Sangria Days, Flamenco Nights… and the Spanish people!

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I often find it difficult to write blog stories while I’m travelling. It’s the usual reasons – always on the go, tired at the end of the day, bad or no wi-fi and so on. But there’s one more reason for my tardiness… travel osmosis! I like to absorb and fully immerse in the experience of being at a certain place before I can put my thoughts together, to not just tell you about it, but make you a part of that experience. Well, at least that’s my excuse!😉

I  have been back from my travels across Spain – that wonderfully diverse, brilliantly colourful and steeped in culture country – for a few days now. As usual, I haven’t unpacked completely, in an attempt to make my Spanish experience linger on – through the smell in between the folds of clothes in my suitcase, the images that spring to life from the city maps, cafe bills, train tickets and boarding passes, and the red soil caked under my sneakers from every city, town or village I’ve walked through, as stubborn to let go as I am!

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The only two things I have unpacked completely are the precious food items that I picked up from all over the place, and the hundreds of photographs and videos taken in an attempt to freeze time as it was. Special cheeses, cured meats, artisanal olive oil and Paella spices are currently playing a big role in making the experience linger on, while riffling through the photographs is bringing back memories of places, people and things that are already a bit hazy around the edges, given that there was so much to experience, packed into so little time.

While sifting through these memories, what struck me was the number of interesting people I met this time around, perhaps more so than any other trip. So I thought I’d take you through my experiences of the people of Spain – ordinary working, performing, relaxing, selling, serving people that you interact with or bump into on a daily basis, but something about them made them stand out of the crowd for me, and made this trip more memorable than they will ever know how.

La Mucca de Prado was the restaurant directly opposite our hotel in Madrid, in the heart of Las Letras, the area famous for all the great Spanish writers who lived, thought, wrote and flourished here in the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the waiters here is 74181_148938551926335_984173517_nRigas Spyrou, and going by the hugs and handshakes he gets as he walks in to start his evening shift, a very popular member of the staff. For us, he was special initially because he was the only person to speak and understand English there, and on your first meal after landing in Spain, with a growling stomach and a Spanish menu in hand, that is nothing but a godsend! But Rigas not only helped us choose the right dishes, he worked his magic in the kitchen to get our food served in record time, and then went on to tell us what to do and see in and around the area, including a couple of places to try out for food, all this with a shy smile and a delightful accent!

Then there was Gustavo Fernandez, our lanky, quirky, rock-band crooner, theology and history expert, and extremely witty guide at the grand Palace of Alhambra, Granada. Honestly, if it wasn’t for him, we would have scampered off to the cool interiors of a cafe and vegetated all afternoon, far from the 38 degrees cruel sun beating down on the hard stone quadrangles, sweeping arches and serene gardens of the massive fort palace. But Gustavo’s ability to recreate an ordinary day in the heydays of the castle was just fantastic… the royal families, the soldiers on guard, the royal courts in solemn session, the waiting visitors, the corridors and hallways with brilliant mosaic work (of which only a fraction still remains), the lavish dinners, the grand clothes and drapes, and the glittering ceremonies… You felt like a fly on the wall watching the proceedings yourself, transported magically to a long-gone era!

In Barcelona, it was the amigos of the B&B we were staying in, called Billy Barcelona. First, there was manager Siri (yes, that IS his name!) a high-spirited, warm-hearted Mexican who captivated us with his inspiring life stories of triumph over personal struggles, and then gave us ‘drop-pin’ directions, down to bus numbers and train timings, to get to Barcelona’s best-kept local secrets!!! That’s quite something considering the best I get out of my I-phone Siri is “I don’t know what you mean by…” Grrr! What’s more, our friend Siri even sang a beautiful Mexican song for us, shyly at first, then full-throated with a little bit of encouragement… a soul-stirring song of longing and love that made perfect sense, even though we didn’t understand a word! Wow, what a special moment in my history of travels!

IMG_1410As were the moments we spent chatting with Billy, the owner himself, who by some quirky twist of fate, is good friends with Madhur Jaffrey, a stage and film actress, food celebrity and cookbook author of considerable international repute. Billy’s stories of visiting Indian palaces in Rajasthan with Madhur were as fascinating as they were funny, and his honest confessions to being ‘overwhelmed’ by the entire experience of Incredible India was like seeing your own country through someone else’s eyes, up close and very personal. And his recommendation of the Cabreaos Eggs at Ciudad Condal, a traditional Spanish dish of crisp fries topped with a gooey fried egg that’s massacred by your waiter in front of you, is one of the TOP 5 THINGS TO EAT in the country… hands down!

 

Amongst other interesting characters was the quiet Kikke, the multi-tasking owner at Cafe El Didal in the sleepy town of Girona (Game of Thrones fans, check this!), completely embarrassed by the the loud, funny, and kooky antics of his buddy Marcos who was very keen to chat with us but just didn’t know how! And Noorul, the supermarket owner near our hotel who would hand me a free ice cream or chocolate every time I stepped in, just because I reminded him of ‘home’. IMG_1461

And the 3 friendly butchers Marti, Alberto and Miguel at the ‘Mas Gourmet Shop‘ at La Boqueria, Barcelona who kept handing us little bits of cheeses and meats to taste. Now I know why passersby were giving us curious stares – cos our group must have looked like head-bangers at a rave party, nodding our heads vigorously in appreciation after each bite of the succulent meats or the flavourful cheeses. What a chomping party!

And what an incredible journey through the lanes, hearts and lives of the people of Spain. I hope, somewhere along those lanes and by-lanes of these cities and towns, I too have been able to touch some lives the way they have touched mine:)

A Midsummer Night to Remember…

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‘Sleepless in Seattle’ is a beautiful romantic movie starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Sleepless in Sweden is what you will be experiencing right now if you are anywhere in northern Sweden with the ‘midnight sun’ keeping you up all day and night! Given a choice, which would you pick?

Although I absolutely love rom-coms, in this case I would pick Sweden – sleepless, nightless and all. Because it is not just about days filled with sunlight where the sun doesn’t set at all, (which come to think of it can be a bit disorienting, no?), but also about the joyous and spirited celebration of a season that unites the people of the whole country like it’s one big family reunion, over food, games and music.130618152814-irprt-midsummer-solstice-dancing-around-pole-sweden-horizontal-large-gallery

The get-together at Swedish Consul General Fredrika Ornbrant‘s home to celebrate the Swedish National Day was quite a slice of what a Midsummer Day celebration would be in the Swedish countryside. There were people dressed adorably in the national peasant costume, pretty flower hairbands called ‘midsommarkrans’ sitting atop the blonde and dark heads of fellow Swedes and Indian friends and associates alike, shots of Swedish Schnapps going around with a customary toast song accompanying every quaff, and a mouth-watering Swedish smorgasbord of traditional dishes made lovingly by Fredrika herself (with a little help from her Swedish-chef trained Indian cook, Fiona). What with our affinity to Abba and Swedish House Mafia reigning high, no one really missed the whole ritual of erecting the Maypole and the customary ‘frog-step’ dance around it… phew!😉

Right - Fredrika Ornbrant, Consul General of Sweden addressing the audience on Swedish customs and traditions

But there was enough good-natured humour going around amongst the small clutch of privileged guests from both Nordic and Indian communities. The light-hearted banter between Fredrika and her counterpart at the Norwegian Consulate in Mumbai, Torbjorn Holte, Fredrika’s sheepish and endearing declaration of her undying love for Pani Puri (and Sev Puri and Bhaji Puri and pretty much all things ‘puri‘!) and a surprisingly cheeky and humorous video on the traditions and customs of the Maypole festivities that made us all roll with laughter, all made for some really fun moments.

As for food, the Swedes sure know their way into an Indian’s heart. A little live demo of how to prepare Skargard Herring Canapés conducted by the passionate foodie Fredrika herself, was followed by some light bites of Kalles Caviar in Egg Halves, Herring in Mustard Mayo (so lovely I just couldn’t stop eating it!), some beautiful large chunks of Pink Salmon with Dill and Lemon, the gorgeous Swedish Meat Balls and an absolutely delicious Swedish Crumble (made with fresh mango instead of traditional apple) that was a knockout end to an honest, simple and simply delicious dinner of traditional favourites.

For a country as cold as Sweden with long snowy winters, Fredrika’s warmth and brightness has always shone forth like the burst of summer flowers that are hand-picked and woven lovingly into the ‘krans‘. I will miss you my dear, dear friend, but the thought that Sweden will be a warmer place with you in it is a thought that I will cherish in my heart till we meet again! IMG_1316

 

 

 

 

 

Spring on a Plate!

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While summer rages on across the country and we are doing all we can to keep our cool with sorbets and tall drinks and ice creams and salads (basically everything short of sitting on a block of ice!), it’s nice to know that somewhere in the world the weather is still lovely, the air is still dewy and spring blossoms are still blooming in abundance. And it’s even nicer to have that distant, gorgeous spring laid out on your dinner plate in all its profusion and beauty!

IMG_0226A few days ago, Chef Matteo Arvonio of Mezzo Mezzo, J W Marriott Juhu did just that for our small table, translating the many moods of the Italian spring into a stunningly-plated 5-course dinner. For those who don’t know Chef Matteo too well, he is married to a Bengali (and like all good Bongs, I too am proud to have him as our ‘Jamai’, as if I had something to do with it! 😉) I have seen how ecstatic my own Italian brother-in-law, Giorgio Fuggetta, gets while digging into Mom’s elaborate Bengali dishes. So I was not surprised to learn of Matteo’s love for the light and fragrant Daab Chingri – prawns cooked with coconut milk and served in a whole tender coconut. But when Matteo went on to list Shorshe Ilish (Hilsa Fish in Mustard Curry) and Mochar Ghonto (Banana Flower Curry) as his other favourites, I thought ‘Here’s another adventurous Italian boy who loves bold Indian flavours’. Naturally, I expected his special dinner to be bursting with robust flavours, as hearty and bold as an Italian Nonna‘s cooking. But boy, were we in for a surprise!

Right from the time the first plate was ceremoniously placed before us, the words that came to my mind were ‘delicate‘ and ‘intricate‘ – like Venetian lace, or the morning breeze leaving tiny ripples on the still blue waters of Lake Como. Poetic? Oh yes, like this plate of Marinated Red Prawns – fresh, large prawns delicately cured in a Sicilian-style ceviche that are almost raw, and yet beautifully ‘cooked’ and flavoured, without the fishy taste, yet tasting of the sea! IMG_0231 2

Then arrived the beautiful Culatello – a pink pile of thinly-shaved, premium ham paired with thin slices of fresh Green Pears, and a ball of home-made goat cheese marinated with onion ash! Hallelujah!

The Risotto, subtly flavoured with Quail jus, was exceptionally light owing to the use of Robiola Cheese, with a bright burst of edible flowers. And then came the Prawn Trio – prawns from 3 different regions of the world, cooked in 3 different ways, coming together harmoniously. The one thing that intrigued me here was the little mound of batter fried Zucchini Flower, stuffed with juicy prawn meat, something very close to the crisp-fried Pumpkin Flower that we Bongs have grown up on and can never get enough of!

IMG_0245Keeping the best for the last, Chef Matteo brought out his showpiece dessert – Limone e Limoncelloparfaits, semifreddos and yoghurts infused with Italian lemon, creating a refreshing symphony of citrus in your mouth.

IMG_0254The subtlety in the flavours, the finesse in the plating and the profusion of spring-fresh, colourful and delicate ingredients, all directly imported specially for the Spring Festival at Mezzo Mezzo, was quite an eye-opener for me, given that I have mostly experienced and loved the big bold flavours of Italian cooking so far. Hats off to Chef Matteo for an entirely new look at the intricacies of Italian cuisine, and for giving us a whiff of Italian spring, right here in summery Mumbai.

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