Wednesday, June 6, 2007

San Sebastian

San Sebastian
I have a lot of catching up to do. We haven’t had internet and I have been horribly ill the last few days. Nicole hasn’t been her most healthy either. The fever has been chilling and the cough unproductive. My throat scratches and burns and I think I have forgotten what it is like to be healthy. I will battle this out that and continue to eat and walk my way through Europe.

Our next stop is San Sebastian, a small seaport village in the Basque Country of Spain just a few miles south of the border of France. I have anticipated a visit to this area ever since I fell in love with the Spanish cuisine while working at the restaurant Basque in San Francisco. The excitement lives in both Nicole and I as we both understand the culture a little bit more in Spain as well as having better command of the language. The only monkey wrench is that in the Basque Country they speak their own language. This is the only surviving language that pre-dates Latin and is called Euskera. However, we later discovered that only about half of the population uses the language (although there is a revival as seen in store front signage) and that Spanish dominates everyday conversation. We felt a little bit more at ease.

San Sebastian is the capital of the Basque Country, but still remains a tiny city. What San Sebastian lacks in population and size it more than makes up in cultural identity and history. If you want a visual, watch the movie Bourne Identity and the opening scene when he arrives into port with the Spanish fisherman you will see the seaport of San Sebastian. El Parte Viaje (Old Town) is a string of narrow, cobblestone alley ways interconnected by an immense amount of Pintxo Bars (pronounced “peencho”). Pintxos are what the Basque call Tapas. Small little plates of food made with the area’s most unique ingredients like Piquillo Peppers, Boquerón’s (marinated white anchovies), olives, guindilla peppers, and thinly sliced and cured Iberico Jamon. This you could get everywhere as every single eatery in town had at least 10 ham legs hanging from the ceiling with hoof and all.

Nicole and I quickly checked into the famed Maria Cristina Hotel and headed into town. My first sight of a Jamon hanging from the ceiling grabbed my attention and we entered. This was like a six year image in my head coming to realization. I have always been enamored with Spanish cuisine and used it quite frequently in my own cooking and now my fantasy of tasting it first hand was about to come true. You could only imagine my excitement and I think Nicole got a good laugh seeing me like this.

The bar’s décor was simple, painted plaster walls with old pictures of Basque men in their traditional berets. The ceiling hung low with uneven and sunken wooden beams making it appear they had been weathered by the nearby ocean air. The bar was trimmed with classic brass ornaments and the floor was littered with cigarette butts, crumbs of bread, toothpicks, and small pieces of crumpled white paper. We noticed the locals eating their pintxos, sipping their beer, sneaking a hit of their cigarette in between bites and then confidently throwing their trash on the floor. We could not believe this…it was absolutely customary to leave all your trash on the floor of the restaurant!

It was our time to grab a few pintxos and beer. Nicole and I indiscriminately chose a few items. We ended up with a fried bacalao (salt cod) stuffed piquillo pepper that was topped with a squid ink sauce, a jamon, pepper, and egg tosta topped with a white anchovy fillet, an octopus skewer that was marinated in smoked paprika and Spanish olive oil, a tosta topped with sliced tomatoes, white anchovy and a white onion puree, another tosta of salmon, hardboiled egg, plain whipped cream and shrimp, a skewer of green olives, pickled guindillo peppers and cured anchovy and then finally a plate of a soft sheep’s milk cheese that was topped with membrillo. Membrillo is like a jam made of quince which is like a cross between an apple and pear. The dream became reality and it was not disappointing. All the flavors hit and even those that I questioned were tasty.

Now I was ready to soak in the rest of the Basque culture, but the cold and the sickness were too much. Adding to the demise was the unforgiving rain. It poured and poured and poured. We ran back to the hotel, set up shop and took a siesta.

Nicole’s throat was hurting and I couldn’t stop coughing, but we hoped the rest would make us feel better and it did enough for us to get out that night for dinner at 10:30pm.
We made it to a famous Basque chef’s, Martin Berasategui, casual restaurant called Bodegon Alejandro. The restaurant was in the basement of an old house and again the décor very simple. The servers were simply dressed in black t-shirts and black jeans….real casual, but the food was serious. Nicole and I were beginning to see a pattern of the Basque taking their food to a different level. Even the more casual and lower end restaurants paid attention to their ingredients and how they combined flavors. Creativity is essential when so many places are serving the same style of food.

We could only order the three course menu at this restaurant due to its structure. Nicole started with a sublime risotto that was cooked and seasoned perfectly with a seafood stock and little chunks of sautéed Iberico Jamon, topped with grilled cuttlefish (similar to squid), and her bowl garnished with a brush of squid ink. Nicole loved the food, but became upset with the squid ink usage. It somehow got on her hand, which then got on her glass, the table and then it consumed her napkin. That ink is surely potent. I had a sauté of wild asparagus, potatoes, and octopus that was brought together with a smoked tuna broth. I like octopus, but here they leave a big portion of the “suckers” on and right beneath the “suckers” is a layer of gelatinous fat. The texture of this “fat” is what doesn’t appeal to me. I cut around it to get to the meat of the octopus. To me, this dish was a definition of textural play in cuisine. The octopus was pleasantly chewy, the asparagus crunchy and the potatoes soft. Each ingredient was then harmoniously gathered with the smoky flavors of paprika and the tuna broth.

At this point, Nicole and I were satisfied and it bothered us a bit to know that we had 2 more courses coming. If we were at home, we would have asked to have our stuff packaged to bring home with us, but this isn’t the case. My steamed codfish arrives bathing in a buttery white wine sauce that was shimmering with shiny clams, potato slices and a lot of parsley. Nicole’s sea bream (similar to striped bass) was served “a la plancha” (meaning from the grill). It was whole, head, eyes and gills. We both did our best to finish our plates because the taste was there, but our appetites weren’t.

We battled the rain and waddled into bed to end the night, but the sad part is that is where we would stay. Nicole felt better, but my sickness got worse. I was weak, achy, shivering and sneezing. I was so disappointed that I couldn’t get out there, but there was no way. The entire day would be lost as well as the better part of the next day resting in bed, watching CNN World News and learning how much the world really hates the U.S. and our president. It is actually quite sad. I even had to cancel a reservation at the famed restaurant Arzak that I made reservations at 3 months ago.

Our last day in San Sebastian was upon us and I wanted to get out a little. We had a late train that night to take us to Barcelona so we needed something to do for the whole day. We headed to Bilbao which is an hour and a half bus ride south of San Sebastian. It is basically the commercial and industrial hub of the Basque Country, but also home to the Guggenheim Museum. We took the ride, high on Dayquil and cough drops, and checked out the museum. The museum was an amazing piece of architecture, but the current exhibit was horrible. The artist displayed huge pieces of steel on a wall and broken concrete stairs on the floor, numbered them, scribbled some illegible writing next to them and called it art. There were 3 floors of this bull crap. As if I wasn’t sick enough, I put myself through this torture of viewing this and even listening to what the artist had to say about each piece. This was annoying and quite offensive that we had to pay 15 Euro each for our entrance. I do appreciate art, but I could not accept this form to be categorized that way.

I got my appetite back, but I needed something mellow and something from home, something that wouldn’t challenge my taste buds, but more importantly the condition of my stomach. Nicole needed something decidedly American as well. Now I am embarrassed to admit it, but we almost were tempted for McDonalds which we did not want to do. Miraculously, a Subway appeared so we entered, got our American fix and were good for another 2 and a half weeks of experimental eating.

We had time for one last meal in San Sebastian before our night train left at 11pm. I was feeling a little better so we tried a small restaurant near the station. We should’ve passed on the meal. Nicole ordered a “Russian Salad” and received potato salad and then ordered Shrimp in garlic sauce and received 6 miniscule shrimp loaded with oil that were mushy. That’s right mushy. Mushy to the point that the gag reflex kicked in. It was disgusting. I ordered the 20 euro grilled prawns thinking I would get a full dinner out of it and all I got were 4 prawns with the shell on. They weren’t bad, but they were a lot of work and they did not come with anything else. In fact, we got the bill I noticed we got charged for the bread that was placed on our table at the beginning of the meal!

We were 1 hour away from what would be the worst train ride I have ever experienced. Stay tuned for that one!


Anonymous said...

Hey Jacquet...

You are making me think you have TB with all this talk of coughing. An infected Amercian man was traveling through France a week or 2 ago. Did he cough in your mouth???

Anonymous said...

yeah coo bird your with your wife,
at least your starting to feel better,

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