If We Were Going

By Steve VandeGriek Photos by Jan Behmer

Copyright 2021

If we were going to a far off country somewhere, but of course we aren’t these virulent days, I would try to learn the language spoken there, but of course I never will.

The Japanese have a term – Yoko Meshi- to describe the awkward feeling and stress of trying to speak a foreign language in its own stomping ground. I avoid the angst by being a silent traveler. I’m not proud of it but I can think only in English. Fluency in another language requires thinking in that language, and I cannot. I tried – two years of high school Latin, three years of high school French, one year of college Spanish. Got B’s in everything and retained almost nothing. In a non-English-speaking land I am therefore monosyllabic at best, but mostly mum unless its denizens have some English to help me with. (See Note 1.)

Note 1: A preposition is a word you should never end a sentence with.

Excuse me, but do you speak English?

I have no head for languages other than my own. But I do have my wife. When we travel to foreign climes she does all the talking. Pretty much like home. She’s much more conversational than I am, so she wants to learn to talk the talk. She’s good with Spanish, can cope with French and has enough rudimentary Italian to manage the necessaries. She’s tried German, Portuguese and Czech. That was pushing it, but she tried.

I admire her enthusiasm, as I respect anyone’s ability to speak a second language – especially English. Even when English is your native tongue and its intricacies should be second nature, most of us mangle it. English has more exceptions to its rules than it has rules. (See Note 2.)

Note 2: And it has a lot of rules. See Note 1.

In an episode of the venerable sitcom “I Love Lucy”, Cuban Ricky Ricardo struggles to great comic effect with the “ough” sequence in English. Without getting into a heady diphthong discussion, suffice it to say that “ough” has more than a few pronunciations – cough, rough, bough, though, through. Ricky can’t understand why “ough” always looks the same but doesn’t always sound the same. In Spanish, his native tongue, a sound is always the same. It looks the same, it sounds the same, it means the same. Spanish is big on same. Pronunciation is consistent. My ineptitude aside, Spanish is a sensible language. By comparison, although beautiful, English is a nightmare. Ask the people of Wales. English is their official language, but they prefer to speak Welsh – a language with words that contain no vowels. How do you get your mouth around “crwth”? I before E except after C” be damned. (See Note 3.)

Note 3: C note 2.

Take that seemingly simple letter “C” for example.

It can sound like the “K” at the end of cook. It can sound like the “S” at the beginning of since. It’s two, two, two sounds in one in cancer.

Put an “H” behind it and you get check. Take away that “H” and Czech still sounds like check, but the “C” is a “CH” and the “CH” is a “K”. The word for “Czech” in Czech is Cestine with a “CH” sounding “C”. But that’s a Czech problem. Put the English “H” back behind the English “C” and you really run into trouble.

There’s chair, character, charlatan and Bach. And yacht, where the “CH” disappears altogether. Try explaining that to a Czech.

You can C how confusing it all is. But in spite of all this improbability, the truth is that many people around the world – certainly in the tourism business – speak it pretty well. Much better than my Esperanto. English has become the go-to second language. Even in Wales. (By the way, it’s pronounced crooth, it’s a Welsh harp, and the “C” is a “K”. But that’s a Welsh problem.)

This is where Emily Litella smiles into the camera and simpers “Never mind.”

So then, my Yoko Meshi being relieved, where to go? In a theoretical non virus sense, of course. Maybe my wife wants to try Czech again.

I had wanted for decades to Czech out Prague. When the opportunity finally arose it happened to be in summer. If We Were Going again to Prague, it would be in the spring or fall. It’s a truly resplendent city, but in the summer you can’t see it through the tourist hordes. If I had wanted to meet the entire population of Canton – Ohio or China – I’d have gone there instead of the Czech Republic. Maybe I should have appreciated the effort they all made to rendezvous with me in Prague, but I didn’t. Even though the Ohioans and most of the Chinese spoke my language.

On The Roam Again

Photos by Jan Behmer Text by Steve VandeGriek April 2022

It finally happened. We got our travel feet wet again. To be honest, it was a default decision. Almost three years ago we booked airline tickets to France, but had to extend them when Janet fell and broke her arm. Several months later we changed the tickets for a trip to Spain, but the pandemic hit and forced another extension. Over time we were fully vaccinated, boostered and meticulously masked, but we continued to sit out.

A couple months ago we learned that those dormant tickets were no longer extendable and were expiring in a few weeks. The old “use it or lose it” gambit, which could apply equally to the tickets and to our travel chops. The kneejerk response was a hastily planned and executed ten day jaunt to the Yucatan Peninsula – familiar territory and a minor aviation commitment from home. Baby steps, because we’re out of practice.

The trip was, suffice to say, informative. Five airport negotiations, at each of which every plane in sight seemed to be overbooked. Therefore, four packed planes to try our mental well being. By regulation, everyone remained masked and, luckily, unprotesting. On the aircraft, at least.

Stepping off the plane in Merida was a slap in the face. The weather forecast we had consulted in the hasty planning stage had promised temps in the seventies. What we encountered was upper upper nineties and equal humidity on every one of the ten days we were gone.

Merida itself was also a surprise. We had spent a few days there almost twenty years ago and found it relaxed and graceful. In spite of my being sideswiped by a city bus. But I digress. Since that time the population has apparently doubled, thus halving the peaceful charm.

That said, the people were invariably considerate of one another. Virtually all of them – the Mexicans, not the tourists – were masked everywhere they went – in the streets, in their cars, on the crowded sidewalks, and in all public buildings. Our hands were sprayed with disinfectant at almost every entrance. The admirable result – in two years of pandemic, with a population of over two million people, the entire Yucatan has had a total of only about two thousand cases. In a place with far less antiseptic capability than up here in El Norte. And in spite of the tourist contingent being far, far less considerate of them in a masking sense, the locals remained hospitable and helpful to all. To be sure, there was the occasional aggressive vendor, as in any tourist destination. But nothing on the level of a place like, say, Puerto Vallarta, where we stopped briefly several years ago. There you could not step out of your hotel at any time of the day or night without being screamingly assaulted by dozens of street hawkers demanding that you buy this or patronize that. They drove me out of town in one day flat.

But I digress.

We decided to skip all the Mayan ruins this time. We’ve seen them before and would like to have done them again – even if climbing them is no longer in our playbook. But we had limited time and wanted to see something new.

So, from Merida we bussed a couple hours down to Campeche. Much quieter, much less crowded, it’s a pretty town on the Gulf of Mexico with no actual beach but a lovely long malecon. It also hosts a very pleasant town plaza, from which radiates a grid of invitingly calm and colorful streets. Campeche is famed for pirates, who are long gone, and for seafood, which is happily still in abundance.

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Next it was inland to Valladolid. Another amiable town square, marred on one side by pushy vendors and on all sides by ubiquitous evidence of pigeons. The small city is somewhat colonial in character, but less so than advertised. The in town cenotes it touts are all closed due to the pandemic. And the entire place was inundated with unexpected and unmasked spring breakers. We did, however, have a very easy time there getting the requisite covid tests for our return flight from the Cancun airport, where Janet contracted an expensive souvenir case of food poisoning to carry home. It passed through customs, though, without a hitch.

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So we got our feet wet. Every country and every travel experience has its hiccups. We’ve been roaming and savoring Mexico for many years. If this visit wasn’t our favorite, the doing of it was at least less fraught than we had feared. Whatever its disappointments, we were more to blame than the Yucatan. It was a thinly planned attempt and, as stated, we are out of travel shape and not as spry as we used to be. We are, though, now encouraged to resume roaming a bit. Home is good. But we want to wander a little more before we can’t anymore, and we have some accumulated airline miles to use up. I don’t think we can outwait the virus, we can only try to outwit it. With paraphrasing apologies to Willie Nelson, we just can’t wait to get on the roam again. So we’re getting a second booster, digging out our maps, and brainstorming a long delayed venture to somewhere. CRP*

*CRP Covid Restrictions Permitting

As I finish redrafting this piece, most airlines have rescinded the mask mandate on planes. We’ll see how that goes, but we’ll be keeping ours on.

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I’ll Be Home For Christmas…

…you can count on me.

Text by Steve VandeGriek Photos by Jan Behmer December 1, 2021

My large family’s large and deep in the countryside Vermont homestead was lost to us a few years ago. Christmas hasn’t been quite the same since. That farmlike forum was where the generations of us, with significant others and offspring, would reune for the holidays, hidden among the hills and surrounded by snow filled fields. Our holiday season had nothing to do with weeks of Black Friday and office parties. Peace and practiced tradition presided in that specific setting, a mist temporarily dispelling even my innate cynicism. At the risk of getting all Tiny Tim-my about it, all those zealously preserved traditions created an aura. But when the forum went, a lot of the aura went with it. We had had no idea how fragile that aura was, how dependent on place we had made it.

We all now endeavor – and not entirely without success – to maintain some of that mist in our widely scattered separation. We each still do carry with us some of what was, wherever we spend the season. It’s not the same thing, but it is something, and it enables us all to be home for Christmas, if only in our dreams.

In Loving Memory of our sister, Candy

Janet and I wish you Happy Holidays.

A Postscript

We have since spent one beguiling Christmas in England and visited the historical town of Devizes, whence came my favorite limerick. I offer it as a Christmas present to all.

There once was a maid from Devizes

Whose breasts were of two different sizes.

The one was small, hardly anything at all,

And the other was big and won prizes.

The Pub where she worked.

Merry Christmas

All Packed Up And Nowhere To Go, Or, What if the Hokey Pokey IS what it’s all about?

Photos by Jan Behmer Text by Steve VandeGriek Copyright April 1, 2021

Plans evanesce.

Late October, 2019. We were packing to go to France for a month, in part so Janet could tour the early Christmas markets. Then she fell and broke her shoulder. End of that plan. We unpacked.

Spring, 2020. A good surgeon and a lot of rehab later, she was ready to try another venture. Spain for Semana Santa. It was still the good old days when “If We Were Going” was entirely up to us. We began packing. Then the virus boomed into being and scotched everything. We unpacked again.

Summer, 2021. We’re pandemically still not going anywhere. So we’re planning a trip to somewhere we’re not going anyway, and packing accordingly.

Picasso said that art is the elimination of the unnecessary. So it is with the art of packing. The art becomes the art of unpacking. Nothing is going, so everything goes. You put your passport in, you put your passport out, you put your passport in and you shake it all about. You do the – anyway.

Erma Bombeck’s first commandment on this subject – “Thou shalt not travel with anything that thou cannot carry at a dead run for half a mile and store under thy seat.”* is a bit Spartan, but worth entertaining with a grain of salt.

Packing to fly to a place you’re not flying to doesn’t require much restraint, or even much specificity. My wife is reveling in shoes. And best of all, there are no TSA worries. Carry on all the liquids you want. I’m carrying on my nail clippers. This pandemic nonpacking packing can be liberating. Takes you all the way back to the pre-9/11 travel of yesteryear.

Prior to convincing Janet to pack light. She had her xxxxxxx knitting in one of those bags.

I’ve always been a fierce advocate of the art of packing light for flight – carry ons only. It’s a hard habit to break, but what the hell, maybe I’ll get into that shoe thing, too. Huaraches for the Mexican coast. Mukluks to hike the Arctic. Uggs chukkas to roam the streets of Bratislava. We may be virtually gone awhile.

Over the decades we had a long locational wish list. Some we got to, some we didn’t. In recent years we’ve had to necessarily whittle down the remaining list to a short one. It’s even shorter now. And it contains a few favorites we’d like to go back to. For the moment we can return to those and more in pictures we’ve taken and stored. Packing accordingly. Shod in slippers.

* Chapter One, “When you look like your passport photo, it’s time to go home.” (Also worth a thought.)

Loire Valley, Side Trip from Paris Honeymoon. Just getting started together.


Fritschi Fountain, Lucerne

The Dying Lion – Lucerne

Milan Cathedral

Countryside seen from the train – Milan to Lugano
On the train from Milan Back to Lugano with a new Italian haircut

St. Peter Cathedral with Merry-Go-Round! Geneva

Gondola up Mont Blanc
Looking down on Chamonix from Mont Blanc.


Nice breeze off the Mediterranean.

Ever Since


Austria, from a room with a view.

Salzburger Dom

A rare block in Salzburg without a Mozart reference.
The Court Church in Innsbuck
Mutters. Step out your back door and hop on the train.
Linz, Austria, where Hitler spent much of his youth. He’s been replaced by some spectacular Wienerschnitzel.

Lake Wolfgangsee
Sankt Wolfgang on Lake Wolfgangsee
Golden Ball Sculpture – Kapitelplatz, Salzburg
Glass Art in Freistadt
We thought about it.
Where to Next?
Nothing to Wine About


Guarding Edinburgh.
Churchyard in Dunkeld
Sunday Roast
Run aground in Anstruther.
Edinburgh at Twilight
Miserable spot.
Dunkeld High Street, Hotel on the right….
The River Tay behind the Hotel
Depends on your definition. The birds like it.
The Campbell Sisters – Royal Academy of Art
On the Road Again
Of Course, People Do Go Both Ways





Christmas in Brussels.
An aforementioned Christmas market.
Christmas Eve in Bruges
Brussels in the Night Lights
Gluwein and Tartiflette – Breakfast of Champions
It’s Good to Be the King
And Then One Foggy Christmas Eve…


Lisbon’s Bairro Alto with a Long View
Home Again, Home Again, Jiggedy Jog
Faro in the Algarve
The World Cup was Everywhere. Obrigado.
It’s a party. Faro
Lisbon’s Castle of St. George at sunset, just before a million bats swarm up out of it.
Hieronimas Van Aken Bosch – Tentacoes de Santo Antao
Henry the Navigator in Belem
Bridge Designed by Eiffel over the River Minho from Tui in Spain (below left) to Valenca do Minho in Portugal (below right)
Museu da Marioneta
Celebrating St. Anthony’s Day
River Tagus
Fly Away, Stupid Birds
Our Cozy Room in Estremoz
The Western Hilltop Towns Look East and Guard the Spanish Frontier.

Santa Justa Lift Going Up to the Carmo Convent


Pilsner over Prague
Outside the Marionette Museum in Prague. I’m the third one from the right.
The Puppet Meister and his creations, Punch and Ju,-er, Janet.
Cruise on the River Vlatava
Venison at the Deer Hotel
In Remembrance
You’ve gotta get up pretty early in the morning to see it like this.
Old Town Square


Seville Cathedral
Spyglass view of Segovia

… and Post-Pot
Real street art in Madrid, yeah, yeah, yeah

Ronda. Oldest bull ring in Spain. Before the bull entered.
And after.
Where’s the Beef?
Rascafaria, Former Convent, Now a Hotel (They Should Get a Room)….
…In the Guadarrama Mountains
At work in Madrid on casual Friday.
Not us, but we’re close.
I can’t find Basil anywhere.
This little piggy went to market, and got invited to star at Botin in Madrid, said to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world. He wishes he’d gone wee wee all the way home.
Religious Procession in Seville
The tombs below the Monasterio de Leyre
At the Prado
Catedral de Leon
Puerto del Sol, Madrid
The small town of Zafra, east of the Portuguese border, maintains a strong Moorish vibe.
Ancient Key Hole with a view of a carved door in Sos de los Reyes Catolicos
Catedral de Siguenza
Estremadura – Rustic, Eerie and altogether Magical
Jamon y Aceitunas
Festival Day in Leon – Trad y Mod
And Further South, Vestidos de Flamenco in Sevilla
Plaza Mayor in Madrid

Playing Twister with a twist in Santiago de Compostela
Who the hell ARE those young folks? Must be something in the Spanish agua.
Autumn vines.


One of London’s Many Parks in Spring.
Wordsworth’s Village…
…In the Lake District
Fish and chips feast.
On The London Eye…..
…..And the View
York. Found Another One.
Janet is a compulsive wedding crasher.
Who’s guarding who?
Down the Pub
Diana’s Garden
Queen’s Horse Guards

Graveyard at Church of St. Mary and St. Steven
Evensong in Durham Cathedral


Hacienda Soltepec
Hotel Courtyard in Tlaxcala
Santa Oso Guarding the Plaza in Huamantla
Museu Nacional del Titere, Huamantla
Catedral de Taxco
Funeral Procession from Catedral to Cemetery
Into the sunset with Columbus in Puerto Vallarta
Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel
……. but a good cigar is a smoke. Blame Kipling.
String band in Mexico.
Chiles en Nogada
Mueso Mural de Diego Rivera – Mexico City
International Dance Festival in Zacatecas
Sitting in with the band. Puerto Vallarta
Candelaria en Oaxaca
Puppet Wolves Fight in Mexico City
Adding insult to injury.
Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City
Rafael Coronel Self-Portrait – Zacatecas
Mariachis in San Miguel de Allende
Social Protest in Mexico City’s Zocalo
El Popo Erupting
Wedding Day in Huamantla
Robert Brady Muesum – Cuernavaca
Hotel La Casa Azul
Looking for Work in the Zocalo
Fok Art Museum , Mexico City
Piggy Bank Vendor on Break
Icon Shop Window, Queretaro
Muchisimos Sombreros
Beaming Bride
Seis Moles
The Lost Ones
Street Performer
Christmas Breads for Three Kings’ Day


Wine on the Vine
Sacre Coeur, Monmartre
At the Louvre. That damn Pyramid throws everything out of whack.
Ducking a downpour in Paris in my ruby slippers.
L’Eglise de St. Eustache, Paris
At a different time of year this field of lavender inspires purple prose.
Dawn in Auxerre
Dawn in St. Chinian
Christmas in Colmar, Alsace
Olympic training in Alsace.
Laigne at the end of December
Jet Lag Dejeuner
Sunday Morning at the Bastille Market
Don’t Ask.
The Lady and the Unicorn at the Musee de Cluny
We never pass up a carousel, no matter how small the horses, even if they seem to be groaning, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
La Campagne
The spire before the fire.


Now click your heels together three times and say, “There’s no place like home”. You eventually realize this – after a long trip, or a long lifetime of trips. Even after a long journey through decades of photographic souvenirs – some of them so pre-digital that they’ve acquired a time induced sepia cast. As have we.

Re-tripping through thousands of travel photos, we were re-apprised of certain evolved themes and recurrences.


We don’t even remember the genesis of this compulsion, but we never do not give in to it.

Vast French Sunflower Fields

‘Nuff said.


From just cute to representational to Elm Street eerie.

Driving through the Spanish countryside

It can change spectacularly every fifty miles. And eventually a parador will appear. And goats.


Oozed from somewhere into our DNA.


Pride of place. The gamut from hole in the wall niche kitsch to the inimitable D’Orsay and the Prado.


Janet’s favorite dot on the planet. Repeated repeatedly. I have generally loved it, too, only occasionally not so much. I can no longer walk her alluring streets all day long, but we’ll always have Paris. We didn’t, we’d lost it, but – oh for f—- sake, Bogart begone. And the cathedrals.


Janet has a passing religious tic. I have none. But magnificence it magnetic. The Art. The Music. The Structure. Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance variations still stand, from England to France to Germany to Spain to Italy and eastward. Beyond their tactile assets, they breathe out an inherent humanistic aura, humbling and reflective. It’s embedded in the walls by centuries of collective human endeavor and sacrifice. The politics they engender aside, in here peace predominates. As a regular respite during long city rambles, in between the masses and the masses, these spaces are open, uncrowded, quiet and out of the weather. Caveat – there is no beer here.


Well. When a cathedral isn’t handy, what’s a weary walker to do?

Pandemic aside, foreign travel inevitably becomes more difficult than it used to be. Bodies don’t do what they used to do, and do more of what they once didn’t do. This entails a few more things to pack. Our old reliable budget transport and accommodation options aren’t as available or comfortable as they once were. The twenty first century’s proliferation of tourism has triggered barriers to standing unshoved in front of the Mona Lisa or walking alone at sunrise right into the circle of Stonehenge, as I did many years ago. Breathing room in Prague’s Old Town Square or Madrid’s Plaza Mayor is a distant memory. Yes, the hordes have a right to be there, as we have the right to miss their absence, and the world is not going to change in our favor. But we did have our day.

Not that we’re quitting. We have a few re-visits still in the hope chest, if and when the pandemic allows them in a safe and comfortable fashion. And whether we go or not, the planning goes on. It’s half the fun and well over half the time involved.

In the meantime, photographically re-acquainting ourselves with cherished places is affirming. Times like those we bear now are the reason we took and kept these souvenirs.

And also, as we wind it down, there’s a lot to be said for home time with all those non -travel standards: rejoining a favorite book, and an affectionate squabble over a specious Scrabble tender, and the DVR in front of your recliner, and making your own martinis and your own bed.*

I would have added “walks on the beach”, but then it would read like a centerfold profile.

The Hills Are Alive With The Sound of Moo…

Text by Steve VandeGriek Photos by Jan Behmer

Copyright 2020

The New York Times recently covered a news flash from postcard perfect Austria. Dairy cows in their Alpine summer pastures were attacking hikers trespassing through their domain. I suspect that the human source of this story was Twilight Zoned in Gary Larsen’s Far Side. I have context for this suspicion.

I’ve spent a certain share of my time with one foot in rural Vermont – long famous for being home to more dairy cows than people – and I’ve encountered my share of the bovine persona. I’ve seen cows mosey a bit faster than usual when it’s time to hit the barn to be relieved of the weight of twenty or so gallons of milk. I’ve witnessed a small herd of curious heifers shuffle up to a fence line to gaze at me as I walked by. They have on occasion even seemed to pose for a photo op. They were perhaps justifiably envious of my position outside the fence. But there was no snorting, stomping or charging involved. Even tail swatting at flies tends to be at best a half-hearted attack.

I’ve met dairy cows in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, in Florida and Indiana, in England and Spain and France. And I’ve made the acquaintance of a few of their half million Austrian cousins. None of them vary very much in demeanor. They want only to graze. Cows are doe-eyed, gentle and shy. They are frankly too docile and too lazy to mount an attack on anything more threatening than grass. Cows are giant hopping-challenged rabbits.

What about the fighting bulls of Spain, you ask? True, they are aggressive, but they are trained to be so. And true, Vermont and Austrian bulls can be a bit more territorial than their female counterparts. So, a bored bull menacing an unwary intruder, maybe. But a ruthless gang of Elsie Bordens, their cowbells shattering the peace of the Alpine meadow, charging a lederhosen-clad hiker? Udderly ridiculous. Even the Brothers Grimm never concocted such fake news.

But the New York Times says it happened. The New York Times is not noted for fake news.

So, if true, were the hikers not clad in the familiar lederhosen? Did they yodel in accents that grated on Elsie’s ears? Or have Austria’s bovines appointed themselves virus vigilantes? Perhaps, in the even larger picture, the cows have anthropomorphized themselves and are following our lead.

Austria is a stunningly picturesque landscape. But topographically idyllic Austria is anthropologically not so tranquil. The Austrians are wary of the effects of excessive immigration on their cultural identity. Austria is a small country with a small population – about equal to that of New York City. Outside of metropolitan Vienna, which evinces subtle ethnic vestiges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria’s populace is largely – and accustomed to being so for generations – homogenous.

So it is in many smaller European countries. They are protective of their cultural heritage, and they view the current on-going flow of immigration as a threat. Many of these nations’ histories of cultural interference are so long ago absorbed that they’ve become inherent. The status quo balks at these new intercontinental challenges. The twentieth century Soviet surge into Eastern Europe, while piratic, did not pack the culturally disruptive punch of Iraquis in Slovakia. Europeans may empathize with the relentless stream of migrants escaping poverty and various degrees of genocide in myriad self-ravaging countries. They do not necessarily consider the stream to be their responsibility. Even wealthy Germany and knee-jerk liberal Sweden, who initially threw open their arms and doors, have now reversed their stance. And political and cultural objections aside, small countries like Greece and the Czech Republic and Croatia can’t afford, as the United States and China could, to harbor the onslaught.

China remained insular and isolationist for centuries. Ungrateful for being rescued from Japan in the twentieth century, it reverted to same and remains less than cordial toward being marginally more open today.

The United States’ much more recent evolution differentiates it statistically, but apparently not so much psychologically. Since more or less eliminating the pre-existing native culture, American’s brief history has hinged wholly on immigration from all corners of the planet. Diversity is our cultural identity. Yet, Americans in large numbers with short memories have an attitude about immigration not unlike the rest of the world. Before and during World War II, American isolationists stoked massive public opinion against admitting European Jewry trying to flee the Holocaust. Today seemingly half the nation wants to wall in our Southern border. And ostensibly but perhaps not entirely due to a pandemic, Americans are currently persona non grata almost everywhere. Take that, Yankee. I say “take that” because my keyboard won’t print the accent aigu over the “e” in touche.

Touche sounds apropos, but it isn’t. None of this is intrinsically simple tit for tat or right from wrong. It is emphatically the status quo.

Endemic racism – that current buzz phrase – isn’t just about anti-Semitism in France or Germany, or Black versus White in America. It isn’t relegated to Uighurs in China or Syrian gangs in Sweden. It seems to be the adamant global Zeitgeist. And the Zeitgeist never seems to change.

Conflict is what humans do, have always done and, all hope to the contrary, will apparently continue to do. There are certainly ever present attempts at altruism on which to desperately dote, but they never seem to outpoint the uber-aggressors. We are the neo-dinosaurs. Our collective and injudicious bellicosity thrives. It so absorbs us that we have now neglectfully and unwittingly ignored its impact on the arena in which we wage it – the planet itself. We spit on the air we breathe and the water we drink. The World Wildlife Fund experts estimate that in the past half century seventy per cent of the world’s wildlife has been wiped out by human activity.

The planet, though, is more than our equal. To paraphrase Kafka, when it’s man against the world, bet on the world. She doesn’t miss the dinosaurs. She doesn’t care if we annihilate each other. But when we all together threaten the planet’s well-being, she will defend herself against us. She will summon a meteor. She will send a virus. Or cows.

There is a cow in the tiny Tyrolean village of Mutters, Austria, housed in a barn-lette right on the village square. I forget her name but I recall her countenance. She was seemingly oblivious toward any nascent incursion from the surrounding bakery, church, and tractor repair shop.

As she was toward the foreign intruder. Me.

But you never know.

My Wife Left Her Dress in Hemingway’s Room

Text by Steve VandeGriek

Photos by Jan Behmer

Copyright 2020

The Camino de Santiago is a centuries old roughly five hundred mile walking pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied de Port in southwestern France to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostella in northwestern Spain. The first leg of the journey is a fifteen mile hike down through the Pyrenees from St. Jean to Roncevalles in the Spanish Basque region in the province of Navarre. It is reputed to be at once the most difficult and the most beautiful day of the entire Camino. I was eager to take it on, but my wife, whose name is not Patience, was with me, so we drove down.

Roncevalles, Basque name Orreaga, is a speck in the magnificent mountains that enfold it. A beautiful old church, a few smaller religious structures, the tomb of Sancho VII – King of Navarre from 1194 to 1234, one hotel and some rudimentary first night overnight facilities – a couple no frills bars included – for the pilgrims. The non-pilgrim population is about two dozen souls, apparently there primarily to service the Camino hikers. Apart from the centuries of pilgrimage, there is another history here. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass was fought in August 778. The army of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, led by the legendary knight Roland, was ambushed by the local Basques. Roland died while blowing, or refusing to blow – there is some legendary dispute here – his elephant tusk horn to advise Charlemagne to send backup. Charlemagne is said to have been busy playing chess. The French epic poem “Song of Roland”, in which the Basques are replaced by the Moors, was composed some three centuries later and bears little resemblance to the actual battle, which is thought to have been waged on the vast plain of Burguete, a mile and a half south of Roncevalles. It began to rain. We eased on down the road.

Burguete, Basque name Auritz, population circa two hundred, lies on that vast plain about three thousand feet above sea level. It sits astride the N-135 we drove in on, just below the Irati River, about fifteen miles south of the French border and some twenty five miles above Pamplona, of the running of the bulls fame. This twelfth century town has no art scene, no museum, no nightlife. The red-roofed white stone houses sit along the road, which becomes the narrow main street through the village. There are a couple small hotels and a general store. Burguete’s real attractions are the meadows, forests and streams that surround it. And the Hostal Burguete.

The Hostal Burguete has a few unassuming rooms, all of them comfortably clean, basic and simply furnished. On the ground floor is an amiably rustic lounge and restaurant area with a few wooden tables.

Turns out the hotel was the preferred accommodation of Ernest Hemingway while he fished the Irati River, prior to nine days of debauchery at the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona. He and his buddy Bill were in residence the afternoon we checked in. They had finished that day’s fishing, and were in the lounge working on the sturdy local wine. My wife was wearing a long-light-weight-loose-flowing-easy-to-travel-in white dress. While getting from car door to hotel door, the rain had lent the dress a semi-transparent effect. Hemingway thought it fetching and said so. In vino veritas.

We took our bags upstairs to our room, changed out of our wet clothes and hung the dress up to dry. When we came back down, Hemingway was noodling on the piano in the far corner of the room. We ordered wine from the old woman tending the inn, and chose a table near the fireplace. Bill engaged us in conversation. He offered that they had had the place to themselves for three days and it was good to hear a voice other than Hem’s. Hemingway feigned resentment and quit the piano. Soon the four of us were deep in the wine. On Ernest’s advice, we ordered the fresh local trout and potatoes. The old woman cooked it, served it and kept the wine flowing.

At some point in the party, my wife complained of a cold coming on due to the soaking she’d suffered that afternoon. She went up to bed. A bit later, Hemingway declared he wanted to rise early to dig worms. He went upstairs. Bill and I continued to tipple and babble, about baseball, I think. The old woman had disappeared without notice. Bill eventually put his head on the table and went to sleep. I finished the wine and stumbled upstairs.

We woke latish in the morning. My wife’s cold had not materialized. We packed our things and went downstairs to check out. The old woman said Bill and Mr. Ernest had long since hiked to the Irati. We drank a coffee and got in the car. The rain had stopped. We drove down out of the Pyrenees, through Pamplona and leisurely southeast along the River Ebro toward Zaragosa, a beautiful city with a magnificent old bullring. I wanted to see a corrida.

We checked into a more-upscale-than-the-hostal hotel and unpacked. I needed to have the concierge take care of some laundry, and asked my wife if she wanted to throw in her white dress. It was nowhere to be found. After much hemming – no pun intended – and hawing, she confessed. “I must have left it in Hemingway’s room.”

Moving on now to reality. Hemingway was at the Hostal Burguete in 1924. We were there a decade shy of a century later. Because he was there, if I’m honest. And the place is so embalmed in Hemingwaybilia that he is all but there. You can stay in Hemingway’s room, “unchanged since he left”. Which we did. On the restaurant’s menu there is the Hemingway soup, the Hemingway trout entree, and Ernest’s preferred wine. In the lounge/restaurant area is the piano Hemingway played. Ernest’s favorite chair. His usual table. Where he stored his fishing gear. The couch where Hemingway dallied with your girlfriend. Okay, I’m getting carried away, but you get the idea. I’m a Hemingway fan, but it was a bit much.

That being said, it is worth wading in the hype. The hotel is a rustic gem, quaint and comforting, and the Irati trout is ambrosial. Wandering through Burguete, Roncevalles and the surrounding old world forests and cold streams put me back in the Burguete chapters of The Sun Also Rises. They smack of timelessness, and there the Hemingway aura lingers unforced. We steeped ourselves in it all for a few days before embarking on the drive along the Ebro.

As it happens, my wife had indeed accidentally left her dress behind in Hemingway’s room – the room we had stayed in, where she had hung it up to dry. I’d gladly go back to Burguete to look for that dress. And not give a damn if I found it.


Photos by Jan Behmer

Text by Steve VandeGriek

Copyright 2020

Two hours north of Edinburgh, on a summery Saturday afternoon, my wife and I stepped off the train at our destination station, Dunkeld. Or so the sign read. The “station” was a low uncovered platform resembling a two by four sheet of plywood. Deserted. In the middle of a forest. Hobbits would not have surprised us. In the obligatory afternoon British rain. Cab service had been suspended pre WWII. Another signpost featured an arrow pointing into the woods above the words “One Mile”. Curious as to the terminus of said suggestion, and having no alternative, we grabbed our rolling bags and slogged. After about half of the promised mile, the wood path broke onto a rustic road that wound around small clusters of houses, a tiny Beatrix Potter Museum, and finally to a bridge resting on seven lengthy arches above a river. The rain stopped. Another sign. The River Tay. Longest in Scotland, we learned later. At the other end of the bridge was Dunkeld, sign, population 1100. Worth every soggy step.

Just across the bridge, we checked into the Atholl Arms Hotel, on the river at the head of the village. Built in 1833 and gently modernized in the early 21st century, the hotel is casual, clean and congenial – all adding up to extremely comfortable. The staff is helpful and friendly. The lounge and reception area is spacious, light and full of cozy furniture. The Riverview Restaurant is to one side of the lounge. On the other are the bar and Meeting Place, a more informal eatery. Out back is a garden leading to the riverside Garden Terrace, serving drinks and light fare. Our large upstairs room overlooked the River Tay from two sides. It had a comfortable bed and chairs, and in the bathroom a luscious liquid soap with which my wife was about to have a love affair.

The next morning, after a delectable breakfast of the ubiquitous smoked haddock and eggs, we exited the hotel onto the High Street, lined with charming 18th century merchant houses. A block on, the High Street crosses Cathedral Street. This intersection, called the Cross, is the center of Dunkeld. Here stands the Atholl Memorial Fountain, erected to honor our hotel’s namesake, the 6th Earl of Atholl, who first piped water into the town in the mid 19th century.

It being Sunday, a clot of villagers were ambling from the Cross out to the Dunkeld Cathedral. We tagged along and found it amiably situated in a large leafy park right on the river at the outside edge of town. Originally a monastic church in the Norman style, it was gradually rebuilt as the present Gothic cathedral between the late 13th century and the end of the 15th. The exterior structure is modest by cathedral standards, but no less charming for that. At the rear is a tidy garden, and the entire churchyard is dotted with gravestones. Some are age old – mossy and indistinct. Others are more recent and well-tended. Some whimsical and some eerily inscrutable. The cathedral’s away -from-village-center location was once common in Scotland due to the conviction that a church graveyard harbored restless wraiths and was therefore best kept at a distance from the village populace. The church’s chapter house holds the 9th century cross slab called the Apostle’s Stone. This section and the chancel make up the east end of the church, which is still in use. The interior of the western end, including the nave, is mostly in ruins.

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My wife joined the parishioners inside for the service. I opted for a book on one of several benches along the river. When the massive cathedral doors again opened, an elderly gentleman escorted my wife to my bench and assured me that she had had “only a wee dram” of wine at communion and there was thusly no danger of intoxication. I thanked him for his custodianship and he strolled off, to be replaced by an equally generous elderly lady. She offered us an earnest apology for the river being brown today, owing to storms up north that had churned up the mud and sent it down to Dunkeld before it could settle. She vowed that all would be blue again soon. We couldn’t help but believe her. You couldn’t have either. Despite the Scots’ taciturn reputation, we encountered only bonhomie in Dunkeld. Not overrun by tourists, the townsfolk seemed as interested in our story as they were – village wise – in each other’s.

We wandered back through and around the village, and eventually into a pub for Britain’s favorite repast – Sunday Roast. Beef, potatoes and two veg with Yorkshire pudding and pots of brown gravy. We walked it all off with a stroll across the bridge to the other bank of the river, where stands the mighty Birnham Oak. Legend touts it as the sole surviving remnant of Shakespeare’s Birnham Wood, of Macbeth fame. After a return stroll and a nightcap at the Garden Terrace, we retired.

We spent another three leisurely days and nights in this wee jewel of a village. We had a couple more reading and picnic sessions on that riverside bench outside the cathedral. We crossed the bridge again – the river was still brown, but then so is the Blue Danube – to the whimsical little Beatrix Potter Museum, full of rabbits both real and not so.

We ate blueberry scones with clotted cream while moseying the few short blocks of the High Street. In a tiny shop/smokehouse up a sleepy steep side street we came upon some exquisite Scottish smoked salmon. The salmon was right out of the river and smoked on the premises.

We lunched on various game pies in the bar at the other village hotel, the Royal Dunkeld. We stumbled into a small shop having a tremendous sale on single malt scotch, in celebration of upcoming Father’s Day. Scotland is bonny good to its Dads. We discovered that Dunkeld actually does have a taxi. Sitting in a cafe in the Cross, we were startled to see the cab in question pull up and park outside. The driver got out and came in for a coffee. We inquired. She explained. The service is part-time and minimal, mostly accommodating a few elderly villagers who could no longer get around on their own. We suggested she post her phone number at the train station, but it seems the potential business was too insignificant to warrant her attention.

We walked for miles on the lush green hills outside the village center, where we discovered and spent several hours at a wildlife reserve – the Loch of the Lowes. From inside one of the several wooden hides at the edge of the forest ringed lake – no sign anywhere of mankind – outfitted with high powered viewing scopes, we watched nesting ospreys fishing and feeding their young.

One elegant swan floated past our hide, trailed by her newly hatched cygnet. There were ducks galore and beavers on the water, and other water birds overhead. The surrounding woodlands are home to deer and smaller critters, notably red squirrels, that mysteriously revered member of the Scottish fauna.

On the morning it came time to leave Dunkeld, we took a last walk onto the Tay River Bridge. The river was blue at last and running fast. We rolled our bags down the short High Street to the bus depot at the other extremity of the village. We boarded and rode east to Anstruther on the coast, where they catch that fabled haddock.



1 3/4 cups all purpose flour

3 T sugar

1/8 t salt

Dash of cinnamon

3 t baking powder

5 T cold unsalted butter

3/4 cup fresh blueberries

1/2 cup milk

1/4 cup plain yogurt

1/2 t vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 400.

Sift together all dry ingredients.

Cut in the butter til it’s in pea sized lumps.

Stir in the fresh blueberries. Do not use frozen berries, they’ll make the scones soggy.

Mix the milk, yogurt, and vanilla together and pour into the dry ingredients.

Stir gently til well blended.

Turn out onto a floured surface and knead the dough gently for a minute to hold it together.

Using floured hands, form the dough into balls about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. You should have about 10 balls.

Place balls on a greased baking sheet and flatten the tops just a bit with a fork.

Bake 12-15 minutes til tops are golden brown.

Cool sightly on a wire rack. Serve with gobs of clotted cream, or, for the weak of heart, a bit of jam or honey.

Cinco de mayo Cocina

By Steve VandeGriek; Photos by Jan Behmer  ©2017


The city of Puebla lies roughly one hundred miles southeast of Mexico City. On the fifth of May in 1862 it was the scene of a battle early in the French-Mexican War. Six thousand French soldiers assaulted the city from the north. An improvised army of about two thousand Mexicans resisted the attack for an entire day. Five hundred French troops were lost and fewer than one hundred Mexicans. Although not a major strategic victory, it was a moral one just six months into the six year long war. Mexican resolve toughened throughout the country. Puebla de Los Angeles, as it had been known, was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general who commanded the Mexican forces in the battle. The anniversary of the Battle of Puebla is a national holiday in Mexico – Cinco de Mayo – a quieter occasion than the party event it has become in the U.S. Much like St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland versus what it is here.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Middle Eastern immigrants settled in sizeable numbers the in the Puebla and neighboring Veracruz regions.

Nota Bene: Salma Hayek was born in this area to a Mexican mother and a Lebanese father. Thank you both.

But I digress. We’re concerned with another product of this immigration – Tacos Arabes. Originally slices of lamb carved from a vertical roasting spit and served in a pita with yogurt sauce, they have some time ago become Mexicanized and are a favorite in the state of Puebla. Obviously, numerous versions exist. This is one.



Tacos de Arabes


1 t. each of cumin, oregano, cinnamon, Kosher salt, black pepper, coriander

3 cloves garlic, crushed                          3 slices bacon, diced

8 T. lime juice                                           4 T. apple cider vinegar

2 lbs. boneless pork (shoulder roast, chops, sirloin, whatever you have on hand – it’s a taco)

8 or so thick 6” flour tortillas

Put the pork in the freezer for 30-45 minutes to firm it for easier slicing.

In a large zipper plastic bag, place the spices, garlic, lime juice and vinegar. Shake well.

Using a sharp knife, slice the pork as thin as you can. If you wish, pound it thinner between sheets of plastic wrap. Alternatively, you can cut the meat into strips about 1/2 in. square, like cheese sticks.

Place the pork in the plastic bag and shake it to coat all the meat. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least a couple hours. Squish it around and turn it a few times.

Put a large cast iron or nonstick skillet over medium high heat. When it is hot, spray it lightly with nonstick spray. Working in batches, place the pork slices in the pan in a single layer. Cook a few minutes on each side, until the meat crisps and browns. Remove to a platter and ten with foil to keep it warm while you do another batch, etc.

Warm the tortillas briefly if you like, don don’t let them get stiff.

Wrap a tortilla around a few slices of pork and serve with your favorite salsa and some yogurt sauce.

Yogurt Sauce

Mix a cup of plain Greek style yogurt with the juice of a lime, two cloves of minced garlic, 2 t. of cilantro, 2 T. grated cucumber and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle over the pork or serve on the side.


An even more traditional –dating from the colonial period – fare of the Puebla region is Mole, pronounced mo-lay. There are dozens of basic styles of this sauce, most of them complicated, time consuming and using as many as forty ingredients – nuts, spices, herbs, fruits, vegetables, often chocolate, several different kinds of chilis – everything roasted separately before being cooked together. Mole means “mix” in an ancient dialect. Traditionally, whole families could spend a couple days making a cauldron of mole sauce for a special occasion.

The different styles come in a variety of colors, depending on the ingredients used – yellow, green, red, brown, black – and are served over chicken, duck, turkey, shellfish, enchiladas, pork or even vegetables and fruits. In Puebla, a common presentation is chicken baked in the finished sauce.

The recipe offered here is a greatly simplified version of a mild dark mole. While this adaptation lacks the complexity of the days-long preparation, it provides a credible mole experience with a fraction of the effort. It uses only the ancho chili, mild but with lots of earthy depth. You could add a piece of a chipotle if you want to up the heat factor.





Simple Mole Poblano

3 ancho chili peppers                                         1 14 ½ oz. can diced chopped tomatoes

½ chipotle pepper (optional)                            ¼ C. dried apricots or raisins

3 T. vegetable oil or lard                                    ¼ C. blanched almonds or ¼ C. almond butter

1 medium onion, chopped                                 2 T. sesame seeds

½ t. cinnamon                                                       1 ½ T. breadcrumbs

1/8 t ground cloves                                              ½ t. sugar

½ t. black pepper                                                  ½ t. salt

1 T. oregano

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped, or roasted            2 oz. chocolate, chopped (Mexican is best, but

1 ½ C. chicken stock                                                                   semi-sweet baking chocolate works fine)

Place a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Cut the stems off the ancho chilis and the chipotle, if using. Tear open and remove all seeds. When the skillet is hot, throw in the chilis. Press them down with a spatula and toast for a few minutes until they just begin to smoke. Remove them to a bowl and cover with water and a plate to keep them submerged. Lower the heat to medium.

If roasting the garlic, which I recommend, put the cloves in the pan with their skins on and toast for about ten minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until they soften and blacken a bit. Remove and let them cool, then slip the skins off.

Add the oil or lard to the pan, and the onion, and cook until the onions soften, about 5 minutes. Add the cinnamon, clove, black pepper and oregano and stir for a minute. Remove the chilis from the water and add to the pan. Reserve a half cup of the water.

Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds or so. Add the stock and the ½ C. chili water and stir well.

Add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes. Add the apricots or raisins, the almonds or almond butter, and the sesame seeds. Stir well. Add the bread crumbs and stir well to thicken. Add the salt and sugar. Add the chocolate and stir until it is completely melted.

Continue cooking for several minutes, stirring often, until the sauce thickens a bit, then pour into a processor or blender, and puree until very smooth. Return to the pan and simmer on low heat to thicken some more. The sauce should be the texture of ketchup, but bear no further resemblance to it.

Serve over whatever you like. If you don’t use it all, mole freezes very well.

*Note. I like to lightly toast the almonds and the sesame seeds for a couple minutes before adding them. Do them in the dry saute pan after doing the chilis and garlic. It’s not strictly necessary, but it adds some nice depth.

To bake chicken in the sauce, Puebla style, brown 4 breasts with a little oil in the saute pan. Spray a 9”x13” baking dish with nonstick spray and spread some mole over the bottom. Place the chicken in the dish and cover with the rest of the sauce. Bake uncovered at 400° for about 40 minutes, until the chicken is done and the mole develops a slight glaze. Sprinkle some sesame seeds over the top.

Spanish Semana Santa Sweets


By Steve VandeGriek; photos by Jan Behmer   ©2017

My wife and I have a thing for Spain. We’ve been going there on occasion for more years than I care to admit having under my belt. And under my belt is the issue here. Spanish food is a rustic joy.  Any region, any time of year.  Madrid has its roast suckling pig and Valencia its paella. The cuisine of Andalucia in the sweltering summer is distinct from the fare of Galicia and Asturias in the wet and wild winter. And in the delicious Spanish spring, as the Lenten season comes to an end, every region does its own version of Semana Santa.


The Spanish do Holy Week like no other people on the planet. And as it is with so many things in Spain, tradition is key. The stunning religious processions full of floats and masked penitents flow through the streets at night in every city and hamlet.

As they say, you always remember your first time. Ours was many years ago, a few days before Easter, in a small city in Andalucia. We were in our hotel room on the second floor and just after dark we were taken by surprise. A procession was suddenly trudging down the street right below our window. I’m not a religious person, but the Medieval aura surrounding the event was commanding.

The processions in Seville are famously spectacular. Likewise in Leon. Saetas, those haunting flamenco-like sacred songs, fill the air. Some towns scatter straw dolls in the streets, which are later torn apart and burned. Home dining tables are laden with special Easter dishes, customarily meatless for practicing Catholics. And how do they compensate for the lack of meat? Dessert! Spain isn’t as staunchly Catholic as it once was, but Spaniards haven’t lost their sweet tooth. The week before Easter, bakeries all over Spain are filled with confections especially for that week. Many were created by nuns. They are traditional, and traditionally simple and sweet.


Rice pudding is prevalent around the country, in many regional variations.

Sweet dough balls are popular and come in a multitude of incarnations. Pestiños in Andalucia are of Moorish origin. They are anise flavored puffs of dough, deep fried or baked and dunked in a syrup of honey and liqueur. Buñuelos in the north are fluffy balls of yeasty dough, sometimes anise flavored, and usually stuffed with something sweet. Semana Santa balls are baked donuts flavored with Galician Orujo, a potent clear liqueur similar to Italian grappa, distilled from the dregs left after pressing the wine. Bartolillos are a type of cream puff and are a Madrid specialty.

Huesos de Santos (Saints’ Bones) are egg and sugar filled marzipan shells. Monas de Pasqua, chocolate eggs filled with little presents, are popular in Catalonia and Valencia. Flores de Semana Santa are crunchy fried pastries resembling opened roses. Hornazo is sometimes a pie, but usually a round flat bread stuffed with boiled eggs, chorizo sausage and other cuts of pork. It is traditionally eaten on the day AFTER Easter, due to that no meat during Holy Week rule. But there is a sweet non-meat version for the week prior. Hornazo is prized in the region to the west of Madrid, in Salamanca an Avila in particular.

Torrijas are ubiquitous throughout Spain, but a special favorite in the bakeries of Aragon. They are similar to what we think of as French toast, but they’re fried in olive oil instead of butter.

And the queen of Spanish Easter desserts has to be the Tarta de Santiago (Saint James Cake). It is found throughout the country, St. James being the patron saint of Spain, but it has pride of place in Santiago de Compostela, where its namesake’s remains are housed. The cake is thought to have originated or been brought there by a pilgrim during the Middle Ages and, due to its almond base, has an apparently Moorish pedigree, not as common in Galicia as it is in the south. Galicia was probably the region least affected by the Moorish occupation.


There are as many recipes for these last two confections as there are regions in Spain. The following are our take on the many variations.


1 baguette – stale                            lemon and/or orange zest

3 C milk                                                 3 or 4 eggs, beaten

2/3 C sugar                                          ground cinnamon

1 cinnamon stick                               sugar or honey

Good mild olive oil

Slice the baguette into roughly one inch thick slices.

Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium high heat. When it is almost boiling, remove from heat and add the sugar, zest, and cinnamon stick.

Return to the heat and stir until almost boiling again.

Lower the heat and continue stirring at a simmer until the milk thickens a bit.

Remove from heat and let cool a little.

Soak the bread slices in the milk on both sides for about 30 seconds each – don’t let them get so soggy they fall apart.

Beat the eggs well, and dip each slice until well coated on both sides.

Heat the oil – about an inch deep – in a skillet until it quickly browns a cube of bread. Fry the bread slices until golden on both sides.

Drain them on paper towels and sprinkle with ground cinnamon and sugar, or drizzle with a little honey.

Torrijas can be eaten warm or at room temperature.



St. James Cake

There are dozens of recipes for this cake, all with a ground almond base. Some use a little flour and some are flourless. None of them are overly complicated, but in my experience, a little flour works better.

10 oz. ground blanched (peeled) almonds

1 C flour

1 ¼ C sugar

4 eggs

8 T butter, softened

1 tsp. baking powder

½ C water

Zest of 1 lemon

Powdered sugar

Grind the almonds in a food processor or blender. You can grind them to a smooth dust, but leaving them a tiny bit coarse gives the cake a nice crunch.

Preheat oven to 350. Spray  the bottom and sides of a 9 inch springform pan with nonstick spray, or, my preference, grease it with butter.

In a large bowl, use an electric hand mixer to beat the butter and sugar, then beat in the eggs, one at a time.

Add the flour, baking powder, and water and beat well.

Add the ground almonds and the lemon zest and stir thoroughly.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake on a rack in the center of the oven for about 45 minutes, but check for doneness after 40. It’s done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool thoroughly on a wire rack. Remove from pan.

Place a piece of cardboard cut out in the shape of a cross on top of the cake. Sprinkle the top of the cake well with powdered sugar, using a sifter. Remove the cardboard carefully, leaving the impression of the cross on the cake.


Fa La La La La from Flanders: Christmas Comfort Food

By Steve VandeGriek Photos by Jan Behmer ©2020

Brussels Main Square

My wife and I grew up in the north and, like many transplanted Floridians, we snicker in February at the folks we left behind. But when winter is new and the holidays approach we can feel them snickering back.

A few years ago we went to Belgium. Wintry and wonderful Brussels and Bruges. Magical medieval plazas filled with giant twinkling fir trees and Christmas markets and steaming gluwein flowing like, well, like wine. Frozen horses’ breath snorting in the chill air and sleighbells jingling behind. Decorated lanes full of local and foreign merrymakers strolling with hands full of Belgian waffles, Belgian fries, and Belgian chocolate. I know, I know, I sound like post-ghosts Scrooge. As I said, Christmas in Florida can leave me cold – no pun intended – and this really is storybook stuff. So just one more. Enormous fireplaces roaring in cozy old world establishments serving steamed mussels with fries, dozens of local sausages and hundreds of local beers that have been brewed for half a millennium.

And hearty regional dishes – more than we had time to savor, though we tried. Game paté, pumpkin soups, pheasant, North Sea shellfish, duck, rabbit, lamb stews and pigs’ cheeks with spiced cookies. (The cookies are Speculos – Trader Joe’s imports them. You’re on your own for the pigs’ cheeks.) Some classic Belgian dishes are easily done at home. The three recipes here are a cross sampling from Flanders, guaranteed to warm your cockles even if icicles aren’t dangling from your eaves.


The first is a simple side from Brussels called STOEMP. It’s mashed potatoes on steroids. Serve with or without sausages. With is the wurst choice, without is the worst. Sorry. And don’t forget the ale.

This centuries old rustic gem is best made with roughly equal amounts of potatoes and any chopped vegetable mixture you choose – cabbage, leeks, garlic, scallions, which get sautéed, spinach, turnip, the obvious Brussels sprouts or the currently chic kale, which get boiled. A little fried and chopped bacon gets bonus points. For Christmas color, I like a little red bell pepper, which I sauté with the garlic and scallions I always use, and broccoli. Whatever you don’t sauté, boil until soft. Peel, cube and boil the potatoes in salted water until soft but not falling apart. Drain and combine everything in a big pot. Throw in a good amount of grated cheese – parmesan works well, gruyere is a rewarding splurge – and a few dashes of nutmeg, some salt and pepper and milk or half and half. I like to add a dollop of sour cream. Mash until smooth and creamy, sprinkle with chopped chives and serve with whatever meat – read sausage – you desire.


VOL AU VENT – roughly French for “blowin’ in the wind” – is a traditional Flemish specialty. Puff pastry shells stuffed with chicken, mushrooms, meatballs and a white sauce. You can make the puff pastry yourself if you’re into that. I buy the frozen shells and they work just fine. A side of fries is requisite.
Boil a chicken breast and a few thighs in some water and a little chicken broth. Shred the meat, minus any skin or bones. Save the broth.
Form tiny meatballs from a half pound of whatever ground meat you like. If red meat isn’t your thing you can use ground turkey. I have, but don’t tell Belgium. Boil the meatballs in the chicken broth till cooked through.
Sauté ten or twelve cleaned and quartered mushrooms in a little olive oil.
Melt half a stick of butter and stir in a half cup of flour, a little at a time, til blended. Stir in about two and a half cups of chicken broth and a cup or so of cream until incorporated. Add a half cup of shredded cheese – any kind you want – and a couple egg yolks, a couple tablespoons of lemon juice and black pepper to taste. Combine the meats and mushrooms in the sauce and keep warm over low heat. Stir it often.
Bake six pastry shells according to the package directions. Slice off the tops and stuff the shells to overflowing with the sauce. Set the tops back on at a jaunty angle and serve with fries.


FLEMISH CARBONNADE. I could do winter all year with enough of this stew. It’s a simpler variation of the French beef bourguignon, substituting brown ale for the red wine.
Marinate three pounds of cubed stewing beef in a pint of Belgian brown ale with a few crushed garlic cloves and a couple bay leaves. Leave it in the refrigerator overnight, then drain and reserve the marinade.
Season a few spoonsful of flour with salt and pepper in a large bowl. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and toss it in the flour. Shake off any excess.
Put a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, fry the beef chunks in small batches, stirring often, until they’re golden on all sides. Transfer each batch to a plate. Leave the brown fond on the bottom of the pan. Lower the heat to medium and fry a half pound of bacon, stirring occasionally, until it’s crisp. Remove the bacon, drain on a paper towel, and crumble it. Spoon out half the bacon grease. Leave everything else in the pan.
Add a couple of garlic cloves, a couple of carrots, a leek and a couple onions – all sliced – and sauté, stirring often, for ten minutes or so until they soften and start to brown. Stir in a spoonful of tomato paste and fry for a minute or two, stirring constantly.
Add the beef, the bacon and the marinade. Throw in a few mushrooms, if you like. Bring to a simmer, scraping up all the brown bits on the bottom. Add about a cup and a half of a beef broth and beer combo, some salt and pepper and whatever herbs you have on hand. It’s a stew, not a chemistry experiment. I like thyme, rosemary, cilantro, basil. Parsley and bay leaves work. Bring it all to a boil.
Cover and put it in a 350° oven for a couple hours, stirring once or twice on the way. Check the seasoning; maybe add some salt and pepper. Stir in a spoonful of Dijon mustard. Throw some chopped chives and parsley on top. Plate it with STOEMP, fries, or roasted potatoes, and a green vegetable. Serve with a robust red wine or brown ale.
From behind a big plate of this stuff I can squint and see Bruges.