Spanish Chronicles: The story of “peasant shoes”

Espadrilles on top of Wires for Soles

Espadrilles – the chic fabric flats/heels with roped soles that have many summers over taken American fashion scene by storm and revolutionized wedged-shoes across the world. While many know these shoes are originally Spanish, few could imagine that in the early 14th century, these soles started out as being the common peasant footwear. 

Antigua Casa Crespo” it reads, with 1881, clearly imprinted on the plaque outside the vintage, wooden doors. I was in Spain, determined to find an espadrilles-maker and here I was standing in front of the most famous and one of the oldest ones in Madrid.

Espadri-what???

*flashback* 

Me: Elisa, I want to go buy espadrilles!
Elisa: Espadri-what???
Me: You know, espadrilles, Spanish people are famous for making them!
 Elisa: *WTF are u talking about look*

Okay, so no one I knew in Madrid had the slightest idea what I was referring to. Espadrilles were just so popular back in the States, and I figured the word must have come from the Spanish – considering the shoes are from there.

Turns out, history has it a bit different than that. In the 14th century, these flats were first recorded as being made in parts of the Basque Country in the south of France and Catalonia. The word “espadrilles” comes from the French word “espadrille“. The root of the word is “espart” which means the wiry type of Mediterranean grass that was used to form the sole of the shoes.

Yet, as production of the worker/peasant footwear grew in popularity across Spain in the next centuries, Spanish people used their own word “alpargatas” – which means a type of wired-sole sandals. Hence, the complete confusion with my Spanish mate :))

Espadri-how???

So then, how exactly, did the Spanish-popularized shoes come to be known internationally under a French/Catalan-originated name?

Sure, you could say, that it was because these shoes were first made in these regions.

But then again,  it was Cas­tañer – a Spanish alpargatas maker established in 1776  that *quote* propelled the shoes into the world of fashion * when he and his wife introduced the “laid-back glamour” shoes to Yves Saint Laurent.

My hypothesis, since I have yet to find anywhere else, why these shoes are not more known as “alpargatas” is that it was introduced to Yves Saint Laurent – and naturally, a Frenchman (and a fashionable, chic one to boot) does what he does best- speak and keep his “français” , if you will.

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Alpagatería Hunt !

*flash forward*

Once Elisa had determined exactly what it was that I wanted, we were off with her 2 friends Elena and Ana to search for this age-old alpargatas maker or alpagatería, where apparently, Queen Sofia and other members of the Spanish Royal Family have regularly visited every summer.

Antigua Casa Crespo” sits on the quiet but chic Calle de Divino Pastor in the Malasaña neighborhood.  The shop has quite the complicated opening times schedule and hence, it wasn’t too big a surprise that we were greeted with closed wooden doors. After all, this was a summer wear, and who was I to expect anything, wearing three layers of coat, standing outside a sandal-maker in the middle of December?

I’m not going to get to see this shop“, I disappointingly thought to myself, when the bold Ana makes a go for it, as she starts ringing the bell. Much to our surprise, minutes later, a man came running down the street, spills out a series of Spanish, disappears through the door, and seconds and a few shackling of wooden panels later, we were inside the charming little shop.

The generous señor who came to our rescue is Maxi Garbayo – the fourth generation of a family that has been making alpargatas since 1836. Maxi’s great grandfather Gregorio Crespo started the alpagatería and with the tradition of children taking their mother’s surname in parts of Spain, the family business went under Maxi’s grandmother maiden name Garbayo.

In the 1970s, Maxi’s father Martin Garbayo introduced a colour-assorted catalogue for his shoes, and created a craze in Madrid, where alpargatas had always been black and white.

Maxi Garbayo

Alpagatería Future?

I hadn’t a clue what Maxi was saying, through his speed-of-lightning Spanish (not that I would understand normal-speed Spanish either *_*), but I could tell from his tiny puff of laughter that he thought I was just this weird Asian in his shop curious about things like how many shoes he makes an hour or where the cords come from.

You’d think a shop made for queens and royals would be way out of your league, but with 6.50 Euro flats and heels at 29 Euros, the shop is quite the quality bargain for anyone looking for handmade espadrilles/alpargatas.

“Business is getting difficult”, Elisa translates Maxi’s words, “I need to keep prices down because Chinese manufacturers are now making these shoes at mass at half the price, sometimes even less. I can’t compete with that” . 

Maxi no longer makes these shoes and neither do his children, they rather only manage the store. One of Maxi’s siblings still make the shoes, with each pair of flats taking around 10 minutes and heels taking several hours to a day.

—————-

Leaving the shop, with my new black alpargatas heels ready for next summer, I start to think that perhaps that was how so many different alpagaterías had died out, purely against the rough competition from cheaper imported counterparts. And yet, at least for this roughly-180-year-old shop, perhaps the  presence of annual royal support and the sheer passion of people for hand-made, traditional espadrilles and alpargatas will keep it going?

Let’s hope so 🙂

Here are more pics of the shop and my Spanish friends! (The pics are not really good quality, since I had only my phone 😦 sorry!)

Plaque in front of Antigua Casa Crespo
Plaque in front of Antigua Casa Crespo
A picture of the original shop in the late 1830s
A picture of the original shop in the late 1830s
Elena, Ana and Elisa inside Antigua Casa Crespo
Elena, Ana and Elisa inside Antigua Casa Crespo
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Spanish Chronicles: Jamón Jamón

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No, it’s not just the 1992 film with sizzling Spanish couple Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. It’s thin slices of delicateness tucked neatly within the embrace of a golden, crispy loaf of bread, fanned out across a plate on every other table in tapas bars, wrapped with a bow in your most prized Christmas baskets.

In Spain, it is not just ham, it is a way of life.

Legs in "Panty Hose" - Museo del Jamón
Legs in “Panty Hose” – Museo del Jamón

Legs here, legs there, legs everywhere!

Never had I seen so many legs – hanging on the wall, above the bar, from the ceiling – some naked, some clothed colorfully, others fashioned in “panty hoses” – all pigs’ legs. Anthony Bourdain has after all  once described jamón as being “pornographically delicious“.

Even the name jamón – pronounced like a whispering roar from your throat : “harrrr-mon“, sounds sexy!

If you are ever in Madrid, and are up for a visual as well as a literal feast of the “sexy legs“, make a quick visit to Museo del Jamón. Now Prado, Bosco and Goya can wait, for this is a museum of ham, for crying out loud! – also a chain resto where a lot of the older locals gather to grab a drink and a “bocadillo de jamón” (bread with jamón)  for no more than 2 to 3 euros.

This “museum” features a eat-in section, a bar and also a deli shop, where butchers are ready to cut fresh slices of jamón for you. Lunch hour – 2pm to 4pm – the bar is packed, bustling waves of chits chats and loud crunches of bread and jamón being devoured, vibrate along the walls of ‘legs’. 

(There are plenty more local and small tapas bars with great jamón, at times, free with a drink. Do discover more at Tapas Talk)

Museo del Jamón - in central Madrid
Museo del Jamón – in central Madrid

Jamón: Gourmand or Gourmet? 

The dried, cured legs of ham may be generally renowned worldwide as Spanish ham, but there are a range of different types of Jamón, categorized mainly by the type of pig and also how long the legs are cured for. The two most popular are:

– Jamón Serrano: the every-day GOURMAND cheaper ham, made from Landrace white pig breeds and cured for shorter amounts of time (with the shortest still around 9 months)

– Jamón Ibérico de Bellota: the famous GOURMET expensive ham, made from Iberian black leg (pata negra) pigs.

Why are these black pigs so special, you ask?

+   Well, for starters, each pig is reserved 2 acres of land (London renters, be envious!) for ample free-ranging.
+ They are raised only in unique old-growth oak forest areas of Western Spain
+ They have a special diet of bellotas (acorns), herbs, wild mushrooms and grasses
+ Each pig’s leg is cured for a minimum 2 years before going onto the market

These factors make this type of ham rare and the most expensive in the world, with a 7-kg leg retailing for as much as 1,800 GBP (!!!)

A countryside butchers’

Akin to the differences between a smartly-dressed, chic urbaner and a simple chap from the countryside, the “legs” in the village of Candelario bear a stark simplicity and barrenness in comparison with its well-clothed, Museo del Jamón counterpart.

A step inside this building, and the whiff of cured ham, slams itself up your nostrils and you find yourself in a daze, before making out the hundreds of legs hung one row on top another. The building itself is uniquely designed to feature few, strategically-placed windows to ensure the best curing conditions.

But it is here, where black pigs are brought in and cured for years at a time, the oldest leg possibly in its 16th or 17th year. The taste of a 2-year leg, in all of its chewiness and savoriness, contrasts its bare and greasy appearance.

Bare and Simple - Candellario Jamón de Bellota
Bare and Simple – Candelario Jamón de Bellota

A short ride from Bejar (more than 130 miles NW of Madrid) – where my host family is from, Juan Garcia Gomez butchery might not be from the most famous of jamón regions in Spain, but it certainly was the closest I got to tasting gourmet jamón  – a pack of 12 slices cost 12 Euros (and that’s only the 2-year cured ones)

But I must say, at this very shop, I discovered that I loved Lomo (another type of cured ham) with its subtle blend of chewiness and fat much more than I do Jamón, which I found to be quite intense and gamey on the palate. But of course, it is for each to taste and each to judge…a “tiny” fan of beer, I think I haven’t done the ham justice, in not accompanying it with a pint or two.

Porky Pride

21 million. That’s the number of kilos of Jamón the Spanish consumed in 2009. If my two-week journey proved anything, it was that this dried, cured ham was everywhere, a culinary giant in whom many Spaniards take great pride. 

There was even a national television campaign promoting different qualities and price ranges of jamón in Spain – with the motto: “There is a ham for everyone

 Jamón slicing (here’s a slicer in my late blog on Borough Marketis a profession in many parts of the world and a very well-paid one to boot.

This is not to say that all Spaniards are madly in love with it. Take Elisa – my  Madrileña friend for instance, she hates jamón with a passion.
Enjoy some more pics of Museo del Jamón and the butchers in Candelario!

Butchers in Candellario
Butchers in Candellario
Lomo - Love this more than Jamón!
Lomo – Love this more than Jamón!
Inside Juan Garcia Gomez Butcher's
Inside Juan Garcia Gomez Butcher’s

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The deli shop in Museo del Jamón
The deli shop in Museo del Jamón

ON THE ROAD : Vernazza, Cinque Terre – Italy’s tucked-away gem

Vernazza, Cinque Terre

Late October of last year, floods swept through this little village and landslides buried its once charming winding routes in 14 feet of mud. I was devastated. It was, after all, my favorite destination in Europe.

Today, I came by a recent CBS report on the small town and how it’s picking up the pieces, recovering after a year. I became nostalgic and found myself spending hours, digging through the memoires of my trip there in 2008.

On the Road this week  is dedicated to the village of Vernazza.

A tucked-away gem

It is one of those places where sun streaks fill your room with warmth, waking you up each morning. You would head for your window to take in the ocean breeze, and as you rub your sleepy eyes away, blurs of colors would pop into vision, before dispelling into a clear, panoramic view of a perfect seaside village, painted picturesquely across the horizon.

This is Vernazza, the 4th of 5 Riviera villages perching on  coast-side cliffs in Italy’s northwestern region of Liguria- facing the Tyrrhenia Sea.The village collective is known as Cinque Terre (Italian for Five Lands) and while I believe it’s a popular summer getaway for Italians, it still remains quite off the beaten track for tourists.

A journey well worth it

After experiencing France’s smooth TGV trains, the bumpy journey on Italy’s crowded local train, where the farthest thing you could see was a co-passenger’s nose hair, was in short, memorable.

To get to Cinque Terre, my study abroad friend, Amy and I, took a 2.5 hour train ride from Nice to Genoa – the capital of Liguria. Another hour landed us in La Spezia, from where it would be possible to take another more local train to any one of 5 villages. We chose Vernazza to be our base, not because it was recommended, but more so for the fact that it was reviewed as being one of the quieter and more isolated of the 5.

All I can remember is the expression of disbelief on Amy’s face, standing there with her huge, 3-week-packed, 4-wheel suitcase, as a local man  pointed up an endless flight of stone steps and said: “Only 400 steps!.

 It took 30 minutes, but we heaved our way through the maze of stairs, barely squeezed our luggage through a tiny red door into our rented room, before standing mouth-opened upon looking out the window. A mosaic of colorful houses tucked between the ocean on one side and slopes of cascading vineyards, akin to Asia’s stairs of paddies on the other, the village clings onto seemingly impossible cliffs.

Vernazza meanders across slopes of vineyards, before edging out to the sea

A village of warmth 

It is one of those places where every neighbor knows the next, people pat your shoulders as you take a stroll down its steep alleys, and at times, creepy old Italian men approach you, in open-arm- I-haven’t-seen-you-in-years gesture:  “Ahhhh Bellissima“. Not many people spoke English, but the smiles were almost contagious.

Down at the beach tucked neatly in the moon arc that is Vernazza, dozens of cats lay lazily, sunbathing while nearby, groups of fishermen peer out to the waves, anticipating their next trip.

It was April, the perfect time to be in Vernazza, perhaps not for a swim yet, but definitely to avoid the crowds of sunburnt Italian tourists, and take in the simple charm and warmth that so characterize this place.

Picking up the pieces

It was heartbreaking to watch how the flood had ravaged Cinque Terre and Vernazza in particular, but today, also very heartwarming to know that the village is slowly shaking itself out of the rubbles.

Do find out more about the ongoing recovery efforts of Vernazza and the Cinque Terre villages at:

My memories attach me most to Vernazza, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discover the rest of the villages: Monterosso, Corniglia, Riomaggiore and Maranola, as well as the beautiful region around La Spezia. The hikes between the villages are intense but your destinations reward you with beyond anything you could imagine.

Enjoy some more photos of Vernazza!

The stone steps throughout and Vernazza and an unusual flower spotted during our hike
Local residents watch the sea
Morning dew during hike and Amy on one of the many narrow winding routes in Vernazza
Me in front of the section of Vernazza that edges out onto the sea
Hope you get back on your feet soon Vernazza!

HanoianSnippets introduces 3 new Feature Categories!

Hanoian Snippets introduces 3 new Feature Categories

Hello lovely readers of Hanoian Snippets!

One of the perks of having an external harddrive, other than it being the box to store your entire life, is that you will one day plug it in, and just sit hours lost in your own memories, photos of what seem ages ago and moments that you deep down inside wish you can somehow revisit. Anyhoo, I opened mine today, it’s a 2T one so let’s just say it does have at least a good 15 years of my life in there, pictures, videos, documents.

And sooo! As a way to revamp my blog, revisit my journeys, and revitalize myself (and get good grades for my blog component in school (haha!) and hopefully entertain you, while I’m at it), I’m introducing 3 dedicated new Feature Categories. Apart from my posts of current happenings here in the London/UK life,  I will strive to have a post a week:

1. CULINARY SNIPPETS: Delectable, scrumptious, beautiful and at times wacky culinary delights which I have encountered, nose-pressed-on-windows to stare at, devoured mercilessly, or even…gotten sick on and captured!

2. ON THE ROAD: The excitement, the culture shock, the unforgettable people, the trials and tribunes, the woes – the JOURNEYS!

3. PHOTO JOURNEY: Snapshots, moments, flickers! One or a series in photo-essay style – Telling the story with a lens, and less words perhaps 🙂

I hope these categories will paint new shades onto my blog and I thank you for your continued support and feedback!

Much love,

Hanoian Snippets!