Oh Solomillo! 15 Days in Spain

Old Nov 9th, 2013, 01:24 PM
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Oh Solomillo! 15 Days in Spain

Well, we’ve been back from Spain for almost 4 weeks now, but I’m just now getting my act together enough to write up a trip report. We started planning a trip to Spain for our anniversary (we dubbed the whole trip “15 days for 15 years”) many, many, many months in advance – the day that frequent flyer tickets were available for international flights. I know that people complain that airlines have cut back drastically on the flights available for frequent flyer tickets, but if you know your travel plans far enough in advance there is ALWAYS availability for that first week or two that flights are available for booking (about 11 months out). We’ve both been to Barcelona before and count it as one of our favorite cities in the world, so it made sense to start there (easing into the country in a place we were already familiar with), then moving down to explore the south before ending up in Madrid for an easy flight out. It worked out great, turning into 4 separate miniature city breaks: 4 nights Barcelona, 3 nights Granada, 4 nights Sevilla, and 3 nights Madrid.

When trying to pack for the trip (we always pack carry-on only) I was a bit worried about the temperature changes we could expect going into such different climates (especially in that transitional period of September and October), and I was right. The average temperature chart and 10-day forecast I was basing my packing on had me packing a little of everything – from light t-shirts to warmer sweaters – but we ended up with a heat wave that had the temperatures running about 10 degrees above normal for most of the trip. I never needed the jacket I packed, and, except for one cool day in Granada, didn’t need the sweaters until we got to Madrid (but for the final 3 days of the trip I was very happy I had packed them!). Hotels were all booked in advance, and transfers from city to city were also booked in advance. We booked a non-stop flight from Barcelona to Granada, the train from Granada to Sevilla, and the high-speed AVE train from Sevilla to Madrid all in advance and all via the internet, printing out the tickets in advance (train tickets, anyway). We also pre-booked our timed Alhambra reservations for Granada and pre-booked timed Sagrada Familia tour reservations in advance (we printed out the Sagrada Familia tickets in advance, and had no trouble printing out the Alhambra tickets at the Alhambra tourist information office in Granada when we got to town). Everything worked out just fine.

From experience gained in previous trips, I activated the smallest available text message plan and smallest available data plan for using my iPhone in Europe, and was very glad I did. Every hotel had great wifi available, but I found that having the data plan available for when we were away from the hotel was a great security blanket, allowing me to check email, pull up a map, activate the iTranslate app for when I couldn’t remember the right word for something in Spanish, check museum times, restaurant locations, or general googling needs. Shout-out to the iTranslate app, by the way – it worked very well most of the time (although a little less successful for translating some menu items). I grew up in south Texas so learned some Spanish at an early age, but I’m the first to admit that I’m not fluent, and what I do know – or did know - is very rusty. Still, I found that I remembered much more than I thought I would, and we managed to get by fairly well with general conversations, but Mexican-based Spanish only goes so far when dealing with various regional dialects, and there are some words that are definitely region-specific when dealing with menus. If you don’t already know what montaditos are, or what chiperones are (or that baby chiperones are called puntillitas in the south but not in other regions), or the difference between solomillo de iberico, secreto de iberico and presa de iberico, the iTranslate app isn’t very helpful and there isn’t anything in Mexican-based Spanish that is helpful, either. It made for some very delicious trial and error, though.

Okay, this little general background overview is making me hungry already. Here we go!
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Old Nov 9th, 2013, 01:58 PM
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had to laugh at the tittle ...
we often order solomillos (my husband does not eat fish or shellfish)
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Old Nov 9th, 2013, 08:48 PM
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That was probably my biggest takeaway from the whole trip --- love, love, love solomillo. We absolutely adore seafood (arroz negro - with sepia ink and chiperones and -- when we were really lucky, almehas -- was a running theme through the entire trip), but a truly spectacular medium rare solomillo de iberico is a wonderful thing.
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Old Nov 9th, 2013, 09:22 PM
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Looking forward to your report.
We returner from Seville ( second time) and Madrid( fifth) 10days ago.
love, love Spain ... try to visit every year.
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Old Nov 9th, 2013, 09:53 PM
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Looking forward to more.
Maybe Spain is on the radar next year
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Old Nov 10th, 2013, 06:04 AM
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Eager for more!
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Old Nov 10th, 2013, 06:43 AM
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Count me in. I look forward to more as well!
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Old Nov 10th, 2013, 09:02 AM
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Day 1 - Barcelona

After an uneventful (even pleasant!) overnight flight, we landed in Barcelona at 11:30 AM and quickly grabbed a cab to our hotel downtown. We’ve been to Barcelona before and are familiar with the area, so we decided that this would be the best starting point for the trip (DH is an architectural engineer so Barcelona is close to heaven, as far as he is concerned). Even though we usually stay in Eixample, this time we decided to try staying in the Barrio itself just to see what it was like after dark. This was the hardest hotel to decide on for the trip and the only hotel that was not a direct recommendation from a friend or that we/I had not visited in the past, so I crossed my fingers and hoped it would work out. We decided to try the Raco del Pi (officially H 10 Raco del Pi), just off the Plaza del Pi in the “upper” part of the Barrio. As I handed the hotel information to the cab driver (who spoke no English) he looked at the address and got a little bit of a worried look on his face, then tried to tell me that he wouldn’t be able to drive all the way to the hotel because of the pedestrian streets in the Barrio. When it was obvious that I already knew that (and spoke just enough Spanish to let him know that was okay) he relaxed a bit, but as he got closer to the city center he kept trying to find information in his little book as to where it would be best to drop us off. Fortunately I had a map and already knew how to get there from the Boqueria, so I asked him to just drop us there. A three or four minute stroll through little cobblestone passages and we found it easily enough -- a darling little hotel on a pedestrian-only street, with glasses of cava waiting for you at the front desk to make the already-easy check-in process even easier. Up to the room to unpack a bit, then it is time to wander out and get oriented with a quick stroll down La Rambla before heading over to Los Caracoles on Calle Escudellers for the obligatory first lunch.

Los Caracoles has been around forever, and – even though it definitely leans toward touristy these days – we have always made it our first food stop in Barcelona. Traditionally we start with caracoles (a steaming bowl of small snails that you eat with toothpicks) and chiperones fritas (my all-time favorite whole baby squid, lightly battered and fried), plus maybe a half of their amazing roast chicken, straight from the rotisserie that you can see from the street. Today though, we decide to try something different. We decided before the trip began that we were going to try to find a good paella or arroz negro (sepia ink black paella) in each city – a semi-scientific attempt to compare regional differences in preparation of the classic dish. Fortuitously, every Wednesday Los Caracoles has arroz negro as a lunch special, and today they are making their version of this masterpiece with sepia (cuttlefish) and esperdenyes (sea cucumber). Fabulous! With grilled calamari (chiperones a la plancha) as a starter and a nice bottle of white wine, it was a great start to the trip. The only slightly sour note was the very heavy hinting by the waiter when he brought our bill that the service charge listed was a government required tax and that it was NOT in place of a separate tip (I know this is a very touristy place these days, but this was the ONLY restaurant of the entire trip where we were pressured about tipping). Still, it was a great lunch and a great beginning to two weeks of adventure. By now it is about 3 or 4 in the afternoon and we decide it is a perfect time for a nap (even though we got a surprisingly good amount of sleep on the plane, we are still sufficiently jet lagged to want an excuse for a siesta). A little bit of shopping along Calle Escudellers, then up the little streets through Plaza Mayor and back to the hotel for a nice long nap before venturing out for the first evening.

Later in the evening – about 6:30 or 7 – we wandered out to explore the area, stopping at various tapas bars for a glass of wine and a small nibble of something good. We wandered across Villa Laietana toward Mercado de Santa Caterina and found a fabulous, obviously trendy tapas bar and restaurant right next to the market that was a perfect stop (same name as the mercado, by the way - Santa Caterina). It must have been about 8 pm, because there was a big line of people waiting for the manager to open up the restaurant table portion of the place, but the outside tables and the long bar area have obviously been packed for a while, and the chalkboard had a great list of tapa specials in addition to their extensive normal menu of tapas and raciones. We had a lovely time with a racion of fried anchovies and a couple of glasses of wine at the bar, smiling at the oh-too-cute group of Japanese students across the bar excitedly taking pictures of their food. Later that night, wandering back through the Barrio, we found another, very casual tapas bar that was a perfect counterpoint to the previous stop. Old school versus new school. Here we found a few tables, populated almost entirely by locals on dates or business friends stopping for a drink after work. This was where I finally saw how a tapas bar should work – there is a menu with staple items that the kitchen will fix as ordered (platters of jamon, quick-fried chiperones or other small hot plates), a series of daily-made cold salads behind the counter that are available in tapa, half-racion and racion portions, and then a long counter of montaditos – individual slices of French bread each topped with whatever the chef felt like creating that day, priced individually or specially priced for an assortment of 6. A few good nibbles here and we are ready to wander back through the Barrio to our hotel and call it a night (I know that 11 is still early by Barcelona standards, but I’m prepared to use jet lag as an excuse for as long as possible!).
.
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Old Nov 10th, 2013, 09:30 AM
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I'm going to Madrid in April (first time!) so am looking forward to that part of your trip especially.

H10 Raco del Pi area looks super. Hub and I walked a lot through that area from Ramblas to Duomo.

More please (with more paragraph breaks if possible).
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Old Nov 10th, 2013, 10:00 AM
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Oh, The Barri....the additional "o" threw me for a moment. Do continue; love Barcelona.
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Old Nov 10th, 2013, 10:33 AM
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Barri Gotic in Catalan, Barrio Gotico in Castellano. You're right, Barri would be more appropriate - I just naturally gravitate to the Castellano since I can speak and read (barely) enough Castilian-style Spanish to get by, and readily admit that I can't say anything more than "please" and "thank you" in Catalan. Maybe one of these days if I get the chance to spend longer periods of time in Barcelona and the Costa Brava I'll get better at it, but - unless the spelling of a word gets close to a similar word in French - I'm hopelessly lost when it comes to Catalan.
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Old Nov 11th, 2013, 02:04 AM
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We are planning a trip for this coming summer. Barcelona is a done deal. Trying to figure out the rest of the itinerary. Loving your report. The details are fun to read and helpful. More please!
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Old Nov 11th, 2013, 05:59 AM
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Day 2 (part one) – Barcelona

Good Morning, Barcelona! This morning we have timed reservations for a tour of Sagrada Familia. We’ve been looking forward to this! When we were last here six years ago, it was still little more than a gigantic construction site with a museum under it. The progress in the past few years has been phenomenal. Even though it is still clearly a construction zone, the interior of the basilica has been enclosed and has an “almost finished” feel to it. DH has an architecture background, so it is easy to understand how Barcelona and Gaudi have a special place in his heart. He has really been looking forward to this tour.

Trying to buy metro tickets, we encountered our first annoyance of the trip. Citibank has been advertising that they will issue chip-based cards to anyone who asks for one, and has been advertising that the cards will ABSOLUTELY work in Europe, which moved to PIN and chip cards years ago and where non-chip US cards are routinely rejected these days. We took them at their word and requested the chip cards, taking care to set a PIN that would work in European machines. I even talked to a manager at Citi before we left, and was personally assured that the card would work fine in any automated machine in Europe (the machines that historically reject the non-chip cards that are still being used in the US). When we used the card yesterday for lunch at Los Caracoles, we got the first hint that all might not be as Citi claims. The card was accepted, but instead of requesting us to put in our PIN number into the portable credit card reader in the waiter’s hand, as we expected, the card reader had a message that told the waiter he needed to print out a receipt and get a signature. Hmmmmm. What will happen when we need to use the card in an automated machine? Let’s find out. Sure enough, the card is rejected by the machine selling the metro tickets. We are able to complete the purchase with cash, but I’m losing confidence in Citi’s claim about the compatibility of their card. We’ll see.

Metro tickets finally in hand, we took the metro over to Sagrada Familia and got there early, hoping to have the time to do a walk-through ourselves before the tour started. It was perfect. There is a special entrance for people who already have tickets, and we got through the gate in no time. Seriously, people – buy your tickets in advance for this! You don’t even have to do a full-blown tour, just go online and get your tickets in advance, print them out, and walk past the giant queue of people who didn’t have your foresight. We have a good half hour to wander around by ourselves before finding the meeting point for an English-language tour. It was a great way to do it, because DH had a lot of questions about building materials and design based on our independent walk-though, and the tour guide was able to answer them. After the one hour tour DH spent another hour going back through the building and the museum exhibits at his own pace. He said later that this visit was the highlight of the entire trip for him.

When he was finally ready to tear himself away from Sagrada Familia, we walked out into the brilliant sunshine and decided that lunch should be a picnic in Park Guell. Within a couple of blocks of the basilica we were able to find a little shop that made us sandwiches of jamon Serrano, cheese and tomate on spectacular fresh baguettes. Along with the sandwiches we bought some focaccia and a bottle of water, then packed up our purchases and took a taxi up to Park Guell. The first time we visited Park Guell, years ago, we made the trek by metro, bus and hiking up the insane hill to the entrance. A taxi (especially to or from Sagrada Familia, which is almost a straight shot to the park) is much easier, much quicker, and not very expensive (anywhere from 5 to 8 euro, depending on traffic). Definitely worth it. The park is packed on such a beautiful day, of course, but we managed to find a section of the undulating bench to have our little picnic. It was a perfect place to rest for a while and take in the scenery before deciding what to do with the beautiful afternoon.
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Old Nov 12th, 2013, 04:32 AM
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Day 2 (part two) – still Barcelona...

So we are taking a break after lunch at Gaudi’s spectacular curving bench in Park Guell, looking up at the palm trees, out to the calm Mediterranean sea, and down at the masses of tourists taking their pictures with the giant iguana sculpture at the fountain, and trying to decide what to do with the beautiful afternoon in front on us. We have a total of 4 nights in Barcelona (so three and a half days), but since we have been here before we have already done most of the “must see” sights – La Pedrera, Casa Battlo, the Picasso museum and the Palau de la Musica Catalan are all already checked off the list. We have tickets to visit Palau Guell tomorrow morning, but the only “planned” activity for today was Sagrada Familia. What to do next?

It is such a beautiful warm day, why not go on down to the beach? We take a taxi down to a comfortable midpoint, then walk down Laietana and through Barceloneta before finding ourselves on the beach. No need to swim today (although it is definitely warm enough and many, many others are doing it), but we find the beach branch of Tapa Tapa (I’ve always liked their place across from Casa Battlo) and decide to settle in for happy hour. (Don’t let the disjointed narrative fool you – it has been a long walk and it is DEFINITELY happy hour.) Ah, tapas on the beach – VERY relaxing after a very active day. A cocktail and many tapas later, and we wander back over to the main road and catch a cab back up to Bouqueria (the cabbie very obviously took the long way around, unnecessarily increasing the fair and thereby robbing himself of a decent tip). We explored the Bouqueria for a while, sampling some Jamon Iberico Bellota from one of the ham merchants and searching for a vendor selling the small packets of tinto de calamari (the sepia ink needed to make black paella) or a vendor selling larger size tins of Pimenton de la Vera, the wood smoked paprika that is DH’s favorite. No luck with either quest, but the jamon was delicious.

After the impromptu shopping at the Bouqueria we intended to head straight back to the hotel to freshen up, but instead found ourselves wandering past the Plaza del Pi, searching for a tapas bar that had an empty table outside. It was a long search, but we finally found one at Bilbao Barria, on Plaza Nova (next to the Cathedral). It was fate. We got the last open table outside on the square. We had just ordered two glasses of white wine when we noticed another English speaking couple looking in vain for a table outside. We had two spare chairs, so invited them to join us at our table if they wanted. It was the beginning of a great evening. The couple, originally from the Netherlands, spends nine months of the year in Spain, at a house on the coast near Girona. They had just driven two hours to Barcelona because they were in the mood for good tapas, and it turns out that THIS is their favorite tapas bar in all of Barcelona. It was the chance for a great conversation with almost-locals, and a chance to have someone “in the know” teach us how this particular tapas bar worked. The waiter will take your drink order, but for food you go inside, pick up a plate, and walk along a seemingly endless counter of different delicious montaditos, picking up whatever looks good to you. Each montadito has a long skewer. Back at your table there is a tall silver vase to put your empty skewers in. At the end of the night the waiter adds up the number of skewers to figure out your bill. There are two different length skewers to denote different prices (the dessert tapas are a little more). The waiter was great, and seemed very appreciative of the fact that we were willing to share a table. He brought a second vase for the other couple to keep the bills straight, and we found ourselves talking late into the evening. Definitely no need for a separate dinner tonight.
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Old Nov 12th, 2013, 10:20 AM
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Day 3 – still Barcelona…

Okay, I promise today’s adventures won’t be as drawn out as the recounting of Day 2! This morning we have tickets to tour Palau Guell. It is great to have a new Gaudi building to look forward to! The mansion was closed for renovations the last time we were here and reopened fully for tours just a few months ago. The self-guided tour is great, finishing, of course, on the spectacular roof with the colorful chimney pots. Make sure you go on a clear day – it would be a shame to try to do this in the rain and not experience the roof.

We originally intended to visit Montjuic this afternoon, but it is a hot, sunny day and, well, we wimped out. Next time. Instead we opted for a little shopping and then a visit to the Cathedral. We were there years before, but I don’t think the elevator to the roof was open then. It is the one thing that makes the entry fee for the Cathedral worthwhile – they check your ticket before you can take the elevator to the roof.

I have never gotten used to the fact that churches in Spain charge an entry fee to visit. The Sagrada Familia I can understand, because the entrance fees are actually funding the construction costs to build it, but every cathedral in Spain charges an admission just to go inside to see it – a practice almost unheard of in France or Italy. At least in this building the fee gets you access to the elevator and therefore the roof, which has a very nice view of both the mountains and the sea. The Cathedral itself is as lovely as ever, and the geese are still happily living in the garden in the cloister. Some things never change!

After a little more shopping we found ourselves back at Bilbao Berria, where we once again scored an outside table on the square, and once again offered our spare chairs to the first English-speaking couple who came looking for a table after everything was full. This time we shared the table with girlfriends out for an afternoon – a local and her best friend from college, an American who had just finished 2 years in Gambia in the Peace Corps. What a fun conversation! And double fun to see Barcelona through the eyes of a student who had just spent two years in Africa, feeling the culture shock of re-acclimating to a big city, trying to get up the nerve to try some of the tapas that her friend had selected for her (both her girlfriend and I tried to assure her that the montadito topped with a mound of baby eels was the best thing there, but she never got up the courage for that one).
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Old Nov 14th, 2013, 04:01 AM
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Day 4 – Barcelona, Sitges, and the first Solomillo Sighting

As I said, we have been to Barcelona before and have already done most of the “must see” sights. For anyone planning a first trip, I think that 4 days is reasonable -- it might be a bit of a tight fit, but it will give you the time to explore all of the Gaudi landmark sites (Casa Battlo, La Pedrera, Sagrada Familia, Park Guell and now Palau Guell), plus the Palau de la Musica Catalan, and still have time to squeeze in the Picasso museum. Add in a stroll down La Rambla and a visit to the Bouqueria, a walk through the Barri Gotic, maybe a visit to the Cathedral, some exploring in Eixample or Gracia or a visit to the beach and Barceloneta and you could easily fill 5 days without even thinking about a day trip out of town. For us, we had done so many of the things on the “must” list previously that on Saturday morning we found ourselves with no plans, so we decided to do a day trip down to Sitges. We took the metro to the train station with no problem, but encountered problems trying to purchase tickets for the regional train at the automated machines. Once again they would not take the credit card that Citi had promised would work. Fortunately the tickets are quite inexpensive, and it is easy to complete the purchase with cash. We had a little bit of trouble finding the commuter train section of the station, but eventually got to the right platform. The trains run about every 15 minutes, and it is only a 40 or 45 minute ride.

While Sitges could have been a fun outing yesterday (with the abundant sunshine and high temperatures), today has turned out to be overcast and a little cooler. Not quite beach weather. But the town is charming, with an inviting beachfront promenade and sandy beaches that seem to go on and on and on. And the surprise of the day trip was finding the Casa Bacardi museum and visitor center. Huh? Who knew that the founder of Bacardi (Facundo Bacardi Masso) was born in Sitges? There is even a statue honoring him on the beach. My kind of town.

But, as I said, it is an overcast, gray day, and after a couple of hours exploring and a nice lunch it is time to catch a train back to Barcelona. A bit more shopping in Barcelona and I’m finally able to locate the packets of tinto de calamari that I have been looking for at a little stall in the Mercado Santa Caterina. Maybe we’ll be able to make our own arroz negro when we get back home.

Early evening finds us back at our little Bilbao Barria. Not only does our waiter recognize us and give us an open table on the square, he comes over 10 minutes later and asks if we would be willing to share our table once again. Of course we would! He brings over two British ladies on holiday in Sitges, who have taken the train up to the big city for the afternoon for some shopping and tapas. Once again, a good time was had by all.

For dinner tonight we want to finally do “real” dinner, and decide to make our way over to Les Quinze Nits on Plaza Reial. We have eaten there on previous trips – I know that the place sometimes gets mixed reviews, but we have never had a bad meal there. The line is always long but it usually moves fairly quickly. Tonight we are both in the mood for the pork tenderloin, listed on their menu as “filete iberico con salsa Pedro Ximenez.” Yum. The pork is so buttery soft that they do not even bother to give you a knife, and the sherry sauce is to die for. They don’t call it “solomillo” in Catalan (or even in the Castellano used in this part of the country, I don’t think), but this was the first solomillo of the trip. If they can get an iberico filet this good in this part of the country, I can only imagine the deliciousness waiting for us when we get farther south. We will find out starting tomorrow!
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Old Nov 14th, 2013, 05:45 AM
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Great to learn about tapas and skewer count!
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Old Nov 14th, 2013, 12:38 PM
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Still enjoying your report. Looking forward to more "solomillo" sightings!
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Old Nov 14th, 2013, 07:04 PM
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The serious "solomillo zone" is definitely in the south (paticularly Sevilla), but I was also surprised by the fact that the term is used in Madrid. It must really be just Barcelona and Catalan that don't use "solomillo" as the word for tenderloin. I think the biggest takeaway from this trip - particularly since we went to three separate regions - is the regional differences between the menu terminology. We found that "montadito" was never used outside of Barcelona, and that Barcelona never used the standard terms for various roasted or cured pork cuts that were standard in Granada, Sevilla and Madrid (solomillo, presa, lomo --- oooh, lomo... yum...). There needs to be an app that can accurately translate what the menu items in the different regions of Spain really mean, in a manner that you can relate to. Solomillo doesn't really mean "sirloin," which is what a translation app will call it. And there is no accurate translation for "lomo" or "presa." Or "secreto." Maybe we need to invent a "Spanish Pig" app.
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Old Nov 15th, 2013, 10:19 AM
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I enjoy your "solomillo" adventure.
If you click "seguir", you will find the solomillos of a very famous Spanish Brand COVAP

shttp://www.covap.es/comercializacion/carne-fresca/

It is in Spanish
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