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El Día de los Muertos

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

A celebration of loved ones now gone

Mexican day of the dead altar (Dia de Muertos)Halloween, Samhain, All Saints’ Eve, whatever name you’d prefer to use, the 31st of October and the days that follow are celebrated across many cultures as a time to honor the spirits of the dead in one way or another. In Mexico, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) extends over three days from October 31st through November 2nd in memory of relatives that have passed away.

While in the United States skeletons are sometimes seen on Halloween, in Mexico skulls and skeletons are inexorably entwined with this holiday. People paint their faces with elaborate and colorful skull designs, often of archetypal characters found in the country’s popular mythology. The calavera (skull) designs aren’t meant to spook or scare as in Celtic origin traditions; instead they hold a uniquely positive symbolism meant to evoke the memories of dear ones gone, and empower the wearer in vanquishing their fear of death.  The images extend throughout all the décor, including the Day of the Dead altars, special foods to place at the graves of family, and even on the sweet sugar breads (pan dulce) traditional at this time of year.

52225bbc-4547-47f4-b3e1-fb622da70eb5While the feast is now celebrated during the Catholic holy days of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’, and All Souls, its origins go back much further.  Many of the tenants of the celebration can even be traced back to pre-Colombian times, when the festivities once encompassed the month of August. One of the most popular skeleton icons of this holiday, La Catrina, is taken from the Aztec goddess “Lady of the Dead.”  La Catrina and the other calaca (skeleton figurines) are elaborate creations. They are used to decorate homes during Día de los Muertos and depict deceased family members in a unique, artistic and fun way.

It’s interesting to see the similarities between disparate cultures that can be found in one single holiday. Perhaps it’s a sign of a common denominator in the human condition that developed over centuries through globalization into the celebrations we know today.

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Cocido

Spanish Comfort Food

When thinking of Spanish cuisine, people naturally jump to paella. While it’s true that paella is delicious and widely popular in Spain, it’s often considered summer fare. So what do the Spanish eat for great hearty comfort food? Cocido

IMG_1174[1]The tradition of Cocido has its roots in a Sephardic Jewish dish called Adafina, which was also eaten by the Moors, while they occupied Spain. Adafina would be set to cook on the eve of the Sabbath to be eaten on the following day. Like many of the Spanish versions, its star ingredient was the chickpea, which was cooked for many hours with pieces of lamb.

Cocido literally means cooked or boiled, but the name doesn’t do the dish justice.  Its most basic elements are a variety of meats and some sort of legume, most commonly chickpeas, slow cooked over many hours. From region to region and house to IMG_1173[1]house the recipe can be quite different. In Madrid, Cocido Madrileño is a chickpea stew cooked with numerous different pork products like chorizo, trotters or blood sausage. It stews for ages and is finally served in three courses: first the broth with noodles added, then the chickpeas, and finally the meat. In the region of Cantabria, Cocido Montañés is a one dish white bean stew. In the province of Burgos they make Cocido Castellano, adding more lamb, which is a delicacy in the region, harkening back to the dish’s far flung origins.
No matter what form it takes, it is a hearty, soulful dish perfect for cold and rainy fall or winter days. Which brings me to today: October 12th, Spanish National Holiday. It’s a long weekend, but  it’s 50F and rainy. So, instead of resisting the gloom and trying to spend Sunday out and about, we made Cocido!
IMG_1167[1]This is a dish where you use what you happen to have around or find that day at the butcher. It’s common to use ham bones left over from a spectacular Serrano Ham, or commonly wasted pieces like trotters and ears. We happened to have a fresh pig’s ear lying around (hey, we live in Spain, and maybe I read the forecast earlier in the week and asked the butcher to throw one in with our order just in case), some adobo rib tips, and a serrano ham bone. I recently got a new crock pot so we did it in there, but simmering it in a pot would work just as well.

Spanish Cocido
(serves 6-7 – and freezes well)

The meat:

fresh pig’s ear
1 lb adobo rib tips
a serrano ham bone (or ham hock for instance)

*In lieu of these you really could use anything you wanted like: chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), chicken, lamb, beef or any mix thereof.

1 large onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 small carrots
a little salt and pepper
a drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 pounds chick peas

Soak chickpeas overnight. Put everything in the pot (crock pot in our case) and simmer until the meat is falling apart and the chickpeas are soft. Serve. Yep; it’s that easy.IMG_1176[1]

We did it in the slow cooker, so it was simmering about 14 hours (overnight for Sunday lunch) on low. The meat was ready before the beans, so I took it out and let it cool to de-bone and shred to reincorporate for easy eating. We are a no fuss no muss family, so, even though this most resembled Cocido Madrileño, traditionally eaten in three courses, we ate it as a one plate stew. If you wanted to do the three courses, you would pull out the broth and cook some thin short noodles in it, then serve the chick peas, and finally the meat. If there is any leftover meat they often make croquetas, but that’s a blog for another day!

 

Brussels

Dreams of Chocolate and Beer

Over the years I’ve made it to Belgium a time or two, but I never seem to get past its phenomenal capital full to the brim with gastronomic wonders.

1931056_508273738810_5627_nYou’d have to live under a rock not to have heard of Belgian chocolate, and for good reason.  The country’s history in the chocolatier business goes back centuries. The chocolate bar and the praline were both invented here. You need go no further than the city’s famous main square, the Grand Place, to find the home one of the biggest names in chocolate: Neuhaus.  As you choose from an infinite number of gorgeous and delicate bonbons, below your feet you can see through the glass floor to the workshop where they were made.
Brussels has the convenience that it is much quainter and so accessible as compared to other European capitals. Just behind its beautiful Grand Place with its extravagant guildhalls, you can find one of the world’s best beer halls hidden away in an alley. Delirium Cafe is the bar with the largest selection of beer in the world with a veritable bible of selections.  They guarantee to have 2,004 selections on hand at any given time. While their house brewed Delirium Tremens is great
in its own right, I’ve even tried an exotic Tahitian banana beer served in a coconut shell. Just a manneken pis chocolatesbrief glance at their menu will make you understand the reverence the Belgians have for beer and why they are so famous for their domestic selections from Affligem to Lindemans to Stella Artois (just to name a few of their over 1150 unique domestic offerings).

Whether it’s their chocolate, beer, or any number of their other world famous gastronomic contributions like mussels, frites, or waffles. The Belgians know how to have a good time, so the next time you’re looking for a great vacation spot think of Brussels. You’re bound to have a blast. Just don’t visit while you’re on a diet!

 

 

Barcelona

Wind Your Way into the Heart of Catalonia

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Barcelona is just one of those cities. It’s a must-have on every serious traveler’s bucket list. Given its architectural charm, and that it’s perched on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, it isn’t any wonder. When you’re walking down Las Ramblas, the pedestrian walkway that is the central artery of the city, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the life of the city. Barcelona has a distinctly European vibe  compared to other Spanish cities.  The people are perhaps less laid back  than in some other parts of the country, but nonetheless the city has so much to offer the keen traveler that few are left to want.

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It’s impossible to walk far in Barcelona without stumbling upon one or another of Gaudi’s architectural treasures. The city exudes the whimsical style of this artistic architect, and a visit to the city isn’t complete without a tour of Casa Batló, a stroll through Park Güell, and a climb up the unfinished towers of La Sagrada Familia.

Another great idea is allowing yourself to get lost along the winding streets of theBarri Gòtic. The narrow medieval streets along with the cathedral and synagogue are nearly all that’s left to testify to Barcelona’s long history as an important Mediterranean city. Though the city is referenced as far back as Phoenician times, it is mostly a modern marvel given its face lift for the 1992 Olympic Games.


The beach in Barcelona is not much compared to those in the southern Spain, but the Barceloneta is a great area to cool off with a quick dip in the Mediterranean and grab a bite in one of the many bars or cafés.  

Barcelona port view from the air.

Barcelona is considered a great mecca for haute cuisine,  well known for its innovative and unusual culinary inventions. The current “Best Restaurant in the World,”Celler de Can Roca isn’t more than a stone’s throw from Barcelona, in the nearby town of Girona, and the all too famous El Bulli is only just past that in Roses.  In fact, Barcelona itself has earned a total of 32 Michelin stars, including the three-starred Sant Pau.  For simpler fare, don’t pass up the pan tumaca to start your day.

Whether it’s the architecture, the history, the food, or the general feel of the city, Barcelona is sure to impress. Make sure to include it on your next European itinerary!

Delving into Spain’s Wine Culture:

The Decent to the Bodega

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There exists a curious tradition in the wine growing regions of Spain: thebodega. This term may seem familiar to some; many translate it as “wine cellar”, but a bodega is, in fact, much more than this. Over my last few years living in Spain I’ve had the good fortune to have been invited down to a number of these in the Ribera del Duero and Toro wine regions, and I’d recommend that anyone presented with the chance to experience one not pass it up.

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bodega is often the wine cellar connected to a vineyard, but in most cases its purpose goes far beyond that of a simple place to store wine. I was first introduced to this tradition in the village of Sinovas near Aranda del Duero, right in the heart of the Ribera del Duero region. In Spain many families grow and produce their own house wines. I had been invited to the village festival by a friend, and after touring their grape fields we trekked up the hill to the merendero and bodega. In this case, the merendero was what seemed to be a storage shed, but as I went inside I realized it was, as its name suggests, the perfect place to have an afternoon snack. Complete with a basic kitchen, a large table, and a wood fired grill (usually fueled by sarmiento – the dried out grape vines), it was a place for friends and family to gather, celebrate, and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

We then made our way down a long stairwell in a corner, and after a while found ourselves in the bodega itself. The walls were lined with bottles upon bottles of wine and orujo (a grappa-like liquor made from a product of the wine making process).

Bodega Pic One

In the center of the room was a table with chairs so that you could partake without making the long climb back up to the merendero. We grabbed a number of bottles and headed back up so we could roast some lamb and sausages while we tasted the house varietals.

In the province of Zamora, where the Toro wine region is located, the tradition is taken to a whole other level.  I was recently invited to the village of Boveda de Toro where we visited a number of these ingenious constructions. In this case the families often make their own wine, but may co-farm in order to obtain the grapes. For convenience, their bodgeas are located on the edge of town and look like a strange grouping of outhouses and electrical sheds. When you open the door, each one leads immediately down a stairwell of varying degrees of incline and regularity

.Bodega Pic 2 Bacchus stainglass

As you make the decent down to the bodega you notice the temperature drastically change. The function of these places is to keep the wine at a stable temperature throughout the year. After descending several stories down into the ground you are greeted with a charming bar of sorts. Often belonging to families or groups of friends, these bodegas store innumerable barrels and bottles of wine, but they also serve as a gathering place. The rooms are quite large and complete with kitchens and grills that vent back up to the surface. They are fully stocked with all the accouterments for a great party, which is exactly what we had!

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If you don’t happen to know someone with a vineyard in Spain, don’t dismay. A similar experience can be had in the village of El Perdigón, near Zamora in the community of Castilla y Leon. Here you can find a number of restaurants which use the bodegas to provide a truly unique dining experience.

¡Salud!   Cheers!

 

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