Saturday, January 28, 2012

Fútbol from a casual fan (Spain)

For everyone else in the world besides Americans, football (i.e. "fútbol," or soccer in American) is THE sport. It should come as no surprise that many supporters live and die for their teams. The fans of Fútbol Club Barcelona (aka "Barça"), however, are legion. I've have found Barça fans all over the globe, from the highlands of Nicaragua to remote villages in Asia.

Their rival is Madrid. Forget Purdue vs. Indiana, Carolina vs. Duke, even Yankees vs. Red Sox. Real Madrid vs. F.C. Barcelona is the rivalry to end all rivalries. Their meetings ("El Clásico") during the regular and post seasons have occurred nearly 250 times, and they are two of the richest, most successful clubs in the world. Even deeper than that, Barça has long been a symbol of Catalan pride and nationalism. During Franco's regime (who supported Madrid), regional identities and cultures suffered from oppression, and Barça matches were one of the few places Catalans could represent, so to speak. One of Barça's club presidents was even assassinated by Franco's troops. So, yeah, you can begin to see where history lends weight to their slogan "More than a club" ("més que un club")...

Heading into the hallowed ground of Camp Nou, I felt a little trepidation, not being a bred-in-the-bone devotee. Camp Nou is the largest stadium in Europe (and the 11th in the world), but I was more struck by its functionality. Entrances and staircases didn't feel crowded as people streamed in, and for anyone who's ever been to any American college or pro stadium, there seemed to be an utter void of advertising.

Barça was playing Real Betis, a club out of Sevilla. We were lucky to catch a glimpse of some serious bling, as star player Lio Messi (always looking the happy-go-lucky innocent) and team captain Carles Puyol (always of the long, flowing curls) both accepted glittering trophies from recently announced awards.

High up in the nosebleed seats, we still managed to have a decent view of the pitch. The atmosphere was quite business-like with the majority of fans concentrating seriously on the action below. Apart from one group of continually chanting Barça supporters, it was also surprisingly quiet. There were no announcers or color commentators over the speakers, even the referee calls had to be divined on the basis of hand signals alone, and not a single burst of loud pop music - say, Queen or the Black-Eyed Peas - that would normally interrupt every pause in an American game to "pump up the crowd." Of course, there were no cheerleaders either, but Barça's manager Pep Guardiola, who could easily have a future as a male model, makes for a nice bit of eye candy for the ladies in his dashing suit and tie.

We expected Barça to win, but after 2 goals in less than 20 minutes, we weren't quite sure if we wanted to see a complete slaughter. However, Betis picked up their game and rallied to tie before the half. Barça's faltering actually seemed to invigorate the somewhat stoic stands. Besides the colorful phrases flying over our heads that made us wish we knew more Catalan, it was absolutely hilarious seeing the previously sedate middle-aged lady in front of us spitting out venomous curses and making obscene gestures at the ref! Luckily, Barça came back from the half, displaying once again their breathtakingly beautiful brand of ball-handling, to score 2 more goals. Right was restored in the world, and when the match finished, we were able to sing along as they blasted the anthem - with subtitles - , "Barça! Barça! Barça!"

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jamón (Spain)

Many years ago I picked up a copy of a posh magazine, possibly Gourmet or The New Yorker, and read an article where the writer waxed nostalgic about the best meal he had ever eaten. In some house in the Spanish countryside, in some distant past, he had dined simply and divinely on only bread, red wine, and ham. Afterwards, he discovered that the wine just happened to be a select rioja from a great house from a great year, and the ham was the king of hams. His trek to discover the origins of the meal has stuck with me, and since moving to Spain, I wanted to experience such great food.

Even though "jamón" translates to "ham" in English, to even consider it in the same universe as ham (yes, even a honey-baked ham, Dad) seems shockingly disrespectful. Spanish jamón comes in two forms: jamón serrano from the white Iberian pig and jamón ibérico from the black Iberian pig. While jamón serrano is still yummy, jamón ibérico is in a league of its own.

The ancient Iberian breed has slender legs and black hooves (why they are also called "pata negra"). If they are going to be the best of the best, otherwise known as jamón ibérico de bellota, they will finish their lives roaming free on a pastoral woodland with ancient oak trees, scarfing down over 20 lbs (10 kg) of acorns a day. After slaughter, the legs are packed with sea salt and dried in the cool, mountain air for 2 years or longer. To protect and maintain the quality, there are even appellations like you have for wines.

After careful deliberation, we opted for a starter jamón. It was on sale... in a supermarket... and it came in a carrier that looked like one for tennis rackets... with the foot sticking out. Sure, it wasn't a "bellota," but it was still a jamón ibérico. Since one of the ways to ruin a jamón is in the carving, we didn't want to practice on something that, since its introduction in the U.S. in 2007, retails for over 90 dollars a pound! We named our jamón, Jorge. [Note: This is not a typical practice, and many Spaniards/Catalans were quite amused by the idea.] At around 90 euros (~ 115 dollars), Jorge still wasn't cheap. However, after getting 4 months of daily sandwiches out of him, he proved to be a smart investment.

Having honed our knife skills, this year we wanted to push the boat out. Ramón the Jamón is a bellota, and not just any, but a "gran reserva" carrying 3 J's on his label, out of a maximum 5 J's, from D.O. Guijuelo, an appellation in Salamanca. In the interest of full disclosure, Ramón is technically not a true jamón (made from the hind leg) but a paleta (made from the front leg). There's really little difference between them except size, and consequently, a paleta is marginally cheaper than a jamón. In this first week of eating, Ramón has truly surpassed his predecessor. He sports the hallmark deep red hue with marbling of golden fat that melts in your mouth. He's sweet, nutty, and not too salty with a complexity of flavor that puts Jorge to shame. We look forward to many more exquisite meals!

Finally, for you detractors out there, here is a funny little true story. A group of scientists at a European conference were arguing over ham. The Italians were proclaiming that prosciutto di Parma (a standard-bearer which many of you might be more familiar with) was the best in the world. The Spaniards vigorously championed jamón ibérico. Being scientists, of course, they came up with an experiment. At the next meeting, they brought a plate of each for tasting. In the end, there was some prosciutto left over, but the jamón plate was clean. Spain was declared the victor!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Valencia (Spain)

About 15 years ago, I was accepted into a summer language exchange in Valencia, Spain. Much to the consternation and disappointment of my Spanish teachers, I turned down the prestigious - and very pricey - program. Instead, I chose to muck about in Indiana cornfields doing agricultural research. Since that decision led me eventually to a scholarship, a degree, and a career, I can't say I've ever regretted it. But now I'm living in Spain, why not have a look-see?

Valencia is 3.5 hours south by train, and the ride down frequently features the sea on the left and orange groves on the right. Upon arrival, the weather was so wonderfully warm (in January!) that our coats and sweaters quickly became a burden. It may be the third largest city in Spain, but strolling through the old parts of the city, Valencia felt like a quaint little town. Valenciano is a dialect of Catalan so a lot of the street names and the flag also looked familiar.

The Museu de Belles Arts is housed in the lovely St. Pius Palace. The collection has over 2000 works, including those of Velazquez, Goya, and El Greco... and the entrance is free! Unfortunately, our visit was cut short. Rich was struck down by illness (possibly airplane-borne) and spent most of his time in the hotel room. I popped out for a bite to eat before returning to take care of him.

The invalid had recovered enough the following day to take in the Cathedral and get a bit of fresh air - with frequent rests! - in the Jardins de Turia, a riverbed converted into a large, beautiful city park. We even caught a group practicing parkour (free running, see the chase sequence from Quantum of Solace). They weren't quite James Bond or Jason Bourne, but they looked like they were having lots of fun.

Our visit to Valencia was crowned by an excellent meal. Outside Spain, paella is thought of as the national dish. Inside Spain, everyone knows it's Valencian... and boy, they sure do it right! Our paella valenciana was a heavenly concoction of rabbit, chicken, fava or broad beans, runner beans, and artichokes in a bed of saffron rice. The meat was very tender, the vegetables gorgeous and smokey, and the toasted rice on the bottom worth every delicious scrape. Even with Rich's poorly stomach, he managed to eat almost half of the pan. In a country of great eats, this paella was easily one of the best meals we've had in Spain.

The final verdict of our visit was that it only whet our appetites for Valencia. We hope to return some day... if only for the paella!