Satsuma mandarins...the perfect winter snack, gift, everything!

Satsuma mandarins...the perfect winter snack, gift, everything!
peel, eat, repeat

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

We actually navigated our way across northwestern Spain by scallop shells and yellow arrows placed hither and yon by a team of international Camino freaks that volunteer throughout the year. Walking along wondering about your direction and if lost is a possibility and they appear, a rock or ancient stone marker or even a tree trunk on the far side of the road with a yellow arrow painted on it, saved. We spent a good deal of time looking for markers by sunlight or headlamp as we headed out before dawn most mornings beating the heat, especially amazing walking under the super moon.  The Camino always provides. Castles and monastic ruins appear around many a turn in the trail, each village boasting churches beyond plentiful with astounding amounts of riches displayed on enormous alter pieces painted with gold and embellished with carvings, jewels and gem stones, statues and paintings, depicting various scenes of religious deities over the millennium, precious even in decay. Initially it caused uneasy ghoulish visions of poor slaves and serfs dying after short horrible lives to provide the labor making it possible to build these enormous houses of worship, but chains of history along the Way provided a deeper understanding into the culture surrounding the anvils of circumstances in the villages. We do it different here is my short story although insight into relationships between many forms of religion and people over centuries along the Camino de Santiago is fascinating.
A special 7 day segment of the Camino described as the Meseta, a high plain that we climb several thousand feet to get to, but once ascended unfolds into unrelenting flat wide, gravel paths, brutal underfoot going on for miles with little to no shade or villages, only endless fields of dry barley, disorienting us to where we would light next. Until now we had been climbing mountains and traversing valleys, lush and green filled with water and flowers and many a village to rest in taking off shoes and back pack to enjoy chocolate and diet coke before moving on again. These brutally long incendiary stretches actually are referred to as the “soulless senda” in map books. One of the flat paths unexpectedly, gloriously escorted a wide canal that was used a thousand years ago to move grain and agricultural products throughout the region with old locks beautifully still in place. Churches and villages on the Camino are totally centered on the pilgrimage and most have special pilgrim masses daily, crescendoed by pilgrims called front and center for personal hands on blessings from the priest. We gratefully received any and all help we could get.
Food is mostly the same along the Camino with a few standout dishes, but most of the time it is a pilgrims menu that someone at sometime decided was a splendid idea and on an the albergue (hostals) circuit once sold on a commercial idea, hospitalieries all seem to follow as it a financially profit driven venture by locals deriving their annual income from pilgrims. Typical menu is 3 courses for 8 to 10 euro. Choices are relentlessly similar and consist of what someone somewhere decided all the international pilgrims would want. Spaghetti from Italy, creamy thick mayo weird salad Russe from Russia, way over cooked mash of peas and other canned products from UK, French fries from France!, and the one we ate every day, salad mixta with lettuce, canned tuna, white asparagus and tomatoes, we think from US. Sometimes olives or hard boiled eggs, possibly carrots, but the protein was valuably high. Second courses are just as bizarre with even vegetarian dishes containing some sort of pork product. We found luscious fruits and nuts from the Mercado with pleasant shop keepers.
One particularly difficult walk, ridiculously longer than we had anticipated, stretched the performance of my 3 liters of water, reduced to a frightening gurgle sound, with about an hour of blazing sun ahead to the next village. I had been keeping my head from insanity of boredom by looking for the perfect heart cloud in a sky abundantly fluffy bellowing with pure white clouds, to snap a picture of and send to my friend Jackie Hopkins as I had been thinking about her Kate all day and she loved heart clouds. Growing more agitated and parched by the second as I had no more water, which I willingly admit is a security blanket on a good day for me, and that sky would not perform for me, when out of nowhere, on our walking trail, this dude in a minivan with loud music and a huge smile rolls up and hands us all a bottles of ice cold water. Those bottles were painted with big pink hearts. Got it after all, just her way and not mine. Goose bumps covered me into the village as I felt her looking over us pilgrims trudging to our next destination. We spent a wonderful night in his albergue amidst rabbits and chickens, well fed and thoroughly quenched.

Camino De Santiago Pilgrims Salad Mixta
1 pound mixed market greens on a large beautiful platter. Add a couple quartered hard boiled eggs. Toss on some grated carrots and good handful Greek olives. Slice on generous cucumbers and lots of halved cherry tomatoes. Flake on a can of tuna. Drizzle with good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Crack sea salt on and share with, bread, loved ones and icy cold Albarino!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sitting around a nice house party at Stephanie’s last September talking about doing this 500 mile back pack/trek/walk/hike called the Camino de Santiago over the French Pyrenees and into Northwestern Spain to the coast at Finisterre was one thing but almost a year later donning the beastly pack and boarding a plane in San Francisco leaving our homes and families for 6 weeks was quite another. Arriving in Paris, we had 19 hours for walking, sitting in cafes and window shopping, not putting anymore weight at all in the pack, before catching a train to Bayonne and winding our way by bus to the beautifully sweet mountain hamlet of St. Jean Pied de Port where after an amazing communal supper and communal sleeping we would begin our 500 mile or 785 kilometer jaunt ending eventually in Santiago Spain. St Jean is literally the foot gate over the mountains and the trail has been used for centuries by pilgrims seeking penance and joy, war criminals and heroes stealing through the freezing nights to save the world and sheepherders grazing their herds.
Our first few nights were spent in albergues where bunk beds are arranged in 4 to 8 or so in a room and bathrooms are coed and shared by many. Took these not spring chickens a minute to get used to it donning shower shoes for sure. Dining was a family affair with all the pilgrims staying at the albergues sharing a meal at long tables. We met more people than carter has pills and made so many hard and fast friends that a bed or couch awaits in most European countries should the need arise. We figured out the back pack score pretty swiftly and sent a big box of stuff from our packs home the morning before we started walking with no regrets at all. Our first day was short but brutally steep climbing about 3000 feet in a few hours time. Constantly accompanied by unending mountain vistas with sheep and goats aplenty, breathtakingly lovely with air as sharp as a knife blade, as we trudged anaerobic, red faced and puffing regardless of months of training to our goal for the day. We heaved our bodies with our 23 pound packs onto the deck of our insanely welcomed albergue in Orison for the evening being greeted with ice cold mugs of local beer and salty peanuts. Sitting there with only the Pyrenees in all their amazing foxglove, hydrangea and fern filled craggy but lusciously green glory before us, fog creeping fingers slowly between valleys, all knowing of the communal meal awaiting us, a gal met my gaze and we recognized each other from Kelly Duarte’s Halloween party in  Martinez. Michele Matson lives in town and her hiking partner and long time friend Jamie Kruse was born and raised in Martinez and her dad was the mayor for several years when she was growing up. My mom was not surprised I ran into someone I knew in the French Pyrenees in a place you can only get to by hiking there.
We found our bunks, did our laundry, took showers and settled into our first real night on the trail eating Basque food and drinking local wines with 30 other pilgrims, most on their first night too, very festive, listening to sheep and night birds as well as pilgrims snoring, until falling gently asleep filled with the knowledge that the next day would bring the most strenuously brutal hike of the entire trip cresting the Pyrenees and ending up at an 11th century monastery in Roncesvalles Spain.
Flan de Cafe
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup whipping cream
3/4 cup low-fat milk
1/2 cup espresso coffee
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs
1/4 cup sugar
20 whole coffee beans

6 individual servings in ramekins.
Set ramekins in a large glass baking dish (9-inch x 13-inch).
Heat 4-5 cups of water in a pot for the water bath.
Put a heavy skillet or saucepan over medium heat for 30 seconds. Add 1/2 cup sugar. With the back of a wooden spoon, keep sugar moving constantly until sugar is completely melted, and of a rich medium brown color (caramelized).
Carefully spoon caramelized sugar into each of the 6 ramekins or large dish.
Pre-heat oven to 325F (162C) degrees.
Scald milk and cream in a saucepan. Remove immediately and stir in the coffee.
Meanwhile in a mixing bowl, beat slightly 3 eggs. Mix in 1/4 cup sugar.
Stirring constantly, gradually add hot cream mixture to egg yolk mixture. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Blend in vanilla extract. Ladle mixture into ramekins.
Pour in hot water until there is about 1/2-inch of water in the baking dish for boiling water bath. Fill about a third way up. Bake uncovered in water bath for 50-60 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean when inserted half way between center and the edge of dish.
Note: To ensure the custard does not over-cook, check doneness after 45 minutes, then every 3-5 minutes.
Remove ramekins from the water bath. Set on a cooling rack until lukewarm, then chill thoroughly in refrigerator.
Un-mold by running a knife around the inside edge of baking dish. Place a small dessert plate on the top of the ramekin. With one hand under the ramekin and the other on top of the place, turn over. Tap the ramekin and the flan should drop onto the plate
Garnish with the whole coffee beans and serve.