29 March 2013

Day Trips in Catalonia: Exploring Spain's Delta de l'Ebre


On John's recent birthday, we made our way to the Delta de l'Ebre and explored the flatlands of Spanish rice paddies with one goal in mind: to see flamingos. If you've never considered a flamingo as one of your own birthday goals, I suggest you begin working on that.
Our first sighting of distant neon pink in the Delta de l'Ebre
We careened through the desolate expanse of soggy, never-ending flats that would soon be flooded for the rice growing season, and finally made our way to the marshes that bordered the beach. And there we found our flamingos. And there our flamingos did not want to be found (zoom, dear Nikon, zoom!).
Exploring the Delta until reaching the coast
The flamingos didn't love being photographed
Some flamingos were bright pink, and some not at all. Judging by how they walk away when we stop to look, I think the non-pink ones are a bit embarrassed  
Day trips increase in fun when someone lends you their jeep (thanks Valerie!) and when you bring snacks like farm-fresh hard boiled eggs along (one of which I'm displaying)
Afterwards, we stopped for an amazing tapas-style lunch at Bar La Bodega in the town of Sant Carles de la Rápita.
We were started off with complimentary marinara meatballs (albondigas). Free food is nice.
Hot sea snails with chorizo and garlic. Can't go wrong with that (unless you MICROWAVE it--come ON waitress!).
Worthy of mention is the local Catalonian beer that we tried (who knew Spain recognized anything other than Estrella Damn and Amstel?) called Cinteta. It was clearly artisan, with a mildly biting bitterness mixed with a fresh caramelized flavor; a combination easily found when the people making it care about every single batch. If you go to Spain, find it! Spain is only just discovering the artisan beer scene, so any support for that is good support.
The cozy and antique-y interior of La Bodega
Calamari and local calcots. Heavenly.
But best of all were a selection of rice-based liquors under the Segadors del Delta brand, made locally in the Delta, that the bartendress graciously let us "sample". We tried the sweet and pure rice liqueur, then a fig liqueur, and finally the strong, uncolored 40-proof digestive liquor made with Mediterranean herbs. Apart from being a locally-made product, it was inspiriting (pun!?) to know that one percent of the proceeds go to a land-preservation based charity, and unlike many companies that use such donations to hike up the cost of their product, these beautiful bottles were relatively affordable, selling at around 9-12 euros each.
The spread. And no, of course we didn't pay for all of those tastings. Somehow we charmed the bar wench into  providing them for our birthday celebration.

I keep having to pinch myself over the dreamy thought that here we are in the Middle of Nowhere, Spain, supposedly working for someone, and yet we've just spent all day driving around in a free loaned jeep, exploring Spanish rice paddies and gorging ourselves on amazing tapas and liqueurs.
Driving straight onto the beach for a mid-morning snack

And tomorrow, it's back to work creating a garden for Valerie and perhaps taking the goats out for a stroll...

Traveling on a budget is hard.


Stay tuned!

26 March 2013

Discovering the Perfect Dutch Pancake Recipe...in Spain

In my last post, I told you how Valerie, our current host at Casa Valerosa, bravely left her home in Amsterdam to set out for the quiet life in Spain, where she now successfully runs a campsite sprinkled with art workshops.

But I left out one important facet of Valerie's personality.
Yes, that is a piece of bacon within a pancake. Your mind has just been blown. You're welcome.
She is a pancake master.

I mean, she's Dutch. Of course she makes an amazing pancake. And by pancake I mean what we typically call a crepe. Except it's not a crepe, really. Let's call it a mix between the two. The Dutch Pancake.

It's hearty, toothsome, and huge, and it's begging to be filled, rolled, and devoured.

The land of Valerie is the land of creativity, so it's time for your art to begin.

Man, I am cheesy.
The lady of the hour, our Valerie, showing us the ropes.
Dutch Pancakes
Ingredients
Recipe can easily be doubled
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 egg
  • pinch salt*
  • Tool: Awesome large pancake flipper
    *Add a teaspoon of vanilla extract or cinnamon if you're feeling wild and crazy
    A bit more runny than yogurt...(this is the recipe doubled)
    Valerie displays the batter-spreading technique
    Directions
    Pour flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Add a pinch of salt and your egg and whisk until the yolk is broken. Keeping the well, begin to add the milk, slowly incorporating the flour until mixture is homogeneous and the texture is a bit thinner than yogurt. You may need more or less milk than two cups

    Heat a large pan to medium-high heat. Melt butter and add just enough batter to thinly cover the entire pan after pouring it in and rotating the pan in a circular motion to spread it out (as pictured). When the top-side is beginning to look dry, after about 1-2 minutes, flip it (check the bottom for tell-tale browning). Cook for another minute-or-so or until beginning to goldenly crisp in spots.

    Continue with the rest of the batter, melting a dab of butter in the pan each time before adding the next batter batch. Behind not adding too much batter, the second-most important rule is no adding too much butter.

    Directions with bacon (or whatever else you want to throw in there):
    Add bacon to the middle of the pan first. Add batter and cook as usual.

    Note: let bacon cook for a minute or two if you want it to be more crispy, but know that the pancake won't roll up so well.
    We also made poffertjes, mini pancakes that are typically eaten with sugar and syrup or stuffed with other sweet thangs
    The finished products, plain and made with bacon and asparagus. And why not throw some honey on there?
    Once you've mastered the Dutch pancake, fill it with anything, really.

    For a Spanish twist on this dutch treat, try filling it with Jamón Serrano (Spain's version of prosciutto), asparagus, shaved Manchego, and Romesco Sauce (recipe here)

    Otherwise, try:
  • Smoked salmon, herbed cream cheese, and arugula
  • Sauteed curried vegetables accompanied by a cumin/tumeric yogurt sauce 
  • Ham, cheese,and fried egg
  • Honey or Maple syrup and fresh fruit
  • Nutella and banana!!

  • Oh, and do you know what else you can do with Dutch Pancakes? EASY SPEKKOEK! Just alternate layers of pancake, custard, and marmalade until you have about 10 layers. Definitely not the original recipe, but it's an easy, impressive dessert nonetheless. Bam!

    Dutch cuisine isn't quite what I was expecting when we set out for Spain, but let's be honest: can I really complain about getting pancakes over paella?

    23 March 2013

    Adventures in the Spanish Coastal Campo

    There is nothing like leaving a huge city and knowing that your next destination will consist of about three people in total.
    Just a stroll down Valerie's driveway...
    I can typically only take about four days in a big city before I begin to feel like my head is slowly collapsing in on itself. My eyes miss seeing open landscape. You know, with things like land.

    In the interim before meeting up with John's parents, grandmother, sister, and brother-in-law (whew!) for eight days in Southern Spain, I found a midway point in El Perelló using helpx.net where we could volunteer for a couple weeks, see the Spanish countryside, and generally reboot after eating ourselves silly in Barcelona.
    Casa Valerosa: Valerie's house which sits at the forefront of the campground.
    I have to say, I did a preeeetty good job.

    Netherlands-born Valerie decided about six years ago that she was ready to leave the craziness that is Amsterdam. So, she packed her bags, moved to the Spanish campo, and started a campground. Just like that. While she lacked experience, what she did have was creativity. An artist and sculptor, she turned her two acres into a small camping wonderland where people could come to escape and discover their own artistic muses.
    "From Amsterdam" reads the bike's basket
    Just looking at this somehow makes me feel calm
    Apart from visiting the nearby beach (2 miles), numerous backyard mountain hikes, or the cute town of El Perelló (which has a honey factory!), campers can stay on-site for the art workshops held by Valerie herself. Or they can stay on-site to follow their own imagination in the studio where art supplies are abundant. Ooor just keep the kids on-site and go get lost in the breathtaking landscape that makes up Spain's Northeastern coast.
    The workshop! One of Valerie's activities is mosaic-ing child mannequins. Although I would probably be terrified of them if they came alive, they are pretty awesome as non-sentient beings.
    Another example of some of the work campers can do. Gaudí ain't got nothin' on Valerie. 
    Looking out of the workshop. One of Valerie's sculptures is on the windowsill at right.
    In short, Valerie is on to something.
    Like most things, the playground is homemade.
    The main outdoor kitchen that campers can use
    As volunteers staying in one of the campervans, it's been hard for John and I not to feel like we, too, are campers on a vacation. But work we must.
    One of the three static campervans on the grounds. Most of the clientele brings 5th wheels or tents.
    Somehow, camouflage furniture covers in a mobile home just works
    Yet the work doesn't feel like work. We wake up, make breakfast (Valerie gives us 50 euro a week so that we can prepare breakfast and lunch for ourselves), decide which project we want to work on for the day, work for about five hours, and then have the rest of the day to do as we please (and two free days per week).
    And by "doing what we please," I mean making Spanish Iberican bacon, hand-picked wild asparagus, and poached eggs for breakfast. Whenever. we. want.
    To date, we've built a rabbit tunnel and faux burrow for five bunnies (who share a happy home with five chickens and four rambunctious goats), we've made a 20x15-foot garden, we've weeded, built a chicken house, we've gone on walks with goats, we've pruned...
    The finished product, made completely from scratch!
    Our little chicken house (under the other wooden house), made with plastic shelving we found in a junkyard that we put into a wooden frame John made  
    Using big metal tubes we found in junk yard, we John made a trench and fitted the tubes to make a tunnel that lead into a covered burrow-esque tire
    The family: 4 goats, 5 bunnies, and 5 chickens. And oddly enough, whenever we took them on walks, they couldn't wait to get back in the enclosure. Once you take food worries away, I guess animals can be pretty lazy.
    And in our free time we've relaxed. We've relived our asparagus days. We've hiked through olive groves.

    I could get used to this.
    John the forager picking wild parsley and asparagus
    Nothing more fashionable than a side pocket of asparagus. 
    El Perelló is surrounded by olive groves, mountains, and ocean. Damn visas.
    Two of Valerie's three dogs excitedly took us on this ocean-vista walk
    We've loved getting to know Valerie and being inspired by her brave decision to move to Spain (without speaking any Spanish) and let her resourcefulness guide her into creating an original and successful lifestyle made from scratch. Now, she has a full-time job for only about three months a year, and during the rest she is allowed to keep up the grounds, work on her art, pick olives from her 100-or-so trees, and simply live the way she feels like living.
    And if the way she feels like living involves making calcots and Romesco sauce with local wine on the side, who am I to judge?
    Campground? Learning workshops? Dealing with people only three months out of the year?

    I smell a future job idea...

    The Spanish coast with a touch of Amsterdam, there you have it.

    Stay tuned for more!

    16 March 2013

    Barcelona: How to Visit a City (almost) for Free

    How can I even try to explain a visit to a city like Barcelona?
    Viewing the Museu Nacional d'Art Catalunya
    I can't, guys. I'm sorry, but I can't. Its expanse of secret walkways, ancient history, and pulsing artwork expands right over my ability to do it justice.
    A modern Spanish red riding hood
      
    Admiring this sculpture on the edge of the city as we head toward the bay
    What I can explain to you is something very much in my descriptive abilities: how to save money visiting a big city like Barcelona. Now I know a lot of you are saying that cities are where we're meant to burn money, but when you're traveling on a budget, there are very few places that fall into that category. Yes, you will spend more money in a city than working on a farm for free room and board, but you can stretch that dollar/euro/yen/pure gold far enough to ensure that you will have enough money to visit as many cities as you like in the future.

    So here are some basic rules:

    1. When it comes to eating, do your research.
    Food is important. Second to culture, it is the most important reason to visit a city (or maybe it's first?) Cities thrive on the fact that most tourists have no idea what they're doing when it comes to finding authentically good meals. But the fact is that tracking down a good place to eat is pretty easy now with things like TripAdvisor, Yelp, or food blogs.
    We went to Juicy Jones twice, once for it's amazing and healthy smoothie selection (avocado, banana, and cocoa? Great following a night of too much cava), and the second time to try out their food
     My Japanese noodle salad had potential, but was severely under-flavored and John's stuffed eggplant was delectable but small-portioned.
    It also has a great selection of house-made hippy tea blends. This one was Chai with ginger and other Indian spices.
    While I'd love to visit the most renowned restaurants a city has to offer, these are often the most expensive. Blowing $100+ on a meal is literally more than what John and I spend in a month, unless we're buying plane tickets or something. Instead, I use search functions on Yelp and TripAdvisor to narrow down options based on price and rating. Then you have a choice of the top rated restaurants in your price range. Many times we find a route based on small food items so that we can literally eat all day. Afterwards, I map out the restaurants (and on Yelp, they're already mapped out for you) and from there, I plan out the day's route. And yes, I totally plan out the itinerary based on where I plan on eating that day, connecting the dots based on the city's main attractions.
    La Seu Cathedral in the Gothic Quarter
    A statue through the flags...
    Let’s not forget that cities have amazing cheap food, too. Sometimes even more amazing than your $40 "spherical egg of white asparagus and false truffle" at the expensive joints.
    We stopped for pinxos ("pinchos"), a common Spanish snack entailing a slice of bread with some sort of yummy goodness sitting atop. We finally settled on crab meat topped with shaved egg white (!?) and a hunk of soft herbed cheese with cranberry marmalade and nuts
    I <3 tandoori chicken, notably when it's uber moist and flanked by a mint, sweet, and pickled sauce selection. Middle Eastern is just hard to beat. And it doesn't hurt that the owner gave us free dessert afterwards (it's always the people who have less that give more, right?) 
    Case in point: Zeeshan Kebabish. We had eaten traditional Spanish, so why not go for a traditional Pakistani restaurant? This underestimated hole in the wall was possibly the best food we'd had all weekend (sorry Pitarra). We were full through lunch the next day, and we only spent $8 each.

    Cities are melting pots, so don’t feel like you have to strictly adhere to a certain type of food to get that culture massage.

    2. Same thing goes for drinking
    I don't want you hobos to go buy a forty and sit in the park getting drunk, but I've seen how easily money slips away when it's spent on drinking in bars. If you're dead set on drinking, have a couple at home and nurse something at the bar instead of spending $20+ for a couple martinis. Consider why you're visiting the city: is it to buy overpriced drinks or to have a cultural experience? If you’re dead-set on going out, use this website to find well-priced bars. We noticed that a bar called Ryan’s had mixed drinks starting at three euros, and it wasn't even happy hour.

    Anyway, who needs alcohol when you can drink cups of pure hot saucey chocolate goodness?
    And then there was cream. And chocolate. Real chocolate. And churros (fried and sugared dough sticks, essentially).
    (At La Pallaresa Chocolateria)
      
    I ordered hot chocolate (which is literally heated chocolate, what we would consider more of a sundae topping) with espresso and steamed milk. This is serious.
    3. Cumulative-ride subway/bus passes: do it.
    If I'm in a huge city, the odds are that I'll use a subway at least ten times. In fact, in our three days there, I used it exactly 10 times. And when we could walk, we did. As a rule, walk as much as possible in a city; if you’re like me, you’re probably eating a lot and exercising little. Or at least take the subway uphill and walk back downhill. Be frugal with your wheel rides, you never know when those last two subway rides will unexpectedly come in handy.

    Notice how I didn’t mention a taxi? That’s because taxis aren’t a part of the solution when you’re trying to save money in a city.

    4. Pack breakfast
    Maybe it's just a Europe thing, but from what I've experienced, breakfast in other countries is booooring. They just don't get it. Bread does not a breakfast make, people!  Spend your money maybe if it's a super special breakfast restaurant, but don't waste your money paying for a piece of toast and coffee or a croissant or whatever. You can get those things no matter where you are. Go to a grocery store, buy some yogurt and fruit or have your travel granola handy and save that money to put toward something unique to the city.

    For example, as we strolled around the Gracia neighborhood one afternoon, we stumbled upon this gem of a store offering all things milk-made. Chocolate custard and the best chocolate milk ever as an afternoon snack? Two euros total, and a belly full of good. Good thing I didn't waste my money on a lame breakfast, now I can indulge in the good stuff…
    After the purchase, we went outside and consumed everything before taking another step.
    Honestly, you have to find La Lleteria Granja Armengol when you go to Barcelona
    5. Find what's free
    Big cities typically have websites on the lookout for free events, and here are some of Barcelona's:
    For Free
    Butxaca
    BCNnoches

    Otherwise, just go to your search engine of choice and type in "free things in ___". You're golden.

    Often you'll find that museums are free on the first Sunday of every month, so stay aware of that and always go early to [hopefully] avoid lines.
    Obligiatory couple photo in front of Museum of National Art
    The ceiling inside the lobby as I lingered around, avoiding Gothic frowney art.
    One of the best attractions in Barcelona is the La Boqueria food market, and it’s so amazing you might even forget to spend money.
    Get your fixes: fruit, salted fish, and dried things galore
    If you do buy, don't go for prepackaged things as they're typically overpriced, buy based on weight like we did with this Jamon Iberico, Spain's amazing version of Prosciutto. America, when will you catch on to cured meats??
    Who needs a meat slicer when you can get your top-notch cured pork leg sliced by hand?
    You expect me to choose?
    One thing we realized while walking around is while cities certainly can get redundant, it’s refreshing to focus on how each city has its own flair. For example, sure, Jerusalem has a stellar food market that’s comparable to La Boqueria. But what you won’t see in a Jerusalem market is huge legs of cured ham hanging everywhere. 
    And just like that, you know you’re somewhere new.
    Don’t forget free accommodation possibilities like Couchsurfing, and since that can be difficult in big cities, my favorite site to find cheap beds is hostelz.com or airbandb.

    6. Don't get overwhelmed
    The best and most memorable times I have in cities results from simply walking around, exploring, and taking everything in. This involves no planning and no spending money, so don't underestimate it.

    And then there are the things you want to pay to see, but have to save for another time and simply take in what you can get. For us, these were all the Gaudí buildings. We saw what we could from the outside, and thankfully soaked up as much of Parque Guell (which is free) as possible.
    La Sagrada Familia, Gaudis biggest building.
    Casa Vicens, a residence that was Gaudi´s first building in Barcelona
    La Casa Batlló, or House of Bones, as the locals call it
      
    Looking over the mosaic benches at Parque Guell
    Typical atypical architecture at the Park
    A completely mosaic-ed ceiling in Parque Guell
    Looking over the city from the park (with the ocean in the distance).
    A trippy walkway made of stone cutting through the park. Why isn´t all architecture like this!?
    The bold Casa Milá, also known as The Quarry

    So, there's our Barcelona trip wrapped within in a nutshell of money-saving tips (whew, it was hard to sort through all those pictures!).

    An amazing city, but as with all heavily-populated areas, I am ready to move on to our next volunteering "farm" near Tarragona, where we'll be helping out on a camping site. Don't forget to sign up to follow Chowgypsy with updates in your inbox!

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