Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Luscious Food in Northern Spain
Through my years of peregrinations, I have been in search of culinary excellence. I'm willing to travel to check out the culinary capabilities of chefs of note as well as their restaurant’s sommeliers that are responsible for pairing the chef’s creations with appropriate wines.
In Northern Spain along the Pyrenees, the strip between Barcelona in the East and San Sebastian on the Atlantic coast has a very high concentration of Michelin starred restaurants. The city of San Sebastian has more Michelin-star restaurants per capita than any other city in the world.
When referring to this area, gastronomes always reach for superlatives. I consider this the best place to travel… to eat… and drink in the world, a space sandwiched between the Atlantic, the mountainous farmlands of the Pyrenees to the North, and the Mediterranean in the East.
The names are world famous. Such luminaries as Juan Marie and Elena Arzak at Arzak Restaurant; Eneko Atxa at Azurmendi; Pedro Subijana at Akelare; Carme Ruscailleda at Sant Pau; the eponymous Martín Berasategui in Lasarte-Oria; Quique Dacosta at the Denia beach resort; and the 3 Roca brothers at El Celler de Can Roca.
The above mentioned restaurants are all 3 Michelin stared establishments, the be-all and end-all of any chef’s ambitions. There are currently 8 three-star restaurants in Spain, also 21 two-stars, 154 single-stars and 229 Bib Gourmands (very good food at reasonable prices), with more added to the list every year; the majority is in this Northern strip.
The city of Barcelona has 23 Michelin stared restaurants altogether, recently adding Feran Adrià’s Japanese venture Pakta. El Celler de Can Roca – considered the best restaurant in the world -- is actually in Girona, about an hour North of Barcelona but I include it as part of the Barcelona contingent. Other names in the area that should be remembered are: Paco Perez’s Enoteca in the Ritz-Carlton hotel and also Restaurante Lasarte in Hotel Condes. Another Catalan super-chef Jordi Cruz can be found at ABaC in the ABaC hotel. Can Fabes delivers some of the finest Spanish classic dishes in the country. And Jean Luc Figueras is another name that should not be forgotten; though now he has no stars, he was the first Catalan chef to achieve a Michelin star and his food is still superb.
But you don’t really have to go to a Michelin-starred place to have exceptional food in Northern Spain. Go tapear (pub crawl); most tascas (tapas bars) will have a number of regional tapas that are mouthwatering. Actually, in this part of the world, if a restaurant or bar doesn’t have superior food – at least three or four exceptional items – it will not survive.
Examples of great tapas in Catalunia are the montaditos, both cooked and uncooked food on a baguette slice. The same type of tapa in the Basque area is called a pintxo or pincho. They are all deliciously inexpensive. In Cèntrio, an informal gastro-bar, we had a Catalan Bellini made with Cava accompanying charcoal grilled octopus slices with roasted potato slices dipped in garlicky mustard vinaigrette. At practically every bar Tortilla Española wedges are always deliciously present. In Bilbao, fried shrimp coated with black sesame is another enjoyable specialty to accompany your glass of Fino.
Cooked snails at a bar in Porrerà in Tarragona are as delectable as they are in France even though the cooking method is a bit different. And, of course, let’s not forget the charcuterie platters - Teruel jamón; creamy, fatty, and nutty jamón Ibérico de bellota from Iberico pigs fed only acorns; garlicky, spicy chorizo; lomo de cerdo, a cured and air dried pork tenderloin; and, of course, the illustrious pâtés – a mixture of cooked ground pork with additions like vegetables, truffles, or nuts. There are also the ubiquitous cheese platters usually sporting a number of different regional cheeses, dry fruits and/or nuts and cubes of quince paste (membrillo).
In the better restaurants you might be served such rare delicacies as pickled fruit chunks with lobster, or poached monk-fish tail with spherized sea essence, or star-crab with 2 kinds of caviar (black and red) and poached vanilla pod!
A very important hint; never reserve at restaurants earlier than 9:30 p.m. In most Spanish cities, diner starts at about 10 and goes on till after midnight and even longer. As the saying goes “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.
For gastronomes, life is great in Northern Spain. So… why are you waiting?
© July 2015 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.