One of the bi-products of the wine-making biz that keeps us busy on weekends in our vineyard in El Penedés, the wine region of Catalunya, is the proliferation of fresh grape leaves on our vines. (Duh!) In May or June, grape growers undertake the labor-intensive process of “leafing” and “suckering” the vines, which means that you remove all of the stems that have no fruit, and you also snap off big leaves that are casting shadows on the baby grape clusters. The leafing also gives the fruit more air and minimizes the possibility of icky mold growth. (“Sin miedo!” our local helper tells us: Snap off the excess growth WITHOUT FEAR!)
Last year, during our first season with the white grapes that are now slowly fermenting into “cava” (Spanish champagne), we were pretty thoroughly focused on getting all of the steps right. This year, I had the wherewithal, with the help of daughter Stassa, to collect a few of the largest grape leaves and tuck them away in a plastic bag for later use, after we recovered from the very hot and sweaty leafing process!
My motive? DOLMADES! I had read up last year on the quickest and easiest way to stuff your own grape leaves, guided by Martha Stewart and a dozen other on-line cooking websites, many of them Greek-oriented. And then I promptly forgot it. So while the leaves were still mostly green and supple, I consulted the Internet once again, and I went for what seemed like a fool-proof and remarkably rapid method of preparing the grape leaves for stuffing: blanch them for a few seconds in boiling water.
It worked pretty well, and the results were tasty if a bit chewy. The stuffing process itself was less laborious than I’d anticipated, and it helps if you can make it into a fun assembly-line process in the kitchen.
It’s not always easy being a vegetarian in Spain. Because I also eat fish and seafood–and I live in Barcelona, which is smack on the sea–it’s a challenge, but it’s not impossible. In Madrid, I would call it impossible. There is a big deli there, for instance, called El Museo del Jamón. Generally, all over Spain there is a general suspicion of those who do not follow the cult of the slaughtered cow and pig. That small club would include both my husband U.B. and me.
So, we greet with joy the discovery of an extraordinary Spanish dish that is not based on meat. And there is a family of soups whose ingredients have never been near a pig. The chilled soups are a refreshing thirst-quencher in the parched southern reaches of Spain’s Andalucia, where summer days can be broiling.
Everybody knows about gazpacho, the perfect chilled tomato-garlic-and-vegetable first course on a hot day, and in Spain it is as readily available in the local grocery store as orange juice. My family slugs it down right from the carton if we’re on the road, and it’s one of our daughter Stassa’s favorite after-school snacks. Still, nothing beats the homemade version, which is not difficult to make in either a blender or a food processor; recipes abound on the Internet. Crucial to its success is the crunch factor of the accouterments that you add when serving gazpacho at your table: diced green (or red) pepper and cucumber, little cubes of fresh tomato, and crispy croutons of bread that have been toasted with olive oil. I like a sprig of rosemary or basil in mine.
The other tomato-based soup that has not found the international fame of its cousin gazpacho is called salmorejo. A search for the etymology of the word led me nowhere, but it almost certainly has something to do with salt (“sal”) in spite of its being not exceedingly salty. When I plug the word salmorejo into Google translate, the English translation is…(fanfare): “Gazpacho!”
As far as I can tell (after hundreds of tastings), salmorejo, whose origins are in the Andalucian city of Córdoba, varies from its more famous cousin mostly in the inclusion of a higher proportion of bread amongst its ingredients, which renders the soup a slightly lighter shade of red, and considerably thicker, than your average bowl (or glass) of gazpacho. The ingredients list is also shorter, focusing on vine-ripened tomatoes, green olive oil, garlic and bread. It is often garnished with cubes of ham and hard boiled egg.
An unsung cousin to the red chilled soups is little known outside of Andalusia, and almost completely unheard of outside of Spain. The secret of the creamy white, refreshingly chilled ajo blanco or “white gazpacho” summer soup seems to be well guarded.
U.B. and I first discovered ajo blanco in the swank restaurant of one of Spain’s most charming paradores, a converted fourteenth-century Moorish castle in Carmona, outside of Seville. Since my lactose-tolerance is not high, I at first shied away from the white soup in spite of U.B.’s swooning response to it. Only after asking the waiter, “Que es esto?” and hearing the list of ingredients, did I dive in and become a life-long fan.
Ajo blanco is more than the sum of its parts. In fact, the ingredients at first seem to be seriously at odds with each other: Bread. Almonds. Olive oil. Grapes. Vinegar. And of course garlic (ajo).
Here is a recipe, freely adapted from a version that I found at EPICURIOUS.COM:
Toast several slices of country bread without its crusts and soak in a cup of ice water.
Toast about a dozen sliced almonds in a skillet until golden, then grind them in a processor with one clove of garlic.
Squeeze the bread dry and add it to the almond/garlic mixture, along with half a pound of seedless green grapes.
Process until smooth then put it into a bowl and mix it together with 3 Tbsp. of wine vinegar, a half cup of extra virgin olive oil and two cups of ice water.
Strain it through a sieve, forcing as much bread through as possible. Add salt and cayenne pepper, and chill well, at least one hour.
Serve the soup with freshly toasted croutons and more green seedless grapes, cut in half. I know it sounds weird, but trust me.
Once while traveling around the south of Spain, we came across a thicker, dip-like version of ajo blanco, which is usually a rather thin soup. Quite a surprise and just as yummy.
Among the many pearls of wisdom shared with us as we were packing to leave San Francisco for a six-month stint at the American Academy in Rome a decade ago was this: leave behind that dainty McLaren stroller that your one-year-old has been so happy in, and invest in a jogging stroller. In fact, the average American toddler vehicle is no match for the ancient stone streets of Rome. Although little Stassa still had to survive some bone-rattling tours through the Eternal City while hanging onto her bottle for dear life, the sturdy jogging stroller (which we had picked up second-hand before leaving northern California) survived our half-year stay in Rome, and then some. We subsequently had a ceremony to say goodbye to it in a dumpster on the Greek island of Crete, after it had admirably served its purpose.
One great frustration for us new parents as artists and art historians was having to sacrifice the leisurely strolls through museums that we had cherished in our early years together. U.B. and I had chosen to raise infant Stassa ourselves, and we didn’t even employ a nanny until we arrived in Rome when she was a year-and-a-half old, and then only for a few hours on alternate mornings. So usually when we set off to discover Borromini, or Caravaggio, or Bramante, our toddler daughter was with us. A strategy that worked for us, mostly, was to take along a favorite outdoor-kind-of-toy (Stassa’s was a plastic geodesic kind of ball–a gift from a dear friend in Napa–which didn’t roll very far or bounce at all). Then, when we set off for a baroque church or an ancient history museum, this was the routine:
PARENT ONE: Entertain junior in the cloister of the church or the piazza in front of the museum, by kicking and tossing the ball back and forth for as long as you can stand it, alternating with a game of peek-a-boo behind the cypress trees, or, if there’s a fountain, play Let’s Get Daddy Wet. (But not too wet.)
PARENT TWO: Make a mad dash through the galleries or the historic building, making mental or written notes on the highlights to share with Parent One.
When these activities are exhausted, PARENT ONE and PARENT TWO change roles.
A hint that I almost hate to admit to: dash into the gift shop first and quickly review the postcard rack, which inevitably features the “greatest hits” paintings and sculptures on view in the permanent collection galleries, and seek them out first.
This “treasure hunt” strategy has taken a slightly different turn in more recent years since we’re occasionally able to coerce Stassa into spending an hour or so with us inside a museum. Even for grown-ups, including artistically inclined grown-ups like us, a visit to the Louvre or the Uffizi can seem overwhelming almost from the moment you pass through the entrance. (If the queues are long enough, it can seem overwhelming BEFORE you go through the front door!) We have devised some unofficial treasure hunts that are best implemented if your kid has a friend with her to “compete” with. Recently upon entering the newly re-opened Musée Picasso in Paris, we let Stassa know that her job was to find a goat, a sculpture of a bull’s head, and a painting of Picasso’s son dressed as a harlequin (we might have misguided her on that one). It kept her somewhat occupied and mostly focused, at least long enough for her parents to enjoy an untroubled hour with the new hanging of the permanent collection in the beautiful Hotel Salé in the Marais, which we had really missed on our last few trips while it was closed for renovations. At the Louvre, armed with the maps provided at the admissions desk, she and a friend went on a mission devised by their parents to find the route toward five masterpieces: Théodore Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa,” the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo, Jacques-Louis David’s “The Coronation of Napoleon,” and of course, the Mona Lisa, barely visible–from their ten-year-old perspective–over the heads of a zillion visitors taking pictures with their iPhones of a distant portrait behind a couple layers of glass.
THE TREASURE HUNT STRATEGY:
It’s too bad scooters aren’t allowed in the Louvre, as we’ve found our lives radically altered by the fairly modest purchase of three two-wheeled vehicles that we use to zip around the flatter parts of our home city, Barcelona. Since we live in the Gothic Quarter, where few cars can fit through the narrow stone canyons, the scooter provides a terrific alternative to walking. We’ve found that by rolling rather than walking, the family can cover a lot more ground before the moaning about when-are-we-gonna-get-there begins. Local sporting goods stores like the French Decathlon sell adult scooters for as little as 79 euros, a small investment equal to a couple of taxi rides.*
TRAVELING EURO STYLE:
When we do take road trips (and we do!) we’ve been amazed at our daughter’s powers of concentration if an audio book is playing on the car speakers. Assuming you can pry her iPad away from her, the magic provided by listening to a fictional (or non-fictional) tale that somehow relates to the countryside that you’re traveling through, is immeasurable. We played “The Little Prince” and some tales from Jules Verne for Stassa on a drive from Spain toward Bordeaux. And on road trips in the USA, a place that she likes to visit, but doesn’t really relate to culturally, she has delighted in hearing the adventures of Laura, Mary and Baby Carrie in “Little House on the Prairie” (voiced by actress Cherry Jones in the version that we bought on line). Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” was less successful; maybe we’ll save that for next time. We’ve just bought both “The Yearling” and “The Old Man and the Sea” for an upcoming trip to Florida, but we’re not sure that either of us drivers will be able to see to navigate through our tears. Maybe we’ll just let her watch “The Deathly Hallows” on our way to Harry Potter’s Wizarding World…
Here is a link to Decathlon’s webpage that shows a range of adult scooter prices.
It’s well known that the French are great dog lovers, and that your pooch is welcome to enter almost any shop or restaurant that you are when you find yourself traveling with Fido in Paris. But cats? In a cafe in the tony 3rd arrondissement? Cat lovers rejoice! If your family is missing its feline member during your travels, there’s a place in France…
Le Café des Chats now has two locations in the center of Paris. The original one–which opened in 2013 in the Marais, a stone’s throw from the Centre Pompidou — proved so popular (reservations are recommended generally, and on weekends, essential) that its owners opened a second kitty emporium last autumn nearby in the 11th arrondissement, near the Place de la Bastille. Marie-Claire of the Café des Chats told me that the second neighborhood “is very different and attracts yet a wider range of cat lovers.”
The lucky cats are all rescues that are being given another chance at life in an enviable situation. While the cafe is not itself in the cat adoption business, a portion of its profits go to rescue activities. “We wanted to show how a cat from a shelter is deserving and capable of affection,” says M-C.
Les chats have pretty much free run of the place, although lunch guests are prohibited from feeding them table scraps, tempting though it may be. The cafe calls itself “un salon de thé et un restaurant,” and happily the food from its full-service kitchen is not an afterthought to the gimmick, but is absolutely delicious in a traditional Parisian way, and the management seeks out organic produce. Both restaurant locations are open for lunch and dinner, and they also serve a yummy weekend brunch. Our daughter had a croque monsieur, and her parents enjoyed a veggie-and-chevre quiche with a salad. And a bowl of cream.
Is this proof that Parisians treat their pets better than they do their children? Peut-etre. Meeooooow…
You really can live like royalty in a castle in Spain…at least for a night or two. Since the 1920s, the Spanish government has run a for-profit chain of luxury hotels which is officially called Los Paradores de Turismo de España. While the word parador literally means a “place to stop,” you will find that this hardly describes the overnight experience in many of these 94 historic convents, castles, monasteries, stately homes and other monumental buildings that spread across the Spanish countryside from Galicia to Andalucia, and beyond, to the Balearic islands.
Here are a few of my family’s favorites:
In Cardona, you can visit not only a splendid castle but also the nearby salt mines whose productivity financed it. The “Muntanya de Sal” (Salt Mountain Cultural Park) is a great family excursion underground, where you can visit the source of the all-important ingredient of seasoning and preserving foods that was once worth its weight in gold. The parador itself, which was the fortress home of the Lords of Cardona, who were wealthy salt barons since the Middle Ages, overlooks the plain of the Cardener river valleys in northern Catalunya, near the Pyrenees.
The town of Cuenca, about 140 kilometers east of Madrid in Castilla-La Mancha, boasts an elegant parador in the former convent of San Pablo. Perhaps as impressive as its rich interior is the view that greets you when you emerge from the front door: across the sixteenth-century Puente de San Pablo (Bridge of Saint Paul) is the 15th-century neighborhood known as the “hanging houses” of Cuenca. One of these gravity-defying structures houses a first rate collection of mid-century modern art in the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art (Museo de Arte Abstracto Español), part of the Juan March Foundation.
In the heart of Andalucia, the Parador de Granada, besides being a honeymoon destination for Princess Grace and Prince Ranier in 1956, sits smack in the middle of the grounds of the enchanted Alhambra. It started life as a 14th-century Moorish palace, and was a Franciscan convent before becoming a parador. Like the rest of the Alhambra (one of my favorite destinations in all of Spain), the hotel grounds are filled with trickling fountains and sweetly scented gardens of jasmine and flowers.
Not all of the renovated buildings in the system can boast of equal charms, however. While the Parador of Ronda in Andalucia sits atop a spectacular piece of real estate, hanging over the edge of the town’s famous gorge, the hotel itself is the former city hall, a building of no great distinction, save its enviable location. We also once found ourselves booked into one seaside parador near Valencia which did not have beach access and whose architecture was more like a Holiday Inn than a castle. So do your homework before making your reservation, and check with those advisor sites.
Portugal, by the way, has s similar system called the POUSADAS modeled on the Spanish example.
Okay, you can also find a swell place to stay through home rental sites, but, come on…a castle in Spain!
Lorena Autori, who has starred as a guest chef at Boston’s own Rialto Restaurant, offers private cooking classes in her home, which is located in an historic building in the very center of the drop-dead charming medieval hill town of San Gemini.
After we reached Lorena initially via email, she first let us choose our menu well ahead of time from a wide selection of tantalizing options. We selected things that our daughter would eat and also dishes that we felt that we could later prepare at home. Lorena was delightful to chat with while she performed wonders in her kitchen, during the very little “down time” we had…as she worked us quite hard! And had a lot of fun.
Together we whipped up some amazing delicacies, including gnocchi made from scratch (JUST the right variety of potatoes, peeled after boiling, and pushed through a ricer), a special Umbrian version of pesto, polpette di pollo (chicken croquettes), vegetarian stuffed peppers, batter-fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella, and an awesome lemon cream tart. (She even contributed on her own a special local dessert that she thought our daughter would like, since there wasn’t enough time for us to bake two desserts.)
The whole cucina italiana experience with Lorena, while intense and focused for almost four hours, was an absolute delight. And then we ate! Buon appetito!
Percorsi con Gusto
Via Casventino, 4
05029 San Gemini
PRICES & AVAILIBILITY:
Umbria or Boston – PERCORSICON GUSTO
Doubting your abilities to communicate in Italian? Crack tour guide Alessandro Manciucca in San Gemini can book this for you, and arrange for a visit to a family-run winery, in a small Umbrian town.
Allessandro can be reached at www.dreavel.com
An energetic young Dutch couple, Iris Tonies and Arnout Krediet, run an innovative art school called ESTUDIO NOMADA, located on one of the twisting stone streets in the heart of Barcelona’s historic Gothic Quarter.
The “nomad” studio offers workshops for individuals and families who want to spend a week or two exploring Barcelona and environs with creative local types who will show them local art destinations through the eyes of the artist. Drawing and painting classes, as well as a museum visit or two, are included in the workshop in the city. But that’s not all! The school has just opened an artist residency program in a stunning historic macia in the nearby wine country of Penedés. A day in this lovely setting, surrounded by vineyards (lunch and wine tasting included!), can be added to the workshop, which is hand-tailored for the visitor by Iris. There are stops to sketch or paint the enchanting vineyards and olive groves, along with a visit to a fantastic family-run winery. All of Spain’s cava, the champagne of Catalonia, comes from this photogenic region, an hour outside of Barcelona.
The price for this unique experience, all art materials and museum admissions included, is 50 euros per person per day in the city, and an additional 80 euros for the vineyard/art tour.
To see the lovely wine-country location, take a look at the website for Residency Mas Els Igols and be sure to check out the A.I.R. artist-in-residency.
Carrer de la Palma de Sant Just, 7
Arnout Krediet | Founder @ Estudio Nómada
Official Estudio Nómada website
Although my partner U.B. and I are both artists with a keen appreciation of art history, when our family booked a week-long visit to Umbria during our ten-year-old daughter’s spring break this year, we wanted to do something other than the typical visit to churches and art museums.
We spent a memorable morning at a Craftsman Workshop in the famous ceramics town of Deruta. You’ve no doubt seen, or bought, some of the pricey and precious plates, espresso cups or soup tureens made by the artisans of Deruta, with their traditional swirls and griffon shapes meticulously painted on glossy high-fired porcelain. When we learned that we could make our own at the authentic, no-frills ceramics studio called MAIOLICHE ARTISTICHE GORETTI, we said, “Sign us up!”We loved that it was off the beaten path of ceramic factories. The husband-and-wife team of Umberto and Vania were extremely patient with us beginners. Their passion for their craft, which has occupied them for 25 years, shone through. Umberto was delightful with our daughter Stassa, who modeled low-fire bowls, which she personalized for our dog and our cat. In the meantime U.B. and I focused on the fine art of centuries-old decoration of dinnerware. Vania made sure that we followed the rules, after we “pounced” the design with a bag of charcoal onto the unfired white plate or cup. If we put a stroke of light blue rather than a stroke of the dark blue on that wing of the griffon, she would smile and firmly let us know that, no, THIS is the right color for that feather on that wing: SEMPRE (ALWAYS)! Then she would scrape the stroke away with a sharp knife, and we would do it properly.
We thought that the €70 per person price tag for a half-day session was quite reasonable, and afterward we couldn’t resist buyingsome of the Gorettis’ own (admittedly more professional) serving dishes and bowls. But our own creations are our real treasures.
Via Vincoli 7/9
06053 Deruta PG
Tel. +39 075 971 0048
My husband’s very favorite pasta sauce is also one of the world’s simplest. We both fell in love with this Roman specialty, a creamy twirl of fresh pasta, hot with crushed black pepper, during our time in residence at the American Academy in Rome, after a friend introduced us to the charms of the old Jewish Ghetto. There, on the Piazza delle Cinque Scuole, behind an unmarked door at number 30, is one of the smallest trattorias in the city, Sora Margherita.
You need to become a “member” of Sora Margherita because of local licensing, but this essentially means filling in a form. We were introduced in this loud and crowded little watering hole to the simple marvel that is pasta cacio e pepe. The cooks at Sora Margherita serve it over a delectable egg tonnarelli (a variation on long, flat fettucine), but any long pasta will do. The quality of the pasta is as important as the freshness of the few ingredients.
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