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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...

Drought in Spain...
21 November 2017

Reservoirs without water, expansive desert–like fields, lost crops, and wildfires. These are all symptoms of the persistent drought in Spain. The reservoirs are at their lowest levels since the 1990s. Those along the Segura river, which flows through Albacete, Murcia, Alicante and Almería, have reached alarming lows.

The European Environment Agency published a report early this year warning about the impact that climate change would have on the Mediterranean region of the continent, which is more exposed to global warming.
Many of these effects are already underway: reduced rainfall, wildfires, and heat waves that increase demand for air conditioning. The reservoirs at the head of the Tagus River are also at rock-bottom levels. Residents who live near the Entrepeñas and Buendía reservoirs, in Guadalajara province, want to protect their most precious asset.

But droughts are not just a Spanish problem. It is spreading all over the world. According to the United Nations, by 2050 at least a quarter of the planet's population will live in countries with a scarcity of this vital resource. Take a look at these alarming photos of scenes throughout Spain...

 

 

 


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Dinner is served!
14 November 2017

The Royal Palace in Madrid, has recently restored the royal kitchens are now open to the public. However this is no ordinary visit: these are the oldest well-preserved kitchens of all the royal palaces in Europe. 

There are older ones, and ones that were bigger and better equipped, but they were all lost through indolence or renovations. The Italian architect Juan Bautista Sachetti designed these kitchens in 1737, and they were capable of turning out elaborate royal menus with as many as 42 entrees. The king could not, of course, eat everything, so the leftover delicacies would trickle down to feed his legion of servants and courtiers.

Enormous copper kettles, stone sinks the size of a bathtub, cold stores from the days of Alfonso XII, a large pot shaped like a turbot, cutting tables and knife holders, vegetable wringers, trays, ceramics and giant mortars... this is just a taste of what visitors will find inside.

The royal kitchens operated uninterruptedly for three centuries, but the last time that cooking took place there on a daily basis was during the Republic. Since then, these 800 square meters have been used to cater specific events held at the palace, including the 2004 wedding of Spain’s King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia.

The current appearance of these rooms is the work of Queen Isabel II, who last redecorated them, although they also contain some changes made by her son and grandson, the Alfonsos, and some other items from previous centuries, for a total of 2,625 objects.

In the catalogue of the exhibition, written by the curator José Luis Sancho, there is a description of the kitchens by Luis de la Peña Onetti, who was a guard for Alfonso XIII. “It was certainly worth admiring the spectacle of those spacious buildings, full of old and modern china and utensils, where the copper accentuated its bright color. All this was cleaned and well organized by a small army of cooks led by the head chef…”

Royal Palace curator Pilar Benito discussed details and anecdotes at the presentation of the kitchens, including stories about Alfonso XII’s taste for roast beef, and the many diners who made use of what was cooked in the Royal Palace. The whole court took advantage of those kitchens and the food that the king rejected. And although there was a lot of French food served, there was never any shortage of cocido, that most Madrileño of stews.



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Purple Gold
07 November 2017

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 on Vimeo.



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Aliens have landed!
02 November 2017

Gooseneck barnacles, known as Percebes in Spanish, are so called because of their resemblance to a goose’s neck and head but could easily be mistaken for alien beings. This barnacle forms dense colonies in crevices on rocky shores with strong waves. Barnacles anchor themselves to rocks by a tough, flexible stalk (peduncle), which also contains the ovaries. This is actually their “head” end.

 

Once the gooseneck barnacle has attached itself to an object, it secretes a series of pale plates at the end of its stalk, forming a shell around its featherlike legs, which comb through the water for food. The legs face away from the sea, enabling the barnacle to feed by filtering out particles of detritus from returning tidal water as it funnels past them through cracks in the rocks. Gooseneck barnacles become sexually mature at about five years of age and may live for up to 20 years. The larval stage is free-living but depends on sea currents for its transport and survival. Colonies of gooseneck barnacles are susceptible to the damaging effects of oil pollution and they recover only slowly from disturbance.


On northern Spain’s Coast of Death local men (percebeiros) risk their lives searching the jagged cliffs for gooseneck barnacles, a rare delicacy for which consumers will shell out hundreds of euros. It is here, where the roaring surf crashes wildly on to the rocks where the largest and fattest examples – the ones that bring in the most money – grow.

Galicia is a relatively poor region of Spain: there are few jobs and none that pay well. The shipbuilding industry, once the pride of Galicia, is in ruins, and the sea is overfished. Hunting for gooseneck barnacles is one of the few ways in which to earn money. Gourmets pay a high price for the rare stalked crustaceans: in a restaurant a plateful can cost €100. On the eve of important festivities, fishermen can make up to €300 per kilo at auction – with luck they can earn €1,000 in a day. But the stakes they play for are high; this is a dangerous way to make a living.

The Costa de la Muerte, the Coast of Death, is the region between the fishing village of Malpica in the north and Cape Finisterre, so called because of tricky northwesterlies and barely concealed rocks, which have often proved fatal for fishermen and seafarers. One of the worst tragedies occurred in 1595, when 25 ships of the Spanish Armada were hit by a storm and 1,705 sailors died. In the past five centuries more than 500 ships have capsized and thousands of seamen drowned. Many of these were ‘percebeiros’. On average, five fishermen die every year.

Conditions must be perfect to harvest gooseneck barnacles: good weather, a quiet sea and the right point in the lunar cycle. Spring tides and a particularly low ebb happen every two weeks, with a full and a new moon; at all other times the long-necked barnacles are under water. The lower the sea level, the better, as the barnacles usually live below the waterline, where they are safe from predators.

Barnacles are a genus of primitive invertebrates that have populated the oceans for 500 million years. Unlike other crustaceans, they cannot move. The larvae stick themselves firmly to rocks with their cement glands, and use the tentacles in their mouthparts to collect the plankton that is whipped up by the surf. In the mid-19th century Charles Darwin devoted eight years to studying a total of 10,000 specimens, which he arranged and classified in species and subspecies. This work helped him to develop his theory of evolution.

Firmly anchored on the rock face, gooseneck barnacles often live near mussels. But unlike these shellfish, they have resisted all attempts to breed them. Scientists suspect that they need the tides to survive, and it has proved impossible to recreate these conditions in a laboratory. They thrive in intertidal zones where there is particularly strong surf, so it is at these points that the best specimens, which fetch the highest prices at auction, can be found. Those that are easiest to reach, on the upper edge of the rocks, stay dry for too long during the ebb tide, and are as thin, mushy and tasteless as Moroccan gooseneck barnacles, which lack the mineral-rich Galician granite on which to flourish.

 

 

 

 About 400,000kg of barnacles, valued at €10 million, are handled annually. Gooseneck barnacles taste so intensely of the sea that the secret of their preparation is extremely simple: you put them in boiling water, ideally sea water, for a couple of minutes, without any other seasoning. Purists say you should be able to taste the waves of the surf and the plankton on which the crustacean has fed. You break open the shell – using the thumbnail of one hand, at the point between the stalk and the end that looks like a hoof – and twist the barnacle apart, then suck the flesh from the black shaft, a ¾in-1½in, orange-brown rod that tastes like a combination of crab, shrimp and oyster. You can also eat the barnacles raw. 

This video will give you an idea of what they go through to get these prized barnacles :

 



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