Our short visit to the Spanish part of the Basque Country provided many interesting gastronomic experiences, one of which was gorging on bite-sized regional delights on cocktail sticks, pintxos. The tradition is to collect the sticks and count them up at the end of each visit and the norm is to bar hop trying the house speciality of each place. However we are saving this practice until Logroño and in Bilbao we stuck with one bar, but that does not mean that we were not provided with a huge variety of yummy bites.
Our favourite was Bacalao al Pil Pil, a regionally renowned speciality of cod with a very Spanish sauce made up of garlic, chilli and olive oil. We also had Pimentón con Boletus which was red pepper with a creamy mushroom filling of a similar consistency to a croqueta. We were delighted that the Basques seem to be big fans of caramelised onions, putting it with tuna, courgette and just about everything, as it is a mutual favourite of ours! To satisfy my sweet tooth I ended with a creamy goats cheese pintxo with quince, cranberry sauce and walnuts… divine!
The rest of our time in Bilbao saw us wander round taking in the sites with the highlight being the iconic Guggenheim, and stopping for more pintxos of calamares, mushrooms and prawns. Oh to be Basque…
During our time in Asturias, as well as roaming amongst the farmyard animals through country towns, we visited the two largest cities in the region, Gijon and the capital Oviedo. Being large towns, these stops were full of eateries of all kinds so our search to satisfy our appetites proved rather overwhelming. However we managed to find the perfect experience in each place, both very similar in their local and unpretentious nature.
Our guide book lead us to the first, Casa Tino in Gijon. This restaurant, moderate in appearance but bursting in character, was packed full of chattering local regulars. We are used to being stared at, being two blonde English girls (a tad different to the Spanish mould), but here we definitely felt we had walked in to an establishment that didn’t see many tourists. Thus the waiter, fascinated by the ‘exotic’, was very interested in all that we are doing and guided us through the menu. I was disappointed that Fabada did not feature as I had been looking forward to this since the beginning of the trip in the South. Fabada is a typical Asturian dish in the form of a stew made of faba beans with chorizo, morcillo (black pudding) and ternera (beef). Traditionally eaten by mountain climbers to help the on their way, this is an extremely hearty choice, hence why it does not feature on evening menus. When enquiring about the stew, the waiter said he would see what he could do and granted our wish! We decided to share, which was still plenty, but it was exactly what we wanted and we finished extremely satisfied.
Our second experience, although very similar, was not a guide book suggestion but rather somewhere we happened to stumble upon. We are now experienced in avoiding the tourist traps of what appear to be ‘typical’ Spanish tapas bars full of pretty tiles, busy small rooms and jamones hanging from the ceiling. The best places to go are those that appear plain and boring in decor as what gives them their life and character is the important stuff: the cooking and the customers!
In Oviedo with only half an hour to go before the lunchtime slot came to an end, we walked in and out of a few touristy joints and then found a buzzing restaurant full of local businessmen and family lunchtime gatherings. We climbed up to the first floor dining room, no fussy decor, just a wonderful smell of garlic! (THE single most important ingredient in Spanish cooking!) We were also greeted by many pairs of eyes, confused as to how these ‘guirris‘ (foreigners) had found their local haunt.
Once we had established ourselves as Spanish speakers the clientele seemed to accept us and continued with their own business. As we were in Asturias, we figured it would be rude not to have the speciality of chorizo a la sidra (chorizo cooked in cider), a terracotta pot sizzling with extremely soft and oily cider-soaked chorizo… Whilst enjoying this delicacy, another dish caught our eye that appeared out of the kitchen every five minutes. Every table seemed to have a plate piled high with this crispy looking meat that gave the restaurant that distinctive garlic smell. The answer to our enquiry about what it was was the house speciality of fried garlic chicken. We decided that we had to have it. After all, it’s not a regional speciality, but it was the speciality of where we were at that moment! And the result was perfectly fried, crispy, very garlicky and succulent chicken pieces piled high… Out of this world!
So, a lesson to all of us, don’t judge a book by its cover… judge it by its cooking!!
Asturias offers an abundance of fertile soil which is perfect for growing apples. The result: a region renowned for its production of the refreshing and social drink of cider, dedicating 7,000 of its precious hectares to pumarada (apple growing land). This drink and all that it involves has formed deep roots in the culture of the Asturian people.
Our second day in Asturias found us catching yet another bus to visit the heart of the tradition that surrounds this drink, the town of Nava. After treating ourselves to a late morning snack of local Cabrales cheese and Asturian chorizo in the morning sun of the Plaza Mayor (Main Square), we paid a visit to the Cider Museum. At the beginning of this visit we were presented with an apple, and Gala ‘Queen of Apples’ used her royal magic to make it in to cider using the machines exhibited.
The visit was very exciting and we learnt a lot about the production as well as the customs of drinking cider. This drink is made to share, to the extent that the bottles are made the right size to share in a group with enough left to throw a bit on the ground to give something back and say thank you. Drinking cider requires a specific pouring technique called escanciado for the drink to be enjoyed at it’s best. This ritual of pouring the cider from up high, so the liquid splashes against the side of the glass and brings out the flavours (which then must be drunk immediately, all in one!), gives cider its social element. You can thus see why the Asturians are renowned for being merry…
Our trail continued on a country walk out of the city, jolly after the cider tasting, to take a peek at the apple orchards and the picturesque surrounding countryside, leaving a trail of seeds and popcorn Hansel and Gretel style behind us and singing the cider song on our way ‘A Mi Me Gusta La Sidra‘ (I like cider)!
The singing continued on our return to Oviedo where we set up camp in the main square to watch a Brazilian band ‘Rafaga’ performing their sound check for a concert that evening. What a merry afternoon!
Not ones to hang about, our first morning in Asturias saw us catch a bus out of our base of Gijon up through the mountains past fields of apples and cows and dispersed with streams and tree-lined hillsides. Our destination was the town of Villaviciosa, a peaceful and picturesque town surrounded by mountains, river valleys and private farms.
We happened to stumble upon an opportunity for a visit to one of these nearby farms, and obviously snapped it up immediately. We hopped out of the taxi (no chance of a bus up here!) and found ourselves quite literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by beautiful scenes of rolling green hills, corn crops and to our right a field of farmyard animals. Whilst waiting for the farmer’s wife to come meet and greet us we went for a closer look and made friends with a pig who we later discovered was named Mou. This pig was of the Asturian variety which makes chorizo, however Mou was kept as a pet. He was huge in size (bigger than the calves he was snuggling with) but even bigger in personality… a true diva, dominating the pen along with the goats and cows in it, and even had the humans wrapped around his little trotter.
Next was the farm visit which included an interesting demonstration of how they make their cheese. Then it was on to a tasting of the finished product… goats cheese (made from the goats we met previously), cheese with paprika, cheese soaked in cider (typically Asturian!) and a blue cheese similar to the famous Cabrales Cheese of the area.
We also tasted some rice pudding which wasn’t my cup of tea, but Gala bought a pot which a fugitive goat tried to steal after escaping from his pen (very ironic as it was made out of his milk!).
Back in Villaviciosa we had just as much fun, though the farmyard animals that we had been surrounded by were replaced by our usual companions… old Spanish men! This experience was even more exaggerated than usual. Two blonde English girls in a bar with twenty or so old Spaniards drinking, chatting and playing cards… what a sight!
With fifteen minutes left before our bus departed back to the city, we realised that we had not yet tasted the famous local cider. Very stubborn and determined to try everything, we walked in to a bar, ordered a bottle of cider, shotted a few small glasses and left with the remainder of the bottle in hand. I think it was safe to say that the stereotype of the English drinking culture must have been confirmed for our fellow bus passengers! But the proper cider trail is for tomorrow… until then!
Whilst slowly winding our way up Spain, we have found ourselves crossing over the Camino de Santiago (St. James’ Way), the pilgrimage towards the tomb of St. James. You could say that this journey is our own pilgrimage, be it rather distinct. Instead of setting off on a spiritual journey to cleanse our minds and souls, we are searching far and wide on a journey to feed our tummies…
So like all of the other peregrinos (pilgrims) we turned up in Santiago de Compostela extremely excited. However instead of heading in the direction of the cathedral to pay our tributes to St James, we marched straight in the direction of the local food market. After visiting markets of all varieties in every town, I must say that I think this has been my favourite so far. The traditional ambiance of old ladies with head scarves calling out for you to come taste their peppers and fishermen offering freshly caught goods was completely untarnished.
We wandered around in search of some of Galicia’s finest fresh fish, which we found in the form of sole. Ordering one large one between us, we picked it out, asked for its head to be chopped off and continued on to a local market bar where the chefs cook up your fish for a reasonable sum. This sum was cheap as chips… 1 euro… However there was an inevitable waiting list. With half an hour to kill, leaving our fishy in the trusted hands of the waitress, we took this opportunity to visit the cathedral and to go ‘pilgrim-spotting’ at the cathedral to see the notorious event of people from far and wide arriving in relief after their tough journey. My wish of wanting to see “some pilgrims lie on the ground and cry in relief” was satisfied, and it was rather emotional seeing families, friends and strangers of all walks of life congratulating one another.
After sitting down soaking up the energetic atmosphere, we briskly walked back to collect our fish, bought a huge (and I mean huge) piece of rustic bread, and sat against a wall to eat our meal with the same food Jesus used to feed the five thousand… This time just the two of us though, our four thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight friends were too busy finishing the Camino de Santiago!
A free day in Vigo took us to a seafood restaurant right next to the port… So close that it would actually be feasible for the creatures of the sea to jump up on to your plate…in other words as fresh as can be!
Never having tried oysters before, we decided that there’s no time like the here and now, particularly as it is a typical thing to do here. However we only ordered one each so as not to throw ourselves in at the deep end… Just a dip this time! We got all excited (and a bit squeamish) when they arrived, and picked them up ready to take the plunge, when we realised that we didn’t actually know how we were supposed to eat them. Gala’s words were “do we chew?”, to my informed guess and eloquent response of “no, we slurp!” So one, two, three… And it wasn’t so bad after all. It tasted pretty much like the sea but with the specific slimy texture that I think everybody can imagine, oyster virgins and all!
To accompany this activity we had delicious melt-in-the-mouth Pulpo Gallego (Galician style Octopus, cooked in paprika), to tentacles, suckers and all; and a very complimentary white wine Rías Baixas that uses the local Albarino grape.
This classy lunch out turned in to a lunch time piss up, as the waiters decided we could have extra large glasses of the wine and finish the bottle, apparently just because we spoke Spanish… To add a kick to the menu, we finished with a large shot of cazuelo, a local mixture of strong spirits, sugar and coffee grains, producing a cauldron full of a liquid I will describe as sweet fire water… Again, you can probably guess…
The result was two tipsy English girls wandering the streets of a town that rarely sees tourists at midday… it must have been quite a picture. To add to the hilarity of the situation, where we were wandering to was in fact a children’s birthday party that we had kindly been invited to! Needless to say we accidentally caught the bus in the wrong direction, meaning the birthday entourage had to pick us up on route, thus the party girl turned up late… Oops!
A simple recipe for Pulpo Gallego:
Ingredients: 1large octopus. Paprika. 1Teaspoon of Peppercorns. 1 Bay Leaf. 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. Rock salt.
Instructions:Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Add the octopus, peppercorns, bay leaf and a teaspoon of salt. Reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour until the octopus is tender. After ten minutes, cut up the octopus into slices and sprinkle over the paprika and rock salt. Finish off with a generous drizzle of olive oil to glisten!
My travelling companion Gala spent last summer as an au pair in the town of Vigo in Galicia. My first time in this region has really confirmed what everyone says about this part of Spain being distinct from any other: the arid olive-tree lined plains of stereotypical Spain make way for a green land of thick forest and rocky coastlines broken up by inlets known as rías and dotted with tiny fishing villages.
Our time in this green and pleasant land was spent with two Spanish families, therefore we were treated to a typical Sunday experience centred around eating. A huge lunch of chicken and rice was prepared, followed by a family walk around a nearby castle perched up on the jagged rocks, waves crashing fiercely below us. The landscapes are somewhat similar to Scotland, this connection confirmed by cultural ties of Celtic dancing and the regional language influences. Then it was back to the house where another magnificent spread was laid out, including the famous Pimientos de Padrón (Herban Peppers).
As we only had a one meal slot in Segovia and chose the cochinillo as it was the most typical, we still had plenty of other baby roasts to taste before leaving the Castilla region. Therefore our first mission when arriving in Salamanca was to search for an asador. This was not as easy as we thought it would be because, due to our constant moving around, we have lost track of the days of the week. Thus when leaving the house that morning we did not dress appropriately for what we later realised was a Saturday lunchtime. This is a special occasion in Spain when local families and friends dress up to eat out all together and spend the afternoon soaking up the weekend atmosphere in town. Suffice to say turning up at a locally run upmarket restaurant in shorts and t-shirts did not go down very well and apparently there was ‘no room at the inn’ (a nice way of saying we didn’t look suitable).
Luckily we were prepared with another recommendation of Hoja 21, a smart restaurant where we were warmly welcomed and did not hesitate to order milk fed baby lamb’s leg and baby goat, both in their own sauce. We took our time savouring the tender and succulent meat and crispy skin, our first relaxed lunchtime meal. We decided that we may as well go all out and order a special chocolate melt in the middle pudding whilst we were at it… Perfect way to end a delicious meal!