Food, part one (of many)

4 Jul

Today, July 4, marks my 90th day in the EU, most of which were spent in Spain.  I marked Day 90 on the calendar because I entered the EU on a Shengen 90-day tourist visa, and if I wasn’t able to gain legal residency before today, I would have to leave all Shengen territories for another 90 days.  We prepared as well as we could for all the paperwork and bureaucracy we’d have to endure, and hoped for the best.  It went even more smoothly than either of us could have imagined!  Both of us were in the system as legal residents before we had completed a month here.  The FSM must have smiled upon us.

Aside from July 4 being my 90-day mark, this day is nothing special here in Spain, but it feels a bit like a day off anyway, since Rob is home sick, so I am taking a bit of time to do some reflection.

I’m long overdue for an entry about the food here.  We had two months to explore many local restaurants while we waited for our shipping container to arrive with our kitchen supplies to start making food at home. The options for eating out are surprisingly heterogeneous.  Spanish and Italian restaurants are incredibly common, which all offer quite a bit of meat (mostly pork), cheese, and starch.  Cuisine from other cultures is much more rare; it requires more effort to find it, so it becomes a special occasion food.  It’s rare to find many vegetables on your plate in the standard cuisine, and while vegan/vegetarian food can be found, it’s often not an option unless you go to a specialty restaurant that caters to vegetarians.  As a former vegetarian who still likes to eat lots of veggies and whole grains, this has been difficult.  Rob has different restrictions for his healthy eating habits, doing the low-carb diet, which is equally difficult when every meal has at least one if not more of the abundant starches in Spanish food: rice, potatoes, and bread.

I don’t mean to imply, however, that we were not eating much, or had trouble finding food to eat.  We ate like we were on vacation, temporarily disregarding our normal standards for healthful eating, and we’ve both gained weight since we arrived because of it.

A sign advertising a cone of ham.

A cone of ham.

Spaniards love pork. I mean they REALLY love their pork. Especially with cheese. There is a huge variety of cheeses and forms of pork to choose from.  It’s impossible to remember them all, especially considering that they each have two names, one in Spanish and the other in Catalan, which makes it even harder to keep track of.  More than once I’ve thought to myself, “Am I ordering the same kind of sausage I had last time?  Or is it just listed here using the Catalan name for it, when last time, I ordered it by its Spanish name?”

Those of you who know me might remember that I’m sensitive to dairy and avoided it in the U.S.  It wasn’t too difficult to do while living in Portland, which is a haven for people with all kinds of dietary restrictions, especially vegetarians and vegans.  Once I arrived in Europe, however, I started experimenting.  This is in part because avoiding dairy is nearly impossible, and also because of wishful thinking; I wanted to be able to experience many of the foods here, especially the cheeses.  Surprisingly, amazingly, I haven’t reacted to it!  So I’ve been enjoying the amazing selection of cheeses offered by the shops at our local market.  And the delicate whole-wheat croissants from our local baker, slathered with the most amazing organic Italian butter that we get from the local health food store. (yes, we put more butter on our butter croissants!)  And café con leche, similar to a latte.  And gelato!  And and and… you can probably see now why I’ve gained some weight.

Just to come back to this dairy sensitivity issue, though, we’ve already hosted another visitor who is sensitive to dairy in the U.S. and can eat it without problems here, and I suspect that there are others as well. It raises questions about what the difference is between U.S. dairy and European dairy.  It’s very puzzling but I’m not complaining.

A plate with four different skewered tapas

Euskal (Basque-style, i.e. skewered) tapas


Some of my favorites here are:

  • patatas bravas – fried potato cubes with brava sauce, which is kind of a creamy, mildly spicy sauce, usually with a mayonaise base.  We use this dish as the canary in the coal mine when trying a new restaurant: if they can’t do patatas bravas right, then the rest of their food is probably not very good either.
  • jamon iberico – air-cured, acorn-fed ham, which is very dark in color with marbled fat, and has a very distinct flavor.  I didn’t like it at first, but it has grown on me over time.  It’s also quite expensive compared to other forms of ham.
  • pan con tomate – sliced bread, usually toasted, then smeared with smashed tomato and drizzled with olive oil.  Like French Toast, this practice seems to have originated from the need to make old, dry bread edible again.
  • tortilla – not the flat bread from Mexico, but a Spanish tortilla, which is sometimes translated as omelette because it’s basically a savory egg-cake.  It’s thick, moist, fluffy, and filling. The most common variety is made with sliced potatoes, however what restaurants put inside it varies.  This is a staple for us because it’s mostly protein, often vegetarian, and unless you get the potato variety, there’s no starch (although it’s usually served with pan con tomate).
  • Euskal tapas – this is not one food but a style of serving tapas. It’s served buffet-style, where you grab whatever you want, and collect the skewers on your plate, then they tally the number of skewers when you’re done to calculate the bill. This is one of the fastest ways to get tapas since there’s no wait for table service. Many Euskal tapas places will always include a slice of bread as the bottom layer, which Rob & I are not big fans of since we’re trying (with mixed success) to limit our carb intake; our favorite place, however, has several options without the bread, and a huge selection in general.
  • marscapone and blackberry jam – this flavor combination crops up quite a bit in desserts.  The blackberry jam is a fantastic complement to the mild, creamy marscapone cheese.  Our favorite gelato place makes a gelato with this flavor!
  • quince and brie – another common flavor combination. You can buy a shallow tray of dense quince jelly at many stores, and you can cut it into thick slices or cubes for serving.
  • pimientos rellenos* – there are many varieties of stuffed pimiento peppers, and all are delicious, but my two favorites from local restaurants are: (1) peppers stuffed with goat cheese with fig? quince? jam, and (2) peppers stuffed with minced mushrooms, baked in a cream sauce.
  • baked goat cheese salad – this dish takes a thick slice of a round of goat cheese, bakes it so that it gets a bit soft on the inside and crispy on the outside, and then served over a bed of lettuce, often sprinkled with nuts.
  • manchego – this is a somewhat mild but flavorful sheep’s milk cheese which is extremely common here.  Its firmness depends on how long it’s been cured, but typically it’s a little bit harder than block cheese in the U.S.
  • bikini – this is the Spanish equivalent to America’s grilled cheese sandwich.  Not a fancy grilled cheese.  Just plain ol’ sliced white bread, a slice of some standard cheese, and a slice of ham (what they call sweet ham, as opposed to salted/cured ham).  It’s very common, and often is one of the cheapest items on the menu.

The “bikini” is a grilled cheese sandwich with ham.

One thing I’ve been appreciating about Spanish cuisine is the meal schedule.  There are five meals a day.  Yes, five. Instead of eating 3 big meals, they have several smaller meals, just enough to hold you over for a few hours.  There’s breakfast (usually coffee & a pastry), mid-morning snack (there’s no name for it in Spanish, and I don’t know the name of it in Catalan), lunch, which is probably the largest meal of the day, late-afternoon snack (merienda), and dinner which is served around 9pm.  With the long daylight hours of summer, it doesn’t truly feel like dinner time until 8 or 9pm, and in the peak of summer, many people stay up late into the night when the temperature is mild, and sleep through the heat of the day.

Speaking of heat, we’ve been enjoying the different beverages served here that help make summer heat more tolerable:

  • sparkling mineral water – we’re completely addicted to this stuff.  I think they started carbonating water because tap water is so hard; it makes the hard water much more drinkable.  There’s a local brand called Vichy Catalan that is rather divisive because it’s so salty; some people love it, others hate it.  We love it, but it starts adding up quickly when you’re buying a lot of bottled sparkling water, so Rob ordered a Soda Stream which we’ve been using to carbonate filtered tap water.  It’s a great incentive to keep us hydrated.
  • gazpacho – this cold blended vegetable soup is usually served  in a bowl, but at home I drink it from a glass. It has a tomato base, with peppers and often cucumber as well. Some varieties are creamy, which is often achieved here not with cream but with almonds, which allows it to remain a viable option for anyone avoiding dairy. It’s a great way to replenish your electrolytes. We buy it by the bottle at the supermarket.
  • tinto de verano – red wine (tinto, which also means dye) and sparkling lemonade. Lemons are plentiful here, and they have potassium so it’s good for replenishing electrolytes.  We’ve been making this at home regularly.
  • clara – any cheap beer (pilsner) mixed with lemonade. This is the beer version of tinto de verano.  But we aren’t consuming much of this stuff, because we like *real* beer, not watered-down pilsner, and because beer seems to have more negative health effects for Rob.
  • lemon drops – since lemons are so easy to find, we’ve been making lemon drops with fresh-squeezed lemon juice with Bartendro 3 whenever we have an occasion to use Bartendro.
  • other cocktails – mojitos and gin & tonics are the two most popular cocktails here. Unfortunately Bartendro can’t make either of them; it can’t muddle the mint of a mojito or handle the carbonation in tonic water. I prefer mojitos when we’re going out for cocktails. Rob prefers gin & tonics, which the locals have shortened to gintonic.

I’m leaving sangria off of the list; while it is a tasty Spanish summer beverage, sangria requires a lot more ingredients and effort to make it properly, so it’s really thought of as something that tourists order. Most restaurants don’t have a supply of sangria that they’ve prepared in advance, so the sangria you often get is just sad. Perhaps proper sangria is more common in southern Spain. You’re more likely to encounter some good sangria here at a private party, when someone has taken the time and effort to prepare it for their friends.

As I mentioned earlier, our shipping container finally arrived a couple weeks ago, and we’re slowly unpacking during the short breaks between our preparations for the Barcelona Mini Maker Faire and Nowhere, as well as our jobs. We had hoped to start making our meals at home, which would enable us to save money as well as have more control over our diets, and thus eat more healthily. Because of everything else going on in our lives, we haven’t had as much time to unpack our kitchen stuff let alone cook at home. It will also take time to learn where to source all the things we need to be able to eat as healthfully as we want to.  I will write another entry soon about the markets that we have easy access to, and what will take more time to figure out.


* It’s funny to learn that this particular kind of small sweet pepper is called a pimiento in English, because here they call all peppers pimientos.  “What kind of pimiento is it?,” I asked Google.  Apparently it’s a pimiento pimiento.

6 Responses to “Food, part one (of many)”

  1. Tyler J. Wagner 2013/07/04 at 14:12 #

    It’s the bovine growth hormone in the milk in the States. Rob may recall Shawn’s “allergy” to milk which lasted for years until he discovered he just had to drink a certain “Organic” milk. Meaning milk produced by cows not injected with BGH.

  2. Mike G. 2013/07/06 at 20:47 #

    Regarding the difference in dairy, I’ve read something similar about bread in America vs. Europe. I don’t know enough to vouch for this.

  3. Tyler J. Wagner 2013/07/07 at 09:58 #

    Saw a flier for this today at Morrison’s, a supermarket in the UK.

    Perhaps this is the problem?

  4. Aleta 2013/07/07 at 10:36 #

    Tyler, BGH might be a part of it, but it’s not the whole picture. In the U.S. I was very skeptical of the quality of food and usually bought organic, especially when it came to dairy. Whenever I ate dairy in the U.S., even organic, I would immediately get phlegmy. (This also occasionally happens with other foods, even here, so there is another food sensitivity that I have yet to figure out fully, but it’s rare enough that I’m not too concerned about it). If I ate dairy often, it was also accompanied by eczema on my knuckles at the base of my fingers, as well as my elbows and sometimes my knees. It’s an allergy, but there is a tiny bit of GI intolerance as well.

    I have tested as being allergic to casein, which is similar in its molecular structure to gluten, which I’m guessing Mike’s article discusses (I haven’t had a chance to read it yet). That’s why celiacs usually avoid casein (and all dairy) as well. I’m guessing the A2 milk is marketing to these folks. I don’t know enough about casein to know whether it’s the A1-beta casein that I’m specifically allergic to.

    I do think it has to do with stricter standards for additives and cattle medication (growth hormones, antibiotics, etc) but I haven’t narrowed it down beyond that. I had suspected originally that it was only unpasteurized dairy that I could eat (which is illegal in most states in the U.S.) but it’s not the case! So who knows. I’m certainly not complaining!

  5. Mike G. 2013/07/08 at 04:11 #

    Among other things, the article discusses stone-ground milling (still done in Europe) vs. roller milling (US) and how the author freely ate breads while living in France but had trouble after returning to the US.

    • Aleta 2013/07/20 at 02:40 #

      I finally got around to reading the article! Very interesting, indeed. While it doesn’t address dairy, it’s interesting to know that the differences in processing can make a huge difference in its nutritional value and digestability.

      I would be interested to know if there are parallels in the difference between the way dairy is processed in Europe vs. the U.S. The lack of hormones are certainly one major difference, but I bet there’s more beyond that.