Postcard from Andalucia, Spain: Marching toward Semana Santa

It takes a certain build to be able to port an immense paso, or float, through the streets for the numerous processions that will be held during Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Teams of costaleros, the bearers of the floats, must all be of about the same height and have strong necks.

Costaleros are often encountered at practice, as above, with a training base topped with cinder blocks. Rewarding beer breaks appear part of the team-building practice. As the floats are assembled by members of the church confradias, or brotherhoods, what the porters carry becomes increasingly more elaborate.

In the early evening leading up to Holy Week in Sevilla, almost every church throws open their doors for the faithful to file through to view the heavily gilded pasos.

Ornately crowned Virgens appear front and center in displays in numerous shops, but the most tantalizing windows are those of La Campana, a confectionary store operating in Sevilla since 1885. Chocolate and bon bon Nazarenos parade side by side next to elaborately crafted candied pasos. Could not help wondering about the proper etiquette for eating a chocolate Nazareno. Feet first? The way I used to nibble at chocolate rabbits when Mother wasn’t looking, thinking she would assume the bunnies merely were sinking deeper in the shiny green grass of the basket?

Last evening found us in Cadiz for processions of penitentes slowly, dirge-like slowly, marching to mark Viernes de Pasion, or Viernes de Dolores, the final Friday of Lent commemorating the suffering of the grieving Virgin Mary. Wearing their signature capirotes, hoods with tall points revealing only their eyes, the figures appeared quite grim.

Guilty confession: dinner summoned us before any actual pasos appeared heading our way along the crowded narrow streets. There were a lot of penitentes in the advance guard.

 

Postcard from Turin, Italy: Home to many a food “invention”

Some of the members of the House of Savoy you were introduced to in the prior post get credit for additions to Turin’s distinctive flavors. Grissini, thin crispy Italian breadsticks, were invented to meet special dietary needs of Vittorio Amadeo II (1666-1732). Perhaps most significant to Italians, Emanuele Filiberto (1553-1580) brought the first chocolate to Italy.

As in Spain, the earliest ways to consume chocolate imported from the New World were in a liquid form. This has survived through the centuries in Turin in the form of bicerin, a rich triple-layered beverage (more like a dessert to me) consisting of thick hot chocolate, espresso and foamy cream. Numerous major chocolate factories are found in the city. With hazelnuts the most popular nut, it is not surprising Nutella was created there. Vermouth and Campari originated in Turin; the city is home to the Slow Food movement; and the first Eataly opened there.

The region’s lean grass-fed beef, fassone, seems most popular when consumed ground and raw. Locals eat huge patties of the meat tartare. I was happy my sampling of it was restricted to a petite amuse bouche. Which is partially why I expected the area cuisine to be dominated by head-to-tail meat offerings.

Much to my pleasant surprise, Turin residents prize their locally grown vegetables. There were a remarkable number of vegetarian restaurants, such as the highly regarded somewhat pricey Soul Kitchen. But even our humble homey neighborhood restaurant, Trattoria Alla Locandina, offered several vegetable dishes, including grilled eggplant and fried zucchini blossoms filled with cheese.

Our go-to lunch spot in Turin, E Cucina Torino, was like a reunion with an old friend. We first encountered Chef Cesare Marretti’s concept of providing limited-menu fixed-price meals in Bologna three years ago. Expect locals to be lined up here for the 10-euro special: a starter; a choice of a meat, seafood or vegetarian entrée; a small dessert; a glass of wine; and an espresso. I found myself always falling for the vegetable platter which included a side salad, a mountain of fresh vegetables hiding a vegetable flan underneath and a ball of fresh mozzarella too massive for me to ever conquer. The Mister was more apt to explore the other options.

Then there is the featured photo above, perhaps my favorite dish in Turin: a layered vegetable tian with a gorgonzola and almond sauce at Ristrot Guviol. We encountered wonderful creations emerging from this kitchen. An impressive crab shell arrived atop a dish of spaghetto with crab and grape tomatoes. A ribbon of raw salmon made a bright stripe across a rich risotto, and there was a tagiolini with squid and a crown of mullet roe.

The food of the Piedmont region is without a doubt among the best in Italy.

Farmers bring their bounty to Southtown

Weekend mornings are meant for slow starts. I like to take full advantage of that concept and ease into the day. This means I rarely make it to the farmers markets at Pearl or the Quarry, but Heather Hunter and David Lent actually have brought one to my neighborhood, the Southtown Farmers & Ranchers Market in the parking lot of Blue Star.

I realize early risers get the best picks at a market, and yesterday, as the hand on my watch ticked toward noon, it definitely was too late to ensure a chicken in my pot. Fresh non-GMO and soy-free eggs and whole chickens were all sold out. But there was still an ample supply of most other things remaining for the lazy.

The market’s website profiles the vendors, so hop on over there to get acquainted with the farmers setting up shop every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. But produce isn’t the only thing available.

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For humans, there are raw milk cheeses from Dos Lunas and luscious pastries from Bakery Lorraine; well-behaved dogs can get rewarded with healthy treats such as savory empanadas stuffed with grass-fed beef or “ginger bones” from Katie’s Jar. Gretchen Bee Ranch harvests honey from 100 hives in 10 apiaries located in Bexar and three neighboring counties, and the beeswax candles are beautiful. Lunch for us can be solved with falafel wraps from Señor Veggie or whole-wheat spinach-filled paratha from Nisha’s.

My favorite sampling yesterday was the spicy Aztec dark chocolate from Peggy Cloar’s High Street Chocolate of Comfort. She said she developed her intensely flavored chocolates to accompany red wine tastings at vineyards. No wine around, but they tasted fine without.

September 2, 2013, Update: John Griffin writes about those interesting striped Armenian cucumbers