St. Jean Pied de Port: Gateway to the Camino de Santiago

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View over the countryside surrounding St. Jean Pied de Port

It’s taken me awhile to get to this point in our adventure. It’s probably because in some way, I’m still mourning our time and adventure along the Camino. It has truly been one of the best experiences in my life. We plan to walk again someday. Not sure when…maybe before the next big job move, or maybe after retirement. All we know is we will join our fellow peregrinos on the Camino de Santiago again.

Our journey to St. Jean Pied de Port was a long one! We left San Sebastian early in the morning for Bayonne, France. Upon arrival, we had two hours to explore the city before catching our next train. We wandered past the cathedral and walked inside to find a chapel for St. James. We both lit candles at his alter. Tensions, emotions, and stress were high at this point. We were embarking on one of our dreams, and our only regret from our time in Spain. We just asked to finish.

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Alter within Bayonne’s Cathedral

The small train to St. Jean Pied de Port was packed with pilgrims as we headed to our first stop on the Camino. Age, fitness level, and equipment were as varied as the countries we came from but one thing was constant, the anticipation. The anticipation was palpable as several pilgrims chatted about how long they would walk, why they were walking, and other small talk to kill time. The closer we drew to St. Jean, it increased. People began to fall silent. The shudders of the cameras slowed. People removed their earbuds and turned off their iPods. We all sat transfixed on the mountains and valleys as we inched closer to the village and seemingly farther back in time.

When the doors finally open, hundreds of pilgrims swarmed into the sleepy town of St. Jean. It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go; you only needed to follow the stream of pilgrims as they headed up through the arch and into the inner city. Immediately, I fell in love with this village.

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St. Jean Pied de Port

I have long been a fan of small, mountain towns (the pueblo blancos of southern Spain are some of my favorites) but the timeless feel of this village. Oh my! You suddenly felt as if you were a medieval pilgrim walking the streets, though we are afforded far more comforts today. There’s a surreal feeling about doing something that has been done for hundreds of years. You feel as if the energy of those that walked before you, and those that will come after you, are linked and you’re all connected. This energy breathes a sense of vibrancy, compassion, and camaraderie to the village. The streets were lined with shops selling outdoor gear, the famous pilgrim shells, knick-knack souvenirs, and foot care. In between all the shops were albergues, or pilgrim hostels, hotels, and restaurants.

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Items within the Pilgrims Office in St. Jean Pied de Port

We made our way to the Pilgrims Office where we completed the paperwork, paid our dues, and received the first stamp in our pilgrim’s passport. We were official. We were peregrinos! Our happiness didn’t last for long as we were also informed that the mountain route (also known as Napoleon route) was closed due to snow a few days prior. This is truly the downside of planning outdoor adventures with little room for adjustments; you never know what Mother Nature has in store for you!

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So how do you fully prepare for a hike like this? I was up most of the night pondering that and the thousand other questions racing through my head. Had I trained enough? Was I mentally strong enough to power through those moments of physical and emotional pain? Would I complete my journey? Would it transform me? Nothing was known, or certain, at this time. This was the first and most basic lesson of the Camino for me. Just wake up and put one foot in front of the other. Forward progress, not matter how fast or slow, was all that was needed or required of you.

Join me on my next post where I’ll review our first five days on the trail as we walk from France into Spain, into Pamplona, and through the beautiful countryside leading to Puente la Reina.

Food Memory: Arranque Roteño

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Arranque Roteño served with green pepper slices

A cool breeze blows through the covered courtyard providing some relief to the August heat. It’s way past sunset in a country where it doesn’t get dark until after 11PM. A Spanish guitarist strums his instrument with an overgrown, gnarled fingernail that doubles as his pick. To his side is another man who is keeping beat by clapping as his voice wails a sad, haunting song. There are others on stage as well. Many women dressed in colorful dresses with plenty of ruffles. Their dark hair pulled tight by brightly colored, ornate clips that glisten in the moonlight. We are deep in the south of Spain, in Andalucia.

Suddenly, one of the ladies stands up with a determined look on her face. She has begun to feel the music and wants to dance. She stomps and moves across the floor. Twirling and clapping and stomping some more. She’s dancing as if all the pain and suffering in her life will be released in these heavy steps. She continues this maddening dance until she suddenly returns to the current moment and moves back to her seat.

In flamenco, this would be called an arranque, or an outburst.  But for me, arranque is also the best term to describe my culinary experience during my time in Spain.

My love for cooking and baking started young. Each day, I would rush home from school to try a new recipe or help my mother with dinner preparations. During college, this passion continued to build by trying new recipes, cuisines, and ingredients on willing roommates. By senior year, we were hosting a weekly “family dinner” for friends who wanted to enjoy good food and company. I graduated and had more time (and money!) to spend in the kitchen so I continued to hone my skills.  By the time I moved to Andalucia, this passion had met a fevered climax. But all the newness of my new home was overwhelming so I retreated to a space that had always brought me comfort, the kitchen.

I began to explore Andalucia through its ingredients, spices and markets. I learned to cook local and in season. I wandered the grocery stores, drove through the pueblos blancos mountain villages to find the best olive oil and sampled sherry wine. I tried dishes I never thought I would, learned the language (my Spanish food vocabulary is still stronger than any other area!), and began to grow into a confident cook.

My husband and I started to travel outside of Spain to Italy, France and Morocco.  Traveling with our stomachs quickly became our favorite way to explore each new location. We did cooking classes, sought out local specialties, and shared wonderful meals along the way. Our most common souvenirs were inevitably food-related items such as Parmigianino cheese, hefty red wines, spices, and local cookware. When we returned home, we would recreate these dishes in our kitchen and invite friends over to share in our travel memories around the dinner table.

We have since left Spain but I still look upon that time fondly. The heat of the sun, the refreshing sea breeze at night, the long nights spent on a tapeo (tapas hopping) with friends, the loud and boisterous Spanish, and the closeness I felt with the people through their food. I can’t think of a better place to have my culinary “arranque.”

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Basic ingredients creates a dish that transports me to Andalucia every time!

Arranque Roteño

It seems fitting that one of my favorite recipes to make when I’m missing Andalucia also has arranque in its name.  This recipe was from my “hometown” of Rota. A close relative of gazpacho or Cordoba’s solemero, this dish is served as a dip. I loved the simplicity of this dish and how it takes me back to sunny Andalucia every time.

4-5 red medium-size tomatoes
3-4 garlic cloves
3-5 Italian green peppers
Olive oil, to taste
Salt, to taste
½ lb. breadcrumbs (preferably baguette, 2 days old)

Blend tomatoes, green peppers and garlic cloves in a food processor. Next add breadcrumbs, olive oil and salt to taste until the texture thickens to your liking. Chill in fridge for 45 minutes before serving.

Use sliced vegetables (green pepper slices are my favorite), picos or bread to dip. Serve with jamón serrano, Manchego cheese and olives. Serve with sherry wine for an authentic Andalucian experience.

 Note: This piece was originally created for Food52’s weekly “Food Memory” segment. I waited too long and they discontinued it so I thought I’d share here. 

Rebujitos & World Sherry Day

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A taste of Andalusia!

Oh, rebujitos!

It’s early May and that has me dreaming (again) of Spain. Partially because I’m heading back in a few days for vacation but mainly due to several of my (evil) friends who are posting all their feria pictures on Facebook. The brightly-colored ruffled dresses, young men on horses, dancers stomping and clapping, tapas, and general merriment with good friends.

Rebujitos are the drink of feria season. The drink was simple, requiring only manzanilla and 7-Up. It was served by the glass; or for those sharing, by the pitcher. It’s a great introduction to sherry wine. Manzanilla is slightly sweeter and you can temper its intensity with 7-Up. The taste of sherry is unique. It tastes of sunshine, the chalky yellow soil of the area, and the salty sea air that blows over the vineyards. For me, it’s Andalusia in a glass!

It also seems fitting that this year, there will be the first ever World Sherry Day  on Sunday, May 26. There are events around the world from Andalusia all the way to Japan! They vary from gatherings with friends to large events put on by restaurants and bodegas. I am sad that I won’t be able to attend an event here in Japan but believe me, I will find my way to some sherry along the Camino de Santiago to toast this wonderful wine with everyone around the world!

¡Salud!

Courtney

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Enjoy a rebujito this year in honor of World Sherry Day!

Rebujitos
La Gitana manzanilla
7-Up (or Sprite) soda
Ice

Fill glass with ice. Pour as much manzanilla as you want. Top off with 7-Up.

The above is the traditional form served at feria. You can dressed it up by adding an orange/lemon slice or  lemon/orange juice. I once served it in a champagne flute with a blood orange slices.