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Spanish Basque Lands: World of Egg and Pork

After four days of chowing down on French delicacies I thought would never even get close to my dinner plate, we crossed the border into the Spain for our first day in Bidegoian to a traditional farm and producer of a rare breed of Basque pigs called, Euskal Txerria. In my days as a gastronomy student, I’ve been to a fair amount of pig farms, memories of eye wateringly pungent smells, metal gates, and shit-covered hay. Never in my life have I seen pigs as strange and ADORABLE as the pigs we saw here. Black and pink spotted little devils with ears so floppy they had a very limited visual plane.

After kvelling (my Jewish New York maternal side emerges) for an hour about how adorable these little oinkers were, we were then proudly presented with their ultimate destiny and true purpose for being on the farm: homemade Chorizo and Jamon! Never fall too in love with an animal you see on a farm because inevitably it will end up sliced into little pieces on your dinner plate. Nonetheless, the passion conveyed by these producers for their work, and also for their animals permeated into the quality of their products, and ultimately worked to alleviate the pain caused by eating the cutest pig I have ever seen.

Spending the night in San Sebastian, we were then introduced to the extensive cultural practice that is Spanish Basque cider at the local Cideria.  Made from fermented apples, this extremely tart beverage is drunk in continuation by locals of this area. Served from massive wooden barrels, the traditional way to drink the beverage made a lasting impression (until of course my vision was blurred as a cause of over consumption..oops) Opening a little spit on the side of the barrel, the cider came spitting out as we lined up to fill our glass. An important rule however, was not to fill our glasses too high because the carbonation goes away quickly. Therefore, drink small amounts, often. In fact we were told to go up to the barrel as often as we wished, which, was obviously greatly appreciated.

Waking up feeling like I endured a minor concussion, we promptly hopped on the bus again to the Spanish fishing town of Getara, watching the boats unload pounds and pounds of fresh sardines to be sold at the port. The sardines were huge!!

After a scrumptious fish-based lunch washed town with traditional Basque cider, we were off to a the picturesque Aroa vegetable farm to learn about an indigenous pea variety, Guistante Lagrima, which is sold to restaurants at a ‘humble’ price of 40 Euro/half kilo…. though the price seems a bit ridiculous, they were the most succulent, sweet, and crisp peas I have ever consumed. In the garden we were also given the opportunity to pick fresh arugula, a spicy lettuce variety, amongst other deliciously organic fruits and vegetables.

Changing pace completely, we hopped on the bus to yet another farm, however this one was like unlike any I have ever seen. Spread across acres of the Spanish countryside, I was refreshed to see a farm that went beyond industry that truly represented the love this family had for their animals and their main product: Idiazabal cheese. Made from raw sheep’s milk, the cheese was absolutely extraordinary, slightly spicy with a texture that mimicked Asiago. I couldn’t stop eating it. The animals on the farm seemed happy, and the sheep basked in the sun as we met with the cheese producers.

We then arrived in Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque country, unfortunately my impression of the city remains a bit sour because we stayed at one of the most unsanitary hotels I have ever experienced, located conveniently in the drug and prostitution center of the town. Unlike any other city in Spain, Bilbao is an incredibly modernized city, littered with strange and modern art sculptures in the city squares. Most definitely the most memorable moment in Bilbao was the Guggenheim museum, designed by famous architect Frank Gehry. There was an incredible exhibit of Anish Kapoor art that really opened my eyes to the beauty of modern and abstract art.

After one of the most eventful and exhausting weeks of my life, I happily returned to Parma (at 2am) and practically fell into my bed. I calculated the total hours we spent traveling on the bus and it came to about 50. Needless to say, I get chills down my spine at the sight of a tour bus, my ass is still shaped to the mold of the chair. Reflecting on the trip, my stomach is full, I am recharged, and ready to continue to eat my way to gastronomical enlightenment.

This is Grassroots, This is Gourmet.

The French Basque Country: My (in)Digestive Milestones

After a 19 hour bus ride through the French countryside (which was appreciated for a total of 3 hours until I began to question my sanity), I entered the French side of the Basque country. I say Basque country because really it is a land of its own, split by the country borders of France and Spain, the Basque people speak their own language (Euskara) and are considered an individualized people both govermentally, culturally, and traditionally.

Beginning in Bordeaux and the surrounding cities, we were graced with the pleasure of visiting vineyards in the famous wine country of Margaux including Chateau Rauzan-Segla, a beautifully secluded French Chateaux situated quaintly in fields of Cabernet grape vines that reached the horizon, not to mention the property was later purchased by Coco Chanel, that is to say, the quality of the product was nothing short of spectacular.

I was then given the opportunity to break one of my many gastronomic milestones on this trip, Oysters. Having worked in seafood restaurants in California, I always cringed when customers ordered the towering platters of freshly shucked oysters on ice. Amorphous amoeba-like creatures, eating them straight from the shell was never something I found incredibly appetizing. Nonetheless, in the French city of Arachon, I bit the bullet, grabbed a freshly cracked, still pulsing oyster from its crate and sucked it down with a squeeze of lemon. The saltwater and gooey texture overwhelmed my palate while my brain wasn’t sure whether to chew or just swallow the thing whole. Needless to say, it wasn’t my favorite, but appreciating the valor of the delicacy, I watched my other classmates around me slurp these little treats down with ease. Nonetheless, the location and our hosts were unforgettable.

My First Oyster!

The following day, departing from our airport-side resort (obvious euphemism) in Biarritz, we took another one of many bus rides to the small French town of Peyrehorade to eat one of the town’s famous delicacies, boiled and seasoned Pig Feet….at 9’O CLOCK IN THE MORNING!!!! ah, the torturous life of a gastronome and yet another culinary milestone for yours truly. Entering the restaurant, I felt like I walked into another world, a parallel universe rather, where everyone enjoyed drinking vinegar wine in the early hours of the day, accompanied by scary and unidentifiable cuts of meat. That is to say, we weren’t the only people privileged enough to dine on this treat, in fact these pig feet were flying out of the kitchen. (When pigs fly….)

To wash down my light breakfast, we took a quick walk through the morning outdoor market, and then without a moment to spare we went to an artisanal Foie Gras producer to taste and truly experience the product that has become so internationally controversial. Foie Gras, literally “Fat Liver” in French, is a product made by force feeding either duck or goose to fatten and enlarge their liver, making the product incredibly rich and buttery. Coming from California, this has always been a big no-no in our liberally influenced restaurants, and seeing the production, I quickly understood why. Though I tried the product, which tasted like liver flavored butter, I found it hard to disregard the somewhat inhumane way it was produced. We were assured that allegations of mistreatment by animal rights activists are based upon misunderstanding and ignorance, but nonetheless, I saw the farm and feeding machines with my own eyes, and I was still a bit skeptical.

After days of dining with live Oysters, Pig Feet, Fatty duck Liver, and Pate, I was more than ready to cross the border into the Spanish side of the Basque lands, to see not only how the Spanish territory influenced the cuisine, but also in hopes of escaping the products that were just a bit too adventurous even for someone with a bottomless stomach like me.

Transportation Alternatives: My Hell on Earth

Just a quick check-in. Though I feared earlier in the week that my Spain/France trip would be canceled on account of this lovely volcanic disaster going on here in Europe, my school decided to instead take a BUS to BORDEAUX! AHHH!!

We are leaving in about 30 mins and I will probably get there between 14-15 hours from now. This is a time in my life where a mild/deep sedative would be highly, highly useful..

Ah, the lives we gastronomes lead.

See ya next weekend! That is if I make it out of here alive!

Honey Tasting: Pooh Bear’s Paradise

Friday we were graced with the presence of a Piemontese honey producer (Miele Thun) that came in and gave us the low down on honey production as well as a very thorough tasting session. We tasted 9 different honeys, 2 cheeses made with honey, candied orange peels, and a honey mead alcohol that kind of tasted like lighter fluid…

Me and Honey
The tasting palate

p.s. The situation with the volcano and European airspace seems to be getting worse and without a clear end in sight. Will we make it to Spain? The uncertainty remains….

Off to Spain? The Death of European Airspace

In theory, my UNISG classmates and I are going to seek gastronomic enlightenment in the French wine country of Bordeaux as well as the Spanish Basque country. Touring oyster farms, eating foie gras and confit, and of course drinking the delicious specialties of these regions, including Bordeaux wines as well as Txacoli wine from the Basque region.

Bordeaux wine country
Bilbao

Unfortunately, it seems that our group always runs into large bouts of good luck. Sardegna: blizzard, Liguria: Blizzard and high speed winds, just when the weather starts to normalize…. VOLCANO IN ICELAND CLOSES ENTIRE EUROPEAN AIRSPACE FOR AN INDEFINITE AMOUNT OF TIME! Cool.

Anyway, I write this entry in hopes of being able to part for my trip on Monday to Bordeaux. If you don’t hear from me, I’ll be back next Sunday with an update, if you hear from me before then, it means I didn’t go and I am very sad….and most likely hungry.

P.S. Iceland, WTF?!

Vinitaly: 5,000 Vineyards in 1 day

Sorry for the lack of updates, my mother was in town visiting and I have been drinking and eating my way around Italy… being a good host is oh so hard.

We were given the unique opportunity to go to Verona to attend the world’s largest wine convention, Vinitaly. Arriving at the front gate after a 2 hour car ride from Parma, my palate was cleansed, my mind cleared, and my desires ready to begin drinking some delicious wines (the fact that it was 10am was somehow irrelevant).

I went prepared, with business cards and resumes in hand, ready to meet future employers and drink my way into professional success, fortunately within this context as the wine began flowing, my ability to talk business with Italian vineyard owners was further elevated. Ah, the pleasures of alcohol.

This year, there were over 5,000 vineyards present representing all 20 regions of Italy. We only made it to a couple of them because the event was spread across almost an entire square mile of ground. Wine counters set up so beautifully mimicking real restaurants, serving delicious and rare wines all with one polite request “Posso assaggiare?” (May I taste?).

The only issue I found was the slight lack of food. Picture the scene, thousands of drunk Italians and various other internationals, running around a huge wine convention happy go lucky like an alcoholic at an open bar, with only crackers to eat. Granted you could buy sandwiches at the designated areas, but who has time to wait in line??? Too many wines to try!

Nonetheless, some good contacts were made, and some delicious wines were tasted. My particular favorites were the Brunello di Montalcino, a very expensive and delicious wine from the Tuscan countryside and of course, Passito di Pantelleria, a delicious dessert wine produced on the island of Pantelleria off the coast of Sicily.

I was thoroughly satisfied at the end of this day, even if my liver says otherwise.

For more information on past and future Vinitaly events, check out the website