October 29, 2011

Cooking in the Alpujarras, Spain: Chestnut Soup with Sherry

The end of October is definitely chestnut time. The air cools and the spiny balls drop to the ground when the wind blows. Its a bit of bother getting into them, but well worth it. If you find them on the ground, you can put your foot on top of one and just apply pressure, rolling over it carefully, until the nut pops out all shiny and and brown.

There are several areas of Andalucía where chestnuts are cultivated, the Alpujarras village of Valor in Granada province, and the Serrania de Ronda in Málaga, in particular the villages of Igualeja, Pujerra, Cartajima and the upper Rio Genal valley in general.

We made this wonderful chestnut soup in our cooking program at Casa Ana, having gathered the chestnuts from the "ruta medieoval" in the village of Ferrierola in the Alpujarras.

Now we have traveled south to Cartajima to stay with friends in "Los Castanos", a boutique hotel in the village, surrounded by a sea of chestnut trees. We have decided after all, not to go the curvy roads to the festival in Pujerra, even though there is a procession tonight. It's quite far and the roads are not friendly in the dark. Plus, It's too tempting to sit and roast chestnuts on the fire here "at home" and drink some lovely "aqua ardiente" a local wine, or anis. It's quiet and we can tell stories. 

All of us sitting around this fire tonight, Zoe Ouwehand, our English friend who owns Dar Cilla in Tarifa and has lived in the Congo and other parts of the world, our hostess Di Beach, a courageous, intrepid traveler who restored three houses in Cartajima to make this charming hotel, Anne Hunt, another super English woman who came to the Alpujarras on her own to restore a guesthouse she now calls Casa Ana. Kim Schiffer, a southerner who became an extraordinary chef and lives in Santa Barbara, and myself, who always enjoys the company of women visionaries.

We will have plenty to tell. No doubt, picking up on a thread of the other. 

Here's to chestnut soup in the Alpujarras and roasting chestnuts in Cartajima.

Chestnut Soup with Sherry
1 3/4#      chestnuts
6T             unsalted butter
2                garlic, sliced thin
3                shallots, medium, sliced thin
1                 leek, sliced thin
2                celery stalks, sliced thin
2                thyme sprigs
2                bay leaves
2 1/4 c     white wine
1 1/4 c     Sherry Fino
2 qts         homemade chicken stock
2t               salt
3/4t         pepper

 Make an X in the bottom on each chestnut.  Boil in water for 20minutes.  Cool slightly and remove shells.  If bitter, boil one more time for about 10 minutes and remove thin dark membrane.
 Cook garlic, shallots, leek, and celery in butter until very soft, about 15 minutes.  Add thyme, bay leaf, and chestnuts.  Cook about 10 more minutes.  Add wine and cook until there in very little left.  Add 3/4 c sherry and cook 10 minutes more.  Add stock and cook 1 1/2 hours. 

 Remove thyme and bay.  Let cool slightly and puree.  Taste.  Stir in more sherry if desired.  Strain. Reheat slightly and ladle into bowls.

Recipe: Kim Schiffer

October 28, 2011

Spain: Marketing in Malaga

Kim, Anne and I started our journey with six culinary enthusiasts in Malaga on Friday. 

Hitting the outdoor covered markets we gathered all that we could think of to create the menus that Kim had devised for our next six days in the mountains. Each student received a list and fulfilled it on his or her own. Not one of them spoke Spanish, including me—and my Italian can only go so far. So what to do? Most of it became sign language, although "quisiera un kilo di .... " and point... goes a long way.


But a trip to the market doesn't always imply that you know what you want, you just know that you are in search of the most succulent thing.

If I want a firm fish for a brocheta, are the fish choices different? Who are the fishmongers that you can trust? How do you find that out if you don't know anyone? You can look and see quality, but knowing is always better. So I asked the butcher at Carniceria Villamuela. Kim found Manuel last year. He had an "I speak English" sign hanging over the counter. After buying numerous chickens and pork loins,  she asked him how he learned English. He said, "I had good teachers, Snoop Dog, Doctor D, Iron Maiden..."followed by other rappers she had never heard of. His answers to our questions didn't rhyme, but he was charming in every way.

As I wandered the market and scoped out the fish, I had questions that needed answering. I wandered back to Manuel. He said, "I know nothing about fish and I don't trust anyone." Yet, he offered to go with me. Luckily, we ran into a chef friend of his who gave me advice and told me which vendor to go to. I was pleased, as it was the one I liked the best. Javier—we now know him by name—definitely had the best sword fish for our brocheta. Costly at 20 euro a kilo, but fresh!

Piling into the bus after loading all of our goods, we headed for a seafood lunch at Tito Yayo. I couldn't possibly tell you where it was, yet we were feet from the sea and ate like rogues. Plates of bocarones, (fried anchovies), grilled octopus, gambas plancha (potato chips with thin slices of jamon on top), pimentos de padron, (3 inch fried-green peppers where every third one is hot!), berenjena con miel (thinly sliced eggplant with honey), and to finish black (squid ink) paella. Yayo was a delight and welcomed us into his exquisite seaside shack open-heartedly. His chef? A Cuban from Bilbao, quite pleased to meet Kim, a chef from California.

After a full meal, we still had an hour and a half to go. Ferrierola lay waiting for us in the black night with bright stars,  hot tea and cozy beds. When we woke in the morning, we fell into the arms of the Alpujarras.


Now on full day three. Hikers took a walk in the pouring rain. They came back for hot toddies and warm bowls of sopa de garbanzo, pureéd with a sfumato of rosemary and garlic in olive oil. Escarapuche, pork tenderloin and tomato salad, and the afore mentioned smoky eggplant salad. A bottle of good Sherry.

Francisco Lillo, owner of La Oliva, a specialty shop of all things delicious, has come from Granada
to show us how to make a good paella.

"First you have to make a fire," he says, "and that is what we will do on the stone patio with dirt and wood."

To be continued...

October 24, 2011

Spain: Recipe for Smoky Eggplant with Yellow Peppers and Red Onion

Bearing left at the bridge, we leave the GR142 and follow the right bank of the Rio Trevelez, almost immediately crossing a stream over large slabs of smooth stone. Beyond the stream, a yellow waymark indicates a rough path that zigzags up through big bushes of retama.

We follow this path, crossing an erroded, rocky section and climbing towards a small chestnut tree where theres a very old dot on a rock, the path becomes clearer. After winding through a small stand of chestnut, the path climbs steeply then bears right on a gentler slope below a long rocky outcrop tropped with a couple of dead chestnuts.

The rock gives way to stone retaining walls until the path bears left then right to pass a partially dead chestnut, after which it winds up below ans acacia to rejoin the outward route. Turning right here, we reach Ferreirola five minutes later, where we retrace our footsteps to the church square. 

This is to give you an idea of the terrain that surrounds the village, if you were to arrive by foot, according to Charles Davis, author of Walk! the Alpujarras.  Not to mention that we hang on the side of a mountain, with other steep and craggy mountains so close as to touch, right outside the door.  There is an ancient rock threshing ground which juts out over a valley. I suppose it was used for separating the wheat from the chafe. It seems it should also have been for ceremony, as it is a powerful ground for being in direct contact with the great unknown. And for this, also seems an internal threshing ground as well. It's not unusual for me to be in touch with the doubts and fears that lurk beneath the surface which seem to rise like cream and scream, "see me, hear me!" And I look and I listen and I cry.

Back to Casa Ana, Anne Hunt's lovely restored private retreat house, the HQ for our Andalucian cooking adventure.

Kim Schiffer, a dear dear old friend from Santa Barbara, California, is making fresh ricotta. While the curds separate from the whey, she roasts eggplant over a flame, to give a smoky flavor to her "smoky eggplant with yellow peppers and red onion."


2          medium eggplant
2          yellow peppers, cored and cut into 1” dice
1/2c    red onion, diced
24       cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4c   parsley, roughly chopped
1/2c    walnut oil or sunflower oil
2T      lemon juice or cider vinegar
1T       ground cumin
salt and pepper
flat bread, grilled or heated

Place the eggplant directly on a moderate gas flame and roast for 10-15 minutes, turning them occasionally with tongs, until the flesh is soft and the skin is burnt and flaky.  Cool slightly.  Cut in half.  Scoop flesh into a colander and drain for at least an hour or overnight.

Chop the eggplant flesh roughly and mix with all the other ingredients.  Taste and adjust seasoning.  It should be robust and pungent.
Serve with flat bread.

October 19, 2011

Upcoming Program: Tasting Royal Rajasthan, India

 This February 5-17, 2012: Tasting Royal Rajasthan

February 5-17, 2012

Feel a culture beneath your feet as you walk the noble hallways of Indian palaces

Stop and gaze through a windows at villages, dotted with baby blue houses painted in Krishna's honor

Walk streets of turbaned shop keepers selling chai and spices.

Become familiar with ingredients and vegetables you have never seen before

Peak your curiosity and palate while being served like a Raj with utmost care and respect. 

Marvel at the world in contrast, color and texture and smile back at the Indian spirit which welcomes you. 

It's a potent experience, and will be a truly unforgettable adventure. 
India Market  India Landscape

Three rooms available
Email us or call our booking coordinator, Merete, at 303-910-0897 to reserve your spot!

"The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and
one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost
shrine at the end."   

~ Rabindranath Tagore, Indian poet. 


Program includes:
~ Airport pick-up by private driver
~ Domestic airfare within India
~ All accommodations and most meals
~ Cooking classes and guided cultural excursions

October 16, 2011

Relaxing with "Thé Petales": Rose Petal Tea from Perfumer Miller Harris, London.

Paul Grimes smelling the roses at Jalil Belkamel's aromatherapy garden in Marrakech.
"My name is Peggy Markel and I haven't written a blog in over 15 days". This is what I imagine a meeting at Bloggers Anonymous would sound like. In this case, I confess that I can't keep up with blogging, or other social media word flow. My life moves fast in the "slow food and travel" lane.

Just this late summer and fall, I have kept moving at the speed of light. I've been steeped in poetry, fed warm sheepsmilk ricotta, tasted numerous full-bodied wines, eaten rustic ragus, seafood stews and delicate volutes topped with fennel pollen and drizzles of  aromatic oils on various stuffed pastas, meats and frilly fresh salads. I've sucked on salt chocolate, cinnamon chocolate, hot Sicilian chocolate and soon to be, ambergris chocolate. I've traveled by air, train, ferries, sailboat and zodiac. At times, I switched to donkeys, camels, mopeds and bicycles.  Even when I have stopped for a few short days here and there, I am constantly asked to do something, organize something (even a closet), make plans, write out a recipe, think of a plan for next year (but right now), price something, talk to this person, introduce that person, meet these people, re-pack a bag, hop a taxi, book a ticket, or deal with the details of the moment. Old and new friends are constantly coming and going.

This sort of existence has texture and depth, rich in meaningful, earthy experiences. A constant massage, it touches the places that love attention, offering a sensual smorgosbord for the eyes, ears, nose and palate, engaging me deeply in body, speech and mind. So much so, that at times I feel like my life is like a flimsy lacy petticoat, hanging half way off the shoulder and my legs are dangling out the window of a brothel. Enough already.

I have a thousand stories to tell and many details of discoveries to share. Most of them seem like they wait like wallflowers to be noticed or disappear all together.

Today, with another bag to pack and upcoming transition to make, I sat down to write instead. I made a cup of assam tea with a precious pinch of thé petales (rose petal tea) from Miller Harris. It was a gift from the perfumer herself. I met Lyn Harris at Jnane Tamsna in Marrakech. We share a passion, not only for tea, but for this private guesthouse that we frequent every year. It feels like a home away from home. I know everyone, including the carob trees and rose bushes, surely she knows every aromatic plant.

The interesting thing, is that I was aware of her perfume before I met her. I have her "fig" and "fluer oriental." Unusual fragrances, they stand apart from the plethora of powdery perfumes. Meeting her on casual turf in caftans and bare feet brought a certain air of authenticity to her product and mutual like-mindedness of mood.

"Drinking rare and beautiful teas has always been an essential luxury," says Lyn Harris. "Inspired by the delicate art of balancing flavor and aroma, Lyn has combined the world's finest teas with pure, natural extracts to create a collection of blends with top, heart and base notes. This tea demands the prettiest of cups. Smooth and sensual Turkish rose combines with velvet notes of vanilla Ceylon. A heart of Taiwanese White Tip Oolong is entwined with geranium bourbon from the island of Reunion to create a delicate refreshing cup. " So says the back of the tea canister.

So that description my friends..."is my cup of tea," on this fine Sunday afternoon in Florence. Life no longer hanging out the window, but sitting quite properly enjoying one's tea in a pretty cup reading a novel, Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy.

Visit the Miller Harris tea collection.

October 1, 2011

Sicily: These are a few of my favorite things....

 A basket of small pears..
 purple cauliflower next to chicory and a pink graffiti'd wall..
 baked onions who's aroma beckons you near...

 Fruits we never see with names that twist our mind...

a color-coordinated melon seller..

when the train strikes.. when our feet hurt.. when we're feeling tired... we simply remember some
fabulous things and then.. we don't feel.. .so tired...!