27 November 2013

Five things to buy a Spaniard for Christmas

1. Turrón
The mince pie equivalent of Spain is turrón. We might call it nougat (which ever way you wish to pronounce that), but there are so many versions one word doesn't suffice. Every Spaniard loves a bit of turrón. At Christmas shops throughout the country are swamped with it in all its varieties - chocolate (like Nutella with Rice Krispies), a hard jaw-breaking version with peanuts, soft like marzipan and everything in between. If in doubt, give turrón.


2. Posh wine
As an average red is part and parcel of most lunches in Spain, when it comes to a special occasion like Christmas you definitely need to up the ante and give a posher bottle as a present. Go on, spend more than 1.69. Hideously wrapped in cellophane is an option, but it must have flimsy wiring around it, as a minimum requirement to give that special touch.

3. Polvorones and mantecados
They look a bit retro in their greaseproof wrappers, but these little cakes are a vegetarian's worse nightmare. Trying to lure you in with promises of cinnamon and a hint of lemon, these traditional Christmas delicacies are in fact flavoured lard-filled pastry. Spaniards love them.

4. Chocolate con churros
A year-round calorie bomb but especially loved during the "cold" winter months is a cup of hot chocolate so thick you can stand your spoon up in it served with deep-fried extruded doughnut batter. Obviously, you dip your greasy churro into the chocolate first. Some people love it. I can imagine it's good for hangovers and for those who are too lazy to make a batch of batter, Mercadona supermarket now sells churros batter in a spray can. Class! While they're frying nicely you can open a tetra pak of thick chocolate as well.

5. Money
Let's face it, it's what most people want. Maybe not the cheap chocolate variety.

.... and some unashamed self-promotion.... you could give your Spanish friends one of my curiousmap prints!

22 November 2013

¡ Viva Las Vegas !

Our favourite local restaurant goes by the star-spangled name of "Las Vegas". Oh the glamour, the lights, the prawns! It never fails to entertain when you say, "I know, let’s go to Las Vegas for dinner". How extravagant! The food on offer at this culinary mecca to the stars is definitely not all glamour and flashing lights. More a single, non-energy bulb kinda glow. There's no molecular, pea-in-spit starter, no jus de framboise, no muddled or pulled anything. In fact, all they sell is good, simple food.

That's the great thing about most Spanish eateries, the food is simple. Consequently, the flavours aren't in constant strife with each other, they come through loud and clear and can indeed hold a conversation at a dinner table, so to speak. There's no overwhelming whiff of a mystery ingredient. You get what it says on the menu. Of course, this can be shocking to the uninitiated. You order fish, you get fish. If the chef is feeling a bit fancy that day, you may be treated to a limp lettuce leaf on the side, but in general, you'll just get a beautifully cooked bit of fish. Fantastic.

Apart from the delights of "chocolate mouse",  the Las Vegas menu also tries to tempt you with curious local dishes such as "migas". On many a menu this is translated rather directly as "crumbs". A plate of your best crumbs, please. It turns out "crumbs" is a mix of breadcrumbs, strangely, and lard. Some people, locals mainly, get very excited about their crumbs, but it's just not my cup of tea, I'll stick to the fish, gracias.

One thing I tried recently and did really like was ajo blanco. Again, like the beloved horchata, a slightly chalky texture, but this time not sweet but a touch vinegary and garlicy. It’s made of almonds, oil, vinegar and water, oh and a hint of garlic. I loved it, but can imagine other north europeans wouldn’t. I think it’s the colour. Where as horchata looks like dirty milk, ajo blanco looks like clean milk but certainly doesn’t taste of it. I think that’s the problem, it looks like milk so your brain has already told you, “that’s milk”, but surprise, it’s a sour garlic drink. Don’t put it in your tea.

Once you’ve managed to tell your brain, “don’t worry, I know it’s not milk, I’ll be fine”, you’ll be able to enjoy a pernod and water a la France, ajo blanco for lunch and a tasty horchata to cool down in the afternoon. My love of milky looking drinks however has never extended to Gaviscon. Although, I might need some at this rate. More crumbs anyone?
¡ Que aproveche !

10 November 2013

Five ways to spot an English house...

... in Almeria

The rain in Spain...
It doesn’t rain that often in Almeria. Maybe four times a year. Well, maybe a little more than that, but still. But when it does rain, you know about it! Flash floods, people washed out to sea, and the like. Strangely, no one has thought to try and capture any of this torrent to water their gardens, flush the loo or whatever. No one that is except for a couple of expats in Santa Maria de Nieva. Unlike any Spanish house I have ever seen, there a little perfectly painted house in SM de N with hideous, white, plastic gutters. Brilliant.

Whereas the English expat is likely to have a gnome or two, most houses still owned by Spanish people seem to feature a large cage in the garden containing a rather angry looking dog. No English house has this. Any dog rescued by an expat is allowed in and must be stroked and fussed over.

No flies on me!
About ten years ago most of the farmhouses, or pile of stones pretending to be a farmhouse, round these parts were bought up by sun-seeking English expats. Systematically, a couple of months in, fly-screened areas started popping up attached to the said farmhouses. It normally took about six months in general for a newly-purchased farmhouse to get a fly-free area. Now the expat with the knowledge can enjoy his or her sangria in semi-shade, but with no pesky flies. Meanwhile, José, the ex-farmer, is enjoying his retirement in an air-conditioned flat in town.

Casa Clive
Quite simply, the name gives it away. Whereas in the UK a bungalow proudly named DebBen or Joyron blends beautifully into the urban landscape, here in Almeria Casa Kimberley sticks out like a sunburnt expat. Of course, Linda can get away with it. “Linda” is Spanish for “beautiful” (yes, like “bonita”), so it’s not that strange to see a tiled sign saying “Casa Linda”. Although, putting a sign up calling your house “beautiful” could be seen as a tad showy. Linda can get away with it though.

Even if you don’t have a dog, it seems the done thing is to make sure you have a “stop, dangerous dog” sign at the entrance to your property to deter would-be thieves. Yes, even if the savage beast turns out to be Lolita the micro-poodle. Apparently, word has got round that all those potential thieves are scared shitless of the canine horrors waiting for them. Cunning plan.

6 November 2013


I love horchata. Most people hate it, I love it. With everyone else around me ordering their coke zeros and una caña, por favor, I go straight for the straw and sup my horchata. Horchata is an over-sweetened drink made of tiger nuts (none the less). It’s sort of an “elephant breath”-coloured drink that is slightly chalky. Not selling it, am I. If you’ve been to Valencia, you may have tried it and even fallen in love with its weird sweetness. If you’ve not been, you may never heard of it. The truth of the matter is, if you’ve been to Spain, it’s more than likely you’ve seen it in a bar somewhere in an over-sized slush puppy machine being constantly stirred and rarely drunk. Right next to the fluorescent blue smurf drink.
Valencia is the capital of horchata. Saying that, actually Alboraya, a small village suburb to the north of Valencia is the epicentre of Spain’s horchata production. A true mecca of tiger nut lovers. It’s not busy. Anyway, it’s here on the outskirts of Valencia, in the fields that start right where the city stops, that the famed tiger nuts are cultivated. Tiger nut fields as far as the eye can see, well, until Alcampo by the motorway. Valencians are very proud of their horchata, even if it’s a Alborayan invention.
The story goes that King Jaume, the king whose name features most frequently on street signs in Valencia, happened to be passing Alcampo and a girl (valencian: chata) handed his majesty a glass of the yet to be named refreshing drink, the monarch took one sip (presumedly through a straw) and declared “this is or (valencian: gold), chata!” I think he liked it. When you’re in Spain next time, go on, risk it, try an horchata (pronounced: or-chat-a). You might like it, probably not enough to shout out “gold!” - that would be weird, but you never know.
The last time I went to Valencia I noticed a lot more pop-out horchata stalls (how very trending!). At every tourist site we were greeted by fake rustic ladies presumedly in their tiger-nut-harvesting frocks trying to get us to sample their chilled horchata. Strangely though, not one of them asked us if we wanted to try their horchata, instead they had obviously all been told to ask people if they wanted to try a tiger nut. A hard shrivelled up old bean. As a marketing ploy, I can’t see that being over-successful, to be honest. Crunching on a dried up nut and then thinking, oh I’ll have to try an horchata now. But fair enough, trying to engage people into a conversation about the grey concoction was a way of breaking the horchata ice. I thought they were going to rip me off, so I instead headed for the horchata ice lolly dispensing machine (yes, they exist!). Lovely and no gritty bits of tiger nut in your teeth. A win-win. In fact, horchata is the way ahead as they are traditionally eaten with a sponge pastry known as a “farton”, so there’s comedy value, too.

3 November 2013

Spanish, everywhere!

Things have changed in this part of Spain. We’ve been back just over a month now and some things are noticeably different.

For one, there are less clapped-out British cars on the road. Now, when we see a British registered car driving towards us, it’s a novelty and, like people in boats, we suddenly have the urge to wave as the white-haired occupants fly past. The lack of British traffic could of course be due to Brits finally getting round to changing their cars over to Spanish plates. Tired of being stopped by the police whenever they pop to town for a cafe con leche. More likely it seems, it is because the Brits are leaving their mediterranean paradise and moving back to Blighty.

Gone are the days when walking round IKEA in Murcia meant hearing more northern English accents than you’d hear on an average day in Bradford. Now, it’s a couple of leather-faced Swedes and maybe a stray Frenchman that you’re more likely to encounter, oh and hundreds of Spanish. They are everywhere! And we thought they’d all up and moved to Germany! No, it turns out, Spain is full of Spaniards!

Walking round our local town of Huércal-Overa is like walking around a Spanish town! How strange. Old señoras clan in black sitting in leafy squares discussing the price of potatoes. Children everywhere screaming and running in to you, followed by the parents finally noticing and smiling with an “ahh, isn’t my child cute” look. There are, of course, still some expats shuffling around but now they seem to be in the minority. Whereas shopping in Mercadona was like shopping in a poorly stocked, cheaper Waitrose, now if you go there at siesta time, you really are the only person there! There are definitely less shops specialising in dodgy pies and sausage rolls. You see less adverts around the place for Dave’s Removals or Big Colin’s Plumbing Services. Yes, things have gone decidedly Spanish in Almeria.

In our valley, I think we’re about the only people not selling. Times are hard and for many it’s time to leave. Of course, there are many reasons why the Brits are leaving in droves, too many to contemplate here. Everyone has a reason. The fantastic weather, slow pace of and general quality of life are however the same as before, so the exodus must be for other reasons. Or maybe it’s just that. Jean and Dave are fed up with the sun, the mañana way of life, the kilo of prawns for the price you’d pay for one in the UK. Maybe it’s all just got too Spanish for them. In fact, a strange thing happened the other day, the house over the valley was bought by a Spanish family! Imagine that, Spaniards moving in to your valley. What will happen next! Spain is definitely getting more Spanish. ¡ Olé !