A short while after arriving at my homestay Elisa (the woman I was staying with) offered me lunch, and naturally as a bedraggled and confused foreigner, I wasn´t going to refuse. I was taken aback by the healthy plate that was set before me: endives cut in half with an anchovy placed lengthwise along each of them, with a side salad of chopped up tomatoes and avocados. All of this was drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and had a variety of little seeds including sunflower and sesame sprinkled on top. I was even more surprised when I ate the endive-anchovy combination and discovered how delicious it was. Usually I´m capricious with anchovies, I fear their mouth-shrinking saltiness; and I had never in my life met an endive. I had to look at the packaging to see what they were called. Therefore the reason why I was so surprised was because I hadn´t been expecting something so Andrew Weil-worthy healthy, so delicious, and so totally unknown to me. It was a great way to start my first day in Spain, an awakening by food.
That same night the mother of the woman I was living with taught me how to make tortilla con patatas, which so as you don´t get confused with the Mexican idea of tortillas means simply a potato omelette. The trick according to her was to use a lot of olive oil when you´re first softening and cooking the potatoes, and then to drastically reduce the heat and take out all of the olive oil before putting in the eggs. It sounds simple but the removal of the olive oil is achieved by conscientiously ladling it out of the pan with a spoon, so it takes some time. What´s more you´ve got to be careful with the time you take at each step of the process (chopping the potatoes and putting them in the pan, taking out the oil…) for there is always that dreaded danger of burning the bottom. In saying all this however every household has their own trick in making tortilla con patatas, and anyone´s own ideal has only been arrived at through their own trial and error.
A final gustatory treasure I was given to try on my very first day was dulce de membrillo. Looking it up in the dictionary, membrillo comes out as quince. I have heard the name quince before but again it´s something I´m not so familiar with. The dulce de membrillo then is a sort of paste-jelly-jam made out of quince, it´s a transparent red-mid brownish colour with a random and sparse distribution of black specks within it. The taste is sweet but what it has beyond regular berry jam is a richness, a kind of homey buttery taste that comes just as the dulce starts to dissolve and then spreads to fill the rest of your mouth. Mmmmmm. I could have it for breakfast everyday. Sigh. This was homemade dulce de membrillo as Elisa´s family own an olive grove and have quince trees for personal use.
Getting out of the house and my first day in San Sebastián now, I encountered more local food through the sampling of pintxos with some friends from school. As another friend has pointed out to me, pintxos is different from tapas in that pintxos almost always has a bread component to it – the fish or tortilla or vegetables will be placed on a slice of baguette or a thin cracker. Also, you always pay for each pintxo separate from your drink; the thrilling discovery for many a young traveller here in Granada has been that you get a tapa free with every drink you purchase in a bar. Pintxos in many places in San Sebastián were works of art in themselves rather than snacks to slow down your inebriation-making, and a good chef of pintxos is held in very high regard. The first few times I went out for pintxos with one friend in particular, we made it a point to try both the delicious- and the unusual-looking. I was quite partial to the very very typical combination of bacalao (cod) on roasted green peppers (on baguette slice). Otherwise you could get tortilla con patatas in a mini-bocadillo, crab paste or mushroom paste on or in some form of bread, croquettes (I once had one that had an egg yolk in the middle of the ball of cheese… that was interesting), more green or red pepper-related combinations, and of course the infamous pulpo (octopus) and chipiron (squid) creations. Oh yeah, that reminds me of another feature of pintxos – what happens when you enter a bar is that you see all these plates carrying their one type of pintxos laid atop the bar counter, a truly beautiful sight, and after asking for a plate you select your pintxos and then… they take certain ones away to make them caliente. It´s kinda fun because you can´t, well I can´t, always tell which ones have to be caliente. As for paying for the right amount, your bartender has to have seen your plate before you start eating. Clearly. This is pretty straightforward most of the time because real Spaniards stay standing to eat and drink at the bar. It´s only us fake Spaniards who feel proud about our ordering abilities and then have to make a show of ¨this is our plate¨ before retreating to a table to sit down.
On a random note, I love arroz negro, made black by the tinto or ink of the chipiron (txipiron in Basque spelling 😉 ) and, as well as milky rice with cinnamon. The possibilities for loving rice even more are endless it seems.
Another out of the house food experience that should be tried is a trip to the sidrería*. I went through a school outing one evening, and although I´ve heard that they´re mainly frequented by tourists the night that we went it was mostly Basque people enjoying the non-stop supply of cider and generous servings of food. For a night in the cider house/barn, you pay a flat fee that will be somewhere in the 20-30 euro range. This means that you are allowed to drink essentially as much cider as you want all throughout the night, which is versed straight from the barrel into your cup and which you are called to come up and get through the yell of ¨¨¡Txotx!¨(pronounced Choch – both ¨ch¨s for charlie). The food is brought out at certain intervals throughout the night, everyone has their own cutlery but share from the same plate, and the same dishes are served at every sidrería. First, the tortilla con bacalao. Second, the chuleton, a thick hunk of meat that is gooey red and bloody on the inside and very well salted on the outside. I loved it. A lot of people from school were making jokes about how it was still alive, such as ¨hey I can hear it mooing still!¨ and ¨oh look there´s its beating heart!¨, but I think there must be a way they cook it that makes it raw and yet not like meat straight from the butcher; and the saltiness of the outside facilitates its consumption as well. The third and final dish is dulce de membrillo, moderately hard queso (cheese), and walnuts which you eat together on a slice of bread. It´s pretty good and the sort of ingenious combination that I would never be able to think up myself, however I have to admit that having gotten accustomed to dulce on toast for breakfast I could have done without the addition of cheese. Or perhaps my proportions were wrong.
Okay, that´s it for now. Mmm I´m missing San Sebastián already.
*NB: This is not the one we went to. The picture under the title ¨Restaurante¨ best depicts what the eating area of our sidrería and what that of most non-fancy-pants sidrerías looks like.