Micue and the Clandestine Meal

There were ten of them on the street. They had been led patiently, and with more than a glimmer of suspicious excitement, through the streets of Madrid’s old La Latina quarter to the location of their company Christmas meal. As they stood outside on what appeared to be a normal street of attractive old apartments it soon became quite apparent that they were not headed for a restaurant.

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The Expat's Home

“The World. That place you call home.”

So said the BBC advert that coolly asked the viewer to learn more about their world. But it was right. The world was the place that I called home. Of course my real home is my town. The small unimpressive town of Maidenhead that slinks off the River Thames. The house, my house, almost unchanged, for 28 years. Berkshire, my green county, stuffed with small villages, grand houses and fields and fields and fields. That is the home of my history. But maybe, Madrid is my home, or Moscow, or, as purred by the BBC, the World…

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For the memory of food. A review.

How far would you go just for the memory of food?

How much would you spend?

Is it worth trying to reconnect with that meal or let the tastes disappear into history?

 

I have never been to a Michelin Star restaurant; at least not knowingly or that I knew about. Yes, I have had great meals – including some which tipped into words like ‘fancy’ or ‘pretentious’. Few of them have been of a quality or showmanship that really stayed with me.

 

I was, and am, lucky to have parents who both enjoy food, who cook it, and value the important and tasty role it serves in society and among friends. If I have ever been at a fancy restaurant it would have been with them. I may well have had some perfectly cooked medallion of steak with a fine port reduction served on a bed of something or other, but I never had a foam. Worryingly few of these have ever seared – or flash-fried – themselves into my memory banks. If going to restaurants gave me an appreciation of food, then watching my mother cook stirred my imagination.

 

As it stands I can hold my own in the kitchen and I do derive a focussed zen when I cook. Living alone does also means that I all too often resort to simple salads or ‘throw in whatever is in the fridge’ pastas. But still, the act of preparation is key. The process of turning raw into cooked. It’s magic as far as I’m concerned; even though it’s chemistry.

 

As was the case when I was small, restaurants themselves rarely stick in my mind. The food, yes, the place, no. Restaurants and bars must work hard to earn a place in my heart. There is a silent list of requisites.

  1. Food quality – paramount
  2. Price to quantity ratio – important for a glutton such as myself
  3. Atmosphere and design – it has to have character
  4. Capturing a moment

 

That last is – perhaps unfairly – the hardest to fulfil. When everything falls into place and you get that happy tingle that there, in that moment and in that restaurant, the world is perfect. Nothing could be improved. Like a BBQ with friends on a sunny summer’s day in a flowery English garden or a perfect tapas bar with friends in the throbbing heart of a Spanish city’s historic quarter. Having friends there is a must. For without them what’s the point? The food itself tastes lonely.

 

I’ve had a few such moments:

  • Any Christmas Day lunch at home
  • A rustic Galician seafood restaurant in Madrid – plates of shellfish finished with a queimada: a large bowl of coffee and alcohol set on fire and poured from a height
  • A paella eaten at the little village of El Palmar, near Valencia, on the Albufera lake bursting with rice paddies
  • My first currywurst in a little tavern in Hamburg when visiting my German cousins
  • Pie ‘n’ mash and ale at The Raven in Bath on a snowy day with my university colleagues (the whole pub smelled of damp socks and gravy)
  • A bizarre all-you-eat Brazilian buffet during the height of summer in Singapore
  • A gorgonzola and speck pizza in the tiny Piemonte village of Grinzane Cavour at the end of a week of filming

 

Not so many. One recently stuck with me.

 

Segovia – that UNESCO riddled Roman city of Spain – has long drawn my affections, with its grand monuments linked together with that usual web of winding streets all seemingly hewn out of honey. Three years ago I went there with two friends. An innocent and uncomplicated enough premise. After gorging on the sights it was time to do the same but with food. Along some tiny street we found an unassuming place – despite its varied selection of award-winning tapas – with a few tables outside it. Lunch was eaten, happiness was fostered, and that was that.

 

 Segovia and its vegetable patches

Segovia and its vegetable patches

I had been back to Segovia a couple of times but had never been able to relocate the restaurant, nor could I recall its name. A few weeks ago I was visited by my friend Ken – a brilliant social entrepreneur trying to essentially solve Africa by utilising young African businessmen and women. Our relationship has been marked by sporadic meetings usually occurring every couple of years. Houston Airport, Lago Atitlán in Guatemala, Barcelona, Bath, Westminster Palace – it reads like the filming locations for a James Bond film. And so the time came for Madrid and the obligatory day tip. Segovia.

 

I was determined to get back to that damned restaurant once and for all. Cutting a very tedious story very short, after extensive use of Google streetview I managed – even though it was half cut off by the camera and blurry – to locate it.

 

El Fogón Sefardí – Calle de la Juderia Vieja, 17

I was elated. Ken was hungry. And my little food memory didn’t disappoint. It excelled itself. Opposite the facade of the bar – an uncomplicated red awning protecting tartan tablecloths – a small street descended to a view of the horizon. Segovia is built on a bluff so its flanks open to sweeping vistas. At the bottom of the street was a little arch leading out of the city. The view’s foreground was taken up by a small hill topped with a little white chapel and some Calvaryesque crosses. Behind that, the gentle humps of the ancient Guadarrama Mountains. This is what you have while you eat.

 

And the food? Well Ken and I ordered the same from a typical set menu of 11.90€. I wasn’t sure but the result was astonishing.

Starter: Milhoja de Berenjena con Cordero al Curry y Verduritas de la Huerta del Puente de la Estrella – a 2008 award-winning open sandwich of aubergine mille feuille with curried lamb and vegetables from the palace gardens. It was a sensation and seemed to have a kind of delightfully sticky apricot reduction over the top. This came with my carafe of wine.

 

Main course: Añojo de Choto Asado con salsa Pedro Ximénez y con flores de patatas – Roast veal with a Pedro Ximénez sauce and potato flowers. A generous number of slices of meat covered in that sweet and smoky sauce complemented unfussily with little mini jacket potatoes. It was flawless.

 

Desert: Tarta Charlota. A huge slab of sweet and bouncy sponge cake topped with a raspberry coulis and a slightly overt quantity of Chantilly cream.

 

Was it food heaven? Perhaps not. But the sheer audacity of the place to offer so much for so little, the presence of Ken, the jug of wine…and that view made sure it easily garnered a place on my list.

 

I don’t do restaurant reviews but sometimes one has to say something. If you go to Segovia go to El Fogón Sefardí. Go.

 

It was only after this little memory jogging food trip that my friend from that jaunt three years ago said to me quite casually ‘yeah, I remember where that is. You could have just asked me.’

Wanderlust: Why do we travel?

A lot of people put 'travelling' under their hobbies and interests. Sometimes I ask these people where they've been. They sometimes shock me with far-flung corners of the globe that I could only hope to one day be able to afford. More often they are the same wonderful but hackneyed places: Paris, Barcelona, New York, Sydney, Bangkok. Accompanying their exploits are Facebook albums of average photos often with boyfriend or girlfriend in tow in a variety of identifiable locations. Good on them, they've got out. They've had a holiday. Were they travelling? In the etymological sense, of course they were. They took a train or a bus or a plane to go somewhere. But were they really travelling because they 'love travelling' or because, more possibly, they like getting away somewhere new. Is there a distinction? Maybe not. But maybe there is. I wanted to set my mind to thinking about why we travel.

 

I love travelling. That same sentence proclaimed by many. And yes, sometimes I hop on a bus to the mountains near Madrid in order to escape the city – as wonderful as it is – and breathe the clear air and empty my head. But spending day after day on the beach? No. Travelling to a city to check off the monuments and galleries from the list? No. Well, maybe a couple. I like playing computer games now and then. I like to go jogging by the river. Photography is a passion of mine. I supremely enjoy reading a good book. These are all things I like to do. But none of them are so vital to me as food and travel. If I'm not travelling – wherever it may be – or sampling some new food I get restless and antsy. I start to feel trapped, the weight of life and its inherently real but unnecessary requirements covering me layer by layer. To travel is as important to me as breath. 'I love travelling'. No. I need to travel. It forms an intrinsic part of who I am and I can't live without it. To see a new city, drive though the landscapes of an unvisited country, to sample its food and its wine, especially its wine, and to let one's eyes and camera lens fall upon its people, is a happiness that I presume is only rivalled by the feeling of being in love – and I have yet to encounter that. Therefore travelling remains a sensation of utmost importance and profundity. When I say 'I love travelling', its understatement must be viewed on a galactic scale.

 

I work, among other ventures, as a food tour guide in the beautiful Spanish city of Madrid. The clients I receive are travelling for myriad reasons: to get away from everything; 'here on business'; honeymoons and romantic getaways; it forms part of a larger European or Spain tour; 'I always wanted to come'; 'our child is studying here'; and, with the nature of my job, the odd foodie who heard Madrid was the best in the land. These are all valid reasons. They are all different; yet at the same time the same. For whatever reason all these people have ended up in the same place, often doing the same tour with the same red-faced Englishman. No matter what the eventual reason – unless forced by one's business, really it seemed, to a greater or lesser extent, to boil down to the same thing: Wanderlust, no matter how distilled.

 

Stereotypes. Whether it’s the middle-class student somehow annoyingly backpacking across South America and returning with stories of how they felt in touch with the impoverished and sporting new multicoloured linen trousers and necklaces; or the plucky pink working class bloke who has escaped to the Costa del Sol to soak up some sun with his equally sunburnt wife in Benidorm; or the young writer who quits his job in order to walk across a country, or get away from anywhere known to deeper understand a place and have fodder to scribble down; or whether it’s the honeymooners off to spend far too much money in Paris celebrating a wedding where they also spent too much money; or maybe the businessman on his boat in the Côte d'Azur or the teenagers camping in the woods in Canada. It's all different and all the same. Something in their genes, in their inherited sapiens biology is making them travel. Making them – whatever the reason they think it is - need to be on the move in some way. Rare and sad is the person who never travels, or wants to. And I genuinely pity and fail in understanding them.

 

Why do we travel? Maybe I haven't got an answer. I don't know; there's an answer. Or maybe it's as simple and inane as 'well, because some of us want to'. But I can't believe that. I like to think that we have to. Wanderlust: A deep desire to travel. Part of what makes Homo sapiens sapiens.

I'd coin wandermust if it didn't sound so truly awful.

Madrid is burning

Africa starts south of the Pyrenees, or so said Napoleon of Spain. Two months of hell for ten months of heaven say the locals. The sun at its summer zenith recreates that hot continent and mocks skin. The body is fraught with sensations: the air is thick and tangible and weighs heavy on arms and foreheads; the pressure is palpable and the prickles are cells cooking; the face, taking the full brunt of that cosmic heater, glows, and the eyes, resting helpless in their sockets, are dry and itchy by day but all but glued shut by morning. A natural adhesive caused by heat. That same morning, after that night where you barely slept, bereft of dreams for the rise in degrees, you feel as though you are melded to the mattress. You can never get away. You are part of it. Thoughts drift to the idea of removing one's skin to shed a layer of warmth. Alcohol will help in lieu of this. Alcohol, that gains extra potency in those African months. The mind flutters with the bees after only a couple of glasses. Amid this nuance you simply sweat. You sweat in places you never knew could sweat. Like knees.

 

That July and August that do their best mimicry of some Dantean circle also play havoc with everyday life. They change you. They make you reanalyse and rethink and re-plan. Any journey out of the house you hug shadows, you choose your colours wisely, you apply sun cream as a matter of routine, you slow your pace, you use any breeze possible: the passing car or the arriving train; diet changes to cold soups, the body yearns for juice and swimming pools.

 

General life is affected too: personal wardrobes change – the concept of trousers makes you physically sick; there is a dramatic rise in the number of opportunities to study the feet and varicose veins of other human beings; the amount of clothing worn by both men and women enjoys a distinction of being in short supply; the glad result is that the tired old eyes of men linger for longer on the exposed bodies of women. The world shines like a concussion; gleaming pastels and coloured walls instead of stars and budgies.

 

As you struggle to do even the most average of exercises you ponder at the disappearing act the heat haze has played on the mountains. At home you deliberate over the merits of setting the cheap fan you bought to stationary or left and right mode. You turn off electrical goods for fear their whirrings and bleepings contribute to the rise in temperature. In the streets you notice a heightening of smells, an intensity bought about by a collective of molecules trapped in an embrace of warmth. You see the dogs, too much hair for this climate, panting and with dripping tongues. Your only escape a bar, a cafe, a shopping centre, a shadow.

 

Madrid burns, it burns beautifully and cruelly, and you pray for Apollo to be kind.

Eating Malaga

‘…the oldest and most famous Spanish seaport on the Mediterranean, is picturesquely situated on the last spurs of the mountain-ranges…and at the foot of this hill is the beautiful harbour on which lies the city with its 12,580 inhabitants’

‘Malaga seems at first an uninviting place. It’s the second city of the south (after Seville), with a population of half a million, and is also one of the poorest. Though the clusters of high-rises look pretty grim as you approach, the city does have some compelling attractions.’

Malaga then and now. The first quote taken from my 114 yr-old Baedecker guide to Spain and Portugal and the second from a recent Rough Guide. The century that separates the books has clearly altered the city somewhat. Not only in the enormous population – modern Malaga is now forty times fuller – but also in the visual aesthetic and the city’s reputation. From the quiet old seaport that was hoping to become a winter resort to the giant Costa del Sol behemoth of today, the city has undergone a huge transformation – and not necessarily a good one.

I was unperturbed. I had been in similar cities on the coasts – Alicante, Barcelona, Cartagena – and even when the stereotypes of drunken English holidaymakers crisping under an Iberian sun whilst hunting out tapas in the form of fish and chips were present, there was always a part that forever remained Spanish. I wanted to find that in Malaga. What I discovered was that Malaga itself still remains a rather charming and well-to-do Spanish city with fine monuments, beautiful people and delightful cuisine.

The old town was singularly charming, well kept and full of welcoming

tascas

and restaurants. The streets curled away from the bay through warm early-summer corners that would often lap the shores of ancient buildings or flirt with the ugly new town. Fine town flats with embossed glass balconies shone under a cloudless sky and yanked the viewer’s eyes here, to the vast and imposing but unfinished cathedral, and there, to a mossy mountain at whose base was a Roman theatre and at whose middle and top were Moorish fortress and castles.

Palm trees lined the promenades and seafront where wealthy locals and tourists sauntered, stopping now and again to admire a colourful nook or an extravagant square. A flurry of photogenic streets than knotted behind the Picasso Museum also hid some wonderful food and cutesy tapas bars. This was not the grim and depressing pub-ridden Costa del Sol I had been expecting. But I was here to eat. What of the food?

Three gastronomic moments endeared Malaga to me in a way that only food can. Food, that universal peacemaker, that instigator of human evolution, always helped lift any place to a position higher than it may have otherwise have deserved.

1.

Malaga wine at Casa de la Antigua Guardia

– sat on a main thoroughfare, though inconspicuous with its simple wooden front door, this little bar was the type of place that always called out to me. The oldest tavern in Malaga; a headline I couldn’t ignore. Opened in 1840 they have been serving sweet Malaga wines at knock down prices ever since. Inside was a long wooden counter behind which, and along whose length, numerous rotund barrels ran. The place was musty with the smell of wine and oak and it was narrow. A couple of glasses of

semi-seco

were ordered and the old boy in his white shirt clipped a ‘

vale chico!

’ and about turned to twist the little tap on one of the barrels. Golden, tart, slightly fiery but with an inescapable sweetness, this was a wine to make good friends with. He wrote the order down on the counter with an old piece of chalk. I smiled and ordered another. I would have been very happy to have tried each one of the many wines, or at the very least have had a stab at finishing a barrel, but the call of the

tapeo

stole me away.

2.

Malaga Feria de Tapas

– There is nothing I like more than when a city gets together with a regional beer and promotes local produce and bars with appealing prices at a tapas festival. Fun and financially viable. Under a large tent in the handsome old bullring the San Miguel beer company was plugging its drink as well as the city’s food. Around 25 bars were present fr

membrillo

and some

jamón

. The way Spain rallies around its cuisine at every given moment is something the rest of world needs to pay attention to. A local is never prouder than when exalting his gastronomy.

om around town, each offering a variety of three tasty morsels. The range was bewildering and intoxicating. I settled – for the sake of my ever-waxing belly – on a small plate of slow cooked pork cheek in red wine and a green gazpacho served with melon caviar, Malaga cheese with

3.

Seafood at Pedregalejo

– A day that initially started as an attempt to escape the city to a suburb village and sit on the beach quickly descended into a hedonistic afternoon of consuming quite the finest seafood, drinking an unnecessary amount of wine and gawping dumbly at both the women and the natural, and base, beauty of the moment we were sharing. Once an unassuming fishing village Pedregalejo has long since been consumed by the broad arms of Malaga, yet it is still distant enough to have retained its feel of separateness. In essence it is a long and unbroken stretch of small square houses that comprise dinky little flats. All the doors are different colours and the walls are a limited range of hues from peaches to lemons and whites. Where there isn’t a flat there is a restaurant. These dribble out from the buildings, onto the promenade’s terraces and then often over onto the sand itself.

Chirinquitos

.

We chose one where the far off rises of the Sierra de Mijas could be seen shimmering under a hot sky, wedged between the duck-egg blue of the heavens and the glittering turquoise of the Mediterranean. Between us and the sea and sands was something particular to the region – an

espeto

. Under a little hut providing shade was an old propped up rowing boat; the kind you’d find in a boating lake. It was filled to the brim with sand and on it was a fire with lots of ash. A man, dressed as they always are in Spain in a smart white shirt, was taking fresh fish and skewering them. He then stuck the skewers into the sand upright and roasted the fish on either side.

The

espeto

-cooked sardines were perfect; juicy and smoky and with that always-welcome factor that you

know

it was just cooked fresh for you. Next came plates loaded with breaded

calamares

and

rosada en adobo

– the former being pleasingly muscly rings of fried squid and the latter being small chunks of kingklip marinated in a sweet vinegar with cumin and paprika, breaded and fried. Another glass of white Barbadillo wine. Then a dish of

salmonetes

– absurdly delicious and sweet-fleshed little red mullets, cooked whole like the sardines; followed by another plate of

chanquetes

- tiny little whitebait that were deep-fried and eaten by the handful. Another glass of white wine. And a coffee. Paradise, I decided right there and then, is a beach under the sun with a selection of marine life cooked quick and shovelled into the face with something alcoholic in a glass.

Malaga had won me over. The Costa del Sol’s largest city still acted like an old Spanish town.

Oh, Portugal!

Portugal is a country that many know for its famous cities – Porto and Lisbon – or for its resort-infested southern coast in the Algarve region. I had a few days to get to know Portugal by car and what I saw changed my relationship with the Iberian Peninsula forever. Portugal is an under-populated, generous, picturesque and affordable Mediterranean paradise.

Day One: The Wild West and wine valleys…




Trás-os-montes. The land behind the hills. The northwest region of Portugal that connects with Spain and where the great Duoro River leaks out into Castilla to become the Duero. A land of drought and cacti. A land of poverty and dusty little towns forgotten by tourism and unknown to the world. It is also a place of rugged canyonlands and old medieval towns from where the young have emigrated. At the little hilltop town of Torre de Moncorvo no English is spoken and smashing up some Spanish I am able to order coffees and a bun. No smiles. The famous trasmontano hospitality. Not rude. Just old and rural.


Then over a high pass where vineyards had sprung and the world fell away to greener pastures. We had entered the Duoro wine valley. A UNESCO wonderland of steep river-canyon walls tickertaped with vine terraces covering 41,700 hectares. Away from the motorways tiny roads slinked up into the heights affording views that painters would drool at. Here and there a Quinta – estate – would sit primly with a whole tapestry of wine wrapped around it; bone white amongst the green.


Under nebulous spitting clouds Pinhão – a scruffy village at the heart of the wine region and on the bend of the river – offered a brief refuge. Safe from a violent rainstorm I sipped some homemade ‘vinho generoso’ at a local bar where they didn't bother to put the lights on and which had walls covered in small bottles and panels of keyrings and postcards lining the doorway. Past walls covered in beautiful duck blue and china white tiles called azulejos we crept out of the valley, away from its bursting verdancy and its little roadside markets where old ladies sold cherries from their cars.


Before reaching the last, fast corridor of motorway that shot to Porto there was time for a brief stop in Amarante – an odd town sunk in a shallow valley and gracefully straddling the Tâmega River. Visually there were a few attractive streets but nothing much else until the eye chances upon the rebuilt medieval São Gonçalo Bridge that jumps high from one bank to another. On the other side is a striking white monastery with a theatrical terracotta tiled roof and just set behind it on a little clump of hill, another small church with bumpy cobbles streets whispering around it.

Day Two: Porto the pearl of Portugal…


Where to begin with this most romantic of cities?

With the food? There were hunks of cod cooked slow with roasted red peppers, sweet onions and olives and served Bragança style with fried potatoes; plates of melted azeitão cheese and azaruja sausage; sweet egg custard tarts called pastéis de nata; slow baked veal with saffron rice and roast potatoes; sardines served in piquant oil; delicate presunto ham; line-caught whole roasted sea bass…

With the drinks? Port wines that range from warm, sweet and blackcurrant-coloured Rubies to smoky ochre Tawnies and cold, chip dries and that are best served at the hillside Taylors winery; the ever so slightly fizzy and refreshing vinho verde from the northern Minho region; fruity reds from the Duoro that are best drunk with cooked meats; or fiery homemade aguardente spirit that sets flame to your chest and lifts you up after dinner…


With the city’s visual appeal? Porto is a town whose beauty is as postcard-perfect as it is ramshackle. Hugging the Duoro River a staggered layer of multicoloured tiled walls rise up onto a hillside. Scarlets and pastel lemons; Wedgwood blues and creams; Cadbury’s browns and bright peaches and pinks; a Technicolor wall of civilization sitting under orange terracotta. Viewed from afar, from the Gaia district over the enormous wrought-iron bridge on the other side of the water, the city seems carved by the eye of a Venetian artist. Up close the smashed windows, faded paintwork and scarred doors tell the story of a poor country. 

What hasn’t left this area, the Ribeira district, is the romance. Little alleys snaking away up and around, plump with cobbles, hide tiny family-run restaurants bursting with seafood and super-chic wine bars proffering little known cheeses. The waters of the Duoro always feel nearby. The cathedral looks over everything; a kaleidoscopic explosion of hues and spires. And over the water, over that giant bridge, a large monastery beams back, with the Port lodges at its base and little boats, barcos robelos, bobbing with barrels. Stray cats own the old town and little old ladies in pinnies dust their doorsteps as the occasional tourist bent on exploring peers up and down with a lens.


With its variety? Tiring of city life – such as that is in central Porto – the beach is just a short bus ride west. Foz do Duoro. Clean sands try to find space between a lively coastline studded with boulders and seaweed. Little bars take advantage of their slots and throw tables and chairs onto the shore. A stubby lighthouse stands proudly at the end of a pier covered with fisherman catching sea bass as the Atlantic pummels the city for all its worth. Little old trams occasionally float past and tiny fishing boats covered in gulls turn slowly in the estuary while churches and forts draw the eye.
Where to begin with Porto? Where to end?

Day Three: Universities and Monasteries…

The drive down to Sintra warrants as many stops as could fill an entire holiday. To choose but two is heartbreaking. But the call of that southern fairytale town meant we couldn’t bear to arrive too late.


Through a landscape reminiscent of a sun-soaked Galicia – furry hills covered in eucalyptus forests and more green than you knew existed – we arrived at Coimbra: Portugal’s answer to Oxford. A hill on a river in the coastal Beira region. A dense web of attractive but impoverished streets covered in graffiti produced a charismatic hub of lanes that would be horrible for the elderly or invalid. At the peak of this steep warren of cafes and religious buildings sits one of the oldest universities in the world, and the oldest in Portugal. The nobility of its scholastic centre is matched by the beauty of the buildings themselves. Bright cream coloured and bedecked with turrets and flags, the main university building sits like a fort on the summit of the hill. Students walk around in long cloaks while red-faced visitors snap away. Back in town a local festival is taking place. Coimbrans in local dress play guitars and drums, sing folk songs and sell traditional pastries. It is a busy and buzzing place.


Deep into the Estremadura region we reach Tomar, a pleasant village surrounded by a horseshoe of gentle peaks, upon one of which sits an enormous monastery-fortress once owned by the Templars. The Convent of Christ could be central Portugal’s Alhambra. It is a silly and overblown complex of churches, cloisters, spiral staircases, stuccowork and gardens all surrounded by a crenellated wall. Other giant UNESCO-listed monuments were nearby – Batalha, Alcobaça – but the call of Sintra snagged us and so we once again joined the empty motorways and headed south towards Lisbon.

Day Four: Medieval Fairytales…


Sintra spread over an afternoon and a morning and included a night. It was…like nowhere else I had ever been. The closest thing resembling it is the mad but brilliant lunacy of Portmeirion. The only difference being that that eccentric Welsh resort was designed by one man trying to create a Portofino in Britain, whereas Sintra is the result of a history of one-upmanship by a cadre of wealthy Portuguese.


Sintra is a frilly selection of absurd by undeniably beautiful palaces and mansions rising up from the cutesy town to pepper the small and singular mountain range that sits immediately next-door. All manner of styles and colours are present, so trying to describe the place is futile. Standing guard over the town are two very different buildings that top two neighbouring peaks of the Serra do Sintra. One is the fine remnant of an old Moorish castle and the other is the over the top Pena Palace.


The Moorish castle is low walled and looks like it has been drawn by a child. The views it commands are wide-reaching – the sea, the villages, the fields, the mountain range. Everything is visible. The Pena Palace is a ridiculous and gargantuan mish-mash of different styles all comprising one large complex perched precariously on one of the highest points of the range. A yellow, red, grey, mustard and cream hodgepodge of Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance styles all clumped together in the 19th century. It is a wonderful sight.


Before being swallowed up by Spain there is time left of a day to visit the large sandy arms of beach that hug the Atlantic coast near Sintra before hitting the motorway again to stop in Evora – the jewel of the Alentejo region. Sheltered by a large medieval wall Evora is a yellow and white town of a homogenous beauty that wouldn’t look out of place in Andalucia.


A settlement of grand churches, isolated cobbled streets, an abbey with a cave of bones, of hearty roasted meat dishes served with heavy red wines, of Roman temples and of panoramas disappearing off to rumbling plains speckled by farmsteads. The old city is hot and sits reflective under a powerful blue sky. The asymmetrical cathedral looks like an old thin cat that lives in a town famous but retiring calmly in its old age. Evora: a place to write a poem with a glass of something red and then move on to headier climes.


Portugal showed itself to me and left me wanting more. The Algarve, the forgotten villages of the inland Beira region, those great old cities of northern Minho, the canals of Aveiro and the castle of Obidos. So much more to see. And of course there is always the sensual pull of Porto or the thrill of Lisbon to invite me back. Portugal: the close friend who you knew nothing about.

Gastro-Galicia Pilgrimage

One doesn't simply visit Galicia. One feels it. One experiences it. One eats and drinks it. A wet and windy region in the northwest of Spain, it has more in common with the moist hills of Ireland than the stereotypes of Castile. To leave it is to carry with you a sickness and longing in your heart called morriña. To leave it is to carry with you a few extra pounds. For maybe nowhere else in Spain is the fish so fresh, the meat so hearty and the wine so varied. Galicia is Celts, witches, elves, white faces and light hair. Galicia is food.

I was up on a trip with some friends and I had grand designs on the local gastronomy. The honey-coloured streets and glowing squares of Pontevedra’s old town sat brightly under an enthusiastically blue sky. Praza de Leña, Praza de Santa Maria, Praza de Verdura, Praza Herrería; musical squares that invited the visitor to sit and eat and drink. And I did. Over the three nights in Pontevedra my stomach was never empty and my mind was always cloudy with the tantalising wisps of well-meaning alcohol abuse.


From the seas came large prawns, scalded orange and grilled with salt; calamari so fresh they were almost sweet; and navajas – razor clams – landed on the tables, grilled and doused with lemon juice. More marine delights arrived in the form of bite-sized scallops called, rather deliciously, zamburiñas; their taste meaty and slightly nutty. And another bubbling terracotta pot, this time with red peppers, roasted and stuffed with a gooey mix of salt cod, garlic, pepper and cream.

Even for the toughest belly that might be enough. But then the lords of the land arrive, served up hot on the platters. Fresh pimentón sausage served up hellishly: chorizo al infierno – a hefty raw tube of meat that crackles and pops over a dish of flaming aguardiente. This is followed succinctly by zorza, an odd piecemeal dish of churned up loin pork fried in garlic, paprika and oregano and served with chips. Breathe.


The belly whines and curses you, though secretly revelling in its filling, but is silenced as cheese shows up. Tetilla – the little tit. A creamy cow’s milk cheese in the form of a lady’s breast. And then pimientos de Padrón, little green peppers of which the occasional one is spicy, sidle up quietly on a salty plate. You eat, plucking the juicy flesh from the storks, and then lean back in your chair wondering if your heart can take it.

In an effort to burn off at least some of the Galician countryside now residing in my belly I headed to the Islas Cíes for a walk. These islands (there are three: two connected by a spit of land and one, a bird sanctuary, floating off on its own) are part-national park, part-untarnished paradise. The only civilization to blight these islands is a cafeteria by the quay and a campsite.


Away from the stony churches and bagpipes of the city the eucalyptus and ferny forests that bobble the Cíes Island seemed to be something of another time. A piece of driftwood from some forgotten chunk of Pangaea. To walk over it was to transcend. It was to redefine the notion of beauty. Fine white sands curled around water that radiated out from crystal, through cyan to cerulean. Boats swam around while locals took their flesh out for the sun and thousands of yellow-legged seagulls provided a laughing soundtrack. 

          
The land was a tapestry of flowers and plants: sand reeds and sea daffodils, sea fennel and Angelica pachycarpa with its aniseed headiness, gorse, pink daphne, white rockrose, and the screaming bright yellow Cytisus insluaris broom. Cíes leaves the visitor an awestruck amateur botanist.


After a homemade sandwich of pork loin and heat-wilted cheese; after gawping stupidly at the views from the island’s lighthouse; and after swimming in the breath-stealingly cold water (but that on seeing your revelry, also entices the locals to join); after all this you stroll through the pines and acacias and return to the world of the real and the living and leave behind the stories of pirates and the secrets of the park. Back to Cangas, a town of ferries and fishermen, where small wooden boats bob colourfully in a small harbour bereft of movement but for the tide.


Cambados, a town twice previously visited, offered a charming fisherman’s atmosphere under a bubbly grey sky. Its hardy coastline shanties led off into a clutch of cobbled streets, stuffed with bougainvillea and flowerpots. Food was Galician octopus – pulpo a la gallega, boiled and cut up and coated in olive oil and pimentón, and almejas a la marinera – fat local clams stewed in a liquor of garlic, shallot, parsley and white wine. This, and every other dish in Cambados, was washed down with copious glasses, and eventually bottles, of cold, crisp Albariño wine. Cambados is the ‘capital’ of the Rías Baixas wine region, and Albariño is its powerhouse grape variety. Tart, acidic and full of fruit, it was destined to always sit comfortably by seafood. And it did. Lots of it.


A walk through the lanes and dirt tracks: through vineyards protected by dogs or tended by lone farmers with umbrellas; past heavy stone huts and along streams and the Umia River. The clouds hung low on the surrounding hills and the still naked vines provided a starburst of green that promised fruit-gold in autumn. Still hungry.


And so the odyssey, nay, the pilgrimage into Galicia and its food led me, for a fourth time, to the Celtic stronghold and Christian centre of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of a patron saint lie in a box under the most beautiful cathedral imaginable. Tulips filled the gardens around palaces and churches older and grander than Madrid and my stomach grumbled.


In the Abastos Market men cut up fresh octopus and sold potatoes and turnip tips called grelos. Old ladies with creased faces sat by bottles of homemade liquors and baskets of eggs and wild mushrooms. Modern Galicians lined the old market walls drinking white wine and eating empanada – that juicy galego pasty. We ate mussels in a secret spicy sauce (tigres rabiosos) and then moved to an old wooden tavern to give our stomachs their final missions. San Simon cheese (a lightly smoked tetilla) was swiftly seconded by chorizos cooked in wine and xoubas (battered and fried sardines).


The food onslaught continued with more cheese: Cebreiro, a light and soft cow’s cheese originally pertaining from the village of the same name that perches precariously on a windswept hilltop in the Galician hills. Then heaps of meats, potatoes, cooked peppers and glasses of local red wines: Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo – meaty and fruity and made from the Mencía grape. Finally, to quash all sense of decency, slices of Tarta de Santiago (a jam-free Bakewell) were forked into the mouth with shots of crema de Orujo (pomace brandy cream) and pacharán (a blood-red sloe gin).



If you have any functioning taste buds you will love Galicia. If your eyes still work in any way Galicia is a place that will find its way through your optic nerve and straight to your heart. Galicia is an Eden where you eat the apple and everything else. 

Note: For food shots head to Instagram - lukedarracott

Old man river

‘What are you training for?’
‘I'm suffering.’
‘But what are you training for?’
I took the music out of my wet ears.
‘I'm training for a marathon.’ I lied.
‘When?’
‘Sometime this year.’
‘You have to have started your training regime!’
‘Yes.’
I was stretching out my right thigh at the traffic lights. The morning in Madrid was warm and dry and the sky had forgotten about clouds. I could taste the salt in my mouth.
‘I've done nine marathons in this city.’
‘Really?’
‘Oh yes, and we came all down along here. Over Segovia bridge.’
He was in his seventies and was on a bicycle. He wore all over blue spandex, a helmet and dark sunglasses.
‘So, you’re training then?’
‘Yes. More or less.’ My face was hot and covered in sweat. ‘I'm trying to lose my belly.’
‘Hah. Very good young man.’
The lights turned green.
‘Well, good luck. Adios.’
He cycled off slowly and I trailed him, embarrassed to catch up. He slowed down and again I removed my headphones.
‘You must go steadily. Every day.’
‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to do a full marathon.’ I puffed. He turned his wheels slowly, the giant orb of the sun glinting off his spokes.
‘Start with a half. Don’t push.’ He smiled widely. ‘Poco a poco, young man.’
‘Yes.’
‘OK. I’ll leave you.’
Poco a poco the old man gathered speed and put more and more metres between us. Then I lost sight of him. The Madrid river park snaked left and right, up and down for kilometres.
I had lied.
Five kilometres later, dodging lazy families, leash-less disobedient dogs and determined skaters, I reached another bridge. An old man on his morning constitutional smiled broadly at me and extended a thumbs up in encouragement. Why?
At my flat, halfway up a long hill topped by one of the city’s old gates, I steamed by ancient women stepping into yawning pastry shops, children playing on the street while mother and father shared vermouth aperitifs in open-fronted bars, and swarthy Andalusian gypsies selling strawberries out of cardboard boxes.
A look at the mirror gave away the old codgers by the river. My face was deep crimson, smacking of exertion and sun-fatigue. I looked as if I had run for hours. The sad reality, with my shoddy knee and Rioja-fatted stomach, was that I had hauled myself around for less than thirty minutes.

I showered, spent some time on trains with Paul Theroux, and went to eat and drink far too much on some unknown terrace. Next time I would run the whole thirty minutes.

La tierra con nombre de vino

‘The vines are sleeping.’
Elvira had picked me up at Santo Domingo de la Calzada after a three and a half hour bus ride from Madrid and was driving me to Haro, the wine-capital of the La Rioja region.
It had withered from the effects of winter. Brown, weak greens and dusty beige filled up the land between naked grapevines. Occasionally the sun burst out from the clouds and morning mists and illuminated the rugged snow-topped mountains that enclose the province.
‘Pedro has been called to a meeting in Logroño.’
I waited with a complimentary glass of the 1991 Gran Reserva white wine at the López de Heredia bodega – in business since 1877. I flicked through the little menu and saw that the bottle cost fifty-two euros. I drank it slowly and squished the liquid through my teeth and over my tongue. These were not muck about drinks.


Finding myself at a loss, I bid my leave and walked around the countryside for an hour. The wind was harsh and between gusts the air was frosty and carried the hint of wet soil and bark. Minutes from the town little hillocks appeared. From the top of one vine-covered hump I surveyed La Rioja in its wintry grandeur. Coiling down away from me and bumping away in all directions were scruffy brown and clay-red fields lined with trellises and gnarled stumps that were awaiting the coming spring. They looked like shrunken versions of the fairytale trees you’d find in an evil forest.

Resting at the bottom of the mountains, at the bends in the Ebro river or on bumps in the plain were the villages. Names like Briones, Briñas, Bastida toyed with the upper alphabet, while Casalarreina, Ollauri and Cihuri made you look twice. Cold little churches of immense age braved the winds as functional houses and cobbled streets clung to them for warmth. The view made me thirsty and I longed for a bottle of red and a log-fire. But I wasn't here for the wine this time. I had come to see the birthplace of the Spanish language.



‘Luke, I’m so sorry. Forgive me!’ Pedro arrived, neat and honest, clutching folders and notebooks. ‘Vamos. We’ll head straight to San Millán. Directo!
The blue skies that had returned to warm the dormant fields disappeared again as our little car climbed up through valley folds and long hilly arms into the Sierra de Demanda mountain range. Suddenly the road stopped. At the end of it was a small village – all silent lanes and pastel-coloured houses – and a gigantic honey-coloured Benedictine Monastery. A wide horseshoe of forested domes surrounded the area under a gloomy lid of cloud. Coupled with another tiny monastery on a nearby slope, this collective of peaks and churches had been recognised by UNESCO.


The old and atmospheric Suso – from the Latin susum meaning ‘upwards’ – monastery hid up in the hills while the palatial Yuso – from the Latin deorsum, meaning ‘downwards’ – sat at the bottom like a bored lion. It was here that the Spanish language first emerged to the outside world.

Enter the Emilian Glosses. The language of Spain in the 10th century was Latin, but in La Rioja something strange was happening. First of all, the remote villagers of the mountains, unimaginably distant from the great cities of Spain, had started a process of irrevocable bastardisation of their language. The "Latin" they spoke was almost unintelligible. Furthermore La Rioja bordered the Basque Country, so many of the people in that zone didn’t even speak Latin in the first place. It was getting increasingly harder and harder and presumably more pointless to preach to the local populous in Latin. I can imagine, in that dank but pretty little hillside church a priest at the end of his tether as the inhabitants stared blankly back at him, picking their ears and wondering when he would get to the communion wine.

One day an enterprising preacher started to make annotations above some of the Latin words: translations. But new words do not a new language make. Sometime, in the year 964, this smart priest decided to translate whole texts into the local languages. One was Basque and the other was Old Spanish: the first instance on record of Spanish in action with its own grammar playing out on paper.

In that cold and silent monastery it was easy to imagine a local population far removed from the modernising world around it, trussed up in cloaks and with cheeks red from raw local wine; false protection against the fierce mountain air. They nattered to each other on uncomfortable wooden pews and stone benches.
‘What’s the man in the big white dress saying Jorge?’
‘Who knows Elena? Who knows?’
Until one day everything changed and Spanish flourished through the land.



In the evening we joined some of Pedro’s friends in a bar in Santo Domingo and proceeded to get through an unhealthy number of bottles of red Rioja while stuffing our glowing faces with squidgy ham croquettes, chunks of moist chorizo cooked in cider, and slices of Spanish jamón and oily manchego cheese. The air was thick with the headiness of garlic and wine and the sounds of chatter and clinking glasses.

‘People forget Spanish was born here.’ Said a jolly-faced lady dipping a hunk of crusty bread into the sweet cider. ‘You must remember that the heart of Spain is Riojan!’