If I could turn back time I would love to see the look on my face when two amazing people invited me to lunch at the 3 Michelin Star Arzak in San Sebastián. Even better, the look on their faces when my original response was a no. I must have had some type of momentary mental lapses or something of the like. Good thing I quickly came to my senses and accepted their extremely generous invitation.
Juan Mari Arzak celebrated his 80th birthday on July 31st. I still can’t believe that just a few months ago I was actually standing in the kitchen of his restaurant. Arzak became the co-innovator of New Basque Cuisine after taking over his family’s business. In 1897 his grandparents opened a wine shop and tavern from the same building where Arzak stands now and his parents turned the tavern into a local restaurant. He earned his first Michelin star in 1972, when I was just barely a 1 year old. I don’t think you can talk about the Basque Country or Basque Cuisine without thinking of Juan Mari Arzak. He learned how to cook from his mother who would take him to the market to select the very best products. This is the prime principal of Basque cuisine. Juan Mari then spread his love of cooking to his daughter Elena who now co-runs the kitchen at Arzak. It’s also nice to mention that 80 percent of the team at the restaurant are women.
Eating at Arzak felt like being in someone’s home. The atmosphere is relaxed and humble. It also felt like a dream come true, because it was exactly that for me. When Juan Mari showed up in the dining room I was completely star struck. Luckily my extremely generous hosts shared the feeling with me or they were just kind enough to not make me feel like a total nerd.
We had the degustation menu with the wine pairing. It was like a finely tuned symphony of traditional Basque cuisine seasoned with the heart and soul of Elena and Juan Mari Arak. I really could not think of a better way to spend an afternoon in San Sebastián. We relished in every course while enjoying great conversation and laughter.
Just in case I wasn’t at my highest nerd level from meeting Arzak, one of the desserts was a medley of chocolate columns and ruins, a history dork’s dream!
After our first two desserts our server asked if we wanted to go down into the kitchen to have a photo with Juan Mari!! IN THE KITCHEN!! I had tears in my eyes, I have to admit, when I met him. He looked me straight in the eyes and said to me, “Contigo me iría al final del mundo”. I would go to the end of the earth with you. Our server was taken aback and said, I have never heard him say that to anyone. It was definitely love at first sight. A moment I will never forget and will always be truly grateful for, thanks to my wonderful hosts who quickly became friends.
I do regret not taking a photo with Elena because she is a true star. Maybe I will run into her in the market or walking through the streets of Donsoti one day. Here is a photo of the menu in English. Thank you from the bottom of my food nerd heart to my lovely hosts!
Sometimes in the winter off season from tours I find myself “holing up” and reading books, doing yoga, and being a bit of a recluse in general. Yesterday was quite different being that I met with a friend for coffee, then went to my class and in the evening met up with another friend for tapas. Both of my friends that I met with yesterday are the type of people who spread positive energy, and time with them leaves me feeling much better about myself and life in general. With my morning friend we talked about how negative comments from others are so unnecessary and can really get one down. We definitely need to choose to surround ourselves with positive influences on our lives. This made me think about how much I have been through since I moved to Spain and how difficult it has been at times to filter through the falseness to find true friendships.
Not long ago we were served this tapa of potato chips and pickled anchovies which also took me on a time travel back through my experiences since I’ve lived here. I had been a vegetarian and then vegan for many years before moving here but when I arrived I decided to expand my food horizons for cultural reasons. This was the very first tapa I was ever served in Granada. Having been tortured as a young child by canned anchovies (the extra salty ones) hiding under the cheese on homemade pizzas, I basically loathed the smell and taste of them. One can imagine how I felt when this was set in front of me. However, like many other things I learned to love them. I remember everything about this moment and the bar where I was having tapas with friends. At Seis Peniques they would serve 3 free tapas instead of 1 with every drink, and it was where we took Sevillana dance lessons in the basement. It was also where a close friend of mine ended up working as a cook in the kitchen and he was taught the “secret” to the amazing Salsa Rosa. Ketchup and Mayonnaise. We laughed for hours about that one. Since that first tapa I’ve had many positive and negative experiences, both with people and with tapas. These two subjects can give you the same general feelings. They can be dissapointing and make you feel really awful or they can lift you up and make you want for more and more.
One of my favorite discoveries in Granada was taking the bus down to the beach and being able to enjoy a tapa at one of the chiringuitos in the sand. I felt like I was in heaven the first time I was served a cold beer with a tapa of fried fish and was able to jump into the sea between drinks. This is still one of my favorite ways to enjoy a day off. The best part is that if you are served a tapa that you don’t like you just might have a friend stop by to enjoy it for you as was the case for me one day. A small friend but very helpful.
Cheers to my uplifting encounters with dear friends yesterday and to my friend Melissa who lifts me up and encourages me from far away!!
The Douro Valley in Portugal is known for its prolific wine production which is eventually taken to Vila Nova de Gaia near the city of Porto and stored in the wine cellars. Traditionally the wine was transported there by “rabelos”, a cargo boat native to the Douro region. The microclimate in this area also allows for the production of olives and almonds. The rolling hills along the river provide fantastic scenery to enjoy a cruise or a train ride. This summer we enjoyed both of these and a great pass through lock of the Regua dam, one of fifteen dams that exist on the river.
We parked our van in the town of Pinhão from where we were able to explore much of the valley and enjoy the excellent wine. Right in the small town of Pinhão is the Quinta do BonFin, one of the many winery’s owned by the Symington family. Eventually the grapes will end up at the Graham’s Lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia. Here we enjoyed one of our favorite afternoon drinks, “Porto Tonica”, white port with tonic water and a slice of orange or a cinnamon stick. The views from Bomfin were absolutely beautiful!
I have a minor addiction with tiny towns in the middle of nowhere. From Pinhão you can hike straight up hill to the well-preserved town of Provesende, home to 356 inhabitants. This town dates back to the time of the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula. They say that the name comes from the last Moorish King of the area, Zaide. The town is pintoresque and loaded with history. You can see the Pillory from 1573 , the granite fountain and the Manor homes which remind us of the wealthy families that resided in this area.
One of my favorites parts of this town were the trash bins on the streets that are actually the baskets that were traditionally used to collect the grapes during the harvest. What an outstanding idea! We also hit the jackpot for lunch in Provesende. The main restaurant in town was already closed but the owner offered us a “light snack”. Before we knew it we had a spread in front of us of ham and cheese, local olives served with a sugar cane honey to dip, vegetable soup, bread and local olive oil, sliced apple sprinkled with bee pollen, and a local sausage called Alheira. Don’t forget the wine, we are in the Douro Valley!
Dedicated to my Smithsonian group that I was forced to abandon due to minor injury.
I am a little behind on posting but, “mas vale tarde que nunca”. And now I am on a clean eating spree so it is good to go back and reminisce about the amazing food we enjoyed on our trip.
After we left the small city of Chaves my wonderful partner decided to take us on a drive through the beautiful Douro Valley, famous for it’s gorgeous scenery and internationally renowned wine production. The whole region is filled with “Quintas” or wine producing farms. Many of which are built on slopes to protect the vineyards from the humid winds. Before stopping in the town of Peso de Règua we took a short detour so my love could show me the ¨lock¨ that raises and lowers the boats in order for them to pass through the different levels of water in the Douro River. I had never seen a lock before or my memory is blocked. I was so amazed by how it worked (and freezing cold) that I forgot to take a picture! But you can look it up on the internet or watch it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MDEG5p3IwA here! This one has an 89 foot drop. My next trip (besides going back to the USA) is a boat trip on the Douro.
We were a bit tired from New Year’s Eve and very hungry so we stopped in the town of Règua for lunch. We found an excellent restaurant, Castas e Pratos, that was built right in the train station. Being New Years Day they had roasted baby goat as a specialty. It was served with the most delicious rice, roasted potatoes and sauteed broccoli rabe. In Portugal everything has to be served with potatoes and rice. Atkins would not be happy. The other dish we ordered was filet mignon with a gorgonzola sauce and risotto with wild mushrooms. Surprisingly not a potato on the plate.
The wine list was a book, being in the Douro region. The service was impeccable and we enjoyed every moment. We can´t wait to go back!!
I feel that I was raised in a fairly cultured world as far as food is concerned. My Mother and Nana prepared excellent Italian food tracing our roots but they also made Chinese, Greek, French and many other ¨ethnic¨cuisines. My parents would also take us out to different restaurants on a fairly regular basis so that we could taste foods from different countries. I have clear memories of tasting flaming saganaki, schnitzel, and cheese enchiladas as a very little girl. As a teenager my mother would rent films about food and far away countries; Babettes Feast, The Scent of Green Papaya, and Big Night come to mind. Many of my Friday nights were filled with popcorn and subtitles.
Regardless of my upbringing there were many foods that I still could not taste upon my arrival in Spain. Anchovies, sardines, octopus, and pig ears are a few on the list. Pig ears still remain on the list. The others, however I have learned to love along with many other different foods.
I remember walking into a fish market many many years ago in Granada, and the kind gentleman offered me a goose barnacle to taste. Here and in Portugal they are called ¨percebes¨or ¨perceves. I could not get myself to put that in my mouth. They are truly horrific. I kindly refused and left the market.
Not long ago I watched a documentary about how goose barnacles are collected and found it incredibly interesting. It is a quite dangerous and tedious process. And so as life goes, I recently found myself in a market in Porto actually enjoying a plate of goose barnacles, cold albariño wine and great company. Call it circumstancial or a change in my palate. Nobody will ever know. But, I have the photos to prove it. Never say never.
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Basque Country. This area of about 20,000 square kilometers is rich in its own tradition, culture, politics and gastronomy. Something special about their gastronomy is that men tend to be the cooks, not just in restaurants but in private homes and families. This is a unique part of their culture and what is the history behind the “Txoko” or closed gastronomical societies that were orignially only open to male members. The Txoco originally began in San Sebastian in the late 1800’s. A restaurant or a basement with a kitchen is rented by the society to cook, eat and socialize. Nowadays many Txokos also allow women to drink, eat and socialize within the txokos but not to cook.
Another great part of the Basque gastronomical tradition is the Txikiteo (chiquiteo). Friends gather in the early afternoon to go from bar to bar and enjoy small glasses of wine or beer accompanied by the ever elaborate pintxos (pinchos) which are usually small slices of bread topped by any artistical combination of ingredients. A pintxo could be pate with an anchovy, goat cheese with carmelized onion and cured ham, or wild mushrooms with garlic. Really there are no limits to the pintxo; sushi, grilled vegetables, a lebanese kebab. I have tried it all. For me they always go best with a glass of Txacoli, the typical white wine from the Basque country (more to follow).
The top of a bar all throughout the Basque Country is a colorful procession of pintxos and some of the best “food art” I have ever seen. In most bars you are given a plate and take what you like from the assortment on the bar. The bar person will then charge you by the amount of toothpicks on your plate. All on the honor system. Just the way life should be!
I have a serious problem. I am an obsessive menu reader and am yet to find a 12 step program to remedy this. It is impossible for me to just walk into any restaurant and sit down and eat, even if the establishment has been highly reccomended. I need to read the menu. Either the the actual menu itself or simply the food on display. It is one of my favorite aspects of traveling. However, my decision isn’t only based on what is offered on the menu but my simple instincts and how the bar or restaurant makes me feel upon entering. Trusting your food instinct is an art and one to believe in and to keep finely tuned.
On a recent trip to El Puerto de Santa Marìa in Càdiz I had one of these special moments. We had a great lunch at one of the most typical restaurants in El Puerto for fresh fish and seafood (recommended by my dear friends who are on a plane to Thailand at this very moment). After lunch, happily filled on wine, clams and baby squid we decided to take a long walk to the beach. As we were wandering through town I caught eye of a beautiful street sign, Calle Luna, and a great little bar right on the corner. I knew we would have to go back after the beach.
While my daughter dug into a garbanzo and shrimp stew the owner prepared a marinated salmon with avocado for us that was simply beautiful and delicious. Accompanied by a glass of local white wine for myself and a cold beer for my friend, it was the perfect end to our daytrip.
One of the most important things I have learned is to appreciate the smaller moments in life. To be present and relish the time we share with others and also alone. In Spain we have a saying that expresses this perfectly. “La vida son cuatro dias.” Life is only four days long.” Enjoy, and don’t let life pass you by without experiencing it to the fullest. In Spain much of this theory revolves around sharing food and drink. We can always find time to enjoy just a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I have many favorite places where I do this in Granada and in the cities that I pass through frequently.
There is a beverage and a small bit of something delicious to fit any moment or feeling. A chilled glass of dry sherry served with olives and cheese filled peppers served by a gentleman in a white jacket and bowtie is a nice way to share a conversation with a friend an early evening in Barcelona. Or a bit of hard cider before lunch while peacefully looking out at the Bay of Biscay. And in Sevilla, I love to have a glass of sweet sherry accompanied by a bit of fresh cheese with quince paste and rosemary as I kick back and listen to the lively atmosphere around me. These are just some of the moments that I have treasured along this beautiful road we call life.
Taking a walk through the small yet lively market in Salamanca is the perfect way to warm up your taste buds for an afternoon of tapa indulgence. This University town has tapas to suit anybody’s taste. For a plate of the some of the best ham, chorizo and cheese you should look for Las Caballerizas. It is a student cafeteria in the old stables of Salamanca. Cheap, traditional and delicious.
We always like to make a stop in Casa Paca right of the Plaza Mayor. The pisto (vegetable stew) with quails egg is one of my favorites. My daughter loves the meatballs and the “broken eggs” with ham and potatoes. The bar is the place to be where you can easily choose from the display of tapas but a table can be nice as well to kick back and observe the local flavor.
Sometimes tapas with a modern edge can be fun as well. Last year we stumbled into a place off the Rua Mayor. It is called Tapas 2.0, Gastrotasca. We were needing something green in our lives and were pleasantly surprised by the caramelized goat cheese with veggies. After that there was no stopping us. The crispy chicken leg was delicious and the patatas bravas rank among my favorites. Slightly spicy with a hint of garlic. As my daughter dove happily into the Mac Montero burger we were offered two glasses of Cava and a piece of chocolate cake to celebrate their anniversary. Heaven for us!
Salamanca never disappoints. The beauty of the city mixed with the atmosphere and outstanding food welcomes me with every visit.
At the beginning of the summer Luna and I were blessed and invited to the beach with some dear friends. We had a wonderful time enjoying great food, laughter and plenty of “mini-people” conversations. The big people conversation usually happened after midnight and only if we lasted that long after a day of eating, drinking and swimming. If I were to describe all of the amazing food we ate I would have to write a book. Between the homemade Italian-accented dishes of my friend Carmen and the beach restaurants, my palate, tummy and heart were in heaven. The homemade recipes are a secret of course. But I have the flavors memorized in my mind.
Two of our favorite Spanish staples are seasoned fresh tomato salad and fried eggplant. Usually they are pretty straight forward and simple. But, at the chiringuito (beach restaurant) in Malaga we had the absolute best of both. The “Tomate Aliñado” was a pleasant surprise. Usually this “salad” is simple sliced tomato with olive oil, salt and fresh garlic. But this one was extra special. Fresh tomato, capers, toasted garlic, parsley, balsamic dressing and the perfect bit of anchovies on top. The surprises didn’t stop at the tomato.
The same afternoon we also had Luna’s all time favorite, fried eggplant. Under the batter fried eggplant covered in sugar cane syrup was a surprise slice of goat cheese. When cut up and mixed together the goat cheese and sugar cane syrup made the perfect combination. Although I always enjoy the traditional recipes in Spain, an imaginative variation can definitely make a difference. Especially when sharing it with friends and enjoying the sound of waves and sea water on your skin. A view of the Mediterranean also adds a nice touch, especially with a gorgeous woman passing by. She looks like she needs a cold beer! Lucky for her the beach bar has a special cooler to take one down to the beach!!