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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...

Christmas Sweets
19 December 2016

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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The Alleys of Stone
13 December 2016

Forming a labyrinthian stone maze are the natural karst formations of the Los Callejones de Las Majadas or “Alleys of Stone.”

Besides the maze like set of “alleys” the stones also resemble bridges, arches, walkways, stone people, doors, plazas, and monoliths all named accordingly: the Dog, the Whale, and many more. The unusual rock formations were sculpted by slow differential erosion by wind and water over millions of years.

The twisting passageways are easy to get lost in, and so two main walkways are marked through the “alleys.”Cattle herders in the area have used the stone walls as natural cattle enclosures for hundreds of years, and in some places you can still see remaining pens.

 

Los Callejones de Las Majadas is in the Natural Park Sierra de Cuenca in Spain which is also home to a similar geological wonder the “Enchanted City” or Ciudad Encantada. The landscape is alien enough that it has served as the backdrop for fantasy films such as the 1969 Valley of Gwangi, and Conan the Barbarian in 1982. The whole park is an official "Natural Site of National Interest” in Spain and well worth a visit.



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Neandertals in Xàtiva
07 December 2016

No trip to Xàtiva is complete without a visit to the nearby Cova Negra, declared a Municipal Nature Park in 2006. Located in a narrow valley that runs along the river Albaida, the park covers 57 hectares of spectacular countryside that is home to a wealth of ecological and heritage assets, including the Cova Negra archaeological site. Declared a Cultural Heritage Site, the cave is fundamental in understanding European prehistory and how the Neanderthals lived.

 

 

A ramble through the Cova Negra landscape reveals the contrast between riverside and mountain flora. The river Albaida hosts communities of floating plants and is lined by riverside woods containing mature poplars and elms. Meanwhile, the mountain area is perfumed with the seductive scent of Mediterranean flora, including many aromatic herbs such as pebrella (Thymus piperella), a species of thyme that is endemic to Valencia.

 

 

The Cova Negra is particularly rich in bird life, and patient observers may be treated to the sight of Bonelli’s eagles, grey herons, purple herons, kingfishers and peregrine falcons during their stroll. However, the park also hosts a wealth of other fauna.

At the widest bend in the river Albaida lies the archaeological site of Cova Negra, named after the dark colour of its walls and once home to Neanderthals during the Palaeolithic Era. Human remains and paintings have been found inside, and the site is of fundamental importance in understanding Mousterian culture and how the Neanderthals lived. An exact reproduction of a parietal bone (part of the skull) from the era that was unearthed in the cave is exhibited in the Almodí Museum.

 

 

The region’s historical gem of hydraulic engineering, the Arcadetes d’Alboi aqueduct strides across the river Albaida on the way to Alboi. Of Gothic construction, although not yet documented, its nine pointed arches and two hundred metres of length stand testament to an earlier era when it supplied water to the city.

 

 

Les Arcadetes form part of the canal from Bellús to Xàtiva, a mediaeval watercourse that begins at the spring of Bellús. Listed as a Cultural Heritage Site at the beginning of century, it flows beside the Albaida River for ten kilometres. It is fascinating to seek out the respiralls, vertical, circular structures that connected the canal to the exterior during its underground sections. According to local legend, these were the brainchild of the intelligent daughter of the Muslim king of Xàtiva, and enabled water to flow along the entire route. However, her jealous brothers paid her for her ingenuity with death, an event commemorated by the two springs of crystalline water that then bubbled up at the site.

The Cova Negra park and the surroundings of Xàtiva in general are ideal for enjoying outdoor pursuits. Thanks to the numerous trails and paths that wind through the landscape, this is an unsurpassed area for hiking and mountain biking. Meanwhile, rock climbers will enjoy l’Aventador, a huge rock wall that has long been used for this sport.



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