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.
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
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