Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Eating in San Sebastián: Galparsoro

There must be a hundred sayings in Spanish that have the word bread in them. My favorite is "Eres mas bueno que el pan," which translates literally as "You are better than bread," and is usually said while cupping the face of an adorable child in your hands and squeezing. Or alternatively, "Eres mas inocente que el pan"--"You're more innocent than bread."

But the dirty secret for a country that puts such a premium on bread as to compare it to goodness itself is that most Spanish bread is not very good. Your standard barra is cottony and bland and even the rustic-looking gallego is disappointingly flavorless and unchewy. It's true that La Tahona, near us on c/Humilladero, has me convinced it's the best bakery in Madrid because of its delicious chapata, but even it turns out standards--barras and baguettes--that just don't do it for me. I can only conclude that Spaniards like bad bread.

But Galparsoro, in San Sebastian, changed my mind this past week. They appear to supply barras to half the city; in the morning their deliverymen pull huge woven baskets stuffed with loaves on handcarts through the Parte Vieja. But it is their specialty breads that really stand out. Gorgeous chapatas and rusticas and vienesas. A dense, slightly sour mushroom-shaped thing called a Plus Minus. And what are certainly the best brioche I've eaten outside Paris. But the star, the shocking star, of their offerings is the humble suizo, a normally uninteresting sweet roll topped with sugar. At Galparsoro, the dough is chewy and yeasty and not too sweet; the sugar on top comes in big crunchy crystals. Early Tuesday morning I ate one warm from the oven as I walked along the seawall. It was, indeed, mas bueno que el pan.

Galparsoro: Nagusia 6, San Sebastian.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Three gestures

In my travels in the past week three gestures, spied on the street, reminded me that however much Spain may change, there is still something so very Spanish about it:

In Soto de Luiña (Asturias): The garbage truck pulls into the one parking spot left on the town´s one street. It happens to be in front of the church. So, as he comes around the the passenger side to pull out his broom, the garbage man crosses himself.

In Madrid: I arrive home late on a warm September night. Propped against the wall of the San Andres church is a group of grungy looking jovenes drinking beer. One begins to sing flamenco with much fervor. The others join in clapping.

In Barcelona: I am walking down a street that is being torn up for re-paving. The noise and the dust are terrible, and the street--what remains of it--is treacherously uneven. Suddenly I feel a hand on my elbow: it´s an elderly woman, asserting her right to take the arm of any passerby, in order to safely traverse the street.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Secret Life of Cabbies


I took the bus to the airport on my way out of Barcelona last week. Although I've frequently ridden the bus into the city, I don't I've ever done the reverse, because I was utterly surprised to find us, as we neared the airport, veering off into a back parking lot loaded with taxis. Literally hundreds of them, all black and yellow. At first I thought they were just lining up, from very far afield, to pick up passengers. But then I realized that none of the drivers was in his car, and that in fact they were all just hanging out, talking, smoking, and going for coffee at the special taxi drivers' bar handily located alongside the parking lot.

It was like one big, secret, taxi drivers' treehouse. The windows on the bus were closed, so I couldn't hear. But I can imagine the passionate, rapturous discourses on ham, and the declining morals of youth, and why the government is withholding information about the Madrid bombings that emanated up from the asphalt. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Where not to stay in Barcelona

Travel writers rarely get to complain, at least not in print. Newspaper travel sections and glossy magazines exist to entice people to go places and spend money, not convince them to stay home and horde their cash. So you learn pretty quickly that editors want snazzy and upbeat, not depressing and whiny.

But that's the beauty of a blog.

I was in Barcelona this week, and since my favorite hotel (favorite when I'm paying, that is; otherwise it's no contest) was booked, I decided to try a new place, the Hotel Olivia Plaza.

That's it above. Looks nice, right? In some ways it was: good location smack in the Plaza de Catalunya. Stylish, not too expensive, and the chenille coverlets are a nice touch. But trust me when I say that these people have no idea what they're doing.

I suspect they decided to open a hip little hotel without ever stopping to think that someone might actually stay there. How else to explain the stained floor coverings (made of some unrecognizable material that felt like woven plastic) in a hotel that has only been open for six months? How else to make sense of the fancy, plate-sized showerhead...surrounded by a huge mold stain? The sophisticated track lights dim nicely, but won't actually turn off unless you take your key card out of the slot. Which means, of course, that you can't turn them on again without slapping around blindly in the dark in search first of your keycard and then the damn slot. See those hipster-retro globe lamps hanging by the bed there? Turn the air conditioning on, and the current will keep them knocking into each other all night. Add a maid who, without knocking, lets herself into the room at 8:00 am while you are dressing, and you have an all around bang-up experience.

Did I mention that there are no soap dishes? Nice little toiletry sets, but no place to put the soap. Which, being the exact size and shape of a golf ball, rolls.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

True Grit

Last week I wrote admiringly of a couple that had held firm longer than the rest, remaining in their camping vehicle at Faro Vidio until the other tourists had turned tail and headed for home.

Today I salute somebody (somebodies?) who has bested them all.

These never-say-die campers have dispensed with vehicle, traveling, beautiful sights — hell, they’re gutting it out right there on the front lawn, with the sheep.

Need I say more? Posted by Picasa

Monday, September 11, 2006

Another Culinary Diatribe

Temperatures in Madrid have dropped in the past few days, which means I've probably made my last gazpacho of the season.

In truth, it took me a long time to learn to love gazpacho. Not only because, well into my twenties, I refused to eat tomatoes (until the fateful day when I passed a market in Caligari, Sardinia--how well I remember it!--and the red globes looked too delicious to pass up). But mostly because, even after I had learned to love the tomato, I only tried gazpacho in the US, where it tends suffer from a serious texture problem.

Namely, it makes me gag. Admittedly, I am overly sensitive to foods--oatmeal and rice pudding come to mind--that try to be soupy yet still have tiny solids floating around in them. The problem with American-style 'gazpacho' is that somewhere along the line, someone got the idea that all you do to make it is put a bunch of vegetables in the blender and push the on button.

Gazpacho, it's true, is easy to make. But it is not that easy. Any Spaniard will tell you that in order to get the emulsified creaminess that defines good gazpacho, it is not enough to blend. You have to strain as well. If you're too lazy to strain, well, you're too lazy to make gazpacho.

My recipe:

1 kilo ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded, and cut into large chunks
1 Italian green pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into large chunks
1/2 a large cucumber, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 clove garlic
4 inches of day-old baguette, crusts removed
2 TBS of sherry vinegar
1/2 cup (or more--Spaniards tend to use more) extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste

Throw everything except the last two ingredients in a blender and puree. With the motor on, gradually add the oil until the gazpacho attains the desired consistency (if you want it thinner, you can also add a little water). Add salt to taste.

With a wooden spoon, force the gazpacho through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl, pressing on the solids to extract their full flavor. Discard solids. Refrigerate gazpacho until cold.

If you wish, you can garnish gazpacho once it's served, with chopped tomatoes, onions, cukes, and/or croutons. That is acceptable texture.

Friday, September 08, 2006

More Adventures in Spanish Medicine

Overheard at the pharmacy:

Rosa (elderly, hard of hearing, with a stack of prescriptions she needs filled): "Don't give me that one, it doesn't work."

Pharmacist (young, cheerful): "Now Rosa, you know it won't work if you don't believe in it. You have to believe in your medicine if you expect it to work."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Suspending the End

Most of the year, you can walk through Oviñana and right out to el Faro Vidio—the lighthouse at the point—without encountering a soul. That’s one of the great pleasures of living at the Molino. We’ve got the stunning natural vistas of the California coast, but we don’t have the crowds or the traffic.

But late July through early September—vacation time for Spaniards and many other Europeans—is different. The beach we frequent, San Pedro, as well as the Faro Vidio, are cluttered with campers, minivans, pitched tents, and all other manner of portable sleeping contrivance.

I can’t say I blame those who come to sample Asturias’ remarkable beauty (we moved here, after all), but neither will I deny that I’m a little happy when they fade away.

By this time in September, only a few remain—stalwart voyagers committed to one more memorable cliff view, one last night falling asleep to the sound of the ocean’s waves.

The couple we happened upon during our walk to the Faro Vidio Sunday morning typifies this species of sturdy traveler. Their maize minivan parked alone at the point, she glumly packed while he hitched up his suspenders, lit a smoke, and stole a final glimpse of the sea below.

Jutting out his bare, sunburned, jug-belly, this veritable Man-O’-War among tourists stood as if in defiance of the season’s passing, his attitude palpable: a man, a woman, a vehicle, a destination, and the time to get there—that’s all you need.

Soon, they were headed back to their daily grind somewhere on the continent. Posted by Picasa

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Smoking Wars, Redux

You may have thought that Spain's smoking ban went into effect on January 1. But everyone here knows that it didn't really start until the grace period for bars to create smoke-free zones was up. Which means it didn't really start until today.

At a train-station bar this morning, one young man came in for a healthy breakfast of Coke and a cigarette. As he lit up, the waitress told him he would have to take his Coke and his cigarette to the smoking zone (which lay outside the bar, and up a flight of stairs). "Sorry," she said to him, sheepishly. "It's the first day." "Hah!" came the retort from the other end of the bar where a second man was drinking his morning cognac and coffee and watching the exchange of sympathetic glances between the two. "Another comrade," he said, as the three commiserated.

Under Construction - II: The Palista

He rumbled in, backwards, the palista.

Four times he filled and hauled the
dumpster hitched to his tractor.

He took away the mountain of
construction rubble—the mangled
innards of the Cabaña—that for a
week had filled our patio.

He returned with loads of sand and
brick to fill up what had been torn away.

He managed his vehicle skillfully,
backing smoothly down the driveway,
navigating precisely up the snaky
curves leading away from the Molino.

Yet during one trip out he carelessly
scraped against the iron gate. His
tractor must have felt nothing more
than a ‘thump’ along its hip, but the
gate will no longer close.

When I asked José María, our
contractor, if I should avail myself
of the opportunity to rid the yard
of random detritus by tossing it
into the departing dumpster, he
told me not to worry: “He’ll be back.”
Posted by Picasa

Friday, September 01, 2006

A New Space


This is what happens when you leave the city for a few weeks. You go away and when you come back, Tirso de Molina, which was-- just a few days ago, and for as long as you can remember--home to drug addicts, and honking cabs, and top mantalistas, men who sleep on benches and the women who yell at them--that Tirso de Molina has suddenly become one big, clean outdoor cafe. I hear a flower market is next. My question: when did all this happen? Posted by Picasa