The food and wine of Extremadura, Spain

Spain, Extremadura, Spain, extremaduraOne of the best things about traveling around Spain is trying out the various regional cuisines. Here in Extremadura, in the southwestern part of the country, the people are known for the quality of their cuisine.

First off, there are these shapely pig legs pictured on the right. Cured and ready to be cut into thin slices, this is called jamón, and is a personal favorite of mine. In a country where people are always saying their regional food is the best, a lot of people seek out Extremaduran jamón. The care and feeding of the pigs is the key.

Spaniards love their pork. While their beef steaks are only OK and their chicken dishes good but unremarkable, they seem to have devised unlimited varieties of pork products. There’s lomo (tenderloin), morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo (sausage with dried smoked red peppers), salchichon (Spanish salami) and a million kinds of embutido (seasoned sausage). I’m very glad I’m not vegetarian.

One surprise when visiting Extremadura was to discover my favorite cheese comes from there and only there. Torta del Casar is a soft white cheese made of sheep’s milk. It comes in a soft cake that is sliced open to reveal the gooey cheese inside. It has a creamy consistency and rich flavor, perfect to put on crackers. Extremadura produces a whole range of good cheeses, but torta del Casar is the most unique.

The region is also well-known for the quality of its paprika, called pimentón in Spanish. Not surprisingly it makes it into a lot of dishes, including cazuela, a paprika butter that’s very good on bread. Like every other region, Extremadura also has its own brands of olive oil, preserves, and sweets.

And let’s not forget the wine! One good line is Habla del Silencio, a full-bodied, slightly biting red of consistent quality. Another is Theodosius, a Tempranillo/Graciano mix named after the famous Byzantine emperor.

Every town in Extremadura has at least one shop selling local food and wine. If you’re in Mérida, check out Serraquesada on Calle José Ramón Mélida 24, close to the Roman museum, where most of the photos in the gallery were taken. This family-owned business focuses on Extremaduran products and stocks pretty much anything you could ask for. The front has rows and rows of jamón, and shelves stuffed with other food and condiments. In the back is a well-stocked bodega with a few tables so you can sit and sample Extremadura’s wonderful food and wine. Their website is still under construction but the business offers international mail order via email at ppserraquesada@gmail.com.

Many of Extremadura’s better-known products such as jamón and torta del Casar can be found in better shops all around the country.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: Top five castles of Extremadura!

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Five reasons Americans should choose Panama over the Caribbean, with day trips to boot



Panama. It’s a small nation of about 3.3 million inhabitants, with a land size roughly equal to South Carolina. It’s the southernmost country in Central America, and if not for its mind-bogglingly thick Darien National Park, the so-called Panamerican Highway could run from Alaska to the bottom of South America. But you knew all of that, didn’t you? What you may not be aware of, however, is just how stunning and tourist-friendly this incredible nation is. I recently embarked on a trip to Panama City and beyond, scurrying along the beach towns in Chame and the mountains of El Valle. If you’ve been considering a tropical getaway, particularly now that Old Man Winter is hovering over the United States, I’ve got five good reasons you should head south rather than east. Click on after the break for more, but only if you’ll kosher with mentally burning those final vacation weeks you’ve got socked away.

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1) Panama uses US dollars as its currency

You heard right: US dollars! The how, who, what and why goes back quite some time and would probably only interest historians, but present day argonauts will certainly appreciate skipping the Robbery Machine (i.e. the foreign exchange booth) as they sail through customs. Panamanians may call it the Balboa, but make no mistake — the paper currency used throughout Panama is the US dollar, and coins are either US minted coins or Panamanian counterparts of identical size and weight. You may notice coins with slightly different markings, but if it looks like a quarter, you can bet it’ll spend like a quarter. (Fun fact: Panama’s quarters are accepted in American parking meters and drink machines.)


Bustling Panama City

But in all seriousness, it’s a huge relief to simply fly (or drive!) to Panama with the same currency that you use at home. No funky conversions to remember. No leftover foreign currency to exchange on the return trip. Just cold, hard, US cash. Better still, prices for nearly everything in Panama are far below US levels, so you’ll be fetching far more for your Benjamins here than back in the States.

2) Easy to reach (by plane or car)

Ever tried flying into a Caribbean airport? Okay, so it’s not that difficult, but your flight paths are generally limited. Really limited. Most of the outlying islands connect to the States via one major route, likely to Miami, Florida. One problem in South Florida, and you’re looking at a vacation-destroying delay. Tocumen International Airport (PTY) is a real-deal airport, with direct flights to a smorgasbord of locations around the world. It’s the only major airport in Central America with two runways, and it also happens to be one of the cheapest to fly into thanks to a healthy amount of airline competition. In the States alone, you’ll find direct flights to Houston, Miami, Orlando, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Newark and New York City.


Downtown Casco Viejo

Moreover, Panama’s closer than you might think to the States. It’s just 2.5 hours away by plane from Miami, and since it’s in the Eastern Time Zone, a good chunk of you folks won’t even have to adjust to an oddly setting sun. Let’s put it this way — you can get from Virginia to Panama in less time than it’d take you to fly from Virginia to California.


Life in El Valle

Oh, and did we mention that you can drive? For the absolutely carefree adventure travelers out there (with the right insurance policy), you can drive right through Texas, into Mexico and down the Panamerican Highway to Panama. We wouldn’t recommend this without being fluent in Spanish, but hey — talk about the ultimate road trip!

3) Diversity of land

Sure, Aruba has desert landscapes, and Turks and Caicos has the Conch Sound. Grand Cayman has shockingly blue waters fit for diving. But good luck finding a single place in the Caribbean, using a single currency, accessible via a single roadway system that offers picturesque beaches, white water rafing outfits and canopy tours. Panama is startlingly diverse; on one end, you’ve got the practically impassable Darien National Park. On the other, there’s Bocas Del Toro, a pristine hot spot for surfers. In between, you’ve got Boquete laden with flora, the lush mountains of El Valle, unspoiled beaches in Coronado and modern day nightlife awaiting you in Panama City. If you can’t find a landscape that suits you in Panama, you’re probably not looking hard enough.


Drive up to El Valle

Also, Panama road rules mimic those of America; folks drive on the right, and the Panamerican Highway runs nearly the length of the country. You’ll have far fewer signs and far more ambiguous speed limits, but it’s not too difficult to grok for the amateur traveler. After all, that’s what GPS rentals are for. I’m not saying driving in Panama is simple, but it’s totally doable. And yes, every single kilometer is an adventure of epic proportions.

4) No risk of hurricane

Here’s one you probably haven’t considered. In recorded history (reaching back to 1851 by some reports), not a single hurricane has made landfall on Panama. It remains the only Central American nation to avoid being struck by one, making it far safer to travel to than many of the islands hovering out in the Atlantic. No risk of hurricanes, yet still providing 365 days of pure, tropical bliss in terms of weather.


Gorgona Beach

5) It’s still natural… or should I say, unspoiled

Look, the Caribbean is a truly magnificent place. Given the sheer quantity of countries and cultures, it’s impossible — nay, unfair — to lump it all together as one. There are most certainly locales in the Atlantic chain of islands that are relatively unspoiled. Prune Island comes to mind, but that’s just one of many. But by and large, the unspoiled islands in the Caribbean don’t meet an earlier criteria here: ease of access. Some of these require multiple plane hops, ferry rides and golf cart shuttles. That may intrigue some, but the fewer connections in our schedule, the less potential follies we see.

Panama, on the whole, is still largely untouched by tourism. Just over one million non-natives visited last year, which definitely isn’t many in the grand scheme of things. Just an hour outside of Panama City lies a string of beach towns — Punta Chame, Gorgona, Coronado, El Palmar and San Carlos (just to name a few). You’ll find just enough lodging here to stay comfortably (rental condos are just now starting to pop up), but you’ll still get luscious views of the oceans (yeah, oceans — you can swim in the Pacific and Atlantic in under two hours if you’re a good enough driver) and jaw-dropping looks at nearby mountain ranges. You’ll be hard-pressed to find more than a few dozen Earthlings on Panama’s central beaches, particularly during the week. Postcard-quality shots abound, and it’s comically easy to lose the world and find your soul in secluded places like Punta Chame.


El Valle mountains

There’s just enough tourist infrastructure here to keep vacationers occupied — white water rafing, zipline excursions and fishing expeditions abound — but you’ll bypass the glut of chain restaurants, overpopulated coastlines and horrific traffic (outside of Panama City, of course) that typify so many other tropical destinations.

Needless to say, your trip will be made a great deal easier if you speak at least some Spanish. I barely speak a word of it, and managed to get by just fine. People are genuinely warm here, and the diversity and beauty of the land is certainly awe-inspiring. If you’re looking to take your next vacation in Panama, feel free to take a peek at a few recommended day trips I’ve compiled here:

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

Hotel owner makes Latino employees change their names

Taos, New Mexico, is home to a large Spanish-speaking population. There are a lot of Latino people living and working in the town. So it follows that many people there have traditionally Latino names. You would think a guy from Texas (another state close to Mexico and home to many Hispanic people) would understand that. But not Larry Whitten.

When Whitten came into town to take over as the manager of a run-down hotel, he told his Latino staff that they needed to change their names to more Anglicized versions. As CBS News puts it, “No more Martin (Mahr-TEEN). It was plain old Martin. No more Marcos, now it would be Mark.” Of course, the staff and many of the town’s residents were not happy. Nor were they pleased when Whitten fired several Hispanic employees and forbade those remaining from speaking any language but English around him, because he feared they were talking about him in Spanish.

After referring to the locals as “mountain folk” in an interview and then being picketed by fired employees and their families, Whitten later apologized for the “misunderstanding” and said he was not against any culture.

Whitten denied that his actions were racist and said that he asked the staff to change their names for the “satisfaction” of guests who may not be familiar with Spanish names. One fired employee disagreed. “I don’t have to change my name and language or heritage,” he said. “I am professional the way I am.”

Gadling gear review: WorldNomads.com Spanish Language Guide Plus

This very brief product review is going to show off a pretty neat iPhone application I recently took for a spin.

The WorldNomads.com Spanish Language Guide Plus offers several handy features in one; a 10 minute introduction to the language, a 550 word spoken reference and several sections dedicated to phrases you may need when shopping, flirting at a bar or on a work vacation.

The spoken reference guide is split up into eight sections (basics, introductions, directions, transport, places to stay, travel safety, travel health and food & eating).

In each section, you’ll find a well thought through selection of the kind of words and phrases you’ll end up needing when you are abroad (and don’t speak the language). The speech is very clear and the developers used real recordings instead of depending on speech synthesis.

The WorldNomads.com Spanish Language Guide Plus costs just $1.99 and is available in the app store (iTunes link). The price is right, the content is comprehensive and the entire application seems very well designed. Obviously, I hope they build on the quality of their Spanish guide and add more languages in the future.

After the jump, some more screenshots of the application. Pay extra attention to the “flirting phrases”, these people have obviously been around the world a bit, and know the kind of stuff that can really help you out. This certainly is the first language guide I’ve ever found that told me how to pronounce “I’m not just saying this because I am drunk” in the local language. You never know when that might come in handy!

Another Low-Cost Carrier Fails

Low-cost-carrier LTE ceased to operate today because of its financial predicament. The Spanish carrier stopped booking flights on Thursday, but some would-be holidaymakers were left with luggage in hand, waiting to get from rainy England to the sunny Canaries. LTE specialized in such routes and worked closely with several English tour operators.

LTE was not a newcomer to the LCC game. It has been operating for 20 years and, though its executives claim that they are trying to find a solution to their financial woes, the current state of the industry isn’t going to lend itself to any quick recoveries. Thomas Cooke Airlines, a charter service based in Manchester, is among the players stepping in to service LTE’s passengers and the tour operators that relied on the now defunct airline in the past. With European LCCs coming and going (mostly going, these days), one can almost hear Elton John crooning “The Circle of Life.” when all is said and done, the biggest beast, Ryanair and EasyJet, might be the only survivors.