Mua (think ‘hmmwah’) is supposedly the onomatopoeia of the sound of a kiss. Yes, I just wrote onomatopoeia, and I freely admit that I had to look it up. In essence, it is a word that mimics the sound of what is described. So in Spain, a noisy smack on the cheek sounds like Mua, and Mua becomes a word to describe a kiss. Or a cheese, in this case. It comes in the shape of a heart, wrapped in a white paper dotted with red lips (“Mua!, mua!, mua!, mua!, mua!….).
The cheese comes from the island of Menorca, which has a very long tradition of cheese making: Spain’s famous Mahón cheese is from here, the Mua is a very recent addition to the cheese palette of the island. The milk for this cheese is produced by the Holstein or Menorquina cows that are largely allowed to roam in freedom over the pastures of the windswept island.
It comes in two varieties and mine had its white rind covered in crushed chamomile flowers, which gave it its very unusual flavor. The paste of the cheese is supple with a bit of a bite and very smooth. It is aged for a minimum of 45 days, which is enough to allow for a lot of flavor development. Mua with chamomile is a real standout, not something you’d find just anywhere.
I also picked up a piece of smoked cheese, the San Simon da Costa, which is protected with a DOP. It has a distinct smoky flavor and a sticky, dense paste which is very creamy. And of course, a piece of Manchego, that most Spanish of cheeses. Given its bold, well-rounded flavor, it is not difficult to see why Manchego is such a favorite. It is a hard cheese, but still very smooth and not all that crumbly. While some sheep’s milk cheese gets quite sharp with age, the Manchego is robust but never all that sharp. A king among the sheep’s milk cheeses.
Oh boy, Madrid is hot. In July and August, the highs are routinely in the 90s but I was there in June and I was dripping my way around. I ended up here because of Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd duke of Alba. No, I was not going to meet him for some tapas and a glass of sangria. He’s dead, and that is not such a bad thing. First off, he would be 508 years old and probably reeking a bit. Secondly, he was a meanie. When my people revolted against Spanish rule, that nasty King Philip II (we hates him) sent the duke to the Low Countries where he truly unfolded all his potential to be a monumental ass. And then, to top it off, he was a thief. He stole all kinds of things from the Nassaus, the family that led the revolt and among the pilfered goods was a triptych by Jheronimus Bosch, the Garden of Earthly Delights. According to at least one historian, the duke of Alba had the secretary of the Nassaus, who knew where the painting had been hidden, pretty much tortured to death, so that he was able to take it and bring it to Spain. This is not where the sordid story stops. Apparently, a big reason to get the painting was that his lord was very fond of the work of the Dutch master, and now he, Fernando, could come home to Spain with one of the best things Bosch had ever painted. His Dukeness, so the story goes, always felt somewhat underappreciated by the king, whose bacon he saved again, and again, and again. In your face, you ungrateful monarch! I have the best Bosch ever!
Alas, it did not last. Eventually, the triptych became part of the royal collection and therefore, I had to go to Madrid to see it. On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death, the Prado threw El Bosco a party in the shape of a major exhibition. This was my second one after Den Bosch so I am having a good Bosch year on top of a good cheese year. The Prado exhibit was, admittedly, more impressive than the one in the Noordbrabants Museum. And even if my main reason to visit the Prado was Bosch, there is a mountain of other art to see there: Goya’s pinturas negras, some splendid works by El Greco, and enormous amounts of lush nudity in the numerous works by Peter Paul Rubens, that cheeky purveyor of 17th century super-soft porn.
On my way to Portugal, I had to change planes in Madrid, so I added a single day and for my very brief time, I decided I could reasonably spend the afternoon pursuing cheese after overloading on that other culture in the morning. Initially, I was to go to the Poncelet cheese bar near my hotel, but that was closed by the time I got there, because I ended up wandering the old city for much of the afternoon. So after I had already spent a bit of time at what had become my favorite place in all of Madrid – the Mercado de San Miguel – I went right back there, for more food and more cheese.
I had already picked up a bit of cheese tapas-style, at Mya, a cheese stall that sells portions of the best Spanish cheeses, but also a lot of international ones. The covered market is, yes indeed, a highlight for tourists and, yes, quite gentrified, but still: it is a delight for the senses – all of them.
The smells obviously are incredible, as are the flavors. But on top of that, the food looks gorgeous and the place is just teeming with activity and noises. Before I went for some cheese to take with me to my hotel room, I decided to have some other foods as well, and I settled on a stand that sold all manners of seafood.
Here, I had to try to barnacles, which are such strange-looking shellfish that they practically dare you to eat them. I also tried some smooth clams and washed it all down with a glass of crisp dry white.
I then headed to the cheese place, got a piece of San Simon da Costa, a smoked cow’s milk cheese, a chunk of Manchego, a hard sheep’s milk cheese and half a Mua, the 23rd cheese of the week – see my post for that one. I returned to my hotel by metro, which is a rather ugly (think bad 1970s-colored tiles) but very clean and safe way to get around in Madrid. Perfect also because it is underground and air-conditioned – so the dripping can be brought under control.
The reason I was in the Netherlands for a quick visit in week 12 of this year was an exhibit in the city of ‘s Hertogenbosch. That’s a mouthful of Dutch, but all it really means is “Duke’s Forest”. In the late Middle Ages, the city was one of the largest in the Duchy of Brabant, along with Louvain, Brussels and Antwerp. The Belgian fight for independence, which officially ended with the treaty of Maastricht in 1843, cut the duchy in half, and north of the border, Noord-Brabant became a Dutch province and Den Bosch (for short) its rather quiet capital. Today, the city is overshadowed in the province by Eindhoven of Philips fame, but from its heyday date both a very large (for the Netherlands) Gothic cathedral as well as its other big claim to forever-after fame. Around the middle of the 15th century, a certain Joen or Jeroen van Aken was born here, and he was to become the most famous Dutch painter of his time as Jheronimus Bosch (usually spelled Hieronymus in English). As was the case with other painters of his time, many of his works eventually ended up far away from Den Bosch, because the Netherlands were variously owned and operated by Burgundy, France, Austria or Spain, and their kings, dukes and princes took away a lot of art, sometimes paying for it, too.
Sadly, the city couldn’t show a single painting of its famous son in its museum, and something had to be done for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Bosch’ death in 1516. Enter a team of art experts assembled to conduct the most comprehensive study of Bosch work ever, with an intriguing proposal to any museum or gallery willing to participate in a trade: we provide research and restoration services for free, and in return, we get to have your Bosch paintings or drawings for our exhibit. The idea worked like a charm, and this spring, the spectacular exhibit brought close to half a million visitors to Den Bosch. In city parks, unsettling three-dimensional monstrous sculptures, lifted out of Bosch’ paintings created a strange cityscape, many local merchants got into the act and for a few months, den Bosch was all about its famous son, who is honored with a statue in the main market.
I stayed in the Duke hotel, a modern, friendly place that has top-floor rooms with views all over the city. Many little details, such as a fun collection of snacks, an XXL shower and the integration of bits and pieces of the old building in the decidedly modern aesthetic made my room a lot of fun to be in. Aside from the exhibit, visitor had a chance to climb to the roof of the cathedral, to see the sculptures on the flying buttresses that support the walls up close. 82 feet over the city is a wondrous world of medieval craftsmen, strange gargoyles and human-animal hybrids straight out of a Bosch painting.
The church’s interior is certainly worth a visit, but it pales in comparison to the thrilling roof exploration. All sculptures have been replaced in the late 19th century and some have been replicated more faithfully than others, but overall, the sense of being in a world Hieronymus Bosch would have felt right at home with added tremendously to my visit.
In the meantime, the Bosch circus has moved on to Madrid. The royal Spanish thieves of yore ensured that the Prado today has the largest single museum’s collection of Bosch’ works, and it was easy to get other museums to pitch in: the Prado has plenty of bargaining power: “I’ll give you a fistful of Goya for your El Bosco triptych”. Den Bosch is recovering from the visitors (the museum was open around the clock in the last days of the exhibit) and things are returning to normal. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, the inside of the church is certainly worth a peek, the cafes are very inviting, Bosch statue is still there, and a little boat tour on the Dieze, the little stream that runs under and through the old city is a great way to get a perspective that is a little different.