Sherry days in Jerez.

The word ‘sherry’ conjures up in the mind a menagerie of wrongs. It is usually thought of as a sickly sweet dessert wine that grandma drinks at Christmas; pouring a little dram out of the bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream that has been sitting there for years, the alcohol all evaporated off and with sugar crystals sticking the cap on. This is not the sherry that confronts the visitor in Spain. 

Read More

{Rotten Sharks}

Kæstur hákarl: treated shark, to be precise. 

DSC05272.jpg

I dimly remember, quite some years back during an online video binge where I watched clips of young Americans trying out foreign sweets and objectively stupid people try ‘the world’s hottest peppers’, stumbling upon a video of ‘disgusting foods’ or some such theme. One part had two grown men eating hákarl, after sniffing it with scrunched noses and various ‘Oh, God!’ exclamations. They retched and aimed to spit it out. If you go to YouTube and type in ‘eating hákarl’ or ‘eating rotten shark’ there are pages and pages of clips, mostly homemade, mostly loud young Americans, eating and overreacting to this Icelandic delicacy. There is indeed even one clip involving Gordon Ramsay retching at it on his own show, and even Andrew Zimmern went to shoot an episode of his Bizarre Foods series there and said ‘That’s hardcore. That’s serious food. You don’t want to mess with that. That’s not for beginners.’ 

Safe to say, I wanted to know more about this fascinating ‘weird food’ and try some. What actually was it? Was it really that bad? Would I retch or would it actually be, like a lot of oddities, perfectly fine?

DSC05250.jpg

At the base of a big slug of green cliff, where wispy waterfalls flittered downwards and some lazy horses snuffled about, was a lonely farmstead: Bjarnarhöfn. Some friendly and exuberantly fluffy dogs curled around my legs as I got out of the car; the only one in the driveway. Outside were tables be-laden with different sizes of pebbles and volcanic rocks. The farmstead resembled three white corrugated iron portacabins with red roofs. Unglamorous and workaday.

DSC05251.jpg

Inside were a couple of old local men with cracked smiles were jilting away in ancient-sounding Icelandic. One of the men was the owner. A younger lady came out of the larger hangar-like cabin and approached me with a smile. She was Italian and was working here for experience. 

‘Hey! You here to try the shark?’

‘I am indeed.’

‘You with the group?’

‘No, just me.’ I pointed to my car.

She smiled, ‘well if you want we have a group of seventeen Americans coming in 20 minutes or so if you prefer, you can join them and the English language presentation.’

I begrudgingly consented and went outside to be licked to death by the sheepdog. 

Between the farmstead and the freezing waters of the Greenland Sea was a grassy meadow dotted with cold-looking white crosses and a squat little black church made of wood. All the ecclesiastical buildings in Iceland seemed only big enough for a handful of people and had a touch of sadness about them. As if between Norse Gods, elves and modern secularity they held no particular sway.

fullsizeoutput_3a0a.jpeg

My revery was interrupted by the crunch of tire on gravel and the hiss of a coach door. Americans. The inside of the museum room was a surreal cornucopia of hunting equipment, boats, wood beams, bones and shark jaws, traditional clothing, paintings of boats and mountains, and even a stuffed seal. It was completely full, so much that the eye never really rested on anything but got more of a general idea. We watched a video that divulged facts with English dubbing.

Traditionally the huge, lumbering Greenland sharks that drift the deep waters of the north are caught, beheaded and gutted and buried in a shallow hole and covered with sand and gravel. Stones are placed on top to press the body, thus squeezing out the fluids. Depending on the season the fish ferments for 6-12 weeks. After fermentation, the shark is taken out, cut into strips, and hung out to dry. 

This odd process is a necessary evil, as the ancient sharks are full of poisonous urea and trimethylamine oxide so the fermentation and ageing made it safe for old-world Icelanders to eat.  

Then came the foodie moment of truth. Time to try one of the most legendary weird foods. A young man, I think he was the owners son, Guðjón, came out with a tray of shots and a little plastic pot full of little pasty, chalky-yellow chunks of shark. 

DSC05274.jpg

I had seen the shark outside prior to this moment. It was hanging in a shed, open-air but for the roof, shiny and dirty brown in colour and with the dark rumpled skin still on it. It reminded me of the jamón that hang in Spanish bars. It didn’t put me off but the smell of meat and urea could be detected metres away as the wind changed. I first watched the silver-haired Americans have a go. There were scrunched up faces, hands over mouths, shrugging shoulders, faux retching; the lot. I dived in with the largest chunk I could find. It tasted and smelled like some parmesan had been doused in ammonia or rubbing alcohol. There was a burn in the back of the mouth like when one has taken a shot of vodka. The texture was like a firm piece of pancetta fat. It was objectively not nice, but wasn’t horrendous. It was easily edible, but I couldn’t imagine eating large mouthfuls. 

DSC05278.jpg

Fortunately the tradition was to chase the flavour down with Brennivín - literally meaning ‘burned wine’: an Icelandic schnapps flavoured with caraway. It was an aquavit that I developed quite a taste for. The bottles used to sport a white skull on a black label and so adopted the moniker svarti dauði - Black Death, to which the tourist books still refer. 

Unfortunately I couldn't indulge at the museum as I was driving. I bid farewell to the museum, its dogs, hodgepodge of workers, and the swinging slabs of shark, and re-entered the lava fields.

Jules Verne and the Dead Berserkers

Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jökull of Snæfell, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the Kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth.

The time had come to leave the well-heeled and hip confines of the capital ‘city’, pick up my soon-to-be-beleaguered hire car and head out into the countryside. The aim for the first day, the first opportunity for me to unleash myself into the wild, was the Cornwall-shaped peninsula of Snæfellsness. 

Read More

A Food Walk Around Reykjavík

How do you get to know a place; get to know a city? You can read about it in a book or peruse the pages of Wikipedia. You can arm yourself with context. Hit the sights: stroll around the key monuments and spend time in the museums. If you go to Paris you just must go to the Louvre. But is Paris only hewn from the art of foreign and long-dead artists? No; it’s also a big confusing and sprawling mass of coffee shops, absinthe bars, high-end restaurants, chummy Brasseries and fragrant pastry shops. I learned to tolerate and even like Paris through its food. I fell in love with Spain through my belly. Portugal clung close to my heart for its multicoloured buildings as well as its good cheap wine and wonderful fish and custard tarts. Innocuous little Belgium warmed itself to me for its fine beer and Hamburg too became a personal fan favourite thanks to its pickled herrings and curried sausages. So, despite not knowing what to expect - for Iceland is no top draw on the list of foodie countries - I would try to know Reykjavik via my gut.

Read More

Feasting in Bulgaria’s Thracian Lowlands!

Bulgaria is not a name that conjures up the idea of European gastronomy. One leaves that to France, Spain, Greece, Turkey. The Balkans alway brought to mind a people between Slavic and gypsy and Mediterranean. An area of wars and power struggles; from the Ottomans to the struggles in Kosovo. An area where there used to be a place called Yugoslavia. The last thing on anyone’s mind was ‘oh, but the food!’.

Read More

Gobbling up Austria #2

Vienna was always a place that sounded classy. A place that sounded elegant; suited and booted. A city of waltzes and coffee shops, yet also a city of sausage and schnitzel. But it was also one of those cities that lacked a firm trademark image or look. For most people when you say London, Paris, Moscow, New York they already know it. You say Melbourne, Tokyo, Madrid and people know the names but not the visuals. That was Vienna to me.

Read More

Gobbling up Austria #1

Austria… What did that word conjure up? A small topography-laden blip of a once great empire? A poor man’s Bavaria? A county of bonkers hikers attacking the Alps in shorts and sturdy boots filled with fat socks? In truth Austria was one of those places I definitely knew without knowing.

Read More

Banqueting around Bavaria!

Munich’s reputation and fame, or infamy, preceded it. This was a city, a big one, whose image was one of drunken debauchery. The capital of Bavaria: a land of huge glasses of beer, busty blonde women in dirndls handing out baked pretzels and plates and platters loaded up with sausages and slabs of indiscriminate pork meat with a side helping of sauerkraut and spicy German mustard. Of course, this was a stereotype, though, like the Cotswolds in the UK or Andalucía in Spain; one where it existed for real. 

Read More

Caves and Wine

The gastronomic throngs and beatings of the Spanish Christmas were long gone, but my body had yet to shuffle off its mortal coil of fat. It was yearning to be lighter, breathe more easily when exercising and give my liver a few days off. However, my addiction to restrained hedonism and well-thought out scholarly gluttony meant never saying ‘no’ to more eating, more drinking, and more travelling. So, along with fellow face-stuffers Joy and Debbie, a car was hired and we headed deep into the southeastern lands of La Mancha; to the province of Albacete.

Read More

Food and wine in Middle Germany.

Der Hunger kommt beim Essen - Appetite emerges while eating [German proverb]

The idea was a simple few-day holiday in Frankfurt to visit friends. But, as ever, it was really an excuse to ply my body with an objectively unhealthy amount of food. This was Christmas; the frilly squares in all the towns across the land had been bejewelled with twinkling lights and countless wooden huts that steamed with food cooking in the cold. This was Christmas; and there was a lot of food to be had.

Read More

Escape to Extremadura

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word ‘escape’ in thee ways:

  1. Break free from confinement or control.
  2. Fail to be noticed or remembered by (someone)
  3. Interrupt by means of an escape key. (Computer)

Within the first section there are, as per usual with dictionaries, various sub-definitions. But in general it was point one that interested me. I needed to escape. I needed an escape. I needed to get away from the city, from work, from the drudgery of indecision, the lingering cloying heat of the summer that had dripped over into autumn, from the social pressures imbued on the self and invoked when all around are getting married and having babies. I needed to escape. 

Elena and Carlos.

Elena and Carlos.

The nonexistent readers of my first book “The Sun Struck Upwards” may cast their minds back to the chapter where I travelled around Extremadura with the help of my friends Elena and Carlos. They are natives of that hot, conquistador-spewing land and are always happy to return and show me its wonders. 

‘Luke, how do you fancy a weekend out to La Vera.’

I almost dropped my hideously expensive phone in anticipation. I signed of with a capitalised yes and cleared my diary. 

Unflattering back in 2010

Unflattering back in 2010

La Vera is a green a mountainous enclave at the top of the Cáceres province where it borders with Castilla y León. It lies within reach, a mere two and a half hours west of Madrid and covers a pancreas-shaped wedge of 888km2 in the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos. I had been there once before, way back in 2010, where I hunted for pimentón and glacial canyon streams called gargantas in villages with names like Guijo, Garganta la Olla, Cuacos de Yuste and Jarandilla de la Vera. I had picnicked with Elena’s family down by the water; we ate gooey homemade tortilla de patata and ate fresh salads made from tomatoes local to her village of Miajadas, whilst kids and teenagers jumped from the rocks into natural pools with water so clear you could see the bottom. 

The Puente Romano at Madrigal

The Puente Romano at Madrigal

I needed this more than ever. Elena and Carlos too needed a break. After a brisk drive through ever growing vistas and topography, we arrived at our campsite in the nowhere town of Madrigal de la Vera; la Puerta de la Vera. It was an isolated little eden of tents and bungalows - we opted for a touch of luxury with the bungalow - next to the garganta de alardos. Also next door were a couple of natural pools, called charcos, and an obscenely beautiful and photogenic 16m high roman bridge that bowed up and reflected primly in the limpid waters below. 

La Vera

La Vera

The Spanish countryside around the central plains and sierras is a land that makes the glutton yearn for meat. Out there the last thing that crosses your mind is lightly fried fish or heavy meat stews. The brasa is king: the grill. Lunch was had in the village. Chuleta (steak), churrasco, and a cut called abanico (exterior rib meat from the Iberian pig), all done on the grill and served with potatoes, salad, and endearingly bad local wine that tasted of pale blackcurrant juice. 

Madrigal de la Vera

Madrigal de la Vera

After a brief siesta we went exploring. Madrigal, though welcoming and covered in sunshine like all Spanish villages, was not much in the beauty department. A somewhat tumbledown and ramshackle affair with a few crumbly old houses with traditional wooden balconies and the classic drainage gutters carved into the streets; for La Vera, despite the length and dryness of the summer, is a place of water. Indeed, as we passed the village church, it could be heard gushing about through channels and waterways between the buildings. 

The naked Cascada del Diablo

The naked Cascada del Diablo

The light was start to show signs of wanting to slip away and allow dusk to set in. We had been told of a waterfall, one of the 10 most beautiful in the country, not too far away. We piled into the car and set off with the Gredos mountains to our right, starting to have its green stung gold by the setting sun. The sad truth was that the brutality of the summer had left the 20m high Cascada del Diablo, Devil Falls, somewhat dry. It was barely a trickle when we arrived. ‘Best enjoyed in Spring, after the winter snow melts.’ What was left however, though less overtly impressive, was nonetheless beguiling. A sequence of levels and smoothened out platforms pockmarked with eroded away pools that we could clamber down and fool about on. A naked waterfall. The pools that were left were dark and ominous and the rocks nearest were stained white or red by the minerals. It veered on the side of surreal.

Villanueva de la Vera

Villanueva de la Vera

We didn’t linger long and the decision was made to milk the last minutes of the daylight by strolling around neighbouring cutesy village Villanueva de la Vera. One the more postcard-worthy settlements of the valley, Villanueva had a tight and old-feeling web of cobble streets lined with white houses that all sported those indicative and quite charming gravity-defying wooden balconies. Here too abounded porticoes, arches and support columns hiding cloisters that ran around the squares and lanes. 

Village life

Village life

We supped on beers in the diminutive main square, next to the bell-tower of the town hall and surrounded by the ubiquitous old men with sticks and groups of locals. The population of the town is only a couple of thousand. 

Pero hay vida aquí, eh!’ Cooed Elena. 

We were constantly surprised by how much life and ebullience sung out from this places. But then it was a Saturday, I reminded her.  

Darkness finally fell and the hills had become looming silhouettes. Back at the campsite we ate fairly terrible garlic chicken, picadillo (a fried mix of the insides of chorizo and herbs) and migas (bread crumbs fried in oil, garlic and chorizo) with an egg on top. 

Then reading and music on the porch, and bed. 

 

La Vera again. Beautiful. 

La Vera again. Beautiful. 

It was already hot at 11 o’clock the following morning, but we wanted to hike a little. We headed down to the Roman bridge again, crossed it, and struck northwards towards the snarling, grey granite spike of the Almanzor peak. I would have to wait until a hardier group joined me before I tackled that, but we found a pleasant 9km to and fro track that Elena was happy with. 

Farms. 

Farms. 

As we left the world behind we passed by farm and after farm along an ever-rising path. The air was fragrant, tangibly warm and busy with butterflies. The rocky path was alive with bouncy crickets and skittish lizards and here and there we spied the silken plasticky remains of a shed snake skin. 

Collected Eucalyptus 

Collected Eucalyptus 

Up again, still onward at pace, through an aromatic eucalyptus forest. The bases had had small sections of bark sliced and cut clean off; like some native had taken a bowie knife to a scalp. Red tree flesh had been exposed under the bark and was macabrely leaking sap slowly down into plastic cups. Resin collection. Then out again, past farms and farms. Tobacco plantations with their crispy crisping leaves; then oak trees shedding their still green acorns; and fig trees, so many fig trees, their little fruits collected and laid out on trays in little drying huts. Altitude then got the best of the farmers as we arrived at our lonely destination: Castro de Raso.

More than a kilometre in the air, stuck on a little mountain ridge is a small Vettones settlement. The ruins of a pre-Roman Celtic people from the centuries before Christ. I expected a few rocks and a reconstructed house. Instead the remains were quite expansive and the location doubly so. These ancient places always made my mind melt a little. Just the thought, the truth and fact, that people were once in these simple stone houses, living here millennia ago, made my brain hurt. People had families here, ate dinner and washed over there, in this room made jewellery and carved stone artefacts, in that one they held meetings. It was amazing. 

Old settlement high up in the nowhere

Old settlement high up in the nowhere

Que fuerte, I’m touching a rock wall that has been here for two thousand years.’

They thought so too.

We congratulated ourselves with a brief swim in a pool back at base camp and giggled and little fishes nibbled our feet clean. 

Lunch with a view

Lunch with a view

Lunch was had in the hamlet of Raso, stranded far up the mountain side. The Mirador de Gredos: populated by rich people, cyclists, families and wasps. So many benign but annoying wasps. Again we took to the brasas and ordered overblown steaks and slow-roasted red pepper and tuna salads.  Bloated and full we had one final stop to make. One that would make my eyes leak out of their sockets for its beauty. 

Near the middle of nowhere place of Ramacastañas is a cave, called a gruta instead of cueva, that might be the country’s best kept secret. It should have worldwide fame, or least have been featured on some BBC or Natural Geographic documentary. The Grutas del Águila: The Caves of the Eagle. 

We descended into the caves via some steps and, just to boil it down into one clear idea, spent the following forty minutes or so, gawping, making dumb noises, taking photos and generally having to remember to close our mouths. To describe the different stages of the cave would be impossible. It was a kilometre-long hangar from whose roof dripped glacially slow and ever-growing ghostly stalactites of such variation (and then the stalagmites too) as to render adjectives meaningless. Some were thick as trees and were stained orange and peach by oxidation and bacteria; others were delicate silk threads. Some were perfect icicle-like daggers that covered the roof like teeth whilst some were gently folded over each other like china-white carpet or rose petals. 

Here and there still and eery little puddles and pools reflected the spotlit magnificence. I thanked the adolescent adventurers who had stumbled upon this fairytale by accident back on the 24th December 1963. What a Christmas present that was. If it weren’t for a few somewhat irritating tourists, that 17 degrees centigrade wonderland would have been one of those truly perfect places. That being said I have never seen anything like it. Photos do not do it justice, but my goodness it was a mind-melder. 

To end: a scenic route along the Gredos eastwards as they dipped into the Guadarrama on the approach to Madrid. Traffic, lights of the city, a waning sun. The weekend was over and my escape had come to end. But while it lasted it was as varied and glorious as it was brief.

East From Madrid #3: Castles from the Sea

The sea would remain our companion for the morning. The big aquamarine slab of glitter that was Valencia’s languid coast. The heat, palpable and clingy, met with the breeze on the hill at the first stop of interest through Valencia’s ugly northern outskirts. The monastery of El Puig - one of the region’s great houses - sat, bursting out of the titular village around it. A rosy pink crenellated slab of old stones surrounded by boxy hodgepodge houses that didn’t hint at luxury. Then rice fields. Then the line of holidays high rises and then the sea. 

Read More

East From Madrid #2: Pious Rice Fields

Summer had finally had finally rid itself of the long trousers and jackets and had hauled itself over the Valencian Community; Spain’s eighth largest region. The air had taken on that spongy tangibility only really present in celestially warmed coastal zones; and the decision was taken to finally drive roofless. Exuberance at its finest.

Read More