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.

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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.

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?!

Liguria: It Snows at the Beach?

My Ligurian longstay is over and I come home to Parma full of deliciously fresh fish and pesto. Ligurian cuisine is uniquely delicious in the respect that it is incredibly varied and incredibly fresh. Known for beautiful summer stops such as Cinque Terre, Genova, Portofino, and Portovenere, the Ligurian region of Italy is often frequented by Italian and international travellers alike….IN THE SUMMER!

The reason I emphasize the season so extensively, is because March is probably the absolute worst time we could have picked to do our week long gastronomic and tourism field trip in Liguria. Why? Well.. let’s just put it this way, Hurricane Katrina like winds, and Snow…at the beach. Almost no shops were open because only an absolute moron would go to the beach in bone-chilling temperatures. Despite this minor detail, we did get some sun, and on the days when the weather was sub-par, we ate like horses to make up the deficit.

Ligurian cuisine has gained international fame for products such as pesto, focaccia, olive oil, and white wine… however, the fresh products that are locally recognized are what really made an impression. We had plates of freshly grilled fish, simply prepared with a squeeze of lemon, delicious white wine, Sciacchettra (a dessert wine), and incredible artisan pasta. Haha are you hungry yet?

We also made a quick trip into Tuscany to see the production of a specialty product called Lardo di Colonata, made in the famous marble region of Tuscany, Lardo is basically large pieces of pork back fat cured in huge marble boxes (that looked like coffins) for 6 months in a bath of salt, garlic, rosemary, and a huge array of other spices. It was pretty heavy to eat but I never thought I’d enjoy a piece of plain lard as much as I did.. mmm gluttony.

For those of you backpacking travellers, I highly recommend coming to this area in the spring and summer seasons. I had to use my imagination to visualize what the city of Portovenere would be like with decent weather conditions, nice summer breeze, cold mojitos and suntans, unfortunately all I really knew was a deserted, windy, and rainy pirate town. Nonetheless, if you eat well, and are surrounded by breathtaking beauty, it becomes incredibly hard to complain.

Ligurian Longstay

Ciao friends, I am off to Liguria today for another 5-day field trip. Just wanted to prompt you because I will  be back with many surprises and interesting things to share. If you want to do a little research. Liguria is the home of the Cinque Terre (gorgeous cliffside towns), Pesto, Focaccia Genovese, Olive Oil, and white wine.

I hope to eat more fish, friuts, and vegetables than I did in Sardegna, but just in case I am bringing my Fiber tablets….for emergency situations.. use your imagination.

See you next weekend. ❤

Oh So Bittersweet: A Day with Balsamic Vinegar

Shopping in American supermarkets, passing the salad dressing isle, it is not so out of the ordinary to see “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”, your run of the mill balsimic vinegar, used typically to dress salads, clean sinks, etc. However, the product we were taken to see yesterday was far from this acidic liquid we Americans have come to know as Balsamic Vinegar.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar

Oh yes, I am talking about Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia. Unlike the watery substance you know as Balsamic Vinegar, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia is so concentrated that it has a deliciously smooth and syrupy consistency. It is also much more expensive than your regular 2 dollar bottle of vinegar. The traditional stuff, aged at a minumum of 3 years (all the way up to 25+) ranges in prince from 60Euro to 90 Euro! WHAT?! for VINEGAR~?!

This is a prized possesion out here. It tastes deliciously sweet, and unlike anything you would expect. The gourmet version of the vinegar is usually enjoyed with dessert (rather than as a salad condiment, unless of course your salad consists of leaves of gold 😉 ) Typically with strawberries or large chunks of fresh Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

What is balsamic vinegar? Cooked grape must and a little bit of caramel, aged in wooden barrels for long long long periods of time. As each season passes, the balsamic mixture is placed into smaller barrels in order to keep up with its increasing density.

Very delicious, very expensive, very Emilia Romagna.

Sardegna Update: I am Sheep

Wow folks, sorry for the intense delay in my Sardegna update… due to a technical difficulty I was unable to update before.

Anyway, the trip was great, we ate about every single product that could be conceivably produced by the sheep, as these are indigenous animals of the island…in fact flying in on the plane I saw nothing but rolling green hills, expanding coastline, and large white herds of sheep…

Ah where to begin? Well… first of all I can no longer stomach the thought of Pane Carusau (the traditional Sardinian flat bread which is really more like a cracker than anything else), Pecorino Sardo (traditional sheep-milk cheese) or cured sheep meat…. while these products are delicious I was totally saturated after 5 full days of their consumption.

Contrary to my initial assumptions, we did not eat as much fish as I had hoped… though Sardegna is an island, prized for the production of delicious products including Lobster and Bottarga (cured tuna egg sacks) we were only taken to one fishery to see the ways of traditional fishing that has not been changed since the Medieval times (think wooden boxes and small tin fishing boats).

It was nice to see the pride of these people for the products they produce… refering to mainland Italy as “The Peninsula” I entered the land of Sardegna feeling as if I had escaped the world of Italy almost completely… an entirely different cuisine, culture, and even language in some places..

Strangely enough, I also directly experienced the fears of climate change that are quickly becoming relevant on an international scale. What am I talking about? Well.. aside from the fact that we were in Sardegna in February (off season) our final day on the island we experienced some of the most intense snow storms I have ever seen in my life… More snow than I have ever seen in Parma for sure… In fact, these snow storms made most European news as they were completely abnormal to the regular climate of the island. We almost thought we wouldn’t make it out of there because there was a blizzard that made our enormous tour bus into a mobile vomit facility (about 6 people lost their sheep on the bus and it made for an incredibly unpleasant return to Alghero..where we ultimately caught our plane back to Parma.

Nonetheless, despite the close quarters with my classmates and the over consumption of meat and cheese, I really would love to return to Sardegna under less strained conditions. For example, due to our concentrated meat and cheese consumption, not only did many of us experience less than pleasant digestive issues (use your imaginations) but also, the day we were offered vegetables at a local winery everyone jumped to the plate like we hadn’t seen anything green in months… my mouth felt like it was at Disneyland after that first bite of fennel…and I don’t even particularly like fennel.

Ok let me get to the good stuff.. I’ll add some of my pictures from the trip so you can get an idea of not only the amount of food we consumed, but also the spectacular places in which we dined… absolutely unforgettable.

And now, off to the gym. hahaha