Italian Cuisine World Summit in Dubai this November

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Culinary Destination - North of Spain (The Holy Grail of Culinary Destinations)

On the Road in the North - Madrid and Catalonya,


"... No journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

If literature, music and art are forms of expression through which we connect by reflecting on humanity from culture, history, to emotions and beauty; and if these expressions, though different, reach out within us to connect us on a level beyond space or differences; and while the same expressions are often made from afar or witnessed in the future, then food has to be the most immediate connection you can make with people. It is in the end a form of expression reflective of all the above and more. While to many, arts are arguably considered a luxury, food remains a basic necessity. But the beauty lies in such a vital necessity to become a form of art, a medium for expression and a tool to connect with others, at times complete starngers, on a molecular level! I had always seen food as such, but I was yet to learn the extent to which food bonds us. And that I have experienced in ample amounts this time around. These lines sum up my personal experience or if I may: the 'world within' which I have enriched through this culinary road trip in the North of Spain.


Spain, is known to be a culinary paradise, a historical museum on a vast scale, a beautiful spread of earth so varied, rich and giving, a multi-layered culture whose layers make it so colourful and immensely interesting... yes, Spain is beautiful. Whatever it is that you are looking for, the country has something to offer. 
My trip though, was in search of good food and a search for experiences enriched by food. The North of Spain did not disappoint, in fact it over-delivered! I now believe it is a culinary haven, that can only be understood by experience. The north of Spain, has many regions and each is very different with its unique character and offerings. It is therefore hard to cover in one blog post, so I will be giving you the run down in this one, and will be posting separate ones for each part.

Grab a cuppa as Here goes one big run down...

Farmer's Market San Sebastian
A Taste of Spain
I had been planning this trip and tweeting my plans for a while, when I received a tweet from @tasteofspain saying contact us if you need help planning your trip. I get in touch with Miguel and find out that they are a company who organise culinary tours around Spain. They have packaged tours that you can choose from, or if you have something specific in mind, they can organise it for you. They look for, book, arrange transport, interpreters... the whole nine yards. By the time I got in contact with them, I had already booked and planned most of my trip (they would have saved me all the trouble had I known). Fortunately, I had some open days during my stay in San Sebastian, which they suggested I go try cooking at the gastronomic society (have dedicated a full post on Gastronomic Societies here), which I did and thoroughly enjoyed. Miguel had arranged with a lovely lady called Biki, who was our guide and interpreter, to take us through the produce market (seafood, meat, cheese, bakery), which was a fabulous introduction to the local produce and gave us a feel of the city's daily life. 

San Sebastian Gastronomic Society
After the wonderful stroll, we walked through the Parte Vieja, which is the old town in San Sebastian where all the delicious pintxos crawl happens. Right at the heart of Parte Vieja is the Gastronomic Society we were meant to cook at. In brief (details in a later blog post), Gastronomic Societies are like cooking clubs. The Basque (San Sebastian is part of the Basque Country) are very passionate about food and cooking that they created clubs where the men get together to cook and socialise. Boy, was I in for a treat! I was fascinated by this society, which houses probably one of the most valuable culinary libraries I have ever seen. They have books so old and rare there, that it is truly a treasure. They have books such as "Grande Dictionnaire Du Cuisine" by Dumas! They even have rare prints of the world's oldest paintings of feasting and food! But that was not all! They also have one of the most antique wine cellars I have ever been to. The years can be told by the amount of dust on those wine bottles.... (more to come in a following blog post).

So I met Chef Ilker and we cooked together a feast that can only be described as Divine. I learnt the ancient techniques of preparing Basque sauce 'Pil Pil' and was in heaven merely by being in that kitchen, cooking and chatting with Chef Ilker whose passion for Basque cuisine is very evident.

I had spent 2 weeks dipping spoons into food, tasting and having the same expression lol
The effort that really made me appreciate A Taste of Spain's service is that I had been trying to get a booking at Arzak, 3 star Chef Juan-Mari Arzak's restaurant, which I was determined to try, and while being fully booked for months (typical of a Michelin star restaurant) and unable to secure a booking I happened to mention it to Miguel who half an hour later called me with my booking code!

This is the kind of attention to details these people have, and this is the kind of service that makes me fully recommend that you get in touch with them if you are planning to go culinary in Spain.

Pintxos - San Sebastian
From Tapas to Pintxos
Wherever you are in Spain, the Spaniards have a tradition of hanging out at bars from 7 pm onward and snacking on different small bites while having local cider or wines. While in Madrid these snacks are called Tapas in Basque and Catalonia they are called Pintxos. They are almost the same, however the pintxos are usually smaller in size, can mostly be picked by a tooth pick, or are atop a slice of bread. While the tapas are larger, and can often be served in plates along side bread which you can dip into the sauces. 
Tapas - Madrid
In the Basque Region the Pintxos crawl, remains one of my most favourite activities and while there you have got to try it. Basically, in Parte Vieja there are streets among streets of open bars, where the pintxos are laid out on the bar counter in Buffet manner. You will pick the one you like, have it with your preferred drink, then move on to the next bar. The streets are buzzing with people all night long, and if you are lucky and a football game is taking place, you will find yourself cheering, and owing and booing even if you were never into football!! These people are passionate about food, but they are also strongly passionate about their football! It is complete and utter meyhem and madness, but the sort that your mind cannot let go of, it is beautiful! In Madrid though, the tapas tradition is slightly softer. People go to the bars, be seated and order their food in restaurant manner. There are a few bars that offer tapas buffets, but are very few. The streets in Madrid are full from 7 till about 1, then only a few streets where the clubs are remain bustling. While at San Sebastian our day started at 7 am and ended at about 5, which left us about 2 hours of sleep every day! In Madrid, we were all tucked by 3. Catalonia on the other hand is a breed between the two. Most people would stay at the same bar throughout the night instead of hop from one to another, but the Pintxos are more similar to those served in San Sebastian. In Barcelona for instance, you would pick your pintxos and keep the tooth picks which you take to the counter when you are ready to pay to show how many you have had :) Most locals there will start the night in pintxos bars, but then move on to the lounges and clubs for music and dance, which lasts almost all night.

Check out the recommends at the end of this post, for where to go...

Arzak Restaurant by 3 Star Chef Juan-Mari Arzak

The Country of Star Chefs
Anywhere you go in Spain you will find not just one but a handful of Michelin Star Restaurants. San Sebastian is said to have the most number of Michelin Star Restaurants per habitat in Europe! Not only does San Sebastian have more than a few of these restaurants, 3 of them have not just one star rather 3 stars at one go! Even Barcelona and Madrid are studded by the stars. 
The well accomplished and renowned chefs are extremely talented and most of them went the rout of Molecular Gastronomy, which is a fairly new discipline in the culinary world and is continuously evolving. It is the part of culinary that parallels technology and science break throughs, except it is in the science of food. Some of their creations can blow your socks off, you will be amazed by the concepts, the textures, the creativity and of course the flavours and combinations. An eating experience in one of these restaurants, is in no way similar to your best definition of 'am having dinner'. It is art, and the art is edible, furthermost it sounds familiar, but translates totally foreign to the average palate! (more about these restaurants in a later post).

These restaurants are a must try, if you are into food, as they offer your palate a challenge, and your creativity a push that you will appreciate as a foodie.

A Selection of Cheeses that will make any cheese platter way more interesting
From Don Serapio - San Sebastian
Cheese Country!
Any country that has a country called cheese country, is my kind of country!! How can that be possible?! How can there be - on earth - a place called the cheese country?! 
Spanish cheese is very flavoursome, the textures are unique and the flavours are diverse. I have tried many Spanish cheeses while there and have loved them. Idiazabal is a Basque cheese that is really good, and which I will be using lots of in my cooking. It is somehow similar to Parmesan cheese, with almost the same texture a bit less crumbly. In terms of flavour it is less acidic, less fruity from Parmesan. But it is so palatable, it becomes addictive. On the other hand, the true cheese experience in my opinion, one that you have never experienced before, is that of Asturia's Blue Cheese. The special thing about this cheese is that it is produced in the same way cheese was produced a few centuries ago! There are no chemicals, no additives, nothing but the cheese in the right conditions - in this case caves that are humid, dark and of the right temperature - and the production of natural penicillin. This is how blue cheese was discovered, and this is the original blue cheese experience. Let me tell you: it is not like any blue cheese you have ever tasted before! The flavour is pungent but in a mild kind of way, very hard to explain. The experience is also very different from what you are used to. As you eat this cheese, you will find that your mouth slightly dries on the sides, and I was told that this is your body's reaction to natural penicillin. But the lady swears that you can never get a cold if you eat this cheese due to the same ingredient.

Blue Cheese cured in caves - Asturias
As for its appearance, the blue bits are scattered all around the cheese rather than existent in lines like what we see in all the other blue cheeses. This is because Asturia's blue cheese works from the inside out through the production of natural penicillin rather than from the outside in, through poking with the rod to produce the blue as is the case in other blue cheese. With that said, it is worth mentioning here that this cheese production method is not regulated, meaning does not follow the health and safety guidelines and is therefore not produced massively, or easy to come by. Actually, most producers if not regulated can get in a lot of trouble for producing it. However, they mainly produce it for their families and follow the same secret procedures passed down to them through their ancestors. There is something in that that appeals to me (the pass down through generations). This is honest food, I find, but that speaks of only my opinion, and please make sure to consume at your own risk, and not to listen to my recommendation when it comes to this blue cheese :)

The land of cheese, otherwise known as Asturias, is a picturesque area in spain, with beautiful landscapes and mountainous frames, that are topped with snow and clouds. Once approaching the area, you cannot but hold your breath in wonder of how beautiful any reveal can ever be. If you are into cheese, wine and natural landscape, I strongly recommend that you visit Asturias and take in its beauty, which will sooth your soul.

Txogitxu Meats at Don Serapio in San Sebastian
The proof is in the Meats!
If you are following me on twitter or facebook, you will have seen the shout-outs about helping me identify meat producers in the north. This is because meat is not exactly the specialty of the North of Spain, rather the midland and south are the ones known for the meat. However, and thanks to Inaki, who sent me an email with a link and said: you must go to Txogitxu and Don Serapio for meat producers. I immediately contacted Txogitxu and asked to visit them and meat with Imanol, the man behind the operation. I am so glad I did! Imanol, is such a wonderful guy and an all inspiring personality. The produce he sells is phenomenal. The whole experience was so wonderful that I have written a full post on Imanol, Txogitxu (his meat factory), Don Serapio (his deli), so make sure to read it here.
at Willow Gastronomic Society

But for now let's get back to the meat. Having visited Imanol, the factory, the deli and his Gastronomic Society, I can safely say I had tasted some of the best meats!! I know meats are not exactly what pops to your mind when you think Spain, but trust me - and I have tried quite a lot of premium meats from around the world - when the experience of eating meat becomes as descriptive as that of drinking wine, where you use expressions such as: "tones of earth" "hints of grass" "flowery aromas" "evocative of a meadow"... mind you we are still talking about describing the flavour of meat at the end of the day! Then I would say, hands down this is the best meat I have ever had! We talked meat, cheese, produce, how to tell what is good quality or not...etc. We cooked, ate laughed and he made "the world's best Gin and Tonic" which has no Gin in it whatsoever lol ! We had a fabulous time!
If you are going to San Sebastian, then the delicatessen Don Serapio is a must visit. You will find all kinds of cheeses, meats, oils, produce, pastries, wines, cured ham, chorizos, other forced meats... all local, seasonal and supreme quality. While you are at it, you can stroll down a couple of shops where you will find a bar that starts offering Pintxos at 10 am :)



On the way to Rioja
you are already sampling their wine

Wines of Rioja
A visit to the North of Spain is not complete without visiting the wine producing Rioja Region. Most known for some of the uniquely flavoured red wines, but also known for the production of whites and sparkling wines. The vinyards produce many different ranges from old school to new world, and each is unique in its own essence. Besides the wine production, Rioja is a beautiful place to visit. Its landscapes are gorgeous, and estates are beautiful, most containing restaurants, some of which are tucked within almost like a secret. There are many gastronomic restaurants to visit there as well, where foods and wines are paired to give you the best experience in both.

A Taste of Spain, organise a lot of wine tasting tours, where they take you to different places within Rioja to sample the wines and lunch at the gastronomic restaurants for food pairing. 



"Gin & TonicS"
It took me a while to grasp, but in Spain as it turned out, any alcohol mixed with juice, soda, tonic...etc is referred to as "Gin & Tonics". The restaurants will even ask you if you want the gin and tonics menu! It was funny because, as we were hanging out with Imanol at their Gastronomic Society and after many many dishes of food, and many wines later, he told Firas: "Let me make you a Gin & Tonic. I make the world's best Gin & Tonic."  I could see Firas was so eager to learn how the world's best Gin & Tonic is made. We both had the same reaction once the drink was made: "But there is no Gin in it!" so the world's best Gin & Tonic, contains no Gin whatsoever!! On another occasion a bar tender told firas would you like to try our house' special Gin & Tonic? That drink was a variation of aged Rum and and orange zest!! That is when the whole Gin & Tonic business became clear... 

You have been warned throughout the country Gin & Tonic is used in reference to alcoholic cocktails :)

Collectibles you can buy at the Rambala Square flea market - Barcelona
Catalonia - Barcelona
Catalonia is in a way more similar to Italy than Spain. The ambiance of the region, the geography and architecture, especially the farms and farm houses, churches...etc. Something felt like Italy. Catalonia is after all on the Mediterranean sea. Therefore I guess a bit of similarity with Mediterranean countries is not out of order. I loved this part of the country. It felt romantic, laid back, casual... There is a city in Catalonia called Tarragona which is beautiful. It is filled with historical land marks, and fabulous Roman amphitheaters. I found the name of the city very chique and reflective of the passion for food these people have.

I had concluded this fabulous trip in Barcelona, it was my final destination before heading back home. I am very glad that I had left it for last, as I was ready to unwind, relax and have a good time; like any normal tourist does lol. The city is gorgeous and deserving of the title "the prettiest city in Europe". The multi-layered  culture is very evident there. It is a tourist destination and is filled with tourists. On the weekend masses of people are roaming through every alley in the city. The music performers, human statues, dancers, painters and crafts people are everywhere. The open market, the antiques market and especially the flowers and herbs market are gorgeous. Churches and Gothic Cathedrals are beautiful. There is intricate art at every turn, even the buildings are sculptures of art, done by acclaimed artists both past and present. There are fabulous restaurants, bars and lounges to enjoy all around the city and the whole vibe is very artsy and contemporary surrounded by ancient history. In a way, the whole of Spain is a magical blend of old and new. It is in every way reflective of what has been and what is. There is a strong connection to the roots, to the past. Yet an ability to adapt and evolve. This is very evident in their landscape, their culture and specifically in their cuisine. Truly inspiring!


After all that's been said and done
In conclusion, I found what I was looking for. I found tremendous inspiration. I had met and connected with great people. I had closely explored the food and the cuisines (Spanish, Basque & Catalan). I had eaten non-stop for 2 weeks even when my body could not take it any more! Had cooked at gastronomic societies and met some of the world's best Chefs. I had even managed to make it to a red carpet event and a Gala Dinner, a cocktail reception and whale watching. I had gone for a wild beach party the type you expect in Ibiza! I had missed a flight connection, left my bags in Madrid while I wandered around the other regions, then remembered to get them back right at the last minute! I had cheered for Barcelona (Sorry Madrid) when I have never been into football! I had made a handful of new friends, with whom I would not normally cross paths, but am so grateful to have met them. 
I guess I left Spain on a deep sentimental note, and a deep appreciation for their culture, cuisine and nature. Most importantly, I have left Spain with an equal distance within as that I have covered without.

Culinary Destination - North of Spain      DONE



Hope you have enjoyed this post and that it gives you an idea of what to expect when traveling through North of Spain gastronomically. Looking forward to hearing from you, so don't forget to leave me a comment before you go.


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Top Recommends 

North of Spain is full of places you should try. These are my top recommends based on where I had most fun, best food, and best experiences. I haven't been to all the places am recommending in Barcelona but a friend of mine whose recommendation I trust recommended the ones with the red star.

A Taste of Spain: Spain Culinary Travel Experts 

San Sebastian
  • Arzak - 3 Michelin star restaurant (Go for the lobster tasting menu)
  • Martin Berasategui - Michelin Restaurant 
  • Parte Vieja - San Sebastian Old Town where pintxos crawl bars and restaurants are
  • Don Serapio Delicatessen 
  • Parte Vieja produce Market
  • Get an invitation to a Gastronomic society as they are by invitation only and go for a cooking session (A taste of spain can help you with that)
- Madrid
  • Cerveceria Alemana - Some of the best Tapas I ever tasted. Go for marinated octopus, chorizos, clams in white wine sauce, and albondegas.
- Barcelona
  • Bar Mut - The food was amazing and the best of all our table was in fact an antique Piano!
  • Farga - Amazing Pastries, sweets, breakfast and brunch.
  • Les Quinze Nits - Loved their Paella and loved the outdoors seating area over looking the La Rambala Square flea market
  • Pouerto Madero - Fabulous food and the world's best rum with orange zest
  • Nose Art Bar - Art Bar with great music for lounging, that whole area is filled with lounges and clubs for a night out.
  • Maitea Taberna - one of the most fun nights in Barcelona, where the locals hang out
  • La Paradeta * - for best seafood
  • Cafe Kafka * - Good food, atmosphere and style
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