Saturday, March 28, 2015

It's Not Over Yet

When winter loosened its grip here in Ohio, I was not so foolish as to think that we had seen the last of the snow.  March is a fickle month, and I knew that winter would try to make a comeback. Yesterday was cold, and it was snowing lightly most of the day.  Fortunately, there was just a light cover of snow.  Tomorrow the temperature will approach 50 F, and this snow will be gone.  However I will not discount the possibility of more white stuff before spring takes firm control and gives ol' man winter the boot for another year.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Better than Gazpacho

Gazpacho, a cold tomato soup which originated in southern Spain, is fairly well known here in the United States.  (However, what is served here is often a bright red soup that is quite different from genuine Andalucian gazpacho.)  There is a variation of gazpacho which I think is even tastier and easier to make.  It's called salmorejo. 

I had never heard of salmorejo until a trip to Spain that I made in 2004.  I was at a charming sidewalk restaurant in the old town of Seville when I first saw salmorejo on the menu.  I asked the waiter what it was.  He told me that it was similar to gazpacho, so I ordered it.  I loved it, and it is now one of my favorite Spanish recipes.

I was invited to a dinner party which was supposed to be held today.  Since the theme of the dinner was Spain, I volunteered to make salmorejo, even though it is best on a hot summer day.  I made a double batch of salmorejo yesterday, and shortly after finishing I received a phone call.  Unfortunately the dinner party had been cancelled.  Oh well, I had plenty of salmorejo all for myself!

The soup is generally garnished with Spanish "serrano" ham and hard boiled egg.  I had not boiled the eggs before I got the phone call, but I did have the closest thing to "serrano" ham that you can find around here... prosciutto. 

So here is my salmorejo...

The soup is very thick and has a velvety texture.  It tastes just like the salmorejo that I had years ago in Seville.
On this blog I have described many delicious meals that I have had on my travels.  However, I have never shared with you any recipes.  So here is the easy recipe for authentic salmorejo...
Approximately 2 pounds of ripe tomatoes  (I use plum tomatoes.)
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1 full cup of bread crumbs  (I have used dried bread crumbs in the past, but this time I used slices of Italian bread which I toasted lightly and then tore up.)
Approximately 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar (Some recipes call for Spanish jérez -sherry- vinegar.  I found a bottle of imported jérez vinegar in the grocery store, but when I saw the price of $23, I decided that ordinary red wine vinegar was good enough!)
Put the tomatoes (you don't have to skin them!) and garlic in an electric blender and blend them together.  (Depending on the size of your blender, you might have to do this in 2 batches.)  Add the bread crumbs and blend some more.  Gradually blend in the olive oil.  Season to taste with a splash of vinegar, a pinch of sugar and salt.  Blend at high speed for 2 minutes.  Refrigerate.
Serve cold with a garnish of ham and hard boiled egg.
¡Buen provecho!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bath, England

In 2009 I took my first trip to England.  I had been researching my genealogy, and I wanted to see the ancestral villages from the English branch of my family, as well as meet for the first time cousins with whom I had made contact.

In addition to the genealogical side of the journey, I visited a number of other places in southern England, including the city of Bath.

Bath is located about 100 miles to the west of London in the shire of Somerset on the banks of the River Avon (not the Avon of Shakespeare's Stratford... there are several rivers named Avon in the United Kingdom). 

The city was founded in A.D. 60 by the Romans who were attracted to the hot springs located there.  They built a temple and public bath on the site of the spring... and that is how the city got its modern name.

The Roman remains of the bathhouse are below street level.  The buildings on top of the site (shown below) date from the 18th century.

The Roman Bath is today a museum.  In addition to the remains of the "Great Bath" there are exhibits of archaeological finds.

The Great Bath in the early evening
Me at the Roman Bath
Although the baths fell into disrepair after the fall of the Roman Empire, during the medieval era Bath continued as a town centered around a monastery.  The present Abbey Church was built in the 16th century in Gothic style, and remains one of the city's major landmarks.

The interior of the Abbey

By the 17th century the town had become a fashionable spa. The British elite traveled from London to Bath to "take the waters", go to the theater and to socialize.  To accommodate the visitors terraces of townhouses were built in the Georgian style of architecture.  (The Georgian style was named after Kings George I through IV, during whose reigns the style was popular.)
"The Circus" is a complex of buildings surrounding a small circular park.
"The Royal Crescent" was the epitome of Georgian elegance.
Pulteney Bridge, built in 1773, crosses the River Avon.  It is one of only four bridges in the world with shops along the entire span on both sides.
Nearby, between the river and the Abbey, is Parade Park with its lovely flowers.

There is a tea house in the park, and there is no better way to spend a sunny afternoon in Bath than to sit here and enjoy tea and scones with clotted cream!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Spring Has Sprung

The calendar says that spring has arrived, but, here in Ohio, March is a very unpredictable month.  Yesterday there were a few snow flurries, but fortunately there was no accumulation.  Today was very chilly, but sunny.  In the back yard I saw the first flowers of spring.  The crocus are beginning to bloom!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Auction

Last night several friends of mine and I attended the annual auction held by the Ohio chapter of "Los Amigos de las Américas".  "Los Amigos" is a non-profit, non-sectarian organization with chapters throughout the United States.  It sends high school and college students to various Latin American countries to do volunteer work during the summer.  It is my favorite charity, and for the past five years I have been attending the event and contributing items to the auction.

The event was held at the Kent State University Conference Center in Kent, Ohio, about an hour from where I live.  It began with a "silent auction" with numerous tables of things that have been contributed by individuals and businesses.  There were gift certificates, gift baskets and a wide variety of objects. 

One of the items was two admission tickets to Stan Hywett Hall and Gardens in Akron.  Stan Hywett Hall is a Tudor-style mansion that was built in the early 20th century as the home of Frank Sieberling, the co-founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.  Today the house, filled with antique European furnishings, is a museum and a registered National Historic Landmark.   My friend Alejandro is planning to come up from Mexico for a visit this summer.  He has not been to Stan Hywett Hall, so I thought that it would be an interesting excursion for us to make.  I placed the winning bid on the tickets!
One of the most interesting parts of the "silent auction" are the tables filled with Latin American handicrafts.  Many of the items were brought back by the student volunteers.  Whenever I go to Mexico I make it a point to buy a few small handicrafts to donate to the auction.
(For example, I purchased the small painting to the left of center at an outdoor art market in the Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacán.)
One of my friends who attended the auction was my former teaching colleague, Jane.  Regular readers of my blog know that she accompanied me on a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, this past winter.  While in Oaxaca she bought a beautiful table runner.  Unfortunately, when she returned home, she realized that the colors did not go well with her décor.  So, she donated it to the auction.  It was the most popular item on the Latin American tables and fetched the most money!
Later in the evening a "verbal auction" was held for the more expensive items that had been donated.  These ranged from a ride on the Goodyear Blimp, tickets to the summer concerts of the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center, to resort vacations.  Each year (as you know from previous posts) I do a painting for the "verbal auction."

There was a bit of a bidding war between a couple of people for my painting.  The winner was Cliff, a friend of mine who has attended the auction for the past several years.

It was a fun evening that benefited a very worthwhile cause.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Promise of Spring

The snow is all gone... except for the piles where parking lots were plowed.  I don't discount the possibility of more snow, but spring is on its way.  Robins are singing outside, and in the flower beds the daffodils have sprouted.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Side Trip to Morocco

In 1998 when I chaperoned a student trip to Spain, we had the opportunity to take an optional day excursion across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco.  We were staying at one of the beach resorts along Spain's "Costa del Sol".  Although the "Costa del Sol" did not impress me at all, in retrospect, it probably would have been better to have skipped the optional excursion, and just rested on the beach after our whirlwind trip through Spain.

We left our hotel before dawn and took a tour bus for the hour and a half ride down the Spanish coast to the port of Algeciras on the Strait of Gibraltar.  We boarded a ferry boat to take us across the nine mile strait which separates Europe from Africa.  On the other side we landed at Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast.  There we were met by another tour bus to take us to the city of Tetuan.  Along the way we stopped for a staged photo opportunity for each of us to ride a camel.


We arrived in Tetuan, which is one of the royal cities of Morocco.  Facing the main plaza is the palace of the king when he is in residence.

We then entered the "medina", the old town, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The "medina" is a warren of narrow streets lined with whitewashed houses and shops.  We stayed closed to our tour guide because it would have been very easy to get lost in the labyrinth.

We had lunch at a restaurant in Tetuan, a place with traditional Moroccan décor, music and cuisine.  It was obviously a stop targeted for tourist groups, but the food was quite good.  (By the way, the fellow in the background wearing shorts was not one of our students.  We had told our group... both males and females... to dress conservatively with a minimum of exposed skin.)
If our tour had ended there, we would have probably been satisfied with our glimpse of Morocco.  But instead we drove an hour to the west to the city of Tangier.
I don't think any of us were impressed with Tangier.  We visited the "souk" (marketplace) and went to a carpet shop, where the carpets seemed to be covered with a decade's worth of dust.  The street vendors selling tourist junk were very aggressive.  Unlike Mexican vendors, who usually take a polite "no, gracias" for an answer, they were persistent to the point of being annoying.  Now I'm not going to judge the whole country by Tangier.  I know that there are cities such as Marrakech and Fez that are supposed to be fascinating, filled with history and architecture.  I will just write Tangier off as Morocco's version of Tijuana.
After way too much time in Tangier, we headed back to Ceuta (an hour and a half journey) to take the ferry boat back.
Along the way, we had a view of the Strait of Gibraltar, with Europe barely visible on the other side of the water.
By the time we took the ferry back to Spain, and then made the long bus ride back to our hotel, it was 11:00 at night.  We were all exhausted and glad that our trip to Morocco was over.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Winter Comes to Mexico

I guess Ol' Man Winter finally got bored with us up here North of the Border.  We are finally thawing out, but winter made a surprise visit to Mexico.

Throughout our brutal month of February, my friend Alejandro was making me thoroughly jealous with his weather reports of sunny skies and temperatures as high as 80 F in Mexico City.  But then last Thursday, a cold front came through.  Heavy rains hit Mexico City; one section of the metropolitan area, Ciudad Satélite, had several inches of hail.  At higher elevations in the mountains to the east of the city, the precipitation was in the form of snow.  The major toll road from Mexico City to Puebla, the main link to the east, was closed when a couple inches of snow fell.

(image from the web)

The next morning the often smoggy air of Mexico City was crystal clear, washed clean by the rain.  Alejandro on his way to work had a glorious view of the two volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, covered in snow.  (The last few times that I have had glimpses of Popocatépetl, the 18,000 foot high peak was almost devoid of snow.) Unfortunately, he could not very well stop the car in the middle of Mexico City traffic to snap a picture.
He did however send me some pictures that he took when he and his father traveled a couple hours to the west of the city to attend a family funeral.  (This was before the cold front.)  From where the funeral was held he had an excellent view of "Nevado de Toluca", the 15,000 foot high mountain which is the fourth highest in Mexico.

(photos by Alejandro)

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Big Thaw

It seems that winter is finally loosening its grip.  Although here in Ohio we did not receive anywhere near the amount of snow that New England suffered, we had well over a foot of the white stuff.  And because our temperatures never rose above freezing, none of it melted.

We have finally had a string of days with the temperature rising into the 40s.  The snow gradually melted, and as it melted, a pond of water appeared.

(This is the first picture that I have taken with my new camera!)

(Our neighborhood yards are prone to flooding when the winter snows melt or when we have heavy rains.  In the early spring it is common for ducks to arrive and enjoy the temporary pond.)
I am not expecting winter to be completely over however.  I remember when I was studying in Mexico back in 1973.  I was scheduled to return to Ohio on March 17th, but I ended up spending the night in Atlanta because a huge snowstorm had shut down Cleveland Airport.  And not too many years ago, the Cleveland Indians' home opener in April was cancelled because of snow!
Nevertheless, after such a brutal month of February, it is wonderful to at last see the promise of spring! 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Time for a New Camera

It was toward the end of 2011 that I decided to stop being a dinosaur.  I replaced my old 35 mm camera with my first digital camera... a Nikon Coolpix.  I was very happy with it.  It was so much more convenient than lugging around a bag with my old camera and rolls of film.  I had a case for my Coolpix that snapped onto my belt.  

Even though I took a photography workshop years ago (I even learned how to develop film in a darkroom) I've forgotten most of the technical stuff that I learned.  But I used the automatic settings, and got good results.  I used the regular automatic setting for outdoor shots.  I was very happy to be able to take nice interior pictures in museums and churches using the "museum setting", and night pictures usually came out well with the "night landscape setting".

However, on my latest trip to Mexico I noticed that the camera wasn't working correctly.  My outdoor shots with the automatic setting were coming out overexposed.  Oddly enough, if  I switched to the "museum setting" the pictures came out much better.

The picture above looks rather faded.  The sky was definitely a more intense blue.
Even more disconcerting was the fact that every once while something strange would happen.  I would think that I had snapped a picture, but it seems that the image wasn't captured until after I had lowered the camera.  As a result, I had a number of pictures of the ground!

I did some research on-line, and several experts said that the life-expectancy for a newer compact digital camera is often around three years.  In the past three years I have done a lot of traveling and have taken thousands of pictures.  The Coolpix served me well, but I decided that it was time to retire it.
Today I went out and bought a new camera.  I had read good reviews about Sony cameras, so I purchased a Sony RX-100.  It is supposed to be the top of the line of the Sony compact cameras.  It was more expensive than my Nikon, but I figure that with all the pictures that I take, it would be worthwhile to get a better camera.
Here is my new camera...  and the last photo taken with the old camera.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Moorish Fantasies

In my previous post, I mentioned that in 1998 I traveled to Spain with a group of students from the school where I taught. 

One of the cities that we visited on our whirlwind tour was Granada in the southern region of Andalucía.  Granada was the capital of the last Moslem kingdom of the Moors.  In A.D. 711 the Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and invaded most of the Iberian Peninsula.  Throughout the Middle Ages, the Spanish Christian kingdoms gradually pushed the Moors to the south, and by the 14th century, the Kingdom of Granada was all that remained of the Moorish territory. 

In the 1300s the Nasrid dynasty that ruled the kingdom, built a lavish fortress / palace on a hill overlooking the city.  That palace, the Alhambra, is the most beautiful example of Moorish architecture in Spain, and one of the finest Islamic buildings anywhere in the world.  It is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 1492 Granada fell to the Christian forces of Isabel and Fernando (we know them as Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand).  It is quite amazing that the Alhambra survived to the present.  It was used for a time as a palace by the Christian monarchs.  Emperor Charles V tore down a portion of the complex to build a Renaissance style residence for himself.  (It is odd that Charles, who had lamented the construction of a cathedral within the Great Mosque of Córdoba, should have committed the same atrocity by tearing down part of the Alhambra!)  The building suffered centuries of neglect, being used at various times as a tenement and as a military barracks.  In 1812 during the Napoleonic Wars, the French destroyed some of the fortress towers, and in 1821 an earthquake caused further damage.  In 1828 the American author Washington Irving published his book "Tales of the Alhambra".  The book resulted in renewed interest in the Alhambra, and the subsequent restoration of the palace.  Today it is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Spain.

The Alhambra is a maze of courtyards and rooms covered with beautiful tile work and incredibly delicate plaster decoration.

The most famous portion of the Alhambra is the Court of the Lions. In the center of the courtyard is a fountain with marble sculptures of twelve lions at its base.  The Moslem religion prohibits graven images, so representations of animals is unusual is Islamic art.  It is probably for this reason that the lions are quite stylized. 

A short distance away, across a ravine from the Alhambra, is another palace of the Moorish rulers, the Generalife  (pronounced "hen-er-al-LEE-fay).  The Generalife was the summer palace.  The building is much simpler in style than the main palace, but it is surrounded by beautiful gardens, fountains and pools.  The kings of Granada created a paradise on earth.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Córdoba, Spain

Back in 1998, when I was still a high school Spanish teacher, my colleague Jane organized a student trip to Spain, and I went along as a chaperone.  Like most student trips, it was a whirlwind itinerary.  (Can you believe that we actually did the Prado Museum and the Royal Palace in Madrid, plus a visit to the nearby city of Toledo, all in ONE day?!)  Nevertheless, we had a great group of students, and they really enjoyed their taste of Spain.

One of the places which we visited, although only for a couple hours, was the fabled city of Córdoba.  When the Moslem Moors from North Africa invaded most of Spain in A.D. 711, they made Córdoba their capital.  At its height in the 10th and 11th centuries, it was one of the most splendid, cultured and populous cities in the world.  It boasted a population of 500,000, a university, and the world's largest library at that time.  It had 3000 mosques, but the Great Mosque of Córdoba rivaled the mosques of Mecca and Damascus in its size and beauty.

In 1236 the city was reconquered by the Christians. Córdoba went into decline.  The Great Mosque was converted into a cathedral.

We had a very short time to have lunch and to wander the labyrinthine streets of Córdoba's "old town".  The "old town" has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The remainder of our time in Córdoba was devoted to visiting "La Mezquita", the former Great Mosque.
The exterior of the huge building today shows only traces of its former Moorish splendor.
The minaret is now the bell tower of the Cathedral.

The mosque was completed in A.D. 987.  It was built on the site of a Visigothic Christian church, which in turn had been built on the site of a Roman temple. The interior of the mosque contained a vast forest of 1293 columns.  The granite and marble columns were taken from Roman ruins throughout the region.  They are topped with arches made of jasper and onyx.  It was designed to resemble a huge grove of palm trees.

Some of the beautiful Moorish decoration remains.

The Christians tore out more than 300 of the columns to build their cathedral within the former mosque, a jarring contrast to the original architecture.

Emperor Charles V lamented, "They have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city."