Philistines storm Bilbo, Donostia & munch on Euskal Txerria

Nope, not the The Hobbit. That’s just being silly. @Val_Littlewood and I agreed during the course of this latest trip to two of the most important cities of the Basque Country that we’re really just not cut out for the excessive formality, the often almost stifling stuffiness, the enforced quietude and the apparent forelock tugging reverence demanded — of the customer — of visits to the very top end (often Michelin) star(-red) restaurants.

© Andrew Cebulka/McCrady’s official site

Almost as bad as the — thanks to Val for coining this one — militant terroir-ists! Instead, we’re at our very happiest when we’re allowed (no, required) to drop our used paper napkins on the floor, where we can excitedly grab another pintxos from the fantastic array on the counter & cram it into our mouths, adding to the pile of tooth-picks stacked on our plates, shout — in our very poor Spanish — at the owners and fellow customers (in a sometimes vain attempt esp. on my part, I freely admit), to communicate effectively and generally have a bloody great time.

I know that this confession means I’m barred for life from the Gourmet Club. I’m unrepentant. If we’re not enjoying the whole experience — not just the food — then there’s no point going and paying their eye-wateringly high prices to spend hours that could have been better utilised elsewhere. Sorry. Put it down to our inability to grasp or identify those subtle tastes & textures, painstakingly teased out of the meticulously sourced, hyper-local, rare, historically priceless, artisanal ingredients that they’re providing for our delectation.

And yet still, despite this (completely co-incidentally timed) article wherein Sean Brock passionately defends the tasting menu — from which the above shot came — you’ll just have to call us Philistines, as it’s all just too difficult for us. Or so it would seem.

Anyway, if you haven’t yet totally recoiled in disgust from this confession of my abject failure but instead, are still sticking with me here, as a loyal reader, then “read on (not “lay on”, I know!) MacDuff” for this and subsequent pieces on where we DID go and what we enjoyed.

The Basquery was one such delight. We stumbled inside the dim entrance at the end of a long day of pounding the streets after a frenzy of exploration. Setup by an Aitor Elizegi, local chef and businessman, it’s a combined brewery — run by the team of Mikel Muñoz and Pablo Mellado (known as the “Drunken Bros” — I’m not sure if that is intended as a compliment or just as a comment on their usual state) — a bakery (both types of fermented goods being produced in-house) and…

…a deli/grocery area, all situated slap-bang, right in the centre of Bilbao and next door to his restaurant, Bascook, which we had no idea even existed until after we’d left, but will now be visiting the next time we’re in town.

On this, the first of two times we came here, we started with their taster flight of beers. The “Hitman” IPA is fantastic, using the Citra hop; if you get a chance, grab a larger glass or two of that. The “Bagazo” stout is a rich, chocolate deep taste and, especially in winter, something to warm the cockles of your heart. The “Mile O”, subtle, light, quite sweet whilst the “Eskombro” reminds me of the great brown ales that you used to get in England 50 years ago.

It’s all housed over two floors (taking up the ground and basement areas) of a fabulous old corner space, with great swathes of the old brickwork and building stone and ironwork — from its time as a harbour side warehouse — kept delightfully intact. I know this look, as used everywhere from Hoxton to Hamburg to Hoboken, can be more than a little clichéd now, but here in Bilbao, that most industrial of cities, with a long, long tradition of iron making and ship building, it makes perfect sense and reflects their proud Socialist past.

© Esti of Bilbao Mola

I discovered — but, unusually for me, didn’t attempt to broach — this bottle, housed in a whitewashed alcove in los baños which (not so strangely when you think about it I suppose, same country and all) looks remarkably like the inside of our old house in Casarabonela:

The bread machine used in their bakery is the junior version of this, one we’d earlier seen in the old town

The place was almost 100% full but we managed to squeeze onto seats at a small, wall-side high table; grabbing the menu which was full of promise….

…and it delivered. In the way that I talked about above, that was fun, sometimes frenzied, not stuffy.

Arrayed on the table in front of us in the shot below was, at the top, a dish of the Navarra Leeks with Pico de Gallo. In the middle, 4 gorgeous pieces of Euska Txerria charcuterie, chorizo, cold-cut loin, thinly sliced sausage and cured ham and on the bottom plate is chunks of their home made bread, still hot from the oven and slathered in tomatoes.

And a nice touch is their own bottle of water. Bilbao tap water. Simple, cold. No charge. Just there on the table.

Andrés the fluent English speaking, front of house star, told us that their charcuterie and meats are supplied by the team at Ein Prosit, a German restaurant and beer keller, only – literally – 5 minutes walk away from Basquery. It’s fantastic stuff. Look at the way the fat is melting on the plate at room temperature?

So, that’s it, the first set of picture and food porn from this trip. No Michelin stars here. Just enthusiasts using fresh local ingredients to produce simple, well cooked dishes served in a friendly and fun setting. Our idea of a good time.

And finally? This great shop-front, La feria del jamon, that we saw on the way back to the hotel that night. Sums up what I’ve been saying here, don’t you think? Ham. On tap! Anytime of the day or night!

¡Mmmmmmmm. Que rico!

Which pretty much sums up the Basque trip for @Val_Littlewood and I…

I’m a butt-shucker. There, I said it.

Fish For Thought supplied a dozen of their very finest Cornish (Pacific) oysters, which I fought my way into this weekend*. From the rear end. No sniggering at the back please!

© Yvette Cardozo – Getty Images

Which makes me a “butt shucker” rather than a “bill shucker” which is much the better (read “professional”) method as I’m pleased to see is confirmed by none other than Ted Stearns, winner of the shucking competition at the 2015 Bearfoot Bistro World Oyster Invitational & Bloody Caesar Battle in Whistler, British Columbia. Go me eh?

© Fish For Thought 2016

* [and yes, they were truly delicious. I ate them all. Rapidly. Greedily even]

This is a Basque pig; an old one I grant you…

More on this delight (and many others) in a much longer post later this week. And that isn’t me in the background. Just in case you were wondering…



Spam, spam, spam, spam.. (ad infinitum)

Since 1937 when the Hormel Corporation first introduced their new “spiced ham” or — as no one is actually quite sure what it stands for — it may actually have been named as the more honest “spare meat” (albeit one that’s redolent of the current “mechanically separated recovered meat”), Spam has grown to become ubiquitous across most of the world. Cheap & able to be safely stored for a long time, its use in WWII both in the US (as part of the troop rations) and the UK (here as cheap, reliable protein source for a blockaded nation) meant that its success was pretty much assured.

© Eater 2014

It’s even become a ‘delicacy’ in some areas of the Pacific and the Far East. In Okinawa, Japan, the product is added, alongside eggs, to onigiri as an ingredient in their traditional chanpurū dish. From Korea, chef David Chang has mixed memories….

It’s not seen as anywhere nearly so desirable over here in Merrie Olde England. Since the 1950s, it’s been portrayed as food fit only for “poor” people and, looking at the ingredients inc. high levels of fat, sodium, and preservatives, I can understand why Thatcher* (who, like most Tories had a visceral hatred of poor people) referred to it as a “delicacy”…

* [Yes, that same evil witch who earlier in her career was happy to steal milk from the very mouths of school kids].

All that said, I liked the bloody stuff. I have hugely fond memories of eating golden, fatty, yet at the same time, crispy, spam fritters as a kid, cooked either by my Mum or eaten as a school dinner. They along with their close cousins, corned beef fritters, were absolutely gorgeous. At least so my memory assures me, from this far away distance in time. I actually can’t recall the last time I ate them though since early childhood. So, prompted by curiosity to see whether they were as good as I recall, I spent an hour or so YouTubing (is that a verb now by the way?) around to see what recipes I could find — we’ve all been lost down that ‘research’ rabbit hole, for hours & hours haven’t we?

And lo, Heston Blumenthal hove into view, with his take on “posh spam fritters”. The guy is certifiably insane but it’s the insanity of genius. The recipe below is a little light on detail; I’m going to experiment first before diving in with the Pata Negra ham as an ingredient but he served this to a group of people many as old (or older) than I, all of whom got what he was attempting, straight away — the tastes and smells and memories of a school dinner, filtered and altered through the prism of his madness, his attempt to surprise jaded 21st century palates by re(de-)constructing a sort of Back-To-The-Future meal summoning up forgotten flavours, textures and taste sensations.

This is the (rough) transcript of what ingredients are needed and the process of b̶u̶i̶l̶d̶i̶n̶g̶ cooking them. I’ll amend it as I find things that go wrong until I’ve given you as close as possible a copy of this meal that I can put together.

Make a chilled and seasoned mixture of diced Pata Negra ham & pork shoulder.

Add some black truffle juice.

Grind again, using a fine (4.5mm) grade plate.

Add to this in a bowl, a mix of white port, red port, Madeira & brandy that’s been reduced down to just a tablespoon of thick “syrup”

Mix it all together.

Take it out of the bowl, and then flatten the mixture between greaseproof paper with a rolling pin.

Square it off (it needs to be about 1cm thick) and from the mixture, you need to make two rectangles, saving some of the mixture to then…

Build a wall around the first rectangle about 1.5cm deep, which space is then filled with a pea & cabbage puree mixed with diced duck liver & black truffle.

Once that’s built, put the other “lid” on top.

Dust this fritter in some seasoned flour then dip it into a batter made of flour, carbonated water & baking powder. Use Japanese panko breadcrumbs, light & crunchy to give a different texture.

Fry, until golden brown.

In the meantime, make the mashed potato, which, creamed & riced contains a braised cabbage mixture bound in a thin strip of cured pork fat. “Organic Smash!” as one of the lucky eaters called it.

Bring the mash together in a flattened ball using some cling film keeping the cabbage mixture bound inside.

The final touch is the “lumpy” school gravy made of a reduced beef stock with pieces of bone marrow served in a school milk bottle.

Plate. Eat. Marvel. Enjoy.