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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Parador de Santiago

Ferdinand and Isabela

If you get to Santiago de Compostela, do yourself a favor, if not your budget, and have a scrumptious lunch at the Parador.  Not a familiar name?  Paradors are a series of historic building in Spain that the government has turned into luxurious hotels, the interiors decorated with antiquities, and featuring fine dining, as well as exquisite guest rooms.

The one in Santiago, Parador de los Reyes Católicos, was founded by Ferdinand and Isabela (1486) as a hostel and hospital for pilgrims staggering in from The Way of Saint James.  The construction took ten years. Sits right across from the famous cathedral.  No longer just for pilgrims, it’s a first class establishment, although I’ve been told pilgrims get a discount.  The hotel is often noted as the most beautiful in Europe.  I hesitate to dispute that claim, although I haven’t done a personal survey of all the hotels in Europe.

Don’t feel like throwing down a wad of cash for a room, or even burning some plastic on a memorable meal?  Stop in for a drink at the inside bar or the outside café. Reasonable, especially for a window on the beating heart of this fab city

Recently, I had the honor of joining friends for cocktails and lunch at the Parador de Santiago.  The experience is as if you’ve joined the fashionable upper crust, if only for a couple of hours.  After all, what joy is there without a vivid imagination and soul soothing alcohol?

The outdoor café overlooks Santiago’s main square, Plaza Obradoiro, and the inside bar has the feel of an English men’s club, featuring deep padded leather arm chairs, a long bar of dark wood and a wait staff  so attentive  you’ll feel as if you hired them yourself.  This ain’t Mickey D’s friends, this is the look and feel of stately, old style luxury.  Take a moment to stroll out into the central stone courtyard, festooned with ancient pillars and arches.  Check out the mother-in-law…I mean gargoyle in the upper corner.

My traveling companion and I had already had drinks in the outdoor café several times.  I recommend the Bloody Marys.  Also, the wines of any variety.  Also the Sherry….also the …well, I think you’re beginning to glimpse my motivation.  The café’s a noble respite from daily cares and mundane commerce.  But this day, since my friend’s wife had just completed The Way of Saint James, we opt for indoor drinks and a leisurely spot of lunch in the cavernous great hall.

Parador cuisine is first rate and features an ever-changing menu of area specialties.  We opt for Chochinillo Asado (roast suckling pig), Lubina (sea bass) and beef tenderloin. (By the way, for those of you still struggling with eighth grade English, op is the singular, opt is the past tense.  Just trying to help.  Opted sounds like you have a lisp or are missing a front tooth.)

The Parador has been many things at many times, and as I mentioned it served as a hospital for pilgrims.  But, that was centuries ago, when the best you could hope for from the hospital staff was educated murmurs over blisters and a little blood letting on your way to the great beyond.  What is now the great dining hall, with splendid curved arches, was the hospital morgue.  Probably shouldn’t bring that up at lunch, or you may bring up lunch along with it.

Don’t you just love it when the waiter (didn’t see any female wait staff) removes the bones from your grilled fish?

I’ve run out of superlatives, but take it from a stingy man, our visit, drinks and lunch at the Parador de Compostela may have emptied my wallet, but it filled my belly and stroked my self-esteem.

Put this Parador and every other Parador on your list.

Other blog entries on Santiago de Compostela:

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mercado de Abastos de Santiago

Not ashamed to admit my unabashed love for traditional markets.  The swirls of aromas that awaken the senses, the bustle of people, conversations that tickle the air like a swarm of temperate bees, the cacophony of delivery trucks and squeaking carts lazily arriving and departing, the barking of sellers and serious faces of determined buyers.  Sure, you can find farmers’ markets in the U.S. and they’re fine, but you already know that’s not the kind of time tested and well worn, town market I’m talking about.  You gotta go to Europe or the Americas south of Texas to find what I love.  

No pretend markets for yours truly.  Gotta be real.  Gotta be alive.  Gotta have stacks of fresh vegetables and fruits, flanked by seafood that still carries a hint of salty air and juicy red meats ready to be cut to your liking.

In the big grocers found on the corner of in every American city and good-sized town, most of the fish is frozen.  Oranges and lettuce completed the sea-swaying journey from South America a couple of weeks ago, or longer.  All the meats weren’t on the hoof yesterday, or even last week.  Everything is washed, processed and cellophane wrapped to sterile perfection.

I heard a French wife say she wouldn’t buy a vegetable that didn’t have dirt on it.  I’m with her.  Bring it to me fresh picked and bearing an earthy smell.  I’ll do my own washing.  Even the eggs.  Speaking of which, ever noticed American eggs need refrigeration and European eggs sit unrefrigerated in paper cartons on market shelves?  Ever wonder why?  American eggs MUST be pre-washed and sprayed with a sanitizer, which takes off a natural coating that protects the egg from bacteria.  European egg farmers don’t have to do that.  Their eggs stay fresh and impenetrable on your counter top.

Rather than dwell on wash or don’t wash, you can read the whole story here:

But, let’s get out of the hen house and back to markets.  In Europe you’ll discover old stone markets that have stood the test of time and they’re not just to impress the tourists.  Restaurant chefs, housewives, house husbands, and serious amateur cooks crowd in, shoulder to shoulder, picking out the best of what the local farmers, cheese makers, vintners, bakers, pastry makers, fishermen, butchers and herb and flower growers have to offer.  Found one of those in the heart of Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  Mercado de Abastos de Santiago is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (0900 – 1500).

How old is this place?  Looks like a photo of forever and your eyes don’t deceive.  The area’s been a center of agricultural commerce for over three hundred years.  The current group of buildings date to 1941, but the gray stone-walls sport a patina of historic use.

Ok, I’m a suitcase-toting tourist, so why would I want to shop at a market?  Hey, I bought thick bars of chocolate for hot chocolate.  Spanish hot chocolate is almost as thick as pudding and American coco is not in the same ballpark, or the same league.  Not even the same game!

Also, as a cook, I shopped for regional herbs.  Living in Europe, I don’t have to worry about custom officers having a fit over what I’ve purchased in another part of the EU.  Surrounding the market, other overstuffed stalls offer kitchenware, t-shirts, glassware and goodness knows what else.

But buying is only a small part of my market visits.  I like to chat with the locals, ask about recipes for favorite dishes, stop and sip a wine or three, smell the flowers, watch how the locals interact, grab an offered taste of this and that.  Every vendor I saw in the Santiago market was happy to whack off a sliver of ham or sausage, slice a bit of cheese or bread to whet my appetite, or answer questions about agriculture, or explain the fruits and wines and flowers I’d never seen before.

In a wine stall, I sampled several vintages and got my eyes and taste buds opened by the wine merchant, ever so happy to tell me about his products.  The ones I tried were delicious.  Funny thing.  He had no wine and beer license, so he couldn’t sell his juice by the glass, but he offered small bottles to slake my thirst while we chatted.

A European open market is truly a place of wonderful discovery and one of the best chances you’ll have to interact with the locals and even share a laugh or two.  Want to find out what real food tastes like?  Let the stall keepers turn you on to flavors, then eat at a local restaurant.  They all shop here too.

The Santiago central market is a wonderland of everything a market should be.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Santiago de Compostela: Spain Ain't Just Madrid

Travel northwest from Madrid, about an hour by Iberian Airlines, and you’ll find the wonderful stone city of Santiago de Compostela, an epicenter of Catholicism, and most famous for the tired and hungry pilgrims who trek for days, weeks, or months to reach the city’s famous cathedral, approximating the route the apostle, Saint James took.

The city gets its name from Saint James, with James being a derivative of the Hebrew Jacob, by way of the long ago Spanish pronunciation of Iago or Yago.  But to get back to the story, the bones of Saint James the Greater, brother of Saint John, were found by a shepherd boy while tending his flock…this story has a familiar ring and it gets better.  A star led the shepherd back to the city, where the boy gave the bones to the bishop.  This happened about 813, when genetics and DNA sampling were less common than virgin births.  Anyway, the bishop pronounced the bones authentic, which settled the question.  The Vatican remains silent on the subject. Over the centuries miracles followed and it soon became popular to make pilgrimages (frequently call The Way of Saint James) to the city .  Hotels, hostels, inns, and boisterous drinking establishments abounded to house, feed, and slake the thirst of the faithful.

Today, pilgrim or not, Santiago is a wonderful city to visit, with its winding, cobbled streets, sidewalk cafés and eateries providing an abundance of seafood and huge charcoal grilled steaks.  The citizens are very friendly and helpful, the wine is delicious and Catholic or not (many of the pilgrims are not) the old city is a feast for the senses.  In the spring and summer, flowers bloom from pots in every doorway and on every balcony.  If you are accustomed to the burnt brown country of central Spain, you’ll feel as if you stepped into a green paradise of rolling hills, overflowing with a deep green blanket of never ending forests, This is the region of Galicia, of which Santiago is the capitol.

But, let’s step back a moment and talk about Spain.  Spain is an almost universally Catholic country.  Los Reyes Catholicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, are revered.   Before the Catholic kings, Moslems ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula.  Ferdinand and Isabelle, chased them out.  They also chased out the Jews, although the Jews never ruled anything except the Holy Land.  Now the Moslems are trying to chase them out of even that small dot of territory.

We humans seem to always be either chased or chasing. The same year the Jews were chased out of Spain, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella bankrolled Christopher Columbus for his voyage across the ocean, which eventually led to more chasing.  But, that’s a different story on another continent.

Outdoor cafe at the Parador

Let’s wander through Santiago, while I tell you what I enjoyed.  Not only good wine, but great wine!  Fabulous whites.  For a refreshing stop, I recommend the outdoor parlor beside the Parador.  While you sip your libation, you’ll be overlooking the main square, alive with activity. Joggers, trails of arriving pilgrims, hawkers, the flow of humanity.

A word about the Parador system.  Back in the late 1920s, the Spanish government purchased many old monasteries, castles and other ancient buildings of note to turn them into luxurious hotels, where Spaniards and tourists alike can relax and dine in the cool comfort of stone walls and antique furnishings.  
Dining room at the Parador

Be sure to savor a meal under the curved stone ceiling of the parador’s dining room.  You’ll feast like royalty, with service to match.  Don’t worry that among other things, the building was once a hospital for pilgrims and the dining room was once the morgue.

By all means visit the cathedral and wander the warren of narrow streets, the perfect place to order a drink, nosh on tapas, and order some perfectly prepared fish and shellfish.  Myself, I favor crisply tender fried calamari, with just salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Shrimp in garlic oil

And speaking of seafood and such, the city’s central market is a place of wonder.  Every local culinary delight is on view, from fresh ocean fare to vegetables that burst with flavor.  It’s a happy place to visit once or twice, or in my case, four times in a five-day period.

Tarte de Santiago

Santiago’s famous dessert, Tarte de Santiago, is available and best when savoring some rich Galician coffee.  But, where do you find the best Tarte de Santiago?  Easy, but not so easy.  Near the market is a Monastery where the nuns bake it daily.  Finding this nunnery is another matter.  No signs.  You could walk right past.  I know this, because I did.  Finally, I went back to the market twice to get directions, until a kind woman from one of the stalls said, “Follow me!”  She led me up the stairs and around the corner.  Voila!  Wrong door.  But gallantly and swearing not to go back to the market a third time, I waited and followed another customer to yet another door in the same building.  Still no sign or indication, but he knew where he was going.  At my heels, several nuns followed me in.

You go to a window and ring a bell.  A nun in habit appears.  She smiles.  You give her your order of large or small size.  She disappears and reappears.  You pay only a few Euros and walk away proud and happy.

So, how was the Tarte de Santiago?  Delicious!  Stunning!  Well worth treading the cobblestones.

Band concert outside the cathedral