Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cold Soup and Hot Chocolate: The Ins and Outs of Spanish Cuisine

One thing you should know about living Spain is that their mealtime schedule is fairly different from ours.  For the most part, Spaniards eat a very small breakfast in the morning; mine usually consists of toast and coffee.  In my house, lunch is usually between 2:30 and 3:00.  Waiting that long for a full meal took some getting used to at the beginning of the semester.  Dinner is usually ready around 9:30, but I know some of my classmates don't eat dinner until almost 11:00 at night!  I explained to my host mom that in the States, I usually eat lunch around noon and dinner around 5:30 or 6:00.  She just looked at me with a surprised expression on her face and said, "How do you not die of starvation before bed?!"

Lucky for me, my host mom is a great chef.  I'm sure everyone is familiar with the stereotypical Italian mom/grandma who perpetually overfeeds her family.  Well, I'm here to tell you that Spanish moms are no different.  Sometimes I'll find myself sitting at the table with 5 or 6 plates that are all for me!  Everything I've tried so far has been delicious, but if I ate it all I wouldn't fit in my seat on the plane to come home. 

As someone who loves to cook, one of the things I was most looking forward to in Spain was all the new food.  So, this post is dedicated to some Spanish culinary staples.

First, paella.  I'm sure most people who have taken any Spanish classes or have had any exposure to the culture whatsoever have heard of this dish.  Paella recipes vary from family to family, but the basic ingredients are saffron rice, vegetables, and some sort of meat.  Standard paella is made with seafood, but it can be made with chicken as well.  If I had to compare it to an American dish, I would say it's like the Spanish version of jumbalaya.  The hard-core traditional señoras make it from scratch, but you can also buy a boxed mix at the supermarket with the rice and all the spices.  When cooking for large crowds, paella is usually made in a giant pan like the one on the left.  It's pretty impressive watching people lift these things.  In the picture, you can see the little window that they had to put in the kitchen because the pan wouldn't fit through the doorway.

Next, tortillas.  And no, I'm not talking about the ones you use to make tacos.  Mexican tortillas are the flat ones made of corn or flour.  Spanish tortillas, on the other hand, are more like omelets.  But you can't call them omelets either because that's a "French tortilla."  It's all really mixed-up.  (This became a cause for confusion between my host sister and I when we tried to make Mexican food together, because we were talking about two different kinds of tortillas.)  Anyway, a tortilla española (usually referred to as a tortilla de patatas--"potatoes") is basically just beaten eggs and potatoes pan-fried in oil.  It has a pretty bland taste, so sometimes people add different sauces.  My señora has even given me a tortilla de patatas on a sandwich--talk about carbs!

Alright, this one might be new for some of you--gazpacho.  In a nutshell--cold tomato soup.  It sounds weird, but it has become one of my favorite foods since arriving here.  Again, the recipe varies by region and from family to family.  My señora usually puts ham and hard-boiled egg in her gazpacho, and she even has cute little bowls to serve it in. It's a popular summer dish, because who wants to eat hot soup when it's over 100 degrees outside?

Okay, here's my last one.  Churros and chocolate.  These are nothing like the churros you get at street fairs.  There's really not much to them; they're just fried dough.  The important part is the chocolate.  It's super thick and rich and delicious, and it's served piping hot.  Some restaurants advertise that they have "Chocolate with churros" instead of the other way around.  Let's be honest, they know the churros are just a delivery system.  Once the churros are gone, most people just drink what's left of the chocolate, because by then it has cooled off enough.  Buyer beware: once you taste this, you will never want to go back to powdered hot chocolate...

Despite my new culinary experiences, I still find myself craving one thing.  SPICY FOOD! It honestly does not exist in Spain.  Someone asked the professor about it in our Culture & Cuisine class, and her response was "spicy things would kill us."  She claims that as a general rule, Spaniards' digestive systems are not equipped to handle spicy food.  My friends and I like to daydream every so often about coming home and getting Buffalo Wild Wings.

I can't wait to come home and test out some recipes!

Stay tuned for a later post where I explore the culture of Tapas...  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Time Warp

About three years ago, I had the opportunity to travel with my high school to Spain and Italy.  As a high school senior, having my favorite teacher take me and some of my best friends on a 10-day European adventure was the greatest gift I could have asked for.  We saw most of the main tourist attractions, and explored several large cities in a very short period of time.  After that short, 5-day taste of Spain, I knew I had to go back.  This past weekend I had the pleasure of traveling to Barcelona with some of the girls from my program, and I was able to revisit some of the same sights from my first trip.

One of the major differences that I noticed between this trip and the last was that the city felt a lot bigger.  Now of course that will happen when you have to take the metro and walk everywhere instead of getting on a tour bus like we did three years ago.  Having to navigate the city on my own forced me to take in my surroundings a lot more thoroughly than I did the first time.  I feel like I was able to appreciate Barcelona more as a whole rather than focusing on the major monuments separately.

The first place we visited in Barcelona was Las Ramblas.  It's basically just one long pedestrian street filled with craft vendors and shops, and also an open-air market.  I was able to get around very easily thanks to my vivid memory; I even recall the weather being similar on both trips.

Top: My friends Vicky and Joey and I sitting on a bench at
Las Ramblas in 2011.  Bottom: Me at that same bench in 2013.

The one thing I was really looking forward to seeing in Barcelona was La Sagrada Familia.  The construction of this Basilica began in 1882 and is still ongoing.  The projected date of completion is somewhere between 2020 and 2040.  I was interested to see if there were any noticeable changes in the building from the last time I had seen it.  Its construction is so elaborate that it was difficult to note minor details, but I was able to see one of the facades that had been completely blocked off last time.  I still have never been inside, but I suppose that gives me a good excuse to go back again.

La Sagrada Familia 2013
Model of what La Sagrada Familia will
someday look like

One of the most exciting changes that I was able to see was one that I actually stumbled upon by accident.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, bullfighting is now against the law in the region of Spain that includes Barcelona.  When we came in high school, our tour guide told us that the city had made plans to convert the bullfighting ring into a shopping mall.  Of course, upon hearing this most of us wrote it off as a joke.  Why would they turn a cultural masterpiece into a mall?  Well, on one of our nights out in Barcelona, I found out that he was not joking.  What used to be the Plaza de Toros is now a 4-story shopping mall complete with movie theater and outdoor balcony.  We went up to the top floor and spent some time outside enjoying the view.    

Being in Barcelona, even if only for a couple of days, made me appreciate Sevilla even more.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed my visit very much, but it made me realize that I made the right choice in deciding to study in Sevilla.  Both cities have their merits, but personally I like the smaller, homey atmosphere in Sevilla as opposed to the big-city bustle of Barcelona.  As I continue to travel around Spain and throughout Europe, I seem to feel at home coming back to Sevilla.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

When You Mess With The Bull...

Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla
[Say that ten times fast...]
"When in Rome, do as the Romans do"--your typical travel motto, right?  Well when you're in Sevilla and you want to do as the Sevillanos do, one of the best things you can do is go to a bullfight.  It's not like the Flamenco dance shows or the city tours on double-decker buses.  Those kinds of things are tailored to the tourists, and personally I find that some of them can be a bit cheesy.  

I went to the bullfight with some classmates, and shortly after arriving, we realized that we had absolutely no idea what to expect.  We had this picture in our heads of what a bullfight "should" be like, and (SPOILER ALERT) we were fully aware that the bulls were going to die at the end.  Other than that, we were basically clueless.  We eventually recognized a pattern of events, but it wasn't until I did some research afterwards that I really understood the meaning behind what happened.  So, I'm going to combine my experience with a little supplemental background information to give you all an idea of what goes on during a bullfight. 

[Also, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my parents for giving me such an awesome camera.  All the photos you see on this post are ones that I took myself.  Thanks Mom and Dad!] 

The Players

Each bullfight has at least one Matador, and he is accompanied by two lancers on horseback, three flagmen, a sword servant, and several other assistants.  Bullfighting season begins in the spring, and normally the most experienced Matadors open the season, and as time goes on the Matadors are less experienced.  We had the good fortune to get tickets to one of the last bullfights in Sevilla.  It was a special festival, so there were two very experienced Matadors in this bullfight.

They are all dressed in custom-made suits that are hand-sewn and, consequently, very costly.  Some of the Matadors wear suits that are sewn with silver or even gold thread.  The type of suit worn denotes the role of each person in the bullfight.  The bullfight is split into three parts, and each man (yes, they're all men) has his specific job in each part.  

Part One: Tercio de Veras

The Tercio de Veras ("Lances Third") starts with the Matador observing the bull.  He waves his cape at the bull, causing it to charge so he can watch the bull's tendencies.  In case you were wondering, yes, the cape in the picture is pink.  Contrary to popular belief, bulls are not attracted to the color red--they are actually colorblind.  Rather, they are drawn to the movement and the sound of the fabric as the Matadors and his assistants wave their capes.  They switch to a red cape later, to avoid the blood stains being noticeable to the crowd.  Once the Matador has a chance to watch the bull and practice a few passes, a trumpet sounds the entrance of the Lancers.  
The Lancers ride in on horses that are covered in protective padding and blindfolded.  The bull is encouraged to charge at the horse so the Lancer can stab--I have yet to find a better word to use, so I apologize for the graphic description--the collection of muscle on the bull's neck.  We were all thoroughly impressed with the horses and how they were trained to just lean up against the bull as it pushes against them.  After the first loss of blood, the Lancers exit the arena.  This stage is meant to weaken the bull before continuing to run in the arena with just the Matador.

Part Two: Tercio de Banderillas

The "Flags Third" consists of three flagmen each attempting to plant two barbed sticks into the bull's shoulders.  Each set of flags is decorated with colors symbolizing the area where the bullfight is taking place.  In our case there were red and yellow for Spain, green and white for Andalucía, and red and white for Sevilla.  While the flagmen are placing the flags, the rest of the assistants run the bull around in the center of the ring.  At this point, the bull has lost a lot of blood, but is still very angry and makes strong charges at everyone in the ring.

Part Three: Tercio de Muerte

This is the "Death Third," where the Matador and the bull once again go head-to-head in the arena.  This time the Matador uses a red cape, and he also carries a sword.  He makes the bull pass by him back and forth several times.  They demonstrate their control and bravery by trying to get as close as he can to the bull.  The Matadors that we saw were experts; one would pet the bull as it ran past and even put his head on the bull's back at one point, and they both had blood staining the front of their suits when the fights were over.  The other objective of these passes is to maneuver the bull into a good position to drive the sword between its shoulder blades and through its heart.  The kill is meant to be swift, and if the Matador fails to properly insert the sword, the crowd will react.  This actually happened a couple of times during the fights we saw, and it was not pretty.  The Matador is given 15 minutes to complete the kill.   

In this photo of the Tercio de Muerte, you can see the banderillas
hanging from the bull's shoulders.  

After the bull has fallen, a rope is tied around its horns and it is carried out of the ring by mules.  This process repeats until six bulls have been killed.  During the bullfight that we went to, there were actually seven bulls, but the first one was sent away because it wasn't "fiesty" enough.  

Now, I know that everyone must be thinking about how cruel this is and how they shouldn't be killing these innocent animals.  Well, there is definitely a controversy surrounding this tradition.  In fact, bullfighting is now against the law in the Canary Islands and Catalonia (the region of Spain that includes Barcelona).  In southern Spain, it remains a long-standing tradition, and it is something the people look forward to.  We kept comparing it to a baseball game in the United States (complete with snack vendors walking through the crowds, rowdy fans, and the like).  All in all, I'm really glad I had the opportunity to experience this cultural marvel.