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Max Abroad : The Best of Spain

Quite simply writing about the best things Spain has to offer and anything that might crop up along the way. Spain is a lot more than just sun, sand and sea...

The Spider Caves - Valencia
28 November 2019

This ancient rock painting is the oldest evidence of humans’ love affair with honey. The taste of honey has entranced humans as long as we’ve walked upright—it is the second sweetest thing found in nature after dates. Until relatively recently, bees were the primary source of both sweetness, as honey, and light, in the form of beeswax candles. But before we domesticated them, getting hold of the sugary treat was a risky business.

Thousands of years ago, our prehistoric ancestors would teeter on rickety ladders to swipe honeycomb from wild bees nesting in cliff faces. In this Gastropod episode listen to author Gene Kritsky introduce us to the cave painting in the Cuevas de la Araña (“Spider Caves”) in Bicorp, Spain that is the oldest evidence of humans’ love affair with honey.

 

 

You can view the honey hunting rock painting in Cuevas de la Araña, or Spider Caves, in Bicorp, near Valencia, Spain. 

For more details visit their museum website: http://www.ecomuseodebicorp.com/

 

 

 



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The saffron harvest
18 November 2019

Saffron is a tradition that is re-emerging. One of the most expensive products in the world, it is making a comeback in modern cuisine. Pepper, cloves, cayenne... names that invoke flavours and smells that stimulate the senses, that form a part of Spain’s most traditional cuisine and play an essential role in the healthy Mediterranean diet. 

Towards the end of October, at dawn in the fields of La Mancha in Spain, one can start to see a surprising carpet of violet-blue. It is the first sign of the ephemeral saffron harvest, the plant Crocus Sativus, that for a period of fifteen days will yield a crop appreciated as much as gold. The flowers are picked manually between dawn and midday around this time of year - beginning of November - with fast twists of the thumb and index finger. Later, specialist workers remove the three fine red filaments at breathtaking speed. Each worker can manipulate between 10,000 and 12,000 flowers per day.

The saffron filaments, or stigmas, are subsequently "toasted" and dried over fire thus accentuating the aroma. They are now ready to be used. The figures concerning the saffron harvest are astonishing: five pounds (2.3 kg) of flowers are needed to obtain five ounces (143 gr) of finished product. In other words, 37 kg of flowers (approximately 70,000 flowers) yield half a kilo of this first class spice. It is not surprising that the farmers can charge €1800 a kilogram for their saffron and this can rise to €3000 on the open market. Without doubt one of the most expensive food products in the world - purple gold.

 

In their search for spices, men such as Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus set forth in the discovery of new worlds, and in the Middle Ages the so called "Spice Road" was of major economic importance to Old Europe.

Spices are a universe in themselves, and like all universes there is a King, Saffron. Saffron is a product that requires careful elaboration and intensive manual labour, extracting from the heart of the saffron flower (Crocus Sativus Linnaeus) this filament that later, when dried, gives such a delicate flavour.

Saffron is one of the most traditional and natural spices that one can find in Spanish cuisine, and to substitute it for chemical colourings that may be harmful to one's health is a crime, especially as they do not have the flavour and quality of authentic saffron. Amongst the immense variety of spices, saffron is the finest and most delicate. Its singular magic, sensual and inciting, gives unequalled aroma and colour to all gastronomic dishes where it is used. Revered since time immemorial, today saffron is the symbol of the best quality. To bring out the best of the saffron in stews, it should first and foremost be perfectly dry. Then the filaments should be ground in a mortar releasing the full aroma and giving a light red powder

Once ground, add a little stock or liquid from the stew to the mortar and stir. Once well diluted add the saffron to the stew for the latter stages of its preparation. Saffron enriches a wide variety of dishes, adding an appetizing colour and a sumptuous aroma and thus guarantees excellent results. 

Saffron in its filament form is the best guarantee of purity. A small quantity of strong clean filaments subsequently ground, add a delicious taste and colour to the widest range of dishes: paellas, stews, soups, pastas, baked fish, potato stews, pasta paellas, oxtail stews, rice dishes, yellow bean stews, prawns, sauces, fish soups - the list is endless.

Saffron is known to both give a healthy appetite and also help with digestion. It has also been attributed with helping to strengthen the heart, the liver and the respiratory tracts. In some parts of Spain saffron is still taken in small doses as an infusion or tea for its medicinal values. It is also used to rub the gums of teething babies to help calm the pains.

The famous Spanish doctor, Andrés Laguna, who worked considerably with saffron filaments, was convinced that taking regular small quantities of the spice lightened the heart. The frequent use of saffron filaments in cooking is due, in part, to the aroma but more importantly the colour it gives to dishes. In so many recipes of the Spanish cuisine it is essential to add a few saffron filaments ground in a mortar.

It is also frequently used in French and Italian dishes and extensively in oriental food. Saffron works so well with fish, meat, pasta and rice, and is used to colour cheeses. As a spice it is found on the market in filament form or ground as a powder. In the form of Filaments ensures that the saffron has not been tampered with. Grind with a little salt in a mortar to release a maximum aroma and colour in the food preparation.

Historically saffron has been considered as a luxury product. For this reason it has been the spice that has incited adventure, journeys by sea and by land to the Orient. Many ancient civilizations made perfumes from saffron that were used in religious ceremonies and other occasions. The Romans perfumed their baths with saffron. Its presence signified opulence and refinement and when Nero made his triumphal entrance in Rome as Prince of the Empire, the streets of the city were carpeted with saffron. It was the highest homage that could be paid.

When the Arabs settled in the Spanish Peninsular they introduced the cultivation of saffron, which rapidly became the most abundant spice in Europe.

 

     

 

Saffron harvesting in Castilla, Spain from Mary Adeline Royal



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Whale Watching in Spain
15 November 2019

 

Argentina, Scotland, Canada, the Antarctica… and, Mazarrón! There are many destinations where you can spot large cetaceans such as whales, but none so near and so economically as on the coast of Murcia. From the harbour of Mazarrón itself you can lift the anchor of a yacht and sail away with the wind behind you, to spot these mammals. Although it is more common to see species such as the striped, Atlantic bottlenose and short-beaked common dolphins, if you are lucky, you may also see sperm whales or even fin whales. The adventure is even more attractive if you add the cuisine and wide range of leisure activities offered by the coast of Murcia. Irresistible.

 

 

The coast of Murcia, Almería and Cadiz is one of the few places in Spain where it is still possible to feel the excitement of whale spotting. This is because there is practically no continental shelf in this area; in other words, the deep water (between 2,000 and 2,500 metres), which is precisely the habitat this marine species needs, is very near the coast. This, accompanied by a benign climate that guarantees smooth sailing is the perfect combination for converting the experience into a great marine adventure.

 

 

Your search for the kings of the sea can either start in the Port of Mazarrón or in Cartagena, where you can set sail towards deep water. Throughout the whole trip you need to keep your eyes glued to the horizon and, as time the animals appear, listen to the crew's explanations as though it were a biology class. You will probably see dolphins (the striped, Atlantic bottlenose and short-beaked common species) or long-finned pilot whales (which can grow to a length of between 4 and 6 metres) but if you are lucky, you might see large cetaceans such as sperm whales or fin whales along the way. The latter do not usually live in these waters but use them as a migration area, meaning they are slightly more difficult to spot. You will need to increase your camera memory when you watch the dolphins playing around the prow of the boat or spot the back of a sperm whale (which can measure between 15 and 18 metres) appear under the surface - a unique experience.

 

 

To experience this adventure, you can choose excursions of between one and several days, depending on your budget and how long you want to spend enjoying the sea. On the one-day trips you sail in search of the animals and return to port the same morning; whereas on the two to five-day trips, besides spotting whales, the boats anchor in dreamlike coves so that you can have a swim, rest or do water sports like snorkelling, diving or kayaking. The final touch of the trip is the boat itself: you can sail on a fantastic yacht, the Karyam, or on board an old, reconverted fishing boat, the Osprey II - each is as charming as each other. 

 

 

As if the excitement with the whale adventure were not enough, once you are back on dry land Cartagena and Mazarrón have a lot to offer you. While in the first town you can immerse yourself in its numerous history-filled nooks and crannies, such as the Púnica Wall or the Teatro Romano, in the second, you can enjoy fishing culture in the area by visiting, for example, the impressive fish market.

And since it is impossible to visit Murcia without trying its tasty seafood and vegetable-based cuisine, we suggest you end your trip with a culinary offering. Grouper from Mazarrón with potatoes and ajotomate (with sweet paprika and ground cumin), hake meatballs, Mazarrón-style migas (fried breadcrumbs with spicy sausage and bacon) or Bolnuevo torrijas (French toast) are just some of the area's irresistible specialities. You can try them at Restaurante Miramar in the Port of Mazarrón, will not let you down, especially if you want to try arroz a banda or grilled squid. If you prefer to eat in Cartagena, you can go to La Catedral in Plaza Condesa de Peralta, very near the harbour, where the cod in tomato and garlic mousseline au gratin are simply delicious.

 

If you are interested here is the link with more information :

http://www.cetaceosynavegacion.com



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How Pharmacies used to be...
29 October 2019

 

The pharmacy of today is sterile, white and efficient. Each medicine bottle or box is the same, and patients make their way in and out without lingering. However, 500 years ago, the local pharmacy was less science and more art, and the Esteve Pharmacy Museum in Llívia, Spain captures this ideal in the vibrant colors and luxury of a medieval European apothecary.

Established in the 15th century, the Esteve Pharmacy is one of the oldest in Europe. Since 1965 it has only housed the museum, but in its heyday, it attracted patients from across the region for medical treatment and drugs. Before the days of the child-locked pill container, remedies were kept in albarellos, a type of painted pottery that was sealed with parchment or leather.


Today, the museum has a large collection of the albarellos, including 87 rare blue albarellos that were modernized and include painted labels of the drugs they contained. Along with the beautiful storage jars, the museum also features a gaudy baroque cupboard that looks more fitting for a king’s kitchen than a medieval clinic. The contrasts between the museum and modern pharmacies are striking, and the Esteve Pharmacy is a fascinating look into the artful world of medieval medicine.



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700 metres above sea level
25 October 2019

 

Casar de Burbia is a family winery located in a historic region with the protected designation of origin "El Bierzo", and they are devoted to producing red wines from their own vineyards.

The Fernandez Bello family started to produce wine in the ’80s by purchasing vineyards in the mountainous zones and highest areas of the valley, in Valtuille de Arriba (Leon).

The most significant assets of the winery are undoubtedly it's 27 hectares of vineyards surrounding the road to Santiago.

When the Fernández Bello family began to buy old vineyards in 1989, those on the mountain of Valtuille de Arriba were suffering gradual and evident neglect due to their limited production compared to the fertile valley. However, the value of these vineyards is currently unquestionable, both due to its steep slopes facing towards the sun, which drains any possible accumulation of excess water, as well as its altitude above 700 m, which provides a significant temperature difference between night and day.

The old vineyards needed to be regenerated since over 30 % of them were planted with white vines, mostly Palomino, a variety with little enological quality. The winery began a hard job which lasted 7 years, during which over 9,000 plants were grafted in the old existing roots. Using the most traditional grafting techniques in the zone, the 'Meseta graft', the white varieties were replaced with the blue-ribbon variety in the area, Mencia. All this effort, now bearing fruit, meant a regeneration of vineyards which was unmatched in El Bierzo region. One of the fruits of all this hard work was TEBAIDA -

 

 

TEBAIDA -  Casar de Burbia

 

D.O. Bierzo Red Aged minimum 16 months in French (Allier and Troncais) oak barrels 100% old-vine Mencía grapes
• Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (June 2009)- 91+ points

• Wine & Spirits Magazine 2009 - 91 points

• Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar (91 puntos)

• Peñín Guide 2010 (Tebaida 2007) - 92 points

• Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (April 2008)- 92 points

• Peñín Guide 2009 (Tebaida 2006) - 91 points

 

 

Tebaida is made from a selection of the grapes from the different estates of Viña  San Salvador,  El Castañal, and Viña Sapita, which boast some of the bodega’s richest vineyards owing to their altitude at over 700 metres above sea-level, their orientation and their century-old status.

The terroir, typical of these estates, is more extreme and largely made up of slate with traces of other minerals such as iron and aluminium.

Harvesting is carried out by hand, as is the crushing process. Alcoholic fermentation takes place at a temperature of 24-25ºC in 5.000-litre capacity stainless steel vats, where extraction is maximised to the full. The wine is then subject to malolactic fermentation in French (Allier and Troncais) oak barrels, and aged for a minimum of 16 months.



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Europe's oldest Synagogue is in Spain.
14 October 2019

The Ancient Synagogue of Barcelona, is located in the centre of Barcelona. It is believed to be  the oldest synagogue in Europe. Archaeological investigations show that the original structure of the building was built in the third or fourth century; whether this structure was the synagogue cannot be said with certainty. After many centuries of use for other purposes, the building re-opened as a synagogue and museum in 2002. No congregation prays regularly at the Sinagoga Major, but it is used for festive occasions. The building was significantly expanded during the 13th century. Medieval Barcelona is known to have had several synagogues, and the main synagogue was certainly in the immediate area. King James I visited the synagogue in 1263 at the conclusion of the Barcelona Disputation. Shlomo ben Aderet served as the rabbi of the Sinagoga Major for 50 years.  

  

It is believed that the original building was freestanding. To the north, it adjoined with what was then Escola Mayor Street and to the east with Marlet Street. The building ran southerly along “de les Dones” Street, where in the 19th century a narrow edifice was built. To the west there was probably an atrium, the site where later, around the 17th century, the stairs to the present-day building were erected. In the northern exterior wall, there is an effigy of Santo Domingo. Emblematic buildings in the Jewish Quarters were christianized with the effigy of a saint. The bloodiest day in the history of Barcelona’s Jewish community was August 5, 1391. On that day, the day celebrated as Santo Domingo, the Quarters were attacked.

 

After the uprising, the street name was changed to Sant Doménec. The building, along with all of the community’s belongings, passed into the hands of the king.

We find ourselves before a building whose foundations date back to Roman times. In addition, there are superimposed high-medieval constructions and a central structure from the 13th century. Also visible are 17th century modifications made when the upper level apartments were built.

At the end of 1995, the former owner put the property up for sale. The space was to be utilized as a bar. Before this lametable eventuality, Mr. Iaffa decided to purchase the property with the hope of bringing to light its historic past and preserving it from a use which would not dignify its extensive past.

Thus began the collaboration between Mr. Riera and Mr. Iaffa, with a common objective: to salvage a significant period of Catalan history from oblivion through the rehabilitation of the former Major Synagogue space.

 



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The Royal Quartet
09 October 2019

 

Among the ornate rooms and historic artworks at the Royal Palace of Madrid is a surprise for anyone who wants to catch a glimpse of music history.

Known as the Royal Quartet, the foursome of stringed instruments kept at the palace are unique examples of the work of Antonio Stradivarius, the renowned Italian instrument maker. The Royal Palace’s quartet—two violins, a cello, and a viola—are among the eleven decorated Stradivaris in known existence. 

The ivory-inlaid quartet were offered as gifts to King Felipe V in 1702 by Stradivarius, and are the only set of decorated instruments the master is known to have made. The quartet was originally a quintet and contained another viola. Both violas were stolen by French troops during the Napoleonic wars; one was recovered in the 1950s, but the other remains missing today. 

 

For most Palace visitors, the quartet is a look-but-don’t-touch experience. One group is an exception, though. The Royal Palace hosts public concerts featuring their quartet-in-residence, Cuarteto Quiroga, where visitors can see and hear these rare instruments in action. “They were created in order to make music,” explained music adviser Álvaro Guibert, “so not playing them would be denying them their fulfillment.” Since being reunited with the stolen viola, the quartet has never left the Royal Palace, and according to Guibert never will again.

A Stradivarius is among the most coveted items in the world, considered to be the best-stringed instrument ever created. The violins, violas and cellos produced by the Stradivari family during the 17th and 18th centuries are prized for their remarkable sound and incredible craftsmanship, and a new study explores the possible techniques used by Antonio Stradivari. 

A Stradivarius in pristine condition can fetch millions of dollars. In 2011, a Stradivarius violin made in 1721, named Lady Blunt after Lord Byron's granddaughter, Lady Ann Blunt, was sold at a charity auction for $15,9 M The money collected during the auction went to Japanese earthquake relief funds. 

Approximately only 600 string instruments made by Stradivari are still known to exist...

 



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Astorga, Leon's little-known treasure.
03 October 2019


Astorga is the place where two of Spain's most important cultural routes converge: the Way of Saint James and the Silver Route. With over 2,000 years of history, this city in Castile-León is home to a surprising monumental site, where Renaissance cathedrals and Roman baths jostle with the modernism of Gaudí.

To discover Astorga you have to head for the province of León, in northwestern Spain. It is located just 45 kilometres from the city of the same name, León, in a region known as La Maragatería. After being conquered by the Romans, the town became an important strategic centre, mainly on account of the area's wealth in deposits of gold. The heritage of that period and the remains of the mines themselves are some of the attractions you will find in Astorga, but not the only ones.

 

 

The first thing you will notice when you get to the town is the view of two of its most important monuments, Santa María Cathedral and the Episcopal Palace. The two buildings are set side by side and are surrounded by a Roman defensive wall which is in an excellent state of conservation. Take a close look, because the Cathedral is a beautiful synthesis of styles, with elements ranging from Florid Gothic to Baroque and Renaissance. This is because construction work began in the 15th century and was not completed until the 18th. Another unusual aspect is the difference in colour of the two towers that flank the main entrance - one of them was affected by an earthquake in 1775 and took longer to be finished. Inside, be sure to admire the stunning main altarpiece and choir stalls.

 

 

Beside the Cathedral is the Episcopal Palace, designed by the famous modernist architect Antonio Gaudí. It is a neo-gothic building that looks like something out of a fairy tale. In the garden outside you will be welcomed by three angels in zinc, and inside you can visit the Los Caminos Museum, which has an interesting collection of items related with the Way of Saint James. Astorga is home to other interesting buildings, such as Casa Granell House and San Andrés Church.

Next, head for Plaza Mayor Square where you will find the baroque Town Hall and a traditional street market held every Tuesday morning. A visit to the town's Roman remains is also not to be missed. You will find remains of the forum, thermal baths, "domus" (houses), the imperial temple, the camp of the legion and the drainage network. In the ancient Ergastula (prison) you will now find the Roman Museum with statues, amphorae, jewellery and reliefs. To make sure you see everything, it is best first to visit the town's Tourist Office.

 

 

If you have more time, head out to one of the surrounding villages and discover the charm and character of the traditional architecture of the La Maragatería region. Castrillo de los Polvazares, for example, just 5 kilometres from Astorga, is home to a good representation, and we would also recommend you try the typical dish of the region: maragato casserole. You can also do the “Gold Route”, that will take you to different villages around the region in search of ancient Roman mines. Be sure to make a stop to discover Astorga. You will be pleasantly surprised.

 



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Over 100 interconnected wine cellars hide beneath this town...
18 September 2019

Aranda de Duero is a small town, where just about everywhere worth going is within walking distance. It takes about 30 minutes to walk from one end of the town to the other, but quite a bit longer if you choose to stop off to eat, drink, and socialise along the way—which is almost inevitable.

A provincial town about 150 kilometres (93 miles) from Madrid, Aranda is the capital of the Ribera del Duero wine region (which is also famous for its lamb dishes). While there are many interesting places to visit nearby—Roman ruins, castles, walled villages, and so on—what makes Aranda so unique is the extensive network of underground wine cellars that interconnect below the streets of the town centre. 

 

Used since the Middle Ages, there are currently about 135 cave-based wine cellars, or “bodegas,” under Aranda del Duero (many others have either collapsed or are no longer used for winemaking). The 5-mile-long network of caves is about 24 to 33 feet deep. Most of the cellars are interconnected and divided just by wooden doors.

     

Many of these cavernous wineries offer guided tours and tastings, and obviously, all will try to sell you their wine (which is hard to resist). The winery of Don Carlos, built in the 15th century, invites visitors to explore the cave as part of a performance by costumed actors. Various clubs ó “peñas,” celebrate special events in these cellars and these clubs are clearly marked at street level. With a total length of around 7 km and excavated at a depth of 13m, the underground cellars of Aranda form the main tourist attraction of the city and undoubtedly show us part of the history of the Ribera del Duero.

The economy of the town, closely linked to wine, forced the locals of the 14th and 15th centuries to dig the cellars under their houses producing this network of incredible tunnels that were originally destined for the conservation of wines.

The medieval wine cellars of Aranda have a constant temperature and humidity throughout the year (if you happen to visit in the hot months, make sure you bring a jacket)

They possess an ingenious construction called zarcera, thanks to this, the historical cellars enjoy an excellent ventilation coming from the outside. These characteristics, together with the absence of noise and vibrations, made the wineries the ideal place for the elaboration and conservation of local wines until well into the last century.

The bodegas were designated as ”Assets of Cultural Interest” by the Spanish Government in 2015. 

 

https://www.bodegasdearanda.com/en/visitas-y-catas/



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Almagro, the Heart of the Fields of Calatrava
11 September 2019

       Following the towns and castles of the Order of Calatrava, facades painted in white and indigo, vast expanses of vineyards and cereal crops, landscapes of endless red soil plains and constant references to Don Quixote are everywhere one looks. This is La Mancha and home to one of the most delicious aubergines you will ever try, however, this land has far more to offer than just a unique vegetable and to discover it, it is best to start in Daimiel, with a visit to the Las Tablas National Park.

What once used to be the hunting grounds of King Alfonso XII and his son Alfonso XIII is today a forest of rushes, cattails, sedge and reeds that is home to ducks, herons and frogs. A total of 250 bird species inhabit these wetlands, which spread over 2,000 hectares, located between the municipal districts of Daimiel and Villarrubia de Los Ojos. One must come well prepared: canteen, during the hottest months, and binoculars, at any time of year. They are fundamental for the close observation of every species of wildlife. To move on to the next destination we should take the CM-4107 road, which will take us all the way to Almagro, a road which is lined with typical farmhouses whitewashed up to their roofs and windmills that are much more modern than those which Don Quixote fought.

 

Almagro is a place that breaks from its surroundings. The town has been declared a Historical and Artistic Site and is therefore well worth visiting, in addition to conserving the same Manchegan essence as its neighbouring towns. It was the headquarters for the Order of Calatrava, an the first Cavalry Military Order founded in 1158 by the Catholic Church.

 

 

The Plaza Mayor (Main Square), a really beautiful site flanked by porticoes with Tuscan columns, is the starting point from which to discover this town. Replete with terraces where one can eat a snack, it is the ideal place in which to try some local aubergines, Pisto (ratatouille)  or Migas (fried breadcrumbs). The 16th century Town Hall can also be found in the square, in addition to its most prized treasure, the Corral de Comedias (open-air comedy theatre). A group of actors act as guides on a dramatised tour during which a voice-over narrates the story of the building. It was built in 1628 as a comedy inn-house and declared a National Monument in 1955.  

The Fúcares Warehouse is located very near the square, built in the 16th century by this wealthy German merchant family to store the grain stemming from the Maestrazgo's earnings and mercury from the Almadén mines. But Almagro's real distinguishing feature is its bobbin lace industry, a skill that requires extensive mastery and was introduced by the Fúcares Family in the 1600s and has continued ever since passing down the generations from mother to daughter. The Lace Museum exhibits one of the best textile collections in the world. The Madre de Dios Church, built in the 17th century in the Gothic style with Renaissance details, or Asunción de Calatrava Convent, built in 1519, are also well worth seeing. 

However Almagro is most well known outside of its borders for a very simple local speciality, it’s aubergines. The cooking, fermentation and dressing process give these vegetables a unique flavour.  They are collected before they are very ripe, so they are stored while still small and before they have taken on their characteristic purple colour. They are prepared, cooked, dressed with oil, vinegar, water, salt, paprika, cumin, a bay leaf, freshly ground pepper and garlic, and left to marinate until they are ready to eat and served cold. They may also be split in half and then stuffed with pepper paste and skewered with fennel sticks.

 

The delicious dressed Aubergine from Almagro, of the Solarum melongena variety, was originally part of the Arabic cuisine, which introduced this practice to the area, where it has been maintained ever since.

This characteristic dressing used for the aubergines was at first an excellent way of preserving seasonal food in a location that is not known for its vegetables. The gastronomical peculiarity of the aubergines from Almagro has crossed Spain’s borders, so some of them are reserved for export. It is a product that is directly identified with La Mancha and the sign of the Denomination of Origin guarantees their quality. They are a fantastic snack to accompany an ice-cold beer especially this time of year, even though we are being drenched at the moment with torrential rain!

 



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