27 February 2011

The Alcázar of Jerez

If you ever visit the splendid city of Jerez de la Frontera (a 45 minute drive from Alcalá) you will probably have at the top of your to-do list a trip round a sherry bodega (complete with sampling session), or a visit to the Real Escuela to see the fabulous thoroughbred Andalusian horses in action.  But there is another, slightly less well-publicised attraction which I urge you to fit in - the Alcázar.

Thanks to Alan Bowman, who visited Jerez in January, for letting me crib the following description and photos from his weekly Bulletin:

Inside the mosque
The Alcázar of Jerez, one of Jerez's most important monuments, is located in the southeast corner of the city, forming, with the walls, towers and gates a complex defensive system. The term Alcázar, from the Arabic al Qasr, defines a set of buildings surrounded by ramparts, which was the seat of political and military power. It was a palace fortress with autonomy, a small town, seat of power that ruled the city and its territory.

The Mosque from outside
The fortress was built in the twelfth century and is one of the few examples of Almohad architecture that exist in the Peninsula.  Jerez became, in that century, one of the most important cities in Lower Andalusia, as evidenced by the monumentality of this palace and the length of the wall, extending to 4 km which contained a city of 46 hectares and came to have a population of 16,000. The original Islamic fortress is preserved: the two gates, the mosque, Arab baths, the octagonal tower and the pavilion patio of Doña Blanca, located at the foot of the tower.

What remains of the Arab Baths shows that personal hygiene was considered to be very important, not only for æsthetic reasons but as a prophylactic especially when the Plague and other fast spreading diseases to which, neither the cause nor the cure were known, were commonplace. Parts of the baths were demolished by the Christians to make way for a baker's oven (inner satisfaction taking precedence over outer cleanliness!) which the Moors would have had outside the walls.

Inside the baths

The baths from outside

The water wheel draws water from the well to the baths' cold-room
As with any construction of this age, archæologists are always seeking to establish its history and the Alcázar is no exception. The remains of a wall have been found suggesting that there was a much earlier pre-Almohad fortress from about 200 years earlier and is one of the oldest constructive remains in the city. Its size and thickness suggests that it was an inner protective wall around the main well to protect the water sources in the event of a siege. Very few constructive elements from the Caliphal period or even from the second Taifas survived the arrival of the Almohads in the mid XII century. Maybe because they had strong political intentions, the Almohads destroyed earlier constructions and reused the materials for the foundations of their buildings. The remains of the pre-Almohad buildings were covered with a layer of clean yellowish river sand, possibly in an attempt to "purify" the site.
Octagonal tower
Patio garden in winter

El Palacio de Villavicencio
In 1664, tenancy of the Alcázar passed, by inheritance, to a member of the Villavicencio family, one of the most powerful in the city. He commenced a series of remodellings in the Alcázar including the construction of the beautiful baroque palace over the ruins of a primitive Almohad palace. On the second floor is now an antique pharmacy from the 19th century and in the tower of the palace is a camera obscura offering views over the city (unfortunately, cameras were not allowed.)

One of the gates
The following photos were taken by me last summer:

The farmacia
Spanish noblemen immortalised on the palace door

Looking down on the mosque

Typical Moorish water feature

The Moors understood the calming effects of water ...

Modern statues 

Palms outside the Palacio

23 February 2011

Alcalá's Botanical Garden

Hidden behind the Aljibe visitor centre is one of Alcalá´s greatest treasures - a secret garden, with a stone path spiralling through specimens of all the native trees, shrubs and wild flowers of the Alcornocales natural park.  It is so poorly signposted that unless you actually drive past it down the A2228 from Alcalá to Benalup, you would never know it was there. We've visited several times when there was nobody else around at all (bliss!)

There does seem to be a bit more activity going on on the promotional front now, with monthly newsletters and a series of exploratory tours for the public over the coming weekend (10.30 and 12.30 am, 26-28 February).  Maybe one day they will even have their own website and one of those big brown tourist information signs on the motorway ... in the meantime, enjoy it while it's quiet!

The garden is now in its fourth year, and the cork-oaks and wild olive trees are fully mature, offering a haven for various varieties of songbirds, butterflies, dragonflies, amphibians and reptiles.  We once saw two large green ocellated lizards, wrapped in each others' arms, rolling over and over along the bank of the stream - I'm still not sure whether they were mating or fighting.

The walk takes you through the various botanical zones found in the park, and all the plants are labelled with their Latin, Spanish and local names. At the centre of the spiral is a large pond teeming with frogs.  Approach quietly and you might spot them sunbathing on the banks - as soon as they hear a human voice they will all plop into the water.

There is also a geological zone, with samples of the different types of rock found in the area, all gradually becoming clothed with indigenous rock-plants and lichen.

The Jardín Botánico El Aljibe is located behind the Centro de Visitantes El Aljibe, just off Exit 42 from the A381 towards Benalup.  It is a 45 minute walk from the town centre.  In the Centre itself there is a bar and a gift shop, as well as lots of exhibits about the Alcornocales and its activities.

Download the information leaflet here (in Spanish)
More photos and a video tour of the garden

18 February 2011

Thrushes for tea

"Guess what I am going to eat today", my Spanish friend asked me yesterday, her face a curious mixture of triumph and embarrassment.  "Pajaritos - zorzales!"

She was obviously anticipating my exclamation of horror, and explained that she only ate thrushes once a year, as a special treat.  She likes them skewered and roasted en la chimenea (in the chimney).  Hunting thrushes and other caza menor (birds and rabbits) is an important source of income for the many unemployed men in the area, along with other produce freely obtainable in the campo, like espárragos (wild asparagus), tagarninas (edible thistles) and caracoles (snails).

Thrushes have been trapped for food for thousands of years.  The practice is still widespread around the Mediterranean, and is not illegal, provided you have a licence.  On the contrary, there is a whole tourist industry built around it, with thrush-hunting expeditions available throughout the season (mid November till the end of February).  Although becoming scarce in Britain, the songthrush is not an endangered species.  There is some debate about the effect hunting has on numbers; habitat loss and changing agricultural practices probably have a greater effect overall.  There are several groups campaigning for the total abolition of songbird hunting across Europe, such as CABS, the Committee Against Bird Slaughter.

In the hungry years of the 20th century, songbirds were an important source of protein for the people of Alcalá.  The thrushes my friend enjoys are shot with guns; she explained that she tries to spit out all the pellets but occasionally swallows one by accident. But there are other ways to catch them.  Juan Leiva in his "Evocaciones alcalainas" describes how as a child he and his friends would go down to the Prado before daybreak to smear the tree branches with a sticky resin called liría, or birdlime, which the birds' feet stick to when they perch.  This practice, although banned by the European Union, is still common in Valencia where it is known as parany.

There are hundreds of recipes on the internet for thrushes - grilled on skewers, cooked with rice, roasted with almond sauce, etc etc.  There is even a Ruta Gastronomica de los Pajaritos in Sevilla.  It is, when you think about it, irrational to enjoy eating a chicken or partridge but gag at the thought of eating a songbird.  But this is one instance where I am quite happy to remain an irrational guiri.

07 February 2011

La Quesería Gazul: Alcalá's prizewinning cheeses

 “Pan y queso saben a beso” [Bread and cheese taste like a kiss]
 “Pan, queso y uva, saben a beso de cura” [Bread, cheese and grapes taste like a priest's kiss]
(Alcalá children´s sayings, as recalled by Juan Leiva)
Of the eighty or so cheese-producing dairies in Andalucía, fifteen are in the Province of Cádiz and our own Quesería El Gazul was recently identified as a model example of agricultural industry, combining traditional cheesemaking techniques with innovative products and helping to sustain the viability of Alcalá's numerous flocks of goats.  The regional government is keen to support such local businesses and help their products reach their full market potential.

Local bigwigs inspect the cheese-making process
Owner Jorge Puerto first had the idea of opening a dairy for goat milk products back in 1998.  Starting completely from scratch, it took four years to set it up.   All the products are made from the pasteurised milk of payoya goats (a breed native to the Sierras of Cadiz) which graze freely on the pastures in the Alcornocales Natural Park, eating plants and shrubs such as wild olive and lentisco. This gives their milk a very special flavour. The cheeses are moulded by hand and matured, then rubbed with oil - a technique employed in this area for generations, in contrast to the high-tech sanitary equipment used at the factory.  

Since 2002, when El Gazul started up, Jorge has backed traditional methods of cheesemaking along with innovation in order to be more competitive. The first certified organic cheeses in the Province were made here. One recent gamble which is starting to pay off is organic yohgurt, made and sold in the dairy and gaining a very good reputation amongst customers.  The latest idea is cheese made with edible flowers, but this is still in its experimental phase.

Cabra payoya, turning grass into cheese
“What characterises our cheeses is that they are a local product, made with a natural crust based on olive oil, and to which no chemical products are added”, says Jorge.  For him, they have a distinctive “home-made” flavour which customers appreciate. Moreover, because the whole process takes place at the dairy and there are few third parties involved, they can offer items accessible to all pockets.   You can buy the products directly from the dairy shop (behind la Querencia restaurant on La Palmosa, next to the A381 junction 45), and they also offer a home delivery service.  Many of the small food-shops in town sell the cheeses; the curado sells at around 10€ a kilo, and some places will cut off a smaller portion for you if you don´t want a whole cheese.

Like other small cheese-producers in Andalucía, El Gazul is working hard to reach new markets. They are now getting orders from outside Andalucía, which is a key objective, just as products from other regions are sold here.  El Gazul now has an annual production of 80,000 kg, and in spite of the economic crisis they hope to continue expanding. In 2010, sales increased by 3.3%.

Products on offer at Quesería El Gazul
Queso curado

Cured and semi-cured cheeses
These are firm, dense, pale yellow cheeses with different flavours according to their treatment. They are available vacuum-packed in pieces of 800g, 1.3kg or 2.5g. They will keep for up to a year, but once they have been cut they should be wrapped in film and kept in the refrigerator.

Queso con pimentón
Queso curado: matured for at least three months then coated in a thin layer of olive oil and left to form a light brown crust. Tangy and full of flavour. An organic version (curado eco) is also available.

Queso semicurado: matured for about six weeks, this has a mild flavour and delicate aroma. An organic version (semicurado eco) is also available.

Queso con manteca y romero
Queso curado con pimentón: The matured cheese is rubbed with two kinds of paprika – sweet and spicy - to give it an intense piquant flavour. Its texture is a little firmer than the other varieties.

Queso curado con manteca ibérica: matured for three months then rubbed with the fat from the Iberian pig.

Queso curado con manteca ibérica y romero: As above but then coated with rosemary, a herb which grows in abundance in the area.

Queso con aceite de oliva
Queso curado con aceite de oliva virgen extra: This cheese has a powerful, vigorous flavour and a slightly crumbly texture due to its having been submerged in extra virgin olive oil for 30 days after maturing.

Traditionally this was known as queso emborrado and was often made in metal churns in the kitchen.  The sediment from the oil helps to add body to the cheese.  It is served as a tapas in some of the bars round Alcalá and is well worth a try if you like a cheese that bites back.

Queso fresco
Fresh” (non-cured) goat's milk products

Queso fresco: a firm white cheese with a delicate flavour, available in vacuum-packed portions of 500g, 1kg or 2kg. Once opened, keep in the fridge and consume within 10 days. This cheese is excellent served with fruit.

Requesón: A ricotta-style or cottage cheese, slightly grainy and very mild, with a low fat content. Sold in plastic tubs, it will keep for up to ten days in the fridge.

Requesón (ricotta)
Yogur: A creamy, firm, natural yoghurt, similar to Greek yoghurt. Sold unsweetened in small plastic tubs which will keep for 15 days in the fridge.

Awards and prizes:
2009 - Queso Montes de Alcalá. Bronze medal, World Cheese Awards
2005 - Queso de cabra en aceite de oliva El Gazul. 3rd prize, Concurso de queso de la Asociación de Queseros de Andalucía
2004 - Queso de cabra en aceite de oliva El Gazul. 2nd prize, Concurso de quesos artesanos de la Comarca de Guadalteba
2003 - Queso de cabra. 1st prize, Concurso de queso artesanos de la Comarca de Guadalteba

Poligono Industrial La Palmosa, Parcela 20 
Alcalá de los Gazules, Cádiz 11180
Tel: 956 420 307 / 617 401 215


05 February 2011

Vegetable matters

I love my vegetables.  I love buying them, cooking them and eating them.  I used to love growing them too, but I'm restricted to herbs in pots these days as we don´t have a garden.  I did attempt some green peppers and tomatoes our first year here, but quite honestly it wasn't worth the effort of watering them twice a day.  In the UK we grew our own veg because they tasted better; that just doesn't apply here.

People in Spain eat more fresh vegetables than in most other European countries (220 kg per person per year), and they cost less here too, especially if you buy them from local suppliers or street markets.  There are at least thirty shops in Alcalá (pop. 5,600) selling fresh vegetables, as well as a twice-weekly street market, and lots of people grow their own in huertos or parcelas, plots of land squeezed in between the buildings or perched precariously on the steep slopes around the edge of the town.  

Vertical vegetable plot, Alcalá style
Vegetables in Spain tend to be incorporated into soups and casseroles, rather than boiled and served separately alongside the meat, or else served as a first-course dish on their own.  They are also used extensively for tapas dishes, such as patatas bravas (spicy potatoes), pimientos del piquillo (stuffed red peppers) or champiñones al ajillo (garlic mushrooms).   Meat or meat stock is often used for flavouring, however, and the concept of vegetarianism is not widely understood here especially amongst older people.  
More nice veggie recipes here

One of the first things you notice when you move here is that some vegetables behave differently.  Onions (cebollas), for example, are not usually hung to dry for several months like they are in the UK, and so contain a lot more water. Cucumbers (pepinos), on the other hand, are much firmer; when a recipe calls for grated cucumber, you can actually grate them without just ending up with a puddle of flavoured water.  They are shorter and stubbier than the English (or more usually Dutch) ones.

Acelgas (Swiss chard)
Spring onions (cebollas frescas) have large round bulbs rather than straight stems and can be red or white.  I use them  in place of shallots, which I haven't seen locally.   Leeks (pueros) are firmer and tastier than their British counterparts.  Swiss chard (acelgas) is extremely popular here; the stems are fairly meaty and can even be stuffed and fried, while the leaves can be used like spinach (excellent stir-fried with onion and fenugreek).  Celery (apio) is used in stews rather than eaten raw.  Broccoli (brócoli) is seen occasionally but is a bit exotic for Alcalá.   Parsnips, swedes and Brussels sprouts just don´t happen here.

Lots of other vegetables taste and cook the same, but are much larger.  Cauliflowers (coliflores), lettuces (lechugas) and cabbages (coles or berzas) reach gargantuan proportions. Giant turnips (nabos), radishes (rábanos),  pumpkins and squashes (calabazas) all fight  for space on the counter alongside the oranges during the winter months. 

Alcachofas (artichokes)
Potatoes (patatas), carrots (zanahorias), courgettes (tapines), cultivated mushrooms (champiñones), red and green peppers (pimientos rojos or verdes) and aubergines (berenjenas) are available all year round.  Broad beans (habas), string beans (judias verdes), cultivated asparagus (espárragos) and globe artichokes (alcachofas) are only available in season, but the season is  long because of the mild Andalusian climate.  Wild mushrooms (setas) and other foods harvested from the countryside, like wild asparagus, artichokes and edible thistles, are of course strictly seasonal.

It is this seasonality, even more so with fruit, that marks one of the biggest differences between shopping in Alcalá and shopping in the big supermarkets.  There is no point craving baby broad beans in November.  If the supermarkets have them in stock at that time, it is because they have been flown in from another hemisphere, which of course is very, very bad for the planet.  Another difference is that vegetables come in all  shapes, colours and sizes, as they don´t have to meet the supermarket requirements for regularity and standardization.

A common complaint from expats is that stuff goes off quickly.  This is quite true.  But when you buy "fresh" produce in supermarkets it has usually been artificially prevented from ripening, using refrigeration and/or ethylene-suppressant gases and acres of plastic packaging.  Icky!  The way round this is not to stockpile, but do what the Spanish do and just buy what you need every two or three days.  Your local shopkeeper will happily sell you one tomato, or four mushrooms.