Tuesday, November 30, 2004


My parents – who were in Spain for a visit last week – come from a long line of great wine drinkers. This should not, however, be confused with coming from a long line of drinkers of great wine.

My paternal grandfather made homemade wine in the basement of his Utica, NY home. This booty was often enjoyed by my father and his teenaged friends during the 1950’s – then dutifully topped-off with tap water for reasons of stealth. In a similar vein, my maternal grandfather attributes his longevity (89 years old and counting!) to a lifetime of moderate jug-wine consumption. That, and managing not to get blown up during World War II.

It therefore made perfect sense that, during last weekend, I should take my parents to my now-favorite Spanish wine region: Toro.

The city of Toro – and its surrounding areas in which “D.O. Toro” wines are produced – is located in Spain’s west-central province of Zamora (Castilla y Leon); just a grape’s throw from Portugal. The terrain is flat – dare I say, monotonous – with sand-colored soil and a cool climate. The city is dotted with convents, monasteries, arches, palaces and thirteenth century churches. But we didn’t go there for the architecture. We went for the wine.

Toro’s wines are made primarily – if not entirely – from Tinta de Toro grapes. They are rich, dense, purplish wines with intense flavor and high alcohol content. They are also ridiculously inexpensive. We bought bottles of fairly good Toro crianza (i.e., moderately aged) wines for approximately 7€ in shops and 12€ in restaurants.

Listed below are the wines that we drank during our visit:

Muruve Crianza
Finca Sobreño Crianza
Colegiata Fariña Joven
Gran Colegiata Fariña Crianza (my favorite of the bunch)
Toro’s wines are amongst Spain’s rising stars, and are gathering a following throughout the world. Just yesterday morning, a friend from Denmark informed that he and his crowd often drink Toros to the exclusion of other Spanish wines. Likewise, I’ve read several recent articles in US publications praising the impressive price-quality ratio of these wines.

One Washington Post article, in particular, reported that the more well-known and well-established Rioja wine region is feeling the heat from Toro and its muscular brethren. It seems that many connoisseurs of Spanish wine are starting to poo-poo the notion of paying more for a less flavorful Rioja. The article further states that Rioja – in quasi-panic mode – is now gearing-up for production of more Toro-esque wines. This may seem like a logical strategy, but I see a flaw. Even if Rioja’s wineries succeed in boosting the octane of their wines, I doubt they’d be willing to match Toro’s pricing. Or perhaps I’m just biased in favor of the underdog.

In the interest of even-handedness, I suppose that I should say something negative about Toro’s wines. Let me think...

A-HA!!! If Toro’s wines have a drawback, it’s that they don’t pair well with Dover Sole. Hmm…then again, who the hell wants to eat Dover Sole in a region that specializes in such delicacies as Arroz a la Zamorana (i.e., rice flavored with pig parts that US kitchens typically throw away) and suckling lamb roasted in a wood-burning brick oven?!

Perhaps it’s best to leave even-handedness to those wine critics who actually get paid.

Back to the trip. Our visit to Toro was enjoyable not only because of its wines, but also because of its wine culture. Most bars we visited served more than a dozen different local wines. And they served them correctly; from bottles extracted from temperature-controlled chillers. Similarly, shops and markets were teeming with botas, barrels, miniature grape presses, cheeses and other wine-related paraphernalia. It was – pardon the pun – intoxicating to be in a place that showed such reverence to my favorite drink.

That’s not to imply, however, that my home town of Cabanillas del Campo doesn’t have a wine culture. It’s just that the wine culture here entails choosing between wine decanted from a red Tetrabrik® box versus a green one.
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Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Whenever I’m feeling insecure about my language skills, I need look no further for reassurance than the nearest English-language advertisement in Spain.

Pictured above is a restaurant coupon that my parents picked up during an outing in Toledo (Spain…not Ohio) yesterday afternoon. Take a moment and read it.

Apparently, the restaurant is offering them two free drinks with their meal. Then again…one might also interpret that the coupon is inviting them to witness the bizarre spectacle of a living, breathing beverage – no doubt brought to life by means of some devious scientific experiment – that not only cooks meals at the restaurant, but eats them as well.

Read the coupon again, and you’ll understand what I mean.

The irony is that the C.V. of this restaurant’s Director of Marketing surely boasts that his level of English is “fluent.”

On the bright side, however, my parents inform that the restaurant’s food was quite good.

And on that note, I desire to you all that enjoyment of a well holiday of Thanksgiving does arrive.
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Tuesday, November 16, 2004


Pictured above is…my left foot.

No make-up, airbrushing, computer graphics or collagen injections were used to alter or enhance its appearance. Just my left foot…basking in the Iberian sun…as God intended it to be.

Now, you may be wondering why I posted my left foot on this blog. The reason is fairly simple: I had no better idea at the time.

It isn’t that I’ve completely run out of ideas. To the contrary, scribbled on a pocket-sized notepad at the left-hand corner of my desk is a lengthy list of ideas for new posts. The problem is that all these ideas are Christmas-related, and I am waiting for December 1st before I unleash them on the world.

So I needed something to spruce up the blog during this awkward, late-November period of lull. And since we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Spain, I had little choice but to call on the services of that faithful appendage resting quietly beneath my desk.

Besides, it’s not a bad looking left foot…wouldn't you agree?
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Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Is it just me, or is it impossible to find a pepper mill that lasts more than four months?

During the past seven years, I’ve bought countless pepper mills. I’ve bought them in Chicago, Madrid, San Sebastian and Barcelona. I’ve bought the classic, French-made, curvy, wooden type. I’ve bought a stainless steel, turn-the-handle-on-top, art deco type. I’ve bought a British-made glass and porcelain model with ceramic grinding mechanisms. And most recently, I bought a German brand from a saleswoman who – after I vowed to tar and feather her eldest child if I was dissatisfied – still assured me that it was “very well constructed.”

Mind you, none of these pepper mills were cheap. Each one cost $35 to $70.

But without exception, each of them ground flawlessly for exactly four months and then – for no apparent reason – stopped working. Just like that. It was as if a gremlin hit squad periodically invaded my kitchen while I slept, grabbed my then-newest pepper mill and filed its grinding teeth down to a smooth, glass-like finish. I could thereafter turn the knobs or handles until my elbows fell off, but no more pepper would come out.



Somebody, help me to understand! Does the production of a reliable pepper mill pose such an insurmountable engineering challenge that no grad student at MIT, CalTech or University of Illinois dares to approach it?

Or are my expectations unreasonable? After all, I have for years been living under the delusion that the mechanics of a pepper mill are less complicated than those of – say – laser eye surgery, nuclear fission or printing the logo onto each individual M&M; the latter three of which, I should point out, have been scientific realities for quite some time.

Yet despite years of frustration, I remain optimistic. In fact, I believe that I’ve finally cracked this nut once and for all. And the solution came from a most unlikely source: pre-Colombian Mexico.

Pictured above – and I am NOT joking about this – is my newest pepper mill: A Mexican, lava rock molcajete. It crushes peppercorns effortlessly, reliably and to my exact specifications of coarseness. It adds a whole new dimension to popping sheets of plastic bubble-wrap, too.

Sure, a molcajete requires fifteen seconds of clean-up with a stiff brush after each use, but I consider this a small inconvenience in exchange for – what I believe is – the last friggin’ pepper mill I’ll ever need.

But if – four months from now – my molcajete tragically succumbs to the Curse of the Peppercorn, then I suppose I’ll have to lay down my pestle and resign myself to a pepper-free life…just like everyone else in Spain. It’s true. The people of Spain have a near-pathological disdain for pepper. They think it’s “too spicy.” If you go into any restaurant in Spain, I guarantee that there will be a salt/pepper/oil/vinegar caddy on each table…and I also guarantee that each caddy’s pepper holder will be empty.

So if misery loves company, then at least I’ll have lots of company. That’s probably a good thing, because I can imagine no greater misery than a life without freshly ground pepper.

Although a life without plastic bubble-wrap might come close.
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While I was taking a shower this morning, the Boy Scouts’ motto popped into my head. It goes as follows:

A Boy Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

This seems like a lot of pressure to put on a 13 year old. Little wonder that most boys prefer skateboarding to scouting. Skateboarders neither enforce nor encourage any of these twelve requirements – especially the “courteous” and “clean” ones.

Sunday, November 07, 2004


Spain’s Parque Retiro is one of Europe’s finest urban parks. Located in central Madrid, Retiro is home to fountains, ponds, amphitheaters and thousands of trees.

It also features many statues, like the one pictured above.

Here we see the famous Spanish monk Pedro Ponce de Leon who, in the 16th century, developed a primitive form of sign language for deaf children. But alas…the pupil above seems to have learned the language a bit too well, as it appears that Brother Ponce is about to punch the little tyke’s lights out in an effort to shut him up.
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…I’ve finally found a good Indian restaurant in Madrid. A very good one, in fact. Here are its details:

Taj Indian Restaurant
Calle Marqués de Cubas, 6
28014 Madrid
Metro: Banco de España (Cibeles)
Tel: 91 531 5059
Isn’t that great? Now if I can just find a descent Chinese restaurant in Madrid, maybe Calvin Trillin will return my calls.

Friday, November 05, 2004


I’ve been cruising “chicks” lately. Chickpeas, that is. It’s not hard to do in Spain and unlike cruising the other kind of chicks, no hair mousse is required.

Chickpeas are typically associated with the cuisines of India and the Middle East, but feature prominently in many Spanish dishes as well. And of those dishes, none is more important or ubiquitous than Spain’s famous Cocido.

Cocido is, in essence, a boiled-in-one-pot meal. Chickpeas (a.k.a., garbanzos), chicken, chorizo sausage, fatback, beef hunks, turnips, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, leeks and various other ingredients (depending on where and by whom it is made) are simmered in a large pot for hours. The meats and vegetables are removed and set aside, and short noodles resembling broken pieces of thin spaghetti are boiled in the broth until softened.

The meal is then assembled. The broth and noodles are served as the first course. Second course consists of the boiled meats and vegetables, which are arranged on each person’s plate in neat little segregated piles. A Cocido meal is typically accompanied by long, thin, pickled guindilla peppers, crusty bread and a glass (sorry…glasses) of red wine.

Cocido tastes good, of course, but its immense popularity in Spain is also due to practical reasons. Home cooks love it because its preparation is relatively easy and hands-off. Just toss in whichever meats or vegetables happen to be in your pantry at the time, then sit on the couch and immerse yourself in the intellectual rigors of Hola magazine for the next couple of hours.

Cocido can also be economical. My mother-in-law informs that her mother religiously made it once per week because – if the meats were avoided or minimized – it was a cheap way to feed the family during those lean years under Spain’s dictatorship.

Of course, historical integrity is often lost on restaurateurs – particularly those located elsewhere. I once ordered a pricey Cocido at an “upscale” Spanish restaurant in Chicago, and it came loaded with duck. No offense to the chef (who obviously put a lot of thought into unnecessarily modernizing this classic dish), but I don’t want any waiter to hand me a plate of duck unless it is accompanied by chopsticks and a fortune cookie.

Cocido is made differently in different parts of Spain. But Madrid’s version – known as Cocido Madrileño – is the most popular. Cocido Madrileño can be found in many bars and restaurants in that fine city, but my favorite is the following:
Casa Pello
Called Doctor Castelo, 2
Tel: 91-574-0103
Tasty. Relatively inexpensive. And 100% duck-free.
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Wednesday, November 03, 2004


Well…I can’t say that I’m particularly pleased with the outcome of last night’s election. In fact, I was feeling quite distraught when the BBC announced to my disbelieving ears that W had all but locked-in Ohio early this morning. But then…a thought occurred that made me feel a little better.

When the next four years are over, George W. Bush will never again be President of the United States. But the vast majority of those misguided Ohio voters who drove the final nail into John Kerry’s coffin will STILL BE LIVING IN OHIO!


And on that note, I promise that this blog will – from this day forward – once again be a politics-free zone. Until the next Washington sex scandal, at least.
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Tuesday, November 02, 2004


Regular readers of this blog know that it is – by and large – a politics-free zone. And for good reason. The world is full of clueless yet politically-opinionated blogs, and certainly doesn’t need another.

But today is election day in the US and because the entire world is watching with an unusually high level of interest, we’ve decided to make an exception.

As such, the editorial board of Sal DeTraglia’s Virtual Tapas Bar vigorously endorses John F. Kerry for President of the United States. We can provide a litany of reasons to support our decision, but the most compelling is that the incumbent, George W. Bush (pictured above), is a horse’s ass.

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