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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Culinary Road Trip in Northern Spain and Brining Olives at Home

Asturias - North of Spain

"The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are."                                             - Samuel Johnson

Once a year, I dedicate a trip to what I call a "Culinary Destination". I travel in search of good food, food inspirations and unique food experiences. These trips revolve only around food. I look for honest local cuisines, as they are prepared at home. I also look for fresh local produce and specialties, not limited to fruits and vegetables but extending to cheeses, cured meats, beverages...etc.
I find that to have a full understanding of food, you have got to start from the ground up. The ground is a different perspective in every country and at times in different cities within a country. The soil is different, the climate and therefore the produce differs even in its most common properties. You will find that - however mildly - goat's cheese made in France tastes and is differently textured than that made in Greece. They tell you "the milk itself is different... the grass is different... the terrain is different...." and therefore the produce and its properties vary.
Moving on to the preparations of produce. Different cuisines have different approaches for dealing with produce. Even within a cuisine each village will use different aromatics, additions and even different techniques in finishing a dish. You will find that in Asia it is very customary to fry aromatics at the beginning of cooking, while in Europe for instance, it is more common to add the aromatics in a bouquet garnis, towards the middle and end of the cooking process. The aromatics can be the same, but how and when they are added makes a huge difference to the flavours. In some cuisines, the use of many ingredients in one dish, all of which immensely pungent, is very common and in fact amicable. While in other countries this is disliked and considered to take away from the dish rather than enrich it, as the ingredients overwhelm each other rather than compliment and bring out each other's goodness. To understand cuisine, you have to understand the differences, to understand the produce and the methods, and most importantly to understand the food culture. What better way to do that, than by cooking with people, eating and talking food with them? And that is why I go to my Culinary Destinations; in search of  inspiration.

Tapas - Barcelona (photo by Barcelona Guide)

We live in a world so rich and varied. Anywhere you go, you will have a culinary destination, even when you least expect it. I have found an unexpected culinary destination in both Seychelles and Mauritius. I completely devoured the scene in New York and while I loved it all madly, grew completely fond of "Little Italy". I have accidentally tripped over a condensed Mexican experience in Orlando of all places!! I fell in love the first time with South Africa, so much so that I keep going back for more down the Wine Route and also the Garden Route. The produce there is Divine and so is each and every bite. Beirut is always rich with food, and so are Syria, Jordan, Palestine... Morocco is a whole different ball game! Everyone knows of my love of French cuisine and especially my love affair with Provence. I dream to live there someday, gastronomically! The list is endless and what I would love for you to take from this is the fact that it doesn't have to be globally claimed a culinary spot to be a culinary destination. You will find food and cuisine everywhere you go. The trick is to open your mind to it and see it!

Oil Painting: Olive Trees in Spain by Sarah Bryant
This year is a special destination because I am heading to a country rich all over with food. I am heading to North of Spain. Spain is known for being rich in produce. From fruits and vegetables and especially the olive and olive oil, to meats, fish and seafood, to cheeses and wines... the country has it all! The Spanish Cuisine is rich and diverse and I cannot close this sentence without a reference to its very well known Tapas or as known in the Basque country as Pintxos (which are small appetisers, kind of like the Arabic Mezze). The tapas over there even has a culture known as Tapas Crawl, where the people hop from bar to another all evening, where they have one tapa at each bar! Not to forget, of course, that San Sebastian in the Northern Region of Spain is known to be the Mecca for Foodies. The city has the largest number of Michelin Starred Restaurant in Europe!
I have been looking forward to going to Spain on a Culinary quest for a while now, but somehow always ended up going to another city. But the time is right now and am ready for Spain, for La Cocina Vasca and specifically looking forward to the Nueva Cocina Vasca. I would have loved nothing more than spending a few months there, but had to cut down to a couple of weeks. Therefore, I have chosen north of Spain this time, and will definitely be dedicating one for the southern region.

I will be blogging all about this trip when I get back, and telling you all about the adventures -especially looking forward to seeing the cheese country!! Yes they have a cheese country there!! Specifically the cheese caves, where bats and cheese live harmoniously! On the lookout for cured meat producers although it is not the specialty of the North Region, but heard there are a few farms to check out. Eagerly anticipating the mythical Rioja Region with all the wine farms and secret gastropubs and restaurants tucked within the farms! And most definitely not going to miss out on the restaurants with all the stars to devour a sea urchin cappuccino amongst other things.

For the recipe section of this post, I thought to stay within the theme of Spain. At first, I thought of a tapa but then decided to keep that for when I come back as I will have lots of tips for you from the natives :) Therefore and since Spain is famous for Olives and Olive Oil, I thought why not share with you the method of brining Olives at home? Nothing beats the flavour of home-brined olives, and you will love this super simple recipe. Here is how its done:

You can brine black olives separately from the green, or you can mix both together. I have added the chilies and lemon for flavour, but you can carry out without them if you prefer plain olives like the ones in the picture above.
Fresh Olives

You Need
1Kg fresh Olives (green, black or both)
1/2 Kg unwaxed Lemon
Green Chilies (quantity is optional)
2 cups lemon Juice
1 packet or 500g Coarse Salt

For Brine 
for each 1 cup water you need 1 1/4 tbsp Salt

Start by thoroughly washing the fresh olives, removing the dust or any soil residue on them. Dry them well. You can either score each olive on 3 sides or you can crush them using a mortar. Once all the olives had been scored or crushed, place them in a large bowl and soak with water for 3 days, changing the water once daily. This process reduces the natural bitterness of the olives.

After the 3 days, remove all water and add the 500g of coarse salt and toss to coat all olives. Let the olives sit at room temperature (18-20 C), for 2 days, draining the water daily. The olives will soak up the salt and further reduce in bitterness.

On the second day, roughly chop the lemons and chilies and mix then set aside. Discard all the liquids in the olives bowl and mix in the chopped lemons and chilies.

Sterilise some jars by boiling them and their lids for 5 minutes, then dry them in a warm oven. Do not use towels to dry them. Another way to sterilise the jars is by washing and drying them in the dishwasher.
Fill each jar with the olives mixture, leaving about 1 inch empty.

Make Brine, by mixing enough water and salt together to fill the jars (feel free to make a little at a time and go as needed). Top the olive mixture in the jars with the brine to the top. Close the lid tightly. The olives will be ready to eat in a month time.

Thank you for coming back and reading this post. I hope you have enjoyed it and that I was able to inspire you to go on food adventures and find your Culinary Destinations, wherever they may be. Don't think of only the major cuisines. Food is everywhere, and all people eat. Open your heart to it and you will see that through food you can learn a lot about life, yourself and people everywhere. After all: 

"One's Destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things."

Drop by again soon for more food stories and recipes :) but while you are still here, leave me a comment and tell me which cuisine, city, or ingredient inspires you?

Thank You Inaki Ubiria, and Edward Sweigart for all your recommends, can't wait to try them all! you guys are stars :))