Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Spain Trip: Report Part Three: Food

We loved the food in Spain. Our favorite was to go to a tapas restaurant, sit at a small table and order lots of small things plus glasses of the wonderful local Spanish wine.  On other nights we would go from tapas bar to tapas bar, order one or two things and a glass of wine before moving on to another place. This was a very fun way to eat and a nice way to taste a variety of things. We found the prices in Spain, especially Seville & Madrid very inexpensive. At the best tapas place in Seville we had 5-6 items, and 5 glasses of wine. The total price was 38 Euros! At $1.08 per euro, it was quite a bargain. 
We did have two special meals, one in Madrid, one in Barcelona. Here are the details!
In Madrid we ate at DStage, owned by chef Diego Guerrero's who had previously earned 2 Michelin stars while working at Madrid's El Club Allard.
We took the smaller 10-course tasting menu option that was actually closer to 15. I'll just describe a few
You start seated on a sofa in the bar area where they bring you a wooden box filled with seaweed, and liquid nitrogen so a white steamy fog is coming out if it. Nestled in the box are 2 oyster shells each with what looks like an oyster but is really a scallop. Amazing.

Then you walk into the next room and stand at the waist high counter of the open kitchen.  We were lucky and had Diego himself rather than one of the sous chefs. spend 10 mins with us assembling our next dish. Working on top of what looks like a small slab of pink marble but is really a solid piece of pink salt he assembles (and explains) layers of fish and sauce.. Everything is one bite. And amazing. By now, I had fallen in love with the chef and was contemplating leaving my husband and running away with him. I’m not sure how he felt.
After eating that you sit down at a table extremely close to the open kitchen. In between courses you can walk up to the counter and watch or ask questions. Each dish is assembled in some way at your table. For example, if it has herbs they are cut in front of you with little scissors.!
I did learn that taking the wine pairings was a bad idea!  We had done that once or twice before and it usually involves a few glasses of wine. This pairing was a shot of rum with a special juice, several types of white and red wine, very strong and amazing sake, very strong Spanish sherry and then dessert wine. I was not feeling so well the next day!
For more details feel free to check out this article.

In Barcelona we ate at Disfrutar a restaurant opened in 2014 by three former head chefs from El Bulli, , which had closed in 2011. There we took the larger 25-course menu. This time we ordered a bottle of Spanish red! The place, like Dstage, had an open kitchen and a industrial feel. It was larger than Dstage so you were seated in a room adjacent to the kitchen rather than directly in front of it. This was a Saturday night and in Barcelona so the scene was also different. From 8:30-9:00 we were the only people in the restaurant. Around 9:00-9:30 most people came though several tables didn’t fill until after 10. The crowd was wealthy and well dressed. The food is almost impossible to describe. After course number 4 or 5 we realized we could only take a few bites of each dish or we would never make it. Many of the dishes look like one thing, but taste like something else. Two beautiful balls of meringue explode in a beet puree. A roasted red pepper turns out to be solid chocolate. A small clear plastic bag filed with pine nuts and basil gets plunged in a warm soup of Parmesan cheese and becomes a transparent ravioli. It was definitely once in a lifetime experience. If you want to see pictures check out this article.

Spain Trip: Part Two: Jewish Life

Jewish Spain
As always when we travel I try and get as much Jewish history/culture as I can. My children can tell you stories of being dragged to the far corners of Florence and Venice to find ‘the’ synagogue or spending hours on a Jewish tour of Rome. So Spain was no exception. We did a Jewish tour of Seville and one in Toledo. Here are a few observations.
Although I thought I had some understanding of the Spanish Inquisitions and Jewish lie in Spain I think I severely underestimated how completely it wiped out all Jewish lie in Spain, even to this day. First of all it lasted 300 years. This is even more incredible when you remember that the US is less than 240 years old. Prior to the Inquisition Jews made up between 7% and 15% of the populations of Seville and Toledo.  Compare that to the US where Jews make up less than 2% of the population nation wide, approximately 8% in New York and less than 3% in Pennsylvania.
Today there are only 10,000 Jews in all of Spain, 5000 of which live in Madrid. There are no Jews in Toledo. In Seville we were told there are only 16 Jewish families though I was later told that was a high estimate. There is no synagogue in Seville. Almost all traces of Jewish life have been obliterated. All Jewish cemeteries were knocked down and the stones reused for building. As you tour the cities you can see Jewish inscriptions on stone blocks in the palaces, churches and homes.  Although most of this occurred in the 1300 and 1400s we saw a 3-year-old underground parking garage in Seville that had been an ancient Jewish cemetery. Except for one small tomb enclosed in glass there was no effort to preserve or move the site. Finding the one saved tomb is difficult as it is blocked by someone’s reserved park
We liked Toldeo a great deal but perhaps the most fascinating part was our tour guide. He was born and raised in from Istanbul in a Jewish but non-observant family and only became religious when he moved to Madrid. With only 5000 Jews in Madrid it is difficult to meet a person to marry. So he travelled to Jerusalem to study at the yeshiva and meet with the matchmaker recommended by the great rebbe. The matchmaker matched him with a girl from Brazil, also from a non-religious family, who had moved to Israel to become religious. They met for about a week, and became engaged. He was flying to Israel after our tour for 10 days to help plan their June 21 wedding. After the wedding she will return with him to live in Madrid. It was like seeing one of the multiple novels we read about the Hasidim come to life! 

Spain Trip; Part One; General Impressions

Just got back from 10 days in Spain; Seville, Madrid & Barcelona. If you’re looking for hotel, activity, tour guide & restaurant reviews feel free to email and ask.  I’ll also be posting individual reviews on trip advisor later in the week, which you can find my searching under my name. I’ll use this space to jot down thoughts and a few stories. I’ve divided it into 3 blog posts; General Impressions, Jewish life & Food. Hope you enjoy.
General Impressions

First of all, Spain is amazing.  And fun. And delicious. As for comparing one city to the other ,Madrid & Seville definitely won out for me over Barcelona. Yes, Barcelona is a wonderful, cosmopolitan city. Yes, the Sagrada Familia  is beyond words. Also loved the Park Guell and La Pedrera as well as the old city. But for me, it didn’t hold a candle to Madrid & Seville.
We took the high-speed trains from city to city. They offer the most wonderful contrast. You are sitting on a modern train,, which runs completely silently, watching Guardians of the Galaxy with free headphones while passing by a scene that hasn't changed since Don Quixote rode by on his mule. Depending on where you are you pass endless olive groves, vineyards, and orange trees. Everywhere there are low stone hand built walls; some in good shape, others crumbling, while small groups of cattle and pigs wander around them.
Both the cities are beautiful, full of twisting cobblestone streets, and ancient stonewalls. As always, you realize how young America really is. There are walls over 2000 years old built by the Romans and buildings referred to as ‘new’ dating from the 1400s.
Being in Madrid & Seville is like being plunged into a different culture, one that happily hasn’t been Americanized. Except for a few people in the hotels most people do not speak more than a few words of English. Menus are in Spanish only, except for scattered tourist traps, and everyone eats according to Spanish time. Get up before 9am and don’t expect to find anything to eat. After all, any normal Spaniard is still sleeping. Lunch is around 1 or 2 and by 4:00 everything shuts down. Show up at a restaurant before 8:00 and expect to wait outside until they open. At 9:00 you will be one of the few folks eating. But walk out of your meal at 10pm and the whole world is alive. Every street, every plaza, is packed with people eating, drinking, walking, and socializing, not just kids but folks of every age and economic group. On a Tuesday evening at 12:30 we met a private equity couple drinking in a sherry bar with a large group of friends!
It’s a wonderful way to live….

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Anti-Semitism in france; Some personal thoughts

I have always been a lover of Paris. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world with something for everyone. Museums, architecture, history, shopping, food. Did I mention food? What about pastry? Did I mention pastry? Wine! I forgot wine.
I have never found the stereotype that Parisians are snooty or unfriendly to be true. While sadly I have only visited a few times it has been my, and my families, experience that politeness is always met with politeness and on most occasions warmth. Trust me, its not due to my French speaking skills which range from non-existent to, on a good day, poor.
The events in Paris, the killing of the journalists and those in the kosher supermarket are obviously horrendous. But what has greatly saddened me has been reading the many articles on the Jewish communities reaction.  I am not in Paris and do not have family there so my reactions are based solely on my reading and my limited personal interactions.
Two major themes seem to emerge from my reading, both of which are disturbing. One is the large migration of French Jews moving to Israel. The Jewish Agency in France is anticipating a dramatic rise in Aliyah. In 2014 there were nearly 7000 olim from France, more than double that from 2013 and triple from 2012. In 2015 they expect that number to rise to 10-15 thousand.
I believe having a variety of cultures and religions strengthens a country. Imagine American society and history without the cultural influence of its Italian, Irish, Chinese, and Hispanic populations. (At a minimum imagine how lousy the restaurants would be!) A France without a Jewish population would be a lesser France. Another consideration is the effect of this huge population on the state of Israel. One can only imagine that absorbing such a large influx of immigrants, who will need jobs, housing and language training could present a strain on the country.

The second theme focuses on the reactions of the French government to the killings. The French government has issued statements in support of the Jewish community, and deployed almost 5000 troops to guard Jewish schools. However, many feel there was a stark difference between the way the country rallied in condemnation to the attack on the journalists vs the lesser response to the murder of the Jews in the supermarket.
The fact that there was a lesser response cannot be denied. The fact that this is upsetting to Jews is understandable. But is it really an example of anti-Semitism? Imagine that on the same day in New York City there were two terrorist attacks, one at a major metropolitan newspaper, and the other at a prominent Jewish deli. Yes, all life in sacred and no life should be more valuable than another. But would it surprise anyone that the newspaper attack would garner more local, national and international attention?

During my last visit to Paris my family had the opportunity to spend several hours wandering with a twenty-something Jewish woman. Her grandparents had come to Paris to escape the Russian revolution and two generations later they were a large, wealthy and educated family all still living and working in Paris. Of course, we asked her about anti-Semitism in France. Her response was that the French were not ant-Semitic but simply opposed to public demonstrations or discussions of religion. She said that she wouldn’t wear a Jewish star in public but neither would her Christian friends ever wear a cross. This was her opinion, of course, but seems supported by fact. In 2010 the wearing of any kind of face coverage, including a hajib, headscarf or burka was outlawed in France. In 2004 the wearing off all conspicuous religious symbols in public schools was banned. While as Americans we may not care for these laws but I do not believe it makes French society anti-Semitic anymore than it makes it anti-Muslim.

Religious hatred of all kind is intolerable and we should speak out against it both abroad and at home. But we need to be careful not to see only ourselves as the victims.