Sunday, 28 June 2009

Treasures of the Aga Khan

I didn't go out last Friday night, which meant that on Saturday morning I was feeling spritely enough to take in a bit of culture (By spritely I mean that I was simply awake and vertical, I was not doing star jumps or anything of ther sort). Well, I took a walk down to the Caixa Forum, a cultural centre funded by the bank La Caixa (in other words funded by you and me). If I fancy a bit of art I prefer to go here than to the nearby Prado and Reina Sofia museums because it's free to get in but mainly because I never tire of looking at the building and its wonderful 'hanging garden' - the photo taken with my mobile phone above really doesn't do it justice. It's also quite a small gallery, and I can 'do' it in about an hour, thus avoiding the 'museum dizziness' that I tend to get if I'm walking round an enormous gallery for the whole aftenoon. This time round, the main exhibition was the Aga Khan collection (I have to admit, I didn't know who he was until my boyfriend told me) of Islamic art and antiquities gathered from all over the world - it was really interesting to see side by side Korans from China, Indonesia, Turkey, Syria and elsewhere. Also on display were tiles, jewellery, engraved doors, tapestries and more. The exhibits were also explained in perfect English which was a nice touch. Definitely worth a visit (on until 6th September 2009).
Pigeon-shaped insence burner:

Going salt-free

I admit the title for this post is a bit alarmist and exagerrated (and not the most interesting either) 'Drop the salt and come out out of the bulding with your hands on your head!'. No, I am not going to go on a salt-free diet, I am however, going to seriously cut down. I think health and nutrition-wise people fall into 3 main types; those whose bodies are temples and live healthily whether or not they've been told that they should, those who start to make healthy-living measures once they get some kind of warning (from the doctor, a blood test, their scales or otherwise) that their health is not A1, and those who regardless of what they can see happening with their bodies. do not really make any changes. I think I fit into the second category (don't most people?); the past year has given me a few wake up calls regarding my health and though I've been living a slightly healthier lifestyle for a few months now, I feel the next step is to cut down on salt. Well, I'm 2 days in and it's sooo hard! Salt is everywhere, and 75% of it is hidden in processed food. I bemoaned the lack of convenience food in Spain a few posts ago, but with hind sight I thank the Corte Inglés for this scarcity. The other difficulty is eating out (another thing I love about life here), food tends to be quite salty and I don't think restaurants would do special salt-free versions of the dishes on their menus just for my pleasure. Part of the fun of eating out here is the sharing aspect (which usually involves sharing a myriad of delicious salty dishes - huevos estrellados, cecina de León... mmm), and in the past I've been secretly irritated by going out for raciones and then being told I can't order any of my favourite meat dishes because we have a vegetarian in tow (sorry veggie friends ;-)) so we'd end up with plates full of cheese, which I don't like but felt I couldn't protest against as I have no moral or religious reason for my feelings against this dairy product. Well, I'm about to become one of those 'finnicky eaters' 'Sorry, no olives for me - too salty', 'No, no jamon either', 'Clams? No, I believe they're very high in salt'.. God, I'm going to be intensly irritating, but on a more serious note, this does make me realise what nightmare eating out must be for those who are an a restricted diet for some reason.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

A recipe for the start of summer - lemony, creamy vegetable pasta

I based this on the lovely recipe for creamy pasta with lemon and thyme from the wonderful blog Lucillian Delights (May entry). The lemon rind and juice pairs surprisingly well with the pasta. I wish I had a photo, you'll just have to trust me that it looks and tastes good :-) I tried to take a picture with my shoddy camera, but my lack of skill behind the lens made this delightful dish look like either school dinner or worse still, prison food. But don't be put off, try it, it's yummy.

Ingredients (for 2):
  • 2 big handfuls of pasta or enough for 2 people (use a good italian brand - I prefer something like shells or spirals that will 'catch' the juices)
  • Grated rind of a bit less than 1 lemon
  • Juice of a bit less than half a lemon (check to taste)
  • Creme fraiche (or marscapone with a bit of cream whisked in), about 3 tablespoonfuls
  • Generous pinch of dried or fresh thyme
  • A selection of green vegetables (a handful, chopped should be enough): skinny green asparagus if they're in season, spring onions, baby florets of broccoli, spinach (apart from the spinach cut these up into quite delicate pieces, you don't want them to be much bigger than the pieces of pasta, also I wouldn't add all of these vegetables, maybe just a selection of 3)
  • Olive oil
  • Butter

Start to cook you pasta. In the meantime heat a little olive oil and butter in a frying pan, add the lemon rind and thyme and soften it a little on a medium heat for about 2 minutes. Add your green vegetables (though if you're using spinach don't add it till a bit later), Cook your vegetables till they are tender but still have quite a bit of crunch and colour (about 5 minutes). Add about half of your creme fraiche, mix in, add a little lemon, mix - add/adjust creme fraiche and lemon till you get the right taste (you don't want it to be excessivley lemony, and you don't want to add so much cream that it waters down the lemon and vegetables too much. Allow to bubble for a minute or so, add pepper to taste. Stir in the cooked pasta. Enjoy!

This is also great of you add cubes of fresh salmon a couple of minutes after you add the vegetables. (Would probably work with smoked salmon too).

A head start

You do sometimes hear of people (particularly the 'ultra successful') who wake up a few hours before everyone else in the morning to get a head start on the day. Margartet Thatcher got by on only 4 hours sleep a day (and was certainly ultra successful and some might say ultra evil with all that extra schemeing time), as a child Obama's mum would wake him up at 4 a.m. to do extra school work as she was well-aware of the negative effect dragging him around the world was having on his schooling. I myself often wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. and instead of dedicating this extra time to useful matters I get a cup of hot milk and stick on CNN in the hope that viewing repeated images of the horrors happening around us will help me fall asleep(?)... in fact today is one of those mornings, but instead of watching the box, I'm blogging. Ultra successful, maybe not, but who knows it may be today 5.a.m. blogging, tomorrow 5am run round the block, starting a novel, who knows... One thing that is true, is that at 5am on a Wednesday morning my noisy road is blissfully silent, making it the perfect time to concentrate on anything.

Monday, 15 June 2009

I love Spain but...

Can’t help it: I start thinking about the positive aspects of something, and the little negative (honest) voice in me starts piping up with the ‘other side of the story’. So, to follow my previous post on 10 things I’d miss about Spain if I left, here are ‘5 things I wouldn’t miss at all’ ;-) As a sort of disclaimer, I feel I should mention that if I were to write a list of the negative aspects of the UK or Sudan (my 2 countries of origin) it would be much longer!

1. The customer service. I read somewhere (can’t remember where), before packing all my belongings into a suitcase and jumping on the Eurostar, that in Spain the customer isn’t always right, and in fact the customer is at times a mere nuisance. And I have since found this statement to be at least partially true. Take the Corte Inglés (famed for having the best service in the country – maybe because for a long time it was the only shop where you could get a cash refund); for me a typical experience at the Corte Inglés involves being stalked by the ‘helpful’ staff who either have mistaken you for a shoplifter or feel that hovering over your shoulder whilst you’re trying to concentrate on choosing a new brand of toothpaste is in some way beneficial to you. Ironically, when you finally make up your mind which toothpaste you want and need to find someone to sell it to you, the woman who practically had a homing device on you 5 minutes before is now unexplicably busy counting pieces of paper, chatting to a colleague or doing some other ‘urgent’ task, and as such cannot sell you your tube of Colgate. I could repeat similar stories (which I’ve told before) about trendy restaurants where trendy-but-sulky waitstaff throw food at you as if your being in the restaurant has personally offended them in some way. However, as Spain is often the land of extremes, when you do get good service it’s great – efficient, quick, discreet and with a smile. I had always assumed that the unpredictability of the service in Spain was simply due to some shop assistants being nice people and others being not so nice, but a few months ago I realised this wasn’t the case: I was a pharmacy in Madrid and was served by a delightful young lady, the next day I returned to the pharmacy and it was as if she’d had a personality transplant! The girl who was smiley, helpful and warm the day before was now cold, moody and offhand. I cast my mind back to the designers I used to work with in my old company in Madrid – when they were having a bad day, they saw no reason to hide it and put on fake smile. I then pictured myself and other British colleagues at work and realised that come what may we tend to act as if ‘everything’s ok’ – call it fake, call it stiff upper lip – as a nation we often just don’t show how we’re feeling, whereas here it’s more common to express your feelings outwardly, be they positive or negative. My thoughts on this? Part of me says ‘I don’t give a damn if you’re having a bad day, I’m the customer, be nice!’, the other part of me recognises that it’s healthy to release you’re emotions (I say this in the knowledge that I have actually made myself physically ill in the past by holding in pent up emotions and not shouting and giving people a piece of my mind when needed). And in 7 years here I’ve become more tolerant - whilst I used to get annoyed at shop assistants talking for too long to the customer in front of me in the queue, I’ve now learnt that this is a part of the experience for some shoppers (in particular the grannies) who enjoy this chance to have a chin wag with the shop assistant. So nowadays I just wait my turn and have a good old chat at the till too (and make all the other losers wait behind me).

2. Lack of convenience food. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for home-cooked meals, and ‘proper’ food is one of the things that makes Spain great, but sometimes you get in from work after a long day and you just can’t face a take-away or worse still chopping vegetables or sauteeing anything, you just want to grab something and eat it. But what to eat? I’m not eating a banana for dinner, or a squishy roll of bollería industrial (see next point); and I know it only takes 5 minutes to fry a filete and slice a tomato, but sometimes I don’t want to do anything that involves more than simply pushing a button (lazy, I know). At times like this, I need Marks and Spencers, on hand with ready-made peking duck/dim sum/lamb biryani/beef wellington to stick in the microwave. This ‘negative’ is obviously a blessing in disguise; I’m aware that we eat a lot of crap in the UK, and convenience food forms a large part of this, but just once in a while I’d like the option of a fuss-free but delicious dinner that is ready in 3 minutes. Of course when in Rome... what I should do is adapt myself to the big-lunch, light dinner culture that people here follow, but the fact is that if I have a 3-course menu del día for lunch I promptly slip into a food-coma the minute I’m back in the office...

3. Bollería industrial. Food here is great, more than great, it’s amazing. But for some reason when it comes to sweet treats, it sort of goes awry... There are a handful of good desserts (Crema Catalana, Tarta de Santiago...) but when you want something to go with a cup of tea or as an evening snack, unless you go to some fancy artisan baker, you’re pretty much limited to bollería industrial – in other words pre-packaged, chemical-laden versions of pastries such as croissants, pan au chocalat and milk bread. I don’t know what kinds of preservatives they put in these, but the fact that I have witnessed opened packs of these lasting 2 months without refrigeration is enough to put me off! Even more worryingly, these are marketed as healthy foods (‘each bun contains 2 glasses of milk and natural chocolate, plus added iron, soya and Q10’) to feed to your children on a daily basis.

4. The red tape, the bureucracy. It perhaps isn’t fair to include this as bureucracy is a problem in all countries, and I have Spanish friends who said they found it virtually impossible to do simple things like open a bank account when they lived in the UK. It’s just that I have stood in so many queues, had so many fights with funcionarios (civil servants), and it sometimes seems that you need a piece of paper to merely breath. And in order to get that piece of paper you need to get 5 other pieces of paper from 5 different council offices, then photocopy and hand them in, submit 3 passport photos, go to a police station, hand in 2 recent bills to prove your address, queue from 6 in the morning outside some government office only to be told at 2pm when you get to the front of the line, that the offices are now closing for the day... Grrrrrr!

5. Grannies that jump the queue. Beware - those sweet little old ladies you see in your local Carrefour are not all they seem! Beneath the harmless facade of wire-rimmed spectacles and floral poly-cotton dress is a sumo wrestler waiting to get out. In the supermarket, at the butcher’s, at the doctor’s, this formidable silver-haired army have mastered a variety of techniques to make sure they get served first and you (a supposedly young, agile adult with your all your faculties present and your wits about you) get served last. How do they do this? Well, there are various techniques; one, which I like to call ‘sidling’ is one of the most lethal – the granny joins the queue at your side, instead of behind you. But she remains a few inches back so that you don’t feel too threatened, you’re about to get to the till and she swoops in right in front of you like an eagle. All this is done whilst rigorously avoiding eye contact with you, a sort of ‘if I can’t see you, you can’t see me game’. Others simply ask you, ‘I’ve only got this loaf of bread and some batteries, can I go first?’ In cases like this I always let them in, but then start thinking to myself ‘hey, I’m on my lunch break rushing to get my weekly shop, and you’ve got all day to hang around here, no, you can’t go first!!’

Monday, 8 June 2009


My sister Mimi recently went to see Obama speak at the American University in Cairo. Obviously, he was amazing, and by the end of the speech even non-Obamites were smitten with him. Apart from talking common sense, he just seems to have a sort of human touch and warmth that make you want to believe him. The photo above from Obama's wedding is so cute, and somehow I can't imagine the likes of Bush or Tony Blair in similarly relaxed wedding snapshots (though they too were once human I'd imagine).

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Putting things in order

I've been tidying up a lot of things in my life lately, and I feel my blog should not be exempt from this little project. The name, I have been told, isn't great. Personally, I don't have a huge problem with it, but I do think that the current name isn't remotely relevant or imaginative (it's not like I'm writing an account of madrileño life or anything). That said, if I did change it, what would I change it to? I can't have anything too prescriptive that mentions food, design or any of my interests as this blog is really a bit of everything (and 'Nadya's pantry' is just eeeww, eeew!) , at the same time I don't want anything that's clever but meaningless along the lines of 'spoken but not heard' (sorry, that was an example of meaningless and not particularly clever either) I don't know. Answers on a postcard please.

Even better

I think my BP is getting better, and everyone seems to notice it :-)

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

10 things I'd miss about Spain if I left

This is a post I've kind of had half-written in my head for about a month now, and just hadn't got round to writing. Then I saw something similar on David Lebovitz's blog (American pastry chef in Paris and seriosuly funny guy) who's done his own list on Paris which inspired me to put pen to paper (or cursor to screen??) and do my own. The only difference is that he's thought of 15 things he'd miss, but I've done a list of just 10 - maybe he likes Paris more than I like Spain ;-) By the way, I can completely relate to his comment about being asked a squillion times a day why he came here! I might just put my answer to that question on business cards and shove them into people's hands as soon as I meet them for the first time.

Like Mr Lebovitz, much of what I'd miss here is culinary, though unlike him I wouldn't miss certain aspects of civic behaviour - he actually claims he'd miss Parisian queue jumping, which Spanish grannies are experts at (Note, I am in no way suggesting here that British people behave well in public either, we misbehave but in a different way, more along the lines of getting drunk and beating the hell out of anyone who glances at us, or alternately showing them our bums).

So what would I miss? (apart from the people I care about, who I would obviously miss terribly):

1. The weather , the weather, the weather.

2. The pharmacies. Spain is the land of pharmacies, there's a pristine, white-walled, well-stocked farmácia on every street corner of every city. And as soon as I walk into one I start to feel better. Pharmacists here are more helpful than the staff in any other vending establishment in the country (my suspicious mind wonders if this is because pharmacies are notoriously lucrative - of course they're smiling and cheerful as they take a 50 euro note off you and ching-ching the till - ok, I know modern tills don't go 'ching-ching'). Pharmacies here also sell magic things - no tubes of dried up Barry M lipstick and Dettol like those skanky corner pharmacies in the UK. No, here you get pots of magic cream made by expert French, Spanish and Swiss chemists that promise to get rid of your cellulite/open pores/lethargy/love handles/unmentionable condition in 30 days - and you know what, a lot of them actually kind of work. You can also get much stronger medication than in the UK, and no-one will ask you if you've been having suicidal thoughts just because you ask for a box of Aspirin which contains more than 5 pills. The jolly men and women in white coats are also on hand to advise you as necessary, take your blood pressure or even check out your skin for sun damage using a scanner. Lots of the pharmacies also retain their original old-school decor with decorative wooden shelves and charming little apothecary jars. My favourite pharmacy on c/Arenal in Madrid reminds me of a Swiss bank -when you ask for a product, it shoots up a sort of suction pipe from the underground drug vault straight to the till. Very James Bond.

3. Throwing stuff on the floor in bars. This is a refreshingly liberating activity for anyone that comes from the UK (otherwise known as 'the land of rules'). 'I've smoked my cigarette down to the butt, no ashtray? Never mind, just chuck it on the floor'. 'What to do with these prawn shells? On the floor'. 'The napkin? That too, just drop it'. I'm not sure this is the practice everywhere, I wouldn't do it anywhere especially smart (and to be honest, I have never been able to bring myself to throw anything more organic than a fag-end on the floor) - in fact a Galician friend's mum says they would never do that 'up there', so maybe it's just a Madrid thing? Anyway, from time to time, I like it (there's something so satisfying about messing up something that's not yours, a bit like the way we fold our clothes when we are at home, but tend to lapse into messy teenagers when we stay in nice hotels).

4. Everyone calling you guapa (beautiful) as a term of endearment, even if you look like you've just done 3 rounds with Mike Tyson.

5. Sea food. The seafood here is great; I came here 7 years ago barely initiated in king prawns and mussels, and since then have moved on to octopus, lobster, clams, and all manner of ugly but delicious things from the sea. I really can't understand why an island race like the British don't eat more seafood?

6. Another bar-related one - the bar/eating out culture. There seem to be delicious (and reasonably-priced) things to eat and drink on every street corner. I have never eaten out as much in my life as I do here; greasy discs of yummy salchichon in spit-and-sawdust 'old men' bars with the most unflattering neon lighting in the world, vermouth for a weekend morning aperitivo, churros dipped in cups of thick gloopy hot chocolate for an early evening treat, canapes galore - foie and caramelised onion or perhaps acorn-fed ham and tomato, paellas by the sea with the saffrony rice catching slightly to the bottom of the pan, creating yummy crusty bits (on second thoughts, maybe the words yummy, crusty and bits should never be used in the same sentence). My God I'm getting hungry just writing this, and can't believe after 7 years here I'm not clinically obese (the real reason I'm not obese is because contrary to popular belief you can eat badly in Spain, and the menu del día at the bar near my office is so gross that I can't bring myself to eat more than a spoonfull of it - hence the skinnyness)

7. Being able to wear sunglasses in Winter and no-one saying a thing. The little fashionista in me will never forget being a 16-year-old A-level student in Nottingham, on my way home from art class one grey afternoon, looking what I believed to be very stylish in black tights, and enormous cream wool belted, tassled cardigan, Justine Frischmann from Elastica haircut and big black sunglasses, only to be hollered at by at least 2 passing lorry drivers 'it's not sunny luv!' - I wanted the Earth to swallow me up. The only time I don't wear sunglasses outdoors in Spain is if it's night-time - this has resulted in me having the photosensitive eyes of a mole, but never mind, at least I look cool.

8. The directness of the people, ok this chafed a bit in the beginning and still does sometimes, but at least in the workplace, it's a refreshing change from all those indirect questions and phrases we use in the UK, and frankly it saves time. Compare: Send me the graphs today, please to Do you think you'd be able to send me the graphs sometime this week?

9. Lack of classism. Ok, when you get someone snobby in Spain they tend to be overtly and obviously so in every sense of the word; but in general it's quite refreshing the way people from different backgrounds mix quite easily when their paths cross. In the UK, I always get the impression that the average man/woman on the street doesn't feel very comfortable conversing with someone from a very different background (whether they're culturally different, have a different accent to them or simply earn a lot more or less than them), it's not that we hate people from different backgrounds, just that maybe we fear we might say the wrong thing and look silly. Although in any country like generaly attracts like, I feel this is less pronounced in Spain at least in public life, and if you (in your chavvy tracksuit and acrylic nails/Barbour jacket, beige cords and riding boots) happen to get stuck in a queue at the airport with someone who obviously comes from quite the opposite background - it's absolutely fine to strike up a conversation with them, and dare I say, have a laugh (obviously you would never invite them to your house for dinner though), the same goes at work - secretaries mix with managers, even go for after-work drinks with them in a way that I don't remember being so common back 'on the isles'.

10. The geniuses. Now don't get me wrong, I don't spend much time hanging out with geniuses, and trust me, the average person here is just as average as anyone in the UK or elsewhere. But amidst the whole sea of normal people plodding about with their business Spain seems to have this ability to create these super-high-achievers in just about every field (this is esceially surprising considering that Spain can be, at times, quite an inward-looking country). Think football (loads of craks), tennis (Rafa Nadal), art (Picasso, Dalí, Miró, Sorollo, Goya, Velasquez...) architecture (Gaudí, Calatrava...), cookery (Ferran Adría...). And many, many more in many fields. (I really am starting to sound like a pelota, or in other words, kiss ass)

Monday, 1 June 2009

Waiting for Amazon

For some reason awaiting a parcel from Amazon is something I find incredibly exciting. Not sure why... it might be the joy of receiving books in my own language (English, in case anyone was wondering) that I can't get so easily here in Spain? Is it perhaps because I forget that I've placed an order and a few weeks later I get this 'present' in the post from a 'mystery friend' that makes the experience somehow superior to going into a bookshop and buying books on the spot? Or maybe it's because I get them to deliver to the office, and a stressful or monotonous working day gets broken up with this pleasant 'surprise'?? Who knows, I'm obviously very easily pleased... Well I'm currently awaiting my latest batch of books from Amazon - this time on sushi, something which I keep harping on about making but always tell myself will be near-impossible to do without a 10-year training apprenticeship in Japan. So why bother? Because I love it, but risk bankrupting myself - and others :-) - if I insist on eating it everyday. Plus it's good for you, which is so in keeping with the new and healthy(ish) me. I've also ordered a bamboo mat for rolling maki; so once the books arrive all I'll need is to make a trip to the local Japanese supermarket for supplies, sharpen my knives (can you really do that with a leather belt?) and await the rice-cooker that I'm sure someone will by me for my birthday ;-) (no pressure to buy me a rice-cooker by the way)

In the meantime I could amuse myself and stave of the cravings by buying a set of these miniature sets of 'toy' sushi from re-ment (the photo above isn't actually real food). At times like this, knowing Japanese would really be a bonus, as I'm completely incapable of navigating the site. I don't know if these are toys or collectibles, but I like them in the kind of geeky way that I like Lego or origami.

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