My year in pictures…

Here are some of the highlights of 2006 for me.

In January and February I was in Exam Hell so I would rather forget those…

March

March 22nd we left Toronto to Montreal, where we spent a week relaxing and visiting family and friends. On the 29th we left for Paris were we spent 4 days before heading down, by train, to Barcelona…

Our beighbourhoodAlan's brother's farmBenjamin Angus

April

We arrived in Barcelona on April 3rd, and after settling into our apartment, we took a bus tour of the city to get our bearings… The first thing I noticed were the wonderful balconies in the modernist buildings… And the beach of course! And our first Catalan festival – Sant Jordi!

WindowsSant Jordiand more windowsBeach

May

Our first visitors arrived! Pearl and Al came from Toronto to spend two weeks in Salou, just south of Tarragona. We spent the weekend with them and visited Tarragona and they came to spend a few days with us in Barcelona. At the end of the month, Melissa, a Brazilian friend who was spending some time in Porto, came for a weekend.

TarragonaPearl, Al & MeMelissa at Hospital Sant PauCathedral in Tarragona

June

This month I had a conference in Madrid. After the conference we spent a few days in Toledo, and it was really worth it! Despite being early June, the area of Madrid was hit was a heatwave that brought temperatures up to 40! Our retreat in Madrid became the park El Retiro. Loved Toledo!

RetiroGran ViaPlaza MayorWindowsToo hot in Madrid, off to Toledo

Toledo train stationJewish pastToledo's Alcazarwonderful foodwonderful people

July

Summertime! We discovered St Pol de Mar and our friends Gordon, Jean, and Jen came to visit from Montreal.

Sant Pol de MarGordon, Jean, Al & Francesca in SitgesFriends in Sant Pol de Mar

August

The highlight of this month was a weekend in Delta del Ebre with our friends Jackie, Sebastian, Naomi, and Francisca. The month ended with the Diada Castellera de Vilafranca del Penedes, the best castellers event in Catalunya.

Cycling through the rice fieldsRice fieldsBoatsDeltaDiada Castellera

September

Our friends Norbert and Carole came for a visit and we had a great time showing them our new city. Norbert and Carole had been to Barcelona before, but that was back in the 1960s… Barcelona celebrated its patron saint in the week-long festival of La Mercè…

La MerceGetting ready to performLittle Catalan feetNorbert & Carole

October

My parents came for a visit and my little nephew proved to be quite the little trooper ;)

Beach in octoberMatheusMatheus in Paris

November

We visited Vic and our friend Christine visited from Montreal. Together we explored Girona. Ahh, the wonderful autumn colours

The narrow streets of GironaGironaVic MarketVic

December

Lisboa!! what can I say? you’ve read it all before… I’ll end with table setting for a wonderful Chinese meal we had at Jackie’s & Sebastian’s

Lotus leaf

PS: I’ll be touching up the layout and the links during the next couple of days. I wanted this to come out today…

It all started with a BBQ chicken…

Nothing like having fesh, wholesome ingredients to feel inspired to cook! Judging by the number of times I mention restaurants on this blog, you might think I don’t cook very often. But I do. I love to cook. I love coming up with new things in the kitchen. But I have to feel inspired and this week, a BBQ chicken did it!

It all started on wednesday when I picked up a BBQ chicken for lunch. I had onions and garlic at home, so I picked up a few tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, carrots and celery as well since I wanted to make a broth with the carcass afterwards.

I wanted a moist rice to have with the chicken but since I was too hungry to take the time to make risotto, I opted for some basmati rice with some nice tomato sauce instead.

Basmati rice with tomato sauce

  • 1/2 cup basmati rice
  • 2 tomatoes, finelly chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 cup water, boiled
  • 1tbsp olive oil
  • salt & pepper to taste (I used herb salt)
  • paprika/red pepper powder to taste

Heat a small sauce pan. Add the olive oil and stir fry the onions for about 5 min. Add the garlic and continue to cook for another 1-2 mins. Mix in the chopped tomatoes and let simmer until you have a nice sauce, about 5-10 mins. Season with salt, pepper, paprika, red pepper powder. Add the basmati rice, mix in thoroughly. Pour the hot water and let the rice cook – it will take about 10 mins.

The result was nice and moist, exactly what I wanted to balance the dryness of the chicken.

After we finished lunch, I cleaned the rest of the BBQ chicken off the carcass and put it the way. Since you can’t let a good chicken carcass go to waste, I decided to make some chicken broth. So I put the chicken bones in a pot, added a couple coarsely chopped carrots, one large onion, 2 celery sticks, 2-3 bay leaves, some dried herbs (I only had parsley), poured about 2-3 litres of water and let it all simmer for about 3 hours.

Now that I had some nice homemade both, I had to use it, so I decided to make a soup. I looked through the cupboard and found some Puy lentils. I also had about a cup of tomato rice from lunch. It wasn’t enough for another meal, so I decided to use it in the soup. Here’s what I came up with:

Lentil & rice soup

  • 1/2 cup Puy lentils
  • 1 cup left-over tomato rice (you could use a little bit barley or 1/4 cup basmati rice)
  • 1 onion, chopped finelly
  • 2 small carrots, chopped in small cubes
  • 1/2 zuchini, shredded
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 1tsp turmeric (curcuma)
  • red pepper powder
  • 1l chicken broth
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • salt & pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a medium soup pot and stir fry the onions and garlic for a couple of minutes. Add the carrots and stir fry for a few more minutes. Combine the dry spices and let it fry for another minute. Blend in the lentils, add the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. When the lentils are almost done (15-20 min), mix in the rice and let it simmer for a few more minutes.

It was delicious and a nice meal in a cold night. It tasted even better the next day.

But I wasn’t done with the chicken broth or the left-over BBQ chicken yet. I wanted a single-plate dinner so I decided to make a paella. In Spain, I have learned that a paella is not really a specific recipe, but rather short grain rice cooked in a paella (pan, in Spanish) like these:

Paella

So here is what I came up with:

Paella de pollo con vegetales

  • 200g short grain rice
  • 1-2 cup leftover BBQ chicken, chopped
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 1 small green pepper, finely chopped
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 cup shredded zucchini
  • 1/2 inch fresh ginger, finely chopped
  • 500 ml chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • paprika
  • red pepper powder
  • 2 tbsp fresh parsley

Heat the paella (or a medium casserole, if you don’t have one) over medium heat. Stir fry the onions for a few minutes and then add the garlic and ginger. Cook for another minute or two. Add the tomatoes & green peppers. Season with the dry spices, salt & pepper. Simmer for about 10 mins. If the tomatoes are of the acid kind, add 1/2 tsp of sugar. Stir in the white wine and let it evaporate, another 2-3 mins. Add the BBQ chicken and let it simmer in the sauce for a few minutes. Combine the rice & zucchini, add the parsley and mix thoroughly. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Correct the salt & pepper, cover and let it cook until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid, about 10-15 mins depending on the kind of rice. Once cooked, let it sit for 10 mins and serve. It will look something like this:

Chicken paella

All in all, a fun cooking week with a few ingredients!

Speaking of ingredients, the choice of spices on these dishes weren’t random or dictated solely by taste. I believe in the medicinal properties of food, and often keep that in mind when choosing how to season a dish.

Turmeric, for instance, is a root from the ginger family and is mostly sold as a powder made from the dried root. Also used as a dye for its bright yellow colour, it is one of the main ingredients of yellow curry and very mild in taste. It’s a strong anti-carcinogen (helps prevent the growth of cancer cells) and has a protective effect on the liver. Look here for more information. Because of its attractive colour – I love yellow – and mild taste, it goes well on any dish and I tend to use it often. Turmeric and oregano are probably the spices I use most often (btw, a USDA study found that, gram for gram, oregano has the highest antioxidant activity of 27 fresh culinary herbs.; I didn’t use it in any of the recipes above because unfortunately, I have run out of it).

Paprika/red pepper powder/chili powder – All of these are related and contain capsaicin, whose anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects may lower the risk of cancer.

Garlic – also has anti-carcinogenic effects and improves the immune system, helping fight colds & other sicknesses. I also it for almost everything.

Ginger – It has been used in Asian, Indian and Arabic medicine since Ancient times. It aids digestions, helps ease stomach ailments, bowel problems, eases the symptoms of the common cold or flu, nausea, etc.

Catalan food: Origens 99’9%

Origen

Today we went for a late lunch/early dinner with our friends Matt, Elena, and a couple friend of theirs from Toledo, with their two little kids (Luz and Olmo). The chosen restaurant was Origens 99’9%, a small chain here in Barcelona that specializes in rescuing traditional Catalan food. Some of the recipes go back to the Middle Ages! The restaurant is also partly a gourmet store and you can buy many of the wines they serve and artisan cheeses, mermelades, desserts, and chocolates at their store.

InsideThe menu is in form of a cooking magazine, with nice pictures of the dishes, a little history on the produce or the cooking technique involved, some recipes, which you can take with you as a souvenir or to try some of the recipes at home. All the courses are half-sized (and priced accordinly) so you can try more of them and eat as little or as much as you’d like.

ceba farcidaI started with a ceba farcida (stuffed onion). Accompanying the recipe in the menu was a little history: “Stuffing vegetables with meat is a common characteristic of the Mediterranean region. Onions already used to be cultivated in Sumeria in the year 6,000 BC, and then it reached Egypt, where it passed over throughout the majority of Mediterranean towns. This dish is prepared in the area of Anoia.” This onion was stuffed with a mix of pork, veal and pinenuts and covered in a pesto sauce. It was delicious!

cim-i-tombaFor my second course I chose cim-i-tomba, a fish casserole typical of the Costa Brava. According to the menu, “it receives its name due to the way of shaking and moving of the pot when cooking takes place, in order to move the ingredients from top to bottom.” I had head of cim-i-tomba before and couldn’t pass the opportunity of trying it. It was served with lots of broth, with potatoes and onions and was very tasty. The fish was very fresh and clean.

cremaFor dessert, I couldn’t pass on the crema catalana… It’s similar to the French crème brulée, but with a creamier custard. Very nice.

Others had salad with nuts and goat cheese (amanida de fruits secs amb formatge), coca with escalivada & romesco (a slice of bread with roasted vegetables), lentils with cuttlefish and sausage (llenties amb sipia i salsitxes), pupkin and chestnut soup (sopa de carbassa i castanyes), penne with sausage and carreretas (macarrons amb salsitxa i moixernons), pork chops with chestnuts (costella de porc amb castanyes), stuffed apple of l’Empordà (poma farcida de l’Empordà), meatballs with cuttlefish (mandonguilles amb sípia), small squid with chocolate (popets amb xocolata), beef with eggplant (vedella amb albergines)…

You can download their magazine-menu here . All in all, a very good meal! We’ll definitely go back soon…

Santa Claus vs the three Wise men

Christmas in Spain has been a nice surprise. Coming from a Catholic country that was colonized by an Iberian state, I assumed Christmas here would be much the same as back home. Or at least more similar, with Christmas being celebrated on Dec 24th, for example.

I couldn’t be further from the truth. At first you think it’s much like in the rest of the wold. Streets, houses and stores are decorated with lights. People run back and forth trying to get gifts. Most flee the city to spend it with their families in their country homes. They all plan on gorging on as much food as possible. Check, check, check, double check!

When you look at it more closely, however, you notice the differences.

Take Santa Claus for example. In the western world, we all assume he is intrinsic to Christmas. Some people complain that we’ve moved away from the original meaning of Christmas as a holiday to celebrate the birth of Christ, to a purely commercial event symbolized by Santa and his gifts. He is even in Brazil, where he looks quite odd wearing his winter clothes in the middle of the summer. But in Brazil he doesn’t arrive on a sledge – how could he? there’s no snow! – but rather on a helicopter! Anyways, here in Spain Santa isn’t very big. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t mean that Spanish kids don’t get their gifts. The exchange of gifts is the same and kids write letters. But not to Santa. They write to the three Wise men (aka the Magi or the three kings) who, according to the Christian story, visited Mary and the baby Jesus bearing gifts.

To be faithful to the story, therefore, the big exchage of gifts doesn’t happen on Dec 25 but rather on January 6th, the day of Epiphany, or Twelth Night. On January 5th most Spanish towns celebrate the Cabalgata de los Reyes, when the three kings arrive in the town and the children go out to see them and ask for gifts. It’s kind of like the Santa Claus parade in Norh America.

Here’s what happens in Barcelona:

“On 5 January every year, the evening before Twelfth Night (Epiphany, 6 January) the Thee Kings (or Three Wise Men of the New Testament) arrive by boat at the waterfront of Barcelona (Moll de la Fusta) to be greeted by the Mayor of the city and conducted to the nearby park of Ciutadella. From there the Three Kings depart in their carriages, the principal part of a grand parade that proceeds slowly through the streets and avenues of the centre towards the Olympic Stadium. The Kings and other participants in the parade throw barley sugar sweets and other candies to the children lining the route. There are many stalls along the way, especially along Gran Via. The days leading up to the parade allow the opportunity for children to inspect the Three Kings’ boat and carriages, and to leave messages requesting gifts, which they (and adults, too) receive, traditionally, on 6 January”

I think it’s a really nice tradition. I mean, it does make more sense and it preserves more of the Biblical story. At least it keeps Christ part of Christmas, because to explain who the three wise men are, you need to talk about Christ. But like everything else that is more local, this is being threatened by globalization as more and more Spanish kids want to get their gifts on Dec 25th… Some do both Santa & los reyes.[update: they’ve just said in the local news that 2 in every 5 Spanish kids get gifts on both dates] I hope they don’t lose their tradition.

Fore more Spanish Christmas holiday traditions see here.

To illustrate the central role of the three wise men within Christmas tradition here, I leave you with a picture of our milk box:

The three wise cows

Stay tuned for a post on a unique Catalan traditions – the caganer & the caga-tio:

Caganers

Lisboa – what a beautiful city!

“Lisbon is often likened in guide-books to San Francisco, because of its streets that rise so dramatically from the waterfront, and Rome, because it is built on seven hills. In truth, there is, and surely never will be, any mistaking the Portuguese capital for anywhere else. So far from surrending its compelling character to the twenty-first century’s forces of homogeneity, the new prosperity has instead revived Lisbon’s justifiable pride in its distinctiveness.”

Martin Page, in The First Global Village: How Portugal Changed the World, p. 29

Day two in Lisbon was spent with a visit to the Mercado da Ribeira, near the port, and the Feira da Ladra, Lisbon’s main flea market, before heading out and exploring the neighbourhood around the Castle de São Jorge. After finding the restaurants that had been recommended to me closed again (I finally gave up looking for particular restaurants and just went for whatever looked ok), we took a tram to Chiado where we had lunch at Cervejaria Trindade, one of the oldest beer halls in Lisbon. At night we went for a nice Portuguese meal at Bairro Alto and walked around a bit to check the Christmas lights, which were really impressive.

Mercado da RibeiraEntrance to Feira da LadraView from the castleIgreja do CarmoCastelo

Christmas lightsLightslights

chestnut vendors

Sunday was mostly spent in Belem, where we visited the Torre de Belem and the Mosteiro dos Jerônimos. All the attractions were free that day, as it is most sundays between 10 am and 2 pm. It was cold but we had beautiful blue sky, as you can see in some of the pictures:

Torre de BelemTorre de BemePeople enjoying the nice dayFountain in front of monasteryInside monastery

MonasteryPillars at monastery

We had planned to go to Sintra in our last day, monday, but we felt that we hadn’t seen enough of Lisbon. So we went back to some of the places we had passed by quickly (like Alfama, Graça and the northern part of Bairro Alto) and explored them more fully. Another nice sunny day!

School trip near castleStairs and more stairsLisbon doorsArchwayTram 28

View of the alfamaLisbon house

To cap it off, we had our last meal in Lisbon at an Indian restaurant recommended by our friend Detlef, a Lisbon resident. It’s one of those places you would never think of going in but that has become quite an institution among those “in the know”. The restaurant is located on the first floor of a residential building just off Plaça da Figueira and it looks very simple and low-key but the food was amazing! Fitting end for the trip…

Dodgy entrance to restaurantMain door

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For a slideshow of these pictures and more click here; for a static selection go here.

And here’s for my top five list about Lisbon:

  1. Pastéis de Belém at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém
  2. The uncanny light that baskes the city
  3. Drinking Ginginha at a Ginginha bar at the end of a cold day
  4. The incredible friendliness of Lisboeta, who haven’t been jaded by seeing their city overan by tourists in recent years and still go out of their way to point us in the right direction. An older man actually stopped us on the street to make sure we hadn’t miss ed the lookout at the end of the street.
  5. How much it taught me about my own roots

More on Lisbon and Portugal

Perhaps no European country went through such radical change so fast.  From 1933 to 1974 Portugal was under a right-wing dictatorship that kept it isolated from the rest of the world and stunted much of its growth.  By 1960 77% of its population still lived in the countryside under a rigid social hierarchy in which the illiterate peasants obeyed wealthy landowners and women were encouraged to stay at home by the traditionalist regime. During the 1960s-1970s, the dictator Salazar got the country embroiled in a bloody war in its colonies in Africa (mainly Angola) and over a million young Portuguese emigrated to avoid the draft. As the Portuguese writer Maria Filomena Mónica puts it, it was better to be a construction worker in Paris than to die in the swamps of the Guiné in Africa.

In 1974 a coup ended the dictatorship. In the early 1980s, as Alison Roberts describes it, Portugal’s image was still one of “genteel decay”. Money was scarce and emigration to northern Europe or America continued. But democracy, the end of the wars in Africa, and Portugal’s arrival into the European Union in 1986 helped revolutionize the country.  EU money poured into infrastructure – the signs are still obvious today in the network of brand new highways that crisscross the country as well as in the modern public transit system.  The newly elected social democratic government led by Aníbal Cavaco Silva had more doctorates among them than the British cabinet had bachelor’s degrees. Portugal had the lowest literacy and numeracy rates among adult population in western Europe. Within 5 years, however,  literacy and numeracy rates among 18 year-olds had surpassed that of England.

The speed with which Portugal emerged from a “third-world” status was startling. Families can now afford to heat their homes in the winter, sewage systems have been installed, tuberculosis and other diseases linked to poverty have declined markedly, gap between the rich and the poor have narrowed, and inflation is among the lowest in western Europe.

The arrival of the eastern European countries into the EU has been a challenge to Portugal, as it lost much foreign investment to those countries. Unemployment has began to rise. But I believe that Portuguese industriousness and adaptability will win and they will be able mount this challenge to their economy.

Lisbon – Day 1

Alan and I arrived in Lisbon on Friday afternoon (8/12). The whole of Portugal had had horrible cold, wet weather for weeks prior to our arrival but we lucked out. There were a few drops on Friday but otherwise it was beautiful blue sky the whole time we were there. It was very cold (around 10-12 C for most of the day) but very nice… Perfect weather for photography!

Like Rome, Lisbon stretches over seven hills. The core of the city spreads over two hills and the valley in between. On one hill is Chiado and Bairro Alto, known for its bohemian nature, while the other hails the Alfama and the nighbourhood of Graça, the only part of the city that survived the earthquake in 1755. The business district is in the valley in between, the Baixa.

We checked in at our hotel and were ready to hit the streets by 1:30 pm. We walked from our hotel (Residencial Florescente) to the Santa Justa elevator but since the line was too long we decided to walk up to Chiado/Bairro Alto in search of a place for lunch. Being a holiday, most of the more traditional restaurants were closed but after a bit of wandering around, we finally came upon a nice place with a menu do dia for 7,50 euros (starter, main course & drink). I A Brasileirahad Bacalhau com nata (Salted cod in cream sauce) and Alan had beef stroganoff. Not bad.

We then walked over to A Brasileira for some coffee and dessert – nice Portuguese custard tarts. The place is supposed to be more expensive than average. Two coffees with milk (garotos) and two custard pies came to a walloping 4.50 euros.

After lunch, we took the tram 28 to its final stop. We waited around a bit, took some pictures of the lovely square at the end, before taking it back to Calçada do Combo, in Bairro Alto.

Bica funicular fountain Bench Street another street

The view from Rua Sta Catarina of the Tejo river and the statue of Cristo Rei across the bay was beautiful. There’s a nice outdoor cafe up there (from where I took the picture below) that looks a perfect place to be in the summer.

View of the bridge

We then walked across the hill to the Mirador da Gloria for a view of the Baixa and the castle. The light was beautiful!!

View of the castle

We walked down the path of the funicular to the hotel, stopping for a Ginginha (cherry licquer).

Ginginha bar