Monday, December 30, 2013

A look back at 2013

As the year is about to close, here's a look back at some of my favorite memories from 2013.  It was a year filled with my old favorite cities, with new favorite cities, with amazing bites and sips, and with meeting some of the best chefs in the world.  What a year!

I can't wait to see what 2014 will have to offer...

Started the year with a beach resort vacation in Bohol

Patatas bravas in Hong Kong's ViCool.  From the mastermind of Spain's Sergi Arola

A memorable birthday meal at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Hong Kong.  Lobster and uni - what more can a girl ask for?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Segovian Cochinillo in the flesh - the milky pig flesh surrounded by airy crispy skin.

Segovia.  Occupied by the Romans in 80 BC, housed the royal residence in the 15th century during the reign of Queen Isabel, and has an Alcazar which inspired Walt Disney to design California Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty castle.

If you're looking for a day trip out of Madrid, you must put Segovia on your list.  The aqueduct alone is worth the trip.  It is the most awe inspiring structure located in the heart of the city.  Built in the 1st century AD, the Acueducto is ENORMOUS.  862 meters long, reaching up to 28 meters high, with 163 arches.  When it was built, there was not a drop of mortar holding the over 20,000 blocks of uneven granite.  That is serious ingenuity, engineering, and labor.

And, of course, you can't go to Segovia and not eat.  You can't go, and not eat the cochinillo asado.  The region's specialty roasted baby pig.  It sounds horrible that it's a baby pig.  But, seriously, this is one of the best things I've ever eaten - and I'm from the Philippines.  We have a lot of lechon and cochinillo over here.

Right next to the aqueduct is Mesón de Cándido.  Run by family generations and hailed by celebrities and chefs from around the world.  This is the place to go to really enjoy this region's perfection for cooking cochinillo.

Here's a short clip of the plate cutting ceremony for our Segovian cochinillo.  Yes, it's so ridiculously tender, it's cut with a plate:

Segovia's Acueducto

Monday, December 23, 2013

Walking through Toledo's history

Spain's cities are filled with walks through history.  Toledo is no exception.  The heart of Toledo is in its Old Town.  After a series of escalator connections (or if you want, you can always trek up the steep uphill climb), you enter into the town's historic quarter.

All of the major sights are within walking distance.  You can easily spend one afternoon in Toledo.  The Catedral is an attraction worth your time.  This cathedral is said to be the heart of Catholic Spain.  Paintings and masterpieces are from famous Spanish artists.  A lavish tesoro, or monstrance, full of gold and silver is in display until its once a year parade.  The high altar is one of the most decorated and gaudy pieces of art I've ever seen.  Everything is extravagant and perfectly tells the history of Spain, its previous wealth, and its participation in Catholicism.

Aside from history, Toledo also has a food specialty.  Mazapan!  Prior to this trip, I was only familiar with marzipan; and I was not a fan.  Marzipan is too sweet and put together.  It's like overly sugared soft candy.  Mazapan completely changed my perception.  It has just the right amount of sweetness and bite to appreciate the quality of the almonds.

Toledo is a perfect destination if you're looking for a day trip out of Madrid.  You take a break from the city streets and can have a full day of walking through history.

The view from the escalator ride up to the Old Town

The narrow streets of Toledo.  Cars beware!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid

In the center of Madrid, next to Plaza Mayor, is another one of the capital's oldest markets, Mercado de San Miguel.  Built in 1916, the market renovated to incorporate modernism against the cast-iron architecture.  This is a traditional market for the 21st century and it bills itself as a culinary cultural centre.

33 food purveyors offer products to take home and/or consume on the premises.  In the center of the mercado are bar tables to leisurely enjoy the food and beverages sold at the market.  During day time hours, fresh ingredients like fish, meat, and fruits are sold.  At night, tapas, beer, and wine are the highlights of the market.

Mercado de San Miguel and Mercado de San Antón are a couple of the best places for food lovers in Madrid, both for locals and for tourists.  They highlight quality ingredients to take home, as well as traditional and modern tapas to enjoy on the spot.  Markets are really the place to live and learn the ways of the locals.

Mercado de San Miguel

Modern with traditional

The entrance

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mercado de San Antón in Madrid

After falling in love with markets in San Sebastian and Valencia, I was more than ready for markets in Spain's capital.

The first of the two markets (the second will be featured in my next post) is Mercado de San Antón.  A market literally around the corner from our hotel in the Chueca barrio.  It's a district full of boutique shops and neighborhood restaurants and bars.

The mercado is an three-story indoor market featuring farm fresh local produce.  The building and market was constructed in 1945, one of the oldest markets in the city.  In 2011, the government commissioned to renovate the market to bring it into the 21st century.  It's now one of the places to buy food while savoring it on the spot as well.

The market is full of delis, bakeries, butchers, fishmongers, etc on the first floor.  On the second floor there are tapas vendors, Greek cuisine, Italian cuisine, fresh seafood, desserts, and, of course, a wine bar.  On the third floor is a restaurant both indoors and with a roof terrace.  This is a place you can keep coming back to for lunch, merienda, and dinner.  In fact in the few nights were based in Madrid, we enjoyed three meals here.  The second floor is my favorite of the three.  You get to choose a variety of foods and enjoy it family style on bar height tables.  Seriously, Madrileños know how to eat well.

Mercado de San Antón

3 floors of food and eating

Monday, December 16, 2013

Madrid: Pride of city with endless amazing eats.

Madrid!  One of my absolute favorite cities in the world.  I was worried that I would be letdown after finally coming back to this city ten years later.  Wow, the city is far cooler and far better than I remember.  Madrid is still and most definitely one of the my favorite cities in the world.

It's a true city and capital full of history and culture, and it's clean.  Madrid is so alive, so trendy and fashionable while not being arrogant or stiff.  There are newer barrios and neighborhoods that are walkable and full of life and food, too.

El Corte Ingles is a standard stop for some department store shopping, grocery shopping, and eating.  It is the biggest department store group in Europe, and it's the only remaining department store in Spain.  The Gran Via location has a great Gourmet Experience on the top floor with fantastic views of the city.  You can take it all in while enjoying a selection of tapas and cuisines from around the world.

Madrid is also a city to sample the Spanish classic: churros con chocolate.  Books and Internet research lead me to Chocolateria Valor and Chocolateria San Gines.  Valor is a big name chocolate brand in Spain.  Despite the name and reviews, I actually preferred San Gines.  It has a hype for attracting decades of celebrities and big names.  The churros were fresh and crispy and the chocolate had that right amount of sweetness and darkness.  The experience of eating churros con chocolate can be done at any time of the day.  Locals, though, are known to indulge in this sweet, fried goodness in the wee hours of the morning after a long night out.  In fact, Chocolateria San Gines' hours are 9:30am to 7:00am.  Madrileños know how to party and to live, and to eat.

Walking around Madrid 

Friday, December 13, 2013

History in Seville

Our main purpose driving to southern Spain was for Jerez and Jabugo.  Sherry, tocino del cielo, and jamón.  In order to have these two day trips, we researched a city within driving distance.  Jerez does have a selection of hotels, but I'm always on the lookout for newer and clean hotels.  So that lead us to have a three day hub in the capital of Andalusia.

Seville, or Sevilla to the locals, is the region's biggest city.  In the heart of it, you can walk through centuries of medieval architecture.  Seville is an old city, though, which smells of its many horse drawn carriages trotting around the plazas and streets.  In its successful marketing, the city has drawn numerous tourists to take in this southern culture.

One of the highlights of Seville is its cathedral.  The Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede.  It is the largest Gothic cathedral and the third largest church in the world.  Also, the cathedral houses the burial site of Christopher Columbus.

Because of Seville's history of cultures and religions, a segment of the cathedral is attached to an ancient mosque.  The bell tower, La Giralda, is famously a minaret from the former mosque.

Seville is a city full of history.  You can feel a bit of a grit and age in the city, as well as the chaos from hoards of tourists.  With that said, if you visit Seville be very careful of your belongings.  We experienced a man scouting our table and then acting drunk in an attempt to get to our bags.

Seville Cathedral's enormity 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Jabugo, Spain: Little Village, Huge Jamón

In a small village with a population of just over 2,500, lies one of the most important food landmarks in Spain: Jabugo.

Tucked away in the province of Huelva between the lush chestnut and oak trees, Jabugo is the dwelling place of some of the best jamón in the country.  Cold, dry winters, mild springs, and hot summers provide a unique environment for these Iberian pigs.

This little village is a great place to spend an afternoon breathing in the beautiful smell of cured ham.  Jabugo hams (as well as jamón from Salamanca) stand out among the best in the country because of their high quality of breeding and curing.

This is the place to buy jamón at an unbeatable price - as this is straight from the source.  Monte Sierra is a great stop for jamón and for a tour during the week days.  Cinco Jotas is a known brand for its high standards and quality.  Along the town's main street also lies Las Bellotas, a restaurant featuring Cinco Jotas/Sancho Romero Carvajal products.  This is a nice place to relax and sample before purchasing bigger quantities to take home.

If you love jamón and you're in Spain, it's worthwhile the trip into this little province town that holds so much value to the country.

The streets of Jabugo

The statute representing the jamón workers of Jabugo

A monument representing the village of Jabugo and its generations of workers whose hands tirelessly work everyday to produce this golden jamón, their unique jamón

Jamón legs upon jamón legs!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Tio Pepe Sherry Tasting in Jerez

Aside from the amazing tocino del cielo, Jerez is also known for its sherry production.  Sherry is fortified wine from white grapes grown in this Andalucian province.  Naturally, Jerez is home to over 20 sherry bodegaas.

The most famous bodega is Bodegas González Byass, also known as Bodegas Tio Pepe.  It is one of the biggest sherry houses, just next to the Alcázar and Cathedral.  Their sherry production opened in 1835 by Manuel María González Angel, who partnered with Robert Blake Byass.  The infamous sherry, Tio Pepe, was named after his favorite uncle and advisor, Tio Pepe.  The bodega opened in 1963 and has expanded over the years.  Today the company is run by 4th and 5th generation González family members.

The best way to learn about this bodega and the process of sherry production is by taking their tour.  There are several tours throughout the day in English, Spanish, German, and French.  Reservations can be made online and you pay when you get there.  The tours include 2 to 4 tastes of sherry and an option for tapas with your tasting.  It's only 18.50 Euro for 4 tastings and tapas.  It's worth it, and the sherry buzz you get afterwards is fun.

Tio Pepe Statue

Outside Bodegas Tio Pepe/Bodegas Gonzalez Byass

Friday, December 06, 2013

Taking in Andalucian culture in Jerez. And falling in love with their tocino del cielo.

Jerez de la Frontera is arguably one of the destinations to discover the heart of Andalucia.  It has the horse culture and the flair for flamenco.  The larger cities like Seville and Granada get more of the attention with their numerous buildings and monuments.  But, Jerez is a wonderful place to explore and to taste some of Spain's most known specialties: sherry and tocino del cielo - our two reasons to drive to Jerez for the day.

We arrived into Jerez from Seville an hour before our tour time at Tio Pepe/Gonzalez Byass Bodega (the infamous sherry producers.  More on our Tio Pepe tour in my next post).  To kill time we explored the surrounding area which holds a couple of Jerez's most known structures.  The Alcázar is a former Moorish fortress which now houses a beautiful park.  The first of the fortresses dates back to the 11th century.  Nearby is the Catedral de San Salvador.  It was built in the 17th century and became a cathedral in 1980 by Pope John Paul II.

Apart from the sherry, we were in Jerez's for one of their
most famous creations: tocino del cielo.  It translates to bacon from heaven.  It's an iconic Spanish dessert named because of its caramelized appearance, heavenly texture, and religious origin.  Tocino del cielo was created in the Convent of the Holy Spirit of Jerez de la Frontera by nuns who were given egg yolks from their neighboring sherry producers (because sherry is clarified with egg whites).

After some internet research and advice from some locals, we knew there was only one place to try it, La Rosa de Oro - neighborhood pastelería with Spanish cakes, pastries, ice creams, and sweet drinks.  It's a place for locals to savor an afternoon snack and for kids to get a treat after school.

Hands down, their tocino del cielo was the best dessert I had on the entire trip.  I'm willing to drive back to Jerez for more of this.  I can still taste the caramelized sweet silky texture.  Seriously from heaven.

Near the pastelería was a local grocery.  It was so fun to see all the local goods found only in Spain.  You can host your own tapas party at home and not have to cook a thing!

An entrance to Alcázar

The courtyard

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Touring like a local in Valencia's markets

And back to the focus of our trip - markets!  Valencia has one of the best markets in Spain.  Coming from La Boqueria in Barcelona, I was ready for other markets less known.  Mercat Central, or Central Mercado or Central Market, is one of the oldest running food markets in Europe.

La Boqueria is so famous and talked about consistently, but I actually prefer Valencia's market.  There are less ready to eat foods compared to La Boqueria, but there are far far less tourists and crowds.  The market is so clean and well-lit with natural sky lights.  On top of that, the vendors are incredibly friendly and so happy to explain their products and how to properly utilize them.  This is the best place to get a feel of local life and local living in Valencia.

In another part of town, L'Eixample, Mercado de Colón is a former market built in 1916.  In 2003 the space was renovated to house boutique shops and cafés, with a lower floor containing a cafetería, wine shop, deli, and spaces for events.  It is a perfect stop for an afternoon drink and snack.  The deli below also has some great ingredients to take away and cook at home, if you happen to have a kitchen where you are staying.

Mercat Central

Monday, December 02, 2013

History and Modernity in Valencia

Valencia, Spain's third largest city, is known for the beautiful City of Arts and Sciences structures and the birthplace of paella (more on Valencia's paella in my next post about Valencia's markets).  It is a beautiful coastal city that combines history and modernity, and it's worth taking the time explore.

The City of Arts and Sciences, or Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencas, is an entertainment based cultural and architectural complex.  It is the most important and known tourist destination in the city.  The structures began in 1996, with the latest addition inaugurated in 2005.

There are currently 7 structures, including an IMAX cinema and planetarium, an interactive science museum, a landscaped walk, the largest oceanographic aquarium in Europe, an opera house and performing arts center, a suspension bridge, and a covered plaza for concerts and sporting events.  It sounds like a lot and in person it's even more incredible to see the architecture and modernity.

Balancing the modernity is the appreciation of history.  The Valencia Cathedral, also known as the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady of Valencia, was built between the 13th to 15th centuries.  Christians, historians, and Indiana Jones fans will find it fascinating to learn that one of the chapels in this cathedral holds one of the Holy Chalices - as in, the true Holy Grail.  Christian historians say this is evidence that this chalice is a likely candidate for being the authentic cup used at the Last Supper.  It was also used by many popes, including Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

Aside from appreciating Valencia's architecture and history, there is also plenty to eat - it's Spain, after all.  Valencia is known for their chufa nuts, or tiger nuts.  The key ingredient in horchata.  There are a few famous horchaterias in the city.  We saw two of them which are right across from each other.  Horchateria El Siglo and Horchateria Sta. Catalina.  After trying one horchata in Sta. Catalina, we reached our sugar capacity with just a couple of sips.  Wow, it's incredibly sweet, and not in a way I like at all.  If you love super sweet things, you may enjoy this.  I actually preferred the horchata in Ca'n Joan de S'Aigo in Palma, which used almonds instead of tiger nuts.  It was way less sweet and had a nuttier taste as opposed to the tiger nuts' earthier taste.

Valencia's Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencas
The City of Arts and Sciences