Italian Cuisine World Summit in Dubai this November

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Don Imanol: The Basque Country's King of Meats & The Best Steak Ever

At Txogitxu with owner Imanol Jaka

"It is very Funny for me to come to Dubai! ... I don't wear suits because I am not a Guns Salesman. I sell Meat." - Imanol Jaka of Txogitxu & Don Serapio, San Sebastian



Where do I begin describing what turned out to be the highlight of my Culinary trip through the North part of Spain?! What do I tell you from the magnitude of exchanged words and life wisdom? How does one describe a total connection you make with a one-minute-ago complete stranger who speaks your mind, and shares your very perspective on almost everything? How do you describe an all-inspiring man whose company is filled with interesting rationale and intriguing views, an unsurpassed passion for food, life, politics, philosophy, and a life wisdom you hardly brush shoulders with? I can only describe it with this quote:

"McDonald's people never understand!" - Imanol Jaka

That is but one statement from the Basque Country's king of meat, Sinor Imanol, whom I have had the pleasure to meet when I was in San Sebastian. You can however say, that all the conversation was nonetheless as opinionated, interesting and with layers of depth and meaning that your brain feels like it got its much needed exercise. Especially when we seem to live in a world were people are becoming almost a copy of each other - quite literally - as people seem to think the same thoughts, wear the same clothes copy people's literary voice and every move as well as book the same plastic surgeon!! Consequently leaving your brain feeling dull and routinish! Meeting with Imanol, was in that perspective a breath of fresh air, which validated my ever-same need of bringing to the table, a little bit more than just food, a little bit of life, interesting conversation, inspiration and a celebration. As it turns out, like myself, there are others out there who do not refer to depth as 'Drama', rather 'a celebration of life'. I like depth, I take depth over a free "like her nose job", any time!


I can never do the person any justice in the description, I can only share with you some of that experience and leave it up to you to go through the layers unfolding the treasures, and that I shall do in this post. 
Please note though that English is not a first Language in Spain, and is hardly spoken over there. I will be using some words as they came out from Imanol, which ironically do the meaning more justice than the original words. I will be writing the explanations next to these words.

As you may know from my earlier post, I was looking for meat producers in North of Spain, and was told that I 'must meet Imanol from Txogitxu'. I have set an appointment with Imanol, and went to his mouthwatering delicatessen in Donostia to talk local produce, meat production and farm-to-table concept in that local community. Walking into the delicatessen 'Don Serapio' is like stumbling upon a produce haven, where you can find an array of colourful produce, both fresh and some specifically processed foods to Don Serapio. The Delicatessen is a fabulous introduction to the country's produce, and if you do not have time to tour the country, visiting the Deli will allow you to sample its most unique products. 
Imanol greets us and straight away tells us: 

"We are going to be eating here, to show you the quality of what we do, the beauty of Basque and Spanish produce, and to taste flowers - meaning flavours - you have never had before!"

Meats Section at Don Serapio

He then takes us around the deli, showing us the produce, explaining origins and best methods of cooking. He goes on explaining that any processed foods he sells are made specifically for his deli and to his specifications, so that everything is best quality. This is why his delicatessen 'Don Serapio' is a winner of Gastronomy award. He goes on explaining: 

"My shop is not only for rich man. I do not consider it a luxury shop. This shop is for everyone, because every body must have and know good food. Good products are not a luxury, good products are good and for everyone." 

A belief that must be carried out everywhere, I think. Good food is for everyone, and everyone should be able to have good food. Such a concept is very much welcome to be adopted in this part of the world, where it all tends to become very niche. 

Don Serapio Canned Tuna, a long way from the standard tinned Tuna

He handpicks Marinated White Asparagus, a hard to find 12-month aged Idiazabal cheese, Anchovies in olive oil, a variety of Olive Oils, A variety of other cheeses, ham and paper thin slices of pork fat, Roasted red capsicums, a vriety of Rioja wines, Txacoli (Sparkling wine) and Sidras (Local Ciders)... It was 12:00 pm but it seemed that we had lunch all sorted. Imanol, explained how to eat each item in the sampling menu to get the best flowers - meaning flavours. Not like the produce needed any enhancements! I mean, I would have never dared to eat anchovies straight out without a flavour-buffer, such as a piece of bread, or anything. But his anchovies were so good, that you can munch on them as they are without the need for diluting the flavours!!


The produce is evidently superior in quality. Everything you taste has rich and distinguished flavours. On many occasions produce seemed to have a new flavour all together. Worthy of mention here that even the processed food was delicious and strangely maintained its original texture. This is hard to come across as processed foods, seldom have any texture other than mush! As we ate along, we were talking about the produce, spotting good quality and equally having a nose for bad quality products. He instructs:

"If you want to know good quality product then smell it. Good cheese must smell like the animal its made from. Good meat smells like the cow and the field and the food that animal ate. Less eyes is always better to tell product quality."

 We started talking about farm-to-table and that is when things started to get really interesting. Imanol, explains that he is a firm believer in the farm-to-table concept. He believes that a community must support its local farmers and local produce, or their produce will become history. Very true, as is the case in many countries across the Middle East, where the community preferred to sell and offer inferior quality imported foods over local produce, raised the price of local produce to the extend that no one was buying anymore. This gradually killed the farmers, and led to a once agricultural region to become so dependent on imports with very little and over priced local produce. 

Local Produce at Don Serapio
Not only has this affected the market status, but it has tremendously influenced our conception of good food. Our palates have become so used to bland flavours due to the quality of the imports and storage conditions, that anything with real flavour is considered too strong and not favorable. We sometimes even forget what produce should taste like! We often describe food as good, while others coming from abroad tend to find it more on the bland note. Most of the time, this has nothing to do with cooking ability, but rather the quality of the produce.

On the other hand, it makes it all the more plausible for the Dubai community who are working towards sustainable local produce, despite the harsh environmental conditions. The local farmers are working extra hard to challenge the weather and environmental conditions, in order to provide local produce. Then there are people like Baker & Spice, who hold farmer's market on the weekend to give you a chance to try the goodness of seasonal local produce. others include Down-To-Earth UAE, who are offering some local organic produce, and the Organic Shop at Dubai Mall who are also occasionally serving up some local organic produce.

More Local Produce at Don Serapio
I asked Imanol that when farming is the natural procedure for food consumption, and when nature produces superior quality why do people tend to choose lab-produced, genetically-enhanced, hormone-injected, early-picked, frozen-fresh products. Isn't that ironic? He said:
"Bad products are the luxury! These men wear suits and sell you a tomato as if it is gold. Buying from Farmers is less expensive, and the quality is much better. That is why at Don Serapio, it is not about the rich man and making quick money, it is quality for everyone. Any other way is bad quality." Then goes on explaining: "I don't wear suits because I am not a Guns Salesman, I sell meat! Which do you think is more funny - meaning appealing but all puns work - to people these days? The McDonals's culture will never understand (the explanation is too long for this one, but I bet you get the drift )! Your body is the best judge. When you eat something good your body doesn't mind it, you don't feel tired and lazy afterwards. Your body will in fact ask for more. While when you eat something bad or not natural, your body's reaction changes, it asks you not to have more. Listen to your body, it knows. "

By that time we have tasted all there is to taste, but Imanol insisted to show me what he means by good quality product. So he invited us to his Txogitxu, the production unit where he receives and stores the meats (Veal and Beef) which he sells at Don Serapio, as well as to a handful of restaurants and clients. Then we were to cook with him at the Willow Gastronomic Society, where he will cook for us the best steak we have ever had! On the way there we talk about Basque cuisine, and how the Basque were able to maintain the quality of their cuisine, and how in fact they were able to take their cuisine to the highest levels making it one of the most acclaimed cuisines in the world. Nueva Vasca - meaning New Basque cuisine - is very Avant Garde, very evolved and modern, that it is being studied for inspiration by many Chefs and other cuisines. He thinks the recipe for success lies in the roots of the cuisine. As Basque cuisine is one that is all about showcasing the produce. Where the produce is the star of the dish, handled with minimal cooking, because cooking takes away from the produce. Very minimal additions to any produce are necessary, if any. When the produce is good, and you keep it in good condition by refraining from over handling and overcooking, you are in for success. 
This is one of the things you learn in cooking schools, and one piece of advise that all chefs give you. Extraordinary dishes, are those with the least interruptions, and the least influence from the cooks. And that just falls back right next to the farm-to-table discussion and builds on it.

Imanol sorting out the meat labels
Behind him the art of his friend the famous Basque Artist Juan Gorriti

At Txogitxu, We got to see Imanol in action, he took us on a tour around his production unit, where we got to see the massive fridges where the meat is stored both for veal and beef. We discussed how his family have been working with meat for over 100 years and have mastered the art of meat production and spotting "the good cows (the fat cows)". He explains that fat cows are very old cows, and their meat have high marbling which creates a distinct superior flavour. Not only does Imanol work with cow production, but he is always on the look out for excellent quality cows all over Europe, and says that Portugal for instance have phenomenal cows. Txogitxu sells fresh, and aged meat. They age cows from 7-14 years, where the meat becomes more mature and therefore more flavoursome.


He further explains that when you touch the fat of the cow, your hands should become wet - meaning greasy - and must smell of grass and butter. He actually demonstrated that technique and fair enough his hands were lubricated with grease and smelled of fields of grass. Then Imanol goes back to dealing with farmers and explains why he buys straight from the farmers: "Good produce is all about finding a good farmer. Urban logic doesn't work in this senario as farmers logic is different. Farmers are down to earth people. They have good logic and are very natural, which urban people can't understand. I go out to the farms and choose the farmer, not the cows. Because with good farmers you will definitely get good meat. I look in a farmer's eyes and that is where the relationship starts. The eyes can tell you everything." Imanol is always looking for the produce that is "made by a person for a person" and for him work ethics come first. "It is a building of a long term relationship. It is about trust and mutual respect. And I have been happy - meaning blessed."


Once done at Txogitxu, we headed to Willow Gastronomic Society, were we got to cook and have the best steaks ever. Willow Gastronomic Society is another story all together, which I will post soon. But for today's post, I will tell you that that steak was by far the best I have had. The proof is in the meats - as described in my earlier post

"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!"              -       Culinary Destination - North of Spain

Just like Basque Cuisine, there is beauty in the simplicity of Imanol's thoughts and opinions. But also like Basque cuisine, what appears to be minimal and simple turns out to be rich and multi-layered that you can't help but fly with it reflecting onto other aspects of life. Funny enough it all applies!


Imanol's Tips for Cooking the Best Ever Steak
  • Choose the best quality produce available. To determine quality use Less Eyes and More Nose. Hands must get wet and smell of butter and grass when rubbing the meat or the fat. Look for marbling  which will give superior flavours.
  • Do not over handle or over interfere with the flavour. Let the flower - flavour - of the meat speak for itself. (I love the use of flower to mean flavour. Flowers are synonymous with good smell, with meadow and field, with layers upon layers of goodness). No need to Marinate, add spices, herbs...etc. Just a sprinkling of salt crystals and a tiny drizzle of olive oil will do.
  • It is best to place the steak over a grill or wire lined griddle so the meat gets flavoured by the smoke of its own drippings.
  • Subject the meat to high flame at first to sear on all sides. Then, move to lower heat and cook gently to the desired doneness.
  • Must have meat blue or max rare for the best experience. If it becomes gray then you have killed it the second time and took away its flavour.
  • You must rest the meat for 5 minutes before serving to keep it moist and avoid bleeding on your plate.

In the end, Imanol wraped the day by making the world's best ever Gin & Tonic and with these beautiful words: " I don't work to collect monies. I work for Life. I love what I do. This is Me."  and smiles...


Hope you liked this post and found some inspiration in the simple words of Imanol. I have totally enjoyed getting to know him, visiting Don Serapio, Txogitxu and Willow Gastronomic Society. Some people we meet stay with us way after we leave them, and these are the people who add value to our lives. Imanol is such person, and I hope that you get in touch with him when visiting San Sebastian. 
I would love to hear from you so, leave me a comment before you go, and come back again soon for more :)



Related Links:

Txogitxu

Art by Juan Gorriti 
Don Serapio Pastry section -
Leaving on a sweet note

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