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.



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 :))


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.


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

Spanish Chronicles: Jamón Jamón


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


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

[Travel] Winding back time’s reckless hands

The title is self-explanatory for it is true my “time” has gotten its hand on too many a stuff that it now no longer recognizes from where it parted and to which haven it has arrived. The number of blogs I’ve posted in the past month on my so-called up-to-date cyber life, as you might have noticed, or not- I may say, reflects painfully all that time has swallowed up. Nevertheless, ‘better late than never’ and so I tell myself, patting my french-worn brain on the back so that it may cough up a memory or two from a month ago. And very much in the matter of a book that falls accidently to the ground, rendering a random page curiously visible to the eye…my brain draws memories from a magician’s hat: here are some excerpts:
” ….’We’re going to Spain..ahhh’. Still tired from my first mid-term of the semester, I rejoiced a bit less than I would have wanted to, considering the day, for which we had been so scrupulously planning, finally came. The afternoon of Friday, Feb.22nd, Julie, Allison and I, unmistakably tourist-looking set off to Paris for our same-day flight to Barcelona. We had found a frugal-student-designated ticket from RyanAir, and it was only with our experience that we understood the depth of “you get what you pay for”. After a 2-hour train from Nantes to Paris, a 1.5-hour bus from Paris to the airport, an 1- hour delay, an ironically short 1-hour flight, another 1.5-hour bus from the airport to Barcelona, and arriving at the hostel 2 am in the morning, we used the lights of our cellphones as we guided ourselves through our shared hostel room passing 3 snoring apparently-guys comforter-covered lumps. Battered like dough in a pizza shop, we passed out like newborn babies despite the sketchy conditions…
‘Attention les filles, everyone who has returned from Spain has a story about being if not robbed than pick-pocketed’ This pre-departure warning from almost every experienced person to whom we had talked, rendered our first day walking on Las Ramblas, the main touristic, grand street in Barcelona, a bit paranoid. I had shorten the length of my long messenger bag so that it would place nicely in front of me; Julie, despite feeling awkward, wore her backpack to her stomach, and Allison’s passport was to the point of being bended in half at the end of trip because it never left the front-waist of her pants. Our paranoia was soon enough overcome by the energetic ambiance of Spain, so different and unique from that of France. The vibrant colors were part of a feast to our eyes: of flowers, of clothes, of shoes, of the fruits, of the people-spectacles lined along Las Ramblas, whether it be a Spanish queen dressed in laced blue-as-the-blue-sky gown flapping her flamingo-hued fan, or a gold-metallic-sprayed robot man squeaking a pose at each clink of a coin. Even the markets here were different, the vendors, with their tanned skin, and southern-nature tongue, seemed to me more down-to-earth; the food, the fruits shoned the warm climate of the south giving each market we visited an energy inexplicably unsimilar to that of the french markets. We diverted our eyes from shop to shop…until our pupils could but fix on the multi-colored swirls of gelato gleaming and calling our names. And so for breakfast we had, for only half the price of the french ones and competitively delicious, each, 2 scoops on a cone….”
Barcelona engraved in me the memories of long walks along Olympic 1992 sites, furnicular rides up breathtaking views of the city, the colorful jaw-dropping fountain-music extravaganza and most notably my favorite, Park Guell, one of the many architectural innovations of Gaudi, he who gave Barce. its creative, and modern vibe. The rocks lined up into curved lines, creating a cave-like alignment and giving visitors the ambiance of a moorish world. And yet, the uniqueness of the colorfully diverse mosaic ceramic from ceilings, to walls, to sculptures is second to none in style..
I followed the worm-like swiggles that was my handwriting along the backside of a postcard as we galloped away in a bus to the airport near Barcelona the afternoon of the 24th. The next stop would be Granada, our entry into Andalusia, the southern parts of Spain. Ryanair proved to be a worth-it purchase with its incomparably cheap prices, we figured the length, the delay would save enough for a meal or two in our week-long trip. The bus ride through center town Granada once again had us displaced in our mindset… Andalusia was nothing like Barcelona, let alone France. The descent of latitude in Spain coincides not only with a warmer climate, but also an earthier setting, people of darker skin-tones, and deeper lines, of more vibrant expressions, and a laid-back atmosphere. The houses lined unevenly, a red roof dominating another less of hue, along streets that became more or less luring due to the light cloud of dust – an ambiance that brought to my mind images of home. I was biased in my opinion, I thought, if nostalgic reminiscence arose from this place, yet I would soon discover that I liked Andalusia for its charm and would easily recommend it to anyone in search of a Spanish conquest. Now here begun a real vacation I thought as we slept chinese-food tummy-filled our first night in Granada…”
In front of me lies a giant asleep, his back curved to create a hyperbole, to which the sky made a parallel line…he has been deep in his dreams for so long that you can see sporadically across his spine, patches of green trees, and lines of unleveled houses tipping to the uncertain incline of the being entrenched in his overdue siesta. The wind whistles gently and cotton-balls of cloud danced through as if to the tune of the giant’s million-year lullaby. We spent a whole day in Alhambra, the historical site of Granada that overlooked this picturesque, white-house lined hilltop. A small city in itself, Alhambra comprised of fortified walls, of ruins and above all of Islamic architectural-influenced palaces (as Andalusia was under Islamic influence just until before the appearances of Catholic Kings in Spain). The amount of detail render the eyes weary after a while and you can but gape and wonder how the past achieved these ingenuous works….”
Allison’s 21st birthday was on the 26th and Julie was going to have to leave the next day, thus we set out to find mojitos so that A could have her proper corner-turn-of-life exposure-to-alcohol moment…also Julie and I just liked the mint taste. Unfortunately, people in Spain have the weirdest habits, as follows: wake up around 10, have breakfast around 11, 12…have lunch around 4pm, have dinner around 10pm and then go out after 2am. During the entire trip, we always were hungry before 9 but wanting the ambiance of people in a restaurant setting, we often starved until 10. Yet back to the story, we, thus found ourselves in this place with lively salsa music but only a bartender and 2 of her friends. She made us amazing mojitos, with fresh mint while we watched her several friends dance salsa in the middle of the empty dancefloor. After a while, we found ourselves on the dancefloor learning these basic latin dance steps, we survived only 10 minutes more when the rapidity of their heel-wearing feet astonishingly outdid our sneakers….”
” No habla ingles. Yes we were quick to realize people in Spain D’ONT speak english…not even at a minimum level. We had a quick print-out sheet of common spanish phrases to try to swim a bit, but when it came to ordering food in the restaurants, you were better off wishing your luck was good that day. The spanish food, most of the dishes we had though, were delicious and very affordable for our budgeted pockets. The tapas, 3 of which can feel your tummy and be only around 7 Euros, are traditional Spanish little almost appetizer-like dishes. They give you a bit of taste of everything. There were the paellas too, which are traditionally made rice with different kinds of meat…The Spanish gastronomy, nevertheless, for me could never have compared to that of the French. There are less greens and more filling food like rice and meat, the meals are proportionally much heavier.It has more oil in substance, more fried food and at times is dryer which can become an undesired thirst-booster under the Andalusian sun…”
“The bus rides from Granada to Cordoba and Seville the next 4 days were the most scenic and inexpensive I had ever experienced. The Spanish countryside are filled with hills, across which are lines and lines of trees squarely parallel one to the next, like a chessboard typographical map. We found in Cordoba as in Seville, this continuation of Islamic influences in different beautiful breathtaking palaces and churches such as the Mezquita in Cordoba or the Alcazar in Seville, but each with its own uniqueness. Seville confirmed my previous preconceptions of bullfights, Spanish senoras wearing colorful dresses, the sound of horseshoes against a stone-cobbled streets, the sound of a guitar serenading…okay I exaggerate. I saw these images everywhere as in pictures and postcards, I got to visit a bullfighting ring…I saw many carts led by horses but at the price of 50 Euros for a ride and I did hear the guitar but they were more like homeless people than ole-shouting valiant spanish dudes….”
To be continued….