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Sunday, 27 May 2012

Love Italy - A Handful of Quick & Easy Italian Recipes for Home Entertaining (From Appetisers to Dessert)

"Life is a combination of magic and pasta."         - Federico Fellini

It seems that last week, the universe had set me up for a date with Italy! Somehow, everything I did, cooked, ate or read was Italian... even the few events I went to, where all to do with Italy. A mere coincidence, I tell you! But a very pleasant one. However, it is no coincidence that Italian cuisine is the most famous and best loved cuisine on earth. I mean who doesn't like Pizza, Pasta, Frittata, Pesto, Mozzarella, Tiramisu, Torta di Crema, Balsamico, Amaretti, limoncello, grappa ...? Just articulating the names in Italian Fashion puts you straight in the mood for La Dolce Vita
I will not focus on describing the Italian flavours, or eating experience, which I know you are fully aware of. Instead, in this post I want to share with you some of Italy's best products that happen to be available here in Dubai. I also want to share with you a tad more than a handful of convenience recipes using some of the products; as well as links to relative previous posts with Italian recipes. All in the hopes that no matter how busy your schedules are, these will help you have a delicious home cooked meal at the end of the day. These recipes are also great for entertaining - while very fast, easy and convenient, non of them compromises on flavour.

We all know that good ingredients are the decisive difference between rich good flavours and bland mediocre ones, which ultimately affect the whole eating experience. But mediocre and bland flavours shall no longer be on your menu, as now you can buy award winning, Artisanal and even FRESH Italian produce without even stepping out of your home!! Yes you can! Chef Juri and his lovely business partner Meeta, have brought to Dubai some fabulous and exclusive Italian products, from pastas, to pasta flours, sauces to oils and vinegars, not forgetting the fresh Italian cheeses such as Ricotta, Burrata, Mozarella, Giuncata, smoked Scamorza... and all that you desire. Not only are they supplying the market with all these delicious delights, but they also arrange for your desired products to be ordered from Italy on weekly basis; and to top it all, they deliver to your doorstep!!! What more can we really ask for? 

Chef Juri and his lovely business partner Meeta
I had met these lovely people early this year at Galleries Lafayette, where they sell some of their products. They introduced me to a variety of their offerings, which they have first started selling exclusively at Harrods in London, and have just recently brought over to the Dubai market. Their products include brands such as "Love Italy", "Casanova", the award winning "Filotea" pasta... You can say that the duo are a dynasty of Italian products. 
That day at Lafayette, I told Chef Juri that I would like us to cook together in order to try out the products, and for me to see what makes them special. A couple of weeks ago, he called me and informed me that they have just received a shipment of some fresh cheeses that he wants me to sample. So I invited him, and Meeta over for a cook-together in my kitchen and they came bearing delightful flavours. We had a fabulous cook-together and on the menu were several types of Pasta, and sauces. We have sampled their ready made sauces, vinegars, olive oils, and fresh cheeses all of which were tantalizing to my taste buds, and some of which I found to be extremely unique like the fresh "Burrta Tartufo", which is Burrata cheese made with black truffles  and the "Burrata Salmone" which is the same cheese but incorporating Salmon.

A variety of Olive Oils, Vinegars, Sabas, Sauces and flavourings to appeal to every taste bud 

While cooking, and eating till we could not eat no more, we were talking about the beginnings. Meeta tells me that she is very passionate about cooking and baking. She says that she is also just as passionate about good produce and artisanal products that are made by passionate people using old and traditional methods. We all know how I feel about that, so it was all music to my ears. She continues explaining that being very much into cooking, she always experimented in the kitchen until she came up with her own take on various recipes such as pesto, tapenade, salse verde, which ultimately became the recipes used for her 'Love Italy' Salses. Meeta emphasises that she follows very strict procedures in the production of each item. She also stresses that only authentic Italian products are used in the production, because she wants to ensure that her customers get a taste of 'Real Italian Flavours'. 

Due to some frustrations with some personal health issues, Meeta was always on the look out for healthy, wholesome foods, and therefore offers healthy products, a lot of which are Gluten-free. She makes sure that no additives, preserves, food colours or essences are used in the products. Consequently, in addition to being healthy, her products are the freshest they can possibly be, and of excellent quality, tasting exactly like their home-made counterparts.

Colourful Elbow Pasta

I thought the name of the brand 'Love Italy' was beautiful, and asked her what inspired it. She said: "I love Italy. I put a lot of love and passion into the products. By naming my brand 'Love Italy' I am asking people to love Italian flavours, products... to simply Love Italy." She says that through her brand and offered products, she wants to allow home-cooks of all levels to have home cooked meals the same quality as those when dining out. She even went the length of making these products so readily available that they deliver them to your doorstep. She understands time constraints and busy schedules and therefore doesn't want you to miss out on good food.

If you place an order for readily available items they will deliver the next day. For orders of fresh products that have to be flown in from Italy they are delivered every Thursday. Am so loving the options here :)

Chef Juri showing me a variety of fresh cheeses just arriving straight from Italy
Cooking, talking and sampling the products, I thought why not give you a variety of options inspired by the food we cooked and ate. So I have put together some very simple and convenient recipes for you to carry out at home. I also thought to give you course options as well, as you can pick and choose the courses to make up a whole menu when entertaining. Otherwise, choose from the different options to prepare your end-of-the-day meal. 

Recipe 1 - Appetiser Cheese Platters
Burrata with Tomatoes & Black Olives

Burrata cheese platter
This is a delicious appetiser to serve at the beginning of a dinner party for your guests to have in prep for the rest of the meal. It really is very simple, easy and super fast to prepare, yet will please any palate.
Serve along side very thin slices of toasted baguette. 
You can even place small plates of pesto, spicy sun dried tomato tapenade, and aged balsamic vinegar for your guests to add yet more flavour to each bite.

You Need
1 large plain Burrata
Baby Rocket leaves 
black olives, pitted and halved
Tomato, sliced
Olive oil

Place the rocket leaves in a disc at the bottom of your plate. Top with the Burrata cheese and scatter tomato slices and halved black olives around the cheese. Sprinkle all with a little olive oil. Serve with thin slices of toasted bread and dips as suggested above.

Recipe 2 - Appetiser Cheese Platters
Baby Burrata with Cherry Tomatoes, Pesto & Walnut Bread

Baby Burrata Cheese Platter
This is another version of the Burrata Cheese platter. However this one highlights the flavour of the milder flavour of the Baby Burrata and pesto. 
Serve along side very thin slices of toasted walnut Bread. 

You Need
3-4 Baby Burrata
Fresh Basil leaves 
Red & Yellow Cherry tomatoes, Halved
Basil Pesto
Olive oil
Walnut Bread

Gather the Baby Burrata and insert a skewer to secure in place. Insert the halved cherry tomatoes alternating the colours as in the picture on the right. Slice the rest of the cherry tomatoes and scatter on the plate, topping with fresh basil leaves. Spoon the basil pesto around the cheese and serve alongside thin slices of toasted walnut bread.

Recipe 3 - Appetiser Cheese Platters
Smoked Mozzarella & Plain Fresh Mozzarella

Smoked & Plain fresh Mozzarella Platter

This smoked Mozzarella is made using authentic traditional methods, which do not include addition of any chemicals. It is an all natural smoking process using herbs and specific types of wood. 
Smoked Mozzarella is a delicious flavour that your guests will enjoy. Add some fresh plain mozzarella to the plate for those who do not fancy the smoky flavours.
Serve along side very thin slices of toasted baguette. 

You Need
4 smoked Baby Mozzarella 
1 large plain fresh Mozzarella, quartered
Baby Rocket leaves 
Fresh Basil Leaves
Tomato quarters
Olive oil

Place the rocket leaves in a disc at the bottom of your plate. Top alternating, the quartered plain mozzarella and quartered tomoates. Top with some fresh basil leaves.
Place the smoked baby mozzarella on the corners of your plate, and drizzle some olive oil on the plate. Serve with thin slices of toasted bread and dips as suggested above.

Recipe 4
Open Faced Mini Sandwiches or Canapes
Burrata Tartufo with Black Olive Tapenade
Frehs Burrata Tartufo
Use this recipe to make open faced sandwiches (any size), or using a small cookie cutter, cut pieces of bread to bite size, drizzle with olive oil and toast in the oven till golden. Use the same cookie cutter to cut the cheese. Continue as in the recipe below for succulent Black Truffle Burrata Canapes.

You Need
Fresh Burrata Tartufo (Truffle Burrata)
Black Olive Tapenade
Baby Rocket leaves
Truffle-Flavoured Balsamic Vinegar
Olive Oil
French Baguette 

Cut the Bread into slices, drizzle with Olive Oil and toast in preheated oven, until golden brown. Remove from the oven. Set aside to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, Slice the Burrata cheese to the desired size (depending the size of the sandwich or canape) and set aside. 

Top each slice of bread with black olive Tapenade, top the tapenade with some rocket leaves, then the slice of truffle Burrata. Drizzle olive oil, and sprinkle lightly with Truffle flavoured Balsamic Vinegar.

Recipe 5
Open Faced Mini Sandwiches or Canapes
Burrata Salmone ai Salse Verde

You would think this is an unlikely flavour, but when you try it, you will find it to be very uniquely pleasant. The Burrata Salmone is a delicious cheese, and will make for a unique Sandwich.
Use this recipe to make open faced sandwiches (any size), or using a small cookie cutter, cut pieces of bread to bite size, drizzle with olive oil and toast in the oven till golden. Use the same cookie cutter to cut the cheese. Continue as in the recipe below for succulent Salmon Burrata Canapes.

You Need
Fresh Burrata Salmone (Burrata incorporated with Salmon)
Salsa Verde ( rocca salsa)
Parsley Leaves for garnish
Smoked Salmon slices
Olive Oil
French Baguette 

Cut the Bread into slices, drizzle with Olive Oil and toast in preheated oven, until golden brown. Remove from the oven. Set aside to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, Slice the Burrata cheese to the desired size (depending the size of the sandwich or canape) and set aside. 

Top each slice of bread with the Salsa Verde, top the salsa the slice of Burrata Salmone. Cut the smoked salmon slice in half, shape into a small rolled flower and place on top of the cheese. Drizzle olive oil, and top with a parsley leaf. 

Recipe 6 - Entree Pasta
Fettuccine ai Funghi Porcini
(Fettuccine with Porcini Mushrooms)
Left: Award winning Filotea Pasta - Right: Fettuccine ai Funghi Porcini
Using the Filotea Pasta makes all the difference to this dish. Its texture allows it to adhere and absorb the sauce in a way to make every bite a well rounded coating of flavours. The Porcini Mushrooms add earthiness and a depth to the dish that is unmatched with any other mushroom. We have used dehydrated Porcini mushrooms, which we re-hydrated and used that water in the making of the sauce. The Original recipe calls for the use of white wine, however for a non-alcoholic sauce, substitute the wine with the same amount of the Porcini re-hydration water.

You Need
1 packet Fettucine Pasta
1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
2 tbsp Olive Oil
a handful of dehydrated Porcini Mushrooms (quantity depends how strong you like the flavour)
1/4 cup white wine (or same amount of re-hydration water)
1/4 cup Porcini re-hydration water
1 cup double cream (if you want thin sauce you can add more, if your sauce turns out too thick, you can also add more)
A spring of fresh rosemary, finely chopped or 1 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
Salt & Black pepper to taste
1 bunch, parsley roughly chopped 

Re-hydrate the dried Porcini by placing it in a bowl and adding enough water to cover. Set aside, until the mushrooms are re-hydrated. Once re-hydrated, remove from water, reserving the liquid for the sauce, and roughly chop the mushrooms. In the mean time, cook Pasta in boiling salted water till al dente. Drain and set aside (do not rinse the cooked pasta).

Funghi Porcini Sauce

Make Porcini Sauce,
Heat the Olive oil in a saucepan, add the chopped garlic and stir fry for 1 minute, add the rosemary and continue to stir fry until the garlic is golden. Add the chopped porcini and cook for 1 minute. Add the wine (if using) and the mushroom water, and bring to a boil. season with Salt & Black pepper.
Add the cream and mix well, taste and adjust seasoning, bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat and add chopped parsley, and simmer for 2 minutes.

In a large bowl, mix the cooked pasta and porcini sauce. To serve transfer the portions to the serving platter, by rolling each portion over two chopsticks and carrying them over to serving platter. Sprinkle the top with chopped fresh parsley and serve immediately.

Recipe 7 - Entree Pasta
Trofie ai Pesto
(Trofie Pasta in Pesto Sauce)

Trofie ai Pesto
This dish celebrates the flavours of Durum Wheat from which the pasta is made and pesto. This is a healthy pasta that is also super delicious. 
You can sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese on top for added flavour.
Love Italy Salsas & Pesto
Good Quality with home-made flavours
All natural with no additives or preserves
You Need
1 packet Trofie Pasta
1 jar or recipe Basil Pesto  
2 large potatoes, cubed and boiled in salted water till soft (do not over boil)
150g green beans, steamed
Olive oil
Black pepper and grated Parmesan to taste
Fresh Basil Leaves for garnish

Boil the potatoes, steam the green beans and set aside. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water till al dente. Drain and set aside (do not rinse the cooked pasta).

In a saucepan, heat the Basil Pesto. Place all ingredients in a large bowl and toss to coat. Transfer to serving platter and sprinkle with olive oil, Black pepper and Parmesan cheese. Place a few fresh basil leaves in the centre and serve warm.

Recipe 8 - Dessert Pasta
Penne al Cioccolato ai Crema di Noci 
(Chocolate Penne with Walnut Cream Sauce)

Penne al Cioccolato ai Crema di Noci
The original version of this is savoury, which you can serve alongside duck and other meats. The Original recipe is made by simply using garlic, walnuts, olive oil and salt & black pepper. 
This dessert version is inspired by the original savoury recipe. Feel free to use any flavourings that you feel go well with the flavours of chocolate and walnuts.
Chef Juri

You Need
1 packet Penne al Cioccolato (Chocolate Pasta)
60g raw walnuts, finely grated
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp orange zest
2 tbsp Olive Oil
1 cup cream
2 tbsp Brown sugar
2-3 tbsp water
1 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup icing sugar sifted 
1 tsp vanilla essence
cinnamon powder for garnish

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water till al dente. Drain and set aside (do not rinse the cooked pasta).

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the grated walnut, orange zest, water, sugar nutmeg and cinnamon and stir fry for 2 minutes, or until it resembles a sort of coarse cream. Add the 1 cup cream, and stir bringing to a boil.

Once boiled, remove from heat, add the cooked pasta and toss to coat. Place in small serving plates and refrigerate.

To serve, make whipped cream,
Chill the bowl and the wire whisk of a stand mixer till very cold. Once ready, place the cream, icing sugar and vanilla essence in the chilled bowl and beat with the chilled wire whisk on high speed until thickened.
Place the whipped cream in a piping bag fitted with a large star tip and pipe the cream to top the pasta the same way you would on top of a cupcake. Sprinkle ever so gently with powdered cinnamon and serve immediately.

A selection of Aged Vinegars and sauces that will add a whole new dimension to your cooking

We are all guilty of being overly busy at times, but that does not necessarily mean that we should skip on home entertaining and socialising with our friends over some good bites. With the right products - especially those that are all natural and without any additives or preservatives - we can serve up a whole menu of mouthwatering food with really good flavours. There is no shame in that, in fact it is plausible to actually put the effort despite the mad schedules. Then there are days when we feel like cooking everything from scratch which is also nice. 
When I asked, most of you told me that you would like to learn how to put store-bought products to best use, and I hope that this post gives you some ideas, and inspires you to come up with more concepts utilising those items you bought. Just remember bad quality products, will remain bad quality no matter what you do with them. While the ones with good quality will always enable you to serve good food. I really like the quality of the products Meeta and Juri are offering, through 'Love Italy' and the array of many other products that will allow you to taste the real flavours of Italy. I therefore do recommend that you look for their products and get in touch with them to order fresh Italian cheeses or even to find out more about their offerings. 

Disclaimer Note
This is not a paid advertisement, and I do not get any compensations for reviewing any product here on my blog. 

On my Blog, I do sometimes write reviews, and recommend specific products like in the case of 'The sisters Olive Oil' for example. But these are products I have found -on my own - to be outstanding, and believe you must know about them as they can tremendously change your cooking results. Therefore I have written these reviews and recommendations on my own behalf and did not earn any income for doing so
As I have promised you, my blog is dedicated to helping you understand food and take your cookery skills to the next level, part of that is knowing good products and produce, equipment, and staying up to date with market offerings, which is why I do these recommendations for you.
In the case of a paid advertisement/review appearing on my blog, you will be informed :)

Aged Casanova Vinegar with Gold Leaves

One final thing before you go, Last Wednesday I was invited by Tavola for the launch of Alessi's summer collection. Alessi is a beautiful Italian Brand, of which I am a huge fan and an avid collector. I find their concepts to be very stylish yet practical allowing you to entertain in style. I love their cake stands, serving platters, trays, and their whimsical shakers and wine openers... I really liked the new entertaining kit and new knives concept. The knives are actually marked to indicate usage, which I found to be super cute. 
In spirit with loving Italian products, you must go and check Tavola's new collections.

Thank you for coming back and reading this post, drop by again soon for more kitchen fun...

Relative Links:

Monday, 21 May 2012

Basque Country's Gastronomic Societies: A Gentlemen's Club

Parte Vieja Gastronomic Society Antique Wine Cellar
"I think that curiosity happened on these reviews where I was just a guest of the reviewer, because it introduced me to new cuisines and to the idea of cooking as a mechanism for studying other cultures and understanding other parts of the world."                 - Ted Allen

Gentlemen's Clubs: What is usually characterised - the world over - by strip shows, gambling, social class affirmations and fellowships to specific political parties, is in the Basque Country defined by a love for food and a passion for cooking. You see, in the Basque Country Gentlemen's Clubs are cooking clubs - they refer to as Gastronomic Societies, where men get together to cook for each other, some delectable and highly sophisticated meals as a means to unwind and have a good time. They cook, eat, drink, talk life and watch football or play cards! You can't help but notice how the Basque have not been stamped by the collective consciousness of Capitalism. These people have stayed true to their roots, to the ancient ways of celebrating the simplicity and joy of the ordinary, of the everyday, the non-adrenaline-packed life. And I tell you, it is great fun.

At 'Willow' Gastronomic Society
I have managed to visit two Gastronomic Societies, both of which are the same in essence but have completely different styles. The one in Parte Vieja, was a bit more sophisticated, and a bit more touristic, but nonetheless with members equally as passionate about cooking. Then visited the Willow Gastronomic Society with Imanol Jaka from my previous post, which is more authentic local, more intimate and without the extensive library, antique wine cellar and elaborate property. I had enjoyed both societies, and had found tremendous and different insights in each one. However, through both societies I was able to view a passion for cooking manifest itself on a huge scale. I have seen locals cook, gather up on the table to eat, and have very heated chats about food, and cooking mechanisms! If visiting San Sebastian, you have got to try cooking at a Gastronomic Society, it is a unique experience and a huge insight into the very interesting life of the locals. (get in touch with A Taste of Spain who can help arrange a visit for you)

Chef Ilker Uranga Ormazabal at Gastronomic Society
In this post I will be focusing on the Parte Vieja Gastronomic Society, because I have met with Chef Ilker Uranga Ormazabal there, a professional Chef, who's worked in many professional kitchens, with many famous establishments and hotels around Spain. Having worked for many years around Spain, he finally decided to return to San Sebastian, and work there with the Gastronomic Society. He loves the passion for cooking in Basque Country and believes that its added value to his work-life as a Chef. He cooks for the Society's Banquets and events. He demonstrates Basque cooking to tourists, where he gives them a chance to sample some of Basque cuisine's most delectable concoctions. When we got together, we cooked, and talked Basque Cuisine, Basque Flavours, Basque cooking in a nutshell. We even went the length of discussing the best advise for upcoming chefs, who are serious about their careers and want to achieve the highest levels of accomplishment. Here are bits of those conversations:

Chef Ilker's Description of Basque Cuisine
Basque cuisine is one that is all about good seasonal produce. The base of Basque cuisine is to make sure to use the best produce possible, as produce is the star of the show. The cuisine is rich in the sense that the Basque country is rich in produce. "We have the sea, from which we get a lot of food, from fish, to shellfish, to even Barnacles. Then we have the land, which provides us with all kinds of meats and their milks and cheeses. Also not to underemphasise the vegetable produce, the olive oil, the wines...etc." Said the Chef.
The beauty of this cuisine is that it can be deployed for cooking rich, elaborate and expensive foods, as well as carried out by the poor man in the same measure of deliciousness and richness. He explains: "This is a characteristic of any cuisine that relies on good seasonal produce. Our beans for example - what we call a poor man's meal - are delicious, and grown everywhere. They are easy to store and preserve if necessary, which makes them accessible to everyone in any circumstance. On the other hand, our country also produces the 'tear-drop peas', which are very small and really buttery. These peas are very expensive and usually cooked for elaborate banquets with Artichokes and cabbages. In this way, our cuisine is very rich and diversified."

Sampling Some of Basque Country's cheese produce

How Basque Cuisine is reflective of Basque Culture
Basque people are simple and joyous people, who are deep rooted with their past and living their present in full understanding of their culture and who they are. The Basque are very adamant about preserving their culture and heritage. All these qualities are very evident in their cuisine. They still use ancient techniques in their cooking and food preparation which have been passed down through the generations. The Basque insist that the quality of food is derived from the quality of the produce, and the simplicity of the preparation. Mind you, simplicity here, does not refer to a non-challenging approach, rather to non over-crowding of any concoction with too many flavours. Whatever produce is used in any concoction, then that produce will be predominantly the flavour of that dish. They do not believe in over handling, over cooking or over interfering. They like to think of cooking as facilitating the best scenario for the produce to shine. Kind of like easing the produce into its best role. The basque are joyous and passionate people, and that is reflected in their food tremendously. The food is rich, and reflective of the cook's patience and passion. Their tables are spread with many varieties of food, which they take pride of producing, and showcase as if a spread of oil strokes on a white canvas. When in the presence of the Basque and their food, this is an impression that is hard to miss. Basque countrymen are proud fishermen, farmers, food producers, merchants, cooks or in someway or another food related. To them food is social, and therefore they cook for each other, gather around food, and even have a third of their day dedicate to food - the pintxos crawl.

The Basic ingredients of Basque Cuisine
The main ingredients of Basque Cuisine
The base ingredients of Basque cuisine which are used all the time are: Green Capsicum, Parsley, Onion, Garlic and Olive oil. They hardly ever use any spice other than paprika, black pepper. Then of course comes all the rest of the produce - hardly ever stored and most likely seasonal - that is then added to the base in a way or another. The cuisine is more reliant on fish and vegetables, a little less on meats, but least or almost non on poultry and game. They also cook a lot of wine-based sauces, use BĂ©chamel quite often and frequently use marination in their cooking. Always remember whatever it is you are using, you never use too much of it to overwhelm the flavour or disguise the original flavour of the star produce. Everything is used in moderation to create a marriage, the compatible type lol

Nueva Cucina Vasca (Modern Basque Cuisine) in relation to the Old and Traditional Basque Cuisine
The modern Basque cuisine is rooted and based on the old and traditional Basque cooking. The respect of ingredients is of utmost importance. You can always find the old cuisine in the new concoctions and it's therefore the same cuisine. The presentation, and techniques have varied as the new cuisine had taken the approach of the experimental cuisine otherwise known as molecular gastronomy. Where the preparation of food is done using state of the art culinary technology and findings of new cooking techniques and applications. The ingredients are the same, the flavours are the same, the main difference is in presentation and at times in textures, as experimental cuisine is known to produce several different textures of the same ingredients.
The Basque are very passionate about food and cooking, that they welcome the evolution of their cuisine. They are in fact very much involved and the whole society is geared towards finding out the culinary secrets of the experimental Nueva Cucina. However, they also believe that their traditional cuisine must also remain alive and deep rooted in their daily lives.

On the International perception of Basque Cuisine
It is a cuisine that is respected the world over. It is actually used as a showcase in the teaching of culinary arts. The cuisine is immensly studied and used for inspiration by many other cuisines. 

Chorizo Flambe 
Chef Ilker's Advise 
For Serious Cooks & Professional Chefs 
The Serious Cook - 'Those who are serious about cooking must first learn to respect the ingredient. Once you know an ingredient and what to do with it, your cooking will automatically improve. A respect for ingredients is knowing how to handle that ingredient, how to bring the best out of it, and how to combine it with flavours without disguising it. Experiment all the time, don't be afraid of trying out new flavours and combinations. How else will you know if a concept works or not. With time, and much experimentation you will have already learnt what works and what doesn't, therefore your food will always be better. If you treat cooking with love and joy, you are already producing better foods.'

The Professional Chef - 'Those who aspire to make it big in the food industry, must start with a cooking degree from a cooking school. That is the first step as there you learn the techniques, the ingredients and methods of cooking, which will save you time and effort. Once the knowledge is there, and once you have started working, you must realise that as junior cook you must be more focused on learning and acquiring experience before focusing on making money.  You must never run away, or give up, regardless the pressure or frustration, it is all part of the journey and part of the experience. Have faith that you will eventually get there, and always know that things come to those who work. Finally you must always have a readiness and openness to learn from everyone with humbleness. You will be surprised who can teach you something, and no one knows everything. This is, in my opinion the formula for success in this industry.'

The Culinary Library at Parte Vieja Gastronomic Society
As the day was coming to an end, and while the food was gently simmering to the perfect doneness, before it can be devoured by our hungry palates that have been teased all day with smells and preview tasters. Chef Ilker took us on a tour around the society premises which houses some culinary treasures unlike any I have ever seen before! The Society is home to an extensive culinary library, which holds a priceless collection of cookery and gastronomy books. Some of these books are rare prints of really old books like Dumas' 'Grande Dictionnaire du Cuisine', one of the earliest books to define cooking terminologies and techniques with drawn illustrations. There are all sorts of other books exploring cheese making, cheese types, wines, cuisines and cookery encyclopedias...etc. Also in the collection of books are those written by the great chefs behind the New Basque Cuisine, where they share their secrets and techniques in preparing these highly innovative concoctions.
Hung on the walls of the library are rare prints of old French paintings, which are amongst the first paintings ever to be drawn in celebration of gastronomy, cooking and life style. It is truly a dedicated food and gastronomy haven; a place where I felt I want to live at or if I may 'nerd at' for a few years. I had to drag myself out of there. But before I left I had to ask if the library was accessible to everyone. I was told that it is accessible to members of the Gastronomic society only, and special permissions need to be made as to make sure to preserve the old books which are extremely hard to recover in case of damage or loss... 

Hung on the walls of the Gastronomic Society is this Rare print of the original Painting
"The Peasant Wedding , 1568" by Pieter Bruegel. Original Painting is currently displayed at the
 Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna  

Right outside of the Library is a small display area of old day cooking utensils, pits, rifles from old wars, and old age soldiers' uniforms. Beautiful stuff usually found in Museums. As if a preview to what was to come next, as Chef Ilker said "Let's go see the wine cellar"...

Antique Wine Cellar at Gastronomic Society
We were instructed to watch our heads as we descended down some old age stairs into what appeared to be another time zone. It was kind of like transporting back a couple of centuries ago that you can smell the rusticity in the damp and heavy air of the most antique wine cellar I have ever been to. Even the stairs were no longer tiled, rather like blocks of white and gray from an ancient earth. There is dampness in the air, and a chill, and a deafening silence the sort that is loud, in that if you really stopped breathing, you will start hearing the life of the past and reliving the age of knights and communal feasts... The age of the wine can be told by the amount of dust on those bottles, and the age of the space can be told by the feel of distance you instantly experience once inside the arch and into the passage way. It seems that one cannot but whisper in the presence of the past as if in humbleness to its vastness and charisma! Neither one of the four of us was able to articulate in the usual manner. We all whispered along tiny pieces of conversation as if in an effort not to disturb the past. Through those soft communications we learnt that most locals are unaware of  the fact that these walls are actually the authentic walls of a castle that once upon a history stood tall on this mountain top. That these are the original Antique walls that separated the Nuns from the priests of the church that neighboured the ancient castle. We were also told that the corridor in the picture above is known to be of a dodgy history as it seems to have been the after hours rondez-vous point for those priests and nuns. I looked around and all I could see was my very new and present-day body, surrounded by a past so far away that it should have felt alien. But no, there was an embrace an enlightenment and a feeling of connection to a bigger collectiveness from which we all stem. This is the beauty of being around ruins or preserves of the past. A grounding that we should all learn as nothing is too big, and nothing is too good, and nothing is forever. We tend to live only to then be told. I found the experience to be totally inspiring as to the choice of how we want to be told. We are the makers of our stories, and we are the lessons to come, so we might as well be a lesson worth learning. In this respect, the Basque Gastronomic Societies, were a pleasure to experience, and a life lesson beyond food but one that is facilitated by food.

Also hung on the walls of the Gastronomic Society Library is this rare print of the original Painting
"Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-1881" by  Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
The original painting is currently displayed in the Phillips Collection in Washington DC

  We then came back to the more familiar, less intense present day, and went to savour the food we had been cooking all morning. We sat on a huge banquet table that looks like it has seen some good celebrations. The society was filling up with people all gathered up around the tables, eating, chatting, celebrating and being merry. We ate the fabulous food we cooked, and wrapped the day with good memories, new friends, and yet another extraordinary experience brought about by my endless search for the perfect eating experience. 

"We live in a world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open."    -Jawaharial Nehru


Relative Links:


Thank you for dropping by and taking the time to experience this amazing journey with me. Come back again soon for more food talk and finally some recipes!
Show me some love and leave me a comment before you go :)

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Don Imanol: The Basque Country's King of Meats & The Best Steak Ever

At Txogitxu with owner Imanol Jaka

"It is very Funny for me to come to Dubai! ... I don't wear suits because I am not a Guns Salesman. I sell Meat." - Imanol Jaka of Txogitxu & Don Serapio, San Sebastian

Where do I begin describing what turned out to be the highlight of my Culinary trip through the North part of Spain?! What do I tell you from the magnitude of exchanged words and life wisdom? How does one describe a total connection you make with a one-minute-ago complete stranger who speaks your mind, and shares your very perspective on almost everything? How do you describe an all-inspiring man whose company is filled with interesting rationale and intriguing views, an unsurpassed passion for food, life, politics, philosophy, and a life wisdom you hardly brush shoulders with? I can only describe it with this quote:

"McDonald's people never understand!" - Imanol Jaka

That is but one statement from the Basque Country's king of meat, Sinor Imanol, whom I have had the pleasure to meet when I was in San Sebastian. You can however say, that all the conversation was nonetheless as opinionated, interesting and with layers of depth and meaning that your brain feels like it got its much needed exercise. Especially when we seem to live in a world were people are becoming almost a copy of each other - quite literally - as people seem to think the same thoughts, wear the same clothes copy people's literary voice and every move as well as book the same plastic surgeon!! Consequently leaving your brain feeling dull and routinish! Meeting with Imanol, was in that perspective a breath of fresh air, which validated my ever-same need of bringing to the table, a little bit more than just food, a little bit of life, interesting conversation, inspiration and a celebration. As it turns out, like myself, there are others out there who do not refer to depth as 'Drama', rather 'a celebration of life'. I like depth, I take depth over a free "like her nose job", any time!

I can never do the person any justice in the description, I can only share with you some of that experience and leave it up to you to go through the layers unfolding the treasures, and that I shall do in this post. 
Please note though that English is not a first Language in Spain, and is hardly spoken over there. I will be using some words as they came out from Imanol, which ironically do the meaning more justice than the original words. I will be writing the explanations next to these words.

As you may know from my earlier post, I was looking for meat producers in North of Spain, and was told that I 'must meet Imanol from Txogitxu'. I have set an appointment with Imanol, and went to his mouthwatering delicatessen in Donostia to talk local produce, meat production and farm-to-table concept in that local community. Walking into the delicatessen 'Don Serapio' is like stumbling upon a produce haven, where you can find an array of colourful produce, both fresh and some specifically processed foods to Don Serapio. The Delicatessen is a fabulous introduction to the country's produce, and if you do not have time to tour the country, visiting the Deli will allow you to sample its most unique products. 
Imanol greets us and straight away tells us: 

"We are going to be eating here, to show you the quality of what we do, the beauty of Basque and Spanish produce, and to taste flowers - meaning flavours - you have never had before!"

Meats Section at Don Serapio

He then takes us around the deli, showing us the produce, explaining origins and best methods of cooking. He goes on explaining that any processed foods he sells are made specifically for his deli and to his specifications, so that everything is best quality. This is why his delicatessen 'Don Serapio' is a winner of Gastronomy award. He goes on explaining: 

"My shop is not only for rich man. I do not consider it a luxury shop. This shop is for everyone, because every body must have and know good food. Good products are not a luxury, good products are good and for everyone." 

A belief that must be carried out everywhere, I think. Good food is for everyone, and everyone should be able to have good food. Such a concept is very much welcome to be adopted in this part of the world, where it all tends to become very niche. 

Don Serapio Canned Tuna, a long way from the standard tinned Tuna

He handpicks Marinated White Asparagus, a hard to find 12-month aged Idiazabal cheese, Anchovies in olive oil, a variety of Olive Oils, A variety of other cheeses, ham and paper thin slices of pork fat, Roasted red capsicums, a vriety of Rioja wines, Txacoli (Sparkling wine) and Sidras (Local Ciders)... It was 12:00 pm but it seemed that we had lunch all sorted. Imanol, explained how to eat each item in the sampling menu to get the best flowers - meaning flavours. Not like the produce needed any enhancements! I mean, I would have never dared to eat anchovies straight out without a flavour-buffer, such as a piece of bread, or anything. But his anchovies were so good, that you can munch on them as they are without the need for diluting the flavours!!

The produce is evidently superior in quality. Everything you taste has rich and distinguished flavours. On many occasions produce seemed to have a new flavour all together. Worthy of mention here that even the processed food was delicious and strangely maintained its original texture. This is hard to come across as processed foods, seldom have any texture other than mush! As we ate along, we were talking about the produce, spotting good quality and equally having a nose for bad quality products. He instructs:

"If you want to know good quality product then smell it. Good cheese must smell like the animal its made from. Good meat smells like the cow and the field and the food that animal ate. Less eyes is always better to tell product quality."

 We started talking about farm-to-table and that is when things started to get really interesting. Imanol, explains that he is a firm believer in the farm-to-table concept. He believes that a community must support its local farmers and local produce, or their produce will become history. Very true, as is the case in many countries across the Middle East, where the community preferred to sell and offer inferior quality imported foods over local produce, raised the price of local produce to the extend that no one was buying anymore. This gradually killed the farmers, and led to a once agricultural region to become so dependent on imports with very little and over priced local produce. 

Local Produce at Don Serapio
Not only has this affected the market status, but it has tremendously influenced our conception of good food. Our palates have become so used to bland flavours due to the quality of the imports and storage conditions, that anything with real flavour is considered too strong and not favorable. We sometimes even forget what produce should taste like! We often describe food as good, while others coming from abroad tend to find it more on the bland note. Most of the time, this has nothing to do with cooking ability, but rather the quality of the produce.

On the other hand, it makes it all the more plausible for the Dubai community who are working towards sustainable local produce, despite the harsh environmental conditions. The local farmers are working extra hard to challenge the weather and environmental conditions, in order to provide local produce. Then there are people like Baker & Spice, who hold farmer's market on the weekend to give you a chance to try the goodness of seasonal local produce. others include Down-To-Earth UAE, who are offering some local organic produce, and the Organic Shop at Dubai Mall who are also occasionally serving up some local organic produce.

More Local Produce at Don Serapio
I asked Imanol that when farming is the natural procedure for food consumption, and when nature produces superior quality why do people tend to choose lab-produced, genetically-enhanced, hormone-injected, early-picked, frozen-fresh products. Isn't that ironic? He said:
"Bad products are the luxury! These men wear suits and sell you a tomato as if it is gold. Buying from Farmers is less expensive, and the quality is much better. That is why at Don Serapio, it is not about the rich man and making quick money, it is quality for everyone. Any other way is bad quality." Then goes on explaining: "I don't wear suits because I am not a Guns Salesman, I sell meat! Which do you think is more funny - meaning appealing but all puns work - to people these days? The McDonals's culture will never understand (the explanation is too long for this one, but I bet you get the drift )! Your body is the best judge. When you eat something good your body doesn't mind it, you don't feel tired and lazy afterwards. Your body will in fact ask for more. While when you eat something bad or not natural, your body's reaction changes, it asks you not to have more. Listen to your body, it knows. "

By that time we have tasted all there is to taste, but Imanol insisted to show me what he means by good quality product. So he invited us to his Txogitxu, the production unit where he receives and stores the meats (Veal and Beef) which he sells at Don Serapio, as well as to a handful of restaurants and clients. Then we were to cook with him at the Willow Gastronomic Society, where he will cook for us the best steak we have ever had! On the way there we talk about Basque cuisine, and how the Basque were able to maintain the quality of their cuisine, and how in fact they were able to take their cuisine to the highest levels making it one of the most acclaimed cuisines in the world. Nueva Vasca - meaning New Basque cuisine - is very Avant Garde, very evolved and modern, that it is being studied for inspiration by many Chefs and other cuisines. He thinks the recipe for success lies in the roots of the cuisine. As Basque cuisine is one that is all about showcasing the produce. Where the produce is the star of the dish, handled with minimal cooking, because cooking takes away from the produce. Very minimal additions to any produce are necessary, if any. When the produce is good, and you keep it in good condition by refraining from over handling and overcooking, you are in for success. 
This is one of the things you learn in cooking schools, and one piece of advise that all chefs give you. Extraordinary dishes, are those with the least interruptions, and the least influence from the cooks. And that just falls back right next to the farm-to-table discussion and builds on it.

Imanol sorting out the meat labels
Behind him the art of his friend the famous Basque Artist Juan Gorriti

At Txogitxu, We got to see Imanol in action, he took us on a tour around his production unit, where we got to see the massive fridges where the meat is stored both for veal and beef. We discussed how his family have been working with meat for over 100 years and have mastered the art of meat production and spotting "the good cows (the fat cows)". He explains that fat cows are very old cows, and their meat have high marbling which creates a distinct superior flavour. Not only does Imanol work with cow production, but he is always on the look out for excellent quality cows all over Europe, and says that Portugal for instance have phenomenal cows. Txogitxu sells fresh, and aged meat. They age cows from 7-14 years, where the meat becomes more mature and therefore more flavoursome.

He further explains that when you touch the fat of the cow, your hands should become wet - meaning greasy - and must smell of grass and butter. He actually demonstrated that technique and fair enough his hands were lubricated with grease and smelled of fields of grass. Then Imanol goes back to dealing with farmers and explains why he buys straight from the farmers: "Good produce is all about finding a good farmer. Urban logic doesn't work in this senario as farmers logic is different. Farmers are down to earth people. They have good logic and are very natural, which urban people can't understand. I go out to the farms and choose the farmer, not the cows. Because with good farmers you will definitely get good meat. I look in a farmer's eyes and that is where the relationship starts. The eyes can tell you everything." Imanol is always looking for the produce that is "made by a person for a person" and for him work ethics come first. "It is a building of a long term relationship. It is about trust and mutual respect. And I have been happy - meaning blessed."

Once done at Txogitxu, we headed to Willow Gastronomic Society, were we got to cook and have the best steaks ever. Willow Gastronomic Society is another story all together, which I will post soon. But for today's post, I will tell you that that steak was by far the best I have had. The proof is in the meats - as described in my earlier post

"I know meats are not exactly what pops to your mind when you think Spain, but trust me - and I have tried quite a lot of premium meats from around the world - when the experience of eating meat becomes as descriptive as that of drinking wine, where you use expressions such as: "tones of earth" "hints of grass" "flowery aromas" "evocative of a meadow"... mind you we are still talking about describing the flavour of meat at the end of the day! Then I would say, hands down this is the best meat I have ever had!"              -       Culinary Destination - North of Spain

Just like Basque Cuisine, there is beauty in the simplicity of Imanol's thoughts and opinions. But also like Basque cuisine, what appears to be minimal and simple turns out to be rich and multi-layered that you can't help but fly with it reflecting onto other aspects of life. Funny enough it all applies!

Imanol's Tips for Cooking the Best Ever Steak
  • Choose the best quality produce available. To determine quality use Less Eyes and More Nose. Hands must get wet and smell of butter and grass when rubbing the meat or the fat. Look for marbling  which will give superior flavours.
  • Do not over handle or over interfere with the flavour. Let the flower - flavour - of the meat speak for itself. (I love the use of flower to mean flavour. Flowers are synonymous with good smell, with meadow and field, with layers upon layers of goodness). No need to Marinate, add spices, herbs...etc. Just a sprinkling of salt crystals and a tiny drizzle of olive oil will do.
  • It is best to place the steak over a grill or wire lined griddle so the meat gets flavoured by the smoke of its own drippings.
  • Subject the meat to high flame at first to sear on all sides. Then, move to lower heat and cook gently to the desired doneness.
  • Must have meat blue or max rare for the best experience. If it becomes gray then you have killed it the second time and took away its flavour.
  • You must rest the meat for 5 minutes before serving to keep it moist and avoid bleeding on your plate.

In the end, Imanol wraped the day by making the world's best ever Gin & Tonic and with these beautiful words: " I don't work to collect monies. I work for Life. I love what I do. This is Me."  and smiles...

Hope you liked this post and found some inspiration in the simple words of Imanol. I have totally enjoyed getting to know him, visiting Don Serapio, Txogitxu and Willow Gastronomic Society. Some people we meet stay with us way after we leave them, and these are the people who add value to our lives. Imanol is such person, and I hope that you get in touch with him when visiting San Sebastian. 
I would love to hear from you so, leave me a comment before you go, and come back again soon for more :)

Related Links:


Art by Juan Gorriti 
Don Serapio Pastry section -
Leaving on a sweet note

Monday, 7 May 2012

Culinary Destination - North of Spain

On the Road in the North - Madrid and Catalonya,

"... No journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

If literature, music and art are forms of expression through which we connect by reflecting on humanity from culture, history, to emotions and beauty; and if these expressions, though different, reach out within us to connect us on a level beyond space or differences; and while the same expressions are often made from afar or witnessed in the future, then food has to be the most immediate connection you can make with people. It is in the end a form of expression reflective of all the above and more. While to many, arts are arguably considered a luxury, food remains a basic necessity. But the beauty lies in such a vital necessity to become a form of art, a medium for expression and a tool to connect with others, at times complete starngers, on a molecular level! I had always seen food as such, but I was yet to learn the extent to which food bonds us. And that I have experienced in ample amounts this time around. These lines sum up my personal experience or if I may: the 'world within' which I have enriched through this culinary road trip in the North of Spain.

Spain, is known to be a culinary paradise, a historical museum on a vast scale, a beautiful spread of earth so varied, rich and giving, a multi-layered culture whose layers make it so colourful and immensely interesting... yes, Spain is beautiful. Whatever it is that you are looking for, the country has something to offer. 
My trip though, was in search of good food and a search for experiences enriched by food. The North of Spain did not disappoint, in fact it over-delivered! I now believe it is a culinary haven, that can only be understood by experience. The north of Spain, has many regions and each is very different with its unique character and offerings. It is therefore hard to cover in one blog post, so I will be giving you the run down in this one, and will be posting separate ones for each part.

Grab a cuppa as Here goes one big run down...

Farmer's Market San Sebastian
A Taste of Spain
I had been planning this trip and tweeting my plans for a while, when I recieved a tweet from @atasteofspain saying contact us if you need help planning your trip. I get in touch with Miguel and find out that they are a company who organise culinary tours around Spain. They have packaged tours that you can choose from, or if you have something specific in mind, they can organise it for you. They look for, book, arrange transport, interpreters... the whole nine yards. By the time I got in contact with them, I had already booked and planned most of my trip (they would have saved me all the trouble had I known). Fortunately, I had some open days during my stay in San Sebastian, which they suggested I go try cooking at the gastronomic society (have dedicated a full post on Gastronomic Societies here), which I did and thoroughly enjoyed. Miguel had arranged with a lovely lady called Biki, who was our guide and interpreter, to take us through the produce market (seafood, meat, cheese, bakery), which was a fabulous introduction to the local produce and gave us a feel of the city's daily life. 

San Sebastian Gastronomic Society
After the wonderful stroll, we walked through the Parte Vieja, which is the old town in San Sebastian where all the delicious pintxos crawl happens. Right at the heart of Parte Vieja is the Gastronomic Society we were meant to cook at. In brief (details in a later blog post), Gastronomic Societies are like cooking clubs. The Basque (San Sebastian is part of the Basque Country) are very passionate about food and cooking that they created clubs where the men get together to cook and socialise. Boy, was I in for a treat! I was fascinated by this society, which houses probably one of the most valuable culinary libraries I have ever seen. They have books so old and rare there, that it is truly a treasure. They have books such as "Grande Dictionnaire Du Cuisine" by Dumas! They even have rare prints of the world's oldest paintings of feasting and food! But that was not all! They also have one of the most antique wine cellars I have ever been to. The years can be told by the amount of dust on those wine bottles.... (more to come in a following blog post).

So I met Chef Ilker and we cooked together a feast that can only be described as Divine. I learnt the ancient techniques of preparing Basque sauce 'Pil Pil' and was in heaven merely by being in that kitchen, cooking and chatting with Chef Ilker whose passion for Basque cuisine is very evident.

I had spent 2 weeks dipping spoons into food, tasting and having the same expression lol
The effort that really made me appreciate A Taste of Spain's service is that I had been trying to get a booking at Arzak, 3 star Chef Juan-Mari Arzak's restaurant, which I was determined to try, and while being fully booked for months (typical of a Michelin star restaurant) and unable to secure a booking I happened to mention it to Miguel who half an hour later called me with my booking code!

This is the kind of attention to details these people have, and this is the kind of service that makes me fully recommend that you get in touch with them if you are planning to go culinary in Spain.

Pintxos - San Sebastian
From Tapas to Pintxos
Wherever you are in Spain, the Spaniards have a tradition of hanging out at bars from 7 pm onward and snacking on different small bites while having local cider or wines. While in Madrid these snacks are called Tapas in Basque and Catalonia they are called Pintxos. They are almost the same, however the pintxos are usually smaller in size, can mostly be picked by a tooth pick, or are atop a slice of bread. While the tapas are larger, and can often be served in plates along side bread which you can dip into the sauces. 
Tapas - Madrid
In the Basque Region the Pintxos crawl, remains one of my most favourite activities and while there you have got to try it. Basically, in Parte Vieja there are streets among streets of open bars, where the pintxos are laid out on the bar counter in Buffet manner. You will pick the one you like, have it with your preferred drink, then move on to the next bar. The streets are buzzing with people all night long, and if you are lucky and a football game is taking place, you will find yourself cheering, and owing and booing even if you were never into football!! These people are passionate about food, but they are also strongly passionate about their football! It is complete and utter meyhem and madness, but the sort that your mind cannot let go of, it is beautiful! In Madrid though, the tapas tradition is slightly softer. People go to the bars, be seated and order their food in restaurant manner. There are a few bars that offer tapas buffets, but are very few. The streets in Madrid are full from 7 till about 1, then only a few streets where the clubs are remain bustling. While at San Sebastian our day started at 7 am and ended at about 5, which left us about 2 hours of sleep every day! In Madrid, we were all tucked by 3. Catalonia on the other hand is a breed between the two. Most people would stay at the same bar throughout the night instead of hop from one to another, but the Pintxos are more similar to those served in San Sebastian. In Barcelona for instance, you would pick your pintxos and keep the tooth picks which you take to the counter when you are ready to pay to show how many you have had :) Most locals there will start the night in pintxos bars, but then move on to the lounges and clubs for music and dance, which lasts almost all night.

Check out the recommends at the end of this post, for where to go...

Arzak Restaurant by 3 Star Chef Juan-Mari Arzak

The Country of Star Chefs
Anywhere you go in Spain you will find not just one but a handful of Michelin Star Restaurants. San Sebastian is said to have the most number of Michelin Star Restaurants per habitat in Europe! Not only does San Sebastian have more than a few of these restaurants, 3 of them have not just one star rather 3 stars at one go! Even Barcelona and Madrid are studded by the stars. 
The well accomplished and renowned chefs are extremely talented and most of them went the rout of Molecular Gastronomy, which is a fairly new discipline in the culinary world and is continuously evolving. It is the part of culinary that parallels technology and science break throughs, except it is in the science of food. Some of their creations can blow your socks off, you will be amazed by the concepts, the textures, the creativity and of course the flavours and combinations. An eating experience in one of these restaurants, is in no way similar to your best definition of 'am having dinner'. It is art, and the art is edible, furthermost it sounds familiar, but translates totally foreign to the average palate! (more about these restaurants in a later post).

These restaurants are a must try, if you are into food, as they offer your palate a challenge, and your creativity a push that you will appreciate as a foodie.

A Selection of Cheeses that will make any cheese platter way more interesting
From Don Serapio - San Sebastian
Cheese Country!
Any country that has a country called cheese country, is my kind of country!! How can that be possible?! How can there be - on earth - a place called the cheese country?! 
Spanish cheese is very flavoursome, the textures are unique and the flavours are diverse. I have tried many Spanish cheeses while there and have loved them. Idiazabal is a Basque cheese that is really good, and which I will be using lots of in my cooking. It is somehow similar to Parmesan cheese, with almost the same texture a bit less crumbly. In terms of flavour it is less acidic, less fruity from Parmesan. But it is so palatable, it becomes addictive. On the other hand, the true cheese experience in my opinion, one that you have never experienced before, is that of Asturia's Blue Cheese. The special thing about this cheese is that it is produced in the same way cheese was produced a few centuries ago! There are no chemicals, no additives, nothing but the cheese in the right conditions - in this case caves that are humid, dark and of the right temperature - and the production of natural penicillin. This is how blue cheese was discovered, and this is the original blue cheese experience. Let me tell you: it is not like any blue cheese you have ever tasted before! The flavour is pungent but in a mild kind of way, very hard to explain. The experience is also very different from what you are used to. As you eat this cheese, you will find that your mouth slightly dries on the sides, and I was told that this is your body's reaction to natural penicillin. But the lady swears that you can never get a cold if you eat this cheese due to the same ingredient.

Blue Cheese cured in caves - Asturias
As for its appearance, the blue bits are scattered all around the cheese rather than existent in lines like what we see in all the other blue cheeses. This is because Asturia's blue cheese works from the inside out through the production of natural penicillin rather than from the outside in, through poking with the rod to produce the blue as is the case in other blue cheese. With that said, it is worth mentioning here that this cheese production method is not regulated, meaning does not follow the health and safety guidelines and is therefore not produced massively, or easy to come by. Actually, most producers if not regulated can get in a lot of trouble for producing it. However, they mainly produce it for their families and follow the same secret procedures passed down to them through their ancestors. There is something in that that appeals to me (the pass down through generations). This is honest food, I find, but that speaks of only my opinion, and please make sure to consume at your own risk, and not to listen to my recommendation when it comes to this blue cheese :)

The land of cheese, otherwise known as Asturias, is a picturesque area in spain, with beautiful landscapes and mountainous frames, that are topped with snow and clouds. Once approaching the area, you cannot but hold your breath in wonder of how beautiful any reveal can ever be. If you are into cheese, wine and natural landscape, I strongly recommend that you visit Asturias and take in its beauty, which will sooth your soul.

Txogitxu Meats at Don Serapio in San Sebastian
The proof is in the Meats!
If you are following me on twitter or facebook, you will have seen the shout-outs about helping me identify meat producers in the north. This is because meat is not exactly the specialty of the North of Spain, rather the midland and south are the ones known for the meat. However, and thanks to Inaki, who sent me an email with a link and said: you must go to Txogitxu and Don Serapio for meat producers. I immediately contacted Txogitxu and asked to visit them and meat with Imanol, the man behind the operation. I am so glad I did! Imanol, is such a wonderful guy and an all inspiring personality. The produce he sells is phenomenal. The whole experience was so wonderful that I have written a full post on Imanol, Txogitxu (his meat factory), Don Serapio (his deli), so make sure to read it here.
at Willow Gastronomic Society

But for now let's get back to the meat. Having visited Imanol, the factory, the deli and his Gastronomic Society, I can safely say I had tasted some of the best meats!! I know meats are not exactly what pops to your mind when you think Spain, but trust me - and I have tried quite a lot of premium meats from around the world - when the experience of eating meat becomes as descriptive as that of drinking wine, where you use expressions such as: "tones of earth" "hints of grass" "flowery aromas" "evocative of a meadow"... mind you we are still talking about describing the flavour of meat at the end of the day! Then I would say, hands down this is the best meat I have ever had! We talked meat, cheese, produce, how to tell what is good quality or not...etc. We cooked, ate laughed and he made "the world's best Gin and Tonic" which has no Gin in it whatsoever lol ! We had a fabulous time!
If you are going to San Sebastian, then the delicatessen Don Serapio is a must visit. You will find all kinds of cheeses, meats, oils, produce, pastries, wines, cured ham, chorizos, other forced meats... all local, seasonal and supreme quality. While you are at it, you can stroll down a couple of shops where you will find a bar that starts offering Pintxos at 10 am :)

On the way to Rioja
you are already sampling their wine

Wines of Rioja
A visit to the North of Spain is not complete without visiting the wine producing Rioja Region. Most known for some of the uniquely flavoured red wines, but also known for the production of whites and sparkling wines. The vinyards produce many different ranges from old school to new world, and each is unique in its own essence. Besides the wine production, Rioja is a beautiful place to visit. Its landscapes are gorgeous, and estates are beautiful, most containing restaurants, some of which are tucked within almost like a secret. There are many gastronomic restaurants to visit there as well, where foods and wines are paired to give you the best experience in both.

A Taste of Spain, organise a lot of wine tasting tours, where they take you to different places within Rioja to sample the wines and lunch at the gastronomic restaurants for food pairing. 

"Gin & TonicS"
It took me a while to grasp, but in Spain as it turned out, any alcohol mixed with juice, soda, tonic...etc is referred to as "Gin & Tonics". The restaurants will even ask you if you want the gin and tonics menu! It was funny because, as we were hanging out with Imanol at their Gastronomic Society and after many many dishes of food, and many wines later, he told Firas: "Let me make you a Gin & Tonic. I make the world's best Gin & Tonic."  I could see Firas was so eager to learn how the world's best Gin & Tonic is made. We both had the same reaction once the drink was made: "But there is no Gin in it!" so the world's best Gin & Tonic, contains no Gin whatsoever!! On another occasion a bar tender told firas would you like to try our house' special Gin & Tonic? That drink was a variation of aged Rum and and orange zest!! That is when the whole Gin & Tonic business became clear... 

You have been warned throughout the country Gin & Tonic is used in reference to alcoholic cocktails :)

Collectibles you can buy at the Rambala Square flea market - Barcelona
Catalonia - Barcelona
Catalonia is in a way more similar to Italy than Spain. The ambiance of the region, the geography and architecture, especially the farms and farm houses, churches...etc. Something felt like Italy. Catalonia is after all on the Mediterranean sea. Therefore I guess a bit of similarity with Mediterranean countries is not out of order. I loved this part of the country. It felt romantic, laid back, casual... There is a city in Catalonia called Tarragona which is beautiful. It is filled with historical land marks, and fabulous Roman amphitheaters. I found the name of the city very chique and reflective of the passion for food these people have.

I had concluded this fabulous trip in Barcelona, it was my final destination before heading back home. I am very glad that I had left it for last, as I was ready to unwind, relax and have a good time; like any normal tourist does lol. The city is gorgeous and deserving of the title "the prettiest city in Europe". The multi-layered  culture is very evident there. It is a tourist destination and is filled with tourists. On the weekend masses of people are roaming through every alley in the city. The music performers, human statues, dancers, painters and crafts people are everywhere. The open market, the antiques market and especially the flowers and herbs market are gorgeous. Churches and Gothic Cathedrals are beautiful. There is intricate art at every turn, even the buildings are sculptures of art, done by acclaimed artists both past and present. There are fabulous restaurants, bars and lounges to enjoy all around the city and the whole vibe is very artsy and contemporary surrounded by ancient history. In a way, the whole of Spain is a magical blend of old and new. It is in every way reflective of what has been and what is. There is a strong connection to the roots, to the past. Yet an ability to adapt and evolve. This is very evident in their landscape, their culture and specifically in their cuisine. Truly inspiring!

After all that's been said and done
In conclusion, I found what I was looking for. I found tremendous inspiration. I had met and connected with great people. I had closely explored the food and the cuisines (Spanish, Basque & Catalan). I had eaten non-stop for 2 weeks even when my body could not take it any more! Had cooked at gastronomic societies and met some of the world's best Chefs. I had even managed to make it to a red carpet event and a Gala Dinner, a cocktail reception and whale watching. I had gone for a wild beach party the type you expect in Ibiza! I had missed a flight connection, left my bags in Madrid while I wandered around the other regions, then remembered to get them back right at the last minute! I had cheered for Barcelona (Sorry Madrid) when I have never been into football! I had made a handful of new friends, with whom I would not normally cross paths, but am so grateful to have met them. 
I guess I left Spain on a deep sentimental note, and a deep appreciation for their culture, cuisine and nature. Most importantly, I have left Spain with an equal distance within as that I have covered without.

Culinary Destination - North of Spain      DONE

Hope you have enjoyed this post and that it gives you an idea of what to expect when traveling through North of Spain gastronomically. Looking forward to hearing from you, so don't forget to leave me a comment before you go.

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Top Recommends 

North of Spain is full of places you should try. These are my top recommends based on where I had most fun, best food, and best experiences. I haven't been to all the places am recommending in Barcelona but a friend of mine whose recommendation I trust recommended the ones with the red star.

A Taste of Spain: Spain Culinary Travel Experts 

- San Sebastian
  • Arzak - 3 Michelin star restaurant (Go for the lobster tasting menu)
  • Martin Berasategui - Michelin Restaurant 
  • Parte Vieja - San Sebastian Old Town where pintxos crawl bars and restaurants are
  • Don Serapio Delicatessen 
  • Parte Vieja produce Market
  • Get an invitation to a Gastronomic society as they are by invitation only and go for a cooking session (A taste of spain can help you with that)
- Madrid
  • Cerveceria Alemana - Some of the best Tapas I ever tasted. Go for marinated octopus, chorizos, clams in white wine sauce, and albondegas.
- Barcelona
  • Bar Mut - The food was amazing and the best of all our table was in fact an antique Piano!
  • Farga - Amazing Pastries, sweets, breakfast and brunch.
  • Les Quinze Nits - Loved their Paella and loved the outdoors seating area over looking the La Rambala Square flea market
  • Pouerto Madero - Fabulous food and the world's best rum with orange zest
  • Nose Art Bar - Art Bar with great music for lounging, that whole area is filled with lounges and clubs for a night out.
  • Maitea Taberna - one of the most fun nights in Barcelona, where the locals hang out
  • La Paradeta * - for best seafood
  • Cafe Kafka * - Good food, atmosphere and style