San Sebastián Foods: Basque Food A-Z Tour

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San Sebastián, a gorgeous city even in the rain

After a short 36-hour stay in Paris, we were off to San Sebastián in northern Spain. We decided that we would spend a few days checking out this foodie city since we never made it there while living in Spain. That may have been a good thing as I would be plotting to visit monthly if it was closer!

Sadly, however, the weather did not cooperate with us. It rained the entire time we were there. Ok, it rained all but 2 hours of our time there! In those two hours, we hiked up Mount Urgull to get some stunning views of the city, sea, and famous La Concha beach. But the thing was that even with the rain, we were absolutely falling in love with San Sebastián.

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A break in the rain led to some stunning views over the city

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View from the top of Mount Urgull

So when in Rome San Sebastián, you must join in the foodie culture! Therefore, we signed up for a tour with San Sebastian Foods. My friend Anne had recommended them (and she never steers me wrong!) so we selected the Market Tour: Basque Food A-Z.

We met at the San Sebastián Foods store on Calle Aldamar in the old city. Our tour guide Lourdes led us through basic introductions and gave us a quick overview of how the day would proceed. We would start at the local market, continue on to a local jamón shop, and then to enjoy some appetizers and wine at a gastronomic society. Lastly, we would move to a local restaurant for the main course and dessert. Yep, sounded like the perfect way to spend a rainy day to me!

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You can also purchase local food items at San Sebastián Foods

The market was like most other food markets I’ve been to in Spain. There has been a push to modernize many of the country’s outdated markets. The downside is that many of these food markets have lost their character but I guess it’s a price to pay for purchasing safe, quality products. The key difference was that I usually don’t have a fabulous guide like Lourdes leading me through it so I learned far more about this market than most others. She weaved the group through the market stopping at stalls to explain basic Spanish ingredients (with some samples!), local Basque specialties, and throwing in tidbits of history and culture. On top of it, we were thoroughly immersed into the Saturday hustle of locals purchasing food for the weekend. It was great seeing the energy and passion for good food of this city!

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Being led through the fish market on a Saturday

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Cheese vendor at local market

After the market tour, we ventured out (yes, in the rain) to a local jamón shop. Lourdes explained the different types of jamón. My husband and I are pretty well-versed in the varieties and quality after having lived in Andalucia for several years but  we were blown away by the samples the shop provided. They didn’t hold back in offering up some of the best jamón around!

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Legs of jamón all lined up

We then headed to a local gastronomic society. Food geek alert…I was so excited to see this was part of the tour! I was fascinated by the concept and excited to learn more about it. In short, gastronomic societies have been in San Sebastián for over a century. These all-men brotherhoods were originally founded to create a meeting place for free conversation and drinking without government regulations or oversight. Over time, the focus of these societies has shifted to cooking and camaraderie of its members. They meet to shop for fresh ingredients, cook up food for their friends, play cards, socialize, and drink. Now it begins to make sense why San Sebastián has some of the best restaurants in the world, eh? So a man would join a society and then head there to hang out with his friends while cooking, or eating, delicious food. As Lourdes told us, the wives felt comfortable knowing that their husbands were hanging out with a bunch of guys than doing who knows what!

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Local wine txakoli being served with tomato and olive oil and fresh bread at a local gastronomic society

Over the years, some of these all-men societies have come to allow women to enter but only as guests. There is one rule for women: do not cross the line into the kitchen. The kitchen is, and will remain, the man’s domain. I know several women who would happily give up that duty! 😉

The men served us the local wine txakoli (wish I could find it here!), tomatoes drizzled in olive oil, and morcilla (blood sausage) that was warmed to a spreadable consistency. The bottles of wine kept coming and by the end, we were all a merry bunch. The members of the society wanted to take pictures of us so they snapped away as we stood there happily buzzed off good food and wine. They even passed out their business cards in hopes of receiving postcards from around the world which they display in their society. Yep, there should be one of Mt. Fuji in there by now!

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Fish and clams in garlicky sauce was perfection!

The last part of the tour was a local restaurant where we enjoyed a main course and dessert. We were served a firm white fish with clams in a garlicky broth (there was a non-seafood options if coordinated beforehand) and red wine. Then it was time to move onto dessert, local cheeses and membrillo. I was full but cannot resist membrillo.  This was my first taste after several years, and it was magical. Firm and sweet; the perfect balance to the salty tang of the cheese.

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Membrillo and local cheeses for dessert

During the entire tour, Lourdes answered any questions about food, the local culture, Basque Country, and more. I really appreciated her openness to all topics that were discussed. I learned an incredible amount about Basque Country and its people as well as Spanish food in general. I love food tours because when you sit and “break bread” with others, you feel like family by the end. This experience was no different. We felt that we were in the company of good friends and even made plans to go pintxo-hopping with some other tour participants that evening.

When I return to San Sebastián , signing up with San Sebastián Food will be the first thing on my list! They offer a variety of tours from evening pintxos hopping or dinner at a sidra (cider) restaurant to cooking and bread-making classes. They have also revamped their corporate branding to now include food styling classes as well.

Sigh, I must figure out a way to return SOON….

Courtney

Cook’N With Class: French Baking

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Cook’N With Class kitchen is located in Montmatre


Currently, playing catch up as it was an incredibly active spring followed by non-stop summer since we returned to Japan. So with that, here’s the first of our extended European adventure…

Talk about starting our European trip off right! We had only flown into Paris from Narita the night before but I was up early for my French baking class at Cook’n With Class. Anxious to get in the kitchen and (fingers crossed) learn to make pan au chocolat, I rushed off with barely a nibble at my B&B’s breakfast (though it looked amazingly good). Nothing could get between me and some delicious pastries!

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Croissants ready for the oven!

It has long been a dream of mine to take a cooking class in Paris. I’ve done cooking classes around the world and it’s my favorite ways to experience a  culture while traveling. The last time I was in Paris in 2010, the cooking class craze hadn’t totally caught on so all courses were insanely expensive. Now, there are numerous options to suit all budgets around Paris. I was a bit short on time so I selected this cooking school because it was highly recommended by our B&B and it was very conveniently located less than 5-minutes from where we were staying.

A little before 9AM, I met the group with whom I’d be sharing the morning baking experience. We were a mixed bag of Americans from all across the country and a young lady from Istanbul who owns a cake and sweets business. We made quick introductions and chatted about our experiences so far in Paris. Several of the students had signed up for several classes and were raving about the other courses (sad face; I could only take one!).

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Chef Briony showing us how to prepare the croissants

At 9 o’clock, we promptly started with Chef Briony explaining the class’s agenda so we could get the most out of our three hours.  Due to the time required to prep and let the laminated dough rest, it had been prepared beforehand. We would create all of our pastries and while they were baking, we would go back to square one and learn how to make the laminated dough.

And with that, we were off! First up was the custard cream for the raisin and fresh fruit danishes. This versatile cream came together very quickly under Chef Briony’s expert eye. Once completed, it was placed on a plate (more surface area so it chills faster – why did I not think of this?!) and covered with plastic wrap to chill in the refrigerator.

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Yep, that’s a layer of butter on there! Learning to make laminated dough

Next we learned pound out the laminated dough to begin making the pastries. Laminated dough is pastry dough that is layered with butter. It is folded in a specific sequence to create numerous layers that puff up to become light and flaky. This type of dough is used for all sorts of breads and pastries like pan au chocolat, danishes, and of course, the infamous croissant.

So began the task of running through and learning how to proper prepare the croissant, pan au chocolat (YAY!), raisin danish, and fresh fruit danish. It was a delicious sugar rush! I won’t bore you with the details but we each got to try our hand at making each variety before prepping them to bake. Along the way, we learned tricks of a pastry chef and tidbits on how to incorporate it into a home kitchen. Plus there were plenty of laughs, pictures, and fun.

Once everything was done and resting, it was time to learn how to make laminated dough. Chef Briony demonstrated how the dough was prepared in a KitchenAid mixer. Then she demonstrated how to pound out the butter with precision before it melted. You must move very, very fast during this stage! We took turns pounding the butter and dough. Next up was learning how to properly fold the dough to create the layers. We practiced folding it in a very exact sequence that pastry chefs learn quickly (lucky for us, they provide you with a video along with the recipes so no need to take detailed notes during the class). We had completed the hands-on portion with precision!

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Fresh out of the oven!

At this point, the pastries were baking and smelling delicious so we cleaned up the table, washed our hands and sat down to enjoy our creations straight out of the oven. An interesting tip was that croissants shouldn’t be eaten warm as they need to cool for the flaky layers to form which is why you never get a warm croissant from a good French bakery However, we were too anxious to try them so we immediately dug into croissants, pan au chocolat, and danishes with a strong cup of coffee.

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Savoring my pan au chocolat with an espresso

I would definitely recommend taking a class through Cook’N With Class. I really wanted to do the macaroon class but with only 24-hours in Paris, I couldn’t make it happen.  They offer several classes from market tours with dinner to French Desserts, Macaroons, and more. I will definitely be participating in another class next time I’m in Paris.

xxCourtney

Note: We stayed at the wonderful Au Sourire de Montmatre B&B. Illhame and her family did everything possible to make it a great trip prior to our arrival. She put me in contact with Cook’n With Class as well as made arrangements for a private driver to pick us up at the airport. The service did not slow when we arrived. The rooms are beautifully designed and the breakfast…the breakfast! Let’s just say it was one of the best breakfasts I had in my 3+ weeks traveling France and Spain! :

Una pausa, en el camino

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One of our best memories along the Camino was stopping at this small church

This phrase was written on a stamp we received along our first leg of the Camino de Santiago.  It became the stamp we would routinely flip to and reflect upon for the remainder of our  Camino. We received it from a  little church called Igelesia de San Esteban (Church of St. Stephen) located above the road in Zabaldika.  Many pilgrims passed by the church without detouring to it. One of our pilgrim friends said, “I can see it from the road so no need to walk up!” It’s true. You could see it from the road but sometimes things that are right in-front-of-your-face turn out to be the best surprises.

After a sloppy walk through a river area, my husband asked which route to go; the lower river route or the high route. I figured I was here to see and experience everything. The little churches and chapels were there for good reason. They were the placed along the camino as a place of refuge for weary pilgrims so up we went!

We hiked up the hill (it really wasn’t that bad!) and were greeted by the sweetest old woman. She was chatting with a local when we approached, but her friend quickly said goodbye so she could take care of the passing pilgrims. She warmly welcomed us, encouraged us to enter the immaculate church despite our muddy boots, took a picture of us in front as a keepsake, and gave us the stamp to our credencial (pilgrim passport).  The stamp simple read “Una pausa, en el camino” or “a pause, on the Way.”

I don’t think there was a better phrase to describe this small church. It was a pause on a pilgrim’s journey. One that many passed without stopping. It is also a constant reminder that those small pauses, or moments, tend to create the best memories. We were so glad we paused.

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Looking tired and exhausted after hiking in rain for several days

She also gave us what became one of my most cherished keepsakes from the Camino.  A simple prayer, Our Father For Pilgrims, and the Beatitudes of Pilgrims. These two pieces of paper were beautiful reminders of our journey.

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim:

1. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” opens your eyes to what is not seen.

2. Blessed are you pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others.

3. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you contemplate the “camino” and you discover it is full of names and dawns.

4. Blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered that the authentic “camino” begins when it is completed.

5. Blessed are you pilgrim, if your knapsack is emptying of things and your heart does not know where to hang up so many feelings and emotions.

6. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that one step back to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without seeing what is at your side.

7. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you don’t have words to give thanks for everything that surprises you at every twist and turn of the way.

8. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you search for the truth and make of the “camino” a life and of your life a “way”, in search of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

9. Blessed are you pilgrim, if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image in your heart.

10. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” holds a lot of silence; and the silence of prayer; and the prayer of meeting with God who is waiting for you.

Life after the Camino

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The beautiful village of St. Jean Pied de Port in France. It was our starting point for the Camino de Santiago.

We’re back in Japan! It was a whirlwind trip full of sightseeing, delicious food, and the Camino. I’m thankful for walking the Camino because it gave me the carte blanche to eat whatever I felt like (well, at least in my rationale!).

I’m still processing this trip. It was an amazing and overwhelming experience. There were moments on the trail where I was thinking, “What the hell was I thinking when planning this trip?” But in the end, this was quite possibly the best trip ever. I got to know myself better. I got to know my husband better. And more importantly I got to grow and share this experience with several other pilgrims that I met along the way.

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The French countryside of St. Jean Pied de Port

I haven’t had this type of close and intense bond with people of so many varying backgrounds since my college years. And maybe it’s based on the situation; I can see the parallels between the two experiences.

We were all pushing ourselves to something greater. We were open to change and others. We shared in the highs and the lows. We shared communal living areas in the albergues (pilgrim hostels). We helped pick each other up during those challenging moments. We cheered on each other. We shared meals along the trail where we recounted the day’s activities, people we’d met, and our lives. We were detached from our extended support system. And most importantly, we were all working towards a common goal, Santiago de Compostela.

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Walking through the vineyards as we neared Villafranca del Bierzo.

The views along the path were breathtaking from the Pyrenees to the misty, early morning walk through O’Cebreiro in Galicia.  There were also the unspectacular views of walking along major roads with cars passing you and the sidewalk pounding as you entered and exited many large cities. However, what I still remember the most are the people. They were my friends, my family, and my travel companions on that brief adventure.

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The beautiful village of Portomarin perched above a lake

It’s ironic that at the end of the trip, I was ready to leave Santiago de Compostela after only three nights. In that time, our pilgrim friends had begun to make their journeys back to their part of the world. I could no longer walk the inner city and run into Dr. Spaghetti and his Italian crew. We would no longer be enjoying beers with fellow American pilgrims at a local tapas bar. We no longer knew the pilgrims entering the plaza after having completed their Camino. The time had come. It was time to return to reality but take this experience and its lessons with us.

I will be posting more about the Camino and our European adventure that included stops to Paris, San Sebastian and Madrid. Of course, there will be some cooking classes and food tours in that mix!

More to come…

Courtney

On My Way to the Camino de Santiago

Cruising the hillside

Hiking in Andalusia. Looking forward to some more spectacular views in Spain!

It’s close!!

So close that in a few hours, I’ll be departing my house for the next several weeks. In less than a day, I’ll be relaxing Paris and eat plenty of pan au chocolat before making my way to St. Jean Pied de Port to start the Camino de Santiago.  The range of emotions that I’m experiencing right now is overwhelming; I’m on my own personal emotional roller coaster. Excited, nervous, exhilarated, overwhelmed, ecstatic, scared…

I’ve realized in the last few days that I a lot of anxiety for this trip stems from our failed Camino trip.  Exactly five years ago, we planned this trip. We got as close as prepping our bags, training and coordinating every last details. Ultimately we cancelled the trip the night before we departed. It was necessary decision. It was hard decision. It was a lesson in being a responsible adult. That was because we couldn’t, in good conscience, leave when there was so much going on at work.

It is said that you are called to the Camino. I agree wholeheartedly with this statement but I also think that you have to be ready for the lessons you will learn along the way. Part of our lesson was not being selfish and managing our obligations. I think we chose properly and in turn, we were offered another opportunity to make this dream a reality. We realize that this is not the norm and we intend to fully enjoy it. It’s a bit of a homecoming to Spain for us!

So with that my friends, I’m off. I will be disconnecting a bit. A social media detox is needed. I will be walking, meeting new friends, and socializing along the trail. Hopefully making memories that will last a lifetime! It’s not that I forgot you; I’m just doing what the Camino has asked of me.

I won’t be updating my blog much during my time away. I will however be dropping in via Facebook so please make your way to my page and “like” it to get updates of the trail, photos along the way, and more.

Buen Camino!
Courtney

Favorite Places: Vejer de la Frontera (Spain)

Heading into the juderia, the Jewish area - Vejer

It was cold and rainy in Japan when I started this post.  It was only natural that my thoughts turned towards sun, warmth, and enjoying good food on an outside patio. For me, the stunning village of Vejer de la Frontera is all of that!

This pueblo blanco (“white village” in Spanish) isn’t on the normal tourist circuit for Andalucia. Total shame but I’ll keep it for my own secret getaway! It’s dramatically perched about 200m above the rolling countryside. On clear days, you can see all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and sometimes Morocco. The town has a strong Moorish history that I found fascinating. There’s even a statue in the old city showing the traditional covering women wore, which looked similar to a nun’s habit, until only a century ago.  While many cities in Andalucia tried to cleanse themselves of their Moorish past, Vejer de la Frontera seemed to embrace it and has flourished because of it.

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Traditional clothing for the women of Vejer until about a century ago.

I would routinely head down to Vejer to escape for the day quickly making it one of my happy places. Typically, I would just wander the streets. Get lost and find my way back. Along the way, I would find new places. These places would include an old Jewish district, cathedral, the beautiful Plaza de España with its spouting frog fountain, tiny hole-in-the-wall shops, and more.

For those who like to have a starting point, I’ve included some of the places that I would regularly visit. Basically these places were my excuse to go to Vejer (as if I really needed one!). Whether you choose one, or all, it will be a memorable trip.

After cooking the fish in salt, Annie B prepares for serving.

Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen
Scottish expat Anne runs a cooking school out of the kitchen of her beautiful Casa Alegre. The courses are varied as the tapas you can find in Vejer! You usually start at a local gourmet store (or market) before heading back to her house to wash up and begin cooking. I participated in private classes as well as special theme classes such as Moroccan pastries. After all the cooking is complete, you move to the patio to enjoy the fruits of your labor with some fine sherry wine.

Website: http://www.anniebspain.com/

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Delicious pastela at El Jardin restaurant in Hotel La Casa del Califa.

El Jardin Resturant

Leave the bustle of the main plaza and find yourself in a tranquil setting of a lush patio or a cozy stone cistern. The North African and Middle Eastern food is high-quality and delicious. Start off with the mezze platter to enjoy a sampling of falafel, hummus and baba ghanoush. For the main dish, sample the house-specialty pastela, a sweet-savory mix of chicken and spices wrapped in warka pastry and served with an almond sauce. Your taste buds won’t know what hit them! For vegetarians, try the chargrilled vegetables and manouri cheese. Save room for dessert or grab a few Moroccan pastries to take home with you.
Website: http://jardin.lacasadelcalifa.com/
Note: The restaurant is located within the Hotel La Casa del Califa. It’s a gorgeous boutique hotel. Each room has its own personality and feel while providing you with all the modern comforts. We lived too close to justify staying there but did splurge a few times for special occasions!

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Pottery artwork at NMAC – Vejer de la Frontera.

NMAC
Located a short drive from Vejer towards Tarifa is an outdoor art museum called NMAC. It took me awhile to finally make my way there but once I did, I didn’t want to leave. Most of the pieces are permanent and scattered around the museum grounds which situated on a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside. They also have rotating exhibits as well, which are varied but leaned towards whimsical. One visit included a photo series of dogs standing on their hind legs posed throughout local white villages. It was just too cute!
Website: http://www.fundacionnmac.org/english/home.php

And with that, my thoughts turn south to Tarifa….be on the lookout for my next Favorite Place.

xxCourtney