Monday, 8 June 2015

Gourmet Stag Weekend in San Sebastian

San Sebastián bay #sansebastian

Food normally plays second or third fiddle on a stag weekend. The closest you normally come to nutrition is from your toothpaste or morning ration of paracetamol. I normally arrive home on a Sunday night with the cravings of a pregnant slug – lettuce and courgettes please. And maybe a radish on the side.

So when Tom and Danny cooked up a trip to San Sebastian as a stag do, things looked up. Tom is a Donostia veteran, so had a very strong sense of where to go and what to eat. The closest we came to a burger or kebab was a particularly decadent sea urchin!

Others have written about the pintxos of San Sebastian far more comprehensively than I can. And in fact this blog post from The LondonFoodie actually covers a decent proportion of the places we visited. But here is an overview of my highlights. A series of pintxos postcards if you will.

We started at La Cuchara de San Telmo – which is comfortably my favourite pintxos haunt. Traditional, but imaginative, their food has a depth of flavour and quality of cooking that would grace any starred restaurant. And all served up from a kitchen the size of a downstairs loo. Just don’t try to go on a Monday. It’s shut.

Veal Cheeks

Veal cheeks with potato purée and am amazingly deep sauce #sansebastian

Our pintxos crawl started with a strong dose of Txakoli and large ration of decadent veal cheeks – which had been cooked in red wine and placed on a bed of creamy puree. Unctuous isn’t a word I use very often, but these cheeks should take the place of the definition of this word in the OED. Deep and decadent; they are the sine qua nom nom nom for how to make the most out of veal cheeks.

Pigs Trotters

Trotters. Yum. #sansebastian

San Telmo is famous for their trotters. If they were any richer they’d be a Knightsbridge tax exile with a bastard son called Hubertus. Succulent doesn’t do them justice. There isn’t much “meat” per se. But the pickings you get are piggy bliss. The sherry vinegar glaze does its best to cut through the richness. But only some industrial strength hydrochloric acid could manage that. In fairness the Txakoli did a fair job in the place of the HCl.

Salt Cod

Confit salt cod #sansebastian

Salt cod seems to rear its caudal fin at every turn in San Sebastian. Here it flaked beautifully to reveal its pearly interior. The pepper puree was a perfect counterfoil and was possibly the only vegetable we came across for several hours of eating.

Scallops with Ham Fat

Scallops with a lardo cumber-belt #sansebastian

Scallops and salty pork are a well known match. But here they got taken to another level. The ham fat had little slivers of meat attached to it. But let’s be honest, it was there to act as a fatty cummerbund to the pristine white scallops. The only criticism is that it would be nice to crisp up the fat more. But I wouldn’t take that complaint terribly seriously.

Zeruko is one of San Sebastian’s molecular pintxos bars. Spherification, table theatre and whimsy pick up where San Telmo’s depth of flavour and traditional cooking left off. And it is great fun. But some of the dishes could have been cooked more sensitively.

Ceps and Egg

Ceps and a poached egg #sansebastian

Large slices of cep with a fried egg. Simple. And almost stunning. It just had a slightly acrid taste that you can get when something has caught slightly in the pan or on the plancha.

Smoke Your Own Cod

Smoking our own cod #sansebastian

This was a lot of fun. You get presented with a miniature smoker with a piece of cod in bamboo tweezers which you then smoke until your heart is contented. All washed down with a green straw filled with a shot of herby goodness. This was one of our favourite dishes.

Sea Urchin

Sea urchin #sansebastian

Rich. Decadent. And deeply sexual. This sea urchin didn’t take any prisoners. Enriched with béchamel and dressed with a herb oil, it redefined the word intensity. Put it this way; it tasted of how I image a brothel to smell.

Hake Throat

Hake throat with some cheeky foie gras #sansebastian

Or at least I think it was hake throat. Apparently it is a delicacy. Here it was served with foie gras and a film of caramel to add to the playful decadence.

Salt Cod with Fish Roe

Cod carpaccio #sansebastian

Layers upon layers of salt cod with a cheeky topping of caviar and a dressing of balsamic vinegar sent us on our heady way from Zeruko smelling slightly of our own mini smoker.


Let there be tripe #sansebastian

Tom insisted on us tucking into some tripe. I gallantly attempted to help. But I’ve got to admit, I find tripe a bit too ripe for my boring taste buds. Tom insists this is amongst the best tripe he’s had. And I can attest to the fact that it really does taste very authentically of cow stomach. Although which of the cow’s four stomachs I’m not so sure.

Chanterelles with Scrambled Egg

Chanterelles and eggs. One of the best things I've eaten in ages. #sansebastian

Where I struggled with the tripe, I fell in love with the chanterelles and scrambled eggs. There’s nothing complicated about this dish. But it is sensational. Seasoned majestically. And scattered with parsley, it’s found its way into my psyche as my favourite mushroom dish of the year so far.

After the rest of the stag do went home, Sarah came out for a couple of days to experience the delights of the Basque country. And whilst it isn’t terribly pregnancy friendly, we adored it. We stayed at Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra which is perfectly positioned on the promenade, overlooking the cacophonous waves that smash the shoreline in perfect concentric surges of water. 

We are going to miss San Sebastián. Such an elegant, tasty and rainy bastion of the good life. #sansebastian

As views go, they don’t get a lot better than this one from our hotel.

If you are struggling for somewhere to eat on a Monday – because quite a few of the pintxos bars close their doors then – Gandarias is a good option. It is both a pintxos bar and restaurant. And is one of my favourites. We drank gallons of exceptional wine and sherry here whilst on the stag, but focused more on the food when it was just the two of us.

Sirloin with green peppers

Tiny steak #sansebastian

The juicy, pink, sweet steak was offset perfectly by the sweet bitterness of the green pepper and its salty anorak. I’m keen to scale this up to a full size dish once the summer arrives.

Squid with its Own Ink

Squid on a stick #sansebastian

Few things taste as good as super fresh squid cooked quickly. This was fabulous. And the inky sauce gave it loads of depth whilst making us look like our teeth were about to fall out.

Fake Elvers on Toast

Mini eels #sansebastian

Sadly not real elvers. But probably good for the environment. These little squiggly worms were delicious. And super garlicky.

Octopus with Paprika

Octopussy #sansebastian

Simple. Just slices of cold octopus with paprika, olive oil and seasoning. I’m not sure you could eat this and not realize what country you are in.

Best jamon we've ever had at La Cepa #sansebastian

La Cepa is to be found very close to San Telmo. Whilst I am sure their pintxos are good, it’s the jamon that we fell in love with. Nutty. Unctuous. Piggy. And with a mineral depth, it is now the ham I judge others against. It’s almost worth the airfare alone. And the beer taps are made from pig legs which is pretty cool.

Cheesecake galore #sansebastian

I’m very embarrassed to say that we visited the mecca for Spanish cheesecake and didn’t try any. I haven’t really got an excuse. So forgive me. But here’s a photo of the best cheesecake I’ve ever seen – and not eaten. I am currently craving this cheesecake and a glass of PX sherry.

This is just a taster of a city I simply cannot wait to return to. It’s such a civilised, cultured, delicious place that has its priorities straight. Thank you Tom for organizing such a marvelous stag do. And well done Dan for being such a good egg. Let’s hope you call your first child Sebastian.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

ABC Kitchen

Nestled into the ABC interior design store is the ABC Kitchen. It’s like Petersham Nurseries has had a love child with the Grain Store, a catwalk show and a Conran design shop.

After a couple of very firm recommendations (thanks Suz and Gav) we popped in for a light lunch and had our snow boots blown off.

After a lot of oohing, ahhing and penny counting we decided to forgo the exciting menu items and go for the set lunch. Often this is a disastrous idea. But not here.

My cauliflower soup was stunning to look at. And tasty in equal measure. The sourdough croutons added a lovely crunch and the chives and herbs were very well balanced. But the real stars were the little morsels of goat’s cheese that acted as gourmet depth charges.

Cowie’s carrot salad was one of the highlights of our trip to New York. ‘Carrot Salad’ sounds so pedestrian. It was anything but. The carrots had been roasted to a sweetness normally reserved for fruit and then juxtaposed with a strong handful of spices and salad.

My main course of slow cooked Spanish mackerel wasn’t what I expected. It was everything mackerel often isn’t. Soft, sweet and juicy. Greae free and almost like salmon in consistency. It didn’t have the metallic tang that can often dominate. Cucumbers and a light sauce worked wonders. It was as if as Skye Gyngell had been in the kitchen. Interestingly, one of her books was on sale in the design shop next door.

Cowie’s egg yolk and ricotta raviolo with a game ragu was a joyous explosion of sunny decadence. Dusted with parmesan it growled of umami. And screamed with delight. If it was a Sex and the City character, it would be Samantha after a hormone injection.

In a city full of gutsy macho eating, the ABC Kitchen is a graceful, serene, fresh, considered, stylish, oasis of lightness. But with enough guts to stop it being a fashion show.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Bánh Xèo

Our submission for this year’s pancake competition had a Vietnamese flavour. When we were in Ho Chi Minh city we fell in love with their Bánh Xèo. These enormous crispy, Simpsons coloured pancakes are stuffed with prawns, pork, bean sprouts and mint and are then wrapped in lettuce and rice paper, before being dipped in nuoc cham. Our favourite was this monster in Ho Chi Minh City which was the size of a satellite dish and as crispy as a Pringle.

We learned that Bánh Xèo is an onomatopoeic word that connotes the sizzling or crackling sound you hear when you make one. The batter is a mixture of rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric which fries in a way that leaves a pock marked surface similar to baddy’s face in Licence to Kill.

We found it took longer to cook the pancake than a traditional English version. But the patience was rewarded with a crispy shell to take on the filling.

We opted for a chicken and prawn filling instead of pork and prawn. You could just as easily use oriental mushrooms if you fancied a change. It’s important to marinade the ingredients in fish sauce, lemongrass, garlic, chilli and ginger first to infuse the flavour. Then fry away with some spring onions and keep warm whilst you make the pancake.


For pancakes

200g rice flour
Half a can of coconut milk
200ml water
2 teaspoons of turmeric powder
Pinch of salt
Coconut oil for frying

Pancake filling

4 chicken thighs
2 cloves of garlic – finely sliced
1 lemongrass stem – finely sliced
1 chilli – finely sliced
Large thumb of ginger – grated
Big slug of fish sauce
150 g prawns
Handful of mint
Bean sprouts
Palm sugar
Coconut oil for frying

Nuoc cham dipping sauce

100ml fish sauce
50ml lime juice
3 finely sliced red chillies
1 teaspoon of palm sugar
1 clove of finely chopped garlic


Marinade the filling ingredients in fish sauce, ginger, lemongrass, garlic and chilli for half an hour. Then fry till cooked. Add the marinade towards the end to cook off. And some palm sugar. This should form a nice sticky sauce. Keep warm.

Whisk the rice flour, coconut milk, salt and turmeric together with the water to form a batter. Allow to rest for a bit.

Then add some coconut oil and groundnut oil to a frying pan and when hot add a spoonful of batter. The batter should fizz and crackle. It should also look pockmarked.

Once set and crispy on the other side, give it a careful flip. Because these are lacking in gluten they aren’t as stretchy so be a bit more cautious at this stage.

Serve the pancake, bent in half with the filling spooned in, like a taco. Then plate up with a wedge of lime, some bean sprouts, mint, and extra chillies.  And a little bowl of nuoc cham to dip into.

If you wanted to be extra authentic you could wrap the pancake in rice pancakes – but, they are just as nice on their own I think. And a lot less fiddly.

Some nice people from Roberson Wines gave us a bottle of Cono Sur Single Estate Chilean Reisling which paired perfectly with the Bánh Xèo. Fresh enough to slice through the complex flavours and rich enough to cope with the hint of spice. Not bad for £9 a bottle.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Bread, by Dean Brettschneider

I’ve become obsessed with baking bread. People have asked me whether it is just a phase and it has made me wonder. But I think that it is something that we’ll do forever. The process of kneading, proving, baking, carving, toasting and eating is becoming second nature. And the bread itself is getting more interesting, more consistent and occasionally experimental. When we go away on holiday I take the starter with me so long as we aren’t flying. And when we do fly, I just hope it survives the break in the fridge.

My regular loaf is a rye loaf mixed with strong white flour with a handful of pumpkin seeds and occasionally some caraway. It’s really easy and the fact that it is quite rye heavy makes it quite easy to prove and bake. It’s a little stalwart. It’s neat and reliable. And it toasts beautifully. I just use Dan Lepard’s Rye and Barley recipe from his Handmade Loaf book (250g starter, 300g strong white flour, 200g rye flour, 300g water).

So when I got an email asking if I’d like to review a bread baking book I was rather excited. Bread by Dean Brettschneider, published by Jacqui Small is a very attractive book. The photography is stunning in a way that many baking books are not. And the instructions from Dean Brettschneider are very clear and authoritative. Although they differ at times from what I’ve learned from Dan Lepard, they give you confidence that you are doing things right.

The first loaf that jumped out of me from Brettschneider’s book was his Dark German Rye Loaf. One glimpse of this Onyx loaf took me straight back to our communal breakfasts in Sweden where we would slather sweet mustard on black rye bread with a slice of Vasterbotten cheese and some smoked ham.

These dark breads, for me, are doughy nirvana. They go deep where our English white sliced barely scratches the surface. They are the polar opposite of baguette and speak to a completely different world view. A philosophy of perseverance; resilience; slowness; hard graft; depth; gnarly character; and satisfaction.

Dark Danish rye bread

Dark German rye #balhambaking

I followed the recipe to the letter and was rewarded with the best loaf I have baked to date. It is fabulous fresh or even better toasted with marmalade, smoked mackerel pate, slices of hard cheese or, heroically a slice of salted butter to contrast against the darkness.

His trick is to soak rye flakes and sunflower seeds in hot water separately from the dough mixture. And to add cocoa to rye sourdough dough mixture which is surprisingly heavy on strong white flower. Grate in some carrot. Add some malt extract, some salt and some more water and then combine after a few hours of proving. It works like a treat. Just make sure you allow it to cool properly before giving in to carving it. This will allow the dough to 'set' and not tear when you carve it.

I’ve since experimented with replacing the warm water that the grains are soaked in with coffee which has led to even darker breads with even more flavour. If you do go down the coffee route, you need to add a bit of extra malt extract or honey to counteract the bitterness. And Edwin inspired replacing the rye flakes with Dorset Cereal Muesli which worked very well too. The raisins and nuts made it a great breakfast loaf.

White sourdough destined for a bacon sandwich

Poppy seed sourdough. First loaf since returning home from 2 weeks away. Starter seems to have been energised by the break.  #balhambaking #breadbore

Crumbs! #breadbore #balhambaking

Dean’s white sourdough loaf recipe is also a corker. Where I’d previously struggled with my dough sticking to the bannetons and less airiness that I’d hope for, Dean’s recipe has yielded nothing but fluffy, loaves with big bubbles and lots of flavour. One of his best tips is to make sure your starter has been greedily fed 8 hours before baking. I've found this has turbo charged my loaves.

If you are serious about baking bread, I can recommend Bread, by Dean Brettschneider wholeheartedly.


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