Monday, 22 February 2010

In the wilderness

My home from home for the moment... The Valle de Castaños, a remote farm in the mountains of northern Spain. 

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Going the whole hog

I've now been away for thirteen days. And on every single one of those days I've eaten jamon in some form or another.

In tortillas and croquettes, whilst sipping a beer before it's gets to ciner (dinner) time. In pintxo, alongside everything from anchovie to asparagus, mushrooms to morcilla, and almost every other ingredient imaginable in the bars of San Sebastian. Stuffed into chunks of fresh baguette from the markets for a cheap mid-morning breakfast or late evening supper. In bocadillos when I haven't fancied a sit down meal. In a refrito with steamed broccoli one long lunchtime. Whole raciones (portions) when I really need a ham hit, or media-raciones if I'm feeling slightly less indulgent. As an appetiser in what was one of the best meals of my life to date. On a pizza, although I'm not sure that really counts... I've even found myself wandering into fancy-looking charcuterías now and again, and ordering a couple of slices of the best on the racks, just to see what a 90-euro per kilogram ham tastes like. It does, of course, taste very, very good, although at that price, a couple of slices is all you need to find out. And if ever there's been a day when I haven't eaten any ham, then I've more than made up for it in chorizo, lomo, morcilla, and many other piggy dishes.  

But it's time to get a bit of perspective. Whilst jamon is a ludicrously tasty, subtly varied, hand crafted, and fairly sustainable product, it also appears on my plate only as a result of an animal being killed. I'm definitely not considering becoming a vegetarian any time soon - it would be difficult in Northern Spain - but I do occasionally feel pangs of guilt-fueled gluttony as I tuck into yet another piece of pig. 

So today I'm setting myself a challenge. If I must insist on having jamon at every given opportunity, then I feel like I need to get a bit closer to the animal which I'm eating. Over the course of the next year, I'm making it my mission to take part in each stage of the process of making jamon: From birthing the piglet, to carving a slice off the bone, and everything in between. And, yes, that means the slaughter too...

[Thanks to Su-Lin for the excellent photo - so much better than any of mine] 

Monday, 8 February 2010

Asador Etxebarri part two - El Sentido

I'm in the back of a cab – which I had to trek across half the city in the rain to catch - heading North by North East of Vitoria, deep into the Basque province of Durangeldea. It's miserable. It's wet. It's literally the middle of nowhere. And I'm running late. I feel like there's only so many times I can say 'tengo prisa' before the otherwise tranquil driver stops the car and threatens to make me walk.

I'm headed to the tiny hamlet of Axpe Marzana. There's not really much there... A dozen or so houses, a couple of ramshackle old barns, a charming enough little square, and today, it would seem, bucket loads of rain. But despite it's remote location, and sleepy disposition, gastro-pilgrims such as myself have been flocking to Axpe in their droves for the last few years. Why? A humble, middle aged chef, who has absolutely no formal training, a home-made grill, and some seriously high-end ingredients. I can't believe I'm going to be late for my reservation at Asador Etxebarri – the greatest grill restaurant in the entire world!

Thirteen courses, one beer, three glasses of wine and two coffees later, and I'm feeling just a little more relaxed. Almost everything I've eaten today has induced a near orgasmic state of ecstacy, with some of the purest, most unadulterated, intense flavours I've ever laid upon my taste buds. I'm in a kind of zen-like plato of fullness, where both body and mind have surpassed all foreseen expectations of stimulation. I'll let you draw your own comparisons...

But as well as coming to eat, I've also come to speak to sous chef Lennox Hastie, about his and head chef Bittor Arguinzoniz's approach to cooking at Asador Etxebarri; namely their complete and un-compromised commitment to la brasa – the grill. Never have I come across a restaurant that pays such attention not only to the ingredients they use, but the means by which they heat them.

To say the menu at Asador Etxebarri is simplistic would be an under statement of epic proportions, like saying El Bulli is a touch extravagant, or Bittor does a decent barbeque. In fact up until recently, there wasn't even a menu at all; just a list of ingredients, or 'products', as Lennox terms them. You could either have them grilled, or not have them at all. As a concept, it's paired down to it's absolute bare bones, but that doesn't mean it's in any way austere. Quite the opposite, in fact. On my menu today was jamon iberico, oysters (which I had to pass up because I'm allergic – I got cockles instead), black truffle, beluga caviar, and some of the finest beef I've ever tasted. I reckon that's about as decadent a selection as you can get.

Bittor is a native Basque countryman who grew up in this very village. An ex-electrician who turned to cooking 20 years ago because he never found his passion in the series of odd jobs he was doing before then. Lennox is an Anglo-Australian who learned his trade in the top-tier French places like Le Manoir and Le Gavrouche, before coming to Spain about four years ago in search of new inspiration. Sitting in a San Sebastian bar one quiet afternoon, he heard about “some guy out in the hills with a home made grill” and has since never looked back.

On paper, the two of them couldn't be more different. But get them together and there seems to be an almost telepathic mutual understanding between them; the kind that could only be the result of a genuine respect for one another, and having spent the last 1300 days or so alone together in a very cramped kitchen. And as well as a respect for one another, they also share a deeply-rooted respect for their ingredients. In Lennox's own words, they spend their working lives “enhancing the food by doing a little as possible”.

We discuss the food of the region and the globally acclaimed, so called new-Basque movement that has put San Sebastian so firmly on the culinary map. Un-surprisingly, both of the chefs in front of me would choose comider casera - simple, home made food prepared with love, over the experimental, avante garde, multi-sensory experiences created by some of their contemporaries. “You don't need to do anything spectacular in the cooking if your ingredients are spectacular already”, says Lennox. My meal today has proved him right.

The only flavour that was added to any of the thirteen dishes I have eaten today have come from the burning wood on top of which they were cooked. Apart from salt, the only seasoning at Asador Etxebarri is smoke.

For two decades, Bittor has been honing and refining his methodology, trying different fuels and temperatures, and has now developed the art of grilling into a science all of his own. The range - which he conceived, designed and built with his own bare hands – along with a whole set of custom-made pots and pans, allow him to both manipulate the heat and regulate the cooking of each and every ingredient.

All the wood is first heated in the stoves to temperatures well beyond 400 degrees C, before being transferred to the grill using a shovel during service. Wood from local acorn-bearing oak trees is used as the base fuel, which burns consistently at a high heat, and gives off only a subtly perfumed smoke. Orange wood from the groves up the side of the hill are used to give citrus background to fish and seafood, whilst applewood is used for dishes like the caviar, where only the lightest of smokey notes is needed. Meat is cooked using aromatic olive and grape vines, to enhance their already strong flavours.

But this isn't about changing the flavours. You're not supposed to sit at the dinner table thinking “mmm, tastes like tempranillo branches”, jokes Lennox... It's about bringing out the flavours that are already there. The two chefs exchange a few words in Spanish, before Lennox turns to me to interpret. “He says it's about the taste of the animal, the earth, the sea.” Bittor curls his bottom lip and shrugs, as if to say what else could you possibly need?

Lennox and I lean at the bar, looking out onto the restaurant. “Bittor has grown up with this”, he says. “It's nothing new to him, just an evolution of the cooking he has known since he was a kid”. For twenty years, whilst the big names in the region have spent their culinary careers making dishes ever more complex, Bittor has been quietly experimenting with simplicity.

“This place isn't about nouvelle creations... It's about refinement of everything that's always been great about Basque cooking.” Pulling a clenched fist towards his chest, he breaks into Spanish: “La comida y el sentido!” The food and the feeling... At Asador Etxebarri, they have found the best of both.

[This is the second part of a previously published post about Asador Etxebarri – sorry for the delay]

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Heaven is a grill house in Gijon

I've just arrived in Gijon, my next port of call along the northern Iberian coast. Although slightly ramshackle around the edges, it's a sturdy looking sort of place; squat and sprawling. The old town and harbour are placed strategically on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the bay, with a long, sweeping playa to one side, and very industrial port stretching for what must be miles to the other.

The city is renowned for it's sidrerias, but as well as the cider, the city's other specialities are the slightly scary-looking ericios (sea urchins) and zamburiñas (little scallops), which are often served with a spicy tomato sauce. I dump my bags and head off in search of a seafood dinner.

By now it's getting late on Sunday... Nothing around the harbour is open, and the fancier places in the main square are a bit beyond my budget. Considering my options, I turn on my heel and head back the way I came, feeling slightly dejected. Until my nose pricks up, that is - there's nothing quite like the smell of sizzling animal flesh to lift the spirits.

Las Brasas - The Grills - is a no frills kind of joint, the equivalent of a greasy spoon back home. The menu is scribbled on plain white paper, one dish per sheet, and Blue-tacked to the wall as you walk in. The sports pages of the Sunday papers are strewn across the high benches near the bar. The table cloths are made of tissue paper. And there's plastic fruit in the fruit bowl. But none of that matters. What matters is the massive grill, filling a whole corner of the room, and the huge array of meat that's taking pride of place upon it.

Behind the counter, the big guy takes the orders and flips the meat, while his wife runs the plates and sets fire to her frying pans at the back with alarming regularity. Still, she's busy back there... Dishes at Las Brasas are either served with fried eggs, patatas fritas, patatas (also fried, just left in potato shape, as opposed to be being cut into chip shape), or, slightly bizarrely, all three... Do you really need chips and fried potatoes?

So far, so greasy, I hear you say - and you would be right - but the meat is definitely a cut above your average car park caff. Huge racks of ribs, plump lomo sausages, juicy looking chuleta, and some of the biggest morcilla I've seen. But aside from the meat, it's the array of people that really sets Las Brasas apart from similar places at home. A group of five pensioners who look as though they've been there for hours chat over the remains of their meal. A family with teenage kids share anecdotes, laughter and desserts by the window. Three men sit at the bar, their attention split equally between the football match on the TV, and the eye-poppingly large mixed grill in front of them. Two well-turned out young children tuck into platefuls of chops as their (very) yummy mummy looks on, adoringly. Two men as wide as they are tall get their protein fix in the corner, tearing the flesh off chicken legs with their teeth. Suddenly, with my huevos con chorizo, I begin to feel slightly inadequate.

By the time I'm done, it's passed half eleven, and whilst the two little kids may still have bags of energy, I'm spent. Just as I'm getting up to leave, the yummy mummy gives a kind of nod-wink-wave gesture in my direction, and what could only be described as a pouting smile. Perhaps my luck really has changed, I think. The pension I'm booked into is pretty shoddy anyway, and hey, I don't have a problem with Spanish kids.

I draw breath and cue up my best sophisticated-Englishman-speaking-Spanish accent. Her eyes widen... Ok, here goes... And then the big guy steps out from right behind me with a huge block of blue cheese, and plonks it on the table in front of them. She grins a Penelope-Cruz-at-the-Oscars kind of grin, and thanks him, as the kids immediately dive in.

A lamb chop and a cheese plate... Now that's my kind of mamma. Ah well... I reckon it's time for me to go home.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

So long, San Sebastian

Mañana, I head west along the coast, past Bilbao, through Cantabria and on to Austurias. Come nightfall, I'll be in Gijon, a city famed for it's surfing, and sawdust-floored sidrerias. 

Goodbye, Basque Country, or "Agur", as they say around here. 

The little hand

For the past three nights I've found myself heading up the same dark, secluded side street, on the hunt for something to satisfy my cravings. I tried it once, and immediately I was addicted. Now I can't get enough.  

I've poked my nose around Calle Agosto, and headed to the dimly lit bar on the corner for what I think might be the best pintxo I've had yet in San Sebastian. The place is called La Cuchara de San Telmo, and despite being in it's tenth year of business, locals still describe it as leading the next generation of pintxo bars in the region. It's slightly more contemporary than a lot of the bars in town, with the kind of almost-grungy style that they seem to do so well in Spain. It's a tiny little place, around the side of the church of Santa Maria in the Parte Viejo, barely big enough for the bar, let alone a kitchen and a room full of diners.

Since Wednesday, I've eaten an amazingly tender braised ox cheek, served in a rich red wine gravy; light and crispy tempura de bacalao; a 'cannelloni' filled with pig, lamb and beef offal stew; grilled rabbit's leg, served with a thin salsa verde, similar to the one I had in Vitoria; pulpo 'Roca' - the Basque way, cooked a la planxa, and served with pickled cabbage; and my personal favourite - for the name if nothing more - Manita de Ministro, or the 'little hand' of a pig. A fried trotter, to you and I.

There's none of your standard pintxo sitting out to dry on the bar top. Instead of drawing punters in with a huge spread consisting mainly of ham plus X on toast, they concentrate on giving the most traditional of Basque recipes a modern twist, and serving them fresh from the kitchen, but in miniature. An absolute must visit for anyone in San Sebastian...

Derby day in Ondorroa

Thirty kilometres or so west of San Sebastian lies the handsome fishing port of Ondarroa, a town that appears almost etched onto either side of the valley that guards the mouth of the Rio Artibai. For the duration of the 45 minute journey here, the sea has pounded at the rocks of the Guipúzcoan coastline, and the skies have looked as though they are about to buckle imminently under their own intense pressure.

No sooner have I stepped off the bus am I looking for shelter again, as the heavens finally unleash a torrent of rainfall onto the shoreline below. The bar across the street looks inviting enough, and at least it has something of the view I had promised myself of the fishing boats, bobbing up and down in the harbour.

Inside the bar there are 30 or more silver haired men, all sporting matching neckerchiefs and berets bearing a motif of the Basque flag. Gesturing wildly at the bar staff, they order rounds and rounds of pintxo, vino and cañas, toasting each other's health with gruff, traditional cheer.

One man tells me in a mix of broken Castellano, Euskara and English that the neckerchiefs are worn in support of the Ondarroa football team, and today, local rivals Lekeitio are in town. After a couple of small beers, I leave los hombres to it... The rain looks like it might be subsiding, and anyway, I'm beginning to get hungry.

As I cross the old stone footbridge, a procession of some sort is taking place. The streets are lined with Basque flags, and a make shift marching band beat out a rhythm to which an unlikely troop of dancers perform a traditional jig. The crowd cheers, car horns blow, dogs bark, and a man with big hair and a scruffy beard lets off flares, slightly too close behind me for comfort.

Unfortunately I have less of a reason to celebrate. The restaurant I had hoped to go to – a traditional place with a huge charcoal grill outside you can smell from across the river – is fully booked for a party. Plan B, then. There was a bar back over the bridge which had drawn a crowd, the pintxo looked good, it's seems a long time since breakfast, and to be honest, now I'll eat anything.

I take a seat to one side, away from the hubbub, and land myself a good view of the little TV screen in the corner, which is showing Premier League football. I'm just in time for the Merseyside Derby.

The menu del dia looks decent enough, and there's no sense in moving now, so I order the platos degustacion, figuring that in this proximity to the sea, I'm bound to get some seafood. As it happens, the closest I come is a 'crab' mayonnaise, made out of the little pink and white sticks as opposed to the actual creatures that are probably crawling around the harbour, less than thirty foot away. Still, the chorizo is good, and there's a few slices of fairly nutty jamon. As I polish it off, for the first time on my trip, I begin to consider the relationship between animal fat and cholesterol levels.

I've also ordered solomillo, which I thought was salmon, but is in fact some rather bland grilled pork. Serves me right for not checking the translation. And for dessert I have tarte de queso. Frozen cheese cake, served with squirty cream. On a warm plate. I can't say it paints the prettiest of pictures as it melts into various splodges across my plate. Well, at least you can count on the wine around here. As I pour another glass, Dirk Kuyt puts Liverpool 1-0 up against the Toffees. There's a close up of the crowd going wild in the Kop end; they don't look half as rowdy as the gents with the berets in the bar earlier! I sit back and hope the second half is more exciting than my dinner...

It's still raining as I leave the bar, a couple of hours later. As well as the Liverpool match, I've been entertained by a party of 20-odd, loudly celebrating their friend's birthday, and groups of merry young lads, revelling in their day of leisure. Walking through the old town, I hear cheering and deep baritone chorus coming from bars on either side of the street. It seems as though there is much to be happy about in Ondarroa, despite the weather.

Friday, 5 February 2010


San Sebastian can be a hard place to stomach if, like me, you have a very big appetite, and very little will power. Almost every single bar top is chock full of tempting little morsels that just beg to be devoured. Going for a quite glass of wine can become an excrutiating exercise in self control. I find myself having to will my hands to remain by my sides, for fear of otherwise devouring the whole spread in the time it takes to down a glass of vino.

The quality of pintxos here is universally very high – San Sebastian's reputation has not been gained without good reason - but why be content with what's good, when you know that excellence is lurking somewhere around the corner? Finding it, however, can be the difficult thing.

So having already spent a couple of days trying my luck at whichever bars caught my eye, earlier on this week, I was lucky enough to be taken on a tour of the old town by a friend who is not only a born and bred local lad, but also a fully-fledged foodie. This man really knows his pintxo bars.

Unsurprisingly, each bar has it's specialities, the two or three dishes in which they really excel. Our tour took us in a series of concentric circles through the old town, stopping off for jamon in one place, bacalao in the next, then octopus in another, then calamari, then hake, and so and so on... Apparently all the inhabitants of San Sebastian have their own little routes around the town, taking in their favourite haunts, in whatever order suits their taste buds that night.

But if you're new in town, how do you find out about these specialities? One option might be to eat every single dish in the whole town, which is something I'm obviously not averse to... Another is to guage the bar by it's tortilla de patata. The best ones will be nice and thick, evenly coloured on the outside, light and creamy in the middle, with onions that someone has taken the time to caramelise, and potato that still has just a little bit of bite. If they get their tortilla right, then it's probably worth ordering another crianza and finding a comfortable spot to lean at by the bar.

The other thing about pintxo is that whilst all the bar-top tapas are great, the real gems are on the pintxo caliente menu – the ones that are made to order. As I was told, the chef isn't going to want their specialities to be sitting out getting dry for an hour or two before someone eats them. They'll want it served at it's very best, fresh from the kitchen. Look out for the subtle variations of dishes from bar to bar... How do they serve their rabas (calamari)? Is their pulpo de galego (Galician-style; boiled and served with paprika), or a la planxa (Basque-style; seared in a very hot pan)? What's in their morcilla? Arroz (rice)? Peñas (pine nuts)? Pasas (raisins), even? If they pass the tortilla test, and they do something interesting involving your favourite ingredient on the menu, then you're probably in for a tasty night.

Of course, there are visual cues too; If there are three dozen cured pig's legs hanging above the bar, then you can be pretty sure they hold faith in their jamon. And good for them, I say... Swiftly followed by “una raciones, por favor?!”