Thursday, November 6, 2014

Madrids Little Secrets: Cookies from the Cloistered Nuns

A short walk from Plaza Mayor, there is a small, elbow-shaped street conveniently named Elbow Street (Calle Codo). There's no unusual draw to this street. You won't find many people walking down it, especially not tourists, unless they know about the nuns. Yes, nuns. And these nuns can bake.

El Convento de Corpus Christi is a convent of cloistered nuns on Elbow Street Calle Codo in Madrid. The Hieronimus nuns have no contact with the outside world and make their money by selling traditional Spanish sweets. The variety of cookies are sold by using a wooden turntable where you choose your box and replace it with the money owed.

Take a look at the video to better understand this unique experience..

Thursday, October 2, 2014

'Un Encuentro Gastronómico' with Top Chef Spain

Last April, I received an email in my inbox with "encuentro gastronómico" written in the subject line. A gastronomic encounter? A foodie adventure? I'm in.

Top Chef España was beginning their competition and needed American taste testers for the second episode of the Spanish TV series. I still have no idea why I was contacted or how they found my email, but I'd like to think that blogging has some perks... like television fame.
The details were kept pretty secret until the final days before filming. I eventually received an email to wear plaid, jeans, or anything with an American flag and meet outside of a hotel at a certain time the following day. 

So I reluctantly played along with the cowboy theme, threw on a plaid shirt and walked to the meeting spot to find 100 other Americans waiting to get on a couple buses. This was by far the most English speakers (and Americans) I had been around in a while. All dressed in red, white and blue, some waving American flags and others in cowboy boots. It was almost like our own personal 4th of July in Madrid. 

We signed some waivers promising not to take pictures (but we were sneaky!) or post anything about the event on social media until the episode aired. But now that it has debuted...

They bussed us to an undisclosed location an hour outside of Madrid and fed us bocadillos and cervesas. Free sandwiches and beer? They knew how to keep Americans happy.

After a few hours of boredom, cow-gazing, and flag-waving for the camera, we were invited inside a barn to sit on hay bales at a long red and white checkered picnic table. We were at a cattle ranch and the two teams of Spanish chefs were frantically finishing to cook up some great American barbecue.

I filed into the table with some friends and luckily sat across from one the show's judges Yayo Deporta. His hair was gelled perfectly, he had a nice Mediterranean tan and a flawless complexion due to a thick slathering of TV makeup. Apart from his good looks, he is also one of the youngest chefs ever to receive a Michelin star.

With friends Jessica of Curiosity Travels and Amy of Restless Fork Blog. Photo Courtesy of Jessica.

We were told to clap along as a country music band played and then watch some of the chefs goof off and dance. They grabbed some girls to Do-si-do and a Spanish chef used an American flag as the cape as another chef acted as the bull. It was, as my friend Jessica hilariously described on her blog as "the most amazing inappropriate use of our nation’s flag I’d ever seen."

Eventually, we were served our food. Each team was instructed to prepare a traditional American Barbecue dish with a side. 

The grey team served two types of meat, one American-style and the other Spanish, with chips, a potato and coleslaw.

The orange team had sliced and skewered beef with a baked potato and corn topped with guacamole. Corn and guacamole? That was unique.

Now, I am not a meat eater, but I had been living under the mentality of "when in Rome Madrid" and sampling some non-vegetarian dishes. (You cannot live in Spain and not try Jamón ibérico). The food was good. It wasn't amazing, but it wasn't bad either. I preferred the orange plate because of some extra spice and crunchy toppings, but the guacamole-corn is not something I rushed to recreate.

We put the color card of our favorite dish in an envelope and then placed it in a glass box to determine the winning team. 

Again with Jessica and Amy. Photo courtesy of Jessica.
We were shuffled out of the barn and back on the bus before we could find out which team won, but luckily you can watch all of that drama from the full episode here (in Spanish, of course).

Overall, it was a fun day and I would definitely do it all again. But the best part? My souvenir… I made it onto Spanish TV! 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Surf Weekend in Rabat

"I'm going to Africa for the weekend."

Leading up to my trip to Morocco, I couldn't stop saying this phrase. AFRICA for the WEEKEND? It sounded crazy and I loved it.

Living in Madrid with its large airport makes it easy to fly cheaply across Europe, but I had forgotten that Spain is also just one tiny Strait of Gibraltar away from Africa.

So one Friday afternoon with a cheap RyanAir ticket, I flew down to Morocco's capital city for a surf weekend with a few friends.

None of us researched much before the trip, but a friend recommended a hostel with a free breakfast and reasonable priced surf rentals and lessons - that's all we needed!

The hostel was located in the old part of the city, known as the medina. When you enter the neighborhood's clay walls, it is a maze of narrow, winding walkways with no windows or streets signs. We would have never found the hostel if one of the guys hadn't picked us up at the airport and guided us through the labyrinth.

When we eventually arrived at Medina Surfing Association, we were greeted by the owner and surf instructor Abdel El Harim. Abdel is Morocco's most famous professional surfer with repeated success in the World Qualifying Series.

Abdel gave us a quick tour of the hostel transformed from a riad: a traditional Moroccan house with an open-air courtyard in the middle. Each room faces the center and has no exterior windows. This old design helps residents cope with the Moroccan heat as the rooms stay dark and cold and the heat rises out of top of the structure.

We spent the day exploring the city, trying to navigate our way around the medina and then enjoyed tajines at Dar Naji to fuel up for the following day of surfing. And with no alcohol available in traditionally Muslim Rabat, our sobremesa wine was replaced with many, many cups of peppermint tea.

The next morning we began our day with a rooftop breakfast (and of course more tea) before squeezing into some wetsuits and hitting the beach.

Unfortunately, the pictures stop here. We could only bring ourselves, the boards and a pair of flip flops to the beach to be left underneath the cart of a street vendor.

Abdel helped us warm up and explained some basic tactics before ditching us to catch his own waves. This was a little disappointing, but I guess a pro-surfer has his own priorities. We hit the water with another instructor that only knew one English word: "UP" - very practical when the most difficult part of learning to surf is actually standing up.

Now this was not my first time surfing, but the sport has never been something I've really wanted to tackle. I had my first lesson in Australia in 2009 and then picked up a board every once in a while while living a year on the beach in Ecuador. I've always preferred to jump in on a game of sand soccer instead of getting beaten up by the waves.

But as the only one within my group of friends who had surfed before, I felt a tiny bit of pressure to do well. So we paddled out together and the instructor was to help each of us individually catch our first wave. I went first. We saw the wave coming, he gave me a little nudge and I paddled as hard as I could. Then a strong French accent yell "UP" and I thought about yoga class: engaging the core and floating from plank pose gracefully into forward fold. Lo and behold, I was up! First try, phew!

By the end of the lesson, all five of us were catching waves - with a lot of face plants, wipeouts and water up the nose in between. Overall, we had a great time and were discussing our next surf weekend before we even returned to the hostel.

It was quick trip to Africa - only Friday to Sunday, but I highly recommend a surf weekend in Rabat as a short getaway from Madrid.

Check out Medina Surf Association's blog and Facebook page for more info.

Have you surfed before? Always wanted to try?
Leave me note in the comments below with your favorite surf spots around the world! 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Croix-Rousse in Lyon, France: Old friends in new places

I first met Mathilde while living on an organic farm in Ecuador. She arrived with freshly chopped, dusty blonde hair barely brushing the straps of the large backpack swung over her shoulders. She had brand new working boots, cleaner clothes than mine, and an openness about her that I was immediately drawn to.

I was in month number five at the farm, feeling a little beaten up by the struggles of South America, and she was refreshing. We swapped stories from Sweden and New Zealand, bonded over essential oils and played cards after dinner and into the nighttime.

About a month later, Mathilde left. She was just at the beginning of a six-month trip through South America. I later found a little note and an almost full bottle of citronella oil on my bed - for the mosquitos. Nos vemos, she wrote, we will see each other, maybe in Sweden.

Last weekend, as I stepped off the train, Mathilde was there to greet me. This time with a long, fishtail braid over her shoulder - proof of the two and half years since we'd last seen each other.

We weren't in Sweden as planned, but instead in Lyon, France where she is three weeks and one long thesis shy of receiving her second masters.

She welcomed me into her quaint loft above a tiny theater in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood. This artsy area is above the busy city center of Lyon. Most tourists don't make it up the hill to explore the colorful shops, unique cafes and various parks with overlooking views of the city.

We picnicked in the park at sunset and caught up over local beers at Dikkenek Cafe. Coming from Madrid where you order a beer by size, not type, this extensive menu was a treat. It offers international beers, but also many bières brewed in Lyon.

The next morning, we visited the diverse outdoor food market that Croix-Rousse hosts every morning Tuesday through Sunday. We picked up brunch supplies, including these colorful treats from Dorodi Pastry and of course the traditional French baguette, for another picnic under the warm spring sun to fuel up for a day of exploring.

We stopped at Terre Adélice in the city center for an ice cream break. This place is special. It has around 100 different ice cream and sorbet flavors with about 50 organic options. I tried the organic lavender, organic white peach, and organic rhubarb. Délicieux.

Ending my final night with homemade crêpes, we talked about our uncertain futures and later visits. Mathilde may soon be in Africa and me, I'm not sure. Maybe I'll be hosting Mathilde next time in Spain or maybe we'll finally meet for WOOFing in Sweden. Who knows. But there is something very special and a little strange about meeting old friends in new places.. collecting contacts from across the world.

Merci, Mathilde. À la prochaine!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Tapas, Taverns & History with MADRID FOOD TOUR

"So.. what's your favorite Spanish food?" Luke asked as we rounded the corner into Plaza Mayor.

I scoured my brain for a good answer... something interesting and authentic that wasn't too typical like paella. But I came up short.

"Um. I don't know," I said, before I could blurt out something stupid like "free tapas."

How do you not know, I asked myself.  You have been living in Spain for eight months and you don't have a favorite food?! Pull yourself together, Kelsey.

I guess it was a good idea for me to be on the Madrid Food Tour that night. Not only to eat a ton of delicious tapas, but to also learn a little more about this city that I currently call home.

Usually, I try to avoid playing tourist and I prefer exploring on my own, but this tour was something I had had my eye on for awhile. When my cousin Kristin was told last-minute that she'd be flying to Madrid for work, I was determined to make it happen for us.

So on a rainy Saturday night in March, Kristin and I joined a small group huddled under umbrellas to bar hop around Madrid on a Tapas, Taverns & History Tour.

We were immediately pulled into a quaint, old bar to set down the umbrellas and enjoy a glass (or two.. or three..) of vermouth during introductions by our tour guides Luke and James. I had probably walked past this bar hundreds of times before and never even thought to take a look inside - not knowing what I was missing.

Along with the vermouth, we wasted no time and started snacking on the traditional delicacies: cured Iberian ham, salted Marcona almonds, toasted bread with chopped tomatoes, Manchego cheeses, country olives, and more.

"So, if you're wondering what to do with these olive pits.." James said to the group as he took one from his mouth and tossed it on the floor. "It's tradition."

Many of the men laughed at this and joined in by throwing their pits under the bar, but Kristen and I hesitated. She had been collecting her pits in a napkin in her hand and said it just didn't feel right to throw it on the ground. But Luke soon noticed this, took the napkin from her hand and chucked it along with rest of the trash - well, if it's tradition!

I think I would've been content if our tour had ended there, but we were just getting started. We ventured out to the next destination while our guides did their best to keep us dry without skipping a single historical sight or interesting tidbit along the way.

Stomping through puddles in Plaze de Oriente, we found ourselves looking up at a statue of King Phillip IV on a rearing horse. It's based on a painting by Valezquez where the horse is standing on its back legs, explained our guides. In order to ensure that the bronze sculpture would balance, Galileo was called in to calculate the stability. He suggested to make the rear of the horse in solid bronze and the rest hollow. Surprisingly, the weight of the statue rests on its tail and hind legs.

We continued on, twisting and turning down glistening cobblestone streets and crammed into a tiny old wine cellar from the 1800s. With standing room only, we cozied up to the bar with the locals and tasted a few more tapas: enormous meatballs, anchovies in vinegar, spicy chorizo and my absolute favorite - queso de cabrales a la sidra.  This gourmet blue cheese from Northern Spain is blended with the signature cider from Astruias and generously spread across a slice of fresh bread. Each bite has an intense, tangy flavor that paired perfectly with the dry white wine chosen by the guides.

And as the night kept getting better, our next stop was La Casa Del Abuelo. While I'd like to keep some of the tour destinations secret, this one is too good not to share. The restaurant was founded in 1906 and still holds that old charm. They specialize in gambas al ajillo, a delicious shrimp dish that arrives sizzling in garlic and olive oil. Soak up the oil with some bread and wash it down with their signature sweet Alicante wine and you'll be hooked. While the wine may be a little too sweet for some people on its own, combining it with the salty shrimp is a perfect pair.

Another favorite dish was traditionally a poor man's food made from the wastes of the cow: Callos a la Madrileña. It's a hearty spanish stew of tripe, spicy chorizo, ham and chickpeas in a thick tomato sauce with a slight spicy kick.

To balance out your diet with some green, I recommend the freshly grilled asparagus with a generous squeeze of lemon.

We finished off the tour with chocolate crepes and sat down with a few pitchers of sangria to digest before calling it a night.

My stomach was full of delicious foods, but also aching from laughter. Of course I enjoyed tasting everything and learning about Spanish history, but James and Luke's quick wit and good conversation really made the tour something special. Kristin and I both agreed that this was a wonderful way to spend an evening in Madrid.

I really wish I had decided to take this tour much sooner to learn about the city, its history and discover the best dishes in Spain.

So, what did I choose as my favorite Spanish food? Well, that's a whole 'nother blog post…

Have YOU ever tried a food tour? If so, how was the experience? Comment below!

For more information about Madrid Food Tour and the many different tours and tastings they offer, check out their website. I'm dying to make it to one of their wine events! And if you want to start drooling, follow their posts on instagram.

Lauren, MFT's owner and author of the blog Spanish Sabores, hosted my Tapas, Taverns, & History Tour in exchange for this post. As always, all opinions are entirely my own.

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