I Hit the Jackpot in Torrevieja

Life-size bronze statues of a director and five musicians pay tribute to the rich musical legacy of Torrevieja.

Life-size bronze statues of a director and five musicians stand on the Paseo Vista Alegre in tribute to the rich musical legacy of Torrevieja.

This was the final week of the Tapas Crawl, the 10th Annual Ruta de Las Tapas. We set out for the town center to check out the annual Book Fair on the downtown waterfront. Florence and I are avid readers, and we were interested to see if there were many books in English available at reasonable prices. Granted, the local library has a decent English language section, mostly fiction. A range of restaurants would be serving their best tapas for whenever the hunger bug hit, but first a little shopping was in order.

The annual book fair consists of six large book kiosks on the seafront pedestrian walkway.

The annual book fair consists of six large book kiosks on the seafront pedestrian walkway.

We were surprised to learn that Suzy and Rob, purveyors of the Bargain Books shop downtown, were the only outlet for English language books in town. I would have thought there would be demand for more given the large English expat population in Torrevieja. According to Suzy, that used to be the case. However, the other businesses folded, and now she and her husband have the last remaining English language bookstore.

Tomato and cheese pizza - 7€ ($10), and plenty left over for later

Tomato and cheese pizza – 7€ ($10), and plenty left over for later

We had eaten light that morning. Then it was time to ‘tapa off’ our appetites. I was already salivating in anticipation of our return visit to La Mila-Grossa, the Argentine restaurant we had discovered the previous weekend. We made a stop at La Bella Lola, which offered an excellent toasted tomato and cheese tapa. Next stop – La Mila-Grossa Restaurant.

Empañadas with Salsa de la Abuela - As soon as the aroma hit my nostrils I knew I was in for a treat.

Empañadas with Salsa de la Abuela – The aroma told me I was in for a treat.

We started with some fine appetizers. However, we had the main courses in mind. Florence longed for a vegetarian pizza, and I planned to make a meal of the house specialty empañadas. I had sampled them the weekend before, and the anticipation was killing me. When the empañadas arrived, I inquired if they had hot sauce thinking I had spied some on a side counter. Our server, Mariano, asked if I wanted ‘picante’ – the hot stuff. Oh, yeah!

Let me interject here that I love hot, spicy food. I have not tasted a decent hot sauce since we left Mexico over a year ago. Suddenly, a plain bottle with a generic skull ‘n’ crossbones sticker appeared on our table. I was as nervous as a teenager on a first date. Could this be the moment I had been waiting for? I put a taste on my fork and licked it off. A tense moment passed, and then a small fire started on the tip of my tongue. The juices that formed in my mouth were as sensuous as my first French kiss! I thought I heard angels singing. My heart beat and breathing sped up. It was delicious!

The handsome, young Mariano made me a gift of his grandmothers salsa.

The handsome, young Mariano made me a gift of his grandmothers salsa.

I had a pleasant conversation with Mariano after we had eaten. He told me he was from a town near Mar del Plata, Argentina, where his mother lives. He now lives here in Torrevieja where his father’s family originates. As we were preparing to go, I asked if the picante sauce served with lunch could be purchased. ‘Le gusta?’ he asked, pleasantly surprised. (You like it?) Then he told me his grandmother makes it for the restaurant, and yes, I could have some.

Mariano brought a generous container of the heavenly elixir from the kitchen. I asked him how much. He handed it to me and said, ‘Esto es un regalo para usted.’ (This is a gift for you.) Mariano had given me a gift of liquid gold which I now call Salsa de la Abuela, grandmother’s salsa. I had hit the jackpot! Muchas gracias mi amigo.

Note: All photos are the copyrighted property of Florence Lince.
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It is Time for Tapas

Torrevieja is a resort town full of parks, plazas and an array of restaurants and shops... and beaches.

Our home town of Torrevieja is a resort town full of parks, plazas and an array of restaurants and shops… and beaches.

Spring in Torrevieja is a delightful time of year. The crisp breezes blowing off the continent and the brisk on-shore winds have given way to the bright sunshine and warmer days that demand we leave our jackets behind when we take a walk. People are heading to the beaches with their folding chairs and beach towels ahead of the crowds still to come when people seek refuge from the blazing heat of summer. The seasonal shops and restaurants are opening all over town. It is a time to celebrate spring. It is time for tapas.

Our first stop was Las Salinas, a favorite stop for families.  Their Magra de Ibérica was like a delicious stew.

First stop – Las Salinas, an open air favorite spot for families. Their Magra de Ibérica was a delicious stew made with veal.

This year Torrevieja, Spain, is celebrating its 10th Rutas de Las Tapas, or what we English-speakers would call a ‘Tapas Crawl.’ What are tapas? Tapas can be practically anything from a chunk of tuna, cocktail onion and an olive skewered on a long toothpick to a hot meat with sauce served in a miniature clay dish – or anything in between. Tapas are served day in and day out in every bar and café in Spain. They are so much a part of the culture and social scene that the Spanish people invented the verb tapear which means to go eat tapas!¹

Tu Aroma offered a piece of fried cod served over a zucchini wrap of peppers and onions; also a grilled meat in a chocolate mole sauce.

Tu Aroma offered a piece of fried cod served over a zucchini wrap of peppers and onions, plus a grilled meat in a chocolate mole sauce.

Fifty-six restaurants are each offering two tapas from which to choose during weekend one and two different tapas during weekend two. The weekends run from Thursday through Sunday and are available at either lunch or dinner time. The tapas are offered in addition to regular menu items and are advertised as standard or gourmet as determined by the restaurant. Standard tapas sell for 2€ and gourmet items sell for 2.5€, equal to $2.80 and $3.50, and include a choice of beverage. I ordered beer. Florence chose bottled water.

The Mediterranean Café offer this baked dish made with chicken and potatoes.  The second tapa was skewered 'sepia' which is Spanish for cuttlefish - similar to squid.

The Mediterranean Café offer this baked dish made with chicken and potatoes. The second tapa was skewered ‘sepia’ which is Spanish for cuttlefish – similar to squid.

No one has to pay an entry fee. All that is required to participate in the Tapas Crawl is a few Euros, a good appetite and good walking shoes. Even though there are participating restaurants are all over town, most are concentrated downtown near the ocean shore. People are allowed to vote for their favorite tapas once they have sampled at least ten options at no fewer than five restaurants.

Taj Mahal offered tapas Indian-style - deep fried vegetable mix that put onion rings to shame, and a shrimp roll made with sweet potato that was our favorite so far.

Taj Mahal offered tapas Indian-style – deep fried vegetable mix that put onion rings to shame, and a shrimp roll made with sweet potato that was our favorite so far.

We visited four restaurants on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and we ordered both of the tapas offered at each stop, so that was about 5€ times four, a total of 20€ for the two of us to sample eight varieties of Spanish cuisine including tips and beverages. That was a pretty good deal. We are already thinking ahead to weekend number two, and one stop we passed on our way home is already at the top of our list. We were too full to sit at La Mila-Grossa, an Argentine restaurant. However, we ordered some of their empañadas to take home for dinner, and that was a fantastic gastronomic conclusion to our first Tapas Crawl.

¹From ‘What are tapas?’ by Lisa and Tony Sierra on About.com
Note: All photos are the copyrighted property of Florence Lince.

The Top 10 Best Things About Croatia

The Neretva River Delta grows enough citrus to serve several countries.

The Neretva River Delta grows enough citrus to serve several countries.

Counting down, these items make my list of the ten best things I discovered about Croatia.

10. Fresh fruits and vegetables

There is a great choice of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season.

The fresh markets offer a great choice of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season.

Everything grows fresh in Croatia.  We were fortunate to be living in Croatia during harvest season.  There were melons, pomegranates, figs, plums, grapes and apples.  And there was citrus.  Almost the entire Neretva River Delta is planted with citrus – mandarins, lemons and several varieties of oranges and they are quite affordable.  Other fruits like bananas and tropical fruits are imported.  The variety seems endless and prices are quite good. 

9.   Coffee

Every place we have visited has a coffee bar (or two or three) on every block, or so it seems.  I am not saying that the coffee is as good as what we could purchase at every market in Panama or Costa Rica where it was grown and picked and roasted within walking distance of our house.  But every café, bar and coffee shop in Croatia has an espresso machine, and it is a custom in Croatia to ‘take coffee’ for almost any occasion.

8.   Olive oil and wine

There are countless vineyards and olive tree groves throughout Croatia.

There are countless vineyards and olive tree groves throughout Croatia.

I think everyone in Croatia either has their own olive trees or is related to someone who does.  The same goes for vineyards.  They make a lot of olive oil in Croatia, and they also make a lot of wine.  Production numbers seem small compared to wine growing regions in other parts of the world, but Croatia’s population is only about 4.5 million, and they consume most of what they produce.  However, wine lovers who get a taste of the finer Croatian wines will likely wish to add some bottles to their collections.

7.   Cheese

Farm fresh is not just a saying in Croatia.  Yes, this was my first time milking a cow.

Farm fresh is not just a saying in Croatia. Yes, this was my first time milking a cow.

I confess I love cheese.  And I have come to learn that not every country has great cheeses.  Croatia got it right!  There is probably as much cheese-making tradition in Croatia as there is making olive oil and wine.  Lucky for me!

6.   Bakery breads and other goodies

You should not expect to find a bread aisle in the supermarket.  All breads, cakes, cookies, and other baked goods are made fresh daily in a bakery.  There are in-store bakeries and independent bakery shops on nearly every block in the commercial areas.  Many Croatians still bake their own items if they have time.

5.   Natural beauty

The waters of the Lika River are scenic and pure.

The waters of the Lika River are scenic and pure.

Where do I begin?  The Dalmatian Coast, Plitvice Lakes National Park, Skradinski Falls in Krka National Park, the Neretva River Delta, Lake Vrana, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the natural springs.  Croatia is so diverse that the list of scenic spots seems never ending. 

4.   Clean air

To me there are two key items that define ‘quality of life.’  Being able to breathe clean air is one of those things, and it is not a given everywhere.  It is in Croatia, especially on the Dalmatian Coast with its steady breezes.

3.   Clean water

These springs in Lika County have provided fresh water to the area for two thousand years.

These springs in Lika County have provided fresh water to the area for two thousand years.

This is the second key ‘quality of life’ item, and Croatia has abundant resources of clear, clean water.  Many of their rivers are spring-fed at their sources.  You can dip your cup or water bottle into most streams and expect to get pure water better than the bottled water for sale at the market.  Wherever I travel I compare the water with what I experienced in my youth hiking past creeks and streams in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.  Clean water is not a given everywhere.  It is in Croatia.

2.   History and Culture

The medieval fortress near Samobar reminds of the civilization that existed here long ago.

The medieval fortress near Samobor reminds us of the civilization that existed here long ago.

Croatia may have finally appeared as a country on geography maps in the last twenty years.  However, as a region with a distinct culture, Croatia has a history of its own dating back over 1,500 years.  Many of the traditional foods, dress, music and dances are still common today.  They have their own language, their own art, their great legends and their heroes.  All of these traditions are woven into the fabric of everyday life.  One of the great things about traveling in Croatia is the people are eager to tell their stories and share their culture.

1.   The people

The friends we made in Croatia will be our most lasting memories.

The friends we made in Croatia will be our most treasured memories.

I have said this before and it bears repeating.  The people of Croatia have been among the most welcoming, most hospitable and most caring of any we have met in any country we have visited.  They care how you feel about their country and about them.  They want you to appreciate the beauty, the history and culture, the food, the wine, and their hospitality.  And I do!

One more thing, the women in Croatia are quite style-conscious.  In the cities and towns women seldom go out in public without putting on makeup and nice clothes.  At first I thought there was simply a high percentage of striking-looking women.  Then I realized that women of all ages take great care to look their best in public.  The men, not so much.  They may be ruggedly handsome, but they do not dress up unless they are hoping to impress the women.  That however, is a whole new story.

 

The Perfect Weekend Croatian Style

Babić grapes grow in a grid work of plots separated by rocks pulled one-by-one from the soil.

Babić grapes grow in a grid work of plots separated by rocks pulled one-by-one from the soil.

You need three elements to come together for a perfect weekend.  First is good weather.  It is not the most important thing, as any Puget Sounder will tell you.  However, it does make ‘good’ even better.  Second is a fun and interesting activity to do.  Third, and perhaps most important, is sharing the time with good people. 

When green olives turn dark in mid-November it is harvest time.

When green olives turn dark in mid-November it is harvest time.

I was invited to go olive picking with a couple of buddies.  I love spending time and going places with Florence.  Nonetheless, there is something to be said for male bonding time.  I soon learned that ‘olive picking’ is a euphemism for a picnic.  After a couple of beers and exploring our surroundings, we picked several kilos of dark olives.  Then we enjoyed a small feast of fish grilled over an open fire and some Babić (BOB ich), a local varietal wine.

Karmela gave me the seat of honor at the head of the table.

Karmela gave me the seat of honor at the head of the table.

After picking olives we returned to town where I met Karmela, my friend’s mother.  She showed me into her kitchen and pointed to the chair at the head of the table where her husband always sat, and she invited me to sit there where soon we enjoyed more food and drink.  Although she spoke not a word of English, we communicated well enough for her to announce proudly that she was 82 years old, something she apparently wanted me to know.  There is no stigma to asking someone’s age in Croatia, and if you do not ask they will usually tell you anyway.  I was dropped off at my apartment after as much food, drink and male bonding as I could manage in a single day.

Tina and Biljana teamed up to show us a great time in Primošten.

Tina and Biljana teamed up to show us a great time in Primošten.

The next day Florence and I met our friend, Tina, who helped us locate our wonderful apartment.  She contacted her tour guide friend, Biljana, who prepared a daylong tour to nearby Primošten (pree mosh TEN), a twenty minute drive south of our hometown of Šibenik (SHE beh nik).  It was the perfect mid-November day with cloudless skies and no jacket needed.  We had the picturesque Old Town almost completely to ourselves as we strolled to the graveyard and 15th century hilltop church of St. George.

View from the hilltop cemetery at the 15th century church of St. George

View from the hilltop cemetery at the 15th century church of St. George

On our drive a bit farther down the coast, Biljana pointed out the hillside vineyards overlooking a local marina.  The vines are planted in a patchwork grid marked by stone borders.  The locals are proud that a photo of the area once hung in the United Nations Building in New York City to portray the beautiful results of human labor.  These vineyards, famous for their Babić grapes, are now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Zaron greeted us with rakija and a smile.

Zoran greeted us with rakija and a smile.

Our route took us to an agro-tourism site called Šarićevi Dvori (shar ee SHEH vee  di VOR ee) named in honor of the Šarić family who have lived here for 350 years.  Zoran Šarić welcomed us in traditional Croatian style with rakija (RAH kee yah), a Croatian brandy, and we drank to one another’s health.  After a tour of the courtyard and house, we sat to eat a traditional dinner from our outdoor dining area perched overlooking the coast.

Tina told us, 'Now we are like family.'

Tina told us, ‘Now we are like family.’

All the food and drink is prepared by hand using traditional methods.  Zoran even revealed his callused hands from pressing grapes for wine and pressing olives for olive oil.  Our main course was cooked in a peka, a lidded iron pan that is buried in the coals of a fire to stew for an hour or more and then brought directly from the coals to the table where the food still sizzles as it is served.

Primošten, Croatia - a place that time forgot.

Primošten, Croatia – a place that time forgot.

Since meals are not rushed in Croatia, we sat with our wine glasses and watched the sun go down, which is early at this time of year.  We then gathered around the indoor fireplace to crack open fresh almonds and sip brandy while we sang songs and enjoyed new friendships in the hills overlooking Primošten, a place that time forgot.

Market Day in Šibenik, Croatia

Overlooking the first fruit vendor booth at the fresh market

Overlooking the first fruit vendor booth at the fresh market

The fresh market in Šibenik, Croatia, is open every day.  However, Saturday morning is when shoppers turn up in large numbers and the most vendors are set up to serve them.  This is one occasion where I make no effort to avoid the crowds. 

I embarrassed the bread lady when I asked for a photo.

I embarrassed the bread lady when I asked for a photo.

Surrounding the open air market is an array of meat and cheese shops and my favorite bakery kiosk where my preferred baguette of whole grain bread costs $1.20.  I have returned so often that the lady no longer needs to ask me what I want. 

There is a fish market and several butcher shops.  However, I am eating mostly vegetarian these days, so I peruse these shops mostly out of curiosity.   I will say it is a good thing I no longer have a barbecue grill, because I cannot envision this vegetarian lifestyle if there were a grill on my deck.

The vine ripened tomatoes look awesome.

The vine ripened tomatoes look awesome.

I love the hum of the crowd and the animated vendors encouraging shoppers to take advantage of their great deals.  And most of the fruits and vegetables are great deals.  I bought a pomegranate for 60 cents.  We mix and match a variety of apples for about 40 cents/pound, and we get pears for about 65 cents/pound.  Carrots, broccoli and cauliflower are about the same.  Potatoes and onions are quite inexpensive.  Bananas are over 90 cents/pound because they come from Ecuador or Costa Rica.  However, we save so much on other produce that we do not mind paying extra for bananas.  The eggplants, which are not my favorite vegetable, look amazing.  They are thin and firm with few seeds, perfect for the way Florence cooks them and the way I most enjoy them (recipe below).

Fish and meat, cheese, honey and condiments - there is much more than produce available at the market.

Fish and meat, cheese, honey and condiments – there is much more than produce available at the market.

Florence’s Recipe for Baked Eggplant Wafers

Mike has never been a fan of eggplant, especially when it is cooked in thick slices that become mushy when baked.  However, when I bake thin wafers of eggplant so that they come out of the oven with the texture of a cookie, there are seldom leftovers.  He even requests them if we have gone a long time without having had some.

Ingredients: 

2 or 3 small to medium-sized eggplants
Approximately 1 cup of bread crumbs
¼ cup olive oil
1 egg or egg substitute

Directions:

Pre-heat oven to 350°F

Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and spread a layer of olive oil across the sheet.

Peel eggplants and slice into thin wafers no more than ¼” thick.  Bathe in whipped egg and then coat both sides of eggplant wafers in bread crumbs. 

Lay bread crumb-coated eggplant wafers on oiled cookie sheet and bake about 20 minutes on one side or until they begin to brown.  Remove cookie sheet from oven and flip eggplant over to bake on second side also until lightly browned.  They will come out of the oven with the texture of a cookie that is crispy on the outside and still slightly moist inside.  Serve hot. This recipe will yield two or three sheets of baked eggplant wafers depending on the size of the eggplants.

Save leftovers to snack on either cold or reheated.  Try using some leftovers in a sandwich.

If you try this recipe, let me know if you like it or any variations you may have tried.

The Perth Saturday Market

Vendors set up awning covered booths for the Saturday Market.  Hundreds of people flock to King Edward Street to create a fair-like atmosphere.

Vendors set up awning covered booths for the Saturday Market. Hundreds of people flock to King Edward Street to contribute to a fair-like atmosphere.

Vendors from around the region set up booths just off High Street in Perth from 9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month (and twice in December).  So we grabbed our re-usable grocery bags (which are needed here) and set out to beat the midday rush.  There are about 30 canopies along King Edward Street, few enough that we can stroll by each one and then go back to our favorites.  And that is just what we did.

Seafood

The seafood table had cooked lobster, crab, and fresh salmon. Haddock and sole were the top sellers. The was the busiest booth at the Market.

Jellies

This fellow’s apron reads ‘I Love Hot Pepper Jelly.’ As it turns out, so do I, so I got some. The back label reads ‘After opening store near your plate.’ I love that!

Beer

Paul, the beer guy from St. Andrews told us his company was owned by an American who came to St. Andrews to play golf.  When he asked what the local beer was, he was told there wasn’t any.  So he funded a brewery.  His name is Peter Coors.  After sampling a few I bought some to take home.

Breads

These breads were amazing.  We bought loaves of whole grain sourdough and hazelnut bran. We also got some scones and some of that cake you see in front.

Cheeses

Let’s see, we bought ginger cheddar, cranberry cheddar, grilled onion cheddar and cheddar with chives.  Do you see a pattern here?  She got us with the samples!

Berries

Fresh berries are still in season, so we got some raspberries.

Candyman

Homemade candies – what do you think?

Food Booth1

We could have eaten at the Market, but we had already purchased enough.  We saw much more, too.  The people were open and friendly.  They even seemed to like our “American accents.”  Hmm – I never knew I had an accent. 

There is Nothing Like Home Cooking

The historic Perth Theatre is just down the street from our flat.

The historic Perth Theatre is just down the street from our flat.

A look up the spiral staircase three stories to our apartment

A look up the spiral staircase three stories to our apartment entry

Now that we have our own kitchen, I have begun preparing meals at home. Celeste, if you read this, I want you to know that I am working on a plant-based diet, although I have not given up eggs and cheese. That may come as I find more sources where I can purchase the ingredients I need. I will also be reading the vegetarian and vegan blogs for more ideas. There are mouth watering recipes posted daily, and I look forward to trying lots of them.

A mixture of fresh vegetables served over a bed of basmati rice

A mixture of fresh vegetables served over a bed of basmati rice

Last night’s dinner was a stir fry. We found green, yellow and red bell peppers which added appealing color to the dish. I added zucchini, onion and snap peas plus a fresh mix that included bean sprouts. Stir-fry has to be the easiest veggie dish in the world, and it cooks quickly. The only thing missing was some cashews or sliced almonds to add some texture and flavor. You should not be surprised to learn I added some jalapeño peppers to my serving to spice it up.

Window Shopping

We good shoppers put together our own little library for under $20.

We good shoppers put together our own little library for under $20.

Our casual walks through Perth have revealed some treasures we overlooked previously. We found a frozen food store, Farm Foods, which also offers fresh foods during the growing season. We also found some used books bookstores. This is important to us since we do not have a television. We visited Thornton’s, a UK-based chocolatier, and we picked up a couple of handmade chocolate creams for 50 cents apiece. We checked out the Perth Theatre just down the block from us, the perfect venue for some live entertainment in the weeks ahead. We have a bit more exploring to do. There is supposedly a branch library within a couple of blocks of our apartment, and there is still the Performance Center and cinema to check out.

The historic steam train through Scotland's West Highlands Photo credit: visitscotland.com

The historic steam train through Scotland’s West Highlands
Photo credit: visitscotland.com

I am currently looking over the train schedules to plan our trip along the west coast aboard the historic steam train that goes over a picturesque bridge featured in the Harry Potter movies. Like everything in Perth, the train and bus stations are about six blocks away, and where the trains do not go, the buses do.  There is much yet to see and do.

I look forward to our daily walks.  I look forward to finishing another book and starting a new one.  And I look forward to writing whatever my next story will be.

Cheers from Scotland!