the mystery pastry of el riojano

Crossing calle Mayor and wiping away the breadcrumbs still clinging to the corners of my mouth, I find myself yet again intrigued by a window. Only this time it’s pastry, exhibited like fine jewelry in a boutique display at El Riojano.  What could better follow a pair of ham sandwiches than a bite or two of flaky pastry? I don’t get much browsing time in the mahogany and marble decorated shop however: it’s time for siesta, and the elegantly turned out ladies of the shop seem more interested in shuttering up for the afternoon than explaining to me what’s what.  So I quickly opt for something that looks strudel-like and non-threatening before paying at the register and returning to the counter to collect my goods. Ushered into the street, I try and figure out what I’m about to eat.  It looks like a fruit filling of some kind but I can’t distinguish it by sight.  Nor by taste, it turns out.  It’s sweet and flaky and buttery at the same time with a hint of almond and the clean taste of said mystery fruit, but I honestly haven’t a clue what it could be. Beyond delicioso, that is – which is all I ultimately care about.

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jamon it (wikki-wikki-wikki-wikki)

Have you spotted the trend in Madrid?  Art then food, then art and food – and it’s starting to add up. For a country teetering on the precipice of insolvency, Spain is a bit more expensive than anticipated.  Which made stumbling into Museo del Jamon – literally “House of Ham,” a mini-chain with a few outposts across the city – a fortuitous bit of lunchtime economy.  I was lured by the enticing front window: hanging by the hoove were hundreds of haunches of jamon Iberico, the cured Iberian ham also known as pata negra, or black leg after the breed of pig prized for its smooth texture and savory taste.  I hadn’t realized it was a restaurant until inside where, hams cascading down from the ceiling like a chandelier of pork, I discovered a lunch counter and delicatessen cheek by jowl. And more importantly, the best bargain in town: the one Euro menu.  Serrano ham on a baguette: one Euro. Ham and cheese croissant: one Euro. Diet Coke: one Euro. A cortado: one Euro.  Atmosphere to spare and cheap enough to hand the counter man a fiver and say, keep the change, señor, made this a lunch worth oinking about.

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reina sofia

The state-of-the-art Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is a shining example of the Spanish flair for converting old-world architecture to contemporary purpose – in this case to meet the needs of a dynamic modern art collection. But while the collection of 20th century mostly Spanish art is exceptional, it’s not entirely in line with my particular tastes in painting. (I do love the Kandinsky and the early Salvador Dali but sorry, Miró, I  just can’t figure out what’s the fuss)  Like most of the crowd, I’ve come to see Picasso’s Guernica, arguably one of the most famous paintings of the post-war era. A defining work of cubism, where the disfiguration of the human form becomes an eloquent symbol of the world’s outrage at the horrors wrought upon the innocent by modern warfare, Picasso’s mural is a monumental 25-foot canvas that can barely control its  humanity. Painted by the artist in response to the bombing of the eponymous Basque town by German and Italian forces during the height of the Spanish Civil War, the canvas shows a world wrenched by violence and chaos. Is it any wonder that Picasso’s vision continues to fascinate us?

 

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churros & chocolate

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say thyssen-bornemisza five times fast

Imagine being so outrageously wealthy that you run out of space to display your encyclopedic collection of art.  Then imagine convincing the government to spruce up the 18th-century Palace of Villahermosa so that you can establish your own museum – across the street from the Prado, no less -  and free up a bit of wall space at home.  In a nutshell, that’s the story behind the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, the legacy of steel magnate Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza and his wife, Carmen, a former Miss Espana and ex-wife of Lex “Tarzan” Barker. While the Prado allows you to focus in depth on the body of work from a number of great painters, the Thyssen gives you a stunning overview of art history from the Renaissance, to Flanders and France, German Expressionism, 19th Century North America, to Cubism, the Avant Garde and Pop Art. As if that were not enough, beginning in the late 1980’s local-girl-made-good Carmen started assembling her own collection of pictures.  So they built an extension to house the separate – yet complementary – Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, which while particularly rich in late- and post-Impressionists also covers the waterfront, so to speak. It’s all wonderfully eclectic to say the least – and small enough to be enjoyable while not overwhelming. I think what impressed me most of all was how expansively the collection delves into 19th century North American and Hudson River School painting.  (What a surprise to see the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington’s cook, Hercules.) We are so accustomed to revering the early European masters that it’s almost shocking to discover they could take any serious interest in our own pre-imperial culture.

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casa labra (and cod)

Tucked behind the busy plaza of Puerta del Sol, Casa Labra has taken on an almost mythical status in the history of Madrid. A clandestine backroom meeting here in 1879 led to the founding of the Spanish Socialist Party, which today rules modern Spain. And despite its lefty leanings, it somehow managed to be one of the few tabernas to escape Franco’s sweeping remodeling of the plaza, so there remains an authenticity and character to it all – like the bacalao, which is still sold by the piece at a small stand in the front bar.  Served with a toothpick the lightly fried salt cod also goes great with a crisp glass of beer.

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in prada at the prado

You could visit Madrid for the Museo del Prado alone and not leave disappointed, as few galleries in the world have as rich a collection of masterpieces. Drawn from the former Spanish Royal Collection, the walls of the 18th-century Palacio de Villanueva are adorned with more than 3,000 paintings by the great Spanish and European masters.  Goya and Velázquez may be the dramatic focal points, however, Ribera, Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Zurburan – one of my favorites – somehow manage to share the spotlight. I must confess a prior ignorance of José de Ribera, the 17th-century Spanish painter who spent the majority of his professional life in Italy. Influenced by Caravaggio’s naturalism, he was one of the pillars on which Spanish painting was built. (who knew?) From landscapes and mythological scenes to portraits and religious paintings, Ribera was as precise and detailed as a draughtsman. His later works – like St. Sebastian below – are also stunning in their luminosity. And for me, a very fortuitous Madrid discovery.

 

 

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mmm, mollejas

Show up in the Huertas neighborhood of Madrid at noon in search of almuerzo and you’ll be severely disappointed.  Lunch may be the main meal of the day in Spain but, like dinner, it begins much later than American appetites are accustomed. Oh, there are loads of tapas bars, snack joints, and fast food – especially in Huertas, the most buzzing, culturally rich (and noisiest) of Madrid’s barrios – but for a proper sit-down meal you’re going to have to wait, as I reluctantly did. Starving and strolling the cobbled streets of Barrio de las Letras, the Barrio of the Letters within Huertas where many a great Spanish writer once lived, I eventually darkened the door of La Vaca Veronica at half-past one to find that I was the only person at the restaurant. An empty restaurant in Madrid, however, is less a barometer of the kitchen’s quality than a sign that you’re just really, really early, I soon discovered.  By two o’clock every table was full and I was halfway through a gorgeous plate of mollejas, or sweetbreads, and onto my second glass of Tempranillo. For dessert I couldn’t pass up a plate of Manchego, which came with local honey and membrillo – the Spanish quince paste that’s practically a national snack.  Suitably sated – and still just a little bit jet-lagged -  I walked back to my hotel intent on taking part in another national custom, the siesta.

 

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¡hola madrid

Iberian month has morphed into an Iberian spring. But don’t worry – I’m back on the ground now and greedily in search of my first Spanish feast.  Tapas, paella, Manchego, Rioja, what will it be?

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bom dia, portugal

It’s Mediterranean Month here on the site, with March trips to both Portugal and Spain. (Technically, I guess that makes it Iberian Month, but that’s not nearly as euphonious, n’est-ce pas?) Curiously, this is my first trip to the Iberian peninsula, so I am excited to see what’s in store:  the food and fado of Portugal, the art and architecture of Spain.  And of course, all that glorious Iberian ham.  For now, I think I’ve made the right choice in eschewing the city to start my travels in the lush Sintra countryside at Penha Longa, which traces its origins back to the 14th Century.

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