In the Basque Country, on our way back from an unbelievable trek to the magnificent Flysch Cliffs in Zumaia, Spain, we made a stopover at the historical seaside town of Getaria, not because it has prominent Michelin-Star restaurants, but for the sake of history. We walked past the Michelin-starred Elkano and Kaia Kaipe to discover the unknown in the fishing town of Getaria. But the grumbling stomach would not listen anymore, so we stopped by at an unassuming bar called Taberna Giroa to take a look at their display of Pintxos. We stepped in with the thought that we would have a quick grub and move on to see an excavation site from the Roman times. But the display of Pintxos on the countertop made us raise our eyebrows in excitement and utter disbelief. There it was! The sphere of passion, encapsulated inside a mesh of blackish-purple thorns. Inside, there was a soft, melt-in-the-mouth foodgasmic treasure that was oozing with umami. The saffron-yellow meat baked to perfection with a bit of cheese was dreamy and Godsent. The orange-hued soft mass was incredible. Although what is generally misunderstood as roe, the edible part of the Sea Urchin is its reproductive organs. Finding a Sea Urchin in the Pintxo menu of a tiny, unpredictable bar in Getaria was like Eureka. We never tasted a sea Urchin before and it was in our wishlist for a long time. We gorged on, hardly paying attention to the bar owners who were amused to see such interest. They smiled with pride and satisfaction as they kept on removing piles of empty seashells from our table. For us, finding such an exotic seafood at an affordable price was equivalent to hitting the jackpot! Then we had Sea Urchin again in Cadaques, where the chef advised us to eat it with hand or scoop it with bread and never use a knife or spoon. Ask the people of Costa Brava and they will tell you that Sea Urchins are best eaten raw!
We sipped on some Txakoli de Getaria wine that was typically poured from a height into our glass, as we ordered our next two plates of the baked Sea Urchin. In Basque language, this dish is called Itsas Trikua Besamelarkin, which translates into Sea Urchin with Bechamel. As if this hair-raising food experience was not enough, we tried our hands on Vieira Gratinada: the scallop gratin. It was followed by Txangurro Betea, the stuffed spider crabs, a delicacy in San Sebastian. We ate and ate, like there was no tomorrow.
Barcelona was full of interesting food memories. In Barcelona, we tasted Callos for the first time. While we gave this dish a miss many a times in other places in Spain, especially in Madrid where the dish is very popular, we thought that we should give it a try before heading towards France. In a restaurant called Tapa Tapa in Barcelona, the lady who was taking orders was quite surprised when we asked for a plate of Callos. She even subtly warned us that it is bizarre. Still we went for it, and we are glad that we did. The rich and hearty stew came in an earthenware dish and consisted of offal (tripe), blood sausage, Serrano ham, chorizo and some basic vegetables in a simmered broth that had tons of flavour!
Until we reached Barcelona, we realised that we didn’t try Carracoles Gordos yet. We headed towards Las Ramblas in search of some good Carracoles. Although we ate snails (Escargots) many years ago in Paris, the Spanish Carracoles are made in a different way. In Barcelona’s Café Central in La Boqueria Market, they serve a massive amount of Carracoles, enough for two! The spicy, tomato-based sauce that enamours the Carracoles is way different than the butter and parsley sauce served with French-style escargots. They also added pieces of meat in the sauce.
In Andalucía, there is the white town of Grazlema that lies between the provinces of Cadiz and Malaga. Grazlema is a foodie’s haven, known for its superior quality meat, including game meats, owing to green pastures, excellent breed and superb climate. We had an outstanding Paletilla de Cordero Lechal or Lamb Shoulder in Grazlema’s Michelin-starred Cadiz el Chico, which was so delicious that the thought of it still gives us goosebumps! The lamb was fall-off-the-bone and had slightly crisp skin. The meat inside was so succulent and flavourful that we could easily call it one of the best dishes that we had in Spain.
It was here that we tasted a superb peasant soup, very typical of Grazlema. This local dish called Grazlema Soup was made with egg, fresh mint, chorizo and Iberian ham. It had roughly torn pieces of bread, which made it look so unpretentious and hearty. The soup had no secret ingredient, yet, after a long walk, when we sat down for a good lunch, this was the perfect dish to start with.
Some travellers in Spain explore the food here in a different way. We are talking about an Iberico Ham tour in Andalucía. It might sound weird to some, but for a change, how about staying in a family-run Iberico pig farm near an Oak forest area in Dehesa, Spain? Not only will you be close to nature, but here, but you will get to taste exquisite Jamon Iberico or Pata Negra with some local red wine or Sherry. Plus, you can also have fun spotting black Iberico pigs roaming free in the woods or learn Cortaderos de Hamon (the art of carving Jamon Iberico)! The experts there will tell you more about the different tiers of quality for Iberico hams available in the market, the best being the acorn-fed “Bellota” ham. They will tell you that this ham tastes the best at a particular temperature (around 22 C) and that only the hind legs of an Iberian pig qualify for this kind of ham. Not only ham, you will be blessed with the opportunity to eat grapes, juicy figs and other fruits by freshly plucking them right from the plants! Iberian ham or Jamon Iberico is a must in Spain. The ham is obtained from pure Iberian pigs, a breed distinguishable by their black skin, black hooves and lack of hair. There are only a few kinds of hams in the whole world that can compare with the superior taste of Jamon Iberico de Bellota. We loved the flavour of Jamon Iberico and ended up going overboard with it. Spotting hundreds of the cured ham legs from the ceiling hooks in food markets anywhere in Spain is a common sight. We tasted it atleast once in a day in some dish or the other: served on our omelette, as a topping over Salmorejo, over Patatas Bravas, in our sandwich and even in our cocktail. The most expensive ones come with a substantial price tag of around 1,500 euros for about an 8 kg ham leg!
We had Paella almost everywhere in Spain, but the best one was probably in La Raza in Seville. Technically, Paella refers to the flat, shallow pan in which the rice gets cooked. It is a dish which originated in 15th century and became very popular among peasants and shepherds. Spanish cooks used to make it with chicken, rice, rabbit, snails and garrofo (white beans in Valencia). Then they added tomato, olive oil, saffron and onions. Initially, paellas were cooked over burning wood, essentially orange-tree wood! Much later, Seafood Paella or Paella de Marisco started gaining popularity so much so that people now prefer eating seafood paella over chicken or rabbit paella. It is here at La Raza where the well-informed chef told us how Calamar is so different than squids! The Paella here used generous amounts of calamar: soft and melt-in-the-mouth. The chef explained that squids are cheaper and chewy, but calamar is just the opposite. The Paella that we ate had calamar, pork, prawns, mussels, and crawfishes (cigalas).
Until we stepped in the historic Cordoba, we were completely ignorant of what a “sweetbread” is! In Cordoba, we had the opportunity to taste another dish made of casqueria or offal and it was mind-blowing. Mollejas de Cordero or Stewed Lamb Sweetbreads is, surprisingly, not a sweet dish of any kind, nor does it have bread as an ingredient. Sweetbreads are organ meats from thymus and pancreas. The encompassing sauce was nutty and creamy and had foraged mushrooms and pine nuts in it.
This was Restaurante Casa Pepe de la Judeira (recommended by Michelin guide in 2017) in Cordoba. We also had authentic Salmorejo in Casa Pepe, which is a cold tomato soup and is served as a starter. It is different than the light Gazpacho from Andalucía, however. Gazpacho is served in a glass, but Salmorejo is served in a bowl. Salmorejo is a heavy tomato puree that is always served cold, topped with boiled egg and Iberian ham and sometimes even tuna as a garnish. The cold puree is made from bread, tomatoes, olive oil and garlic. Originally, it started out white (Mazamorra) and lacked tomatoes. Tomatoes became an essential ingredient in Salmorejo only after it arrived in Spain from America, somewhere in the 18th century! If you want to try Mazamorra, Casa Pepe a good place.
And then, apart from the wonderful architectural heritage, Cordoba blessed us with one of the finest dishes in Spanish gastronomy! It is here in Cordoba that we ate the tastiest pork fillet in our lifetime. It was 100% Acorn-Fed Iberian Bellota Pork Shoulder Fillet, served with roast potatoes and Padron peppers. The whole combination was a match made in heaven. Owing to the foraged food (especially acorn and pastures) that the animal eats, the Iberian Bellota pork meat is very tender and flavourful.
Basque gastronomy boasts of unique ingredients, one of which is Angula or baby eels, which almost look like spaghetti. In Madrid, we tasted these baby eels. It might look gross, but definitely, the “real” baby eels or elvers are one of the most traditional dishes in Spain. Angula-fishing needs a lot of patience and expertise. Moreover, Angulas must be kept alive in fresh water until the backs acquire a black colour. This black colour is so important that people won’t buy Angulas if this colour isn’t there. It is a proof that these were taken out of the water alive! Baby eels are quite expensive, though. So, in most local places in Spain, including most of the Pintxo bars in San Sebastian, what you get is mock Angulas that look exactly like baby eels! Thesedays, Surimi, the paste of a kind of white fish similar to cod, is processed to resemble baby eels and are known as Gulas. These are quite cheaper and flavourwise, not bad either.
Another interesting and rare dish was while eating a Tapas in Restaurante La Porrona in Granada. It was Migas with fried anchovies, an ancient Spanish dish that is made simply out of breadcrumbs or even semolina. It looks almost like sawdust or scrambled roe. In ancient Iberia, it is believed that shepherds lived off Migas for month-long journeys. It is a simple dish made out of very dry, stale bread, fried in lard, garlic and some herbs. Adding meat of any kind was not done in ancient times, but thesedays, it is often added. People have now come up with interesting versions of Migas, both in sweet and savoury flavours. Migas pairs well with brandy. Once a peasant food, Migas can be a base element for innovative and progressive Spanish delicacies! I sincerely hope that ancient Spanish food practices do not die out in the race of modernisation.
We had many other delicacies in Spain, one of which is Squid-Ink Croquettes. The croquettes were soft and jet-black inside, with shrimp mince and béchamel playing in harmony with the squid ink.
In Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel, we tasted Cod Liver for the first time, served as a canapé topping. Foie de Bacalao Islandes Ahumado or Icelandic smoked codfish liver tastes creamy, smooth and is quite oily. This was delicious!
This is not all! We tasted many varieties of cheese, we did olive-oil tastings and sipped flavourful local wines all over Spain. There are other fabulous dishes that I want to talk about in detail. Spain is a foodie’s paradise and there are countless food choices. In another blogpost soon, I will share about the Pintxo culture in Spain and the giant array of dishes that we ate in various Pintxo bars.
Another interesting read from my blog Archives: Unforgettable Food Experiences: Top 30 Foods to try in France.
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