Spring fever book club

It’s been gray, snowy and cold here at Quiet Farm this weekend, and I think I can confidently speak for most of the United States when I say we are ready for spring. Between polar vortexes and bomb cyclones and Snowmageddons and white-knuckle drives over mountain passes and goodness knows what other chilliness, this winter has been…lengthy. Despite our grumbling, though, we are of course entirely dependent on that winter moisture for our spring and summer irrigation, so we are truly grateful. And all that snow and mud means no outdoor projects, so we have more time to read, too!

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Farm update: February 18

Despite the snow on the ground, spring is in the air. We’re entering the freeze-thaw cycle (also known as mud season) and our quarter-mile driveway is the worse for it, but all around us, things seem to be softening and readying for growth. We’re excited for spring, friends. This winter has offered much more moisture than last year’s punishing drought, and we’re looking forward to seeing how our fields regenerate once the snows have disappeared for good.

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One of our favorite winter activities has been watching for wildlife across our land; the persistent snow has made tracks easy to see. We’ve spotted coyotes, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, ground squirrels and of course our nemesis, deer. We are trying hard to learn this land, to know what lives here now and what was here before us so we can figure out how to best live in harmony.

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Winter book club

Though the solstice has passed and days are theoretically growing longer, we have settled into deepest winter here. Famed organic farmer Eliot Coleman calls this the “Persephone period,” when winter days are less than ten hours in length. Late sunrises, early sunsets and a chilly winter sun barely peeking through the gloom create perfect days for curling up in front of the fire with a book. Though we should be studying farming materials – and we are, I promise! – I also devote plenty of time to non-farm reading, too.

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The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai

This book appeared on a number of 2018’s “Best Of” lists and won numerous prizes, and for good reason. Like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, this book, to me, perfectly represents The Great American Novel. It concerns two parallel stories, one set in Chicago in the mid-eighties during the height of the AIDS crisis and one in 2015 Paris, and both stories grab you by the throat and consume you completely. This was a book that I had a hard time putting down even when I couldn’t keep my eyes open late at night, and one that I dove into when I was supposed to be doing ten million other things. It’s only been a few short decades, but it’s difficult to acknowledge now just how blind and how cruel we were when AIDS ravaged our country. Now that HIV/AIDS is no longer a guaranteed death sentence, it seems even more shocking that we let thousands of people, mostly young, vibrant men, die horribly – because we didn’t agree with their lifestyles, because “God is punishing them.” Along with Vietnam and civil rights, I’d identify this period as one of the most truly shameful in American history. Layered, gorgeous and tragic, The Great Believers is one of the best books I’ve read recently.

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Restless book club

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This should be a gorgeous shot of the San Juan Mountains; unfortunately they are completely obscured by smoke.

A heaviness sits over our Western Slope mesa right now. For two weeks we’ve seen evidence of numerous wildfires nearby plus California, too; the normally clean, crisp air is thick with a sickly haze and it smells as though you’re standing in the middle of a campfire. Our pure blue sky hasn’t been seen in some time, and you can almost taste the ash on your tongue. The rains are infrequent, but when they do come – even when they disrupt an annual town potluck – they seem to wash the smoke away, and people rejoice. It feels charred, dry and desperate here, and we’ll be the first to admit that we’re getting restless. We’re mired in an enforced and extended waiting period on the farm we’re trying to purchase, so while there have been plenty of farm visits, long, hilly bike rides, hiking in Grand Mesa National Forest, fruit picking and hours of tennis, there is also a lot of escapist reading going on these days.

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The Farm Series: Colorado Pastured Pork

We’ve (sort of) relocated to the Western Slope, and we’re focused on meeting as many local farmers as possible. If we truly intend to start Quiet Farm here, and if we intend for it to grow into a thriving business, building a strong local producer network will be key to our success. To that end, when we’re not driving around looking for property, we’re visiting farms and ranches who practice the same sort of farming we plan to embrace.

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The Western Slope – specifically Delta County, where we’re currently based – has a long history of agriculture, but most of those ag products were shipped to population centers in Denver (to the east) and Salt Lake City (to the west). Now, with “local food” and “agritourism” evolving as valid ways for poorer counties to earn revenue, there is a movement afoot to encourage small farmers and other sustainable, innovative producers to make their mark here. Surprisingly, Delta County has more acres of organic farmland than any other county in Colorado (I know, we thought it was the Kingdom of Boulder, too).

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RV book club

Pretty much every RV we’ve encountered on our travels thus far has had a television, and most carry a satellite dish. We’ve seen some TVs on the big rigs that would cover an entire wall in our tiny home, if we could even get the thing through the door. For us, though, no TV. And no Netflix, either, because even though we have a device on which to watch, most parks don’t have Internet service strong enough to support streaming. (Serious RVers also carry Internet boosters.) So we read, and that’s not intended as a complaint.

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A selection of reading material at an RV park.

We packed an eclectic selection of books, of course, before throwing everything else into boxes and jamming it all into a rented storage unit. We happened to be camped at the fairgrounds when our local county library held their semi-annual book sale there, so we grabbed a few then, too. And most every park we’ve stayed at has had a book exchange, typically located near the laundry facilities. I’ll confess that most of the books at the RV parks are not to my taste – they lean heavily towards bodice-rippers, legal thrillers and Stuart Woods – but truly, I’m happy when anyone is reading actual paper books and I am not passing any judgment on these. And there are occasionally diamonds in the rough. So what are we reading these days on the RV?

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Cookbook Club: Full Moon Suppers

It will come as precisely no surprise to any of you that I have what some might consider an excessive cookbook collection. I try to keep it pared down – honestly, I do – but then every October the local library has their annual book sale where you get to fill shopping bags for $6 each and I just lose any ability I might once have had to act like a rational adult. It’s true. And no one will ever, ever help us move.

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Not long ago, this cookbook crossed my path, and it is pure and simple and lovely. As a professional chef, I know that most cookbooks are used by home cooks, and therefore I am infuriated (not too strong a word) by gorgeous, glossy, overproduced cookbooks with fabulous photos where the recipes don’t actually work. Home cooks, especially those just starting out, don’t need perfect photos of airbrushed superstars (or blog stars) happily munching on avocado toast. What they need are clear, easy to-understand recipes that have been tested many times, in many kitchens (preferably home kitchens), with variable equipment. And possibly not all of the correct ingredients.

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The last of the season’s stone fruit. 

Annemarie Ahearn has been cooking and farming on her family’s property overlooking Penobscot Bay, Maine, since 2009. As she says,

“I had not moved to Maine on a whim. My plan was to open a cooking school for home cooks and teach people how to grow a kitchen garden. The mission of the school aligned with my personal ambition, which was to fundamentally change my daily routine. City life, while rich with professional opportunity, did not feed my soul in the way that I was hoping a more rural life would. And what better place to experience nature than on a farm, nestled between the mountains and the sea? So many skills that my grandmothers and generations prior to theirs possessed I did not know the first thing about. Chopping wood for warmth, putting up preserves for winter, catching a fish for dinner and raising laying hens for eggs were all efforts that I wanted to experience firsthand.”

The book is broken into twelve menus, appropriately themed to the twelve months of the year. Her recipes are simple, seasonal and easy to follow, and every single one pays homage to the land above all else. I can’t get the quality of Maine lobster that she has, nor fresh periwinkles, but there are plenty of recipes here that could easily be made across the country, depending on the season. We haven’t been to Salt Water Farm (yet), but we feel a definite kinship between the cooking and farming life Annemarie has forged for herself on Maine’s rocky, windswept coast and the cooking and farming life we want to build at Quiet Farm, wherever that may be.

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Please ripen before first frost hits…

I’ll be completely honest and say that I’m a little late on this post, but truly that’s only because I was (im)patiently waiting for our tomatoes to ripen so I could make a glorious summer salad. Salt Water Farm has a short growing season too; they treasure their warm-weather peaches, tomatoes and corn just as we do at nearly six thousand feet in the Rocky Mountains. You work with what you have.

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Cocktail hour is my favorite hour!

Each of the twelve menus in Full Moon Suppers starts with a paired beverage. N and I really only partake of gin-and-tonics in summer; they seem to suit the weather so well. I’ve seen a couple of recipes this summer encouraging the use of lovage in a simple syrup to add to G&Ts or sparkling water; since I have an abundance of lovage that I leave for the bees every year, I thought I might as well use it. The syrup is truly simple: combine two cups water, two cups sugar and bring to a boil. Add eight cups roughly chopped lovage, remove from heat and allow to cool completely while lovage steeps. Strain into a clean quart jar and store in refrigerator. It’s herby, grassy and deeply refreshing, whether in a cocktail or sparkling water. I’m surprised by how much I like it.

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I know that I said previously that once you finally have ripe tomatoes, you should only anoint them with olive oil and salt. But really, you should also find some amazing local sweet corn (I froze all my excess from this event) and some fresh cucumbers and you should make this salad. It has a simple vinaigrette made with lemon and mustard and honey and red wine vinegar, and honestly, it tastes like summer in a bowl. This is not a salad you’d make any other time of the year – only when the ingredients are at their absolute very best. And that window of opportunity is very swiftly closing.

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And then there’s the peach cake, although in my world it’s a peach and nectarine cake, plus I added almonds to complement the almond flour and for extra crunch. Oh, and I just served it with mascarpone rather than sweetened whipped cream. (It’s exceedingly difficult for me to follow recipes exactly.) But this one is worth the time and effort, and even though it takes forever to bake, you’ll be rewarded. The butter creates a gorgeous, rich crust, but the interior is as soft as a dream. And this would work beautifully with home-canned peaches, too, should you be so inclined, so you can make it more than two months of the year.

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Peach Almond Cake with Mascarpone

Chef’s Notes: As mentioned above, I included 1/2 cup slivered almonds in the batter; incorporate these with the dry ingredients in the first step. I used a combination of ripe peaches and nectarines, and I served the cake with just a dollop of this plus additional sliced fresh peaches and nectarines on the side. No additional alterations are needed to bake this cake in the Denver area, although above 7,000 feet you may wish to make adjustments. This cake counts as breakfast, in case you’re wondering.

For The Cake

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup almond flour
  • ½ tsp. sea salt
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 9 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 heaping cup sugar
  • 3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup cream
  • 4 large, pitted peaches, thinly sliced
  • 2 tbsp. melted butter

For The Cream

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ cup mascarpone
  • confectioner’s sugar for dusting
  

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375°. Line the bottom of an 8-inch springform pan with a round of parchment paper. Butter and flour the sides of the pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, almond flour, salt and baking powder. With a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip together the butter and sugar. Incorporate the eggs one at a time, whipping well. Whip in the vanilla extract. Mix in a third of the dry ingredients, then a third of the cream. Continue alternating the dry ingredients and cream in thirds, scraping the sides of the bowl in between additions.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Spread the peach slices on top and press them into the dough. Brush with melted butter. Bake for 1 hour, or until the cake has set and turned golden on top. The cake is done when you insert a toothpick into the center and it comes out clean. Allow to cool on a rack; serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

Using your stand mixer fitted with a whisk, whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla extract until soft peaks form. Fold in mascarpone.

Serve slices of cake on individual plates with a generous spoonful of cream and a dusting of confectioner’s sugar on top.

(All recipes reprinted with permission from Full Moon Suppers at Salt Water Farm by Annemarie Ahearn and published by Roost Books, but the photographs are N’s!)

The FAQ Series: Salt

We’re starting a new thing over here at Finding Quiet Farm: the FAQ Series. This programming will be based on the most common questions I’ve been asked over nearly a decade of teaching cooking classes to thousands of people; hopefully you’ll learn something and improve your own cooking. Let’s kick this show off right with the number-one question I hear: “How can I make my food taste more like restaurant food?”

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The iconic pyramidal crystals of Maldon salt, harvested off the coast of England.

Pose this question to any professional chef, and the answer will be the same: learn how to use salt properly. (Just to quell the suspense, the second most popular question is “What sort of salt should I use?”)

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I don’t find it at all unreasonable that I have more than ten varieties of salt in my kitchen…except I only use two. You don’t need this many.

Learning how to season food properly – and specifically, how to use salt – is what separates mediocre cooks from amazing cooks. Whether in a restaurant or at home, salt is far and away the single most important component after the raw ingredients themselves – you can get by without almost anything else, but nothing (savory, at least) tastes good unless it’s been properly salted. And most sweet things need a little salt too, for balance. (Looking at you, salted caramel.)

Salt is the only rock we eat, and it’s vital to our health. It’s been prized for thousands of years throughout the world; Roman soldiers used to be paid their monthly wages in salt, hence our word salary. Salad, too, originates from salt since the Romans salted their greens. The Bible carries dozens of references, including salt of the earth and pillar of salt. Someone without esteem is not worth their salt. Simply put, it’s essential to our survival.

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The salt flats in Bonaire.

Salt is actually composed of two minerals, sodium and chloride. It’s produced either through mining deep deposits in the earth, or through solar evaporation. Most standard table salt is heavily processed and includes both added iodine (as a public health measure) and anti-caking agents to keep it free-flowing. Sea salt is, as you might expect, evaporated from seawater; fleur de sel is the crunchy, delicate top layer of sea salt and is typically used as a finishing salt. There are no health benefits to sea salt, despite a marketing campaign designed to make you think otherwise, but chefs don’t like the intensely chemical taste of iodized salt. We also use so much of it that we can’t spend our entire budget on fancy sea salts. We love coarse kosher salt.

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So 11 ounces is less than 48 ounces but the bottle costs $12.95 and the box costs $2.99? I sense a swindle.

The term kosher just means that the crystals are larger and therefore more effective in drawing blood out of meat after it’s been slaughtered, in keeping with kosher tradition. Chefs love it because we use our fingertips to pick it up; most of us have those measurements so carefully calibrated that we’re more accurate than a set of teaspoons. All you need in your kitchen is a box of coarse kosher salt, poured into a small dish and set near the stove, plus a finishing salt like Maldon, whose large pyramidal crystals offer a satisfying crunch and burst of flavor when used properly on top of caramels or fresh ricotta with peaches on crostini or a beautifully seared steak. Don’t ever waste your finishing salt in pasta water or in baking recipes, and don’t ever pay $12.95 for the branded bottle on the left when the box on the right is the exact same thing, contains more than four times as much and costs $2.99.

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It’s the only rock we eat…and it’s gorgeous. And delicious. And necessary.

Like our newfound obsession with the mysterious gluten, however, we’ve gotten our relationship with salt all wrong. The American Heart Association and other major medical organizations have shouted for years that Americans consume way too much salt and that it is a leading cause of high blood pressure, diabetes and other lifestyle-related diseases. The Mayo Clinic claims the average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of salt each day, while the recommendation is 1,500 milligrams or less.

We avoid using salt the few times we do cook at home – that’s the salt we can control – because we’re so scared of it, and as a result our food is bland and tasteless. So we go out, or buy premade foods, because they taste better. Unfortunately, we get the vast majority of our salt (and our sugar) from these processed foods, including the ones we don’t even think about: sliced bread. Salad dressing. Bottled spaghetti sauce. Pastries. And obviously, any fast food will be loaded with salt. A single Egg McMuffin contains over 700 milligrams of salt – good luck staying under that 1,500 milligram mark if you eat fast food. Salt is a flavor enhancer, but more importantly for the processed food industry, it’s a preservative.

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I’ve taught numerous cooking classes where I’ve added salt to a dish and acknowledged gasps of horror at the quantity I’m using. Please, trust me on this: if you are eating most of your meals at home, cooked from fresh, healthy, whole foods and not from boxes and packets, and if you avoid processed foods like bottled salad dressings, take-out pizza, commercial lunch meats and cheap sliced sandwich bread, you don’t need to worry about adding salt when you cook. You’re already way ahead of the game.

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You only need two salts: one for finishing, on the left, and one for everything else, on the right. Oh, and read that book.

How can you become more proficient about using salt? Taste your food. Taste it before you add salt, and after. Slice a fresh summer tomato and eat it without any salt. Now take another slice, sprinkle it with crunchy Maldon, and taste it again. Cut a steak in half, and cook it exactly the same, but use salt on one portion and not on the other. Your pasta water should taste like the sea, according to Italian grandmothers everywhere, and you should never cook beans or rice or vegetables or grains in unsalted water. Seasoning should be done in layers, as you build a dish, rather than just dumping a bunch of salt on at the end. Taste and taste again. Salt should never make food taste salty, it should make food taste more like itself; it’s designed to enhance food, not to overwhelm it. Restaurant food tastes delicious – and ideally not salty – because those amounts are carefully calibrated.  And because chefs have spent years learning how to season.

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Learning to cook well at home is a process, as I’ve mentioned many times. And learning to season is part of that process, just like learning your own palate. Remember those famous words: “salt to taste.” So go get a box of kosher salt, and start using it. With your fingertips, please.

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Food politics book club

Our house is filled with books. On shelves, stacked by the bed, in my office…the only place that doesn’t contain any books is the kitchen. N reads a lot of military history mixed with an eclectic selection of farming books and autobiographies, and my choices tend to be modern fiction plus just about anything on food. I feel as strongly about books as I do about food: if they’re not good, I won’t finish them. I have no sense of obligation having started a book; there are simply too many stellar books out there to waste time on the appallingly bad ones. I’ve written before about how choosing books for our trip was one of the toughest parts of packing; I didn’t care at all about which tattered shirts and frayed cargo pants I brought, but I cared a lot about the reading material.

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Because I talk a lot about food politics both here and in my cooking classes, I’m often asked for book recommendations. I’ve put together a compilation of some of my favorite books on food politics and America’s desperately compromised food system. Know that there are many more great selections out there, and if you have recommendations for books I haven’t included, please share them! If you’re looking for an even more comprehensive list of some of the best books on food politics, go here.

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It is not possible to have a discussion about food politics in America without mentioning Michael Pollan. In my opinion, no author has done more to explain how what was once just “food” evolved into “industrialized agriculture.” I think Cooked is by far his most accessible work; even for me, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire get a little…technical. But really, anything by Mr. Pollan is guaranteed to get you questioning your assumptions. And if you can’t commit to reading his books, watch his Netflix series based on Cooked. Plus, his breathtakingly simple manifesto “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” is by far the best seven-word statement on food I’ve ever encountered.

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Four FishPaul Greenberg

It is virtually certain that certain species of fish currently used as food will become extinct within our lifetimes; our visit to Japan’s famous Tsukiji fish market simply stunned us with the sheer quantity of seafood caught and sold every single day. There isn’t much positive that can be said about the world’s fishing industry, but this book explains it in a clear, simple manner. (Please, if you’re in the U.S. and you choose to eat fish: consider buying only sustainably caught or responsibly farmed American seafood. Or eat much, much lower on the ocean food chain, like sardines and anchovies. Whatever you do, please don’t buy farmed fish from southeast Asia; their abuse of both humans and the environment makes ours here in the U.S. look positively benign.)

The Meat RacketChristopher Leonard

One of the best and most difficult books I’ve ever read on our industrial meat supply, The Meat Racket exposes the brilliantly cruel “bracket” system used in modern CAFOs. This book is a carefully researched and shockingly grim portrait of the massive corporations like Tyson currently controlling the vast majority of America’s meat market, and of the farmers trying desperately to stay afloat in a game totally rigged against them. Read at your own risk; you’ll have a hard time buying frozen chicken nuggets after this one.

Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

This book, published in 2001, is subtitled “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” and could be rightfully argued as the one that started it all. No one really has anything nice to say about fast food in general; it is toxic to the people who eat it, the people who work there, the animals sacrificed for it and most definitely the planet. But it’s great for shareholders…or at least it was, until the fast food industry started slowing down after decades of growth. This is one area where there may actually be something positive on the horizon: fewer Golden Arches across our country.

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Twinkie, Deconstructed, Steve Ettlinger

Ever been curious about sodium caseinate? How about modified food starch? Hydrolyzed soy protein? Polysorbate 60? Learn more than you ever wanted to know about how our processed food is made. (Remember, food at home is “cooked.” Food in packages is “processed.”) And we wonder why our gut microbes can no longer handle anything.

The Third Plate, Dan Barber

Last December, N and I had the honor of attending the Young Farmers Conference, held annually at Chef Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns just outside of New York City. I’ve admired and respected this chef since his early days of farm-to-table cuisine; in the professional chef world, he is at the forefront as an advocate for less food waste and a more conscious approach to cooking and food overall. Simply one of my very favorite food books.

Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook

This book sort of pretends to be just about tomatoes and is actually much more about the workers planting and picking them, but it’s still worth a read. We’ve had out-of-season produce in supermarkets for so long that we rarely think about it anymore, but it’s not just the earth that takes a beating – the people do, too. This book almost singlehandedly brought about a very public and (somewhat) successful battle with fast food companies and supermarkets over fair pay for farmworkers; learn more here.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver might be more known for her fiction, but when she and her family packed up and left Arizona for rural Kentucky, then documented their attempts to eat solely from their own land for a year, the food cognoscenti paid attention. It’s a deceptively simple book (with recipes!) that explains why modern turkeys can’t reproduce naturally and why organic certification is almost impossible for small farms to get and why you should bake your own bread, but there is a lot more under the surface. If you’re thinking about running away to your own piece of land as we are, this book will push you farther in that direction.

Other books I recommend not pictured here (most likely because I loaned them to someone):

The American Way of Eating, Tracie McMillan

Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

Salt, Sugar, Fat, Michael Moss

Anything by Marion Nestle

Anything by Joel Salatin

 

Comer y beber en Madrid

Dear friends, it should come as no surprise by now that eating (comer) and drinking (beber) are two of our favorite travel activities. We are quick to search out food and market tours wherever we go, and Madrid was no exception. Many thanks to Jorge at Secret Food Tours for taking us on a gastronomic adventure through his city!

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Madrid’s Plaza Major, a perfect example of Spain’s café culture.

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The Spanish verb tapear translates literally as “to eat small portions” – and of course from that we get tapas.  

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Chalkboard menus (and fresh baguettes) dot the city.

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Chorizo and sangria. What more do you need, really?

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The city of Madrid issues plaques like the one above to stores and restaurants of historical significance in the city; this one dates from 1837. Many of these places pay rent that is far below market rates to keep their businesses open, because Madrid’s government has decided that they don’t wish to have the center of town filled with Starbucks, McDonald’s and tacky tourist stores able to pay inflated prices. Smart decisions like this help cities maintain their cultural character instead of becoming homogenized corporate copies.

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Slicing jamón by hand.

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Legs are hung for months or years to cure properly.

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Spain is justifiably famous for its jamón, which comes in different grades. Jamón ibérico, or Iberian ham, can only be made in Spain and Portugal from pigs that are at least 50% Iberian. The very best is called jamón ibérico de bellota, which comes from pigs allowed to forage in the wild for acorns, giving the flesh a sweet taste and silky texture. Jamón ibérico de bellota is so valuable that individual pigs often have armed bodyguards, since the entire pig can be worth as much as $4,000. Traditionally, it’s always shaved very thinly by hand and served as tapas with tiny breadsticks, above.

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Notice how the leg is stamped? Since they’re so valuable, it’s important that they can be traced to prevent forgeries and theft.

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Calamari sandwiches are another classic snack in Madrid.

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Did you know that the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world is in Madrid? It’s famous for suckling pig, which you can see in the dishes on the left.

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One of the oldest pastry shops in Madrid…

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…and their famous ponche segoviano, a layered pastry made with marzipan.

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France gets all the press, but Spain makes its fair share of incredible pastries.

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Jorge demonstrating how to pour Spanish cidre, made from apples grown in the north of Spain.

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Classic tapas: a Spanish omelette, or tortilla, made of eggs, potatoes and onions, served on fresh bread. Simple, filling and delicious.

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A perfect pair: manchego and cidre.

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I’ll be in the cellar if anyone needs me.