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Spain: Sangria

The following is an excerpt from the excellent Lonely Planet book, World Food: Spain:

The wines of Spain were not always of the high quality we have come to expect these days. When they were good, of course, they were very, very good. But when they were bad—Diablos! But instead of wasting it, the Spanish would take the bad wine and put something into it to mitigate the taste. Sometimes it was just water, sometimes it was other wine, often it was spices or fruit juice.

Over time a few recipes came into being that pleased most and offended none. To this day, sangría is an idea, not a chemical formula. Some people might use apple juice, or pineapple juice. Others might use nutmeg, or cloves. But a fairly standard recipe calls for citrus and cinnamon. How much of this or that to add to the wine depends on the wine—how good, how bad, how sweet, how dry. The final product should be refreshing and quaffable. Unfortunately, when served in tourist restaurants it is usually cloying sweet.


2 lemons

4 oranges

1/2 stick cinnamon

1 liter red wine (cheap stuff)

750ml soda water or lemonade


Take a 5cm strip of zest from a lemon and one from an orange. Place them and the cinnamon in a large pitcher along with the wine. Squeeze the fruit, add the juice, and stir well. Let the mixture sit in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Stir in the ice, then add the soda or lemonade just before serving.

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Madrid: Spanish saffron from Iran

This Trader Joe's "Spanish Saffron" isn't grown in Spain either. But at least it only costs half as much as the so-called Spanish saffron in Madrid.

This afternoon we are flying to Santiago de Compostela. So in the morning Eva and I go to the Mercado de San Miguel. She wants to pick up some Spanish saffron to take home for presents.

“You know Spanish saffron isn’t really from Spain,” I tell her as we negotiate the crowd looking for stalls selling azafrán.

“What?” she says. “Are you crazy? Why do you think it is called Spanish azafrán?”

“Because it is sold in Spain.”

We have found a woman selling saffron in little plastic cases. It is ten euros for one gram, 25 euros for three grams. Eva buys two of the three gram containers. Holding them up in front of my face so I can clearly see the label, she says, “Spanish azafrán—the best in the world.”

“It’s from Iran,” I tell her. “Or maybe Afghanistan. It’s definitely not from Spain.”

Eva is outraged. In Spanish, she tells the woman who just sold her the saffron that I told her it came from Iran. The old woman shrugs her shoulder and looks away, neither confirming nor denying. “Esto viene de España, ¿no?” says Eva, pointing at the containers of saffron.

The old woman points to the label that says Spanish azafrán. “Eso es lo que dice,” she says.

“There,” says Eva. “You see? She said it is from Spain.”

“No she didn’t. She says that it says it’s Spanish azafrán. That doesn’t mean it was grown in Spain. Look it up. No one grows saffron in Spain anymore. The labor is too expensive. It all comes from Afghanistan and Iran. And is then packaged in Spain. So they can call it Spanish azafrán. Even though it’s not.”

“I don’t believe you,” says Eva as we leave the mercado.

“Fine. Don’t believe me.”

Eva puts the packages of saffron in her purse. We walk several blocks without talking before she says, “That was for my mother, you know.”

“It’s still a nice gift,” I tell her.

“Yes, just not as nice as it was before we went to the market. Thanks a lot.”

Okay, maybe I should have kept my mouth shut. I mean, it is good saffron. But the thing is, it’s not Spanish saffron. Not anymore it’s not.

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Cocido, the dullest dish in Spain.

The following is an excerpt from the excellent Lonely Planet book, World Food: Spain, which, sadly, is out of print:

Now to that other famous Madrid-style dish, cocido a la madrileña. The word ‘cocido’ is simply the past participial form of the verb, to cook. It is a stew of chicken, chorizo sausage, maybe some ham or other cured meat, potatoes, cabbage and chickpeas and macaroni. Eat a dinner of it and it will seem to stay with you for three days. It is typically eaten ‘from front to back,’ starting with the broth along with the macaroni or rice, then you eat the chickpeas, then you eat the meat. You can do this at one meal, or you can do it over a span of three days. We recommend the three day approach. We have never seen anybody stagger from the table having downed an entire dinner of cocido. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘miracle of the loaves and the fishes’ because though there might not seem to be enough as you look at it, in the end everyone is full and there is always some left over.

But this is about the dullest dish in Spain. There are so many good things to eat that we don’t know why any non-Spaniard would bother with cocido except as an experiment in culinary anthropology. It’s not that we think it bad. It doesn’t have enough taste or smell to be bad. Its long cooking in much water seems to strip its good parts of their native goodness. And yet the Madrileños swoon for this stuff. They dream of it when away from home. They even compose songs to it. We tell no lie.

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A sad man in search of coffee in Madrid on a Sunday morning. Photo by DL.

Sunday morning I got up early and checked out of the Hotel De Las Letras. Eva was coming by about 9 to take me to the Ribera del Duero wine region about 150 Km. away. Since I had about half an hour until she arrived, I asked the clerk at the front desk if there was a café or something along Gran Vía where I could get a coffee. She looked at her watch and huffed. “Not this early,” she said.

It was 8:30. I thought perhaps her watch had stopped so I repeated this information to her: “It’s 8:30. On a Sunday.”

“Exactly,” she said.

“Wait, you mean there’s nowhere in downtown Madrid where one can get a cup of coffee to go on Sunday morning?”

“Not this early,” she said. “People are still coming home from last night.”

And it was true. I walked for blocks up Gran Vía and saw dozens of tired looking revelers looking like vampires afraid of the sun but not a single café where I could get a latte. After walking for about five blocks, I did come across a Starbucks. But it wasn’t open. Too early, I guess.

I walked back to the hotel and went around the corner to DL’s, the hotel’s stylish restaurant (that I like to think is named after me) which was just setting up their Sunday buffet. I asked them if it might be possible to get a cup of coffee to go. Was I eating here? they asked. Sadly, no, I told them. I was just hoping I could get a cup of coffee. To go. The waitress said, “One minute, please.” She went off and spoke to a manager. The two of them looked at me while discussing the problem. Eventually the manager came over and asked if she could help me.

“Yes, I’m checking out of the hotel this morning and was hoping I could get a cup of coffee to take with me as a friend and I are driving to Ribera del Duero.

“Ah,” said the manager, nodding. “You want a coffee?”

“Yes, please. To go.”

“To go?”


The manager disappeared. Five or ten minutes later, the waitress was back. With a water cup-sized Styrofoam cup. Of lukewarm coffee. I thanked her and paid. When I got back to the lobby, Eva was sitting on a couch. “Where have you been?” she asked. I told her I’d been looking for coffee. For 45 minutes. “Good,” she said. “Did you bring me one?”

I smiled and handed her the cup. “This is yours,” I lied. “I had mine back at the restaurant.” She thanked me and we left. For the long drive to Ribera del Duero. Sans coffee.

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Spanish piropos

Piropo illustration by Nick Mahshie.

It is late afternoon and I am walking down Gran Via with Eva when a flashy twenty-something male, passing in the other direction, says something under his breath to which Eva hisses. Like a cat.

“What was that about?” I ask her.

Piropo,” she snarls. “A bad one.”

So what, you wonder (as did I), is a piropo?

According to the dictionary of the Real Academia Española, piropos are “compliments with an amorous or sexual expressive tone, usually said by men to women. The setting is usually the street where the participants do not know each other and can remain anonymous.”

A high school Spanish textbook says piropos are “Flattery that causes a woman to blush; a loud compliment on a woman’s physical appearance.”

Okay, so what was the piropo used on Eva? “It was an old one. Something about me having so many curves and him having no brakes. But then he added a more modern twist on the end.”

“Which was what?”

“He said, ‘Tu con tantas curves y yo sin frenos, que putazo nos metemos.”

“Which means?”

“I have no brakes so let’s go fuck. Subtle, no?”

No. And that’s the problem with piropos these days. What was once a subtle form of flattery has morphed into something crude and offensive. In the old days, a piropo was considered something of an art form. Think Shakespeare: “See how she leans her cheek upon her hand! O that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!” That line, from Romeo and Juliet, is nothing more than an old fashioned piropo, and what woman would hiss at an admirer murmuring such a desire?

Two other old school piropos: “Where you go, flowers must spring up” and “If beauty were a sin, you’d never be forgiven.” Over the top and a little corny, yes, but certainly nothing that a woman would find offensive.

But compare that to this piropo suggested on an iPhone ap called Piropos de Obrero (yes, there’s an ap for that): Si fueras barco pirata te comería el tesoro que tienes entre las patas. Translation? If you were a pirate ship, I would eat the treasure between your legs.

Just what every woman walking down the street wants to hear.

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