Turron, Cagatios and other Spanish Christmas Treats

Christmas is approaching fast and, like many other countries, Spain has her own sweets and treats. Let’s take a look.

Last week, I made my way to Jijona, also known as ‘the cradle of turron’. It’s in this little village some 20km north of Alicante, in the middle of almond groves, that Spain’s Christmas sweet no. 1, turron, was ‘invented’.

selection

Surprisingly, the sweet, often called the Spanish nougat, doesn’t have a very long tradition. In the 18th century El Lobo, the most famous company, started to produce turron, grinding almonds, mixing them with sugar, honey  and egg white, stirring and stirring, then cutting it into squares.

turron

The turron museum of Jijona documents the making of turron, all by hand in the beginning, to today’s modernized production. There are basically two kinds of turron: very hard one, often with pieces of almond in it and soft one which is mostly made in Alicante. Over the years, this traditional Christmas sweet of Arabic origin, has undergone varieties. Now there is turron de chocolate, turron with candied fruit and much more.

kessel

logo

muehle

lorry

Let’s turn to a custom which I first saw on a Christmas market in Barcelona. The caragtio is a piece of dried tree trunk, dressed up as Papa Noel and with his backend covered by a blanket. During the time approaching Christmas, the cagatio is fed with apples by kids, because, so the story goes, when he is kept well fed and warm with his blanket, at Christmas he will ‘shit’ sweets and little presents which the kids find under the blanket.

cagatio

If you fear for your teeth, stay away from the hard variety of turron and enjoy polvorones instead. They are little cakes, often compared to biscuits, which melt into almond and butter flavored powder as soon as you get your teeth into them. They are very dry and crumble easily that’s probably why they are wrapped individually and want to be handled with care until they reach their final destination: your taste buds!

The best polvorones are made in Southern Andalucia.

The 6th of January is the day when Roscon de Reyes is eaten all over the country. It’s a large, round bread, glazed and topped with candied fruit and powdered sugar. Hidden in the dough is a coin or a figures of baby Jesus. Who ever finds one or the other will have good luck during the coming year.

tree

Feliz Navidad!

Huelva – boots, ham and the cradle of Spanish football

Quite a few people outside Spain will never have heard of Huelva, leave alone will know where to find it on the map.

All of a sudden, the city is in the spotlight because a few days ago, it has been nominated Spain’s Capital of Gastronomy 2017, taking over the crown from Toledo.

So, it’s time to take a closer look at Huelva to see what is special about the city located in the Southwest of Spain, near the Atlantic Ocean and not far from the border with Portugal.

 

The food

Naturally, having won the title of Gastronomic Capital of Spain, the emphasis is on Huelva’s food. Due to its location at the mouth of the river Rio Tinto and the mountainous hinterland of the province of Huelva and a mild climate , the region enjoys a great variety of seafood, fruit, vegetables and meat dishes.

The small brown pigs, known as cerdo iberico, roam free and are the source of the famous jamon de jabugo , Spain’s best cured ham. Pata Negra, the best known and most expensive brand, comes from pigs exclusively reared on a diet of acorns.

ham

Being a vegetarian, I’m not keen on ham, but it needs to be mentioned here.

Much more to my liking is the second specialty of Huelva: white prawns. Harvested in the sandy coastal seabed,  they have an exceptionally fine flavor, thin skin and long whiskers. A dash of lemon juice and a sprinkling of sea salt are all that’s needed to enjoy.

And then, of course, there are the Huelva strawberries. Cultivated on more than 7000 hectares of fields, they are harvested nearly year around.

strawberries

Fried cuttlefish, wild mushrooms and more round out the picture of Huelva’s food.

The boots

Valverde del Camino, a rather small village near Huelva is where you want to buy your hiking boots. Several companies specialize in the best and they also make the boots worn by the pilgrims and participants of the Rocio as well as shoes for Flamenco dancers.

The football

This is an interesting anecdote relating to the industrial past of Huelva. In the late 19th century the nearby Minas de Rio Tinto, were exploited by the British company Riotinto Company Ltd. Iron ore was transported by the newly built railway line to the port of Huelva. Management and many workers were British and  looking for entertainment during their free time. There wasn’t any to be had so they decided to revive the tradition of football. The locals were more than skeptical at the beginning and didn’t see any sense in kicking a ball around trying to put it between two goal posts.

But, football enthusiasm is contagious and by the 1920, there were no less than 20 local, all Spanish, football teams in place and Huelva is thus the cradle of Spanish football.

I plan to visit in a few weeks time and  sample the prawns and strawberries as well as making forays into the surrounding areas, like Isla Cristina, Ayamonte, Lepe and the nature paradise of Parque de la Doñana.

Via del Portico – Sagunt

Approaching Sagunt coming from Valencia you can’t miss the awesome sight of the massive castle on top of the hill dominating the city. It stretchesfor about 1km in length, plenty to walk around and explore. Below it on the same hill are other historical sites like the Roman Theatre, the Forum and, near the bottom, the Jewish quarter.

Sagunt castle

Sagunt castle

Roman Theatre

Roman Theatre

Entrance to La Juderia

Entrance to La Juderia

Before undertaking the steep hike up the hill, I went to see a fascinating discovery in the city center itself. Via del Portico adjacent to Plaza Antiga Moreria was the main approach road to Sagunt in Roman times. The perfectly straight road was covered by rubble and layers of other buildings, most recently a football field, until it was discovered when modern apartment and office buildings were constructed on top.

roadbest

Excavations revealed a massive area with the well preserved road, bordered by pillars which once supported a roofed arcade with shops and houses. Canalization is clearly visible as are the imprints of carts which drove along on their way to the prosperous Roman city.

The remains of other houses, side roads , cisterns and even discarded building material and lead pipes give an impression of what it looked like so many centuries ago.

pilars

houses

Discarded Roman bricks

Discarded Roman bricks

Lead pipes

Lead pipes

I had the privilege of a private guided tour by Carmen Antoni Balazan, an archaeologist who now looks after the museum/exhibition and was involved in the excavations. She told me that it wasn’t clear if this access road was a part of the famous Via Augusta which led from Rome to Cadiz but it’s possible.

The exhibition is impressive, because the road and houses are displayed beneath the black pillars which are the foundation of the building which was constructed above. In interesting combination of ancient and modern architecture.

To see this you must make an appointment at the nearby tourist office in Plaza Cronista Chabret.Admission is €1.

 

A different kind of history in the Port of Sagunt

When I decided to visit Sagunt, I wanted to follow ancient history. To see the site of the famous siege of Sagunt, Hannibal versus the Romans, the all important Second Punic War, the castle on top of the hill, the Roman forum and theatre.

Castle of Sagunt

Castle of Sagunt

Roman theatre

Roman theatre

I did all that, but what surprised me when I made my way to the Port of Sagunt was that there are remarkable structures and buildings related to a much more recent past. The Industrial Revolution and witnesses to the steel making industry in Sagunt which began to flourish in the 19th century and contributed to economic growth.

Alas, such wealth was short lived. The last steel ovens closed in 1984. I took the bus from Sagunt railway station and, at the driver’s advice, got off at the market to see what is known as Horno Alto. By the way, the market was in full swing and is enormous, but I didn’t stop because it’s quite a hike to reach this remarkable structure.

Horno Alto no.2

Horno Alto no.2

iron

It’s a restored 64 meters high steel oven which you can visit and which is dramatically illuminated at night. It was just me and two American tourists,  who exclaimed in awe:  “looks like a space ship”. It does, when you are standing at the bottom it’s just huge.

The Port of Sagunt has many more streets and parts which remind you of the industrial times. The barrio de los obreros is one and next to the Horno, now derelict warehouses. The atmosphere is eerie and impressive at the same time.

warehouse

From the Horno Alto it is another long hike along the Avenida del Mediterraneo to reach the beaches. It’s well worth the effort, because the beaches are fantastic. Playa Almadra, Playa Corinto and Playa Malvarrosa to name but a few cover a total of 10km. White, sandy with dunes and interesting vegetation you should bring swimwear for a dip in the crystalline waters when making a trip to the port of Sagunt.

beach

canet

plants

Even in the height of summer you will be able to find a quiet spot, they are just so vast. Cafes, restaurants and the occasional chiringuitos line the promenade.This side trip is an absolute must when visiting Sagunt.

bar

El colcho – a unique artifact of Sagunt

When I first arrived in Sagunt, I silently dubbed the place ‘The City of Without’. The reason? The river Palancia doesn’t have a drop of water. My hotel had a reception but no receptionist. Starving, I entered a bar only to be told that they didn’t have any food, not even a miserable donut.  Something unheard of in Spain.  Finally, I tried to use  an ATM but… it had no money.

This somewhat  negative start took a dramatic turn for the better the moment I entered the Tourist Office on Plaza Cronista Chabret. The boss, Paco Torrijos, couldn’t do enough to help me with information as soon as he heard what I was doing in Sagunt.

colcho

My eye was caught by glass showcases in the office which contained several artifacts I had never seen before. Naturally, I enquired and learned that these pretty vessels are called colchos and that they were used from the 18th century onwards to carry drinking water by the farmers and laborers when they were toiling in their fields. Unlike other flasks they are made from big slices of cork oak, decorated and held together by brass. Two openings are inserted, one to pour the water in and another to drink from.

The shape, vertical and horizontal cylinders, differ, depending on the owner being male or female. With the disappearance of agriculture and the arrival of tins and plastic bottles, there was no need for the original use of the colchos anymore and by 1969 the art of making them was dying out.

This is where the story gets really interesting. The last craftsman, belonging to the Ortiz family, decided to keep the art alive and to teach it to mentally handicapped people who live in the Centro Ocupacional San Cristobal in the mountains a short drive out of town. That’s where the colchos are made today and sold in various sizes as souvenirs and much coveted gifts for weddings and other celebrations. From practical they have become decorative and provide a great opportunity for the handicapped to use their skills, which are remarkable.

I know this, because I asked Paco if I could visit the center and see in situ how the colchos are made. It took several phone calls and some persuasion, but finally I was allowed to visit. It was a heart warming experience. The guys came forward with big smiles on their faces and each was eager to show me which part of the colcho they were making. I wasn’t allowed to take any photos of the people of course, but the teacher held up parts and finished pieces for me to photograph. They also have other workshops where they paint or make wicker baskets.

horizontalcolcho

verticalcolcho

engraving

chain

Paco, who is a great collector of anything to do with Sagunt, her art and history, owns about 50 colchos, among them a rarity: one made from wicker, also produced by the guys from the center.

wickercolcho

The prices vary from €62 to €20 according to size. They are sold at stands at the weekly mercadillo but, strangely, in no souvenir shop in Sagunt. Even stranger, there is only one: half way up the mountain on the way to the castle.

The only souvenir shop

The only souvenir shop

The center doesn’t have a website but you can send them an email if you want to know more. centroocupacionalsancristobal@gmail.com, FAO Pedro Rubio who is the director.