Love and literacy: Book Day in Spain

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For book lovers and writers in Spain, April 23rdroses outside bookshop, World Book and Copyright Day, is characterised by an expression of love. A book and a rose are given as presents to loved ones to celebrate El Dia del Libro (Book Day) all over the country.

Originally started in Barcelona, in the 1920s, by the writer Vicente Clavel, Book Day later went on to become declared World Book and Copyright Day by UNESCO.

Clavel, who lived in Barcelona, came up with the idea of a day to celebrate books and reading. Since the 15th century people had given roses to their loved ones on April 23rd the day of the patron saint, San Jordi (St George), in Catalonia. Realising that April 23rd was also the anniversary of the death of both Miguel Cervantes and William Shakespeare, it was decided to celebrate Book Day in Spain on this day and encourage people to give books as presents.

At first, men gave a rose to women on this day and women gave a book to men. Nowadays, books and roses are given as presents to both men and women. Schools, bookshops, readers, writers and publishers celebrate this day all over Spain. Bookshops decorate their shop windows with roses and events take place with readings and authors signing books.

Books and flowers outside the bookshop in Chipiona
Books and flowers outside the bookshop in Chipiona, Andalucia

In Catalonia it’s a big event and you will find La Rambla in Barcelona lined with book and flower stalls. The area quickly fills with crowds of people buying books and roses as an expression of love for their families, friends and partners.

In the mid-1990s Book Day became a worldwide festival and was declared World Book and Copyright Day by UNESCO. Every year on April 23rd a city takes over the honour of being World Book Capital  to promote books and reading for the following 12 months. This year, 2017, Conakry, the capital of Guinea has been designated World Book Capital. Conakry’s mission is “”to promote reading among youth and underprivileged sections of the population.” (Source: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/wbcd).

As books can be expensive in some parts of the world and libraries are scarce, UNESCO is encouraging the use of mobile telephones for reading as mobiles are cheap and widely available. Mobile devices are often used as a reading platform and can be accessed in areas where people can’t afford books or education is seen as a social stigma.

As a bookworm, or ratón de biblioteca (a library mouse), as they say in Spanish, I can´t imagine my life without books or reading. I am grateful for all the things I have learnt, the feelings I have felt, the places I have visited, the adventures I have lived and the people I have met in books.  In the words of William Styron:

A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”

Which book would you like to give as a present to a loved one to show you care?

Sweet treats in Spain: Torrijas at Easter

Semana Santa, or Holy week, is a week of processions and traditional food leading up to Easter in Spain. If you have never seen a Semana Santa procession, it’s quite something. In the larger cities, people come out in their droves to watch the religious effigies passing by accompanied by sombre music. The procession goes on for hours at a time and consists of a paso – large wooden statues of Jesus and Mary on a float along with other representations of the Christian portrayal of Easter. It’s impressive, not only because of the decoration, fresh flowers and the robes and candles of the penitents that follow the effigies, but also because the representation is carried on the shoulders of people, generally men, who have been in training for weeks.

In the villages, it’s often a challenge as they move the ‘paso’ around tight corners and along narrow streets.  Probably, the one that impressed me the most was in the smaller town of Salobreña in the province of Granada. The effect of the colours against the background of the white village was breath taking. This was also the first time I experienced La Saeta – a religious song sung a capella in which the singer shows his devotion to the statue in the procession.  A band playing through the streets is always enough to make me want to watch any procession, but the saeta was something else. A powerful voice reaching out across the square was the only sound you could hear amongst the crowd.

Sweet Treats

Semana Santa is also a week for eating and dining out with friends and family. While there are various traditional sweet dishes during Holy Week, one of my favourites is Torrijas – a type of sweet French toast.

While the recipe varies slightly all over Spain, typically Torrijas are made from bread left to soak in milk or wine, dipped in egg, fried and covered in a sweet syrup.

Torrijas are widely available in Spanish cake shops during Lent and are often made at home too. It’s a simple process to make these delicious treats. You’ll find the Spanish either eating them for breakfast or with an afternoon coffee.

How to make Torrijas

I’ve been told the trick is to use day old bread and whole milk. In Chipiona the local sweet wine Moscatel is often used to soak the bread rather than milk. The Torrijas are fried and then bathed in syrup producing a rich, sweet and filling treat. While some people make the syrup with hot water and sugar, Benjamin’s mum, Carmen, uses hot water and honey with a pinch of salt creating a sweet syrup called meloja.  The quantity of each ingredient depends on the amount you wish to prepare.

  1. Soak the bread in milk with a pinch of salt or wine for at least 30 minutes
  2. Beat some eggs with milk
  3. Dip the bread soaked in milk or wine into the egg mixture  torrija in egg
  4. Fry the bread in hot oil  frying pan and torrijas
  5. Remove each slice carefully from the frying pan and place on kitchen paper to cool and drain off any excess oil.

The syrup

To prepare the syrup – heat a pan of water, add plenty of honey and a pinch of salt. Once the mixture has reached boiling point, lower the heat and keep stirring until the syrup thickens. meloja simmering

Once the bread has cooled, you can dip each slice into the hot syrup using a pair of tongs. It’s torrijas banadas en melojaimportant that the bread has cooled otherwise it will disintegrate in the syrup.  Put the bread slices onto a plate or a container and pour the rest of the syrup over the top so that the slices remain moist. Once they have cooled, they are ready to eat and will last for a few days if kept in an airtight container. I don’t know about other Spanish families, but here the Torrijas don’t usually make it to the air-tight container however many Carmen makes!

While this might sound overly sweet, the bread gives it a savoury touch.  I’m not very sweet-toothed but I have to admit I love home-made Torrijas.

Variations on the recipe include adding cinnamon to the milk when soaking the bread and lemon peel to the oil when frying.

If you are looking for an energy boost Torrijas are ideal. Apparently, before they became associated with Semana Santa they were given to women in labour to recover their strength after giving birth.

If you have enjoyed reading this or make your own Torrijas, I’d love to hear about it in the comment box below.

 

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