Friday, May 4, 2012

Sun, Sea and Sangria: Spain's Catalonia

Holding hands, their arms held high and their heads flung back, the dancers, in a huge circle, begin their intricate steps.  Others join in, forming circles spontaneously, as the 11-man cobra plays the music composed specifically for it.  Every evening during the Fiesta the cobra plays and the Catalans dance with joy and abandonment. 
We had arrived during Fiesta Week (the last week of August) in the old town of L'Escala, situated on the northern end of the Costa Brava and on the southern side of the Bay of Roses--about 35 minutes south of the French Mediterranean border.  This was Catalunya, a self-governing region within the Spanish democracy.  Its six million or so people, with Barcelona as its capital, have their own official language and flag.  Dictator Francisco Franco had outlawed their tongue and folk traditions after the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s.  King Juan Carlos restored those rights in 1979.
Part of the sea front in L'Escala

L'Escala's 5,000 inhabitants swell to about 50,000 in summer and perhaps more today.  It was our base for exploring the region and where we would come for several years each late summer--late, in order to escape some of the crowds of tourists.  Neither of us had ever been to this town, but we had chosen it carefully.  We had wanted to be beside the Mediterranean Sea--for the swimming and the seafood; to be close to medieval towns inland--for the food specialties and the atmosphere; to be near historic sites--for the history and the culture.  We found all of that in the vicinity of L'Escala.

Former fishermen enjoying a get-together beside the sea in the evening.

On that first trip, we had rented an apartment for two weeks.  The apartment itself was great, but it overlooked a busy road.  Those living around us--mostly Spaniards also on vacation--were outside on their balconies until 2 a.m. each morning.  They sat down to eat at 10 p.m. or later.  The music was loud as were their voices.  Children were yelling.  That is the norm for the vacationing Spaniards in summer.  For us, it was chaos. We vowed not to rent again.

The next summer and for the following years, we hauled a new and modern trailer with all conveniences 1,000 kilometers southwards through France.  The French Autoroute, shown below, heading south towards Lyon.  Below, right, Hans enjoying one of our traditional picnic stops in France:  always a baguette, a bottle of red wine, tomatoes and cheese, bought in France in a small village enroute.  We didn't manage to drink the entire bottle!
The campsite we had chosen was situated at the edge of the Mediterranean just outside L'Escala. Peace and quiet reigned with plenty of privacy and excellent facilities as well.  On the right, below, the beach just below our campsite with our towel and sunglasses.  The sea shells, underneath left, I gathered in the surf, a perfect size for using with a first course at dinner.   

From L'Escala, the beach can be followed around the shoreline past small coves all the way north to Roses.  About two kilometers along the shore, in a small bay, stands a 2000-year-old Roman breakwater.  That is where we stretched out under our umbrella on many occasions. (Other times we stretched out on the wide sandy beach shown above.)  We swam, snorkeled, soaked up the sun and enjoyed the spectacular view of the rocky coastline.
The 2000-year-old Roman breakwater.  On the right, the beach directly below the village of Sant Marti, around the point from the breakwater.
Each day, a "coconut man" and an "ice cream lady" danced and sang along the beach, he doing a jig and singing out "Coconuts!  Coconuts!" and she, calling "Ice!"  One year, a German couple with two small dogs arrived on the beach.  The owners were constantly yelling, "Romeo!  Julia!"   (It was pronounced Yulia.)  One day those two dogs were chased by a much larger one.  Needless to say, we got to know Romeo and Yulia very well by name as the owners never stopped calling.  Never was I so glad, when they left the beach, to hear the end of Romeo and Julia!
Greek Temple from 6th century B.C.
Just above the shoreline where we swam are the archeological ruins of Ampurias, the most important historical site on the Costa Brava and one of the most visited in Spain.  Late in the sixth century B.C., the Greek town of Neapolis was founded there.  During the second century B.C. the Romans established a town about 10 times its size just above it, leading to the Romanization of the Greeks.
Hans sitting on the wall built for the 1992 Olympics, where runners would begin their journey with the Olympic flame.

Overlooking the Mediterranean is the headless figure holding the Olympic flame.  This is where the flame arrived from Greece and began its journey to Barcelona to begin the 1992 Games.  This is just below the town of Sant Marti. 
A short walk from the ruins of Ampurias is the small medieval village of Sant Marti d'Empuries, situated on a hill above the Mediterranean Sea.  It is the site of the original settlement of Emporion, named Paleapolis, founded about the year 600 B.C. by Greek traders.  Its sandstone houses sit above that first ancient Greek town, one that has been continually inhabited since the 6th century B.C.

Placa Major in Sant Marti
Each afternoon after swimming, we would wander up into the Placa Major and would sit in that "Grand Place or Main Square"--actually more a small courtyard--surrounded by restaurants and shaded by umbrella pines.  I sometimes ordered the fresh frozen lemon drink, a refreshment found almost everywhere on the Costa Brava.  At other times, we shared a platter of fresh mussels and grilled calamari--or squid.  Nearly always, though, we ordered a cool pitcher of Sangria along with some ripe olives.

There are many versions of Sangria, some stronger than others, some with fruit juice added, but all start with wine, usually a red.  The true Sangria, according to a large wine house in Spain, is made fresh, served cold, and contains: a bottle of dry and full-bodied red wine, juice of 1 lemon, a lemon, sliced, and with sparkling water to taste.  One afternoon after having a pitcher of Sangria at a small outdoor cafe in a quaint medieval town, Hans asked the waiter serving us what their secret was.  It had not only been delicious but strong, and we were certainly feeling its effects.  His answer:  "Brandy, and more brandy!

Hans' Sangria

1 liter red wine, juice of 1 lemon, juice of 1 large orange, some pineapple juice to taste (we both liked that); 1/2 cup (125mL) Cognac or brandy, a little Grand Marnier, 3-4 tablespoons sugar, various cut-up slices of fruit.  Hans added sliced orange, lemon, lime and some cherries and pieces of pineapple.  If you find it to be too rough, add more sugar. Chill well and serve.  It should be ice cold.  Add a couple ice cubes to a glass and pour the Sangria over them.  Add a slice of lemon or lime to the rim of the glass.  Note:  You can make a Sangria from the wine and juices, to taste, that you like yourself.  The Sangria in the pitcher shown below Hans made yesterday and we had a glass each then and this afternoon.  Delicious!

Here is a recipe I came across in Cooking in Spain by Janet Mendel Searl:
In a pitcher, mix 1 liter of chilled red wine along with 250mL (1 cup) brandy or orange liqueur.
Stir in 100 grams sugar (1/2 cup) until dissolved.  Add various cut up fruit:  oranges, pineapple, lemons, apples, strawberries.  Chill and serve.

From Barbara Norman's, The Spanish Cookbook:  Make this the day before and serve it ice cold. 
1 bottle of dry red wine, a glass of Cognac, a dash of curacao, sugar to taste, sparkling water to taste (if desired).
On that very first day in L'Escala, we drove into the centre of town, parked near the boardwalk and wall overlooking the Mediterranean and walked along the seafront for a while.  Then, the rain!  We had headed south for the sun and here it was, our first day, raining!  Now what?  Eat, we decided.  So, in the pouring rain, without an umbrella, we ran for cover.  We stopped in front of a restaurant that from the outside looked a bit rundown.  Just a block up from the water, the street it was on was not particularly inviting.  It didn't appeal to us, but then neither did the rain.  So in we went.

The surprise was that nearly all the tables were filled with Spaniards, many of them families.  Ah, we thought, the food must be good here!  We stayed.  It was not only good, it was excellent.  We discovered that this simple restaurant was one of the most reasonable in town and that the food was some of the best we had ever enjoyed.  Over the years we returned to Meson del General I many times.  A few years later, they opened Meson del General II at the Port and we enjoyed many meals there as well.
For that first meal at the General's we ordered Sarsuela (spelled Zarzuela in Castilian), a specialty of the area and of the coastline and one of Spain's renowned seafood dishes.  Zarzuela, in the words of a Spaniard, is "a symphony from the sea."  Others call it a "seafood operetta."  Some chefs and fishermen consider this dish too much of a good thing, as they feel more than is needed is sometimes thrown into the pot.  It includes a variety of shellfish, white fish and calamari--all in a spicy tomato and wine sauce.

The recipe is too long and also somewhat too complicated to give here.  Check out the library for Cooking in Spain by Janet Mendel Searl or Catalan Cuisine by Colman Andrews.  Both have excellent recipes for Zarzuela and for many other Spanish dishes as well.

Nearly all Spanish cookbooks (at least the ones I have) contain a recipe for Zarzuela.  For those who live near the ocean or sea or for those with access to fresh fish and shell fish, it is a superb seafood dish.  Use the amount of shellfish and other fish as required for the number of servings wished.  Don't put too much into the pot and use the freshest seafood possible.  It is most often served in a shallow earthenware casserole or paella pan.

Below, Sarsuela at Meson del General I
A place where we often went in early evening was to the Port and the fishing docks across the bay from L'Escala.  We would watch the trainas (small fishing boats) load with crushed ice--one of the fishermen pushing the ice into boxes with his bare hands--and then head out to sea for a night of fishing.  On a starlit night, with the lights of L'Escala reflected in the water, the small boats, each with three lamps, were like beacons in the distance.  They would return early the following morning with their catches, mostly sardines and other small fish.

We would sit on the dock, under a roof but open otherwise to the elements, along with many of the fishermen.  The smoke from the outdoor grill had the heavenly aroma of sardines being barbecued.  We would order those or barbecued calamari or sepia or perhaps fresh mussels--still steaming--along with some Spanish bread and white wine to go along with the aromatic and flavorful broth.

Enjoying a meal of mussels in the trailer, ones we bought at the fish wharf in Roses
I gave one of Hans' recipes for mussels in another blog post, but here it is again, plus another he made in Spain.

Mussels #1
About 2 kilo mussels for two
Olive oil; 4 large green onions; 2 to 3 tomatoes, quartered or halved; 3 to 4 slices red pepper; 4 cloves garlic, chopped; 1/2 bottle white wine; salt and pepper; lots of parsley; a bay leaf; a drop or two of Tabasco; fresh basil; a shake or so of paprika.  Hans also added a sprinkling of Fondor.

In a large pot, pour in 1/2 cup olive oil and heat it until hot.  Add the vegetables and garlic and saute them until tender.  Add 1/2 bottle white wine along with salt and pepper.  Add the remainder of ingredients, except for the mussels.  Simmer 15 to 20 minutes.  Bring to a boil at high heat, add a good 1/2 cup of water along with the mussels and steam them 10 minutes or until all are open.  (Most of the wine and liquid will have boiled off.)  You can add more parsley just before the shells open.  Discard any unopened ones.

Mussels #2
2 kilo/4 lbs mussels for two
Saute in some hot olive oil in a large pot 3 to 4 cloves chopped garlic, 2 sliced shallots and 2 to 3 tomatoes, cut in quarters or halves.  Add a bay leaf, parsley, basil, salt and pepper and half a bottle of white wine and a little water and bring to a boil; lower heat and simmer 15 to 20 mintues.  Bring to a boil and add the mussels and steam them for about ten minutes or until all are open.  Add more parsley before the shells open.  Discard any unopened ones.

A fishing boat coming in with its catch at Roses.
Two of our favourite coastal destinations were Roses and L'Estartit, the first about 20 kms north; the second about 20 kms south of us.  Both were similar in that they stretched along the Mediterranean shore, had wide boulevards and palm trees with many restaurants and cafes bordering them.  Both, too, were fishing towns.  Those towns, however, had allowed the building of highrises along their main avenue, thus hiding many of the old fishermen's houses.  That didn't happen in L'Escala.  Nonetheless, they were still lovely towns.
Roses is the warmest spot on the Costa Brava due to its location, with a four-kilometer-long sandy beach and a yacht harbour.  Each evening after the boats come in, fishermen and their wives untangle and repair nets; others wash down the unloaded boats; those just docked place their catch into boxes and then onto trolleys that head into the auction room.  There, the buyers for restaurants and fish stores throughout the region do their bidding.
Some of the fish remains at the wharf and is for sale, with several shops displaying a large variety of fish and shellfish.  The locals come to buy their day's dinner and on one such occasion, so did we.  We chose mussels and a little later, back at our trailer, we cooked them in a garlic, shallot, tomato and white wine broth.  A memorable meal. 
At right, above, fishermen unloading their boat.  Below, two of the shops selling fresh seafood. 
A rather untidy table in our trailer, but it includes our barbecued chicken, fries, a salad and wine. 

L'Estartit is where we found the best chicken in the world!  Every year, within a couple of days, off we would drive to buy some for supper.  That restaurant closed one summer and did not re-open again during the years we went to Spain.  We did find the chicken elsewhere (it is sold everywhere), but it was never quite up to that one, although the chicken in Sant Pere, a small town just up the road from our campsite, came close.  The secret to L'Estartit's chicken, according to the cook, was barbecuing it on a spit over an olive wood  fire, with lots of herbs and spices--especially fresh oregano (key), parsley and sliced lemon inside and lots of herbs and spices, including a chicken spice, sprinkled over the skin, on the outside.

In L'Estartit, the hills rise above whitewashed buildings, with the rocky Illes Medes looming just off-shore. The islands were once the domain of pirates, but are now uninhabited. Glass-bottomed boats are for hire to view the underwater life surrounding island grottoes.

Below, in the background, the Illes Medes in L'Estartit
Fifteen kilometers inland from Roses is the town of Figueres, the birth place of the late artist Salvador Dali.  The Museu Dali is a must see.  His genius is reflected in the art displayed.  Twenty kilometers across the mountains on a spectacular, rocky coastline is the shimmering, white town of Cadaques (pronounced Kad a kes), one of the Costa Brava's most picturesque towns.  Below are two views of Cadaques.
Not far from Cadaques is Port Lligat where Dali lived and painted beside the sea.  It was still a simple village when we were going there, but in 1997 we could foresee a huge change coming:  Dali's house was to reopen that fall as a museum.  The village was getting a face lift as were the roads leading to it.  I doubt that it is any more the same quiet little place with a few fishermen sitting beside the water.
A fisherman in Port Lligat skinning fish

Below, left, Dali's house in Port Lligat; right, Port Lligat at sunset.
I have left until the last the fish stew we had innumerable times during our years holidaying in Spain.  It is Hans' favourite and one he has made.  It is Suquet, always a simple dish and one the fishermen often made themselves on their boats, with nothing more than oil, water, onions, garlic and tomatoes and perhaps green peppers, along with whatever catch of fish that would not be sold that day.  Suquet always includes sliced potatoes.  It is considered to be the Emporda region's most famous dish, Emporda being the area in which these towns are situated on the Costa Brava.  Suquet means seep or exude; in other words, it steams in its own juices.  Some restaurants also add shell fish, which we do like.
Suquet de la Marinera - Seamen's or Fishermen's Stew a la Hans
Olive oil
1-1/2 lbs of the best potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, sliced 1 cm thick (bit less than 1/2 inch)
fresh white fish (bone in)--2 to 3 types such as monk fish, ocean perch, halibut (not sole) 
Squid (small and whole)
Fish and chicken stock (enough to come half way up the pan)
1/2 bottle white wine (dry and good quality), same as you would want to drink with it.  
1 onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Sprig of bay leaf (preferred) or 4 to 5 bay leaves, do not crumble
Parsley, a whole sprig, not cut up
Salt and pepper
1 level teaspoon sugar
Tabasco, a dash or two
1/2 teaspoon Herbs de Provence
Shrimp (optional)
Strips of sauteed red pepper for garnish (optional)

Add some olive oil to a large casserole or pot; add the potatoes.  Top the potatoes with the fish and squid; add the fish and chicken stock; add the white wine (Prosecco, Italy's sparkling wine, also goes very well with it); add onions, garlic, bay leaves and parsley.  Season with salt and pepper, though not too much salt as the broth will also have salt in it.  Add the sugar.  Hans adds a couple or so drops of Tabasco as well as herbs de Provence.  Ensure that the liquid is at least half way to the top of the pan, adding some fish stock if necessary.  The liquid will not totally cover the mixture.  Cook at a very low heat about an hour or until the potatoes are tender.  Remove the bay leaf and parsley sprigs.  About five minutes before the Suquet is ready, add the mussels and shrimp if using.  For decoration, add some sauteed strips of red pepper.
Note:  Some cooks add tomatoes to their Suquet.  If you wish to do so, peel, seed and chop them and add along with the onions and garlic.
Buen Apetito!
Note:  I shall write about the Spanish medieval towns we visited and their food specialties at another time.  All of the memories are from my travel journals, written at the time in much detail.


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