Viva Espana

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There’s always something bittersweet about arriving home from your holidays.  On one hand, you have your own bed, your own bath and your own kitchen to look forward to.  On the other, the grim realities of work, unpacking and two weeks’ worth of post to open leave you wishing you were still on the beach.  My arrival home, with the smell of suntan lotion still on my skin and my head still fuzzy from the Rioja of the night before, was a whole new chapter: life as a married woman.  With still a few days at my disposal before I had to face the world, I curled up on my much-missed couch to reminisce about my gastronomic adventures in Spain.

Our journey began in San Sebastian with our wedding.  It is a place so magnificent that I could write pages and pages on its many charms.  Once you arrive, step off the bus from Bilbao Airport and walk the 20 or so minutes through the commercial district, you end up at the main square that links the old town to the enormous sweeping beach, La Playa de la Concha, and you realise why it is beloved by so many.  The food, which it is so famous for, does not disappoint and you can be equally as satisfied trawling the many pintxos bars as you can at one of the many Michelin-starred restaurants.  Of course, it’s not all that San Sebastian has to offer, but it is the draw that entices people there.  It is the food that I will mainly talk about, and leave the rest as little surprises to discover for yourself.

It was only during my most recent trip to the city, in March of this year, that I realised how seriously the Basques took gin and tonic.  Before this, I had always focused on the wine (and with the close proximity to La Rioja, how could you not?) but a conversation with my wedding planner alerted me to the fact that you can get a damned good G&T there too.  Far from the single-shot-in-a-tumbler-and-lime-if-you’re-lucky treatment you would expect to receive in your archetypal British pub, the San Sebastian gin and tonic is a work of art.  To start with, a double measure is standard, although you will find that few actually use a measure and free pour up to 100ml of gin into the glass.  The glass of choice is an enormous fishbowl glass, filled with large cubes of ice, and then the gin.  To this they add flavours to enhance the gin, largely fruits and spices.  The tonic is added to just the right quantity and the whole thing delicately stirred.  The strength of the first sip will make you sit up, but you will soon become accustomed.

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Gin and tonic from the hotel bar at Barcelo. Costa Vasca, San Sebastián

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Gin and tonic alchemy at La Gintoneria, San Sebastián

The best gin and tonic I have found in San Sebastian is at La Gintoneria in Gros.  Their gin menu is an extensive collection of gins from all over the world, including the excellent Gin Mare, distilled in a small village not far from Barcelona.  The staff at La Gintoneria understand the use of different added ingredients to enhance the flavour of the botanicals in the gin.  From where I was sitting I spied a stock of juniper berries, grapefruit, cucumber, cardamom pods, rose petals and pink peppercorns.  The drinks, of course, are wonderful, but it is also worth a trip over here for the theatre of their making them.

La Gintoneria, Zabaleta 6, San Sebastian.

Pintxos, the Basque word for small plates or tapas, are ubiquitous across the city and are the preferred way of eating light in the evening following lunch, traditionally the larger meal of the day.  My brother’s arrival from Melbourne with his girlfriend was the perfect excuse for a pintxos crawl around the old town.  Our first stop was, at is very often is, Astelena, a small bar hidden in the corner of Constitucion Plaza.  It was recommended to us on our first visit for its grilled meats and fish and we have since sampled many of their brochetas including an excellent prawn and chorizo skewer.  The best dish on the menu, however, by far is the carrileras, slow cooked beef cheeks served in a rich gravy with a slice of grilled pineapple.  The meat is so tender that a knife is surplus to requirements and the bread basket that accompanies your order throughout the whole of Spain, is perfect for mopping up the sauce.  They have some very good reds at the bar and few over three euros a glass.

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Slow cooked beef cheeks at Astelena, San Sebastián

Astelena, Calle Inigo 1, San Sebastián.

Many people I know that visit San Sebastian on a regular basis agree that some of the best pintxos in San Sebastian are to be found at Atari Gastroteka in the old town.  It’s one of those seemingly unstoppable places that seems to get better with each visit.  When we go at lunchtime, we will usually order a glass of wine and choose a few pintxos from the extensive selection on the bar – they have the same form of things on bread and sticks as the other bars, but with a slightly more leftfield range of ingredients, such as cured salmon and brie that are seldom found elsewhere.  My favourite pintxo is a combination of black olive tapenade, goats cheese, sunblush tomato and serrano ham.  When we visit in the evening, we prefer to find a table and order from the menu.  On our last visit we feasted on delicious jamon croquetas and fois gras and apple puree on walnut toasts.

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A selection of pintxos at Atari, San Sebastián

Atari Gastroteka, Calle Mayor 18, San Sebastián.

I have a bit of a thing for Gros, the less-visited area on the otherside of the bridge, beyond the Kursaal building.  Not only does it have an excellent beach and some beautiful squares, it also has some excellent bars and restaurants that could rival the old town.  La Gintoneria is to be found among its haphazard streets, as well as the wonderful Bar Bergara and a great pizza-pintxos place I can never remember the name of.  My favourite of all is the wonderful Bodega Donostiarra, which has some of the most traditional examples of pintxos to be found in the city.  You won’t find piled-high morsels of extravagance here, but rather the more modest-looking Gildas (anchovies, olives and pickled chillies on sticks – named after Rita Hayworth’s iconic character) as well as plated of jamon and salt cod.  It is their menu, rather than their bar selection, that holds all of the gems.  A salad of vinegary tuna, anchovies and olives is a must, as are their famous chicken wings – tender with a crispy skin and doused in an indecent amount of garlic butter.

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A salad of olives, onions, anchovies, pickled chillies and bonito at Bodega Donostiarra, San Sebastián

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Chicken wings at Bodega Donostiarra, San Sebastián

Bodega Donostiarra, Calle de Pena y Goni 13, San Sebastián.

Our wedding, with 36 guests, was held on the terrace of La Perla de La Concha, which overlooks the beach of the same name.  We were lucky that the temperamental San Sebastian weather was kind to us as this spot has one of the most picturesque views of the bay.  For dinner, we took our guests to our favourite restaurant in the old town, Bodegon Alejandro.  We stumbled upon this one day during a pintxos crawl and were unable to resist the menu, simply displayed on the front door.  Much like Bodega Donostiarra, this restaurant offers a very traditional kind of Basque cuisine, done very, very well.

We started the meal with creamy potato croquetas and plates of acorn-fed Iberico ham, served over a crispbread that was smashed to pieces at the table by a waiter brandishing a stone pestle.

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Potato croquettes and Iberico ham at Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastián

This was followed by a cold lasagne of ratatouille, topped with delicious fresh anchovies and accompanied by a gazpacho cream.

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Cold-marinated anchovies lasagne with gazpacho cream at. Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastián (photograph by Simon Steadman)

Merluza, or hake, is traditionally eaten in the Basque region and can be found on most pintxos and restaurant menus.  The traditional way to serve it is with a tomato-based sauce, however for our menu we had the fish served atop olive oil crushed potatoes and a particularly zingy citrus vinaigrette.  The hake at Bodegon Alejandro is the most beautiful fish I have had anywhere – soft as butter with a crispy skin and delicate in flavour.

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Hake with olive oil crushed potatoes and citrus vinaigrette at Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastián (photograph by Simon Steadman)

The main course was a meltingly tender boned shoulder of lamb served with a simple potato puree and a punchy confit garlic cream.

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Slow cooked boneless shoulder of lamb with potato purée and garlic confit cream at Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastián

For dessert we chose something traditional of the region: a piece of caramelised french toast accompanied by a subtle cheese ice cream.

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Caramelised french toast with cheese ice cream at. Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastián

Bodegon Alejandro, Calle Fermin Calbeton 4, San Sebastián.

Driving the 1,000km from San Sebastian to our honeymoon destination of Andalucia was a great way to see the diversity of the Spanish landscapes.  The relatively luscious greenery of the Basque country and the mountainous north gives way to vast swathes of industrial land before hitting the urban metropolis of Madrid, where we stayed one night to break up the journey.  South of Madrid is a different beast altogether with miles and miles of farmland, the spectacular heights of the Sierra Nevada and finally the barren, almost desert-like plains of Andalucia.

Our priority was a few days of relaxation, so we headed to the beachside town of Nerja which, we were told, was quieter than the better-known nearby towns of Marbella and Torremolinos.  After marvelling at the size of the room and the hotel’s proximity to the beach, we decided to wander into the town, which is where I very quickly realised that Nerja is not really a place for culinary adventures.  Most of the restaurants were aimed at tourists and, try as we might, we couldn’t seem to find anywhere that was off this trail.  Although some of the food is local and traditional, the quality wasn’t that great.  Most of the dishes came with chips and rice and bread, and almost every menu, regardless of cuisine, had spaghetti bolognaise on it.  After a disappointing (frozen) fried sole on the first night, we were glumly anticipating the next few dinners until, on the following day, we stumbled, quite literally, across Pepe Mese on Playaso Beach.

It was just what we were looking for:  a slightly rustic, almost shack-like, building with a view of the sunset, populated by mostly Spanish locals and not a lurid cocktail with a sparkler in sight.  When I saw the men, I almost clapped my hands with glee.  A World Cup game was playing on the television and we feasted on a plate of plump grilled squid doused in garlic butter and crispy matchsticks of fried aubergine drizzled with sweet cane honey.

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Grilled squid at Pepe Mesa, Nerja

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Deep fried aubergines with molasses at Pepe Mesa, Nerja

When dinner time rolled around the following night we, unsurprisingly, eschewed the brightly-lit restaurant strips of the main town and returned to Pepe Mese.  This time I ordered the dish I order on any menu: fried fish (or fritto misto if you’re on other shores).  This one did not disappoint:  a large plate of squid, hake, octopus and anchovies, coated in a crisp, paprika-spiked batter.  We squeezed over the juice of two gargantuan lemon wedges and attacked it with gusto, knocking back some rather good white wine as we did so.  If there was a meal to be had as the sun goes down and the smell of wood smoke hangs in the air, this is it.

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Mixed fried fish at Pepe Mesa, Nerja

Pepe Mese, Playa de Playaso, Nerja.

It was easier to find good food at our next stop, Ronda, although the majority of restaurants were still aiming for the generic tourist market.  As we walked through the old town and the area surrounding the beautiful puento nuevo (‘new bridge’ – google image it), we saw a number of brightly coloured menus on billboards, in various languages offering, among other things, spaghetti bolognaise.  A few gems were to be found outside of this area.  At the northern end of the Calle Jerez, we came across a small rustic tapas bar called Tapas de Ronda, which was our first stop in the town.  Following a short conversation with a waitress in my terrible broken Spanish I returned to the table to confess to Ollie that I was not entirely sure what I had ordered.  What came to the table was a selection of cold tapas:  potatoes in aioli, Russian salad (everywhere in Andalucia), tomatoes stuffed with tuna and a wedge of potato tortilla.  Just what we needed after a hot drive through the mountains.  Luckily, I knew the word for anchovies – boquerones – so we found ourselves with a plate of them, tender and pungent and with the usual excessive amount of garlic we had started to become very used to.

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Boquerones at Tapas de Ronda, Ronda

The following evening, our appetites were raging after cycling the round trip to a village called Benaojan, 17km from Ronda and 538m above sea level, so we were after something a little more substantial than tapas.  A friend had recommended Bodega San Francisco, located just south of Ronda’s old town for a good place to get some rustic and authentic Andalucian food.  I was keen to try the oxtail, a local speciality sometimes listed on menus as ‘bull’s tail’, probably due to translation.  We ordered two plates of the hearty oxtail stew and were delighted to find the meat tender and falling from the bone and a rich tomato sauce spiced with pimenton.  Alongside this we ordered a somewhat generous plate of pimientos de padron, grilled to the point where there is the slightest of charring and sprinkled liberally with coarse sea salt.

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Pimientos de Padron at Bodega San Francisco, Ronda

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Oxtail at Bodega San Francisco, Ronda

Our final stop on the trip was the Andalucian capital of Seville, to me the most romantic of all Spanish cities.  I had visited once before, in 2010, and was keen to show Ollie some of the places I had visited and loved, primarily the Real Alcazar and its magnificent gardens and the Plaza d’Espana.  Without a list of restaurants to try out and with our budget slightly depleted, we found ourselves in the peculiar situation of not focusing mainly on food.  Our plan was to set about sampling the city’s tapas as we found it.  Many restaurants have a ‘menu del dia’ with a particular dish on offer for that day, and we found that a good place to start.  I was glad to see that bacalao, or salt cod, was as widespread here as in the Basque region, and could often be found in wonderful little hot sandwiches that cost no more than two euros a piece.  Other highlights were some delicious chorizo, a bomba la Barcelonetta, a take on the ham-studded potato croqueta with a rich tomato sauce; and a meaty chickpea stew, typical of the nearby sherry-producing city of Jerez.

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Jerez-style chickpea stew at Vapiano, Seville

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Bomba la Barcelonetta at Bar Europa, Seville

Going off the beaten track and into the north of the city showed us a different side to eating out in Seville.  The neighbourhood restaurants are less ornate than those you will find in the jumbled streets of the old town or the grand boulevards around the cathedral, but they have a rustic charm and are much better value.  You won’t find the restaurants in any of the guide books, but the quality of the food is such that it is worth getting out of the tourist areas to dine with the locals.  At Meson La Esquina we paid three euros for a large plate of perfectly tender slow cooked pork cheeks in the kind of rich tomato and paprika sauce that is typical to this region – it was one of the most flavoursome pork dishes I had ever tasted and could have easily eaten more.  A plate of calamari was excellent and the patatas bravas perfectly adequate, but the pork cheeks were the star.  The place was packed with local people and had a really buzzing atmosphere.  After dinner, we walked a little further down the street to watch Belgium vs. USA with some typically enormous gin and tonics (in fishbowls, of course) for the bargain price of five euros a piece.

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Calamari at La Meson Esquina, Seville

Meson La Esquina, Calle Astronomica 2, Seville.

For a substantial meal on the go, there are a number of places around the city selling huge portions of fried fish for very little money – think of them as Andalucian fish and chip shops if you will.  In fact, in appearance they are quite similar to their British counterparts – a formica counter at the front with the menu up behind to order from, open glass display fronts and little tables around which families crowd.  One particular restaurant, La Isla, was recommended by a fellow south-east Londoner, Hollow Legs, who had visited the city some months previously.  The menu contains a number of different fish options and is priced by weight.  A quarter of a kilo of fried dish, which the waiter assured me was enough for one person, was around six euros.  We ordered half a kilo of the mixed fish (always a favourite), which came in a lacy paper cone with a small sprinkling of salt.  The side order de jour is not chips as we know them in the UK, but crisps.  Although I saw a lot of people tucking in, my Britishness took over and couldn’t quite face eating them with the fish.  Our mixture was a medley of hake, prawns, squid, cuttlefish and some little battered bundles of hake roe which were, surprisingly, the best of the bunch.  A perfect stomach liner for a night of drinking and dark bar flamenco at La Caboneria.

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La Isla, Calle Garcia de Vinuesa, Seville.

If my heart belongs to London, my stomach defintely belongs to Spain.

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