The Basque ABC’s : F is for….

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F is for…Frijituak! Literally ‘fried things’, this concept is both absurdly obvious and totally foreign. It’s a plate of varied fried things typical to the cuisine, such as croquetas, stuffed mussels (tigres), and balls of meat.

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It’s served as a first course (for one person!) in the most hallowed of the daily eating institutions, the restaurant that has menú del día. This type of spot is both holding strong and dying out. More and more there are fewer, but they are still an indispensable part of the worker’s life. A place to go and get simple food, like your ama makes, and for relatively inexpensive. There is a drink all you want, eat all you want air to it. Other typical first courses include soup, salads, fish puddings, etc. and the second course is often meat and potatoes, fish, or meatballs.

Winners of IV BasqueStage

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martinthumbOut of San Sebastián, there is a program that is gaining in renown and popularity worldwide called BasqueStage. BasqueStage is a program that gives cooks the opportunity to learn from some of the best chefs in the world, up close and personal. It’s EXACTLY the kind of thing that back in my cooking by night, dreaming of Basque Country by day heyday I would have died to be a part of.

Recently, Chef Martín Berasategui has announced the winners of the 2012 4th Sammic Scholarship with BasqueStage.  The winners are Brenden Darby and Luuk Hoffman, and they will join the kitchen of Restaurante Martín Berasategui, ranked in the San Pellegrino World’s Top 100, beginning in July 2012. They were chosen out of over 150 applicants in this, the fourth round of the continually growing BasqueStage program.

Brenden Darby is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, where he graduated Dean’s List and Honors Society. He is also completing is WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) Advanced Certificate. He recently spent six months traveling and volunteering in Southeast Asia, and also has varied restaurant experience under his belt.

Luuk Hoffman is a young Dutch cook, a graduate of the Hotel School in the Hague and a current student at Sterklas in Amsterdam for an advanced culinary degree. He has worked with an impressive roster of chefs.

So what do they win? Get ready….flights to Basque Country, 500 euros a month stipend, an apartment, immediate exposure via blogs and social media, and the chance to learn under one of Spain’s most renowned and famous chefs.  Not bad, huh?

Do your friends a favor and tell them about this opportunity…the next round will open in a few months and it promises to be bigger and better!

Basques in The World’s 50 Best

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Yesterday the announcement for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants was made, and Basque Country chefs continue to have a very outsized presence on this list.

Coming in at NUMBER THREE is a personal favorite of mine, located ten minutes outside of San Sebastián,  Mugaritz. Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz and his team is truly deserving of that spot.  Arzak also holds strong, at number 8, with Elena Arzak winning an additional accolade of Best Female Chef.

For me, what is truly special about the Basque presence in the top 50 is not only the outsized presence Basque chefs hold (for a region that isn’t much bigger than an American state) but also how loyal they are to their culinary traditions.  Eating at one of these restaurants is NOT a cosmopolitan, global experience. It’s quite the opposite-the meals tend to be strongly tied to their location and traditions (like the Wind Comb dessert, from Arzak, above). It’s a strength.

Etxebarri, in leaps and bounds that can be attributed to word of mouth as well as alignment with current gastronomic trends such as using amazing product and  leaving well enough alone, comes in this year at number 31.  Martín Berasategui, on the other hand, drops to 67.

Gora Euskadi! On egin!

Pintxo Pic : Kota 31

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Not long ago, on my blog, I offered a sneak peek into the newest bar in San Sebastián, Kota.31.

A pintxo bar that’s a modern take on Donostian small plate staples like foie and croquetas (which were particularly delicious), it’s located in the heart of the old town on 31st of August Street in the locale that used to be home to Bide Bide.

Here’s a sneak pintxo peek, a contrast of textures: grilled scallop + popcorn | vieira + palomitas.

Gastro-Tourism: San Sebastián Food

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This week I attended the official inauguration of San Sebastián Food‘s new offices on Calle Aldamar, in the old part of San Sebastián. San Sebastian Food, run by Jon Warren, is a non-stop shop for the food-oriented tourist in San Sebastián. Out of their new offices they offer everything from pintxo tours, to days in La Rioja, to jewelry inspired by local products, to the occasional in-office wine tasting.

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These guys know their stuff…they’ve got a knowledgeable wine guide and a super-friendly local pintxo tour guide.  During the summer, they host an incredible event called Discover the Basque Country, led by author Paddy Woodworth.

If you’re intimidated by the pintxo process, take the guided tour. It’s perfect if you have just a night in town, didn’t do your research on my blog, and don’t want to risk pintxo blunders: 5 drinks, 5 pintxos, 5 bars and good conversation.

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A must visit for tourists with a taste for luxury and no time for research.

The Basque Food ABC’s: E is for…

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E is for…Espelette! This tiny town in Iparralade, the north (also known as French) part of Basque Country, is renowned for its special red pepper. Although the town is mostly empty now, and largely run for tourists, the pepper continues to be harvested and hung to dry on the picturesque walls of the traditional Basque villas.

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Once dried, this pepper is often ground and used as a spice, much as you would use cayenne or black pepper. It packs a bit of heat.  It is an essential ingredient in local dishes like axoa, a stew of veal and braised peppers. As Spanish and Basque cuisine has caught on in anglophone cultures, you can often find it on menus in England and America (piment d’espelette aioli, for example).

There’s even a party held in the village every year (this year it falls on October 27 and 28), which includes a blessing of the peppers, pelota, and feasting.  It’s another unique and useful tool in the Basque culinary toolbox.

The Basque Food ABC’s: D is for…

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basqueabcs

Another installment of the Basque food ABC’s. Today we talk about the letter…D!

For those of you who are confused, thinking about the last entry published (babarrunak, which clearly starts with B), you should know that the Basque alphabet has no letter ‘c’.

So, D is for….Danborrada! In Spanish it’s the Tamborrada, and in English a simple Day of San Sebastián will suffice.  It’s quite possibly the biggest celebration in the city, and definitely one of the biggest in Basque Country. But what is it?

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Beginning at midnight on January 20, citizens crowd into the Plaza de la Constitución to kick off this twenty-four-hour party. And everyone is dressed as….chefs! Banging drums, pots, and whatever they can get their hands on, Donostiarras parade in their krewes through the city, stopping at various bars and taking a long pause for a lengthy lunch, often including the specialty angulas (see the A entry in the ABC’s).

Legend has it that, once upon a time, when Napoleonic troops invaded the city, the cooks of the city chased them away by banging kitchen utensils threateningly. That’s where the custom of dressing up in cook’s garb comes from. Really, it’s another raucous festival, only slightly less food-focused than the average Basque jaiak.   It’s everyone’s favorite.  Don’t miss it!

Cider House Rules

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Cider season is nearing a close here in Basque Country.

Basque cider is a drink in its own category. It’s not quite French cider, it’s nothing like American…and it’s a seasonal beverage, best enjoyed in the same building in which it is made, the ciderhouse.

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There are a few rules that can help an outsider enjoy the ciderhouse experience as much as a local. It’s much more difficult to have a bad time in a place where steaks are sizzling and cider is flowing from wooden barrels, but there is a method behind that madness. Here are some cider house rules:

  1. Is it May? Anytime between June and November? Please, don’t go to a ciderhouse. Unless you are looking for a Disney version of this hallowed tradition.
  2. Reserve ahead because during the season the smaller (read, more local) ciderhouses tend to fill up.
  3. Go in a group. With cider, the more the merrier, in all senses of the word.
  4. Wear a sweater. It’s cold in the rooms where cider is kept in huge wooden barrels.
  5. Come hungry. Four courses include tortilla, cod, steak and traditional dessert of membrillo, cheese and walnuts.
  6. The sound TXOTX! (phonetically, choch) means please head directly to the barrel room.
  7. When taking cider from the barrels, line up directly behind the person ahead of you. Align your glass with theirs, such that when they step away, the cider streams directly into your glass.
  8. Get a little bit of cider at a time. Down it. Get more. Repeat, a LOT.
  9. Most importantly, have fun.
  10. Night should end in song.

Gosh, I love this place.

The Basque Food ABC’s: B is for….

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basqueabcs

Another installment of the Basque Food ABC’s. Today, we talk about the letter…B!

B is for….babarrunak. Babarrunak is basque for beans, and nowhere are beans more treasured than in the nearby town of Tolosa.  Alubiadas, loosely translated as bean fests, are parties for groups of friends from the age of 15 to 95.  And they revolve around a relaxed afternoon of eating beans, drinking, and talking.  I’ve been to a fair share thanks to a good friend, and there’s something special about sitting in a square in Tolosa, knocking off the chill and eating your fill of the famous black Tolosa bean, and lingering over cocktails for hours.

The Tolosa bean is peculiar for several reasons: it’s quite expensive, usually running between 7 and 15 euros a kilo.  It’s also misleading: when you buy them, they resemble black frijoles. However, after hours of cooking, they turn a dark red and take on their luscious silky smooth texture. These are a must try.  My mom was probably confused when I sent her a bag for Christmas, but these beans are as close to a luxury item as legumes get.

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Guisantes de Lágrima

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Guisantes de lágrima could be the vegetable equivalent of angulas.

These “tear peas” are 500 euros a kilogram, as a recent article reports. That’s $295 a pound.  This article reports that the first guisantes de lágrima of the season have appeared.  From each pod, 12-14 peas can be harvested. The most famed producer of this delicate legume is Jaime Burgaña of Aroa farm in Getaria.

The season lasts through June, and the harvest is extremely limited.  The treasured peas typically end up in the hands of chefs like Eneko Atxa, Juan Mari Arzak, Martín Berasategui and Pedro Subijana. This year they will also be used by Massimo Bottura in his restaurant Ostería Francescana de Módena.

photo from elblog.info