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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...

Where is Columbus buried?
27 January 2015

 

Just inside the Cathedral door of Seville’s massive cathedral stands a monument to Christopher Columbus. His tomb is held aloft by four allegorical figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain during Columbus’ life, Castille, Aragon, Navara and Leon.

The tomb was one of the last additions to the cathedral, installed in 1899. It was designed by the sculptor Arturo Melida, and was originally installed in Havana before being moved to Seville after Spain lost control of Cuba.

Columbus’ body began its final rest in Valladolid, Spain where he died in 1506 at the age of 55. However this was not the end of his adventures. Initially he was buried in Valladolid, but was moved shortly thereafter to Seville, by orders of his son, Diego.  Diego, meanwhile travelled to the Dominican Republic to begin construction of a cathedral to hold his father's remains, in accordance with his final wishes. Unfortunately, Diego died in 1526 before he could make that happen, and he was, in turn, interred in Seville next to his father. Both father and son stayed there for another 16 years. When the Cathedral of Santa Maria was completed in the Dominican Republic, Diego's widow put organised to have both bodies moved there.

In 1542, the remains were again moved, this time to Colonial Santo Domingo, in what is now the Dominican Republic, where they joined the body of Christopher's brother, Bartholomew, who had died in Santo Domingo the year before. The body was laid to rest in the newly completed Cathedral, for a couple of centuries, at least.

Then, in 1795 when Spain lost control of the Dominican Republic, they took the explorer's body with them to the other Spanish stronghold in the Caribbean: Havana, Cuba.
100 years later, Columbus’s remans made their final voyage back home to Seville, and were placed in the Cathedral where you can visit him today.

Unfortunately, after all that effort, in 1877, back in the Dominican Republic, nearly a century late, a construction worker working on the Cathedral renovation uncovered a lead box inscribed with the words "The illustrious and excellent man, Don Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.”

At first pass, it seemed obvious that the Spanish must have, in their haste, taken the wrong box. But there's a catch - both father, Christopher, and son, Diego, were known as "Don Colon" in their lifetimes, and both held the same title "Admiral of the Ocean Sea".

By 1898, when the Spanish were pushed out of Cuba by the Americans, both the Spaniards and Dominicans had decided firmly that the remains in their own possession were the authentic item, and that the other must be holding onto the son. Therefore, in Seville an elaborate cathedral tomb was prepared for the explorer's return to his homeland, while in his adopted home another "official" tomb was planned.

 

 

It took the Dominicans somewhat longer to get their design act together. It was not until 1931 that a design competition was held, won by a Scottish architect who proposed the 688-foot long cruciform memorial complex that stands today and is known as the “Faro a Colon” – “Lighthouse for Columbus”. The building was barely ready by the 1992 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival, when the remains were finally interred, taking the whole “mañana” concept to a new level! 

In 2003, the controversy was tackled by DNA science, and the remains in Seville tested against known remains of Columbus' brother Diego and son Fernando. Although promising, the results are not conclusive, and thus far, the remains interred at the lighthouse in Santo Domingo Este have not been tested, so for now, the mystery endures.



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It's Cider Time!
20 January 2015

 

Basque cider makers produce around 10 million litres of cider every year, a figure that gives you some idea of the popularity of this exquisite drink. The season officially gets underway in January with a unique ritual organised by Gipuzkoa's producers at a sargadotegi (the Basque name for a cider cellar or bar), usually in the town of Astigarraga. Every year, a leading celebrity from Basque society, like a pelotari (pelota player) or some other famous sports personality, is given the job of pouring the season's first glass of cider. They do it directly from the kupela (barrel) to the cry of: ‘Gure Sagardo Berria’ (our new cider).  This marks the start of the new cider season, which lasts up to April or May. For the remainder of the year cider is still drunk, but in bottles, unless you go to a sagardotegi, where you can still be served directly from the barrel. 

There are currently around 70 operating cider cellars, most of which are concentrated in Gipuzkoa, especially in the region of Donostialdea, in the towns of Astigarraga, Hernani, Urnieta and Usúrbil, although you can also find some in Bizkaia and Araba. They all serve seasonal natural cider.

The most outstanding feature of the cider period is that the drink is poured directly from the kupelas, which are usually arranged around the dining room in the cider cellars or bars. The sagardoegile (cider maker) opens up the kupelas throughout the evening to the cry of “txotx!” and anyone who wants a drink just has to get up and take their glass over to the barrel. You need to remember that here you only pay for the glass, so you can drink all you like for the same price.

 

 

This custom began as a private tasting session for wholesale buyers, who used to go to the cider cellars to taste and choose the best drinks. Over time, the activity became popular and grew to become a gastronomy event that you can't miss if you're visiting the Basque Country. According to tradition, cider is always accompanied by cod omelette, fried cod with green peppers, chops and cheese with quince jelly and walnuts. A menu that is customarily eaten without a plate, sharing a single serving dish and standing up. This is the best way of enjoying this gastronomic and social ritual, although what you normally find in Basque cider cellars and bars are long tables with benches to sit on.

 



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Sweets over Christmas
01 January 2015

Perhaps the most traditional Christmas sweet in Spain is marzipan, a paste of almonds and sugar. There are various theories about its beginnings, although it is certain to have originated in the Mediterranean area, where almonds come from. The stories of the Thousand and one nights mention it as an aphrodisiac, and as a restorative during Ramadan. Others say it first came from convents, many of which still make it. When there was a wheat shortage after the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), the nuns began making these sweets with what they had in the larder: almonds and sugar. In Toledo, famous for its marzipan, they used to stamp an image of the King on his throne on the marzipan cakes, copying the city's crest. Curiously, "the King seated", in Arabic, sounds like mauthaban, very similar to the Spanish mazapán. So the debate continues.

 

 

What we can be sure of is that to eat the finest marzipan, you should go to this city in La Mancha, where you can also find traditional variations: anguilas or "eels" with an angel-hair squash filling, thought to have been first made for King Philip III as a gift for the King of Portugal; delicias in the form of a crescent moon, filled with egg paste; castañas, in the form of chestnuts, dipped in chocolate; and empiñonadas, covered in pine nuts.
 
Turrón also seems to have a Muslim origin. A mixture of almonds and honey, called turun, appears for the first time in the book De medicinis et cibis semplicibus, written by an 11th-century Arab doctor. In the 16th century, Philip II's royal cook, Don Francisco Martínez Montiño, comments in his book Conduchos de Navidad that Jijona smells of honey everywhere, because turrón is made in every household. In 1991 the Regulatory Council of the Designation of Jijona was formed, and although traditional turrón is made with almonds and honey, both abundant around Valencia, modern variations can include egg yolk, candied fruit or nuts.

 

As with most culinary inventions, mantecados or lard cakes also arose to meet a need. In the 16th century there was a surplus of pork lard and of cereals, particularly around Seville. In Estepa they decided to mix the lard and flour, adding olive oil, sugar and egg-white, to make mantecados.

Here there is no possibility of an Arab origin. According to their Protected Geographical Indication, mantecados originated in the Convent of Santa Clara in Estepa, where they were first made as flat cakes, and later as the little cakes we see today. Today they can include coconut, cinnamon, sesame seeds and even chocolate. The polvorón is a very similar sweet which was first made around the same time, but includes almonds.

 

 

Christmas meals with children, especially in Catalonia and Aragon, often finish with a type of chocolate-covered Swiss roll. At first sight it looks like a log, but it’s actually a cake filled with cream, the Tronco de Navidad. No-one is sure why these two regions in north-eastern Spain borrowed the Buche de Noel from their French neighbours, who in turn took the idea from the Nordic tradition of the Yule log, where in the northern hemisphere a tree-trunk was burned at the winter solstice between 20 and 23 December as a symbol of prosperity. Like the cake, the log was decorated with flowers, pieces of orange and nuts. In Great Britain, Belgium, and then France, many people took up the tradition of the Yule log, but it fell from favour when enclosed stoves began to be used for heating. A French cake-maker found a solution with this dessert, which quickly became popular in the late 19th century.

 

 

And finally we come to the cake that ends the Christmas season in Spain on 5 or 6 January, depending on the customs of each household: roscón de Reyes. The first people to eat a ring-shaped cake were the Romans, during Saturnalia, also known as the slaves' holiday, because they didn’t have to work. A broad bean would be hidden inside the cake, a symbol of the prosperity that would come in Spring, and of Saturn, the god of agriculture. They spread the tradition all over Europe, but after the arrival of Christianity it endured only in France, where the royal household made the cake with a coin hidden inside. These days it remains a firm tradition in much of Spain, especially in Madrid, accompanied by hot chocolate, and in Latin American countries such as Mexico. 



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