Thursday, December 31, 2009

Winter Scene

Just a quick snap I took on 20 December of Tarragona beach. We have had raqin and it's quite cold now, but we also get lovely bright crisp days like this which makes winter so much more pleasant. Feliz Navidad or Bon Nadal whichever you prefer!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

When is a dog really a pig?

I love the Spanish jamones and wouldn't want to cast any sort of slur on them. However a funny thing happened to me which I feel I must share, hoping it will not do anything to put you off a great national product.
I was invited to someones house recently and when I walked in the door I was hit by the heavy, strong, unmistakable smell of wet dog.I reccognised it immediately from many a winter walk with dogs in my youth, and was about to say "what kind of dog have you got" when I was interrupted, and the moment passed. As time passed I was puzzled by the apparent absence of said dog, and anyway, it was 35 C outside so how did the dog get wet? I assumed there was a large, hairy dog-blanket somewhere which was creating the smell. Fortunately I never got round to asking about the dog because there wasn't one. The cause of the smell was not canine at all, but a large ham in the kitchen on the sideboard, covered loosely with a tea towel. I couldn't believe it. I was convinced the guy had an enormous dripping wolfhound somewhere which had been emitting the (supposedly) unmistakable, pungent smell of damp dog, but no. For a single person, a ham that size would take months to consume, during which time it was perfuming his flat with its own essence. He lived in a permanent bubble of musty, meaty, yeasty, shaggy haminess due to this particularly Iberian kitchen accessory, to which he was apparently oblivious. Suffice to say the flat was small, the ham was big and the weather was warm. By the end of the evening it was making me feel quite unwell. It took me a couple of weeks before I could look a salty pigs' leg in the eye again......if you know what I mean.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Spanish Ham explained

For a country whose history includes large chunks of Muslim occupation it is maybe odd that Pork has become such a definitive national meat. Some have suggested that it is actually a tacit example of Spain’s propensity for rebelling against any who try to force them to be something they don’t want to be. All I know is that Jamon is worshiped here as a national treasure and is treated with a reverence bordering on obsession.
There are two initial distinctions to understand; Serrano and Iberico.

meaning ‘from the mountains’ is made using white ‘Landrace’ pigs. Confusingly it is also known as Jamon Reserva. Jamon Curado, or Jamon Extra. The pigs are compound-fed. The reason they are cured up a mountain is because it’s colder and therefore better for not giving you botulism which is always a good feature!.
Examples of Serrano appellations are:

Cured ham of Trevélez:
cured at least 1,200 meters above sea level. They are qualified to be among the “sweetest” cured hams due to the low degree of salting necessary for the drying and maturing processes to succeed properly. This is caused by the north winds coming from the high tips of Sierra Nevada, which still had copious amounts of snow on it when I was there last May (whilst the city temperature in Granada itself was about 35 C!)

Cured ham of Teruel:
cured at least 800 meters above sea level, with a minimum of a year of curing and aging.

Is made using black Iberian pigs or ‘pata negra’ . It tends to come from the west and south-west of Spain hwere teh cork oak forests border with Portugal. It is classified depending on feed and exercise. The best and most expensive are free range and fed only on acorns (bellota) the next best is fed a mix of commercial feed and acorns, and the least revered is fed only commercial feed and is housed in compounds. The hit parade looks like this:

3. Jamón Ibérico Cebo Campo hogs are compound-fed only commercial feed. Cured 24 months
2. Jamón Ibérico Recebo hogs are raised on commercial feed and fed acorns for the last few months of their lives. Part pasture, part compund fed.
1. Jamón Ibérico Bellota hogs are fed a diet almost exclusively of acorns (bellotas). The are free range and are cured for 36 months. The exercise and diet have a huge impact on the flavour. This is the most prized.

A final varition is a paletilla which is a front leg instead of a back leg. This is less revered, smaller and generally cheaper.

Bellota jamones are prized both for their smooth texture and rich savory taste. A good ibérico ham has regular flecks of intramuscular fat. Because of the pig's diet of acorns, much of the jamón's fat is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol. (wikepedia)
The fat content is relatively high compared to Jamon Serrano thus giving a richer taste.
Other words you might have seen are Huelva, Jabugo, Guijelo, Salamanca. These are towns which have a DO status and produce particularly good Iberico ham

Of course the hams are not refrigerated. I don’t know how that would go down with the UK health and safety police, but it isn’t a problem here. Every bar has a ham on a stand and many have them hanging from the rafters which is a splendid sight to a glutton like me. Some bars employ sexy staff to entice customers in. I prefer the sight of sexy hams! The curious inverted plastic cones are to catch the drips of fat which form as the ham continues to cure and shrink. Pig fat in your hair tends to drive customers away!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More Xmas decorations. Oh, and by the way...anyone for a spot of Rodin?

More Xmas decorations.
Oh, and bye the way.....anyone for a spot of Rodin? Enjoy!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Herbs R Us !

AT LAST! I've found a local Arabic shop that sells fresh herbs!! I can indulge myself with BAsil, Dill, Parsley, Tarragon, Coriander and MINT. So it's fresh mint tea in the mornings from now on. No more dusty tasting teabags!! Yipeeee!!!!

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Xmas is upon us and Tarragona has done it again. They have decorated the city centre with such understated style and class that I think every local council form the UK should come on a visit to see how it should be done. I've only taken a few quick snaps so far and they don't do it justice alt all, but will update with more.


Had the wierdest trip to Barcelona the other weekend. Took late train after work at 9pm. All good. Nodded off with Ipod. Woke up when gang of 8 noisy yoofs bounded on board and chose to sit next to me. Actually they surrounded me as it were. Last time this happened (25 years ago in Paris) I got mugged, so felt a prickle of apprehension. The guy opposite me seemed to have the role of ringleader/court jester and was talking non stop and making his mates fall about with laughter. He kept trying to catch my attention but I resisted his attempts. I noticed he had the end of a joint in his hand which he seemed quite happy to flaunt. I then witnessed him openly and overtly chop cocaine on a cigarette packet with a credit card and snort it .....twice in 15 minutes. This explained his manic chattering and fidgeting. They eventually disbanded and I arrived in peace (un-mugged!). Had booked a very cheap but centrally located Hostal. And therein lies the tale. Readers please take note that the classic combination of "very cheap" and "centrally located" invariably, by definition, without exception, inexorably means "shocking quality". So as i dodged the prostitutes and pimps of the upper Raval, and breathed in the perfume of urine and garbage that pervaded the alley in which my Hostal resided I did indeed ponder the notion of the proverbial "false economy". I pursuaded myself, as I had done before that I was at least getting an unsanitized (literally), authentic, street-level view of one side of the true Barcelona. I was officially "keepin' it real" as they say in street-parlance. Once inside, the hostal was ok. Honest. It was. Just about....Would I stay there again?? But that doesn't mean that I wish I hadn't had this experience. It's one of those character-building experiences that makes for great repartee....and blog material! I really should have known better from the name.....please don't laugh....but what do you expect from a Hostal in the middle of Barcelona that calls itself Hostal Miami! I mean please...! At least they didn't have a plastic palm tree in reception.
I explored the Raval area which was a relevation. If anyone is looking for a snapshot of 18th century Barcelona, all you have to do is wander the Raval at 3am, and squint your eyes so you can blur out any 21st century references like shop signs/clothes etc. The rest is all there. The maze of menacing dark narrow alleys formed by the tall blocks of gothic flats which seem to lean towards each other. The laundry hanging from every balcony. Dripping drainpipes, smelly sewers.The murky, shady, freaky creatures of the night who loiter in groups, beckon from doorways, shout, fight, laugh, scream. The transvestites, the African street hawkers, the tramps ferreting through the rubbish bins, the party-goers swaying and staggering through the darkness. All to a soundtrack of leaking nightclub music,restaurant kitchen noises, leary crowds of partygoers, distant screams and breaking glass....there's ALWAYS breaking glass. Maybe i'd had a bit to drink, but I felt like I'd gone back 200 years. It was uncanny. And then the rats....
As I made my way back to piss-alley Hostal I saw a family of rats at work. There were 8 of them running in and out of a drain grate in the road and they were climbing up and down a shiny metal rod which formed part of a large restaurant dump bin. I have never seen rats climb anything before, let alone a shiny narrow metal rod, but they zoomed up it like it was a ladder. I was quite mesmerised by their skill and lack of fear. The street was busy with people and we were only maybe 2 feet away from them.
My nights sleep was punctuated by the usual sounds of urban Spain. Banging, shouting, barking, refuse removal lorries you name it...i'm quite used to it now. It's just part of the night here. The next day I wondered if I had dreamed my medieval fantasy. I felt a bit like Mr. Ben in the cartoon. Had it really been like that? As i walked the streets, daylight had clearly contemporized them, the creatures had changed into normal shopkeepers and punters although the hookers and pimps were still around. But I'm convinced that come nightfall the Raval will transform itself once again into its sinister, but irresistible medieval alter ego.