Saturday, March 31, 2012

ANDORRA: MUSIC AND DANCE


Most Andorran folk music is related to both Catalan and French music, with obvious reason of course. However, its music is related to two dances that are Andorran in origin.   The contrapàs is a dance that’s related to a Catalan dance called the sardana. Men and women will hold hands alternately and dance in a circle. There is a combination of long and short steps, and the piece starts out slow and speeds up towards the end. The music usually contains a shawm and a flabiol as well as other instruments. A shawm is related to an oboe (but has a larger bore than an oboe, making it louder). A flabiol is a smaller woodwind instrument in the flute family that’s playing to the front of the performer, as opposed to the side like you normally see. It’s usually played with the left hand while the right hand beats a small drum that’s attached at the elbow. (Talk about multi-tasking!) In this video you can get a good look at the flabiol as well as the dance steps.



I kept looking for information on the marratxa dance, but there really wasn’t any viable info as far as I could find.

Two famous 20th-century composer-musicians from Catalonia were Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz. I’ve known Granados’ “Valses Poeticos” for many years – wonderful pieces! – although he’s most widely known for the piece “Goyescas.”  Granados wrote a lot of piano music and chamber music, many of which has been transcribed for classical guitar as well. A lot of his pieces are based on Spanish and Catalan dances. In 1916, Granados died while crossing the English Canal – the boat he was in was hit with a torpedo from a German U-boat. He jumped out in an attempt to save his wife who was struggling to swim and drowned; his body was never recovered. (Think about that the next time you consider crossing the English Canal.) He had suffered from hydrophobia, and that was the first time he had been on an extended trip over the water.



Albéniz is really famous for his classical guitar pieces. One of the most famous pieces he wrote is called Asturias. I’m sure you’ll recognize the piece; it’s been used in several commercials and movies. This piece makes me want to learn how to play classical guitar.  And the guitarist is none other than Australian John Williams, who, in my opinion, is some sort of genius.



In popular music of Andorra, two names came up that were results from the Eurovision music contest: a punk band called Anonymous and the pop singer Marta Roure. As a HUGE fan of punk music, I was immediately drawn to Anonymous, but it was really hard to find any of their music, other than the one used for Eurovision. But with a name like Anonymous, I was coming up with every album that truly had anonymous tracks on them. Maybe in retrospect, probably not such a good name for a band if you want people to search for you.  But here’s the track I did find from the band Anonymous. It somewhat reminds me a little of the American band Bouncing Souls, but at times they sound like Green Day. Seriously, if anyone has their whole album, please send it to me. 


Marta Roure is a pretty typical pop musician, but I did like some of the songs on her album Nua. At times, it was reminiscent of Columbian singer Shakira (whose father by the way is partly of Catalan descent), but with a voice quality more like Mexican singer Paulina Rubio.


Ok, and I did find a death metal band from Andorra called Persefone. I’m not so into death metal, mostly because as someone who holds a music degree (my principle instruments were voice and piano), I’m not so partial to screaming as singing. But there were actually a few songs that I kinda liked.

And apparently, the indie rock style is pretty popular in Catalonia. Lucky for me, I’m also a huge fan of indie rock.  I came across two that impressed me: Sanjosex and Mishima. While it uses both acoustic and electric guitars, it certainly falls in the indie rock style, all while maintaining the rhythms that are so indicative of Spanish and Catalan style. Without having the music in front of me, I think they also use some of the same chord progressions and instrumentation from folk music as well. I’ve also found a hip-hop group called At Versaris who isn’t too bad as well. A few songs I’ve found are pretty good. They remind me a little of the Brazilian group Marcelo D2 or Planet Hemp at times. I picked this Sanjosex video just for the fact that he's riding around on a giant orange. It's so random, but it made me happy. (Perhaps I should've translated the lyrics?)


Up next: The Food!

Resources:
Wikipedia articles: “Culture of Andorra” “Shawm” “Flabiol” “Marta Roure” “Shakira” “Music of Catalonia” “Enrique Granados” “Isaac Albéniz”


Spotify: Marta Roure (album: “Nua”); Anonymous (album: “Andorra 2007: Salvem el Món”); At Versaris i Asstrio (album: “Per Principis Elegants”); Sanjosex (album: “Al Marge d’un Camí”), Mishima (album: “Ordre i Aventura”)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

ANDORRA: ART AND LITERATURE


The most prevalent art style in Andorra is the remnants of Romanesque architecture. There really isn’t a set time frame for when this was popular, but it’s generally attributed as being between the 6th and 12th centuries.  This is the style that preceded the more famous Gothic style. Romanesque style’s main identifying factor would be the rounded arches, as opposed to the pointed arches of the latter Gothic period.  Although this style was incorporated into many types of buildings, it was utilized in churches far more than in castles or other structures. It’s generally less ornate as other styles, keeping a more simplistic façade. 


In other sculptures and painting, such as ornamentation inside the churches, the use of gold is really popular. It was used in different kinds of mediums, as both in jewelry and ornamentation for clothing as well as paint. It's beautiful to look, but really, who doesn’t like gold?


In nearby Catalonia, one of the most famous artists from the region is Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). The artist was instrumental in the surrealist movement. Surrealism is the style of art that implies its name: takes a realistic scene and stretches it almost to fanciful proportions. But it keeps realistic shading and blending, using chiaroscuro to create contrast.   He is most famous for his painting “The Persistence of Memory” – you know, the one where it looks like all the clocks are melted and lying there.  While he studied in Madrid and Paris and met a number of incredible people, from Picasso and Man Ray to Sigmund Freud and Coco Chanel, he ended up spending his final years back in Catalonia.  He dabbled on the edge of Dadaism (in my words, it’s more of less avant guard art, but the Dada movement extended to theatre, music, and literature as well) and was one of many who had influenced the later pop art movement that made famous by Andy Warhol.  This is an example of surrealism; I believe this was one of his final paintings. 



When it comes to literature, there were two main names that came up in connection to Andorra: Michèle Gazier and Ramón Villeró.

Michèle Gazier has a Wikipedia page, but you have to go to the French portal to find it. I did find several websites with biographical information on her. From what I’ve gathered, she taught Spanish, and worked as a translator and editor, but her work seems to be written in French. Although Amazon had several of her books that were under $10, one of which that caught my attention called “Histoires d’une femme sans histoire.” None were available for Kindle, though. You know me, I need instant gratification. But I would buy that book once I improve my French reading skills a little.

       

I found Ramón Villeró’s Twitter page. As I sifted through the Spanish, it said he writes novels and is a travel writer for Viajes magazine.  He has several travel guides and novels, a few of which are available through Amazon (and even available for Kindle). In fact, his novel “La Isla de Volcán” is FREE for the Kindle. It’s in Spanish, though. (I don’t speak Spanish that well, but I read it much better. AND as I look, it's not free in the US.) 


Up next: Music and Dance

Resources:
Wikipedia: “Culture of Andorra” “Michèle Gazier [French]” “Salvador Dalí” “Romanesque architecture”
Ramón Villeró: http://www.ramonvillero.com

Monday, March 26, 2012

ANDORRA: HOLIDAYS AND CELEBRATIONS



Andorra has a lot of celebration days and holidays, but only a few of which are ones that banks and government offices shut down.  Because Andorra is primarily Roman Catholic, many of the religious holidays are Catholic holidays. (Dates given are for 2012.)

New Years Day: January 1. The New Years is almost as extravagant as Christmas. There are lots of special foods, dancing, music, and drinking. It’s celebrated for several days, usually until Epiphany. Like other European countries, they do many of the same traditions, like New Years resolutions, prepare a Yule log, but they also decorate their homes with different flowers, as well as mistletoe (which is normally used only around Christmas in the US) and juniper. A lot of places will set off fireworks.

Epiphany: January 6.  Epiphany is the feast day in Christianity that celebrates God the Son taking the form of a human being in Jesus Christ. It also celebrates the Magi visiting the baby Jesus and bringing gifts.  Many Andorrans celebrate it by eating sweet pastries with a trinket in it, and whoever gets the pastry with the trinket in it is “king” for a day. This is also a tradition in areas of nearby France as well.


Constitution Day: March 14. This is the day that the constitution was signed March 14, 1993. It was originally signed by Andorra’s co-princes, which at the time were the French President, François Mitterrand, and the Bishop of Urgell, Joan Martí Alanis. Most businesses are closed.

Easter: April 8. In Andorra, churches stop ringing their bells on Maundy Thursday and will commence ringing again on Easter Sunday. Children will often wake up on Easter morning to search for colored eggs. Some will uses candles as a metaphor for Jesus being the “Light of the World” and will extinguish it on Good Friday to signify his death while relighting again it on Sunday morning to signify his raising from the dead. Then it’s lit every day until Ascension Day.

Labor Day: May 1.  Most businesses are closed.  The May 1 date has been set as Labor Day since 1890.  Many workers will gather at factories and workplaces and then participate in parades and other demonstrations.

Ascension: May 17.  Ascension Day is 40 days after Easter. Many churches will elevate a figure of Jesus through a hole in the roof to signify Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

St. John’s Day: June 24.  Although it marks the beginning of summer solstice, it’s named after John the Baptist. Huge bonfires are set in every town, its fuel being provided for by the citizens of that town. There are prayers said, mostly for a good harvest. And no celebrate would be complete without singing and dancing.  After the bonfire is put out, many farmers will take some of the ashes and spread it on the corners of their field. 

Assumption: Aug. 15. Another Catholic holiday celebrating Mary’s assumption into heaven. Many Andorran Catholics will celebrate with going to church, picnics, parties, and spending time with family.


National Day: September 8. Also called Our Lady of Meritxell Day, named after the patron saint of Andorra (the Virgin Mary). Most businesses are closed for the day, and many people will visit church for a special Mass to pay homage to the national saint. They often eat grilled lamb and spend the night dancing, and there’s usually a fireworks display after dark.

All Saint’s Day: November 1. An old celebration I think may be related to the early observance of what Halloween developed from.  Some will take the time to visit of the graves of loved ones to pay homage to their ancestors and tidy up the gravesites. It’s been said that this helps to ease the feeling of the dead, especially to keep those who may not have had a peaceful death from coming back for retribution.

Immaculate Conception: December 8.  A celebration surrounding the idea that Mary was excluded from original sin and became the mother of Jesus. Many Catholics will attend services to place roses at the feet of a statue of Mary.

Christmas Eve: December 24.  Many families see this as a time to get together to celebrate the holiday. Andorran Christians may attend a midnight Mass and followed by a variety of celebrations that include drinking hot wine and eating a variety of special food and sweets.

Christmas: December 25.  There are a lot of popular celebrations in Andorra around Christmastime. Christmas trees and lights decorate the country. Andorran Christians will attend one or more special church services. Exchanging presents is also popular.  Many Andorrans will eat turkey for their Christmas meal along with special Christmas sweets.


Music is really important in Andorra, and several music festivals are held throughout the year.  The International Jazz Festival is held each year in July (I would TOTALLY love to go to that!), and the Festival of Classical Music is held every September (I might as well just stay for this one). There are several music and dance festivals held around the country.  And apparently, there is also the International Women’s Clown Festival held in the capital, Andorra la Vella, if that’s your thing. See, there IS something for everyone.

Up next: Art and Literature

Resources:
Wikipedia articles: “Epiphany” “Constitution Day”

Saturday, March 24, 2012

ANDORRA: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE




Almost every article I read on Andorra started out with something like “Andorra is a tiny country…”.  But when I really started looking at the statistics, I realized (when it comes to area) it is a little less than half of the size of the city where I live, Indianapolis, Indiana. However, it is situated in the middle of the Pyrenees Mountains right between France and Spain, so perhaps it’s not so easy to traverse as it would Indianapolis. (Don’t get a big head because we’re not on top of a mountain, Indy. Try adding more sidewalks and quit letting the bicyclists ride in the same lanes with the cars. Hint, hint.)

 Andorra’s beautiful mountain backdrop does lead it to have a very illustrious ski resort industry. In fact most of Andorra’s economy is from tourism, especially for those who want to get in touch with nature and get away from the bustling European cities. Its capital Andorra la Vella does have modern amenities and cultural events, but even as far as national capitals goes, it’s really not that large (around 25,000 people). It is, however, the highest capital city in Europe, at 3356 ft above sea level. (Still, that’s roughly 2000 ft lower than Denver, Colorado.) Because of its duty-free shopping and no income tax, their hospitality is well known. You won’t have to look far to find a decent hotel room, dining, and shopping.


The interesting thing about Andorra is that the infamous Charlemagne had, in essence, created Andorra as we know it in exchange for having them fight against the Moors during the latter part of the 1200s. There was basically an agreement that it would share leadership with the president of France and the bishop of Urgell (in Spain).

The Andorran people share a culture that is closely related to the Catalonia region on Spain, which is mainly the northeastern portion of Spain. The official language is Catalan, although many people can also speak and/or understand Spanish, French, and Portuguese. I believe, as far as I have been able to find, that Andorra is the only country where Catalan is the official language. It’s spoken in other countries but recognized only as a regional language. I have a basic reading knowledge of both Spanish and Portuguese, and Catalan seems to me to be a mix of the two languages.


Andorrans can also boast to have the 4th longest life expectancy of anyone in the world: 80 years for men and 84 for women. (Just in case you’re wondering who beat them out: #1: Monaco, #2: Macau, #3: San Marino. And they’d be 3rd if we’re only counting UN member states [sorry, Macau].) The vast majority of Andorrans are Roman Catholic.  The good thing about being an Andorran is that your country practically has 100% literary rate and practically everyone has access to basic heath care, clean water and sanitation. 


Because of its unique history and geography, Andorran culture is unique in and of itself. There aren’t a lot of resources out there that really delve into Andorran-specific cultural topics, so in certain cases, I’m going to have to expand it to the broader Catalonian culture. I’m really excited for what’s coming 
 this week. 

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

Resources:
CIA Factbook: Andorra
Wikipedia: “Andorra,” “Andorra la Vella,” “Catalan,” “List of countries by life expectancy,” “Denver,” “Indianapolis”

Sunday, March 18, 2012

ALGERIA: THE FOOD


I started with the flatbread for this one.  Because it took the most time to do, I did it the night before. This flatbread was an adventure for me.  I have to say it didn’t go 1-2-3, starting with the fact that I think I bought the wrong kind of flour. The recipe called for fine whole-wheat flour, and since all I could find at the international supermarket I was at was fine cracked wheat flour, I went with that. I ended up adding what seemed like a lot of regular white flour to it to make it dry enough to knead. And I had to invent some different ways to make it work, all the while I’m thinking, “I’m REALLY not sure this is right.” 


After I let it rest for an hour (let me tell you, I was already ready to rest too), I rolled it out and rubbed it with a turmeric-paprika-cumin-olive oil concoction. I was excited to use turmeric for the first time, but I realized later that it’s the spice that gives mustard its yellow color. It also stains, so be careful using it.


Anyway, I then rolled it into a tube and formed the tube into a spiral. 


After that, I took the spirals, patted them more or less into a ball and rolled them out again.  I cooked them in a hot iron skillet, kind of like you would a pancake.  This bread caused me open my eyes. Here’s what I learned: 1) making bread is NOT for people who want instant gratification and are impatient (like me), 2) my husband, the artist and mechanic, knew a little more about working with dough than I did, 3) sometimes you have to wait for things to set up and happen, and sometimes you have to do things over and over again in order for it to work, and 4) sometimes you just have to make it up as you go and pretend you knew what you were doing the whole time. Kind of like parenting. 


It took forever to cut up all the vegetables for the chicken couscous. Seriously, I swear it took about 6-8 weeks. At least that’s how my feet felt at the end of it all. I could’ve applied and received my passport before I was finished. And even though I’m not a huge fan of cauliflower or turnips, I did cut up a little of each and throw it in the skillet.  I realized it just added to the complexity of the entire dish.  (I had to omit the zucchini because I apparently married a belligerent in the war against the squash family. Having zucchini in the house would have completely violated the terms of war.) One thing that I’ve found with the Algerian recipes I looked through, including this one—and this may be indicative throughout northern African cooking—is that they tend to mix fruits and meats together (like ground beef with peaches), or sweet spices with stronger or spicy ones together (like cinnamon with cumin and cayenne pepper, as in this recipe). I even found that the choice of vegetables also contains these extremes: combining red bell pepper with turnips and/or the cauliflower. It’s this dichotomy of flavors that creates such vim in everyday cuisine. If I stop and really think about what I was eating, I could almost pick out of the cinnamon, the cumin, the garlic, etc. It reminded me of that scene in the film Ratatouille where Remy was trying to explain to his brother what happens when you mix different flavors together to create new ones. Minus the psychedelic clouds of color and food above my head.


I had two other items on the menu that didn’t get made: shrimp charmoula (it required marinating it for at least 8 hours, and I just didn’t have the time or energy to get it done) and mint tea (etzai).  The main reason I didn’t do the tea is because I really wanted to try to go buy a regular teapot (or better yet, perhaps a samovar) before I try to make tea again. This mint tea called to be poured from a height of at least 12 inches, and I really can’t do that from a pot on the stove (well, cleanly, that is).


I think overall, my husband and I liked it more than the kids. My son had been sick for the past couple of days, so I kind of understood if he didn’t eat much.  My daughter said she liked it, but only ate about half.  However, they liked the plain couscous.  That’s good, since it was my first time eating couscous too, much less making it! I bet this would also be good with shrimp or both shrimp and chicken. We are having some unseasonably warm weather in Indiana, so in a way, it sort of acted as a wonderful background to eating Algerian food.


Next up: Andorra

Resources:

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

ALGERIA: MUSIC, ARTS, LITERATURE


When it comes to music, Algeria is probably most well-known for raï music. Starting in the 1930s, it borrowed the styles and forms of Spanish, French and Arab music.  Raï singers are called “cheb” which means “young” in Arabic. I think of it like how some hip-hop artists and rappers use “lil” in front of their names.   

It has its origins in the city of Oran.  And as it became easier to access information and recordings from across the world, raï musicians became influenced by many forms of music: from pop, reggae, funk, and jazz to the sounds of electronic instrumentation.  The lyrics have always been about secular topics, and more specifically, often about social topics. Poverty, war, and racism were among topics that were addressed by the Algerian musicians who sang these messages. However, you can imagine, like in the US, the conservatives didn’t like these liberal messages. There were several raï musicians and producers in the 1990s that were killed because of this by Islamic fundamentalists; the first and most noted was Cheb Hasni. Others in the industry have relocated to France to continue with their music, where it’s created a large raï following overseas.

I see the fact that raï music and its movement in Algeria has, in its form and function, pulled ideas and musical styles from many different styles.  It’s this fusion of instrumentation and musical forms that has created a whole new representation of what the Algerian voice sounds like. Likewise, I see this as a representation of their social and political ideas as well, not staying stagnant with the ideas of the old and what’s-always-been attitudes but branching out and being open to the views of those around them. It’s the idea that change and the incorporation of new ideas is not necessarily a bad thing.

One raï musician that I came across who impressed me is Biyouna.  She's got a mix of jazz and some blues, and I can definitely tell some French influence in her works. This album is amazing.  I found her album Blonde dans la Casbah on iTunes for $10.89.  It’s also available on Spotify, and I’ve put it in my Algeria playlist.


The artist Sting hooked up with Cheb Mami to perform the song “Desert Rose." This obviously shows the influence of raï musicians on the rest of the world. I think it's a great example of how seemlessly they blend the two musical styles together. 


Many Algerian musicians have relocated to other countries and perform there. One R&B singer I came across based out of Canada is Zaho. I’m definitely going to buy the album Dima. It’s available on iTunes for $9.99.  Of course, it’s also in my Spotify playlist for Algeria.


Belly dancing is popular in Algeria.  There is a certain style of belly dancing from the Ouled Nail, one of the Berber tribes. Traditionally, their costumes included a lot of jewelry, coins sewn on the costumes, and heavy make-up.

The Tuareg and Kabyle Berber tribes have some of the most beautiful jewelry I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely my style, using a lot of silver and stones such as red coral, brown agate, tiger’s eye, turquoise, blue agate, black onyx, and green agate.  I found a wonderful site from Australia that sells a lot of Algerian and Moroccan Berber jewelry and textiles. The Berber rugs and clothing are beautiful as well! 


Probably one of the most famous writers to come from Algeria is Albert Camus.  Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 at the age of 43, he was the second-youngest recipient of the illustrious accolade. I’ve read two of his novels, The Stranger (available for $0.99 for Kindle) and The Plague (available for FREE on Kindle), both of which are on my Master Reading List (containing 859 books, of which I’ve read 267). His style is philosophic, and he excelled in absurdism.  I would highly recommend both of these books looking if you’re looking for something new to read. The main languages of Algerian literature are written in either French or Arabic (Camus wrote in French), although Arabs, French, Spanish, Berber and even the ancient Romans have influenced Algerian literature and brought it to what it is today.

Next up: The Food!

Resources:
Wikipedia articles: “Albert Camus,” “Literature of Algeria,” “Raï (music)”

Sunday, March 11, 2012

ALGERIA: HOLIDAYS AND CELEBRATIONS



Because the majority of the country follows Islam, a lot of Algeria’s public holidays are religious-based holidays. But every country has its small nuances in celebrations, even if it’s celebrated in other countries. Many holidays do not have fixed dates since they are based on moon phases and/or other calendars.

New Years Day:  January 1. As with most of the world, they use fireworks to bring in the new year. In many areas of Algeria, they celebrate the new year sometime in the middle of January (between Jan. 12-15, to coincide with the Amazigh [Berber] celebration that begins a new farming year). Many families celebrate by eating chicken and couscous around this time. Businesses are closed during this time.

Mawlid: sometime in February.  It’s also called Mulud in Algeria. It celebrates the birth of the prophet Muhammad. It’s a very festive holiday that involved decorating houses and mosques and eating a lot of special foods. A lot of people will tell stories of the prophet and listen to readings from the Quran at the local mosque. Other people who are able will do service projects and charity within the community.  And of course, no celebration is complete until there’s fireworks. Because, really, you can’t get enough fireworks. Even as an adult, I’m still awed. 


Labor Day: May 1. Most businesses, banks, and government offices are closed for labor day.

Ashura: Ashura is the 10th day of the month of Muharram on the Islamic calendar. Because most Algerians are Sunni Muslims, this “marks the day that Moses fasted as a day of gratitude for the liberation of the Israelites.” One of the events that happen during Ashura is that families will often visit deceased loved ones in cemeteries as an homage to their ancestors.

Independence Day: July 5.  In celebrating Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, everyone wears green, the national color.  There are a lot of national and local festivities involving music, cultural arts, and food. 

Eid ul-Fitr: It marks the end of fasting during the month of Ramadan. It falls on the first full moon following that month, so its date is not fixed. There are special prayers said at this time and many families visit each other at this time. Charity, one of the key principles of the prophet Muhammad, is also encouraged at this time. The consumption of a lot of food is also a traditional festivity during this time.

Anniversary of the Revolution: November 1. This marks the start of the war of independence from France, Nov. 1, 1954. It’s celebrated with a lot of national pride celebrations, much like Independence Day with national dishes of stuffed lamb, fruits, couscous or other local delicacies.

Eid ul-Adha: This is one of the major Islamic holidays of the year. At the end of this three-day celebration, it is marked with a pilgrimage to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia), or a hajj. The trip is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Many also celebrate it by sacrificing an animal in commemoration of when Abraham was told my God to sacrifice his son. Some of the meat is then given out as charity to the poor. 

Weddings are a huge affair in Algeria. It starts out with days of celebration, eating and singing, and then after the actual ceremony takes place, it’s followed by more celebration, sometimes up to another week of festivities. Many marriages are still chosen by the parents in Algeria. There are also special ceremonies and celebrations for other life events, such as births, naming ceremonies, etc.


Up next: Music, Arts, and Literature

Resources:
Wikipedia articles: “Public Holidays in Algeria,” “Ashura”

Saturday, March 10, 2012

ALGERIA: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE



Algeria is a mix of Berber, French, Arab, Turkish, and Spanish influence. It can be seen in its cuisine, in its music, in its language, and in the people. While it has a long dichotomous history of being conquered and independent, it is part of what has made its culture so rich.

Since South Sudan has become independent last summer, Algeria is now the largest country in Africa (as far as area goes).  It’s bordered by Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Morocco, and the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, it’s only about 100-150 miles across the Mediterranean to both Spain and Italy.  


When it comes to biodiversity, there is a lot of variety. The north of the country near the coast has the most fertile areas, where the vast majority of the agriculture is.  Ninety percent of the population lives in the northern regions of the country.  Rich in natural resources, the Atlas Mountains (and its subranges: Tell Atlas, Saharan Atlas and Aurès Mountains) spread across the northern areas of Algeria. South of the Sahara Atlas Mountains lies the well-known and vast Sahara desert. It’s actually spread across 12 different countries.  To get a better idea of just how big the Sahara Desert is, it would be more or less like cutting out the state of California and dumping sand on the rest of the United States. There are areas that can have no rain for up to 20-year periods of time! There are a few national parks and nature reserves that are now popular destinations for wildlife tours.
The country is actually named after its capital, Algiers. No, not the motel I stayed at when I took a vacation to Florida, but the port city on the Mediterranean. The city metro area has about 5 million people; that’s roughly the size of the entire state of Colorado. The next largest city is Oran, an important city for commerce. It’s also the birthplace of raï music, which we’ll get to in a couple of blogs.

Algeria’s official language is Arabic, but more recently is acknowledging the Berber languages, spoken by the native Berbers who ethnically make up the majority of Algerians today.  French is still understood (leftover from the days when it was ruled by the French) and since it is still taught in schools, many can read and write in French. (I’ve been trying to learn French for several years now. The key is that I took it off of my New Year Resolutions list, and voilà: I finally made it through the Berlitz Basic French book.) English is taught in schools as a secondary foreign language (behind French). 

About 99% of Algerians are Muslim, with the remaining 1% being Christian and Jewish. So, it’s not difficult to understand that Islam is a major contributing factor in the everyday lives of Algerians. Since their independence from France back in 1962, many Europeans have also flocked to Algeria. And in more recent years, there have been a push towards a more conservative society and that’s caused some fighting and issues between the conservatives and the more secular movement of people.

Algeria is a complex country with a complex culture. I’m really excited to delve into some of these cultural topics and its cuisine over the next few blogs. Please keep reading; this should be good.


Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

Resources:
Wikipedia: “Algeria,” “Algiers,” “Oran,” “List of US Cities by Population,” “Sahara Desert”
Algeria: www.algeria.com

Sunday, March 4, 2012

ALBANIA: THE FOOD

There were quite a few recipes to go through, but I ended up landing on potato and cabbage soup for the meal, and the bread to go with it was a cornbread with scallions and cheese.  The weather here had turned colder, and there were actually a few flurries out today, so the soup was just the right comfort food for this kind of weather.

I started with the bread first. I had to do a little research with the scallions. I had thought that scallions and green onions were actually two different vegetables, but it turns out they are one and the same. Green onions are really good for drying running noses and aiding with breathing. This bread also called for thyme, which is also used for respiratory problems. Next time I make this, I’ll actually use a little less thyme than what it called for.  A little goes a long way, apparently. On the up side, we’ll all be breathing better, I hope. It called for cottage cheese and I sprinkled feta cheese on top. And of course, some of the feta cheese burnt a little. (That means I hit my quota of burning something.) Otherwise, I liked it, but my husband thought it was a little heavy on the thyme.


The soup’s recipe was a little vague in places, and as a non-cook, I found myself questioning and making stuff up as I went. For example, it never said what kind of vinegar (I used balsamic vinegar since I already had some); it didn’t say what kind of cream (I used sour cream since it was the smallest container I could find). And of course as I started cooking, I realized that I didn’t quite have enough chicken broth (and actually the recipe called for “meat stock,” but I got chicken broth because it said “NO MSG” and since my husband is highly allergic to MSG, it went in the cart) so I searched madly through my kitchen and threw in half of a concentrated chicken broth gel and added a few cups of water. It all turned out well, though: as good as it smelled! I sort of felt like this had the potential of being a train wreck that luckily ended with no injuries and no property damage. My husband, the meatatarian, lamented that this soup had no meat in it. I’m sure I could’ve added some chicken or beef, or even smoked sausage, but the recipe didn’t call for it. And I’m fairly certain his body isn’t going to wage war in the name of one fleshless meal.


My recipe for the bread mentioned that Albanians sometimes served sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with black pepper.  The tomatoes that we had were terrible. You just can’t get good tomatoes in Indiana in early March. They looked good but were bland, and the guts fell out of it like it just committed a botanical hara-kiri. I thought the olive oil and pepper would bring it back to life, but Mother Teresa herself couldn’t have helped these tomatoes. 


Most Albanians follow their meals with a dessert.  It seemed to me that most Albanian desserts included nuts, pastry and/or some kind of syrup.  I was going to make kadaif, but I didn’t have the time to get all the ingredients for this. Instead we had blood orange sorbet and island mango sorbet.  And I’m sure Albanians eat sorbet too, right? I mean it originated from and is popular in the Mediterranean countries and Middle East.

Overall, the soup turned out best, even though I really liked the bread too. I couldn’t help but thinking how simple of a meal this was, and how old of a meal this is. Archaeologists have found evidence of 2400-year-old soup when they’ve dug into ruins in China back in 2010. And bread is one of the earliest forms of food we have, and it’s always remained a staple of high importance.  It’s so important that it’s been incorporated into our religious history (the Biblical story of manna falling from the heavens), children’s stories (The Little Red Hen whose lazy, freeloading friends wouldn’t help make bread but wanted to eat it anyway), and folk tales (it was bread crumbs that Hansel dropped to follow back to the house).

My kids did help make the bread, but my son wasn’t interested in eating any part of it or the bread. I really hope his 3-year-old finicky eater stage wears out soon. My daughter did eat well – she even ate the tomatoes! – and I think she was interested in the topics on Albania we were talking about while we were cooking. That, and she was really happy I bought the Genta album off of iTunes so we could jam to Albanian pop music in the car now. [Note: I have no idea why my camera went back in time with the timestamp. I fix it, then it keeps changing back. My camera retains information about as well as my kids.]


Next country: Algeria

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Cornbread with scallions and cheese: