attract talent. We’ll try all of them. We have to start looking for tickets.

Madrid and not Barcelona? Not possible; it’s the city of Picasso, Miro and Dali, and also city of Gaudi, Cadafalch and Muntaner. We agreed that it would be a great place to spend a few days walking around and enjoying the Tapas and Vermouth. A cousin who used to go for meetings in Spain every few weeks told us that there are more pickpockets in Barcelona than in Madrid. This turns out to be widely reported. There is even a guide on how to report thefts to the police. There are warnings about taxis in Barcelona as well. This begins to sound like Delhi. We do enjoy Delhi in spite of many problems.

Farm-to-table

The registrar of marriages and deaths decided many years ago that The Family and I would forever celebrate Einstein’s birthday. So this Albert’s day we went off to have a nice dinner at one of our new favourite restaurant: The Bombay Canteen. When it opened a few years ago it was an instant sensation, with its completely re-imagined Indian food.

The first time we went there we had something they called the Arbi Tuk. As you can see in the featured photo, it looks totally undistinguished: like a simple dish of chopped onions and tomatoes. A mixture like this on top of crisp puris is a staple of street food all over Mumbai. Not only does this clever dish look like the traditional bhel puri, it even fools your palate for a moment after you bite into it. Then you realize that the puri is not puri, it is fried arbi (taro). Its a lovely fresh taste. We talked to chef Thomas Zacharias, and he gave us a plateful of one of the ingredients to taste. The beans which are chopped into it are fresh, and hard to find in the markets. I asked him where he sources his flavourful tomatoes, and he shrugged. The Bombay Canteen is famous for taking extreme care to source local vegetables from local farmers.

Halim with khamin roti

Every time we go to this restaurant there is something new on the menu. This time around the list of new dishes included the Haleem. We consider ourselves to be Haleem experts. The deep umami flavour of mutton was satisfactory, but over this rode a wonderful new flavour of roasted jowar. We would go back to a restaurant only for a Haleem like this. We consider ourselves lucky to have found this place before we knew what a lovely Haleem they make.

We ordered Thomas’ version of a tarte tatin, called the Guava Tan-ta-tan. It is was the ultimate in street flavour. The Family and I love to eat guavas from street-side vendors, cut open with a little red chili and salt sprinkled on it. This tarte tatin was made with guavas instead of apples, and came with a scoop of red chili ice cream on it, placed in a plate smeared with runny and spicy guava jelly.

Alice Waters may have started the farm-to-table movement in California, but The Bombay Canteen has perfectly adapted it to Mumbai.

One worry you never have in Chicago

One of the recurring themes of Westerns is the cattle drive. Most of these drives used to end in Chicago. So, if you eat steaks, then you could suspect that you might be able to get good food in Chicago. You would be right. It is possible to eat a good steak every evening at a different restaurant if you are a tourist in Chicago.

Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, Chicago

For those who like a little spice in their lives, the first bit of variety one can think of is the deep dish pizza. One Saturday evening I made my way to an old and well-known pizzeria just north of the river. This was either fun, or a big mistake. No reservations are taken, and there was a forty five minute wait. The energetic eleven year old who was our guide for the weekend was beginning to wilt. The bar food (photo above) included a few things which she was happy with, while her parents and I sampled some of the other things available at the bar. Was it worth the wait? Does Chicago stand by a lake?

Chinatown, Chicago

Earlier in the day we’d walked through Chinatown looking for good dim sum. Some of the most popular food known across the world as Chinese was invented by Chinese immigrants to the US over a century ago, but I believe dim sum is not among them. We passed interesting restaurant like the one in the photo above before reaching a place which Yelp considers one of the best for dim sum in this area.

Breakfast at Yolk, Chicago

I used to put on weight when I visited US even for periods as short as a week until I realized that I have to stay off sweets and muffins. This time around, the weather helped with working off extra calories. Some of the other tricks involve not eating muffins which come on the side of an order of fruits and yoghurt. It was easy to find places with calorie count indicated with each dish. This works as long as you stay off uncharted bits like salad dressing or bread and butter on the side.

Chicago has wonderful Italian restaurants, and Asian restaurant with amazingly good sushi. I’m told by a local authority that there are wonderful Indian restaurants; in fact such a diversity that you can eat at places which specialize in regional Indian food.

Whatever you eat, its good to remember that it started off as 96% water. It got tastier as the water was replaced by butter.

How to spot a carnivore

If you walk along the beach and you find a group of people clustered around something that has washed up, hotly discussing whether it is a lobster, you would be sure you had fallen in with a bunch of confirmed carnivores.

The Leafless and The Family stopped at this head as I was taking photos elsewhere on the beach. I realized they must have come on something interesting, so I walked over. The Family thought it was some kind of a lobster. The Leafless asked "Wouldn’t it have claws?". I agreed with both, but it was a bit of a mystery, as we all took photos of this beautiful head.

Spiny lobsters, also known as langouste or rock lobsters, are a family (Palinuridae) of about 60 species of achelate crustaceans, in the Decapoda Reptantia. -Wikipedia

A little research cleared this up. Technically we’d seen the head of a spiny lobster. I think I’ve eaten them in France. I’m certain that The Family and I have walked around farmer’s markets where there were Langoustes on sale. Energized by this sight we order a lobster for dinner. It wasn’t available, so we settled for crabs instead. If you see a crustacean with a long spiny antenna and small or non-existent claws, it is almost certainly a spiny lobster.

Eating in or eating out?

The little islands of Ritchie’s archipelago have small populations by Indian standards. Neil Island has a permanent population of about 3000, with about that many more tourists in peak season. A large fraction of the population runs restaurants. Signs such as the one in the featured photo were common. We also read one which promised " North and South Indian, Bengali, Continental, Chinese, Israeli and Bhutanese food". I had looked at these signs as indicators of where most visitors came from, but the reference to Bhutanese was a jolt. It is unlikely that there are many Bhutanese tourists here. Perhaps it is a nod to the fact that momos are popular all across the northern part of the country.

Typical beach eatery in Neil Island, Andaman

On our first day in the island, we came across this little stall on the beach. While we had a tea, the man told us about what he could get us for dinner. His recommendation was lobsters, and the price he offered was good. He insisted that The Family take down his phone number. If we ordered he would deliver the dish to our room in the hotel. Unfortunately, we never got around to ordering. There are too many walk-in options. What sea food we ate on the island was wonderfully fresh.

Buying fish on a coral island

Farmers and fisher-folk going door to door, selling their produce or catch, was a common sight when I was a child. Direct marketing has had a comeback in recent times, with cooperatives of farmers bringing trucks of produce into cities directly to apartment buildings. On the beach destination of Neil Island in the Andaman archipelago, I saw a fisher man going door to door with an enormous fish (photo above). I don’t now what fish that is: the size of a large surmai, but neither surmai (a.k.a. king fish, or seer) nor tuna.

Fish on sale in Neil Island, Andaman

There were surprises in the fish market as well. As we passed the scrupulously clean fish market on an auto, a fisherman called out to the driver. He’d saved a large fish head for him. The auto driver bought it, and my aunt asked him how it is cooked at home. It turned out that they both had the same dish in mind: fish head cooked with lauki (bottle gourd). Meanwhile I’d had a look at what was on sale. Among the usually silvery pile of fish were others coloured a strange stippled brown. I asked for the names, but none of them rang a bell. The larger, lippy, fish was probably the tasty silver jack which I’d eaten grilled a couple of nights before. This is not the thing that Google recognizes as silver jack. Many of the fish were just called jungli-this or jungli-that (meaning wild). The fishermen were Bengali settlers, and they had just named the unfamiliar fish according to which of the familiar fish of the Bengal coast they reminded them of.

Fish in the market in Neil Island, Andaman

The fish market was in the centre of the island, and I passed it several times a day. The next time I looked in the catch was from the reefs around the island. The colourful schools of fish we’d seen darting among the corals were edible! Of course they would be; it was my assumption that they were just aquarium fish for display. The yellow fish with blue stripes had been pointed out as banana fish: clearly another made up name, since Japanese Manga was not very common on the island. I’d seen the red fish with blue and brown dots, but hadn’t bothered to ask what it was called. Clearly, a fish market in a coral island is much more colourful than a fish market in Mumbai.