Archive for December, 2012
Madrid – December 2012
Hard to believe it, but John and I have now been married for 11 years. I really mean it when I say that time has flown by. I don’t feel like we had our wedding yesterday. But it feels more like 2 or 3 years, not 11. And this is all good. Time to mark the occasion and spend a little time alone, away from the kids, remembering why we are together in the first place. Since John loves Spain, but still had not been to Madrid that seemed a perfect choice. We could stay in a nice place, kid free, and enjoy “la marcha” (nightlife) in Madrid for a couple of days. I could even show him a few of my old haunts from a hundred years ago when I was a student there at the Universidad de Complutense.
We stayed at the lovely Palace Hotel, just off of the Puerta del Sol and half a block from the statue of Neptune. The center of Madrid is always busy, but also very lovely, with tree-lined blocks and lots of green space running in the middle of many streets. Even though it was December, it had almost a fallish feel. Crisp, but sunny. We got there on Friday afternoon and after a couple of rejuvenating glasses of cava in the hotel bar, we headed out. They had recently turned on all the Christmas lights around the city center, including the huge Christmas tree in Puerta del Sol. Apparently the tree is different every year. This year it definitely wasn’t traditional, but very impression and colourful. After a brief paseo (stroll) and a crazy crowded dash through the Christmas Market in the Plaza Mayor, we decided to try a few tapas. It was too early to go to the cuevas just off the Plaza Mayor, so we first hit a small bar nearby. It was called __ (here’s where I was going to insert the name, but I lost the card from the place and can’t find it! Boo!!)____ and it had a small window next to the door, where you could see the bar man slicing up some jamon for a plate of tapas. In Spain (like in Italy) you need to choose whether you want table service or to just stand at the bar. It’s not a matter of a table not being available, but one of choice. At the bar is best if you plan to have a drink and a racion (small serving) and then move on. Table is more appropriate for a bigger meal. We had a nice glass of wine and an even better plate of jamon. We didn’t really chat to anyone, other than each other, except when I asked the older Spanish couple sitting next to us what size plate of jamon they had ordered. Then we moved on to one of my old haunts from student days.
Just outside of the Plaza Mayor is a street of restaurants full of a particular type of tapas restaurant: Las Cuevas. The Caves. I guess they are called this, because they resemble caves….stone walls, usually no windows. Each one has a specialty. One is known for its mushrooms, another jamon. But my favorite is the tortilla one. If you have never had Spanish tortilla, you are missing out! First off, it has zero in common with the Mexican flour or corn tortilla. It’s more of a close cousin to a frittata. Olive oil, eggs, potato and fried onion. Yum! I have made this for years for John and we’ve had it in lots of restaurants across Spain and in the States. So, he was no newbie. But he had never had it here. We sat at one of the small wood tables and stools and ordered up. First bite in, I could see the look on his face….”OH…MY…GOD…this is GOOD!” We ate and drank and laughed and tried to figure out what made this tortilla so much better than the rest. I have my theories, which I will share separately. Maybe in another post. Towards the end of our food, a group of three Spanish girls came in and sat just next to us. They had obviously been shopping and looked like colleges students. When the waiter came over they quizzed him on the prices, then had a private convo about what they could afford, before ordering. We never talked to them, but I was feeling a STRONG pull of nostalgia just looking at them, about my days living in Madrid and being a “studentskate” as my dad would say….the student version of cheapskate….because funds were limited. I told John that I wanted to pay for their meal and he whole heartedly agreed. He’s the guy who carries around extra umbrellas so that he can give them away to people when it rains, so I knew he would be all about it. We walked into the next little room to explain to the staff and pay out of site from the girls. The staff was a bit mystified, until I explained that I went to school in Madrid, a hundred years ago, and knew what it was like to be a budget-conscious student. I wanted to pay for them as an unexpected treat. They seemed delighted by this idea and we paid both tabs. But then they wanted me to stay for “besos” from the girls once they told them. This horrified me! I would be so embarrassed and so would John! We politely declined and fled the scene. Literally. We practically ran. Slowly making our way back to the hotel, we ran into a smaller Christmas market at the Plaza Jacinto Benavent. We bought some gifts and then decided to have a drink at this quirky outdoor bar, which was only there for the market. It was made up to look like a Tyrolean ski chalet, complete with fake snow backdrop and faux fur throws to warm your legs. It was 11:30 at night and it was PACKED. I love Spain. Day one was perfect.
Day two was so gorgeous and sunny; it almost seemed like October instead of December. We headed to the Prado to tick off a few Madrid must-dos: El Greco and Goya. The building itself is a marvel and a beauty, even if the art is not my favorite of the three great museums there: Prado, Reina Sofia, & the Thyssen. We tried to go to the Thyssen next, but a temporary Gauguin exhibit was causing lines out the door and the day’s tickets were sold out. We bought for the next day and instead hopped on one of those red tourist Hop On Hop Off Buses. While they are super touristy, they are a great way to really see a lot of a city in a short amount of time. Plus, the day was so gorgeous; we sat on top in the open air. It was so fun.
That night, John was still thinking about the jamon from the place the night before…the one where we stood at the bar. So we planned to go back and then hit a few more places for a proper tapeo (tapas crawl). But as we approached, the guy at the door saw John and greeted him like a long lost favorite nephew! Shouts, hugs, claps on the back. And it was not a sales technique to get us in (at least I don’t think it was) as we had been there the night before and saw the same guy at the front door with no reaction. He led us to a table, once John said we wanted to eat. As he did, the guys behind the bar had same reaction. Hey! It’s You! I was thinking, wow….did he leave some crazy tip last night? Just as I am about to ask John this, he leans over and whispers to me behind his menu “Do you think that they think I am somebody else?” “I was just wondering about that.” We had a lovely meal (even though I accidently ordered Portobello mushrooms. John’s allergic so we gave them to the table next to us) and thoroughly enjoyed John’s newfound local celebrity. When we left, our waiter stood on a chair and kissed John on top of the head, and announced the whole place “This man is a Marine!” as we left laughing. He had just discovered this, when he noticed John’s tattoo.
I did get to hit the Thyssen on the Sunday. I remembered this being one of my favs, housed in a restored villa of multiple floors. I also remembered that the art goes from oldest to newest, starting at the top floor and that I used to skip down the lower floors. The interesting thing this time was that I spent the bulk of my time on the older art this time, especially some of the religious art that would normally bore me. And it was fascinating! I guess things do change with age. Definitely your perspective. You have more of it. And if you are lucky, your budget. Same thing applies there. The final part of our trip I wanted to highlight was my search for paella. Not just any paella…..but really, really good paella. An internet trawl had led me to www.thetongisneverwrong.com and their entry about paella. So, we tried 54 Boulevard. Excellent. Definitely local. And the whole meal from good from starter to postre. On our last day, we ended up at La Barraca. A place that is famous for its paella (and high prices) that many people call the best in Madrid. Now that I have been to both I will say I think that the paella at 54 Boulevard is better. But La Barraca was also excellent. So it really boils down to budget and what kind of atmosphere you want. Boulevard is family, local, casual, and relaxed. La Barraca seems family-friendly also. More fine-dining in experience and décor. A little serious. But I would take paella from either one, any day! Please! Madrid, me mata. (And apparently, it is MORE Christmas than you, so there. – see below)
OK. So the title of this entry may be slightly confusing. J It’s not about waiters in Europe and their post-modern interpretation of the influence that flan has had on the economic collapse of the west. It is far more sophisticated than that. To dive a bit deeper we ask the questions: “Where is the best flan in the world?”, and “Who exactly do older European male waiters think I am!!??”
On our first article I need to perform a deep dive, and study at length my feelings about flan. It’s my favorite desert……. Now that we’ve gotten through the detailed analysis we can get into defining a great flan. Let’s start with the basics from Wikipedia:
Crème caramel (French: [kʁɛm kaʁaˈmɛl]), flan
[flɑ̃], or caramel custard is a custard
dessert with a layer of soft caramel on top, as opposed to crème brûlée, which is custard with a hard caramel top. The dish is eaten throughout the world.
So, that is the simplest definition of flan. As a Flan aficionado, a title not self-proclaimed but rather bestowed upon me by an esteemed member of the food and beverage industry (a waitress), I have a far stricter criteria for flan. The significant variables within the flan tend to be in three areas: creaminess, caramel flavor and gelatinous quality (does it jiggle and wiggle). It is through these primary qualities that I have developed my own system known as “FLAPaMS”, or the Flan Performance and Measurement System.
I’ve been eating flan for a very long time and am sad to say that only now have I decided this is my true legacy; TO FIND THE PERFECT FLAN! Had I chronicled all the flan I had eaten to date I would have a much more robust remembrance of my flan trail blazing. There have been some memorable flan however so here are some examples:
- Fernando’s Hideaway – Portland Oregon – United States
- Eclipse Di Luna – Atlanta, Georgia – United states (I once went in, and ordered an entire pan of flan by itself)
- Boulevar 64 – Salamanca neighborhood, Madrid – Spain
From now on I will catalog my adventures in flan and look into building our my FLAPaMS model in order to begin the arduous but enjoyable task of eating flan everywhere it is available. J Not saying I will abstain from any other desserts mind you! In the mean time, let us not forget:
Stressed spelled backwards is desserts. Coincidence? I think not!
If you have never been to Positano, look at how hilly and steep it looks in photos. Then multiply that by about 10. THAT’S how hilly and steep it is. I have to admit; the first day…..we were kind of grumpy. The hotel was not exactly what we had imagined. It looked great on paper, but in person….not so much. It was basically someone’s home that they had converted to a B&B. Of course, they still lived there
as well, which made for close quarters. They had done this recently and it was very obvious that they were very new to being hoteliers. While they were lovely, they were inefficient and also told us way too many of their problems, like how their porter was ripping them off, etc. I barely want people I know to bitch to me about work, much less the people I am paying to stay with.
Our bedroom had a lovely, if terribly overgrown terrace….that it shared with the room next door. So, no chance of sleeping with the doors open to the view and ocean sounds. Not to mention having to close the doors every time you change or want any privacy. It was also decidedly shabby, despite having just been started up. The bed linens and blanket seemed really old and not in a cool way. In a “I just pulled this out of my dead grandmother’s closet and threw it on the bed” kind of way. We decided to spend one night and then decide in the morning about changing hotels. I did feel lucky that at least we had an ensuite bathroom. All the other rooms had to use the one across the hall from us.
Walking to dinner through the heart of town didn’t improve our mood. It seemed to be jammed pack with American senior citizens, all off some cruise ships. I am also a tourist, so it seems silly to begrudge other tourists. But I also go to a place like Italy to see Italy and Italians, and not Nebraskans. So, that made us grumpier. Then at dinner, John confessed he was also grumpy because he was disappointed in us. He always takes pride in the fact that we can make the best of the anything and roll with it, so to speak. But in this instance, we were pouting, in one of the world’s most beautiful places. We decided to suck it up, stay at the hotel, and just make the best of it. How much time would be spent in the room anyway?
First thing in the morning, the proprietess of the B&B comes up to us a breakfast nervously. ” How many days did you say you were saying?” she asks us, looking worried. Apparently, she had accidently given us the “good room” that was meant for an Australian couple with a toddler. They had delayed their arrival by one night, not cancelled it as she had thought. She tells us they have another property, “just up the hill” and would we move there. “Just up the hill” has me worried as this is Positano. But we agree to go look. Turns out they have bought a whole other B&B from another hotel. It is still in the same vein as the first place, but cleaner and fresher. And with an amazing, uncluttered terrace all to ourselves. We quickly agree to move. We later decided that the universe had rewarded us for at least trying to roll with it.
As the days went by, Positano grew on us more and more. We realized that we had to get away from the main section of town where the ferry boats come in. That way, we avoided many of the cruise ship hordes. We found little nooks and crannies of delight. One day we rented a boat all day. I was inspired by another blog to do so and it was AMAZING. We went off by ourselves, exploring the coast line and swimming and lying in the sun. We wanted to do this again and again. But unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate. Some serious rain came in. As they had terrible wildfires in August, all the sudden rain caused tons of dirt to come down the hills into the ocean. Even once the rain had subsided, the ocean was too churned up for boating.
So, we had several day trips. My favourite was the day we hired a car to go wine tasting. The driver also arranged for us to first go olive oil tasting. It was incredible. It was a locally owned oil maker called Fratoio Ferraro. We tasted all varieties, including lemon, orange, basil, and truffle. I think the lemon oil is my favourite. While all the other flavoured oils are made through infusion, the lemon and the orange are made by pressing the olives along with the peel of the citrus. It is so clean and soft tasting. I am addicted! We ordered a ton of oil to be delivered to our house in Dublin.
We then went wine tasting at a winery on the side of Mt. Vesuvius. The pictures don’t convey how majestic it is. We met the winemaker and he took us into the vines and we tasted grapes off the vine. Then we had an amazing meal from all local products, paired with the various wines. Of course, we bought a ton of wine too. I mean, you can’t buy it in stores, so we had to. Right? On the way home, after wine and a huge lunch….the driver put on this soft opera….well, you can see what happened very quickly……
By the end of the five days, we really had fallen in love with Positano. I can see why it inspires so much tourism and cinematic love. On our last evening, we met an American couple who now spend four months of the year there and said they started off like us, just visiting for a few days. Then each year, they came back for a longer and longer time. Four months a year in Italy, huh? I could get used to that. Hmmmm…………..
Here is a full list of my recommendations:
La Syrene Hotel– Amazing, high-end restaurant with the most sumptuous wisteria covered terrace. Impeccable service that you definitely pay for.
Grand Hotel La Favorita – Equally nice rooftop bar, but more down to Earth prices and much less stuff. Nice view of the hills as well as the sea.
L’antica Trattoria – AMAZING food and lovely patio setting. If you’re lucky, the waiter will spoon feed you.
I Giardini di Tasso – beautiful garden and you can eat in a Roman Arch with candlelight. Molto romantico!
Cantina del Vesuvio – www.cantinadelvesuvio.it
Dona Rosa – in Montepertusa, above Positano – This is where I was given a wine glass as big as my head!
Olive Oil – Fratoio Ferraro www.frantoioferraro.it
Ristorante Max – Lovely, fancy in city center
Villa Maria – Ravello: Great for the view. Lovely outdoor seating.
Cumpa Cosimo – Ravello: Very authentic place for good value. Run by a woman who looks like an Italian nona from the movies!