Monday 28 December 2009

Lucky Thirteen

By Richard Morley,

Well, we are approaching the end of another year. It hardly seems a whole decade since we were worrying about the Y2K meltdown and whether the world would end.

It didn’t and the world kept on spinning.

But it is spinning a little slower than it was.

Astronomers do not measure the earth’s rotation against any clock, but against the sun. According to them one revolution is known as a solar day and on average this lasts 86,400 seconds.

Or it did. Now it takes a little longer.

This is nothing new. Way back in 1895 an American astronomer, Simon Newcomb worked all this out and published his findings in a book called "Tables of the Motion of the Earth on its Axis and Around the Sun". Despite not having the very accurate atomic measuring equipment that we have today, his work was pretty good for its time. These days of course scientist can measure time down to the squillionth of a second and the people at the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) and the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) have news for us.

2010 will be a little late in arriving!

Now I hear you asking, “What the heck has this got to with A blog about Spain?”

You could also ask, “What effect will this delay in time have on the fruterías, the fruit sellers, of the country?”

It’s all to do with the chiming of a clock and the eating of grapes.

At midnight on the 31st of December tens of thousands of people will gather in the Plaza Del Sol. They will be joined via television and radio by the rest of the country, who sensibly did not come to the Plaza Del Sol. I went one year and while it was great fun, but because of the crush I didn’t move off the same spot of pavement for four and a half hours. We were in Sol because it is the centre of Spain and the clock on the top of the offices of the Comunidad de Madrid is Spain’s Big Ben, Sol is Spain’s Time’s Square. It marks the official change of the year and the chimes of its bell, transmitted all over Spain, will mark the countdown into a new decade.

For each chime of the bell the Spanish will eat one grape. To eat these twelve grapes in the time it takes the midnight hour to chime is considered auspicious for the new year. (Apparently ladies are meant to wear red underwear at that time for the same reason, but I am writing about a more public display of superstition!)

Apparently this custom came about in the 1930s when, following a bumper grape harvest, a clever marketing man came up with this strategy to sell off the surplus grapes. Now the profits are made by street vendors who buy a bunch of grapes having, let’s say, two hundred small seedless grapes to the kilo, for less than a euro and sell them in packets of twelve for one euro a packet. That’s a pretty good mark up. And a pretty good income when you consider those tens of thousands gathered in Sol!

But this year might catch them out.

Thanks to the scientists at the IERS and IUGG 2009 will have a couple of “leap seconds” added to it, meaning 2010 will be later in arriving. For an accurate countdown into the new year the clock in Sol will actually chime thirteen times and the grape eaters will have to eat thirteen pieces of fruit to assure good luck for the forthcoming year.

So, whether you are foolhardy enough to venture into Sol for the New Year celebrations, or are watching it on TV, make sure you have an extra grape ready. Thirteen for good luck. That makes a change!

And I hope someone has told the Chinese street vendors of Madrid.

On another topic entirely, today is the La Día de los Inocentes. It commemorates in the catholic calendar the day that King Herod, in his desperate search for the infant Jesus, had all the newborns put to death.

Strangely, to the Spanish this day is the equivalent of the British and American April the first, All Fools Day, or the French Jour de Poisson. A day for playing tricks on your friends. It’s one of those little cultural differences I love about Spain. Of course, I would never stoop so low!

Thursday 24 December 2009

I’m dreaming of a whi... wet Christmas!

The day after I wrote the last post, where I predicted that although it was cold we would not have any snow, we had snow. That will teach me to believe Google weather forecasts. We had so much snow Madrid was in chaos. There were stranded cars, jack-knifed trucks, buses delayed, schools closed and people totally unable to get to work. How much snow does Madrid need to cause all that trouble? About two centimetres, it seems!

I repeat – TWO Centimetres. About four fifths of an inch!

Ok, it made the roads a little slippy, but it was slush. The temperature had finally risen above freezing. There was no ice. Compared with what fell in the UK and the US around the same time this was nothing. But it almost brought Madrid to a standstill.

But that was not the fault of the weather. What caused the catastrophic chaos were drivers that hadn’t got a clue how to drive in such conditions. I saw drivers perplexed because no matter how fast they spun their wheels, they made no progress. I saw drivers approach traffic lights at normal dry condition speed, apply brakes and wonder why they kept on going. I saw corners taken too fast and watched as the rear of the car attempted to overtake the front. And this was, of course, the fault of the weather, not the lack of skills or awareness needed for such conditions. The sanest drivers were those who kept their cars in the garage.

But in a matter of hours most of the snow had disappeared, or had been swept up into neat little piles which will now take days to melt.

But when the snow melted where did all that water go? Well, judging by all the buckets standing in puddles in ticket halls and along platforms, most of it has seeped into the Metro. The world’s best Metro is not waterproof. Hmm! Slight oversight there, chaps. It’s fortunate that the power to the trains is via overhead centenary rather than a third rail like on the London underground. This meant that the metro employee with the squeegee could just sweep it all on to the tracks.

It didn’t snow on Tuesday. Instead our lives were made miserable by a continuous, all pervading fall of icy sleet, which in the early evening became a serious downpour. I was meeting a friend at the Goya El Corte Inglés. By the time I arrived the streets were running torrents which divers did not even try to avoid. Pavement bound pedestrians were not happy. Hmm! Madrid drivers again. There seems to be a thread here.

However, in avoiding the rain I made a new discovery. My friend told me of a pub I had not heard of. The Geographic Club. It’s a wonderful place devoted to the joy of travel and exploration. Outside the front is a wonderful montage of stained glass. Inside the walls are lined with souvenirs from all over the world. There’s a definite feeling of the Jules Verne about the place. There’s a model of Thor Heyerdahl’s papyrus boat Ra, African assegais, ebony carvings, which might have been shrunken heads, but I didn’t look too closely, and the basket of a hot air balloon sitting among all the tables. Non smokers will be pleased to note it is a non-smoking pub, one of the few in Madrid. My friend had the largest Irish coffee I have ever seen. I had a beer which at first I thought had also been watered down, but then realised it was Heineken. Still, you can’t have everything, I suppose. But the place seemed very popular. It’s worth a visit for the atmosphere, if not the beer!

The Geographic Club is located at 141 Calle de Alcalá.

Wednesday saw some last minute Christmas shopping only to find on the return home that there will have to be some last second shopping on Christmas eve. But the temperature has climbed sixteen degrees since the weekend, meaning it now up to a maximum of eight, which is a little better. Met a friend for lunch which was fun, but she was the last friend still here. Everyone else seems to have departed Madrid for Grandma’s village. I hope they all have a good time.

Those of us left here certainly plan to. Oh, and the reason I write I am think we will have a wet Christmas: If my prediction was as good as last weekend, it should ensure a dry one. I had better go and check the sea-weed.

Sunday 20 December 2009

So this is Christmas - Nearly

By Richard Morley.

It’s half past ten on a beautiful Sunday morning. There is hardly a cloud in the sky. Outside my window I can hear the birds singing and the chatter of passers by. The only downside is that outside, the temperature is MINUS five. It’s actually risen by three degrees since I awoke. It seems we have a blast of arctic air that’s come straight down from the north pole which veered left when it reached the Iberian Peninsular.

The weather presenters on the telly have been talking of little else for days. If there is one thing the British and the Spanish have in common, it is talking about the weather. Everyone talks about it, no one does anything about it.

Thanks to the weather presenters we all knew that last night the temperature would drop to minus eight. Did that mean the powers-that-be who control the heating in my apartment block would leave it on overnight? Of course not! I awoke in the wee small hours as an icy chill permeated though the duvet. It’s just as well I have back-up bed coverings.

I lay the blame for this cold snap on the arrival of the ice queen in Madrid on Thursday evening. That was when, according to the ayuntamiento, Christmas officially began. Down in the Plaza Oriente, just in front of the Palacio Real, we were treated to a firework display and a small theatrical performance that hailed the arrival of navidad.

It was quite small scale compared to some displays I have witnessed here, but there was a good crowd of a few thousand people who enjoyed the fireworks and watched as a actress, the Ice Queen, in a very long dress indeed was hoisted fifteen metres above our heads and seemingly produced roman candles from her sleeves and lit up the night sky.

The musical accompaniment, which incongruously included a rendition of “Summertime” by Angelique Kidjo, one of my favourite African singers, was timed with the fireworks. Some were in pretty colours, but, as mentioned last post, the Spanish love things that go bang, so there were lots of loud explosions. Not everyone enjoyed that. One small boy sat on his daddy’s shoulders with his fingers firmly stuck in his ears.

It was a clear, crisp evening, and after the fireworks I wandered the narrow streets between the calles Mayor and Arenal seeing how my camera worked in dim light. Not bad for the cheap little “point and shoot” that it is – as you can see here.

Catredral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena

Madrid is almost magical at this time of year. Every street has its illuminations, the shop windows full of wish-list goodies, the crowds squeezing into El Corte Inglés. Forecasts of revenues compared to last year are reckoned to be nearly ten per cent down, but that might be to “La Crisis” price reductions rather than less people buying. Certainly the packed metro carriages full of parcel and carrier bag encumbered shoppers did not seem to reflect any crisis at all.

Schoolchildren are looking forward to Monday, the last day before the Christmas break. Workers are longing for Wednesday, when they will begin their journeys back home for family celebrations. My landlady’s two sons, 12 and 14, have bought between them thirty euros worth of noisy fireworks. They spend hours excitedly pouring over catalogues displaying many types of these petardos, choosing, I am sure, the ones that make the loudest noise. All day long I hear explosions from all directions. In the apartment block canyons the sounds reverberate and rattle the windows. A couple of years ago, being startled by fireworks at three in the morning, would annoy me. Now I am so used to it I hardly notice.
 Madrid won’t have a white Christmas, although we did have some snow earlier in the week. The forecast shows increasing temperatures over the next week. I am pleased about that! But it will be a long wait until the hot weather, that tourists think Spain has all year round, returns.

Time to hibernate, I think.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Are the Spanish noisy?

By Richard Morley.

I was travelling on the metro and filling the idle moments by listening to a Spanish lesson on my MP3 Player. At least I was trying to. A young man next to me was also listening to something on his MP3 player and IT WAS SO BLOODY LOUD I could not clearly hear my own. So it was no surprise for me to read that the EU, worried about the damage we are doing to our ears by listening to music at high volume, is planning some form of guideline, possibly legislation, regarding just how loud these devices should be.

Steven Russell of the European consumer lobby ANEC said, “There are up ten million Europeans, mainly young people, who are at risk of losing their hearing permanently in the next five years due to their personal listening habits”. He went on to say, “Some of the players on the market at the moment are capable of generating a volume beyond 115 decibels. In the workplace health and safety regulations state that this is a dangerous level that no employee should be exposed to it for more than thirty seconds”.

A consultant at Portland Road Hospital in London, Dr. Robin Yeoh, has reported that many young people are showing up at his clinic with hearing loss. “Many of them have been exposed to recreational noise in clubs and discos, but certainly personal music players play quite a large part in this. Once you damage the nerves of your inner ear, that’s permanent, there’s no medication, no surgery, no therapy that is going to recover it”.

Incidentally, I love his description of disco music as “recreational noise”!

Experts are hoping that the EU will impose an allowed level of MP3 players and public music to 85 decibels.

But this leads me to ask this question: Can the Spanish live without noise?

The Friday evening English Speaking Group that I help run here in Madrid used to meet in a bar where the purpose of the evening was to improve conversational skills. However, the owner insisted that while we were talking he would have a pianist bash out music.

“Can’t you ask him to stop?” I asked the owner.
“Music brings people in to the bar”, he replied.
“But we are already filling your bar”, I stated (it was quite small), “and we want to talk and are finding difficult to do so over the noise”.
But the pianist was kept on. We left.

We found another place. As it happens it is a disco bar, but in the basement they are quite happy to turn the music off for our meetings. When the meeting is finished we do not leave, but stay on, buy more drink and continue with more informal chit-chat. We like to do that. But, as soon as they realise the meeting is over the bar staff turn up the music – and I mean TURN UP THE MUSIC.

Why? There’s just us, at least at the beginning, but I notice that when other customers arrive they sit in groups trying to talk and are, like us, HAVING TO SHOUT over the boom boom boom emanating from the four large speakers in what is not a large room.

I was in Molly Malone’s, one of Madrid’s ever burgeoning number of Irish bars, (the beer is Heineken or Guinness, neither to my taste, but I was with friends!) a few evenings ago. The “music” was turned up to painful and the general cacophony was added to by everyone having to shout at each other. I ordered a drink, the barman asked me to repeat what I said, I did and still he didn’t hear me. I repeated my order and he had to lean across the bar to hear me. I commented that he wouldn’t have that problem if they turned down the volume.

I couldn’t hear his reply.

I was worried that this preoccupation with noisy bars was a sign that I was getting old, but I have heard this complaint from lots of Spaniards who are much younger than me. (Most people are!) They tell me that it is just impossible to talk to friends properly while having a drink.

The great intercambio, that wonderful institution that allows the Spanish and guiris to exchange their respective languages, is almost impossible in many bars. You just end up shouting at each other. One student asked me to meet her in a bar after work for lessons. She soon realised it was a waste of time – and her money.

Last Saturday evening a few of us met to practise our Spanish (and I need that practise!) and we met in a café in Chueca. By the time we had finished our first drink we had decided to go elsewhere. We could hardly hear each other and with the added difficulty of speaking another language we soon realised what we were attempting was impracticable.

Surprisingly it didn’t take us long to find somewhere where we were able to talk at a normal level, although we did increase our own volume a little when we started to discuss nuclear power; a contentious issue for one of our number. We continued to converse and even though there was music, it was never intrusive. Other patrons were also having quiet conversation. No one was having to shout. Why can’t all bars be like that?

But on the way home some twit on the metro decided we should all have the pleasure of listening to the tinny noises that came from his mobile telephone.

I have often contemplated kitting myself out with something similar to a terrorist waistcoat, only instead of explosive I would have an MP3 player and some powered speakers and when some idiot felt the need to “entertain” his fellow passengers with his half a watt of distorted, squawking, cacophonous drivel, I would drown him out with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor or the Ride of the Valkyries – really loud. Yes, it would be just as anti-social, but much better quality, both in taste and sound.

But I doubt the Spanish could live with silence. Let’s admit it. They are a noisy bunch. Even in a cafe without music or a television showing a football match the general hubbub has to be several decibels higher that in any other European country. Someone once defined a Spanish conversation as six people all talking at the same time with none of them listening to the others. I have witnessed this with my own ears.

And don’t get me started on the glass rattling firework explosions that go off at three in the morning.

This is where a Spaniard would tell me, quite rightly, that if I don’t like it I should “go home”. As I said, quite rightly! Making noise is what they do. It defines one aspect of the Spanish character, that love of getting out of the house, meeting friends and shouting at each other, er, I mean, having a spirited conversation over a few beers. It’s a noise that says, “Hey, I like to be with you guys. But so we can talk, let’s be louder than that lot next to us”. In this respect, how can it be anti-social? It’s the very epitome of being sociable. And I won’t “go home” because I too, from time to time, have been part of that noisy rabble, because I feel included and they even put up with the terrible things I do to their language and because being shouted at over the noise means they want me hear what they have to say. It signifies, you are one of us.

Those times are fine when I want to be included. But I don’t want to have to fight against painful music levels in bars where I just want a quiet drink, I don’t want to hear the tish tish tish from the MP3 player of the guy next to me on the bus, I don’t want to have music played at me on the metro. And that includes the guy who plays the violin badly on line two!

And seriously, if levels of music, both personal and public, are so loud it causes physical disability, then I think something should be done about it. An argument of the anti-smoking lobby is that the staff in bars have a right to be protected from the supposed effects of second-hand smoke. If the volume of the music is above health and safety guidelines regarding noise in the workplace, then that should also be a consideration for bar owners.

If you disagree, let’s have a – quiet – conversation about it.

What do you think??

Saturday 12 December 2009

Oh Very Small Town of Bethlehem.

By Richard Morley.

The Main Scene of the Nativity at the Belén del Ayuntamiento

Oh pueblecito de Belén, cuán quieto tú estás.
Los astros en silencio dan su bella luz en paz.
Mas en tus calles brilla la luz de redención
que da a todo hombre la eterna salvación.

The power of religion in Spain might not be as Strong as it was not that long ago, despite reprehensible measures taken by the church to affect voting in the parliament, but Christmas in this country still retains a spiritual side lost in the commercial bluster that signifies the festive season in other countries.

The story of the Nativity is very important in Spanish tradition. I wrote a couple of posts ago about Nativity scenes, or “Beléns”. Now those figures that were on sale in the Christmas market are now coming to a shop window near you – if you live in Madrid.

My greengrocer has one. So does the travel agent and the hairdresser around the corner. One of the banks is trying to serve both God and Mammon by displaying a very tiny crib. Some of these Belenes (ITALICS) would win no prizes for expertise or creativity. The hairdressers has basically arranged a few plastic figures of shepherds and angels, shoved in a couple of camels, and that’s it. It’s not really a nativity scene as there is no stable, no Holy family. But it makes a difference from the usual cans of hairspray and boxes of colouring that are normally on display.

Serving God and Mammon - my local Santander bank.

The pharmacist has gone for chintz, the local chiropractors have opted for simplicity over ostentation, and the double glazing showroom has just gone completely overboard. His window contains hundreds of little figures, buildings and, artistically, he has put the stable off to one side. He does this every year.

The Hairdressers.

The Pharmacy.

The Double Glazing Showroom

And it’s great! It’s a sign Christmas is almost here.

Some of the Beléns are much more professional – and expensive.

This year the ayuntamiento has called upon the services of a “Maestro Belenista”, José Luis Mayo Lebrija to create the figures and they has have been assembled by Enrique Haro. And, as you would expect, it is on a grand scale.

The Anunciation

Divided into three parts; the Annunciation, where the angel appears before the shepherds watching over their flocks; the stable scene with the baby Jesus being watched over by a doting mother and father; (Header Photograph) and finally, scenes of the journey of the three kings on their way to worship the new born.

The craftsmanship of the model-making is amazing.

 Scenes of everyday life

 The Belen can be found underground at the new tourist centre on the corner of the Calle de Goya and the Paseo de la Castellana at the Plaza Colon. If you have fifteen minutes, it is well worth the visit. It is open between 10am and 9pm until the 6th of January.

The Journey of the Three Kings

Another Belen created by José Luis Mayo Lebrija can be found in the Basílica Pontificia de San Miguel in the calle de San Justo, not far from the Plaza Mayor. Open from 10am to 2pm and 5:30 to 9 except during services.

The men who create these marvels have grouped themselves into the “Asociación de la Belenistas de Madrid”. They have their own exhibition in the Old Post office, the Real Casa de Correos in the Puerta del Sol. There you will find over 600 figures set among wonderfully crafted scenery. The whole thing weighs more than two and a half tons. Again, the exhibition will remain open until the 6th of January.

According to the “Madrid es Navidad” booklet given out free by the ayuntamiento, there are twenty four official Belens scattered around the town. Whether you are religious or not, they are worth a look just for the workmanship alone.


Monday 7 December 2009

Castañas asando sobre una fuego abierto

By Richard Morley

Normally there would be no reason for me to be interested in anything the slightest agricultural. News of the European Common Agricultural Policy would have me yawning. A bumper grain harvest would mean nothing. Even a good year for grapes and the wine-makers, unless grown around Bordeaux, would not get me excited. Then a friend gave me the news.

“This has been a very good year for castañas”, she said.

That’s chestnuts, to you and me.

Apparently this year’s weather has provided the optimum amount of everything needed to produce a vintage crop. For me that was excellent news.

I have always loved chestnuts. When I was a child we used to roast chestnuts on the coal shovel, still sooty from putting more fuel on the fire, while gathered round the TV on chilly winter evenings. It was an irregular treat, but the memories have stayed with me. I just love their sweet buttery taste and would eat as many as I could and was always disappointed when my small child fingers, oblivious to the burning heat, had succeeded is removing the shell only to find a bad nut inside.

I am old enough to remember hot chestnut sellers on London street corners. What they sold was, to me, far better than anything found in the local sweetshop.

In my early twenties I left England and travelled to places where the chestnut is unknown and probably went thirty years chestnut-less. Then I came to Spain.

I came in May. Through the year the weather became hot, then cooled off to winter. Much colder than I had expected. That shows how much I knew about Spain! Then one chilly November day I came out of the hostal where I was staying in Gran Via and saw my first Spanish chestnut vender. The smell of roasting chestnuts was an intoxicant. I immediately bought a dozen. From Gran via I wandered down to Sol. On the corner opposite McDonalds was another vender, brazier glowing, a pile of chestnuts keeping hot on a grill above those still roasting. My first dozen had left me hungry for more and pig that I am, bought another twelve.

For this simple fact alone, November and December have become my favourite months of the year to be in Madrid. (In January the chestnuts are getting a little old and don’t taste so good.) I like them so much that some days I will buy them for my desayuno segundo, (the eleven o’clock break that the Spanish call their “second breakfast”), lunch and dinner. I don’t need to eat anything else, although I am a little worried about my littering potential. What do you do with the shells, las cáscaras? You could follow my trail around the city. I mean, if you neatly put them into the paper cone they come in, it gets all messy and it’s not really sanitary to eat hovering over a litter bin. A friend who had never had chestnuts before coming to Spain and didn’t know how to eat them ate the shell as well as the nut. You can be sure I never let him forget that! He said it made them “crunchier”. Well, it would, wouldn’t it?

The nutritional facts about chestnuts show they are good for you. They are, according to one web site, known as “the grain that grows on trees”, but that was news to me, but apparently they have a similar nutritional to brown rice. The web site reveals that a “typical serving” of two and a half chestnuts (who are they kidding?) contains sixty calories, one gram of protein, 13 grams of carbohydrates, one gram of fat, one mg of sodium, and are twenty percent vitamin C.

So, two dozen have about 600 calories and fill you up. Great for the diet ladies!

The Spanish know all about chestnuts.

In the days of open fires no Spanish household would have been without a holed, metal saucepan called a Tixolo. After cutting your chestnuts with a cross to stop them from exploding from the steam pressure as the internal moisture is heated, you put the chestnuts into the tixolo and rest it among the glowing logs. It only take ten to fifteen minutes and your chestnuts are done. I don’t have an open fire. Ten minutes in a frying pan on the cooker top works for me. Experimentation has revealed eight chestnuts can be cooked reasonably well in a microwave in about two minutes. But put them of a paper towel as the water expelled during the cooking makes them soggy.

A Tixolo

There are chestnut trees all over the Iberian peninsular. Some people have said that they were introduced by the Romans, but according to Celtic legend the trees were here before. In fact the humble chestnut did not used to be so humble. It was a very important constituent in food until corn and potatoes arrived from the New World.

Its high carbohydrate content made it a suitable foodstuff for the cold winter months and in some societies this almost gave the chestnut magical qualities.

The Magosto.

The name of the holed cooking pot comes from Galicia. In that rainy and misty part of Northwest Spain, where the old Celtic traditions are never forgotten, there is an ancient rite of autumn called The Magosto, which celebrates the connection between nature and mankind and the debt he owes to it for his survival. It is a rite celebrated to glorify nature’s abundance and to ask her blessing for the next year’s harvest. It was an outdoor celebration. Homer tells us that the Druids worshipped the Chestnut tree and considered it a “fruit given by the gods”.

Chestnuts - Ready to eat.

The celebration would take the form of a huge banquet of hot chestnuts that had been roasted over a fire of Laurel tree wood. It is believed that the word “magosto” is derived from the latin Maguma Ustus (high fire) or Maguma Ustum (which refers to the magical nature of fire).

In Asturias the celebration is known as Magüestu and in neighbouring Cantabria as Magost. The Asturians, being Asturian, have a sweet chestnut cider for their feasts. In the Basque Country they eat their chestnuts, so I am told, with snails or baked in a morokil of corn flour.

It is from there I found an amusing piece of trivia. A chestnut grows inside a spiny case that could be said to resemble a small green hedgehog; in Spanish the animal is an “erizo”. It used to be that the Basques would store their chestnuts, still within their husks, outside in a construction called an “ericero”, which means “the hedgehog house”.

Over the border in Portugal the “Magusto” is celebrated with jokes and songs. Faces are smeared with the ashes from the chestnut fire. One local tradition there is to prepare a table with chestnuts for the dead which no one would touch them for fear of being haunted by the spirits of the hungry departed.

I don’t know if I could resist the temptation.

We had a Magosto in Madrid in November. In front of the bullring on the Plaza del Torres at Las Ventas, they erected a huge tent, and with great quantities of beer, managed to roast and consume, they claim, twenty thousand kilograms of Chestnuts. I gave them what help I could, but, assuming fifty chestnuts to the kilo, that’s half a million nuts. Luckily for them, I am not the only aficionado de castañas in Madrid.

The Good Castaña Guide.

You know how it is with chestnuts. They have to be properly roasted with the shells almost burnt away. You can tell if they have been cooked well by the ease with which you can peel them. The cáscaras should crumble. You also know that if you buy a dozen there will be one or two that are bad. I found a forum for different chestnut recipes and one poster remarked that if a chestnut explodes in the microwave it’s probably because it contains a worm! Definitely one to avoid.

On street corners all over Madrid chestnut vendors hover over their braziers, (which is a good job to have in these cold times), and turn and stir the nuts over the glowing charcoal. However, as in all things, not all things are equal. This is my fifth Christmas in this beautiful city, and I consider myself an expert on where the best chestnuts can be bought. So, in the spirit of goodwill to all, I have thoroughly researched where you can buy the best. I have eaten lots of chestnuts in the past few weeks on your behalf, and I can now reveal the results of my survey.

First the places to avoid. There are two vendors in the Plaza Castilla. I think they are probably in cahoots because both of them sell the worst chestnuts in town. They are not roasted for long enough and on the three occasions I have bought what I hoped would be a tasty snack there at least a quarter were rotten.

In Callao, on the corner with the Calle Jacometrezo, they are reasonably well roasted, but usually have a couple of bad ones.

I am waiting for the man to reappear in Sol, but he’s not there yet and maybe he has been moved on following the renovation of the Plaza, but last year his were well cooked but would normally pop up a dud or two.

So the winner is: The vendor on the metro station corner of the Plaza de España. Always well roasted and, so far this year anyway, not one bad chestnut. (And I have made several visits!) Also, when he has some tiny chestnuts recently, my dozen became almost two dozen. Definitely value for money.

The Winner

The citizens of this town don’t actually need me to tell them this. After finishing this post yesterday I met a friend in town for dinner. Coincidentally, we had arranged to meet near the Plaza España. The chestnut stand was doing a fine trade with a long queue. Madrileños, you have chosen well. Oh, and dinner or no dinner, I joined the queue because I just can’t resist.

Oh, did I tell you – I love chestnuts!

Do you have any recipes for chestnuts? Or do you just like them roasted "On an open fire", to coin a phrase?
Comments please, as usual, below.

Saturday 5 December 2009

The Forty One Days Of Christmas

I have no idea who this happy couple are, but she insisted on posing while I tried to take the photograph of the Christmas Tree in the Plaza Callao. Christmas is a happy time, and she looks very happy.

There’s an accordionist who sits on a stool in my main shopping street, pretty close to the Metro Entrance, so it’s hard to avoid him, who never plays anything recognisable. Occasionally you might hear the first few bars of something familiar, but just as you think you know that tune he drifts off into something else. “Ave Maria” sort of segues into the “Trish Trash Polka” as if he wanted to combine all the tunes he knows in one discordant melody. So as I walked past him today it was no surprise to hear one tune to the tune of another, if you know what I mean. But he has changed his tunes. Today he was somehow combining “Silent Night” with “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”.

It must be Christmas!

The Ayuntamiento has published a booklet explaining all the events it has planned to give the public over the festive period. It is entitled, “Madrid es Navidad – del 27 de noviembre al 6 de enero”. That’s forty-one days, which is dragging out the festive season a little.

During this time, according to the booklet, Christmas will officially start on the 17th of December with an inauguration event in the Plaza de Oriente, opposite the Royal Palace. There are two weeks of special celebrations on Lavapies and a special celebration on the 27th for Madrid’s main street, Gran Via, which will be one hundred years old next year. There are exhibitions and concerts, religious services and theatre, and circuses seem to be springing up all over town. The Plaza del Torros at las Ventas has been converted, as it is every year, into one very large circus.

So, according to those dates we are well in to the season of goodwill to all men - except accordion players who can’t carry a tune.


The calles, avenidas and paseos of Madrid are arched with streams of twinkling lights. Christmas trees have been constructed all over town. Yes, I wrote “constructed”. Despite the rolling foothills of the Sierra Guadarrama being covered in fir trees, as far as I can tell, there is not one natural Christmas tree in the city. In the Plaza of Colon I watched as men manoeuvring a crane and a hydraulic platform heaved several tons of curved steel sheets into place to form a ten metre high metallic cone, which was then festooned with lights. Now at night it glows a sort of eerie purple.

Colon "Tree" under Construction
The Completed Tree

In the Plaza de Castilla a pyramid of similar height flashes illuminated Pac-man figures. Halfway along Castellana a snow white cone sits seemingly abandoned near an intersection, while Callao boasts a cone festooned with ribbons. Oh, and a synthetic ice rink.

The Callao Tree.

Sol probably has the largest “tree” of them all; perhaps twenty five metres high and clad in transparent wire mesh. In daylight it is an eyesore, quite frankly, but will probably look very festive when its lights are turned on. However, I have been there twice during last week and while everywhere else is bathed in fairylight, this “chicken coop cone” has remained blacked out. It is in fact so large that when the new street lights of the newly renovated Plaza del Sol are switched on a dusk, the “Tree” seems to absorb the light. Researchers into black holes need look no further.

Sol at night. Can you see the "Tree"?

The Sol Conic Chicken Coop.

But despite these fabricated faux firs being perhaps Madrid’s attempt to combat deforestation, there are several hundred real trees on sale in the Christmas Market in the Plaza Mayor. The market is a rather sad affair this year. Perhaps it’s the crisis, but there are only half the number of stalls compared to previous years.

The Christmas Market in The Plaza Mayor

However, the stalls there seem to be doing a brisk trade in fairy lights and decorations, but what most of the stalls sell are figurines for your Belén.

So what’s a Belén, I hear you ask? The word comes from the Spanish name for Bethlehem and is what in England is called a Nativity Scene and, I believe in the US, a crib. The figurines come in all sizes to suit the size of the window you will be using to display them from, and they come in varying degrees of quality and price, ranging from the cheap and chubby to expensive and exquisite. You can buy shepherds and sheep, Marys, Josephs, Wise men and assorted hangers-on plus a whole farmyard of animals.

All you need for your Belén.
 And Caganeres.

So now you are wondering what is a “caganer”? It seems there is a tradition that at least one of the characters in your Belén should be answering a call of nature. In Catalonia, from whence this custom came, it was usually a mischievous young shepherd boy, pants down around his ankles, bottom bared for all to see and a very obvious curled lump of kaka on the ground behind him. However, in this modern age, when we like to make fun of our leaders, the little shepherd boy has been replaced by your iconic figure of choice. On one stall it is possible to buy a caganer representing any Spanish politician or footballer, the Pope, Barak Obama, Tony Blair and many others from about a hundred models. Madrid’s main give away newspaper trumpeted that this year for the first time, caganeres of the president of the Comunidad of Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre and Madrid’s Mayor, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón Jiménez would be up for sale. Collector’s items perhaps? Still, it won’t be the first time Spanish politicians have been caught with their pants down.

This seems a strange way to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus and Madrileños are quick to point out the figures’ Catalonian roots. This does not seem to stop them buying them though!

There are also specialist shops that sell Belén figures. Halfway along the Calle Postas, that little alley that leads from the Plaza Mayor to Sol, is a shop that sells some quite beautifully made figures. But at a price! And along the Calle Mayor one can buy exquisite, but small complete Beléns for two or three hundred euros. That’s one expensive doll’s house!

So, Madrid is all set for Christmas. The nation’s largest chain of department stores, El Corte Inglés, is advertising its toy shop with a huge all singing all dancing animated display called “Cortylandia”. Crowds gather to watch its regularly timed choreography. The mariachi band in Sol is playing Christmas Carols, or villancicos, and the wandering jazz band can be seen all over town playing up beat versions of Jingle bells and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

There’s lots of snow, but its all plastic and hanging from shopping centres. But the ice is real. Early morning temperatures are zero or less. Fog and ice led to an accumulated one hundred and sixty kilometres of traffic jams leading into the city on Thursday. A pile up on the A6 near Las Rozas to the northwest damaged a dozen cars and there were many more accidents on other roads.

The Lights in the Calle de Alcala

The police are manning roadblocks all over town to check for drivers over the alcohol limit. An excess of yuletide spirit in the blood will now get you a hefty fine or incarceration. However, taking a taxi home at three in the morning a few days ago we passed through one of these roadside checks. My taxi was waved through while other cars were pulled in. I was thinking that was right; no taxi driver would dare drive drunk. But then my driver began a rant about how the checks were an infringement of drivers’ rights. I found that quite worrying.

Gran Via - 100 years old next year

But I love Madrid at this time of year. There are festivals, concerts, fireworks as well as all the lights and Christmas Cones, er, I mean “Trees”. But what I love best about this time in Madrid is the subject of my next post. So, slightly premature greetings to one and all and come back in a couple of days to see what it is that makes me want to be here more than anywhere else at this time or the year.