Monday, October 12, 2015

The true Iberian ham

Spanish ham of any kind isn't easy to find in NZ, though On Trays in Petone has Serrano ham - see my earlier post,

On my bus (sorry, coach!) tour of Spain, driving the back roads from Seville to Lisbon, we stopped at a family-owned factory producing the real thing, the ham called bellota. It's made from the meat of small black Iberian pigs who feed (free range, of course) exclusively on acorns.  They deal with 30,000 pigs a year, though not all of them produce bellota - some are for Serrano ham.
        The process of making the hams is remarkably simple, but the care and control that goes into it is remarkable. Essentially, the fresh legs are first buried in salt - the picture shows this stage set up for visitors, the real thing is the same only much bigger. The salt comes from the coast and can be used several times.

They are then air dried in an ascending series of temperatures. 

Each leg is individually coded, tracked and tested, and the entire process can take up to four years, as the ham slowly dries and shrinks.  A family will buy a whole ham for Christmas and New Year for several hundred euros, depending on size - the 100g pack of bellota I bought was 10 euros, 100 euros a kilo, but they're cheaper bought whole. You can see rows of hams hanging up in good restaurants and tapas bars. They need no further cooking. Stored and cut correctly, they keep for months.
Every other part of the pig is also used - nothing is thrown away.  Here I am in front of the hams ready to be on sold to wholesalers...

...and here's the ham on sale in Barcelona's famous covered market.  It is, of course, utterly delicious - a little like prosciutto, but darker and more strongly flavoured. Perfect with a glass of pale, well chilled dry sherry.  Salud!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Chocolate and churros heaven in Avila

I can't travel without chocolate. This time I stocked up in Vienna, where every supermarket has a bank of shelves laden with a huge range of options, from very cheap (but still good) to near top of the line. Some of it was for the friends I was to stay with later, and some was to sustain me. My travelling companion there, Ulrike, had of course come provided with her own supply of neat little individually wrapped oblongs, which she not only shared generously with me but gave to me when she left, to add to my store.
      I knew all about the famous Spanish morning snack of chocolate and churros, but until yesterday I hadn't had any. I'd been put off a bit by the piled up plates of rather stodgy looking churros and the small cups of chocolate I'd seen other people having. Besides, when I was travelling alone it was too soon after breakfast to eat again, and I was busy doing things in the morning. After that I was fully occupied on my Insight coach tour.
      But yesterday, our last day, we came back from Salamanca to Madrid. When we stopped at beautiful walled Avila, Dominic, our very sweet (and incredibly efficient) tour director, told us we were all getting free chocolate and churros there for morning tea.
       We arrived just as a fresh batch of crisp, thin churros was delivered. Each table got a plateful, then the waiters came round with big jugs and poured us large cups of rich dark chocolate. I'm so glad I waited - they were perfect bliss. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Adios, mi amigo

I had my last dinner at La Sanabresa tonight. Roasted red peppers with garlic and flakes of tuna, cod in tomato sauce, and house made tiramisu. I now know the Spanish for " house made", equivalent to French "maison" - it's "casero". Very useful. It was all good, but the cod was particularly impressive. 
        Friday night is family date night, and the prices rise a little accordingly: the main courses I had been ordering in the 11 euro menu migrated tonight to the 13 euro one, which is still a great deal. The restaurant filled up with small family groups and middle aged couples. My waiter dealt with them all with his usual speed and aplomb.
      And I learnt his name: Joaquín. He proudly showed me a laminated copy of a 2003 article from the New York Times, which praised the restaurant handsomely and paid special tribute to Joaquín (and his moustache).  I rustled up enough Spanish to say it was my last night, and tell him my name (Anne/Anna/Ana works extremely well internationally). When I left we shook hands, he embraced me and I managed to say "Adios, mi amigo." I turned for home (well, the hotel) feeling quite sad. Then he came rushing out after me, saying "Sorry!" I had forgotten my scarf. Real life is never quite like the movies.


Friday, September 25, 2015

La Sanabresa 3

So tonight I remembered to take my camera. I was feeling slightly off colour, so I fancied plain food and I got exactly what I wanted. Thin crisp eggplant fritters with lemon...

Roast pork with mashed potato, always my favourite comfort food (and Harvey's too)...

And of course, the flan, which is in fact creme caramel.
At the end I splashed out and had a small decaf espresso. Then I asked my lovely waiter if I could take his photo. He took the camera, gave it to the couple at the next table, got down beside me and asked them to take us both. I managed to tell him (I think) in broken Spanish that I would come one more night and then had to go (vamos). I'm moving to a posh hotel on Saturday to join my bus tour group. But I don't expect any of the flash dinners we'll have will be quite as heartwarming as eating here.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

La Sanabresa 2

Warning: this is a very first-world problems kind of post.
       It's strange eating dinner alone while travelling. The whole thing tends to take on undue importance. Tonight I went back to La Sanabresa when it opened, in time to get the same table I had last night - for two, of course (there are no tables for one), wedged neatly between two larger tables, and allowing me to sit against the wall looking out into the room.
        The waiter seemed pleased to see me. But who knows? As a passing tourist, even a four-night one, you're just a tiny blip on the radar of his regular clients. You know this, and yet you want him to like you, to approve of your choices, to appreciate you....
        I had already worked out what I wanted: the grilled asparagus, and the grilled dorado, which came with salad (I've seen it on French menus as dorade, the menu translates it as gilthead). Both were really worth eating, and I mentally patted myself on the back as I polished off my half bottle of everyday Spanish white.
        Dessert was a dilemma. Should it be the flan again, since it was so good? Or (in the interests of research) should I try the torta de queso, cheesecake, which I envisaged as some rustic Spanish version? 
        Unfortunately I chose the cheesecake. Mistake - it was a small slice of some spongy and creamy confection, topped with raspberry glaze, and obviously bought in. I had to buy two little shortbready biscuits on the way home to have in my room with Lady Grey tea, in order to offset the disappointment.
         Because that's what happens on holiday by yourself - every small success or good decision is magnified, and so is every small mistake.  And I'll have the same dilemma tomorrow - but I think it will definitely be the flan. After the eggplant fritters and the cod in tomato sauce.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

La Sanabresa

I had some difficulty finding what I felt like eating in Barcelona. I had thought I would get the useful menu del dia at lunchtime and make do with tapas at night, but there didn't seem to be any interesting tapas places near my hotel. In any case, at lunchtime I was often in a museum and needed to make do with whatever they had to offer - which was usually not a patch on the wonderful Viennese ones. And on my own, with poor night vision, I don't like going far from the hotel for my dinner.
      So I usually resorted to the attractive, friendly theatre restaurant up the road, the wonderfully named El Glop, which gave out free olives, served delicious thin slices of duck with salad, and had good Catalan sausage with chips when something more filling was required.
      Now I'm in Madrid, in a remarkably swish hotel that wasn't at all expensive (thanks to my clever travel agent). I Googled for restaurants nearby and discovered the exceptionally well reviewed La Sanabresa, just up the road. So at 8.30 (when it opens at night) I went there. 

Just as well I was on time - within ten minutes it had filled up with a swarm of locals. It serves a range of menus del dia, menus of the day, at night, which didn't seem to happen in Barcelona. The one I chose had lots of options, and at 11 euro for three courses, bread and a half bottle of wine (for one - a couple gets a full bottle) it's an incredible bargain. I had the mushrooms with garlic (excellent), 

the meatballs (a little bland, but still good, with chips), and a superb flan, exactly like a creme caramel only with a darker reddish sauce - maybe there was wine in there somewhere? (The colour doesn't show well here.)

I've already worked out what I think I'll have tomorrow. I'm only here for four nights, so I'm going to La Sanabresa for all of them. On my last day I may even splash out on the 16 euro menu...


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Real High Tea Challenge: Tea transformed

I have a family connection with Sri Lanka's tea trade. In the 1910s, my birth mother's father was the manager of a tea estate in what was then Ceylon. After the first world war he and my grandmother Kathleen, who lived in Tewkesbury, began writing to each other. He visited her in England and they became engaged. Then she sailed out to Colombo, married him on the dockside and went up to the estate with him. My mother was born there in 1920. She used to feed buns to the working elephants from her nursery window.
         I grew up drinking the usual strong, milky New Zealand tea, but I took to drinking mine black and lightly brewed when I was living in Albania.  Back in New Zealand, I was delighted when, in 1988, the new firm of Dilmah chose New Zealand as its test market for its single origin, unblended, ethically produced teas. I've been happily drinking their range ever since.
          To raise the profile of fine tea, in 2007 they came up with the Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge, involving 27 of Sri Lanka's top culinary teams. Then they broadened it out to become a Global Challenge, inviting teams around the world to reinvent the traditional high tea for the 21st century.
In 2013 Wellington’s Museum Art Hotel beat 13 other teams to win the first New Zealand round. This July they went to Sri Lanka for the grand final, involving 21 teams (with 710 people) from 15 countries.
Leading the Museum Art Hotel team were Hippopotamus Restaurant's head chef Laurent Loudeac and maitre d’ Camille Furminieux. “When we won in 2013 the final seemed a long way off”, said Camille, “and this March the chef got married – so we started working on our entry in April!” 
In Sri Lanka they had two days to prepare, and on 1 July they had half an hour to set up and just 35 minutes to serve the entire menu to the four judges (including our own Simon Gault). When I asked Laurent if there were any crises, he frowned slightly and said no, of course not. 
On the day, their execution was flawless. But watching the spectacular effects some other teams came up with, they thought they had no hope of winning.  They were wrong.
Their clearly focused theme was the meeting of the five senses, all of them involved in tea tasting. It was shown off perfectly by their elegant French degustation-inspired menu of three savoury and three sweet courses. Created from fine New Zealand ingredients with tea-derived enhancements, and paired throughout with stunning teas or tea-based drinks, it won them the supreme award.

On 18 August they recreated their winning entry for 50 lucky people at Hippopotamus, and I was there on behalf of the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers. From the duck tortellini in Ceylon ginger, honey and mint tea broth to the crêpes Suzette with mulled Medda Watte tea, it was the most exquisite sequence of food and drink I’ve ever experienced. 

Here's the menu:
Silver Jubilee Ceylon Ginger, Honey and Mint tea consommé
          Confit duck leg tortellini
Palate cleanser: Silver Jubilee Aromatic Earl Grey tea
Vivid Gentle Minty Green Lady cocktail
          Clevedon buffalo milk feta espuma, macadamia nougatine and fresh cucumber
Ran Watte Single Region Ceylon tea
          Ora King Salmon sashimi "my way"
Silver Jubilee Ceylon tea
          Strawberry mille-feuille and tea syrup
Media Watte Single Region Ceylon mulled tea
          Poire Belle-Hélène
Silver Jubilee Almond-infused Ceylon Pekoe Digestive tea
          Traditional crêpe Suzette
You can see all the recipes here

If I had to choose a favourite course, it would be the beautifully airy, smooth feta espuma (created with a siphon), with its contrasting tiny shards of crunchy nougatine and cucumber curls, its richness offset by the one true cocktail they served - the Vivid Gentle Green Lady, made from Lighthouse gin, Gentle Minty Green tea, fresh mint leaves, cucumber and a dash of Ch’i water. Tea will never be the same...

Proceeds from the Wellington event went to the new culinary training school for young underprivileged Sri Lankans. Funded by Dilmah’s MTF Foundation, it was opened by Simon Gault and other chefs on 5 July. Back home, at the Hospice Vintners' Brunch, a trip for two to Wellington to stay at the hotel and attend the High Tea was put up for auction and raised $2300 for Hospice.