One Foodie Couple’s Journey Through Spain – Part II

Adam Z. Markham

In our last chapter we discussed conspicuous consumption and the eating of “all-things-pig”.  Well, why change when you’re on a roll?

After leaving the Mercado de San Miguel, we set out searching for what is literally the single oldest restaurant on planet Earth (at least according to the Guinness Book of World Records).  Casa Botin opened in 1725 and has been operated continuously since.  Think about that.  The place is 51 years older than the United States.

Casa Botin

Casa Botin

Our motivations were pure and well-founded, as Casa Botin´s specialty is suckling pig roasted whole in a wood-fired oven.  As luck would have it we were only about a block from the place.  When we arrived it appeared they were closed for the afternoon but two young guys coming out told me they still had some reservations left… for 11:30pm!  When we went in, the guy in front of me apparently got the very last reservation of the evening.  I begged the man at the desk.  I begged some more.  He absolutely and adamantly refused to give us a coveted slot.  I am not ashamed to admit that when we left the building I wept a little.

My adoring wife, sensing my pain, tried to go back in but they had locked the door.  She then found the door to the kitchen and barged in but was summarily dismissed by the head chef and manager… the nerve!  She then came back out and knocked on the front door until the Maitre De came and unlocked it again.  As he let her inside I stayed put and, honestly, I prayed in Spanish.  She emerged with a smile on her face and fists clenched over her head.  At this juncture I feel the need to point out the following:  it is a sign of true love when your wife literally gets down on her knees and begs, BEGS a man for a dinner reservation all so she and her husband can eat a baby pig.  We had dinner reservations for 11:50pm… WHOO-HOO!

Reservation secured, we headed back to our hotel, the Petit Palace Puerta del Sol to sleep off our experiences at the Mercado and to gird our loins for that which lay ahead.

Roast Suckling Pig!

That evening we arrived at Casa Botin early (at about 11:40 pm, mind you) in eager anticipation of our meal.  Let me tell you unequivocally people, it did not disappoint.  Our new little porcine friend arrived on our plates in steaming, succulent glory.  The meat was pale, juicy, mouth-wateringly tender and shockingly flavorful.  The skin… THE SKIN!  The skin was the color of honey and was perfectly crunchy.  It was divine.  Accompanied by nothing more than simply roasted baby potatoes and a bottle of 2005 Acon Crianza that was 100% Tempranillo, this was absolutely the dinner of a lifetime.

On our way home we made two pit stops.  First, we stopped into a bar for a nightcap.  The only reason I bring up this particular place is because of a rather unusual wall-hanging.  They had the mounted, coal-black, mummified head of an enormous boar behind the bar wearing a giant pair of sunglasses that concealed its eye sockets.  The eyes themselves had evidently been replaced by glowing light bulbs.  This is a country that spends a potentially inordinate amount of time contemplating pig.  These people are alright by me.

Our second stop was for churros and chocolate.  Churros are a sort of extruded doughnut batter that when deep-fried comes our looking like a five-inch long noodle about the diameter of your thumb.  It is served with hot chocolate.  Every single late night reveler in Madrid apparently ends the evening with a stop off for this treat.  Kendall and I had heard about it, but frankly we had a bit of trouble understanding the fervor for a simple cup of hot chocolate with a doughnut.  Make no bones about it, one of my favorite things on earth is chocolate but come on, how good could it really be?

Churros & Chocolate!

We doubt no more.  When you walk in there are no choices.  The only options are “uno, dos, tres”, etcetera.  What was it like?  Forget I ever used the words “hot chocolate”.  This stuff came out in a steaming mug and you could practically stand a spoon up in it.  It was thick, dark brown and viscous and was freakishly delicious.  The churros had a perfect crunch and tooth on the outside and were soft and pillowy on the inside.  Dipped into the chocolate, they were the stuff of legend.

It was then off to bed for yet another round of digestion.

In our next installment intrepid reader, we awake in preparation for our 200 mile drive north through Bilbao (complete with a visit to the Spanish Guggenheim!) on our way to the coastal town of Deba.

…Adam

Back from Bermuda!- Wines and Good Times

We have returned. 

All hail Wine on the Rail!

Wine Gourmet’s inaugural wine excursion carried us from Roanoke to New York to Bermuda and back.  I, Beth (the best-girlfriend ever, BGFE), our esteemed Melinda and her husband Allen escorted 17 Wine Gourmet customers on a tropical (or semi-tropical at least) get-a-away. We hauled along with us just over a hundred bottles of wine and the ship also provided a bottle for each cruiser. By the numbers it was 21 cruisers, six and a half days and 126 bottles to consume.  We faced our consumption responsibility undaunted and drank with conviction but, in the end, gave away our last six or eight bottles as we had to face the fact that we had more wine than we could finish in our remaining time without their being medical issues.
C’est la vie vin.
We began our odyssey with a morning in New York City.  Sunday dawned unseasonably chilly and BGFE, who’d neglected to pack a jacket or sweater requested a stop to shop.  Navigating the NYC streets turned into a challenge as Oprah was in town (having just finished a week at Radio City Music Hall) and was clogging the streets with folks running to cure something or other.  Loads of participants in matching t-shirts streamed past police barricades on their way to a finish in Times Square. Numerous times we would approach a barrier only to be waved away and directed ever further from our intended destination.  As we were ahead of our schedule, we were not terribly concerned and felt we could wait out the commotion arranged by her nibs.
But back to the jacket quest.  We saw a likely shop with a small space in front and I executed a feat of parallel parking that left my fellow passengers slack-jawed with amazement.  Trailing clouds of glory, my fellow passengers and I entered the store.  Beth grabbed a “New York” sweatshirt and a jaunty hat of orange plaid.  Beth paid her tab and dressed immediately.
Feeling a bit peckish, we sought a suggestion for breakfast from the shop clerk and he pointed to the Carnegie Deli across the street.  Somehow, in the dazzle of my parking, we’d failed to notice a New York landmark within yards of the car. We hauled over, heaved in and had a breakfast that couldn’t be beat.  BGFE was especially charmed to find herself dining across from a signed photo of Andy Garcia. This is a person whom I pray she’ll never meet. ‘Cause, if she did, it’d surely be a case of “See you later suckers!” and Beth would be off, leaving me only a final view of the soles of her feet as she tears off down the sidewalk toward her one true love.
Exit BGFE, Enter WGFE,   . . . alright maybe 2nd or 3rd WGFE – even with that exit, she would have some serious competition.

Pastrami and Eggs - The Breakfast of Champions

 

Anyway, now sated and the streets relatively clear, we headed off toward the ship. From the car I phoned the person whom I’d been instructed to contact in order to arrange the off-loading of the wine.  The contact told me that he didn’t know who I was or what I was talking about.
So I explained.
He then re-explained that he didn’t know who I was or what I was talking about.  – With this a hot, panicky bile began to rise in my throat.
Fortunately, before I choked, we arrived at our passenger drop-off point and the passenger drop-off attendants took the nine cases of wine in stride and ushered us to a spot where we received direct attention from the folks of Holland America. We got on – and so did the wine. 

Once aboard, Beth and I abandoned our wine related duties and set out to explore the ship.  We kept stumbling across fellow Roanokers along for the wine trip and were relieved to note that their faces showed more pleasure than disappointment.
Still moored to the pier, we began to feel uneasy as several hours passed with no luggage or wine appearing in our stateroom.  Finally, the luggage showed up but without the wine. I phoned my second contact, the ship’s Beverage Manager – a man with the unlikely moniker of Simon Jam.
Simon had a voice that was thick and slow and precise, like a butler who barely tolerates the antics of his employer. Simon oozed that he had my wine in his office and asked if I could come up to meet him there.  I felt a bit like it was the Principal requesting my presence and I began to examine my conscience for things I might have done, however inadvertent, that might have caused offense.
“Sure.” I said. “I can come right now.”
There was a sigh on the other end of the line.
“Why don’t you wait until 4 o’clock?” he responded distractedly.  He was obviously a man who didn’t care to suffer trifles.  “I have some questions to ask you.”
I half expected him to caution me to not leave town.

I collected my wine co-guide Melinda and we showed up at Simon’s office promptly at four. We were waved in as he looked up from behind his desk.  He was slight, tightly groomed and thin lipped.  He wore an officer’s uniform and, as I approached, he smiled weakly and offered his hand. I could tell that neither gesture came naturally to him. “Mr. Jam?” I said, trying to show him respect and pronouncing the name as my English interpretation would indicate.
“It’s ‘YAH-MM.’ he said, correcting my pronunciation with obvious pain. “I’m Dutch. Please call me Simon.”
This was not starting well. I introduced Melinda.
“I believe that this is yours.” said Simon, gesturing vaguely at the cases of our wine that were stacked in his office.
“Yes, they are.” I said.
“You are having a luncheon tomorrow? Yes?”
“Yes, we are.” I answered.
“Do you have a menu?” Simon asked. “Neither the chef nor I have seen a menu.”
“Yes, we do.” I told him, more than a little disconcerted as the menu had been e-mailed to me from Holland America via the travel agent.
“I have a copy in my stateroom.” Melinda offered.  “I can go down and get it.”
“Perhaps you’d better.” said Simon, humorlessly.
Melinda disappeared in search of the menu.
I waited quietly while Simon returned his attention to the pressing matters of his position.  The phone on his desk rang and Simon snapped up the receiver. He unenthusiastically thanked the party for returning his call and then began to berate them for not mentioning a wine tasting function (unrelated to ours) in the intercom announcements that had run a few moments before. He was incredulous that his wine tasting, which was among the most important events aboard, had completely missed mention. The call was brief and terse.  When he hung the phone up, he looked at me.
“That was the ship’s Program Director,” he said chafing at the stunning incompetence of it all, “and because she doesn’t mention the wine tasting only 70 of the 120 people who signed up will actually show up.”
“Oh.” I said thoughtfully, studying the tops of my shoes.
Suddenly and without warning, his face unclouded and he teetered on congenial.
“Maybe she’ll make another announcement.” he said without conviction. “Anyway.  You can leave your wine here and get it whenever it’s necessary.  The door is always unlocked.”
Melinda returned and handed him a copy of the menu we’d been e-mailed. He scanned it and shrugged. “OK” he said. “Are you happy with the scheduled time of your events?”
“Well,” I answered, “we had to cancel one event because the time was bad.  Can we reschedule that?
“Of course.” he said. “When would be convenient?”
– and so it went. I don’t know why Simon was, at first, so cool and taciturn but, in the end, he was gracious and helpful and we had our wine cared for and our event re-scheduled.

A good time being had by all.

Our events went swimmingly, if you’ll excuse a semi-nautical term.  We poured twelve different wines, most provided by one of our benefactors, Roanoke Valley Wine Company and the rest provided by Wine Gourmet.  The biggest hits? I think, by people’s reactions, the rich and powerful St. Innocent Momtazi Pinot Noir and the graceful and peppery Stadt Krems Gruner Veltliner.
We made our way to paradise, swam in impossibly clear water and chased tropical fish. We ate wonderfully and the consensus seemed to be that the Bermuda Fish Chowder alone was worth the trip. (I found a recipe which seems to accurately represent the dish we had.  It follows below.) Personally I suffered a hangover, sun-burned feet (one tasting was conducted with me in bare feet) and the loss, to the wind, of my favorite ball cap.  Like Luca Brazzi, my hat sleeps with the fishes.
I can safely say that, for many of us, the return home was a matter of reluctance.
Stay tuned for an announcement of Wine Gourmet’s next foray.
You’re all invited.   Honest.

Bermuda Fish Chowder

Be sure to serve this chowder with bread, otherwise your guests will be licking their bowls. Unseemly that.

1 medium onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 leek (white and pale green parts only), chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups fish stock or bottled clam juice
5 cups water
2 1/4 lb mixed white fish fillets such as cod, grouper, tilefish, and snapper, skin and bones removed
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon whole allspice, tied in a cheesecloth bag
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, or to taste
3 tablespoons cornstarch stirred together with 3 tablespoons water
12 small hard-shell clams such as littlenecks, scrubbed
1 lb medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 to 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup (or to taste) dark rum, such as Bermuda’s own Gosling’s Black Seal
2 tablespoons Sherry pepper sauce (This may be hard to find as it is a Bermudian condiment.)
Cook onion, bell pepper, leek, carrots, celery, chopped tomato, and garlic in butter in a 6-quart wide heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in stock and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer briskly, uncovered, 20 minutes.
Stir in fish, tomato paste, bay leaf, cheesecloth bag of allspice, thyme, hot pepper sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer 20 minutes (fish will break up), then re-stir the cornstarch mixture and stir into chowder. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 2 minutes.
Stir in clams, shrimp, Worcestershire sauce, and rum and gently simmer 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let chowder stand, covered, 1 hour.
Gently return to a simmer and stir in Sherry pepper sauce.

One Foodie Couple’s Journey Through Spain – Part I

Adam Z. Markham

I recently read an opinion by the editor of Bon Appetit magazine that one of the primary reasons people travel is for food.  I know in our case it is.  When my wife, Kendall and I decided to honeymoon in Spain, food was definitely one of our motivating factors.

Ah, Spain.   A better decision we could not have made.  If you have not personally travelled to Spain, I cannot begin to encourage you strongly enough, especially if you are a foodie.  Over the next month or so I will publish several installments detailing some of the more spectacular aspects of our journey.  What better place to begin than in our first stop, Madrid, with an homage to my well-known predilection for all-things-pig!

Museo del Jamon!

Museo del Jamon!

The pork, MY GOD, the pork in Spain!  Most of the Spanish must eat pork three meals a day.  The sheer quality and quantity of pork product the two of us ate in the first 36 hours alone is unimaginable to mere mortals.  Suffice it to say, we went to the ¨Museo del Jamon¨.  Yes, you read that right folks… the Museum of Ham.  The Museo del Jamon is actually less a museum and more a food store/restaurant.  Kendall and I made a conscious decision to make it our first official meal in Spain.  We simply ordered up a sampler platter of Iberico hams and sausage products along with a bowl of olives, some beautiful Manchego cheese and a loaf of nice, crusty bread.  Perfect in its simplicity and accompanied by dos grande cervezas, this was, I swear, one of the greatest meals of our lives!

That first evening we went out for tapas.  A simple salad made of canned tuna and tomatoes was a delight (Spanish canned seafood products bear no resemblance to their American equivalents and are, in fact, often even better than fresh).  Our second course was a glazed pork chop accompanied by French Fries.

"The Best Pork Chop EVER"

The description may not sound so exciting but the dish itself led Kendall to exclaim “this may be the best pork I have ever put in my mouth!”  We had a pitcher of fantastic sangria with our meal.  Sangria in Spain seems to be a much simpler affair than it does in the States and makes me want to rethink my recipe no matter how good it might be.

Caviar & Vodka!

Our second day on the ground we went to Mercado de San Miguel, one of the largest and most notable food markets in Espana.  We stayed for over three hours and enjoyed exquisite Spanish sturgeon caviar (we had a small sample of the relatively inexpensive $70 per ounce kind since the Russian Beluga ranged up to $4,000 per pound!) with the finest, smoothest Russian vodka I have ever tasted.  We also sampled grilled octopus and potato skewers and then olives stuffed with pickled sardines and roasted red peppers.  We drank a Taittinger Rose Champagne with strawberries (yes, a French Champagne in Spain – fear not, we had plenty of Cava as well) followed up by fois gras topped with a Valencian orange marmalade.

Sea Urchin, Ostra Gigante and Cerveza

We are adventurous eaters in general and had decided to push ourselves to the limit so we then went to the fishmonger and ordered up fresh, raw sea urchin and ¨gigantic oysters¨ on the half-shell.  Sea urchin.  What can I say?  Honestly, it tasted exactly like the ocean smells (on a good day) and was indeed a bit challenging.  I am not entirely sure we are dying to repeat the experience but I would not trade it for anything.  The oysters, on the other hand, were not in the least bit challenging and were washed down with Spanish Estrella Damm cerveza.

We then moved on to the butcher counter and had a (GET THIS!) $50.00 per pound beef that had the texture of fine silk and was cured in a style similar to Spain´s famous hams.  It was an absolutely sublime experience that you would have to try to believe.  Think chipped beef if chipped beef was one if the greatest red meat products you have ever put in your mouth.  We then proceeded to the queso counter and had a “Minitorta de Oveja”, one of the best, creamiest, funkiest cheeses I have eaten in my life.

Minitorta de Oveja

After an experience like this, what to have for dessert?  How about  ENORMOUS prawns?  I’m talking bigger-than-hot-dog prawns.  The problem was we then realized that we would have to buy about a dozen of the things and honestly didn’t feel up to it after such a bout of conspicuous consumption.  I asked a very nice bartender I had met earlier if a smaller quantity was available.  When the fishmonger turned his head for a moment she surreptitiously grabbed a couple and shoved them at me.  Kendall and I snuck off into a corner to gulp them down but before we could the bartender came running back over with a couple of lemon slices for the squeezing.  Good shrimp.  I’m talking good shrimp.  Our new friend sat watching us happily as we consumed our illicit goodies.  When we were done we literally sucked the fat out of their heads for good measure!  What I would give to have such an experience available to us here in the Roanoke Valley. 

Surreptitious Shrimp

Next Chapter:  Suckling pig at the oldest restaurant on earth!

…Adam