Posts Tagged ‘Tourism’

5390764898_f401fa9c11_oWE CALL it guerrilla cooking. You’re in a place that’s not your own, the knives are blunt, the pan handles wobble and food clings to the non-stick pans like barnacles to a rock.

If you’re lucky, the batterie de cuisine might include a potato peeler, a sieve, a couple of wooden spoons and a plastic cutting board.

There’s never enough counter space, the lighting is inadequate and the store cupboard – if it contains anything – will likely be the last resting place of herbs and spices that have long since departed from useful culinary purpose.

Our apartment at the Seminario here in Leon, Spain, sits at the luxurious end of the scale of meeting hunter-gatherer needs.

It has a two-burner induction hob, one large, one small and a microwave oven – great for warming plates. There’s no grill, no toaster, no oven and the big saucepan takes up so much room that the second hob plate can’t be used; the other pans simply don’t fit.

I’m not complaining. It feels good to be adaptable, to slough off the need for mixers, blenders and drawers full of gadgets and to get back to a simpler form of cooking.

For inspiration you need look no further than this corner of Spain for a great tradition of one-pot dishes, soup-stews using local ingredients that can be prepared with the minimum of fuss.

It all begins in the market and a search for, in my case, the makings of a fabada, a pork and beans concoction loved by urban cowboys everywhere.

There are lots of variations including some that make use of pig’s trotters, ears and tails, but for my dish I bought direct from the farmer a ready-made meat pack specifically for such a stew. It contained a slab of pork, richly layered with fat, a chunk of salty bacon, some black pudding and a chorizo sausage.

At least as important as the meat are the beans. Cookery writer Elizabeth Luard explains in her book – The Cooking of Spain – that the original faba of the fabada were broad beans until, somewhere along the way, they were supplanted by haricot beans from the New World.

We found them at the market although, when I heard the price, I fear I blanched more than the beans. They were an eye-watering 12 euros a kilo – an incentive, if ever there was one, to grow your own.

I bought half a kilo and then only needed half of them to add to my stew. The plump capsules cooked up a treat, absorbing flavor, delivering a silky texture and all the while holding their shape.

When I’ve made bean stews in the past it’s not uncommon, especially with butter beans, for them to break down into an unappetizing slush. Not these, even on reheating, which is essential with a fabada, a dish that is great on the first day, better on the second and even better on the third. Buen provecho!



36609180173_a679c4901a_oIF SECULAR Spain has the equivalent of a sacred ritual it’s the “Ir de tapas” hours that span the time between the end of the working day and the start of the evening meal.

Tides of people are drawn by the gastronomic gravity of bar snacks that can be as simple as a disc of bread topped with serrano ham or as exotic as cow’s lips in an oily tomato and onion sauce.

Even if you’re aware of the peculiarities of the Spanish working day it can still be perplexing to be in a place where streets and bars are teeming with people one minute and then, as if by some invisible signal, empty the next.

Most Spaniards start their jobs at 9am, finish at 1.30pm then resume work from 5pm until 8pm.

Lunch is the main meal of the day, usually served around 2.30pm, so a couple of tapas might be squeezed in before then, but the main time for socializing and bar-snacking is in the evening.

Between 8pm and dinner time the bars fill-up, animated conversations begin, the volume rises. Points are driven home with wagging fingers, and expansive gestures give emphasis to argument. It’s all good-natured even if it seems, at times, that things are getting heated.


The bars tend to be on the small side so people stand, tightly-packed at the counter, or perch drinks, snacks and elbows on shelving tacked to the wall.

Drifts of discarded napkins are a good sign and not an indication of slovenly bar staff.  Lots of litter attests to high turnover and a place the locals like. That, in turn, means the food is good and the price is right.

Here in León, the tapas are still free if you buy a drink – a small beer or caña opens the door to a variety of appetizers; sometimes you get to choose from what’s on offer and others you take what comes.

Jamón Jamón, round the corner from our apartment, only ever has one tapa – a hunk of bread topped with ham, chorizo, salami and a slice of manchego cheese.

It’s always lively and they serve really good wines as well as beer. Albariño from Galicia is the pick of the whites, while the local red Bierzo is well-liked. Measures are generous and two drinks with tapas will cost around 3.50 euros.

Another good pitstop is Bar Rua 11 where the local specialty is what we would call blood sausage (morcilla) though it’s not served in a sausage casing, nor is it sausage-like.

It’s black, it’s shiny and the texture is more akin to that of bread sauce mixed with diced onion.

It’ll be served spread across a flat plate, topped with toasted pine nuts and accompanied by a side of apple sauce. If you want to blend in, make a barco (boat) with the ever-present slabs of crusty fresh bread and mop up any residue.

Some places are as much about atmosphere as tapas and La Cantina is one. It’s a scruffy place of rough walls and gloomy corners watched over by a host whose previous job was surely as a circus strongman.

He likes to see things done in the traditional way so the tapas are all made in-house with no concessions to faddy customers. It was here that I had meltingly soft pillows of kidney in a rich tomato stew and sampled tripe in an unctuous sauce.

It’s also where I had cow’s nose (morros), complete with nasal bristles that hadn’t been adequately removed, in a greasy pool of oil and fat.

I won’t name the place where the tapa purported to be paella but tasted like it came out of an Uncle Ben’s packet; it was a rare lapse in the fields of grazing pleasure.

37376832246_bcc459d120_oA FORTNIGHT seems like a good interval to take stock of settling into the medieval city of Leon, seat of kings and home to the magnificent Gothic pile that is the 13th Century cathedral.

lt’s enough time to begin to slot into the rhythms of life here in Spain, but not so long that the new has faded into commonplace and routine.

We’re housed in a former seminary at the heart of the old city, an austere, three-storey brick building of whitewashed interior walls and long corridors.

From each hallway doors lead into bijou, studio apartments with a kitchen-diner, a TV and couch area, and a bedroom.

Were these the cells of theological students preparing for the priesthood? Maybe not, but I like to think so as the reverent atmosphere of the past pervades the present.

From the high-set window on our east side the sun rises over a distant escarpment on which well-appointed homes are perched.

To the west, pantile-roofs in multiple hues from brick-red to creamy mustard provide a foundation for cerulean skies streaked with cirrus cloud and the occasional jet contrail.

The towering doors to this edifice open with an electronic key and lead to streets of glistening paviors and cobbles hosed down every day, before sunrise, by a small army of municipal workers.

The street pattern is a chaotic, labyrinthine delight. It’s a world away from the rigid grid system of American cities and it invites exploration: That looks interesting! What’s around the next corner? Where does that alleyway lead?

37336663322_98f7788228_oThe oldest streets are narrow and fringed with small shops and bars, lots and lots of bars. One small plaza nearby has been entirely taken over – there are 16 in total and all seem to be thriving.

Unlike the centers of some tourist cities this one still has a community of locals at its heart and multiple small shops to serve their needs.

Everything is walkable; within a few hundred yards there are four or five fishmongers, several butchers, multiple grocery stores, there’s a twice-weekly farmers’ market – and all the produce is of the highest quality.

Service vehicles and residents with cars, electric bikes and scooters still trundle through the narrow streets and while it would be better if the whole of the old city was pedestrianized it’s as good a compromise as you’ll find in balancing needs.

The city has its roots in Roman times. They based a 6,000-strong legion here and much of the impressively thick stone wall they built to surround their camp remains.

They are even credited with giving the city its name, albeit inadvertently, Leon being a verbal Spanish contraction of the word Legion.

The walls are a good navigation aid in a place where it’s easy to get turned around and glimpses of the cathedral are useful orientation points too. If all else fails, walking up the gentle inclines in the back streets generally returns you to the main areas.

Leon has one foot in the past and one foot in the future. If we’re to reduce our dependence on cars in the coming years this city, a key stopping point on the Camino de Santiago, may offer a pathway to how we organize ourselves in the future.


Leon, Spain,  October 1:- A FOREST of flagpoles is being raised when I arrive at Plaza San Marcos for the opening sequence of the day’s San Froilan Fiesta.

Some spars are still on the ground, like trees downed after a storm, and around them stocky individuals put their brawn to use hauling the poles back to vertical.

It’s no easy task; the carved and fluted trunks are extremely heavy. Groups of two or three individuals set about manhandling them to the upright while others grasp guy-ropes to aid stability.

Each flag, colorful but limp on a thankfully cool morning without a breath of wind, represents an outlying village and there are scores of them.

Clustered around each are teams of supporters in bright, matching T-shirts. It’s their task to carry their respective flags through the streets and up the incline to the Gothic masterpiece that is Leon’s cathedral.

It’s a distance of about 1.5km and an easy 20-minute stroll – if you’re not carrying a 20+ft caber (and the size of your flagpole really counts when it comes to inter-village rivalry).

While it’s an honor to be a bearer it’s a physical burden and an emotional one too – you’re carrying the hopes and bragging rights of your community.

For the honoree, there’s a downturned hook on the spar that slots into the special belt that is worn.

Made of leather, it looks similar to those worn by weightlifters and does the same job, spreading the weight and offering some protection to the back muscles.

There’s a lot of stop-start shuffling as the parade comes to order and begins to move off. Keeping the pole from toppling requires good balance and hefty arm strength – muscles and sinews are already being tested.

37427168511_d28f893d6c_oMixed in with the flag-bearers are village musicians playing bagpipes, flutes, drums and clacking castanets. Alongside them are the dancers, the peacocks of the parade in their gorgeously, gaudy traditional costumes.

The señoras and señoritas all wear floral headscarves that are a riot of color. Shoulders are clad in expensive and elaborately decorated silk mantillas, edged with playful tassels.

Tight-waisted, flared skirts come in two styles, either richly embroidered or in bold colors with black banding. Shiny brooches, pins and earrings add to the dazzling display.

While the dancers delight with their intricate footwork and whirling skirts of kaleidoscopic color the flagbearers toil.

It’s getting warmer by the minute; the parade has concertinaed to another halt for no apparent reason and the strain is beginning to tell.

A wobble here, a teeter there and the wisdom of having guy-rope holders comes into play. They have to be alert and they have to be quick. A dart to the right to counter-balance the leaning pole, then a tug to the left as the adjustment overcompensates.

36717400174_dd03974bb9_oAt the foot of this giant toothpick, muscles are aching, lactic acid is building up, the full realization of the undertaking is starting to sink in.

The incline to the cathedral is not in the realms of Golgotha, though some of the more severe Catholics might wish it so, it’s a steady, gentle slope.

The route runs along the former Roman road, Calle Ancha, the prime section and every inch of viewing space has been claimed.

You can almost hear the inner voice of the pole-bearers as they slog through the throng: “Come on! Don’t falter now, not in front of all these people.”

But falter one did, only a few yards shy of the finish. The shaft lurched precariously, was arrested and then teetered in another direction. Another correction, a struggling for mastery, but the pole had the beating of him.

Fellow team members swooped in, steadied the shaft and decoupled the fatigued bearer from his agony. He looked crestfallen but was met with sympathy from the crowd. And, of course, there’s always next year.



228401493_54bf1f1a6b_oSpain’s normally wet northwest corner is in trouble amid the grip of a third year of drought which threatens profound consequences for the region’s economy.

Average temperatures are up, rain levels are down and the expected meteorological trend is for that to be the new normal.

For farmers, who have suffered dry winters and parched summers it’s a disastrous outlook.

For the tourism industry based around the Camino de Santiago it means increasingly tense discussions over allocation of water resources.

In 1986, the number of pilgrims completing the walk and receiving the Compostela certificate was fewer than 2,500, according to the Confraternity of St James.

Last year that number had risen to more than 270,000; thousands more either didn’t finish in Santiago or didn’t request the Compostela.

The city of Leon, where I’m based for the next three months, is one of the main stages on the Camino. Its principal reservoir, the Barrios de Luna, is currently at just 7% of capacity.

Cuts to some 35,000 hectares of irrigated crops have already been initiated and even where they can be saved, lower yields will mean higher prices.

Water scarcity is an increasing problem across the country. This year has been the third driest on record, after 1981 and 2005, and the conflicting needs of agriculture and tourism are set to become ever more contentious.