Monday, June 3, 2013

Looking for Good Reasons to Travel, Visit Northern Spain and Morocco


When I'm packing for a trip, I'm haunted by a dark thought: why bother?

Wouldn't it be easier to stay home, relax around the house and have nice meals at new restaurants I've heard about but never had time to visit? And what about the Stanley Kubrick retrospective at LACMA? I visited once but only had 45 minutes so I did a power walk through the many rooms, glancing at the memorability and curatorial notes. I could go back and take the time to focus on all the details of this amazing English director's life and work.
I will do all that. And I will also continue to take trips because the benefits far out weigh the costs and inconveniences. True, I applied for and received a Global Entry pass so at many airports I breeze through domestic security (thank you TSA Pre) as well as international points of entry and that makes travel so much easier.
And I will continue to take trips because I enjoy being in other places with histories, cultures and geographies different from my own. Last fall I took a great trip to Morocco. We traveled from Fez in the east to the High Atlas Mountains in the west and then to Essaouira on the coast.
Haja Rkia ben Houari and her maid Fatima gave us a cooking lesson, sitting on squat stools in their concrete floored pantry. The two Berber woman generously showed our group of journalists how to prepare a chicken tagine and couscous with lamb and potatoes.
To get to our cooking lesson we walked underneath walnut trees up a steep dirt switch-back trail we shared with men riding side-saddle on donkeys. "Shared" isn't accurate. When the men on donkeys were on the trial, they would clearly have bumped us out of their way if we hadn't jogged quickly to the muddy area to the side of the trail.
The walk up that hill was a challenge. By the time we reached the boutique hotel at the top, we were tired, thirsty and pretty dusty. We climbed up steps through a claustrophobic lobby. At that moment the walk didn't seem worth the effort. Then we walked out onto the the wide deck of the Kasbah Toubkal where we were greeted with hot mint tea, Moroccan style--sweet and heavily caffeinated.
In the crisp, clear air, we took in the breath-taking view of the surrounding mountains and the village of Imlil in the valley below. A few clouds floated by like rafters leisurely drifting on a vast blue lake. We sat and drank our tea and never wanted to leave.
I love the memories of places we visited in Morocco and I love that I picked up cooking ideas. At another cooking class at the very elegant La Maison Arabe, an upscale inn next to Marrakech's souk or shopping bazar, Amaggie Waga and Dadas Ayada taught us about Moroccan spices and cooking traditions and how modern Moroccan cooking resulted from the many groups who came to call the area home--Berbers, Jewish spice merchants, invading Arab armies and French colonialists.
Besides the historical facts, taking a cooking workshop was a way to learn how to make Morocco's signature dishes, most importantly how to make preserved vegetable pickles, which now I serve at practically every meal, that's how much I think their briny-spicy crunch brightens almost any dish.
For the holidays last year, my present-of-choice was preserved lemons, another recipe learned at the Maison Arabe cooking school.
This year in the spring, another press trip took me to Northern Spain on a wonderfully comprehensive tour with Insight Vacations. From Madrid we headed due north to San Sebasti├ín and then rambled along the coast heading west through the cathedral town of Burgos, Bilbao to tour the Guggenheim, Oviedo, up into the mountains to visit the Cave of Covadonga and finally to Santiago de Compostela, where St. James' bones are said to reside.
The trip mixed history and culinary traditions as we moved from tapas to pintxos, the Basque open faced sandwiches that I came to love. Whenever possible, Iberian ham, anchovies, sardines and octopus appeared on our plates along with delicious Galician beer, light and crisp.


From that trip I brought home ideas for appetizers, simply constructed with contrasting flavors and textures. Small plate tapas and grilled bread-pintxos now precede the soups, salads and entrees on our dinner party table. Easy-to-make, full of flavor, a delight to the eye, I took home from Northern Spain a great addition to our culinary vocabulary.
Both trips were for the Sunday print editions of New York Daily News and they showed me once again why it is great to get out town.

Former French Colony of Morocco Has Much to Recommend

Spain's Northern Coast, Far from Madrid, Barcelona and Bullfighting, Has Enticements of Its Own

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