Cabane a Sucre

In the early spring, when Canada begins to thaw, the Maple trees get drained in order to make Maple Syrup. This has not happened on time this year because of the longest-winter-ever we’re experiencing, which means no new syrup, but I read somewhere that Canada has emergency reserves of the stuff. I like to believe this is true. And now I also understand what kind of national emergency would require such a thing. Anyway, the point is that it’s a Quebecois tradition to go eat at a Cabane a Sucre, or Sugar Shack, to celebrate the fact that it’s gotten warm enough that the sap is no longer in solid form and can be tapped, harvested and turned into liquid gold.

The taps are drilled into the trees and have buckets that hang below them to catch the sap. These were empty, and yes, I checked.

Sucrerie du Terroir

Sucrerie du Terroir

So off we went, because when in Canada…consume Maple Syrup. The Sucrerie du Terroir is a log cabin about half an hour from Ottawa, in the countryside. There is a pretty walk around the grounds, which you can also do while riding in a sleigh pulled by the most gigantic horses I’ve ever seen.

Sucrerie du Terroir

Sucrerie du Terroir

The snow is deeper than it appears and it will not hold your weight. Instant regret.

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Inside you dine family-style at large wooden tables. In fact, this is clearly a family tradition and most of the other parties were family groups of 8 or more, which gives the place a great, cozy atmosphere. There’s traditional Quebecois music playing, the waiters are dressed in some kind of colonial garb, and you don’t even need to bother ordering – everyone gets the same thing and you can order more of any of it, it’s all unlimited. It’s also BYOB (the Pink Zinfandels and Rieslings we took worked well, their sweetness goes well with food covered in syrup).

Sucrerie du Terroir

Sucrerie du Terroir

I walked out of there feeling like it was Thanksgiving. First, split pea soup.

Split pea soup

Then, an egg soufle in a cast iron skillet, potatoes, maple ham, sausages, maple baked beans, and super crunchy bacon. And, the star of the show, Maple Syrup. I poured that ish all over everything and it was amazing.

Egg Soufle

Sucrerie du Terroir

Then there were pancakes and pastries with Maple butter cream for dessert. All in all, a diabetic’s nightmare. Oh, and then when you think you couldn’t possibly consume more maple… Maple taffy cooled on snow.

Maple taffy

Maple taffy

Maple Syrup

Ok, no joke this was a lot of Maple syrup and we consumed almost all of it. It turned out that the owner – who told us his story – bought the place because he read in the newspaper that it was closing down. He had fond memories of going there with his family and felt sad that it would close, so he bought it and now runs the place.

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One month Canadaversary

Today marks a special moment for Canada and me. It’s our one month anniversary. Right about now I really miss my boyfriend, my dog, and temperatures above freezing. But I’m not dwelling on it because I actually really like it here. I feel at home. Maybe it’s because everyone speaks English and even after four years in Spain it still feels so good to speak English. Like somehow I’m more me. There is also that trait particular to North Americans, that “please, thank you, and sorry” thing. It’s like, everyone is sooo nice! I heart Canada! Rainbows and puppies!

But then there’s the cold. And dayum is it cold! Before I left Spain there would be mornings when I’d take Rolo out at -4 (Celsius) and be convinced that I would die upon exiting the plane in Ottawa, it just felt so cold. And you all know I dislike the cold. I’m a California girl, before I moved to Spain I really thought scarves were just accessories. But now, and it still feels strange to say this, -4 is a beautiful, let’s-go-outside kind of day. Because I now know what -25 with a wind-chill of -32 feels like. That’s the kind of cold that knocks the wind out of you.

Is it strange that I have personified my coat and feel an emotional friendship towards it?

It’s a lot of paraphernalia everyday: snow boots, big-ass wool scarf, coat with an eskimo hood, gloves… and that’s just what you put on the outside of your body. But, you know what, I’ve come to realize it’s not that bad. Our bodies are way more resilient and able to change than we give them credit for. Not only that, our need for fresh air and contact with people is so strong that we WILL go outside. And once we go outside, we realize there are fun things to do out there in that cold. Canada is used to this and they make the best of it.

Though there are mornings that look like this:

Ottawa

There are also evenings that end like this:

OttawaAnd there are things to do! I mean what kind of Canadian capital would it be if it didn’t have the worlds longest outdoor skating rink? The 7.8 kilometer Rideau Canal – kinda have to buy your own skates for that!

Rideau Canal

Rideau Canal Skateway

Or what about an outdoor festival with an ice sculpting competition? Winterlude runs for a few weekends from the end of January through February.

Winterlude

Winterlude

There is also beautiful architecture. The Canadian Parliament Building.Ottawa Parliament BuildingAnd yummy treats!! (You knew it just HAD to be coming!)

OK, Maple Syrup. Amazing! But what about maple syrup taffy cooled on snow?

Maple Syrup Taffy

Maple Syrup TaffyAnd BeaverTails (copyright, trademark and patented, or whatever). Flat, fried dough with a choice of toppings like cinnamon sugar, chocolate, or **Maple Butter**. You know which one I got…

BeaverTails

BeavertailsThese are the most decadent, filling things ever, but they taste like heaven after a long day (like 1 or 2 hours, because let’s face it, that’s all you can handle you tourist!) out in the snow.

So there you have it. One month in Canada. Not bad, if I may say so myself. Now, if I can just get drunk enough to try Poutin…
Canada

Third Anniversary of Frog Legs

Almost exactly three years ago Frog Legs and Heirloom Tomatoes was created – though I can’t say much for Year Two, we all know I was otherwise preoccupied. But, now Year Three starts with many changes. First of all, I’m no longer “Lisita In Spain”…I’m now “Lisita Freezing Her Ass Off in Canada”. Thanks to that beautiful masters that occupied all of my time last year, I’m now beginning a new adventure in my life: 2014 in Ottawa.

But before I talk about what new Food, Drink, and Travel will come out of this experience, Germany. My final hurrah before going back to the grind was a two-week trip with my brother to spend Christmas in Bavaria.

Germany knows what’s good. So does the Czech Republic and Austria. Sausages, Goulash and Spaetzle, Dumplings, Beer, Glüghwein, Christmas Markets… The list goes on and it’s all amazing!

Our itinerary was an ambitious one: Augsburg to Berlin to Prague to Vienna to Augsburg, all in two weeks. But we happily walked, toured, and, most importantly, ate our way through all four cities.

I realize this will be a long post. But it’s cold outside – I’m fairly certain it’s lightly snowing – and I have no desire to brave the icy sidewalks on this Sunday morning.

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Berlin, Germany

Berlin

Berlin is a really interesting city. It’s contemporary history is full of conflict, like much of Germany, and WWII left its mark on all the monuments, many of which have chunks of stone missing or patches where they have been repaired.

Berlin Cathedral

Berlin Cathedral

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate – the gate dividing East and West Berlin when the wall was still up. And below, the remaining stretches of wall were left up as a monument. To the left, East Berlin and to the right, West Berlin.

Berlin Wall

Our first day in Berlin this happened:

BerlinAnd this…

BerlinYes, that is one liter of beer. And from here on out, these things started to happen a lot.

Berlin - Augustiner

The point is, this is one of the most characteristic dishes associated with Germany. And now I understand. Sausages, mustard, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes – I now have a new appreciation for all of these things. It’s just a really good feeling to walk into a tavern after walking around all morning in the cold and to get to sit down and eat this.

Another incredible food is Goulash with Spaetzle. Slow cooked beef (or venison, a version we tried on Christmas) with a thick gravy sauce. The sauce in this particular one was made with a dark beer from the Augustiner Brewery. And Spaetzle is like pasta, hand made, so each piece is irregular in size and shape with a consistency somewhere between pasta and gnocchi. I will forever remember this Goulash…

Goulash and Spaetzle

But seriously, we can’t talk about Germany at Christmas without talking about Christmas Markets and Glüghwein. There’s one in every city center, and in large cities, they are all over the place. The stands sell everything from baked goods and hot wine to wool socks and Christmas decorations. And they are so festive and alive; the whole thing just makes you happy.

Glughwein and pastries

“Cheesecake Doughnut Balls” – literally how the girl selling them described them to me. Um, yes please! And a little hot, mulled wine by the fire.

Cheescake doughnut balls

Glughwein

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Prague, Czech Republic

PraguePrague is spectacular. There’s something to look at on every corner.Astrological Clock

The Astronomical Clock – it was installed in 1410, making it the 3rd oldest astronomical clock, and it’s the oldest one that still works. On the hour, the bells chime and there’s a little show – the statues come to life representing the evils of society and the apostles go by the the windows above the clock.

There’s just so much to show, I’m having trouble picking pictures!

Prague

Kafka PragueIMG_2546 IMG_2571 IMG_2575

There are a lot of similar foods in the Czech Republic, but then you realized that they are named the same, but have their own twist. For example goulash. Served with bread dumplings mixed with herbs and bacon instead of spaetzle.

Goulash

And this particularly tasty treat found at the Christmas market. I don’t know what it’s called…but it’s a sweet dough with ground almonds, coiled around a wooden spool and cooked over an open flame, then tossed in sugar. We got one to share, but had to go back for another, it was so good!

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Vienna, Austria

The last stop before heading back to spend Christmas in Augsburg. Vienna is fancy! The architecture definitely reflects wealth and royalty. Belvedere Gardens

The Belvedere Palace and surrounding gardens (complete with its own Christmas Market…seriously, say hot wine and sausage and you’ll find a place to buy one). Inside is a museum which houses the paintings of Viennese artists, including Klimt and it’s there you can see the spectacular, and probably most recognized painting, The Kiss.

Summer PalaceThe Summer Palace. I want to tell you more history, but I have a hard time remembering. Google it if you must know names and dates. The the main thing is that its ginormous and its the summer palace, as in there’s another one. The gardens that surround it are beautiful and give you a spectacular view of the city.

SausageMore sausage. This time with flat bread from a wood burning oven. We only had one day in Vienna, it wasn’t too cold, so we opted to not sit down the whole day. Later we paid for that, but in the meantime, we ate at the Christmas Markets all day.

Christmas Market Vienna

Even the Christmas Market is in front of this amazing, beautiful building. By the way, that’s Merry Christmas in German.SausageSorry, this picture is blurry, but this was too amazing not to include. The stand had all these baguettes with one end cut off and they would poke them onto these metal rods that heated the inside and made room for the sausage. I realize as I write this how…um…this may be sounding, but seriously, it’s brilliant!

pastries

Pastries… Pastries everywhere!

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Augsburg, Germany

The final destination. Don’t worry, we’re almost done. Bear with me, I promise it’s worth it.

The first day (this was before the above, but I’m going to group all of the Bavarian adventures together) we saw Augsburg. It’s a cute little town, very characteristic of the style of Bavaria. It was almost completely destroyed in the war –there was an airplane factory in town– and then rebuilt, keeping what they could of facades that hadn’t been reduced to rubble.

Augsburg IMG_2345 IMG_2353 IMG_2344

Our second day we went to see one of the Crazy King Ludwig’s many castles. He was famous for two things: one, for building a lot of extravagant castles that bankrupted Bavaria, and two, for being diagnosed insane and then drowning the next day with his doctor in a mysterious accident in a lake. Ok, three things, but this is post-mortem — this is the castle that inspired Walt Disney when he made the princess’ castle at Disneyland.

Castle LudwigIt’s so unfortunate they don’t let you take pictures inside because it really is over the top. There’s a room that looks like a cave with a grotto so that they could perform his favorite Wagner opera, complete with the swan scene. Also, he built this castle just across the way from another one. You know, squandering the kingdom’s money, all day, every day.

Castle 2 LudwigWe also visited the Wieskirche, or the “Pilgrimage Church of the Scourged Savior”, though something tells me that’s not a direct translation. Anyhow, it’s the most ornate thing I’ve ever seen. Visual overload to the point where it’s hard to focus on any one detail. I think you would have to spend days there to actually see everything. Yet it’s so unassuming from the outside…

Wieskirche IMG_2364 IMG_2370 IMG_2371

And that brings me to the end. Christmas Eve was celebrated with a delicious home-cooked meal and Christmas Day with a party, complete with carol singing, and though I had the words printed in front of me, I did not attempt to pronounce them as it was so beautiful and I didn’t want to spoil it with my total butchering of the German language.

Christmas in Augsburg IMG_2680 IMG_2685 IMG_2686 IMG_2687

The End. A shot of Spanish Brandy (which I did not bring) and Auf Wiedersehen.
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101 North Food Photo Journal

While I was in the midst of final exams a few months ago I suggested an “after I turn in my final project” trip north to celebrate with the girls. My cousin and brother live in San Francisco and my aunt lives half-way in Cambria. The plan was eat good food, drink wine and catch up. This is pretty much how it went down:
Padaro Beach GrillThe journey north begins at the Padaro Beach Grill right outside Santa Barbara. Every trip up the coast involves lunch at this beachfront spot because of the awesome picnic area and the delicious food (though they do have a small problem with overly aggressive seagulls). Grubbed on this California Burger before we continued on to Cambria.

Padaro Beach GrillOur next stop was the picturesque central coast beach town, Cambria. My aunt lives there, so our first night included home cooked chicken pot pie, homegrown heirloom tomatoes, angel food cake, and lots of wine.

Chicken Pot PieChicken Pot PieP1030164P1030176P1030182A morning Cambria cliff walk to work up an appetite for our last dinner before continuing up the coast.

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CambriaCambriaIMG_1968We arrived in the bay area just in time for a home cooked dinner with our hosts. Nice wine, farmers market produce and tender, grilled beef.

ProseccoIMG_1982IMG_1984We spent the next day wandering the Embarcadero of San Francisco. But first, a walk down to the Rockridge Market Hall for breakfast. Highwire Coffee House macchiato and a fresh baked cinnamon sugar morning bun.

rooster

IMG_1989Highwire CafeMorning BunThe San Francisco skyline and cookies & creme gelato at Ciao Bella in the Ferry Building.

SF SkylineCiao Bella Gelato

Dinner at Cafe Claude in San Francisco. Melon and prosciutto salad with marcona almonds and creme fraiche and dill dressing. Arctic Char over tomato, corn and frisee salad.

Cafe ClaudeCafe ClaudeCafe ClaudeThat’s it. A fabulous trip with good food and even better people.

Basque Gastronomy Part 3: Mugaritz

Last, but certainly not least, on the gastronomic tour was lunch at Mugaritz. Located about half an hour drive from San Sebastian, in the country side village of Errenteria. Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz established this restaurant in 1998, after having worked as a part of Chef Ferran Adriá’s team at El Bulli. The restaurant is nestled in the hillside surrounded by gardens in which they cultivate many of the ingredients used in the kitchen.

Upon arrival, before even being seated, you are brought into the kitchen where Chef Aduriz himself, along with his head chef, explain their philosophy – they use only the freshest ingredients, tailoring the menu to what they find in local markets each day. Each and every plate is scrutinized for perfection before leaving the kitchen.

After an amuse-bouche in the kitchen we are taken to the table – a huge, circular table with white linen and with no silverware. Mugaritz only serves a 20 course tasting menu and shortly after sitting, and after choosing our first bottle of wine with the help of the sommelier, the first of five amuse-bouche begin to arrive, all of which are eaten sans utensils.

“Edible Stones”  First up, a dish that really does look like two stones nestled in a bowl of sand. The waiter coyly says, “If you find you can bite into them, try dipping them in the aioli…” The “stones” are small baked potatoes and somehow the skin is made to look like a stone. It has us giggling as we try to bite into the stones and encounter a perfectly buttery potato. And thus starts an incredible meal.

“Scarlett Shrimp over Sake Lees”  A take on a lettuce wrap, we must roll up the filling in the leaf to eat it. The sheer uniqueness of eating a leaf with little flowers in it gets us going all over again. It’s surprisingly tasty and we realize we are definitely in for a lot of surprises today.

“Grilled Toast with Bone Marrow, Herbs and Horseradish Ash”  This next one is a doozy – I’ve never seen such a large pice of bone marrow. Its fatty and succulent and just over the top, but in such a good way.

“Flax and Wheat “Kraft” Paper with Marine Accents”  A lump of tender crab meat on a paper thin cracker.

“‘Fishbones’ with Nuances of Lemon, Garlic, and Cayenne Pepper”  Teeny tiny little fish, fried and stuck together with dab of a spicy sauce between each one. Salty, crunchy with a spicy kick.

For all of this we have been sipping on this Ossian 2009 Verdejo from the Rueda region. A light golden, crisp wine with hints citrus.

“‘Bonding…’ Toasted Seeds and Spices Served in a Mortar with Vegetable Broth”  Next up, a sort of make-your-own-soup. We’re served a warm cast iron mortar full of hemp seeds and peppercorns and told we need to mash them up. It seems strange at first, but as we start mashing, a wonderful toasted aroma starts to rise out of our bowls as the mashed seeds come into contact with the heat of the cast iron. Once we’re sufficiently mashed (and by that I mean the waiter has come around to ensure we’ve put enough muscle into it) we are served a couple slices of cod and a small pitcher of creamy vegetable broth, which we add to the seeds.

For this dish we switch momentarily to a beer to complement the nutty flavors of the hemp seeds. Not just any beer of course, a beer brewed especially for Mugaritz.

“Tomato and Sweet Garlic”  And this is how the next set of courses begins – a thick slice of heirloom tomato with black fermented garlic imported from China spread over top. The garlic is surprisingly sweet and has a very mild garlic flavor. It’s a perfect combination with the juicy acid of the tomato.

“Scarlet Prawns, Fresh Pasta, and Tomato”  Next is a couple bites of fresh, possibly rice, pasta in a creamy broth made of prawns and tomato. The broth’s concentrated flavor is intense and complex and leaves you wanting another bite.

“Stew of Lemon Rinds and Grilled Squid”  Ohmygosh, so delicious. The squid is tender and the sauce is so intensely sweet and tangy. There are pieces of lemon rind in there also that have taken on a sweet flavor, like lemon rind candy. It clearly tastes like lemon, but without any sour flavor.

Pause. We need more wine. Sommelier, what’s the word? Ekam 2010 from Castell d’Encus:  a combination of Riesling and Albariño with a bright gold color and with a floral sweetness. It’s a limited production from the Catalan Pyrenees. And it’s delicious.

“Portion of Home-made Cheese, Cured in Its Own Rind, Mushrooms and Fleshy Leaves”  This next dish again plays with your perceptions. It looks a lot like cheese, but as the waiter sets down the dish he asks, “Is it cheese? You decide. I’ll tell you afterwards…” And… cue tablewide debate about whether it’s cheese or not. We decide it’s not cheese – the texture is just not quite right – and we get a gold star; its not cheese, and though it’s made with milk, the process is different. It has a yeasty flavor, kind of like when you make bread dough, and the texture is similar as well.

“Tagliatelle of Concentrated Milk, Lightly Soaked in a Silky Juice of Roasted Squash and Tomato”  This is another crazy “milk technique” where the “pasta” is made by drying the film of milk that occurs when it boils. The dish arrives with this dry pasta wrapped by a thin slice of cured Iberian ham fat and at the table the broth is poured over, instantly making the “pasta” melt. It’s strangely delicious.

For the last four dishes, the meat courses, we order a red wine. An Artigas 2008 from Bodegas Mas Alta from the Priorat region. A smooth full bodied red with a touch of dried cherry.

“Roasted Loin of Hake with Clashing Grains of Aged Mascarpone, Cauliflower, and Fresh Almonds”  The first of the four second courses is hake, a flaky white fish common in Spain. On top is a ground up mixture of aged mascarpone, cauliflower, and fresh almonds, all of which seem to have the same texture, making them indistinguishable as you eat it, melding all of the flavors together.

“Costal Fish with Crunchy Trimmings of Aged Sourdough and Sweet Pickled Onion”  The next dish is a tender rock fish, the soft texture and mild flavor of which goes perfectly with the crunch and tangy flavor of the toppings.

“Crispy Sweetbread with Homemade capers, Bitter Leaves, and Artisan Praline”  Ah, sweetbreads…can’t really say a bad thing about them. These are amazing of course, crispy outside, tender inside.

“Crunchy Terrine of Iberian Pig Tails with a Bunch of Bitter Leaves and Txakoli Sediments”  The last dish (before desserts, of course) is thin slices of pig tail pressed together to form this disc shape. I have to recognize that I am not a huge fan of pig tails as I don’t particularly care for the texture. At the same time, I must say that this was an excellent example of them – if you had to eat them, these would be the ones to eat. They are perfectly cooked, so that they are soft inside and the fat has melted, the skin on the outside is crunchy. Txakoli, as I mentioned in my last post, is a dry, highly acidic white wine typical of the Basque country, so the tart flavor of this sauce pairs really nicely with this dish, as it breaks up the salty fattiness.

“A Taste of Subtlety. Folded Linen with Toasted Crème Fraiche and Crème Caramel”  The first of the desserts is a paper thin wafer, served on a white linnen napkin. To the side, a butter knife with a delicious frosting of crème fraiche and crème caramel. You are told to spread the frosting over the wafer first. It’s has a buttery texture and just a hint of sweetness intermixed with the tangy crème fraiche.

“‘Traditional’ Almond Fairy Cake”  Next up is a new take on a typical pastry called a mantecado, which is like a crumbly cookie that is traditionally made with ground almond. This is a frozen version made with a light airy almond ice cream that’s then coated with crumbled mantecado and ground almonds.

“Fig Leaves and Lemon in a Creamy Milkshake”  Number three is my favorite by far. The milkshake is served with a small vile of fig extract, which you may add to your milkshake with the pipette. The flavors are incredible: sweet figs and tangy lemon all in a creamy, cold milkshake.

“Candies of Frankincense. The Perfume of Eucalyptus Bark”  Number four is the strangest thing I’ve ever eaten. Out to the table comes a bowl with wispy smoke and the smell of incense. At first glance, it looks like there are three sticks of incense sticking out of the bowl, but then we are told that actually, those sticks are what we need to eat! They remind me of drawing with charcoal sticks in art class and they smell like smoke. But, they taste like sugar and incense and melt away in your mouth like a sugar cube.

“Cocoa Dusted Hazelnuts”  Lastly, a box of toasted hazelnuts dusted in unsweetened cocoa powder.

To end the experience, the waiter comes by with moist towels for us to wash our hands. But, this is Mugaritz, so of course they aren’t your average towelettes. These are condensed cloths that expand when liquid is poured over them, in this case a warm peppermint infusion.

Ah, it’s all so strange and whimsical… They make you interact with your food, eat with your hands, and question everything you thought you knew about some of the most common ingredients. Chef Aduriz is young and has a fantastic imagination and it all shows in his dishes. It’s somehow less serious, at times it makes you laugh at your own confusion, and at the end you leave feeling lighthearted and amazed.

After a fantastic meal, we took a walk around the gardens, which are beautiful, so below are some pictures of their vegetable garden and edible flowers (many of which appeared on our plates).

Basque Gastronomy Part 2: Kañoyetan

First, a beautiful picture of sunset over La Concha, the circular beach which San Sebastian is most known for. It’s a small bay off of the Bay of Biscay with warm, calm waters. It’s full of little sailboats and every day dozens of people swim the length from side to side. Up above the beach, a sidewalk stretches the whole length of La Concha and then follows the coast out to the rest of San Sebastian on each side, making it a peaceful and beautiful place to walk.

The day after our fabulous meal at Arzak, we spent the following day swimming and strolling along the beach, gathering an appetite for our next culinary stop: a special invitation to dinner at a Gastronomic Society.

Gastronomic Societies are essentially clubs where members are selected, sometimes after 10+ year waits, and each have access to the fully stocked kitchen and pantry in order to host dinners, whether private or for other members of the society. Some of the best and most well known chefs of the area are members. There is no owner, everyone is equal in the club. Except women, who cannot be members and until not too long ago were not allowed to enter as guests, and who now are still not allowed to pass the threshold of the kitchen. Maybe that sounds sexist, but as a female I really felt no need to complain about sipping wine while waiting for the men to feed me.

Kañoyetan, the particular gastronomic society that we were invited to, was founded in 1900 and is one of the first formal societies of this kind. The slogan above the doorway says: “each town its law, each house its custom”. Our chef prepared a feast of only the freshest sea food which the northern region of Spain is known for.

We started the meal with this spectacular buffet of sea food, including jumbo shrimp, crabs, mussels, and langostines. Few things make me happier.

Perfection.

And wine flowing. Riojas, Verdejos and Txakoli, which is a Basque slightly sparkling, dry white wine with a high acidity (somehow I did not get a shot of the bottle).

And, as if that feast was not enough, our chef prepared a second dish of fish seared in olive oil and garlic.

Simple cooking techniques are all you need when the product is so fresh. Such a different experience to the day before, but eating family style with new friends and the privilege of dining in such an exclusive location made it just as memorable.

Basque Gastronomy Part 1: Arzak

 

Back in Spain now, along with my parents and some friends (those wonderful wine pairing ones, to be exact), and the first stop is San Sebastian. The Basque Country of Spain is really hot right now in the food world with a lot of the worlds best restaurants and most famous names. So this year’s plan was to do a gastronomic tour of San Sebastian. Lucky me!

Before I give my impressions of this experience, I have to say that this was the first time I have ever had the opportunity to do something like this. As a foodie in training, I was beyond excited to experience the edible art that these restaurants are famous for. And let me tell you, my expectations were met, and then some.

Our first meal was at Arzak, a 3 Michelin Star restaurant located in San Sebastian. Chef Juan Mari Arzak is renown for his avant garde twist on Basque Cuisine. We were advised as first timers to do a tasting menu, and that’s exactly what we did.

“Corn, Figs and Black Pudding” and “Chorizo with Tonic”  The first and second dishes are two of the five amuse-bouche that started the meal. On the right, “Corn, Figs and Black Pudding”, a complexly flavored soup with a hint of sweetness from the corn that perfectly balanced the intense flavor of black pudding, or morcilla. On the left, “Chorizo with Tonic”, a more whimsical dish, served in the hollow of a crushed Shwepps Tonic can, consisting of a very thin slice of melon wrapped around a chorizo mouse. Both were delicious and really get your imagination flowing about what could possibly come out next.

Before we go on with the next dishes, we must talk about wine. Remírez de Ganuza Reserva 2003: a wine made from only the hips of the best bunches from vines that are 60 years old. A rich, smooth red wine that paired nicely with the whole meal.

“Kabraroka Pudding with Kataifi”  Kabraroka is a type of fish and we were told this was a pudding wrapped in fried fideos, or very thin noodles. Like a crunchy and savory lollypop.

“Gooseberry with Coconut”  You can’t see the gooseberries due to the wispy white fog pouring out of the dish, a chemical reaction between dry ice and a coconut infusion which the waiter poured at the table. In one bite a sweet gooseberry and crispy salty potato chips.

“Marinated Sardines and Strawberries”  The last amuse-bouche, a side of a sardine, covering a dollop of cream with herbs and a strawberry. This is a combination one would not immediately think of, but again, Arzak knows what he’s doing by ending this portion of the meal with an elegantly plated challenge for the senses.

By now we have all ooh-ed and ahh-ed at every plate, and then again after tasting them, and can hardly wait to see what else is in store.

“Cassava Cromlech with Foie Gras, Onion, Coffee, and Tea”  And we are not disappointed. In my opinion, one of the best. It’s like an ice cream cone, they told us, you have to pick it up and turn it over quickly and then eat it like an ice cream. The outside “cone” is cassava and it’s stuffed with caramelized onion and foie gras – so much flavor in each little bite. And you get two of them!

“Hemp Mustard and Lobster”  Next up, choice pieces of perfectly cooked, moist lobster atop a dollop of slightly sweet mustard. Next to them, hemp seed crackers with mixed greens. The clothespins are made out of the delicious “essence” of the lobster found in the head – I suppose mixed with a gelatin and put in a mold. The lobster was fantastic and was complimented and not overwhelmed by the mustard.

“Tapioca and Citrus Salad”  Accompanying the lobster, a little salad of tender mixed greens, lightly dressed with citrus, over tapioca pearls. Definitely a different combination of textures – a unique take on classic flavors.

“Dusted Egg and Mussel”  A perfectly poached egg. When you cut into it, the intense orange yolk soaks into the crisp sitting on top, melting it. I’m pretty sure everyone at the table put manners aside and sopped up that goodness with bread. The mussel, perfectly steamed, and dusted with pulverized parsley and red pepper, was a bonus bite.

The last of the first courses. Now onto the main dishes. You got a choice of one of the three. At our table, two were chosen, so I have pictures of both.

“White Tuna, Prickly Pear, and Figs”  I had this one because when I see tuna on a menu at a restaurant I have to have it, especially if that restaurant is Arzak. The tuna is perfectly cooked so that the layers just slide apart. It’s heaven. The sauce is sweet and savory and it’s all accompanied by triangles of prickly pear, a slightly sweet fruit. I could eat this tuna every day, and that’s a fact.

“Gooseberry, Spelt, and Monkfish”  What I missed out on was this Monkfish with two different sauces. On the separate plate in the upper left are gooseberries poached in cured iberian ham fat. I didn’t taste this plate – I guess I was too enthralled by my tuna…or perhaps someone “forgot” to give me a taste. I wasn’t even mad about it, too happy to care.

Second courses now and we got a choice of one of four dishes. Between us all, we ordered three – and this time I got to taste them all!

“Pigeon with Anthocyanin”  Pigeon was not my choice, but one must try these things when they are offered to you. The meat is similar in texture to duck, but with a much stronger flavor, maybe even a bit gamey. But, of course, if you’re going to eat pigeon, eat it at Arzak where it’s perfectly tender and moist. You’re probably wondering what anthocyanins are (or maybe you’re a biologist and you’re like, “What? You don’t know what anthocyanins are?”) so just in case you’re more like me, they are the pigmentation that occurs naturally in plants. And you can seem them painted on this plate. They are flavorless, so their purpose is only to make this dish look like a modern art painting. Pretty nifty!

“Lamb with Corks”  I did not choose lamb either, though this proved to be delicious lamb. It’s garnished by a variety of fruits (melon and watermelon) and vegetables (carrots and potatoes) all shaped into cylinders of varying size and length. In my very humble opinion, this dish was not as exciting as some of the others just because the flavor profile, though hearty and delicious, was pretty standard for lamb.

“Beef with Vegetable Screens” and “Smoked Yogurt with Micro Greens”  So that means I had beef. It was tender, it had a sweet gooseberry glaze, it had cous cous with pretty edible flowers and dried gooseberries, and it had screens – yes, like sugar glass with vegetable “essence” (because I’m not sure what to call it) in it. They melted away as they came in contact with the juices from the meat and just added another flavor. It also came with yogurt – smoked yogurt, actually – in the form of a little side salad. Talk about different. Usually you equate yogurt with tart or sweet flavors, but smokey…I guess it makes sense when you think of smoked cheeses that also have that intense smell and taste.

And that ended the savory portion of the meal. Now on to the six desserts they have ready. You don’t choose the desserts, the desserts choose you. Actually the waiters decide who gets what, though I’m not sure if it’s based on what you ate or whether you just have a “she’ll-like-chocolate” face. Things also get a little confusing flavor-identification-wise, so bear with me.

“Roots, Fruits, and Seeds”  This is the first dessert that found me. The center is white chocolate mixed with parsley (I think – like I said, many things are a mystery at this point in the meal) and next to it are “cocktail spheres” – that’s the name I’m giving them, at least. I was advised that each of these must go in whole and that’s pretty much because they each hold about a tablespoon of port wine. There’s a gelatin skin around them and when you bite or just put pressure on them, they pop and you can then drink the liquid. I don’t even know – it was weird and exciting at the same time. Food chemistry skills were put to work in this and all of the desserts.

“Playing Marbles with Chocolate”  The “marbles” are chocolate on the outside and, like my port bubbles, are totally liquid inside. These had a chocolate liqueur in them, I think…

“The Cocoa Forest”  This was my favorite dessert, though it was sadly not mine to devour. The “tree” is filled with a fruit custard – maybe passion fruit – and dark chocolate and fruit are always a winning combination for me. The other chocolate piece is again full of liquid, but I didn’t eat it, so I can’t describe that particular burst.

“Castles on the Sand”  My second dessert, plated over a backdrop photograph of San Sebastian’s most recognized beach “La Concha”. The castle on the left is carved out of watermelon and the pink is a strawberry custard. Again I’ve got gelatin water balloons – the green is basil, and my-oh-my was it basil, and the red was strawberry.

“Pistachio and Beetroot Stones”  This dessert is a pistachio cake that is full of air bubbles. Little circular air bubbles – again, food chemistry. It’s topped with candied pistachios coated and sits on a sauce made of beetroot.

“Golden Footprint”  Lastly, a golden footprint made of chocolate and stenciled edible gold along with two ladybugs full of a piquillo pepper liquid. Very intense flavor, your brain really thinks you are eating a pepper. Not my favorite thing when I’m in dessert mode, but fascinating all the same.

Speaking of piquillo peppers, each dessert was accompanied by a scoop of homemade ice cream, which somehow I forgot to photograph, and one of them was in fact piquillo pepper. Again, tasted just like the real thing. I had a flashback to watching Iron Chef when the secret ingredient is crabs and one of the chefs gets the ice cream maker out and you’re at home thinking “what the heck is that going to taste like?!”. Well now I know. It tastes just like crab and cream. Anyway, I’m getting away from the point. The ice creams ranged from grilled pineapple to basil and piquillo peppers.

And last but not least, an assortment of chocolate nuts and bolts and even gelatin bottle caps topped with pop rocks.

What else can I say about this meal. I think it speaks for itself that I just described all of that to you from memory, two weeks after the fact. It’s a meal that involves all the senses – yes food always involves first seeing it, then smelling and finally tasting, but here at Arzak they play with textures and chemistry. Sometimes your eyes deceive you and your palate is surprised by new flavors. Four hours later you emerge and it’s like you’ve been sightseeing in a new place and seen and experienced things that you hadn’t before.

And this was only part one…