May 092016


Today is the birthday (1883) of José Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher and essayist who is not exactly a household name in the Western world partly because much of his work has not been translated and its tenor is distinctly Spanish. Furthermore, his work tends to be grouped with more mainstream writers, which, I believe, is a mistake.

Ortega y Gasset was born in Madrid where his father was director of the newspaper El Imparcial, founded by his mother’s family. His family was part of Spain’s fin de siècle liberal and educated bourgeoisie which colored Ortega’s life and work. Ortega was educated in various schools and universities around Spain from 1891 to 1904, ending up with a doctorate from the Central University of Madrid (now Complutense University of Madrid). From 1905 to 1907, he continued his studies in Germany at Leipzig, Nuremberg, Cologne, Berlin and, Marburg. On his return to Spain in 1908, he was appointed professor of Psychology, Logic and Ethics at the Escuela Superior del Magisterio de Madrid, and in October 1910 he was appointed to the chair of Metaphysics at Complutense University of Madrid.


In 1917 he became a contributor to the newspaper El Sol, where he published, as a series of essays, his two principal works: España invertebrada (Invertebrate Spain) and La rebelión de las masas (The Revolt of the Masses). The latter made him internationally famous. He founded the Revista de Occidentes in 1923, remaining its director until 1936. This publication promoted translation of (and commentary upon) the most important figures and tendencies in philosophy, including Oswald Spengler, Johan Huizinga, Edmund Husserl, Georg Simmel, Jakob von Uexküll, Heinz Heimsoeth, Franz Brentano, Hans Driesch, Ernst Müller, Alexander Pfänder, and Bertrand Russell.

Ortego was elected deputy for the Province of León in the constituent assembly of the Second Spanish Republic and was the leader of a parliamentary group of intellectuals known as Agrupación al Servicio de la República (“The Group in the Service of the Republic”). Eventually he became disillusioned with politics, and left Spain at the outbreak of the Civil War.  He spent his years of exile in Buenos Aires until moving back to Europe in 1942.  In 1948 he returned to Madrid, where he founded the Institute of Humanities, at which he lectured.


It’s really difficult to peg Ortega’s belief system, not least because his work does not translate well. That fact is undoubtedly true of all continental philosophy. Let’s take his most famous phrase, “yo soy yo y mi circunstancia.” Sure you can translate this as “I am myself and my circumstances” and that gets at a part of what he is trying to convey – but it misses part of it too. Perhaps I can sum up his philosophy, simplistically as always, by saying that Ortega sees the individual (and reality) as the collision of a host of internal and external factors. There is no ‘me’ without things, and things are nothing without me. There is a continual dialectical interaction between the person and his or her “circumstances.”

Ortega wrote that life is at the same time fate and freedom, and that freedom “is being free inside of a given fate. Fate gives us an inexorable repertory of determinate possibilities, that is, it gives us different destinies. We accept fate and within it we choose one destiny.” Within an inexorable fate we must be active and create a “project of life”— not be like those who live a conventional life of customs and given structures and who prefer an unconcerned and imperturbable life because they are afraid of the duty of choosing a life path of their own.


Ortega turned Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” on its head and asserted “I live therefore I think”.  Absolute truth does not exist; only a summation of different perspectives. Ortega coined the term “razón vital” (“living reason” or “reason with life as its foundation”) to refer to a new type of reason that constantly questions in order to create a project of life. I can’t convey much of this agenda in a short post, but here’s a few quotes:

Each species builds up its stock of useful habits by selecting among, and taking advantage of, the innumerable useless actions which a living being performs out of sheer exuberance.

Humanity’s being is made of such strange stuff as to be partly akin to nature and partly not, at once natural and extranatural, a kind of ontological centaur, half immersed in nature, half transcending it.

We are physical emigrants on a pilgrimage of being, and it is accordingly meaningless to set limits to what we are capable of being.

You get the idea. I find Ortega quite inspirational. He decried the 20th century’s blind faith in science as the solution to all ills, and the sole arbiter of reason and truth. I see that, along with a host of other great thinkers, as the deadly inheritance of the Enlightenment followed by the Industrial Revolution. Sure, we can do amazing things now with our technology, but trust in technology and the path of modern science alone is ultimately limiting and (literally) soul destroying.

Madrid is a foodie city of a certain type. Spanish cuisine has been described as “meat and potatoes” but I’m inclined to paraphrase Winnie the Pooh in saying, “yes, but never mind the potatoes.” Spanish food is heavily dominated by protein  — meat first, followed by eggs and cheese. My first meal in Madrid was half a rabbit (head and all) with a few vegetables as an afterthought. I frequented tapas bars in the evenings where meat and egg dishes predominate.


Callos a la Madrileña is a favorite of mine (and of old-school Madrileñas) – ox tripe, chorizo, and blood sausage in a paprika-laced broth. I’ll spare you the recipe. In any case, you need to find it in Madrid in order to get the proper ingredients. Both chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage) come in a wealth of varieties. I used to make it in Buenos Aires, but it had a distinct Argentine tinge. The classic Madrid home cooked dish is cocido Madrileño, akin to pot au feu, bollito misto etc – that is, dump meat and vegetables of choice into a pot and simmer for hours. Recipe here — .


A very popular dish in homes and restaurants in Madrid is huevos rotos, which translates as “broken eggs.” It can be eaten for lunch or dinner, even though it looks like a breakfast dish to Anglos. You’ll need potatoes, meat, and eggs.  The meat is normally local ham (such as jamón Serrano), sliced very thinly, but can also be sliced chorizo or morcilla. Peel and cut the potatoes into strips and shallow fry them in olive oil. Drain and keep them warm on a heated plate. Fry one or two eggs per person in the olive oil, so that the white is firm but the yolk is runny. Lay the ham over the potatoes and place the eggs on top. To eat huevos rotos, break the yolk with a knife or a piece of bread, and let it run over the ham and potatoes.


Frying the perfect egg for huevos rotos is an art that takes practice. You should heat the oil over medium heat only.  Break the egg into the pan, and gently flip some of the oil over the white as it cooks. It’s best if you do one egg at a time and serve them immediately. If the oil is too hot the white will brown and crisp (which you do not want). The white should be cooked through. In the U.S. it is customary to flip the egg (“over easy”), but in Europe they do not do this. The white can be fully cooked if you are careful.

Jan 092016


An autogyro was first flown on this date in 1923, at Cuatro Vientos Airfield in Madrid. An autogyro (from Greek α’υτός + γύρος, self-turning), also known as gyroplane, gyrocopter, or rotaplane, is a type of rotorcraft which uses an unpowered rotor in autorotation to develop lift, and an engine-powered propeller, similar to that of a fixed-wing aircraft, to provide thrust. While similar to a helicopter rotor in appearance, the autogyro’s rotor must have air flowing through the rotor disc to generate rotation. The autogyro was invented by the Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva to create an aircraft that could fly safely at slow speeds. De la Cierva’s aircraft resembled the fixed-wing aircraft of the day, with a front-mounted engine and propeller in a tractor configuration to pull the aircraft through the air.

An autogyro is characterized by a free-spinning rotor that turns because of passage of air through the rotor from below. The vertical (downward) component of the total aerodynamic reaction of the rotor gives lift for the vehicle, and sustains the autogyro in the air. A separate propeller provides forward thrust, and can be placed in a tractor configuration with the engine and propeller at the front of the fuselage, or pusher configuration with the engine and propeller at the rear of the fuselage.


Whereas a helicopter works by forcing the rotor blades through the air, drawing air from above, the autogyro rotor blade generates lift in the same way as a glider’s wing by changing the angle of the air as the air moves upwards and backwards relative to the rotor blade. The free-spinning blades turn by autorotation; the rotor blades are angled so that they not only give lift, but the angle of the blades causes the lift to accelerate the blades’ rotation rate, until the rotor turns at a stable speed with the drag and thrust forces in balance.

Because the craft must be moving forward (with respect to the surrounding air) in order to force air through the overhead rotor, autogyros are generally not capable of vertical takeoff or landing (unless in a strong headwind). A few types can perform very short takeoff and landing.

Pitch control of the autogyro is provided by tilting the rotor fore and aft; roll control by tilting the rotor laterally (side to side). A rudder provides yaw control. On pusher configuration autogyros, the rudder is typically placed in the propeller slipstream to maximize yaw control at low airspeed. If you are still confused here is a wonderful newsclip from 1931 explaining the dynamics, as well as showing an autogyro’s various tricks (including “parachuting” safely to the ground should the engine fail).

Autogyros have some commercial uses nowadays, but are more common among hobbyists as an alternative to ultralight aircraft.


My favorite use of an autogyro is in the 1981 post-apocalyptic thriller, Mad Max 2, also known as Road Warrior. The autogyro is a perfect vehicle for a world where fuel is in short supply, and mechanical ingenuity is at a premium. The autogyro’s pilot, Gyro Captain, and his contraption play a pivotal role in the movie’s plot, and, to my mind, are the chief stars of the movie – much more than the inherently violent and soulless Max himself.

Since the autogyro is a Spanish invention, first flown in Madrid, it’s appropriate to showcase a classic Madrid recipe. Madrid is not a bad foodie city, although it is a bit limited. Meals of tapas, small dishes to be shared, are very common. But there are also hearty main dishes. I’ll spare you callos a la madrileña, tripe with blood sausage and pig’s trotters in a rich sauce, even though it is a favorite. Here’s a picture anyway.


Instead here is cocido Madrileño, or simply cocido, a version of the pan-European dish of various boiled meats (simmered with chick peas). As with all such dishes, you don’t need a precise recipe, just a general idea. The main ingredient of cocido is the chickpea or garbanzo. Vegetables are added: potatoes mainly, but also cabbage, carrots, and turnips. In some cases, green bean, mangold and cardoon are also added. The main meats used are fresh pork belly, fresh (unsmoked) chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), and dried and cured jamón serrano. Beef shank and a whole chicken are also quite common additions, especially for festive occasions, as well as some marrow bones to enrich the stock. For some extravagant recipes, the final touch is the bola, a meatball-like mix of ground beef, bread crumbs, parsley and other spices.


Tradition rules that the ingredients of cocido must be served separately. Each serving is known as a vuelco (tipping or emptying out), as at each time the pot must be emptied out to separate the ingredients. The first vuelco is the stock of the cocido either plain or with small noodles cooked in it. The second vuelco consists of the chickpeas and the vegetables. The third vuelco is the meat. Here is how I do it.

Cocido Madrileño

Place your chosen meats, at minimum pork belly, ham, and marrow bones, in a large stock pot. If you are using a chicken, place it on top. Add dried chick peas that have been soaked overnight. Cover with stock and bring slowly to a gentle simmer. Add a couple of bay leaves, a whole bulb of garlic, peeled, and an onion studded with cloves. Simmer for 2 hours or more until the meat is very tender.

In a separate pot place savoy cabbage wedges, quartered potatoes, carrot chunks, chopped leeks, and whatever sausages you like, preferably unsmoked Spanish chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage). Cover with stock and simmer until the potatoes are tender. At one time the vegetables and meats were all cooked in one pot, and you can still do this as long as you let the meats cook by themselves first, to avoid overcooking the vegetables.

To serve, strain off the broth and serve it as a first course. For the second course place the chickpeas in a large serving bowl with the sausages, sliced, on top, and place the other vegetables in another serving dish. Last, debone all the meats and serve them sliced.


Feb 192014


Today is the birthday (1743) of Luigi Rodolfo Boccherini, Italian classical era composer and cellist whose work has a certain courtly air because he wrote most of his more famous pieces away from the major musical centers of his day and they retained an “old” feel. Chances are that if you do not know anything else he wrote, you know his minuet from his String Quintet in E major, Op. 11, No. 5 (G 275).

He was a prolific composer as well as cello virtuoso, but for a long time was sidelined, or mutilated, in music history and had to be “rediscovered” in the mid-twentieth century. For example, his well known Cello Concerto in B flat major (G 482) was generally played in a heavily altered version by German cellist Friedrich Grützmacher. It is now restored to its original form. One day, I’ll write a whole post on what nineteenth century “arrangers” did to classical works.  He was dismissed in the nineteenth century as “Haydn’s wife.”

Boccherini was born in Lucca, in northern Italy, into a musical family. At a young age he was sent by his father, a cellist and double bass player, to study in Rome. In 1757 they both went to Vienna where they were employed by the court as musicians in the Burgtheater. In 1761 Boccherini went to Madrid, where he was employed by Infante Luis Antonio of Spain, younger brother of King Charles III. Boccherini generally flourished in Spain, but one day the king expressed disapproval of a passage in a trio Boccherini was working on.  So he doubled the passage to spite him, and was dismissed by the king.

He then accompanied the Infante to a palace in Arenas de San Pedro, a little town in the Gredos mountains where Luis Antonio had been exiled by the king for marrying a commoner. There, and in the closest town of Candeleda, Boccherini played and wrote many of his most famous works under the Infante’s patronage.

Boccherini was a renowned cello virtuoso.  One of my favorite stories is that he could play the chamber violin repertoire on the cello, at pitch, because he sometimes stood in for violinists who were sick. Although much of Boccherini’s chamber music follows models established by Joseph Haydn, Boccherini is often now credited with enhancing the model, especially of the string quartet, by giving the cello more prominence.

My favorite piece by far is Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid (G 324) – “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid.” It evokes the sounds of the Madrid he remembered before he was exiled.  It was originally scored as a quintet for 2 violins, viola, and 2 cellos, but is often played now by larger or smaller ensembles with different instruments.  The original has 7 movements (which are also sometimes played selectively rather than as a whole):

Le campane de l’Ave Maria – The Ave Maria Bell; the main church calls the faithful for the Ave Maria prayers.

Il tamburo dei Soldati – The Soldiers’ drum.

Minuetto dei Ciechi – The Minuet of the Blind Beggars. Boccherini directed the cellists to place their instruments upon their knees, and strum them, like guitars.

Il Rosario  – The Rosary, a slow section not played in strict time.

Passa Calle  – The “Passacaglia” of the Street Singers, (Los Manolos), lower-class show offs. It is not a true passacaglia. In Spanish, pasa calle means “pass along the street,” and the idea is to imitate the amusement of people (probably drunk) singing in the streets.

Il tamburo – The drum.

Ritirata  – The retreat (of the Madrid military night watch). After this there was a curfew, and the streets were closed for the night.

The composition was famous in Spain during Boccherini’s lifetime. However, it was not published until years after Boccherini’s death, because, he told his publisher: “The piece is absolutely useless, even ridiculous, outside Spain, because the audience cannot hope to understand its significance, nor the performers to play it as it should be played.” As far as I am concerned he still has that correct. The version I give here is not awful.

Lucca has a well known cuisine.  Here is Garmugia, a wonderful soup of spring green vegetables. The original peasant dish of the 16th century probably had very little meat. You can make it meatless. Cook’s choice. Proportions here are just from my head.  Make sure only that you use fresh spring green vegetables; the rest is up to you. It should be thick and hearty.




3 scallions, chopped
2 artichoke hearts, sliced
3 or 4 asparagus spears, chopped
4 ozs fresh broad beans
4 ozs fresh peas
4 ozs ground veal
10 ozs pancetta (Italian bacon), diced
4 cups vegetable stock
olive oil
salt, pepper


Sauté the scallions and diced pancetta in a dutch oven or heavy stock pot with a little olive oil. Once the scallions have softened, add the ground veal and brown it over high heat, stirring frequently.

Add the broth and vegetables and cook covered over low heat for about 30 to 40 minutes, with salt and pepper to taste. You may lengthen or shorten your cooking time depending on how soft you want the vegetables to be.

Serve with toasted Italian bread croutons or slices.