miércoles, 31 de diciembre de 2008

Canela y Clavo

Several weeks ago, Francisco received an invitation from an acquaintance to come and dine at their recently opened restaurant in order to give his opinion. Francisco invited me as a second critical eye and palate, along with Teresa, an American working as a substitute-teacher in Granada with an interest in the culinary arts. Karen, a Dutch Erasmus student and another member of the Aula de Gastronomia, was also invited. It so happened that Teresa had guests that weekend, Megan and Matt, an American couple working and living near Madrid, who joined our party. Christina, an elementary school teacher from Motril whom Teresa met in Granada, completed our party. That is how I came to pass a pleasant and delicious December evening in the company of such an eclectic group at the restaurant Canela y Clavo (Cinnamon and Clove). We did not intend to perform a scientific critique, but rather gather our impressions to give a picture of our perceived strengths and weaknesses of the 10-day-old venue. So this is a review composed of many voices, with some experiences as distinct as the different places we come from.
Canela y Clavo is located on a small side street off Reyes Católicos, near Plaza Nueva. The location itself scored points with diners, who described it as “tranquil.” Red dominates the color scheme, and live-cut blossoms in vases along with tiny potted poinsettias on each table, “a nice touch for the holidays,” Megan noted, echo kitschy flower cutouts pasted on the walls. I particularly loved the ambience that the tabletop votive candles created, and Francisco was especially impressed that smoking is not permitted, allowing for a more agreeable dining experience. The general responses to the décor and ambience ranged from “only acceptable” to “stylish,” “attractively modern,” and “agreeable.” I was impressed that despite us being the only party on the holiday-weekend Monday night, I never heard noise from the kitchen, impressive when there isn’t the general murmur of other diners to cover any sounds.
Serlina, our informative and attentive server for the night, brought our menus along with crunchy rolls to dip into some very good-quality Córdoban olive oil so we could munch while perusing their selection. Canela y Clavo was originally intended to be a vegetarian restaurant and although concessions have been made to meat-eaters with a selection of chicken, fish, and pork dishes, the variety of vegetarian options reflects the initial design. Christina, Megan and Matt, our vegetarian diners of the group, especially appreciated the meat-free options, as they explained it can be difficult for them to find flavorful and well-prepared vegetarian food in Spain. In addition to the usual groupings of starters, entrees and sides, Canela y Clavo offers a unique “from the wok” section of stir-fried noodles or rice plates. The drinks menu received some criticism, lacking in its almost dauntingly long list, in Francisco’s opinion, products from Granada.
We selected three starters for the table, which were received with mixed pleased and disappointed responses. The two salads, Bouquet de hojas con frutos secos y salsa de mango (salad with nuts and mango dressing) and Ensalada de broccoli y zanahoria (broccoli and carrot salad) were too similar for most diners, “not anything special,” according to Karen, both being served on identical beds of arugula. However, the fresh mango dressing was a favorite of the table, sticking in everybody’s memory throughout the entire meal as one of the most flavorful items we sampled. Most enjoyed the roasted vegetables of the second salad, though would have appreciated different nuts in the first than the chopped peanuts sprinkled on top. Our third appetizer, the Empanaditas de verduras (similar to baked pot stickers) were served with two dipping sauces, a sweet and a salty, which were pleasing to the table- Matt especially enjoyed the Asian flavors and would like to see even more Asian-inspired dishes on the menu like this one.
Picking a main dish was not difficult for me since I was immediately attracted to the Pasta capelettis de calabaza y Brie con pesto (homemade pasta filled with pumpkin and Brie cheese, with either tomato and basil or pesto sauce), a luxuriously simple yet imaginative combination. I enjoyed the pasta though would have been even more pleased with a more distinct Brie flavor. Teresa, who got the same, agreed that the “nice flavors blended well.” Other standouts were Karen’s Ragut de pescado (a mixed fish stew) and Matt’s Brochetas de tofu con salsa de manzana y berenjena (tofu with a side of apple and eggplant salsa). Although for Matt the salsa and tofu were excellent on their own but not ideal combined together, this plate was my favorite for its quality execution, the tofu cooked perfectly for my taste in a soy-based sauce, and the sweet apple-eggplant salsa was so delicious and unique that I would be interested in re-creating it in my own kitchen. The three remaining plates, Francisco’s, Christina’s and Megan’s, were pasta and rice plates with vegetables from the wok section, and were all well-received- Megan “really enjoyed the leeks” and Cristina appreciated the “fresh ingredients and the very good sauce.” The use of a few quality ingredients combined in innovative ways characterized the restaurant’s selection of main courses and brought rave reviews from around the table- as Francisco concluded in his, “la comida TODA MUY MUY BUENA” (the food was all really really good!).
The dessert selection was small and citrus-themed, including a dark chocolate fondue served with mandarin segments, a crepe suzette and a “Coulant de chocolate” (in other words, miniature molten lava chocolate cake) with orange sorbet. We ordered the latter two and were delighted with the beautiful presentation and unforgettable flavors. Megan described the orange zest sauce on the delicate warm crepes as tasting like “orange-flavored maple syrup,” which led us to wonder at the absence of such a product on the market. Teresa especially enjoyed the molten chocolate cake that practically dissolved into a pool of thick hot chocolate at the touch of her spoon, ingeniously paired with the refreshingly light orange sorbet. Although we had just eaten our way through a sizable portion of the restaurant’s menu, not a bite of crepe or cake was left after we dutifully sampled every last bit in serving our very important duty as restaurant “critics.” I’m convinced a happier group of strangers-turned-friends over a meal so imaginative and tasty could not be found outside the walls of the friendly little restaurant Canela y Clavo.
Canela y Clavo. Placeta Silleria, 7 18010 Granada. Tel.: 958229706

martes, 2 de diciembre de 2008

La Aventura de La Gallina en Leche

In Spain, attaining a gastronomic vocabularly is a particularly challenging task. Though in other countries culinary aficionados may have to contend with regional differences, in Spain this education is complicated by the microscopic subtleties of pueblian differences, in other words, the cuisine of two adjoining pueblos can seem as different as Greek is to Japanese. It’s common to have one dish with two names or one name that refers to two dishes that are nothing alike. For a novice foodie, these contradictions can be overwhelming when standing on the threshold of Spanish cuisine. Fortunately, Francisco Lillo, a natie Córdoban, passionate gourmand and owner of La Oliva in Granada, is a willing guide through this confusing mass of knowledge.

One Sunday in late November, I had the opportunity to do a little gastronomic fieldwork, having been invited to accompany Francisco, his sister Encarnita, visiting from Madrid and George, a Belgian exchange student, on some “business” (which is sometimes hard to distinguish from play in this line of work!). Francisco has a passion for one particular dulce de Navidad (a category of a vast range of sweets associated in Spain with the holiday season) curiously called gallina en leche (literally translated as “chicken in milk”). However, the only chicken in this sweet is egg, which is beaten and mixed with white flour, sugar, cinnamon sticks, milk and the star ingredient, almonds, best if marconas, twice-peeled and coarsely chopped. According to Francisco, it is the most delicious almond sweet in Spain, and still widely unknown. Francisco, in an effort to change this, was on a pilgrimage to Porcuna, a pueblo in the Córdoban province which contains in its small city radius a restaurant called El Triunfo, that makes a gallina en leche the best that Francisco has ever tried and so good that he wants to sell it in his shop.

Porcuna lies in the heart of the most prolific olive oil producing region in the world, and the drive from Granada offers vista after vista of silvery-green trees dotted with their valuable dark little gems. Upon arriving, Francisco and his sister began reminiscing as they had spent several summers in Porcuna with a single aunt when they were kids. They enjoyed perusing the old black-and-whites that are hung in the entryway/bar in El Triunfo. This space gives way through an unmarked wooden door to a rather simple dining room characterized by a high-low mix of cloth tablecloths and a TV in the corner, turned on, but universally ignored by the diners. Francisco and his sister explained that these seeming contradictions that baffle visitors are so natural to the Spanish that they aren’t bothered in the least. As we tucked into our appetizers and the zingy green olives accompanying the basket of bread, I better understood how the food could steal the attention from the tennis match being aired. Our first plate of warm artichoke hearts (widely known as alcachofas in Spain but as alcauciles in Porcuna and several other Córdoban pueblos) tossed in pine nuts, raisins, chopped ham, fava beans and olive oil was pure comfort food, and also gave Francisco the opportunity to give us a tutelage in the Spanish practice of rebanando, which is the socially-acceptable practice of wiping the plate clean of its flavored olive oil remainders with a slice of crusty bread. The second plate of violetes, tiny empanada-like pouches filled with hot minced meat, also were simply pleasing. Our mains were generally satisfying, with a richly loaded and beautifully presented revuelto de la casa, scrambled eggs with mushrooms, asparagus, peppers and baby shrimp, a fresh bacalao con pisto, white fish with a vegetable-packed tomato sauce, a somewhat dry but still flavorful pierna de chibo (or choto or cabrito- all to say leg of kid) and a hearty pollo relleno con queso, chicken filled with cheese, and in this case, ham. With full bellies but a strong curiosity to try this dessert we had journeyed so many miles for, Francisco ordered one gallina en leche for the table.

“No, no, don’t pour it!” Francisco’s protestation broke our sleepy after-lunch reverie as we turned to see the waiter in the moment of dosing our gallina en leche assembled on a plate with Pedro Ximenez, a sweet wine. Though Francisco admits that this doesn’t destroy the flavor, he insists that it does tamper it, and as the other student and I were first-timers, he wanted us to try the gallina en leche in its purest form, which is how he and his sister ate it as kids. Fortunately, Francisco’s shout halted the waiters hand and our dish was preserved. The first bite revealed the fine distinction between this dulce de Navidad and so many others which pulverize the almonds into dusty meal. In this recipe, the almond pieces are cooked in milk for a prolonged period of time so that they aquire some subtle sweetness while retaining their characteristic crunch and distinct almond flavor. Gallina en leche is baked into bars, and the top resembles the crumbles that Americans are so fond of. It is extremely delicious and worth searching out, though it is a sweet that requires some appetite. Encarnita suggested that having some with a sweet Moscatel would be a nice variation from chocolate y churros for an afternoon snack.

With the gallina en leche safely boxed up in the back of the car, we continued the rolling road through the olive groves to our other “surprise” destination Francisco had planned for us, which turned out to be the Hacienda Minerva. The Hacienda Minerva is a beautiful and still- evolving story of an abandoned olive oil factory in the process of being converted into a lovely hotel, under construction since 2004. The hotel is just outside the white-washed pueblo of Zuheros, tucked up from the hills blanketed by olive trees and towered over by dramatic rock formations. I was particularly enchanted by the small sitting room warmed by a monolithic fireplace with lots of plush couches and chairs grouped together which allow visitors to take advantage of these views through expansive windows while sipping Cola Cao (Spain’s version of powdered hot chocolate pumped up with added fiber and vitamins) and munching on simultaneously kid and adult pleasing sugary roscos fritos, which are similar to donuts but with a pronounced hint of olive oil. On a tour of the grounds organized by Francisco and given attentively by Luis Rejón, the owner’s, Luis Carlos Rejón’s, son, we were filled in on the before-and-after history of the place. The owners have strived to maintain the integrity of the design of the factory, only adding on where necessary, and also have kept much of the antique olive-pressing equipment as living monuments to the industry which remains today Spain’s most significant symbolic and economic cultivation. If curious, ask to see pictures of the practically ruined factory pre-restoration- it is a fascinating glimpse into a slice of gastronomic history. Luis told us the plan is to have adjoining Arabic baths, a tea house, bike rentals, and a pool finished by spring. However, the charmingly rustic-décor restaurant is now open if you want a sneak peek of the developments. I’m already planning a return visit. Hacienda Minerva would make a great base to compare those pueblo to pueblo culinary differences which at first seemed like a frustrating obstacle to learning about Spanish cuisine but now appear as an inviting line of delicious investigation.

*Due to its current marginal status in the world of dulces de Navidad, gallina en leche is not widely available. Look for it on dessert menus in Andalucía, or drop by Francisco’s shop, La Oliva, C/ Rosario, 9 in Granada to pick up a prettily packaged portion to take home to try.

-Jenna Hartsell

lunes, 1 de diciembre de 2008

A little bit about us

Welcome to the Aula de Gastronomia blog! Created by the owner of the gourmet shop La Oliva and general food enthusiast Francisco Lillo, the Aula de Gastronomia is a forum where students can learn about the gastronomony of Spain and share experiences related to food that they´ve had while studying in Granada. The blog is a complement to the weekly meetings and occasional outings of the Aula de Gastronomia but entries are encouraged, in Spanish or English, about whatever you wish to share! Enjoy!