Book appetit! A Spanish menu

During the last Readathon, Sheila from Book Journey hosted Book Appetit, a mini-challenge that asked us to create a menu based on one of the books we were reading. While on the Readathon I only had time to compile the menu, but the idea stuck with me, and last week I was finally able to act it out. So without further ado, let me present you:

A tour of Spanish cooking
(loosely inspired by The Return, by Victoria Hislop)

While the novel has a major focus on the city of Granada, the characters travel throughout Spain, so I thought the best way to render homage to this book was to choose different recipes from different regions. (Unfortunately, none of the things I cooked were photo-worthy, so I’ll have to post generic pictures instead.)

Entrée: gazpacho, from Andalusia

Photo credits: HarlanH on Flickr

The idea of cold soup does not come natural to me, but I guess it does to people living in Andalusia, because of the extremely hot summers — that’s where the idea of siesta was born, after all.

The gazpacho is the most traditional of Andalusian cold soups (the other one that picked my interest is ajo blanco), and the good part is that there is no cooking involved, you just blend all ingredients and refrigerate, and serve in glasses.

Click here for a more detailed gazpacho recipe.

Tapas: pintxos, from the Basque Country

Photo credits: rioncm on Flickr

Tapas are the Spanish appetizers, covering an enormous range of recipes, and they can be a meal in and of themselves. Tapas are a way of life, in Spain.

While researching this post, I discovered the existence of pinxtos, which are the Basque version of tapas. I’m not sure if there is a defining trait, but they seem to use a lot of fish and fruit.

I based my version on this pinxtos recipe.

Main course: tortilla de patatas, from Madrid

Photo credits: Great British Chefs on Flickr

Not that the tortilla is especially linked with Madrid, but the Spanish capital has a strong symbolic value in the novel (as in the Civil War), and here I want to mirror that. So in my menu, the most typical Spanish recipe was the main course and my reference to Madrid.

There are many different versions of this dish, but if you ask me, this is the tortilla recipe I tried to follow.

To drink: sangria, from everywhere in Spain

Photo credits: TheCulinaryGeek on Flickr

As for tortilla, sangria is not directly linked to a specific location in Spain, but is spread everywhere, with different variations, different wines and different flavors.

If you ask me, no Spanish menu is complete without a glass of sangria!

Anyone need a sangria recipe?

Dessert: crema catalana, from Barcelona

Photo credits: Isabelle @ Crumb on Flickr

OK, so this is where I am cheating. I had thought about making crema catalana, but never got around to it (as a dessert I made a sangria-based jelly with strawberries, but that’s kind of doubling the sangria recipe, right?). I don’t feel too bad about it because the book’s focus on Barcelona is very limited so…

Anyway, if you want to try crema catalana, here’s the recipe.

I hope you enjoy your Spanish meal!

With this post I participate in
Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking.
See this week’s roundup here.

Book: The Return

The book: The Return, by Victoria Hislop

The edition: Headline Review paperback, 582 pages, with author’s note

The story: when Sonia travels to Granada for the first time, she’s just a tourist, here to dance. Then a chance encounter gives her the opportunity to learn about Spain’s difficult past: a café owner starts to tell her the story of the Ramirez family, and how the civil war changed their lives forever.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: is it possible to see all of the shortcomings of a book and still like it? Because that’s my reaction to The Return. After reading her first, The Island, I kind of knew what to expect, and I’m glad to say that Hislop did a good job in making better what were weaknesses in her first novel — mostly in reaching a better balance between the present-time frame story, and the historical thread. Unfortunately the result is weak in other aspects, especially so in that it reads too much like a history book in telling you about the war (even putting a few characters right in the middle of it all, things are still more told that shown).
So why did it captivate me so much? Hislop is good at making the reader touch and experience “firsthand” what the day-to-day reality of that war was. She is good at recreating the world such as her characters would experience it. And at the same time she knows how to use a freshening touch — in this case it’s the dance and music part — to avoid too bleak an effect.

The part with spoilers: aka the unbelievable part: How can I believe that a 16-year-old girl can travel on her own back and forth throughout Spain, crossing fronts, without anything bad ever happening to her? How can I believe that a mother could send her only daughter on a hopeless search through a war-torn country, “because she is in love”? And finally, while I do believe Mercedes would keep the memory of Javier close to her heart (her first love), how can I believe that Javier would even recall Mercedes? She was a good dancer, nothing more to him!

Language & writing: this must be one of the aspect that made me like this book. I like Hislop’s prose, her delicate balance of Spanish words, and the way she makes the city real to the reader’s eyes.

Links to better understand this book:

Read this if: if you want to know more about the Spanish Civil War, or if you generally appreciate historical novels set in a time of war.

Wondrous Words Wednesday: Victoria Hislop on Spain

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) and interesting (to us, again) words we encountered in our readings. See this week round-up at BermudaOnion’s blog!

My words for this week come from The Return by Victoria Hislop. The book is mostly set in Spain and two very iconic activities have a major role, so most of my words this week are actually Spanish.


Without giving anything away, I can tell you that one of the characters is interested in bullfighting. From him I learned the following words:

  • verónica: n. a maneuver in bullfighting in which the matador stands with both feet fixed in position and swings the cape slowly away from the charging bull. (source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, via
  • muleta: n. a short red cape suspended from a hollow staff, used by a matador to maneuver a bull during the final passes before a kill. (source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, via
  • traje de luces: n. (lit. suit of lights) the traditional clothing that Spanish bullfighters wear in the bullring. The term originates from the sequins and reflective threads of gold or silver. (source: Wikipedia)

The following video, a movie trailer, shows a torero in his traje de luces, executing veronicas with a muleta (the video does not include extremely violent scenes, but watch at your own risk):


It is not a mystery that flamenco also has a big role in the novel. Here are my flamenco words:

  • alegría
  • bulería
  • soleá
  • siguiriya

These are all different rhythms for dancing flamenco. The differences are quite technical, so if you are interested I found this explanation. To give you a better idea, enjoy some videos:

The alegría rhythm in its essential aspect (actually, a flamenco lesson!):

The completely different rhythm of a siguiriya:

And a soleá show:


And to finish off, a German word!

This was a real place, she thought, nothing ersatz here.

ersatz: adj.(of a product) made or used as an inferior substitute for something else. Not real or genuine.


(All definitions are taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary © 2008 via unless otherwise stated.)

Book: People of the Book

The book: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

The edition: Harper Perennial paperback, 372 pages, plus added material (interviews and information about the author, reading suggestions and more)

The story: Australian conservator Hannah is called to work on the suddenly resurfacing Sarajevo Haggadah in 1996. Through the samples she finds within the book, a fictionalized account of its story is reconstructed, each chapter bringing us further and further back in time and across Europe.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I first read this book a couple of years ago, and while I did not write down my thoughts, I can tell you exactly how I felt: I loved the historical fiction, and I had little patience for the general frame, the story of Hannah in modern times.
And on rereading, I still feel the same way. The historical parts are well done, each a whole world in the same way that each page of a miniatured manuscript encloses a whole world. In the few pages dedicated to each of this stories, the author was able to recreate a full world, a reality with its intrigues, passions, powers, and characters who each had a full and well-rounded story behind them.
Too bad that the same ability is not evident in the frame story, which seemed to be there just to grasp for an easy happy end. I had even less patience for Hannah’s chapters on this second reading — everything was either too predictable or too deus-ex-machina, and there is so much intrigue and things happening, but none of it rings true. Still, I would love to go back and enjoy the small stories any time, so it’s still a good book!

In the author’s own words: I loved the parts on conservation work, such as this on colors:

The snow light flared on brightness. Blue: intense as a midsummer sky, obtained from grinding precious lapis lazuli carried by camel caravan all the way from the mountains of Afghanistan. White: pure, creamy, opaque. Less glamorous, more complicated than the blue. At that time it would still have been made according to the method discovered by ancient Egyptians. You cover lead bars with the dregs of old wine and seal them up in a shed full of animal dung. I’d done it once, in my mother’s greenhouse in Bellevue Hill. She’d had a load of manure delivered, and I couldn’t resist. The acid in the vinegary wine converts lead to its acetate, which in turn combines with the carbon dioxide released by the dung to make basic white lead carbonate, PbCO3. My mother pitched a fit about it, of course. Said she couldn’t stand to go near her bloody prize orchids for weeks.

I turned a page. More dazzle. The illuminations were beautiful, but I didn’t allow myself to look at them as art. Not yet. First I had to understand them as chemicals. There was yellow, made of saffron. That beautiful autumn flower, Crocus sativus Linnaeus, each with just three tiny precious stigmas, had been a prized luxury then and remained one, still. Even if we now know that the rich color comes from a carotene, crocin, with a molecular structure of 44 carbon, 64 hydrogen, and 24 oxygen, we still haven’t synthesized a substitute as complex and as beautiful. There was malachite green, and red; the intense red known as worm scarlet — tola’at shani in Hebrew — extracted from tree-dwelling insects, crushed up and boiled in lye. Later, when alchemists learned how to make a similar red from sulfur and mercury, they still named the color “little worm” — vermiculum. Some things don’t change: we call it vermilion even today.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: I’d like to understand more about the concept of kosher.

Read this if: if you like historical fiction. Also, if you like novels that insert smaller stories into a general frame-story, in the way of The Gargoyle or even The Joy Luck Club

Counts as: Travel with Books – Vienna