Friday, December 31, 2010

Twelve Grapes till Midnight

OK, Hispanophiles – ready your grapes!

The first time I ever participated in the mysterious Spanish grape ritual was years ago with a group of people –whose names I have long forgot, since I had only met them a few hours earlier on the train – in the Puerta del Sol on what had to be the hottest New Year’s Eve on record.  Still, it was fun trying to cram our mouths with grapes or time their chewing appropriately.  Some people had brought peeled grapes, which I would say is the way to go if you really want efficiency.

grapes

This Spanish custom, which is now spreading throughout the Spanish speaking and even Anglo world – I’m sure I’ll see some folks here in St Augustine tonight chomping down on their grapes – actually originated in 1909 as a commercial promotion after a bumper grape harvest in Northern Spain.  It was obviously a “custom” waiting for its moment!

But whatever and wherever, ¡ Buen Año Nuevo! Happy 2011!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas–and ¡Turrón!

This has been a very silent Fall on Towers of Avila, since travels and a medical problem have kept me away from my desk. But now I’m back, just in time for Christmas…not, alas, Christmas in Spain this year, but Christmas nonetheless, with a few Spanish touches.

Anyone who has ever been to Spain at Christmastime will be familiar with turrón, the traditional honey nougat candy that comes in a wide (and growing) variety of styles and flavors. My favorite is the so-called “turrón de Alicante,” which is a simple, hard nougat studded with almonds and encased in papery wafers on either side.

But there are other people who love soft turrón, which is somewhat the texture of halvah (for you New Yorkers out there) and now comes in every flavor from coconut to tutti frutti.  The more somber early versions included yema, in the style of the egg-yolk candy popular in Avila, or chestnut or other nut-based delights.   Below you see my 2006 photo of blocks of soft turrón in the window of a shop in Madrid.  The brown block has glazed chestnuts on top; the golden brown block is yema quemada, where they have run it under a broiler or a salamander to caramelize the topping. And of course, there’s coconut and something pink, possibly a berry flavor.

TurronesMadrid2006

At the top of the stack, you will see (not very well because of the reflection on the plastic wrap) a large, blue-eyed marzipan anguilla or eel. These are also traditional.  The slightly better photos below reveal that they are elaborately decorated. Marzipan figures are popular at all times of the year in Spain and are a very ancient sweet. They are particularly popular in this season, and in fact the eels appear only at Christmas.

MazapanMadrid2006

But this year I was unable to get to Spain for Christmas, so I had to take emergency measures: I ordered some turrón and figuritas de mazapán from the on-line Spanish food supplier La Tienda.  They are made by the company 1880, a very respectable large commercial producer. While their products are obviously not going to be exactly like the ones you might buy from that beautiful little shop not far from the Puerta del Sol, they’re quite good. I got a box of turrón and a box of figuritas, although of course it contained nothing as elaborate as the eel and runs more to stars and geometric shapes. But turrón is turrón, and now I really feel that I can get into the Christmas spirit.

Turron1880

¡Felices Navidades a todos!