Monday, June 2, 2008
It's been a while because I've been a bit busy. We went to the Basque region of Spain for the bank holiday (Memorial Day to those of you in the US) weekend, and then the baby (hereafter to be referred to by the nickname O-man) came down with a cold AND an ear infection at the same time. Joy.
This post is inspired by the trip. Again, not really a tip, and only a tiny bit related to science, but definitely interesting from a foodie perspective.
When I travel, I love to experience the culture of a place through its food. The Basque region of Spain, especially San Sebastian, is known for its food. There are a plethora of multi-Michelin star restaurants that you have to make reservations for a year in advance (including two of the top 10 restaurants in the world according to two lists--see them here and here).
But what many people flock to the area for are pintxos ('tx' is pronounced 'ch'), this part of Spain's version of tapas. And that's exactly what we ate when we were there because (a) we planned the trip a bit last minute, so probably couldn't have gotten reservations and (b) the best restaurants in the world probably frown upon a 5 month old baby coming to dinner in his pram.
Pintxos are such a brilliant idea. I just love the idea of eating 12 different little things so you can taste the entire menu, and since each item is only 2-3 Euros, it doesn't kill you if you take one bite of something and decide you don't like it (although that didn't happen to us). And these are so much better than most traditional tapas, mostly because the traditional way of presenting them is a small bit of stuff on top of a small slice of baguette, rather than an entire plate (or racion) with 10 pieces of jamon Serrano and queso Manchego. Plus, they are all spread out along the bar for you to look at - you just point to the ones you want (or in some cases just grab them yourself and save the toothpicks so they can see how many you had and charge you accordingly).
We went to many good places, and two awesome places, both of which we found thanks to friends who'd been there before and this blog. One of these was La Cuchara de San Telmo, which apparently was opened by a guy who used to be a chef at El Bulli (the number one restaurant in the world). So this is where the science comes in, although it's admittedly a bit of a digression. The head chef at El Bulli, along with a couple of others whom I might discuss in a future post, is known for molecular gastronomy. This is a fascinating thing to me given my scientific background. I mean, who wouldn't think it was cool to capture the smoke from a fire and use it to flavor your ice cream, turn everything and anything into a froth, or use dry ice to make a chilled sauce 'boil'? (Possibly this guy.) But really, how can you argue with someone who is using nuclear magnetic resonance to analyze carrot-based soup stocks?
Back to La Cuchara de San Telmo. Let's just say this place was so good that we had a few dishes there on Saturday night, and then went back and ordered practically everything on the menu and ate our entire dinner there on Sunday night. Not really in the spirit of pintxos bar hopping, but we couldn't resist! There was some sort of beef cooked in red wine that I swear was the best beef I've ever eaten - it just melted in your mouth. And there was pork, and cod, and some sort of meat creamed up and put in a croquette (it was 'crema de asados' which we have only been able to translate into cream of grilled meat). If anyone else has a better translation, I'm happy to hear it (or maybe not, depending on what it is). Unfortunately I didn't take any pictures of the food here!
I did, however, get a few shots of some of the food at Aloña Berri (unfortunately the website doesn't have an English version), the other place we loved. We hung out there for about 2 hours on Sunday afternoon, and even met the chef and his wife (who decided that it would be fun to take O-man back into the kitchen to meet everyone). I don't think I really need to describe the food here, because the blog mentioned above and another one here have pretty much done it for me. The Chipiron en Equilibria del Mar (pictured below) was superb. There was also a seared tuna pintxo that I think must be new since it isn't mentioned anywhere. I can't remember what was in it exactly, but it was excellent (the 3 people at the table next to us went through 4 orders of it). We also loved the pigeon bastilla.
All in all, a fabulous trip that I would highly recommend to anyone (especially if you live in London), but even if you are in the US and want to tour Spain, you must go to Bilbao and San Sebastian!