Masa Bambini Bread Bakery, in Seville

Seville bread in Spain

Spain isn’t quite known for its breads. It’s probably because bread is more used as a vehicle for eating other foods – like pan con tomate (toasted bread with olive oil, then rubbed with fresh tomato and a bit of salt) or as a resting place for marinated sardines, or another tapas, rather than enjoyed on its own.

olive oil on bread

To make a little confession; when I came to Spain, I brought a little loaf of bread from France with me to have for breakfast. Because as much as I like pan con tomate (which is often eaten for breakfast), I didn’t think I would have the time, or the inclination, to gather all the ingredients and prepare them in the kitchen of my apartment. And I’m a creature of habit and the morning isn’t exactly the time of day when I’m looking forward to any surprises.

Seville bread bakery

So I was excited the first day when I met Juan Gomez, the owner of La Azotea, and he invited me to come along the following morning to visit the baker who makes the bread for his restaurants. What I wasn’t so excited about was waking up at 6:15am, so I would be all set to go (ie: already coffee’d up) when he would ring me up to meet.

juan gomezSeville street
baking formula for ovenloaves of bread

Fortunately Spaniards seem to be pretty laid back in the morning and Juan took me to La Campana for my 47th café cortado in twenty-four hours and some pastries, including a tasty flat, crisp bread known as torta de aceite, a local specialty made with lots of olive oil, sesame, and usually a touch of anise – although I did have one version with candied Seville (sour) oranges that blew my calcetínes off*.

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Café Cortado

Cafe Cortado

I’m not a fancy guy. I don’t insist on expensive clothes, I don’t drive a car, my hair is such a disaster I take the clippers to it once a month just to so I don’t have to deal with the unruly mess, nor do I give a hoot about sitting in a suit in a 3-star restaurant, with a tie closing up my throat while I try to pretend I’m enjoying a fancy meal. To me, one of the great joys in life is simply a good cup of coffee.

Over the years, I’ve whittled my tastes down to espresso, which is the true essence of the bean. While I like café au lait for breakfast, probably because it encourages the lingering that I need in order to gather up the courage to face yet another day. But in Spain, however, no matter what time of day it is, I always order a café cortado. Even though it’d described as a similar riff on the caffè macchiato in Italy, or the café noisette in France, which gets its name from having just a noisette (hazelnut) of foamed milk on top (although another description says that it’s because it turns the coffee the color of hazelnuts), to me, it tastes like a very different drink altogether.

Cafe Cortado

Café cortado – perhaps it has something to do with the name, the alliteration with those two Cs in a row that roll off your tongue, helping it sound so resolutely Spanish. Or the tiny glasses they serve it in, which the vested waiters with black ties set down before you with one hand, and a moment later, the other hand swoops down with a pitcher of steamy milk, to create a frothy, yet strong, coffee drink. And whatever they do to the milk, it’s especially velvety. They just seem to get the foam right. There’s nothing worse than having a coffee drink with a crown of airy foam on top – who wants to dive into that first anticipatory sip of coffee, but instead end up with a mouthful of air? Pas moi. And the café cortado combines the soothing creaminess of steamed milk with a reasonable jolt of a café solo.

I also like the glass. An Italian friend told me never to order espresso in a cup in Italy – to ask for it in a glass – because the porcelain retains some of the flavors of the dishwashing detergent. (Unfortunately my Italian isn’t very good and I always forget the phrase I’ve tried to memorize, to ask for it in a glass.) That may be one reason the café cortado alway tastes so good to me. It’s the glass. Or maybe it’s the sharp waiters with their slicked back hair and dark Spanish features, accompanied by the smell of sugary pastries in the fluorescent-lit showcases? I don’t know, but standing at a stainless-steel counter watching them pour the milk into the darkly extracted coffee in the glass while the milk foams up around it, but making sure it’s not too airy so you can enjoy the coffee that it’s mingling with, is one of the great joys in life. And one of the joys of visiting Spain.

Cafe Cortado

Seville

Spanish olives, garlic, capers, etc

I was en route to a workshop outside of Seville and right before hitting the “buy” button for the plane ticket, I thought – “What the heck am I thinking? Why not go a few days earlier, and some time in Seville?”

Yemas

I know I say this every time I visit somewhere, but I want to move here. In fact, I even think I found my apartment.

Seville apartment

My last visit I think was in, uh, 1983 – or something like that. So I didn’t remember much. But I do remember that when I left Spain (I was on an 8-10 month trip through Europe), I distinctly recall saying that I wanted to spend more time in Spain. So to prove that good things come to those who wait (and wait, and wait, and wait), I found myself back in the country. More specifically, in Andalusia.

After walking from the bus station, admiring the Moorish architecture, apartment buildings with spacious courtyards and stunning terraces, the tiled patios and walls (I went to the post office to mail some postcards, and it had the most lovely tile work!), and friendly people, I unpacked as fast as I could and decided to get down to business, and eat.

flan-like pastry

Seville is small enough so you don’t need to worry about taking public transit, getting lost, getting bored, or going hungry. And not necessarily in that order. It seems like every other business is some sort of eating establishment and people eat at all hours – starting with breakfast in the morning, standing at the stainless-steel bar, sipping cafe cortado. Then later in the day, between lunch and dinner (whose hours I have yet to master), people crowd sidewalks cafes. But unlike in Paris where everyone is drinking beer or wine, in Seville, most tables seem to have plates of something that people are collectively digging their forks into.

Flamenco

And there are plenty of little places to stop in at all hours, such as La Campana confectionary, where they candy everything – from green figs and tiny pears…

candied pears

…to sweet potatoes!

candied sweet potatoes

A few days isn’t quite enough to do Seville justice. And with over 3000 tapas bars, it’s hard to hit them all. But I was in touch with Shawn of Seville Tapas Tours (who gave me that staggering figure) and we met up my first day – and later that night – for some tapas action.

Spanish pastries

When I was booking my trip, right after I hit the “Book it” button on Expedia, the price had miraculously risen, which I find kind of odd (it’s like going to the supermarket and when you get to the register, they tell you the price has gone up since you put the item into your shopping cart) so I found an apartment on AirBnB which was great; right in the middle of town. Not only was it close to all the great tapas bars, which I later found out, renting an apartment had the added feature of no one knocking on my door at 8:35am to see if they could “service my room.” #hotelpetpeeve

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Craquelin

craquelin top

If you’ve ever wondered how French pastry shops make cream puffs with that distinctive decorative crackly topping, look no further. (If you’ve never wondered, you can skip to the next entry.) The topping is called craquelin, a simple dough that’s easily put together and is a nifty little trick to gussy up ordinary cream puffs.

French flour

butter and light brown sugar

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TGIF (aka DMCV)

fudge

Although it doesn’t quite translate, Dieu merci, c’est vendredi – or as I’m going to say in English, Thank God It’s Friday (TGIF), because it’s been quite a week. (On a related note, I was recently informed by a French friend that a 4-day weekend is not a vacation – it’s just a few days off, or a pont (bridge.) But even though I took an actual vacation, it’s been tough getting back up to speed.

fig cake

Since we all live in a 24/7 society, as you likely can attest to, just because you go away doesn’t mean you can “get away from it all.” There is always something to deal with; urgent recipe questions (It’s funny when people say something food-related is “urgent” – unless there is a famine or a natural catastrophe…or another disaster of similar proportion, I’m not sure it quite qualifies as “urgent”), paperwork, sorting through pictures, and dealing with travel arrangements, including the all-important act of making sure you have a decent seat on the plane home.)

can we talk?

Then there is a pile up when you get back; stuff that needs to be dealt with right-away; a backlog of mail, correcting typos and grammatical errors in blog entries, accepting invitations, declining invitations, writing back to the response you’ve gotten after you’ve declined, reading and responding to the response asking if you’re available another time, figuring out why teenagers would congregate in the alcove down the street that smells like pipi, realizing that there is a near-urgent need for you to restock your butter supply, and testing some recipes that have been on your mind for your blog.

Green figs

The fun of having a blog is that you get to try to share recipes that you find interesting. I try to put a mix of original recipes, recipes from recent cookbooks, a few oldies but goodies from cookbooks in my collections, and occasionally one from a cooking magazine that catches my eye. Along the way – especially this week – there have been a couple of goofs. The King Arthur Flour company always presents a hilarious round-up of their test kitchen goofs each year on April Fool’s Day. But since I can’t wait that long, I decided to share a few.

I was recently inundated with a few barquettes of fresh figs that I bought at a local flea market, where all of the vendors seemed to be from the countryside (who, as this map points out, Parisians consider paysannes, or peasants.) Call me a paysan, but I happen to like them regardless of what other’s say or think, and as I picked up a number of vintage jam jars, I also was able to trade valuable jam-making tips with some of the friendly men and women selling their wares.

Oberkampf flea market

One guy had three barquettes of figs and because he’s not Parisian and in a constant hurry, he had to count out each fig, one-by-one, speaking aloud about what kind of price to come up with, and how he needed to charge me per-fig. (We have a lot of fees and stuff in France, so at some point, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when there is a per-fig surcharge.) Um, okay. He slo-o-o-wly told me about the history of each fig as I stood there hyperventilating because of the all the bargains that were being snapped up around me, and my shoulder ready to fall off with my bag-full of heavy glass jam jars and the Saint James marinière (striped sweater) that was almost new and was a mere 50 cents, which I got so I can look a little more French. Although I’d have to stop shaving for three days if I really wanted to complete the look. (I also saw a hipster wearing a half-length cape the other day, and I’m not ready to go there, either.)

almond batter

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Fresh Ginger Syrup

Fresh ginger syrup recipe 2

Many moons ago, I worked with Bruce Cost at the now-shuttered Monsoon restaurant in San Francisco. Bruce is an amazing Asian cook and I’ve rarely had better Chinese food than what came out of his wok. Early on, he prompted me to make a sharp, gingery syrup that we could serve at the bar, as an elixir, mixed with fresh lime juice and sparkling water. And although the customers loved it, the reason I later found out why I was going through so much ginger syrup every week was that the staff liked it even more.

In Australia, I remember seeing big bins of fresh ginger in the supermarket (I always try to go to a supermarket in a foreign country – it’s one of my favorite things to do.) And when I was telling some Australians how intriguing it was how they’ve adopted Asian ingredients, like fresh ginger, into their cuisine, a few looked at me kind of funny,and said that they considered fresh ginger just be to an ingredient they happened to use frequently – not necessarily Asian.

fresh ginger syrup recipe

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La Coop: Beaufort Cheese Cooperative in Paris

Beaufort cutter

It amuses me to see outfits that promise to let folks “experience Paris like a local!” While there’s lots too see and do here as a visitor, I wonder why so many people want to come and experience the more mundane aspects of life in a city, such as calling the gas company to find out why your bill is 300% over what it is supposed to be, or dealing with a forest’s-worth of paperwork that would make the most anti-environmentalist weep, when they could be exploring world-class museums, dining in historic bistros, visiting amazing chocolate shops, and gorging themselves on sublime cheeses all day?

reblochon

When I’m on vacation, I want to be on vacation, thanks. But every so often, I try being a tourist is my own city. Because I get to stroll around and discover wonderful new places, as I did when walking near the Jardin du Luxembourg and passed by La Coop.

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Cheese Tastings in Paris

cheese map of France

A visit to France is, of course, a cheese-lovers dream. And for those who come and want to experience a variety of French cheeses in Paris, there are a number of places that offer dégustations (tastings) as well as tours and wine pairings with experts.

Most are in English and in the boutiques and fromageries (cheese shops) that offer cheese tasting plates, there is normally someone on hand who will happily explain all the different cheeses. Here’s a list of places that offer a variety of experiences for anyone interesting in sampling les fromages:

Madame Hisada: Specialty cheese shop with salon offering dégustation platters.

Fil’O'Fromage: Cheese shop and restaurant, with tasting plates.

Meeting the French: Wine and cheese tastings.

Paroles de Fromagers: Wine and cheese tastings.

Chez Virginie: Cheese shop with guided tastings.

Le Foodist: Wine and cheese pairings and tastings.

La Coop: Cheese cooperative from the Savoy region offers self-guided cheese tastings.

La Cuisine: Guided cheese tasting workshops.

Marie-Anne Cantin: Guided cheese tastings.

La Vache dans Les Vignes: Cheese tasting plates.

Paris by Mouth: Cheese tastings and walking tours.

La Vache dans les Vignes: Cheese shop and café.

Ô Chateau: Wine and cheese tasting lunches.

Cook’n with Class: Wine and cheese tasting, and pairing classes.

L’Affineur’ Affiné: Fromagerie and restaurant.

cheese plate

Note: In addition to the organized cheese tastings listed above, you can generally go into a wine bar and order a selection of cheeses (and wine, of course) to sample. Although the tastings aren’t guided, the staff will generally be able to tell you about the cheeses.