Restaurants worth visiting: Navarra and San Sebastian

Posada, Oitz

As I was planning this post, I happened across Pueblo Girl’s recent post about Spanish food. After quite a few 9- or 10-euros menus del dia in local restaurants, I can really relate to a lot of what she says there. Until recently Spain was not a country that was renowned for its good food. If it is now, it’s for many-starred, bank account-busting “creative” restaurants like El Bulli (now closed down) or, closer to here, Arzak and Beresategui. But these are hardly representative. All too often, Spanish restaurant food is ensalata mixta, deep-fried everything, stodgy rice, or stringy, overcooked meat in a claggy sauce with a few mushy green beans.

However, as Pueblo Girl says, it’s not all bad. With persistence and much sampling, we have found a handful of reasonably priced restaurants in the area of Pamplona and San Sebastian that are well worth a visit, serving food that would be recognised as good in other countries, not just Spain. So here’s my list of recommendations: three country restaurants, and two city ones.
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Spanish food: tapas and pintxos

Bar, Pamplona

After almost two months in Spain, I think I’m beginning to understand what Spanish food is all about. Our initial impressions were not good. With one honourable exception, restaurant cooking here seems to be bland, stodgy, and unadventurous. And revolves around meat. Lots of it (not so surprising given that it’s a livestock-raising area). The menus at all the local restaurants have many, many things in common: ensalada mixta, ensalada russa, arroz con leche, flan, natillas, and cuajada (sheep’s-milk junket) feature on all of them. Main courses are usually massive platefuls of roast or grilled meat. Low points were the albondigas (meat balls) served in thick, Bisto-flavoured gravy, and bechamel-coated deep-fried lamb chops. There seems to be little concern with freshness and flavour.

Meanwhile, shops and supermarkets in our local small town were poorly stocked and uninspiring. The spice rack in the supermarket was a particularly sorry sight. Black pepper. Two kinds of pimentón (dulce and picante). Cinnamon (sticks and ground). Nutmeg. Herbes de Provence. Yellow food colouring (cheaper than saffron). Lots and lots of packets of “paella spice”, of which a major ingredient is the aforesaid colouring. “But where’s the ginger? And what about cumin? Or coriander?” Nowhere to be seen – I ended up bringing some back from France.

But then we hit the covered market in Irún. Revelation! Of course, living in France we are used to markets, even blasé about them. Superficially a Spanish market looks much like a French one, but this was different enough that we wandered spellbound around the stalls, oohing and aahing over the produce, and left laden with a week’s supply of food.

piquillo peppers, ready to eat

First, the preserved food stall. Bottled and tinned food is considered a worthy genre in its own right in Spain, and this is not surprising when you consider: thick chunks of bonito del norte (tuna) in brine, nothing like the flaky scraps in tins; whole, roasted piquillo peppers in oil, lusciously juicy and ready to eat straight from the jar; olives, of course, in their many forms; anchovies and boquerones; cans and bottles of olive oil. Half a dozen varieties of dried beans, dried fruit and nuts are piled in bins. And of course, since this is the Basque country, strings of dried peppers hang from the ceiling.

Then the preserved meat stall. The stallholder sharpens his menacing-looking knives, ready to serve you. Jamón, of course, in multiple varieties, ranging from garnet-red to purple, edged with frills of white fat, at prices ranging from maybe 10 euros a kilo for standard serrano ham to an astonishing 80 for the best bellota. The extra you pay for jamón ibérico is worth it, for bellota I can’t yet say. Multiple varieties of salami, sausage, and lomo ahumado are also on offer. The most notable sight at the butcher next door is tiny legs of lamb, weighing barely a kilo each; it seems Spaniards are fond of milk-fed lamb. We bought one of these, marinated it briefly in a paste of olives, capers, anchovies, olive oil, and pimentón, grilled it on the barbecue, and ate the whole thing between the two of us.

The cheese stalls might not rival French ones (OK, they definitely don’t). But there are a few varieties of hard cheese, from Manchego to Ossau-Iraty, dozens of local sheep’s cheeses, and bags of raw sheep’s milk (I snapped up one of these to make my own cuajada).

Then whole stalls are devoted to that Basque staple, bacalao, again with major divergences in price, from thin, scrappy pieces stiff as a board with salt, to thick chunks of boneless cod steak at 25 euros a kilo, waiting for a long soak to be reconstituted as white, flaky fish, gorgeous when simply cooked and served with a lively salsa verde or tomato and pepper sauce. Next door, the fish stalls were piled with glossy fresh fish, with ugly but delicious hake (merluza) playing a starring role alongside beautiful sea bass (lubina), red mullet (salmonete), crabs, lobsters, langoustines, squid, and octopus.

The major “aha” from all this is that Spanish markets lend themselves to simple food that can be nibbled with drinks – that would be tapas then (or pintxos, since we are in the Basque country). Getting home, we simply laid out platters of ham, piquillo peppers, thinly sliced cheese, olives, nuts, cut some bread, opened a bottle of wine, and a lifestyle was born. If you feel the need of something sweet afterwards, a little clay pot of cuajada drizzled with mountain honey hits the spot. Or the Spanish version of lemon sherbet: buy some lemon sorbet and a bottle of cava, combine in a blender, pour into champagne flutes, serve with straws. Who needs to cook?

Home-made cheese

Cheese making: separating curds from whey

We took the opportunity of living next to a small sheep farm in the Navarran Pyrenees to find out how our neighbour makes cheese. She has about a hundred sheep and makes cheese in her kitchen every couple of days. It’s a surprisingly simple procedure, requiring little equipment.

You will need:
about 7-8 litres of this morning’s sheep’s milk (I expect cow or goat milk works just as well)
about half a teaspoon of liquid rennet or other coagulant (I’m told nettles work, but I haven’t tried them yet)
A large metal pan or bucket to hold the milk
a thermometer
a large wire whisk
a cheese mould lined with cheesecloth

It goes without saying that all your equipment must be scrupulously clean. First of all, heat the milk to 36 degrees C. Turn off the heat. Add the rennet to a very small amount of water, about a tablespoon (just to make it dissolve better). Pour into the milk and mix thoroughly with the whisk. Leave to stand for 20-30 minutes. Sagrario told us that you could achieve the curdling by dangling a bit of tripe in the milk, but she prefers liquid rennet!

At this point the milk should have thickened to a lumpy, yoghurty consistency. Don’t proceed to the next stage until it does.

Cheese making: amateur cheesemaker

Reheat the milk to 39 degrees C, whisking constantly to break up the curds. According to Sagrario, this is important to kill all the bugs and prevent your cheese from ending up full of maggots. Remove from the heat and set aside to settle for 5 minutes.

Plunge your hands into the bucket and grope around the bottom, pulling all the settled solids together. Lift out your large and dazzlingly white lump of cheese, squeezing with your hands to firm it up and get rid of some of the liquid. Press into the lined mould and squish it down as hard as you can.

Cheese making: moulding the cheese

The cheese is left to drain for 24 hours, then put in a cheese press and squeezed further before being brined and left to mature for two months. The resulting cheese will keep for up to a year.

Update: and here is the proud cheesemaker with his mature cheese!

Steve and his cheese

There was a lot of liquid whey left over in the bucket. “It’s not wasted,” Sagrario assured us. “You can take this liquid and boil it up. Lots of froth will appear on the top. You can scoop this off; it’s called requesón, and it’s delicious.” A check in the dictionary confirmed that this was curd cheese, the word literally meaning “re-cheese”. And later we realised that the word ricotta (re-cooked) in Italian expresses exactly the same principle.

Next lesson: how to make cuajada, a very simple and delicious fresh sheep’s cheese made in clay pots that’s often served as a dessert with honey or sugar. I’m going to gather some nettles to make my own rennet for this.

Ginger and lemon refresher

Just in case you thought this blog was abandoned, here I am! Life is busy in the summer and I don’t have much time or opportunity to cook. I actually first made this recipe from Delicious Days about six weeks ago. Since then, I have made literally gallons of the stuff, served at village events as a non-alcoholic cocktail. It has been a huge success with both adults and children — we’ve sold 10 litres in a matter of minutes — and it is so easy and cheap to make. This is a slight variation on the original recipe.
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Gingery Lime Punch

ginger and lime punch

This month’s Taste & Create partner was Rachel of Tangerine’s Kitchen. Not a blog I’m familiar with, so I enjoyed browsing through the wide range of recipes (although the design could use a bit of work, the large un-optimised photos brought my slow connection grinding to a halt!).

As usual there were a few that tempted me: cheesy calzones and spiced apple tart to name but two. In the end though, yet again I went for something quick and simple.

A couple of weeks ago (during a visit to a free-range pig farm as it happens) we were served some delicious non-alcoholic aperitifs before lunch. One of them was made with fresh ginger, and it was excellent. So my eyes lit up when I saw Rachel’s gingery lime punch. This had to be worth a try. And it was.

After making the syrup I refrigerated it and then served it topped up with chilled sparkling water. Lovely, so refreshing; I did add a bit more ginger after tasting it, as it wasn’t quite zingy enough initially. It will make a great non-alcoholic and driver-friendly alternative to the lethally thirst-quenching Marquise that we serve at summer parties.
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Rillettes de thon

rillettes de thon

Strictly speaking, rillettes are a kind of pâté made of pork cooked in its own fat and then finely shredded (very nice, despite the description!). This version is a kind of tuna pâté, simple to make and delicious on toast. You need to use good-quality tuna, preferably “au naturel” rather than in oil — though you can use the latter if you drain it well. Make it at least an hour before you want to eat it; it will keep for several days in the fridge.
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The Omnivore’s Hundred

Everyone else seems to be doing it, so here’s mine! I didn’t think I was that adventurous an eater, so I was a little surprised to score 63 (or 62, depending on whether you count harissa without rose petals in it). The list is a strange mixture of things I consider quite ordinary (chicken tikka for example) and things that seem wildly exotic — to me, at any rate. I didn’t even know what some items were; I assume they make perfect sense to Americans 🙂 Some of the American items I have eaten are a result of a year in the US at the age of 11; I am not a regular consumer of PB&J sandwiches or root beer floats.

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment at www.verygoodtaste.co.uk linking to your results.

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile (unless it’s endangered)
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp (don’t really like river fish though)
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho (Vietnamese beef soup)
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi (Indian potato curry)
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle (Not all it’s cracked up to be IMHO, but perhaps the ones I’ve tried were inferior quality)
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes (I had to google to find out what these were — and I still don’t know whether I’ve eaten one or not)
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese (made my own from scratch! That I wouldn’t do again …)
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters (but only when I absolutely can’t avoid it)
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda (somehow I have missed ever eating this, although it’s the sort of thing I would eat)
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi (had some just last week — fabulous with curry!)
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar (both, but not together)
37. Clotted cream tea (again last week, on a trip to the UK — such a treat!)
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O (I am assuming jelly made with homemade limoncello counts, since it has vodka in it)
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more (Once or twice; I’m not a whisky drinker)
46. Fugu (why risk it?)
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel (Jellied eels are *horrible*. They put me off for many years, but I have since had both smoked and stewed eel and been pleasantly surprised)
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut (A what??)
50. Sea urchin (once, and wouldn’t again)
51. Prickly pear (didn’t know you could eat them! How do you get the spines off?)
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer (Indian cheese)
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal (many years ago!)
56. Spaetzle (my German friend Helga’s are the best!)
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores (what??)
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin (used as indigestion cure in the UK — kaolin and morphine, used to be available over the counter!)
64. Currywurst
65. Durian (not sure if I would try it or not)
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette (won’t do it again though)
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost (not keen on it though)
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie (don’t know what this is)
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant (once, Michel Bras, in Aubrac)
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare (all too rarely!)
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse (not intentionally, but I’m sure I have been served it at least once, disguised as beef)
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab (crab makes me ill)
93. Rose harissa (Yes to harissa, but not with rose petals — I assume it’s listed because a well-known brand of rose harissa is available in UK supermarkets)
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano (unlikely to try this because I don’t do Mexican food; I’ve never had any Mexican cuisine that I liked, but if I was served it, I would try it)
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor (but I think lobster is best served simply with mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce — why tamper with perfection?)
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

Candied orange peel

I felt very virtuous doing this, because after squeezing my oranges for juice, I used the empty shells to make these little candied nibbles. The recipe I used suggested removing the peel in quarters, then using the oranges for something else, but I needed the juice so I did the opposite. After squeezing, I cut each half-shell in half again, and then used a small sharp knife to remove the remaining pulp/membrane, a bit like skinning fish; once you get the tip of the knife under the membrane, you can grip one end of the peel firmly, skin-side against the cutting board, and push the rest off with the knife quite easily.

Once made, these can be kept in an airtight tin. An elegant garnish for citrus or chocolate desserts; and for after-dinner treats you can dip them in melted chocolate and serve with coffee.

Having said all that, while not difficult it is time-consuming, and you can’t go very far away while they are cooking.

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