Coffee chat

The noise and chatter draws you in as soon as you reach the glass doors. Step into the cafe and you are overflown by raucuous laughter, heated debates, shoulderslapping and shouts for “un vino mas”. It’s hard to reach the scruffed counter and take a peek at the tapas displayed behind the glass  counter: padded suits, polished brogues, Dolce y Gabana knock off purses all compete for space and the waiter’s attention, who zips between the regulars and the touristas with an undeterred smile on his face. 

It can easily be a scene from Camilo Jose Cela’s story Cafe de Artistas. Full of irreverent banter and crisp humor, it bares the quintessential Madrileno spirit, at once easygoing and uptight about appearances; warm, generous and mischievious; full of bluster and wit. The imaginary artists who frequent Cela’s literary cafe are always up for a debate and reveal their flaws, yet we cannot help but love their company and secretly long to be just like them.

The clock on the cafe wall ticks four, announcing it’s time for ciocolate, when civilization dunks cracks of moist churros into mugs with molten milk chocolate, and the waiter brings out hickory tasting cafe con leche and crumbly coffecake for ladies crinkling a smile underneath the wide brim of their straw hats. And life flows by effortlessly beneath the chandeliers of the Cafe de Artistas and outside in the twinkling, garish lights of the Gran Via.

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Dancing the Sevillana

The square heels chop at the floor in their staccato rhythm, tender at first, like a quiet longing, then growing more intense, eating up the stage in the throes of heated passion, a dizzying whirlwind of steps locked in battle, relentlessly hammering out the guitarist’s counterpoint, the dotted skirt flowing up and down like a matador’s cape above the dancer’s ankle, arms undulating upwards, head thrown back in an abrupt ending with a shower of sweat sprinkling the audience. The last snap of the castanets hangs in the air before the magic is broken with thunderous applause.

Inspector Falcon reels from his seat and staggers out of the flamenco bar into the velvet night of Seville. He inhales the deep scent of elder flowers and oranges to calm his nerves and settle his thoughts into an orderly path. The city celebrates its annual April Festival, and amidst the ecstatic celebrations, most disturbing excesses occur. Enter The Blind Man of Seville, the first in the Javier Falcon detective series written by Robert Wilson. A prominent restaurateur is found dead in his chic Triana apartment, his eyelids cut off and bearing the marks of self-inflicted wounds as he was hopelessly struggling to prevent watching something he was being forced to witness. First evidence in the homicide investigation points to the dead’s man disgruntled wife, yet after interrogating her, Falcon is not so sure anymore. The line between what’s real and what’s not becomes increasingly blurred as the killer starts toying with the police, throwing them clues and red herrings in a twisted game of make-believe that mirrors the unexpected ebb and flow of flamenco performances.

Follow the murder investigation with a tapas trail inspired by the book: sweet and melting jamon Iberico de bellota; spicy bocadilla con chorizo; hearty Andalucian fava beans; deep-fried aubergines crusted in salt and dipped in cilantro-and-lime sour cream dip; sophisticated atun encebollado , fishy merluza rellena de gambas , pickly sangre encebolladas, and deviled tortillas de camarones, enhanced by a glass of manzanilla sherry with an afterthought of chamomille and olives.

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When Granada fell quiet

The shutter clicks open. Beatriz blinks into the white sun, the spicy smell of the jacarandas teasing her awake. The empy cobblestones breathe out into the silence, deep shadows straining up the hill towards the mottled walls of the Alhambra. And there, on top of its crenellated tower, one single flag snaps the slumbering city awake, brandishing its blood red and golden velvet over the once green gardens of the Nazaries Palace. The Moorish city has fallen to the Catholic powers of Castille and Aragon, and the days of convivencia are numbered. Beatriz clacks the shutters closed and sinks into the darkness of the room, weighed down by a terrible decision: convert to Christianity or follow the rest of the Jews on their way to exile.  Because she knows that the new rulers of Granada can show no mercy.

The fall of Granada in 1492 marked the beginning of Imperial Spain’s rule over the world. Young queen Isabella of Castille bluffed the Moors into a tough surrender to fulfill her promise of bringing a handful of disparate kingdoms under one single Catholic rule. Her story of resilience is told with panache by CW Gortner in his novel The Queen’s Vow. The book focuses on Isabella’s formative years, her childhood lived in exile and fear of her stepbrother’s retaliation, her improbable rise to power and her unconvential love match with Fernando, the prince of obscure Aragon, and her visionary if controversial policies that led to the making of Spain.

Like Isabella and her confidante Beatriz, marvel at Granada’s exoticism with a taste of plump and gamey poisson, white meat flaking off its delicate bones, the fork coating it in rich, peppery marmelade sauce with cumin-infused dates and figs. The wine of choice is a dry fino with a long tobacco and herb finish. 

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The book hangover

Sluggish brain, red-rimmed eyes, feverish gums, aching limbs, a general state of lassitude punctured by guilt, with a blurry restlessness tugging at the edge of consciousness: if you recognize the symptoms, you likely recall your last hangover, the baffled sense of days stringing endlessly ahead of you. Except what I am experiencing now is not caused by overindulging in liquor or illicit substances, but by reading deprivation. No, I am not stranded on an island with only my discharged kobo for company. I have book hangover.

A few weeks ago, after much soul-wrangling and a gentle yet firm nudge from my book club companions, I picked up Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. The book jacket ran a decidedly unappetizing infobar about some British gal with the name of an animal (Ursula, i.e. she-bear) being born one snowy night in February and dying over and over again over the course of the novel, only to be reborn under the same circumstances and trying to correct earlier mistakes until she finally gets it right. Sounds redundant/repetitive/yawning? Yep! Does it remind you uncomfortably of those reincarnation theories you used to cozy up to in high school, when you were still seeking your true self etc etc etc? You bet! And if that was not reason enough to be wary, the book cover featured the stylized image of a fox. What??? I thought the name of the main character had something to do with bears?

Well, if there is one instance you should not judge a book by its cover, this is it! All it took was half-a-page and I was hooked, hook, line and sinker. I read with my flashlight under the pillow, with the book tilted towards the street light while stepping off the bus, hunched over my desk at lunch breaks, chewing on my fingernails on route to the bathroom, or sneak peaking over my shoulder as I was making dinner (shoot, what’s with the acrid smell tingling my nostrils? Burnt rice or a vivid mental image of blitzkrieg bombings from chapter 6?). To recreate a key family gathering from the novel, I was serving up veal chops lightly seared in batter, with a fluffy basmati and wilted kale tossed with lime, paprika and roasted pine nuts, as well as two fingers of amber-coloured single malt, mellow, broody and full of dark secrets like the English bog.

I cannot disclose the contents of the narrative without giving the plot away or sounding trite like the book jacket. I can say the action moves effortlessly from Downton-esque village life to claustrophobic picket fence existence, from WWII civilian carnage to choreographed German rusticity, from post-war penury to the flush 60s. The characters are brilliantly drawn and stay with you long after you turn the last page (causing in some cases severe hangover that put you off reading anything else, because it just cannot come close to what you read before). And you cannot help but ponder upon the book’s message, and how small chance events have the power to alter the course of your existence and of mankind, and to what extent you are in charge of your destiny and also of that of others? Just as the snow falling on Ursula’s day of birth, how we as individual snowflakes are able to band together in one big storm that blankets the earth and nourishes its roots throughout the winter of history until the welcome arrival of spring.

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Reading break

The first time I stepped into a student dorm I crimped my nose at the pervasive odor of reheated beans, burnt cornmeal mush and damp sweatpants poking out unmade beds; the stumps of unfiltered cigarettes smoked to the very butt, their ashes floating yellow in the yeasty scum of beer bottles and mustard jars; the dripping faucets and flickering TV screens hauling you in and out of sleep. Slowly, patiently, with the insidious pace of familiarity, student life grows on you, until you become part of its shabby decor, the hoarse boombox and sticky poker cards missing the queen of spades, and the memory of it pulses in you long after you forgot where you stored you graduation papers.

Toru Watanabe, the reluctant hero in Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood, lives out his student years in an atmosphere of growing lassitude and cynicism. Tokyo in the late sixties is in turmoil, seething with discontent and civil unrest, yet Toru finds himself eerily removed, an outsider deeply wounded by the death of his best friend, desperately holding on to a carefree past through his tender love for the fragile Naoko. Yet a chance encounter with the vigorous, outspoken Midori leads him teetering at the edge of a dark well, testing his loyalties and daring him to make a choice he may come to regret. Told in Murakami’s unmistakable haunting voice, this coming-of-age story resonates with the regrets and rawness of adolescent love.

At the end of the novel, the characters bond over sukiyaki, delicate noodles swirling in soy sauce broth with tender strips of marinated beef, julienned carrots, green and red peppers, broccoli florets and chopped up chives, bits of shiitake mushrooms and mild tofu dipped in beaten egg yolk. An off dry Pinot Gris sops up the oily remains of the meal, teasing out fruity afternotes of mango and peach.

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A Wallander first

A heavy blanket of snow muffles any sign of life coming from the Swedish farmstead. A frozen sliver of a moon casts purplish shadows across the track leading to the stable, smudging away the killer’s footprints until he is swallowed in the mist. The sharp edge of fresh snow is slowly dulled by whiffs of curdled blood, giving away the scene of a gruesome murder of an elderly couple.

Inspector Kurt Wallander has little to go on to solve this apparently senseless double killing – nothing more than an intricate noose tied around the male victim’s neck and the cryptic last words of the dying woman:”foreign”. In an atmosphere already charged by racial tensions and homophobia, a media leak further stirs the pot and sets a refugee camps on fire, derailing what is already a painstakingly slow and tenuous criminal investigation. And on a personal level, a heavy-drinking and diabetic Wallander battles his own personal demons: a bitter divorce, an estranged daughter, a father teetering close to senility. Told in Henning Mankell’s distinct sombre voice, this is Faceless Killers, the first in the world-renowned noir detective series featuring the moody, opera-loving inspector Wallander.

Sample a Swedish Smorgasbord of options: pickled herring with dill and caper infused beet salad; satin-smooth fresh salmon fillet; cured ham, cucumber and deft blue cheese cuts; all-spiced meatballs smothered in rich potato gratin; and a slice of butter saffron cake with caramelized almonds, cranberries and a dusting of orange zest, warmed up with a cup of mulled wine spiced with aquavit.

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Playing with knives at the king’s table

The knife slices through the puff pastry, piling up almond paste along the blade. A tense hush, knuckles white on jugs sloshing with cider ale, nostrils flaring with frankincense and clove, pupils hard and wide as if witnessing heads rolling off the executioner’s block. Hearts flutter briefly in anticipation, then whoops and hollers erupt when the tiny bean is finally revealed amid the crushed vanilla of the cake. It’s Twelfth Night, and tradition has it that whosoever finds the bean hidden in the Cake of the Kings shall be King or Queen of the gathering, and in all things obeyed during the revelries.

There are rumoured whispers that this is how Anne Boleyn caught the fancy of Henry VIII: through tricks and magic and uncouth games that bewitched the King and had him discard his rightful Queen for the Queen of the Bean. Concealed in the voluptuous layers of a French galette, she seduced him to put her on the throne and do her bidding – if only for a short while, as befits a lone bean pod.

Of course, there are others who stick by a different version of the truth, one that involves scheming, manipulation, political maneuvering and not a bit of greed, as told by Hillary Mantell in her award-winning Wolf Hall. And the cog who spins the wheel of this tale is Thomas Cromwell, a no-non-sense, hands-on bully with a lawyer’s crafty mind for intrigue and a banker’s cool head for numbers. In the wake of his former master’s disgrace, Cromwell rises against all odds to become Henry VIIIs most trusted advisor, engineering Henry’s infamous divorce from Katherine of Aragon and the even more infamous split of the Anglican Church from Catholic Rome. Quick to sense from where the wind is blowing, Cromwell may side with the Boleyns, but only for as long as it takes to get revenge for his patron Wolsey’s downfall and ensure the prosperity and stability of his extended household. Ultimately, it is his fierce loyalty to king and country, his jovial bonhomie and his compassionate treatment of the underdog that makes Cromwell an unforgettable and immensely likable character.

Hosting a Tudor feast fit for royalty? Begin with a loin of veal covered in gilt sugar-plums and pomegranate seeds. Then onto a fat stuffed capon and sturgeon powdered in ginger and cooked in parsley and vinegar. A third course of wafers is followed by plums stewed in rosewater and coloured jellies of swans and pheasants, all accompanied by cherry preserves and the sweet dessert wines of Anjou, so in vogue at the time.

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