“If you are able to introduce a white person to a new cheese, it's like introducing them to a future spouse.”
Last month was all about overcoming my skepticism and learning about, cooking, and tasting every manner of animal guts and bits and pieces.
This month, as it has turned out, has become Cheese Month, much to my delight. Sure, we’ve been talking dairy for a couple of weeks in class, but I’ve had a few extra and unexpected bonus rounds thrown in.
Now, I love cheese. I love it more than words can even express, and I may even love it more than I love bread and wine. It is pasture and sunlight and earthiness all curdled down into salty lactic goodness. It is magical, remarkable, genius. Milk is something that spoils in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, and through many trials and errors and happy happy accidents, it was discovered that if the milk curdled and could be separated from the whey, it would keep for a long time and provide a concentrated (and heavenly) little packet of fat and protein and minerals.
There are infinite cheeses, and there are infinite ways of making them: starting from yogurt, cream or milk; using bacterial or fungal processes; using animal rennet or plant-based coagulators; salting the milk or salting the brine or salting the cheese itself; varying combinations of time and temperature and humidity; pasteurizing, pressing, ripening; and on and on and on forever…I’m thinking about giving up all my worldly ways and dedicating myself to meditating on cheeses.
Bonus round number one was two weeks ago, as part of my Best Day Ever (more on where we were and what we did in a following post). On a farm on the other side of the country, I was taught how to milk a sheep and make cheese by hand, using the most basic of all basic tools and the same process that has been handed down for generations.
First, the ewes were herded into a separate area before the lambs began nursing in the morning. They huddled together and turned away (to make sure we couldn’t see them). Some stared at us blankly, and a few kept freaking out every few minutes and tried to climb over the rest to get to the back of the herd. Some seemed to sleep standing up, and, due to the spring weather, a few had disgusting snot hanging from their noses which was occasionally flung about with a violent headshake. They never stop pooping. They have no concept of self-hygiene like most animals do. Sheep are smelly. Sheep are dumb. And sheep produce a lot of rich fatty milk that in turn produces magical cheese.
They knew the routine well and would each go without much of a fuss into the makeshift milking stall. Now, I’ve never seen a cow or goat be milked, but I’m pretty sure you sit by their side and put a bucket udderneath. Not so with our friend the sheep. No, you prop a bucket up behind her, hold her udders over it to milk her, and from the side she looks like she’s just sittin’ on the pot. Graceful animals, they are.
Each of us girls tried our hand - rather ungracefully - at milking a sheep and then the farm caretaker, José, milked the rest in just a few minutes. Each of the ewes was only partially milked, leaving about half for the lambs to nurse later in the morning.
A couple of lambs managed to escape being separated and huddled together with their mothers in the barn. Despite their distaste for being held, we decided a photo-op was nonetheless necessary and I managed to hold on to one for a minute. While I thought he was quite adorable, I’m pretty sure he was only thinking of the imminent danger that he knew was sure to come/”where’s mom?”.
After we finished the milking, the ewes and lambs were let of out of their separate stalls and reunited in the barnyard in what’s called the reencuentro or reunion, which may or may not have brought a bit of a tear to my eye. Even the seasoned farmers said they think it’s a little bit emotional. All of them began loudly bleating at once, and through all the noise and chaos, the mothers and babies each find their own and nuzzle and begin nursing. There were two poor little orphaned lambs that are bottle-fed, and even though they’ve never known their mothers, it didn’t stop them from frantically searching. One sheep, though, was just a dumb ass and didn’t recognize her own lamb and kept pushing him away when he tried to nurse, kicking and head-butting the persistent little guy. After a few minutes they were all let out of the yard and into the pasture to graze. They flat-out bolted through the gate and through a flock of chickens, springing and leaping dramatically over the confused birds. Seeing big fat sheep and tiny lambs jumping over chickens like show horses over fences was hilarious, and it all happened so fast, I didn’t have time to take a picture.
After the sheep were all taken care of, we went down to the farmhouse to start making cheese. The first step was to filter the milk through a cheesecloth to remove any and all particles of straw and dirt that had fallen into the milking bucket. Fairly basic, I think.
Next, the milk was heated to kill any harmful pathogens and to facilitate the curdling and coagulation processes. José’s wife added the cuajo or rennet, which is an enzyme complex extracted from unweaned mammalian stomachs upon slaughter (it’s a byproduct of lamb and veal processing). Rennet is essential for the breakdown and digestion of milk by young mammals, and as they age its presence is greatly diminished, no longer needed if they are weaned. Calves, kids, and lambs each produce digestive enzymes specific to their mother’s milk, so in this case we used rennet from a lamb’s stomach. Commercially-produced rennet can be purchased in powdered form, and this is what we used. I’ve also made cheese at a commercial quesería that used the dried stomachs of their own (male) lambs…they hang the stomachs to dry and then remove the dried lining, freeze it, and use it as needed for batches of cheese. Pretty? No. Magical? Yes.
So anyway, after adding the rennet and allowing the milk to coagulate, we broke up the glossy and smooth surface with a stick (very professional) and then our hands. We mixed and kneaded and were (nearly) up to our elbows in it. The purpose of this is to separate the curds (solids) from the whey (liquid) and to make them (the curds) as small as possible, allowing it to be pressed into a compact cake of casein (proteins).
Milk + temperature + rennet + time + stirring =
mush mush mush squish squish squish
Tiny cheese curds separated from the whey:
Hanging on the wall of the farmhouse were several rolled-up straw contraptions, which I soon learned were traditional cheese molds. They’re expandable, thus allowing various sizes of cheese to be made with the same mold. The woven surface allows all the liquid to drain out while trapping all the solid curds inside.
We placed the mold on a slanted board with a bucket underneath and poured the curds and whey little by little into the mold. Pour, drain, press, pour, drain press, and on and on.
As the liquid drains off, the curds begin to solidify and form a homogenous and uniform mass. The proteins “tangle up” and make cheese, well, cheese. What was an unappealing beige-y white, lukewarm, milky water with floating pieces suddenly looks familiar and delicious.
Marta and I took turns pouring and pressing, all the while being fueled by little bites of different homemade sausages from the latest pig slaughter and little shots of rough homemade wine from the farm’s grapes.
We left the cheese in the mold, and the following day they’d un-mold it and put it in the shed that had been turned into the official cheese-curing room.
A board was suspended from the ceiling about chest-high and there were already several cheeses curing on it. They’re covered by a thin cloth to protect them from flies and are left to age for about a month and a half in the cool, dry, ventilated shed. They have to be turned once a day to cure evenly and develop a flavorful and protective mold on the outside.
This is cheese making at it’s most basic, and that’s all there is to it. I’ll end with a picture that I think lends a little grace and dignity to these otherwise rather dimwitted lasses.
The Korrika is a bi-annual relay held in the Basque Country in support of the Basque language, euskera. For two weeks, rain or shine, runners carry a carved wooden stick (carved with what, I have no idea), the Ikurriña (Basque flag), and a banner with each year’s slogan. The race goes on 24 hours a day, and the course is different each year, traversing through as many cities and towns as possible in both the Spanish and French provinces. This year it ended in Baiona/Bayonne, France.
Now, Bayonne is famous for two of the things dearest to me - artisan chocolate and cured hams - but today it was taken over by thousands celebrating something so very dear to them: euskera. I speak a grand total of roughly bederatzi hitz, but the celebratory atmosphere this afternoon has kicked up a new wave of enthusiasm for learning a little more.
My friend Igor and I have each made a goal to take a lot more intentional pictures in the coming months, so this festive and sunny afternoon provided the perfect opportunity to wander around through the crowds and see what we could find.
“Charleston’s The Post and Courier proclaimed in 1952, “An inexpensive, simple, and thoroughly digestible food, grits should be made popular throughout the world. Given enough of it, the inhabitants of planet Earth would have nothing to fight about. A man full of grits is a man of peace.”—via Laura T. Jones
We’ve been studying and cooking an awful lot of offal lately, and I’ve become obsessed.
So much of cows, pigs, and other animals ends up going to waste, when really, there’s very little that isn’t edible. While I do tend to prefer good old standard meat, there’s really something nice about making something tasty and healthy - and quite a change from the standard - from a bucket o’ guts.
I ‘spose I hadn’t realized just how many types of offal I’ve tried, until I started making a list the other day. Some things are just delightful, some are horrendous, but all deserve at least a taste or two.
In additions to eating guts (who am I kidding? I could only manage a teaspoonful of some of these), I’ve actually cooked the vast majority of these bits and pieces a time or two.
meat; cooked, raw, cured
milk; fresh, fermented, cured, curdled, molded, etc, etc, etc.
roasted bone marrow
fried liver, pâté
sous vide/low temperature cooked tendons
shredded heart tacos
blanched, breaded and fried brain; lightly cooked brain with lemon-caper butter
breaded and fried thymus gland
breaded and fried pancreas
breaded and fried testicles
meat; cooked and cured
blood; blood sausages and coagulated blood cut into squares
stewed and then fried ears
intestines (sausage casings)
caul fat (lacy membrane that surrounds internal organs)
meat; fresh and cured (cured duck breast)
rendered fat; duck fat, chicken schmaltz
liver; foie gras, regular liver
grilled dove heart
confit duck gizzards
duck skin, chicken skin
puréed stomach and intestines (only woodcock, which are completely ‘clean’)
milk; fresh, curdled, and cured
blood & fat (in sausages)
meat; fresh and cured
milk; fresh, fermented, cured
not any offal, but steaks, burgers and cured hindquarter
I really adore some of it (blood, cheeks, any kind of milk product, bone marrow, duck gizzards, anything cured, veal tongue, crispy skin of anything, a little bit of brains every now and again); and I really hate some of it (slow-cooked cow tendons? really? it was like pale yellow spreadable semi-transparent pâté…so sick); and others are on my list of try-it-every-chance-you-get-until-you-learn-to-appreciate-and-like-it (pig ears and feet, cow stomach, veal snout…you know, the usual).
Next on the list: grilled whole pig’s face at my friend’s family’s farm later this month…I’ll let you know…
A terrific, Offal, pretty-good, yet *very shitty* day.
Yesterday in its entirety was a one-of-a-kind experience. Let me give you a re-cap:
1. I got up yesterday morning and went for a (slow, struggling, why-am-I-here?) run around the coast. Beautiful, misty, sun rising, boats below…it was lovely. And apparently everyone who takes their dog for a walk in the wee hours believes themselves to be above the pick-up-the-dog-shit rule. Thx.
2. I went to class, where we prepared veal brains in caper-lemon sauce and lamb sweetbreads (thymus glands) as breaded, fried treats with buerre noisette. The brains come in clear plastic boxes from the butcher, are much smaller and bloodier than you think they’ll be, and have to be peeled before being blanched and otherwise dolled-up.
3. I went to the restaurant for the evening, and there was absolutely nothing to do, so I made lots of cakes to freeze for later. Then I left an hour and a half early.
4. My bike has finally been fixed, so I went for a post-work nighttime ride around the bay, which was just gorgeous, and the first raindrops fell as I was turning onto my street.
5. Before reaching the bay, I passed through a plaza where two teenage girls were all but doing iton a park bench.
Oh, and post-class and pre-work, I saw a grown man shit on the street.
(*thank you to a quick Google image search for the pics…)
When life gives you a bag of freshly-killed doves...
Fall in the rural lands of south Georgia/northern Basque Country essentially means one thing: hunting season. Restaurants here - the good ones, at least - flush out their menus with plenty of ducks, venison, doves and quail, boar, and a few delectable but prohibido treats (these latter ones are usually just offered to the regulars). Gone are the light and ephemeral summer dishes, and in march the hearty, heady, pungent plates to bolster against the winter that’s on its way.
Old men in windbreakers hunt for mushrooms in the morning and bring in huge crates of beautiful hongos (Boletus edulis mushrooms) day after day, which disappear from the kitchen just as fast as customers can get their hands on them. Pumpkins and gigantic squashes are roasted and mashed and puréed. Dark and leafy cabbages, cardoons, and chards; creamy turnips and mid-autumn artichokes; pungent truffles and creamy-yellow yolks and livers as far as the eye can see: it seems as if everything is laced with warmth and blood and earth.
A dozen doves were delivered the other day in a plastic grocery bag, mostly plucked but otherwise intact. They had a few bruises where they’d been shot, and their eyes were still bright and glistening. Ana and I began with tweezers and meticulously plucked out the remaining feathers, extending the wings and legs to reach every crevice, and taking care not to rip the fragile skin. We cut off the heads with scissors and into the trash they went. We pulled the neck skin down to expose the meat, and cut those off, too (the skin stays on, to make it easier to truss the birds, should you decide to do that). The necks and the piece of…something…just above the, um, vent area went into a bowl to begin the collection of parts for making stock. We cut off the tiny dinosaur-claw feet with a quick snip and they went into the garbage as well (although, if you wanted to, you could char them a bit over a flame, cut off the nails, peel off the scales, and then add them to the stock).
While I continued with the plucking and snipping, Ana volunteered to gut them. The smell was horrific, and rather impressive, as doves are rather small little lambs. Esophagi, intestines, lungs, and other unidentified birdparts got trashed. Some of them had crops (food pouches above the gizzard) just bursting with whole grains of corn, which was awesome/gross, and they had to be emptied bit by bit. We saved the soft spongy livers to use later, and one of the cooks grilled a tiny heart, sprinkled it with salt, and split it with me. De-lish.
Using little snips with sharpened scissors, we dismantled their limbs. Their bones are beautifully latticed and hollow, and some were shattered by birdshot. Fresh scarlet blood still swooshed back and forth in the veins if we bent or cut certain parts, and the rosy meat smelled so rich and earthy. Wings and thighs with the ribs still attached went in one tray (be sure to scrape out the remaining lung-bits from between the ribs!!), and the breasts went in a second tray. The carcasses went with the necks and other bits and pieces to the scraps-pile.
The extra parts were used to make dove stock; the wings and thighs were quickly roasted and then slowly stewed with wintry vegetables and good wine and the stock; the stew eventually became a sauce to serve over the wings and thighs; the livers were flambéed with cognac then puréed with foie gras to make paté; and finally, the deep crimson breasts were reserved to be seared at the last moment.
While it hasn’t gotten really chilly yet, I’m excitedly awaiting the cozy dinners in hidden-away gastronomic societies and at home; the late-night parties to try and shrug off the damp cold that reaches into your bones; and walks along the beach in the biting wind. All the oranges and whites and deep greens and browns of vegetables and mushrooms are just so lovely and earthy and make me wish I was wearing plaid flannel and duck boots 24/7 and that I made artisanal marshmallows/cured meats all the time.
How to have the most *charming* day ever in San Sebastian:
-To start: wake up just minutes before you need to leave the house. Bolt a cup of coffee, do some quick recipe review before going to class.
-Spend four and a half hours in a practicals class at your culinary school. Make several jellies and preserves (the current main topic—love!), amasar and bake your first-ever loaf of ciabatta bread from a 48-hour starter, roast both domestic and wild squab, and then make a salmis sauce with the chopped-up carcasses and blood…among other things.
-Head home after class for a bit of down-time, write a blog post about your redheaded stepchild of a kitchen, make a batch of pimentón hummus, and experiment a bit with toasted gnocchi. Also, do your homework (which consists of research on food additives and which are banned in the European Union). A Not-So-Charming addition to your day: seeing too many friends’ parents’ Facebook updates/opinions about yesterday’s election. Just sayin’.
-At twilight, walk up a steep cobblestone hill behind a church to a culture center stuck on the side of a little mountain. Admire the views of the ocean and city below. Spend an hour and a half in Basque class, learning bits and pieces of an ancient language with eight other people from five different countries.
-On your walk down the steep winding cobblestone - I have to mention it twice, it’s that charming - be offered a ride down to the center by the 60+ year-old-classmate who’s on a motorcycle (decline). At the bottom of the hill, see the chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant opening up the windows of his 30-person dining room. Stop and chat for a bit, then pop into the kitchen for a minute to say hello to a friend who’s just started working there.
-Walk through the crisp air in the quiet Old Part of the city to buy some flour, chocolate, and cream (to make some irresistible chocolate-toffee mini tarts for your classmates)*. The bat-shit crazy woman you see wandering around all the time will stare directly at you while you wait in line at the grocery store, and she’ll mutter all kinds of nonsense, which will frighten you a bit, as well as leave you stumped for conversation (this’ll be the downer of the day, because heaven knows it can’t all be so great).
-Meet a neighbor downstairs and go to three different bars for three txakolis. Talk about the election (eeek!) and food (even better!) and your favorite Twitter personalities (seriously).
-Head home and snuggle with your boyfriend in a pile of blankets in your darling but unheated apartment.
*Update: the toffee was a bit burnt, but they disappeared within minutes nevertheless.
(Yes, this was two months ago, but forgive, please.)
When it’s the end of the school term and August is blazingly, sunburning-ly hot, there’s really nothing better than gathering together twenty-five cooking students with their instructors and heading out to the countryside to grill some meat.
With a field and trees, a picnic table and grills, and drinks and meat a-plently, we settled in for the afternoon. (I should mention that one thing we did not have was sunscreen, and yours truly came home with a nice feisty sunburn.)
Pablo, one of our instructors, is a chef from Argentina, the Land of Grilled Meat. He promptly set about making charcoal and then manned four grills at once, keeping our shenanigans at bay.
There was meat.
And there were sausages and pancetta.
And Sujin, from South Korea, prepared some marinated Korean-style barbecued ribs.
(Salad made a brief and unexciting appearance and withered in the stifling heat.)
And there were cases - cases - of cider, which of course had to be drunk quickly, lest is succumb to the summer’s heat.
And then, we ate:
(Su, Andoni, Ivo, César, JuanJo, Victor, and Henry)
The magnificent José from Córdoba, a real-life Spanish ginger.
Javi, Necho, and Iñigo.
Visi, our school’s director and generally awesome.
Surprise guest, everyone: Jessica Forbes was here straight from Prague!
Jesús, Ivo, José, César.
Javi, Su, Marta, Carlos, Ana.
Jesús, José, Victor.
Henry and Pablo, our fearless leaders.
After lunch meant time for ping-pong, showing off tattoos, playing football (oh, excuse me: soccer), and getting sunburned (only in my case). Also, some kids from a neighboring picnic site thought we were a lot cooler than their parents, so water-balloon fights, obviously ensued.
And his arm.
Is he conquering new territory, or just moving a stick off the field? I don’t know, but I guess it’s a pretty epic picture to end a post about cooks, fires, and meat.
Bizkaiko kostaldean, or: a seaside that will steal your heart away.
Sorry Gipuzkoa, I sure do love you, but the coast of Bizkaia has won me over sure as shootin’.
A friend and I took a mini-roadtrip from Mutriku to Mundaka and beyond, stopping every little while to wander and admire. We had her car, a map and a cell phone, tentative plans to stay in a rural B&B, and a two-day case of the serious giggles. Marta and I - two girls from the sunny south of our respective countries - hit the road in the northern Basque Country for 28 hours.
It poured rain leaving San Sebastian, drizzled throughout our coffee break in Mutriku, and by the time we breezed past Ondarroa it was blues skies all the way.
For lunch we wanted to stop in beautiful Lekeitio, but approximately seven-hundred thousand other people had the same idea (or, perhaps several hundred at the most). After circling around and through the town and going the wrong way on a blocked-off street we back-tracked a bit, asked for recommendations at a casa rural, and had lunch on the other side of the river. Not a bad trade-off.
We got a bit lost trying to find our way back to the coastal highway and ended up just outside of town on a dead-end road. Not to be confused with a typical dead-end road, this one ended at the edge of a cliff with a lighthouse bearing none other than my name. Should you ever find yourself here, a stop at Itsasargia Santa Katalina more than makes up for getting a little lost.
What’s more, there’s a little glass-walled bar at the end that might just be my favorite (not so) secret spot. Or at least, the most lovely of all lovely road-trip happenstance discoveries.
I’ll take that house, and I’ll have a little farm, and I’ll just be the happiest girl.
Ea. Yes, Ea. Ea is the two-letter name of a village tucked away in a valley that leads to the sea. Large, beautiful houses on the outside, narrow winding streets in the center, less than a thousand residents, and a beach. Too bad it smelled awful. Sorry Ea, you’re darling, but, um…
We went past some places in a hurry,
and stopped in others to take a walk and have a cherry-pit-spitting contest. And we met this pony, who was just the most ungrateful little bastard who tried to bite me.
After striking out on three occasions and having all the casas rurales we called be totally booked for the night, we stayed at this one, with ocean, mountain, and horses-in-a-field views. Breakfast included listening to three elderly people from Madrid discuss their nuanced opinions about little fancy dogs wearing clothes.
Also, we were close to this beach.
We drove past the beaches of Laga (above) and Laida and past the gorgeous marshes and marine estuary of the Urdaibai region.
We stopped and took a little hike to the Omako Basoa, the Painted Forest of Oma, which has dozens of markers on the ground directly you to look at the trees in such a away that some of them line up to form elaborate designs.
Painted trees aside, the most exciting part of this for me was when I overheard a little girl and her father speaking in Basque, and I knew exactly what they were saying!!!
We drove some more and ate a divine lunch under the trees at a countryside roasted chicken & beer spot where there were floor-to-ceiling rotisseries turning a hundred chickens at once. The woman manning the fryer was wearing a set of pull-on sleeves to protect her arms from burns as she fried crates and crates of peppers and croquetas.
The owner of the casa rural gave of a bottle of Bizcayan txakoli, perhaps grown on these very vines..
Hermitage of Santa Catalina in Mundaka:
Last but not least, we went to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century hermitage-on-an-ocean-hill dedicated to John the Baptist.
Les Pommes de Terre: Apples of the earth, or apples of my eye?
Not terribly long ago, I spent two and a half months peeling potatoes.
Okay, okay; I didn’t spend every minute of that time only peeling potatoes. I spent three hours, from morning until lunchtime five days a week scrubbing, peeling, rinsing, slicing, julienning, boiling, mashing, puréeing, frying, scooping marbled-sized balls, and forming son-of-a-bitch-fragile bird-nests out of potatoes.
There were large potatoes, small potatoes, watery potatoes, drier potatoes, yellow potatoes, white potatoes, beige potatoes, starchy potatoes, dirty potatoes, clean potatoes, sprouted potatoes, bitter potatoes, lumpy potatoes, smooth potatoes, round potatoes, oblong potatoes, potatoes that burned too easily, and potatoes that stood up defiantly against hot oil. The potatoes were delivered by a man who always, no matter what, complained about the delivery truck parking rules on the Boulevard. He arrived with a 25kg sack or two of potatoes a couple of times a week, and every single time we were informed about that morning’s parking conditions.
I had drawn the name of the restaurant by chance, and other classmates who had been there before me warned, “You’ll hate it, they don’t let you do anything.” ”All you’re going to do is peel potatoes and clean crabs.” ”It is the worst place on the face of this earth," was the basic picture that was painted.
My first day there was the cooks’ first day back from a week of vacation, and everything had to be made again from scratch. There were no clients that day, only prep work. Silent, hot, and at 3p.m. we each ate a sandwich.
"See that cart with a 60lb. sack of potatoes? And see that giant plastic bucket? Fill it up, please." And so I did.
"And now, with all those potatoes you just peeled, take this melon-baller and two gallon-sized buckets and fill them up with marble-sized balls." And so I did, and blisters formed, broke open, and bled all over my right hand.
"And then, when you’ve used up all those peeled potatoes to make potato balls, peel more to fill up the bucket again." And so I did, with Band-Aids and a glove.
The next day - and the rest of the week - was torturous, as open blisters and wet potatoes are a poor combination. I couldn’t open or close my fist all the way. Band-aids or tape lasted only a few minutes before becoming sodden, and the friction between my hand and the peeler or melon-baller reduced latex gloves to shreds. Friday evening I went to a pharmacy and bought a twelve-dollar pack of six extra-healing bandages, taped up my hand, and left them there until Monday morning.
Ugh, this was going to be a long few months.
Within a few days, however, I fell into a routine. First thing in the morning, I’d grab a giant metal bowl and strainer, a mandoline, and a generous pile of peeled potatoes. I’d julienne the heck out of them on the mandoline, rinse and strain them a couple of times to get rid of some starch, and start frying them batch by batch. While those potatoes were frying, I’d grab another couple of buckets, a melon-baller, and more peeled potatoes (of a different kind, of course), and I’d fill up a gallon-sized bucket of tiny potato marbles.
Scoop downward, twist, knock on the side of the bucket to flick the potato out of the scoop. Repeat several hundred times. With enough patience, it became a sort of morning meditation. Repetition. The slowly diminishing pile of potatoes and the slowly increasing piles of potato-balls and scraps became an almost relaxing way of passing the morning, every time a little bit faster, neater, and better than the time before. And then, afterwards, the frantic yet controlled peeling of potato after potato; It’s the most basic of basic kitchen tasks that can always be improved upon: hold it this way and not that way, peel it in this direction and not that direction, peel it it fewer strokes to save a few seconds per potato. It sounds trivial, but learning to use even seconds and centimeters more consciously will help in every single kitchen task that you do. Instead of being glad for a distraction from such boring work, I would become irritated if I had to do something else first, or if I was interrupted by another task. This became my time; time to think and reflect in near silence (this was the type of kitchen where no one talked…ever) with only the music of kitchen-sounds in the background.
Because here’s the thing: as much fun as it is to make all kinds of recipes with all kinds of ingredients at home, as refined and elaborate as restaurant dishes can be, and as high-tech and sleek as modern equipment is designed, the fact is that most day-to-day restaurant work is very repetitive. The same ingredients need to be continuously prepared, the same fish for needs to be cleaned and filleted, the same pasta dough needs to be kneaded and rolled out. Again and again and again. And again. You might have just loved that dinner you had last night, and you might have thought how much you’d love to make it at home someday, but those cooks cooked the exact same thing last week, last month, and even, perhaps, every single day for the last year. The charm wears off, but you can’t let the monotony become negative. Some of my favorite basic tasks these days? Peeling prawns, slicing onions, mincing garlic, kneading pasta dough, whipping cream or egg whites, butchering chickens, making pastry cream, and, of course, brandishing a vegetable peeler and going to town on some fruit of the earth. I don’t know why I love each of them, but I do know that with out learning to absolutely adore and take pride in these jobs, it’s not possible to accomplish too much in the kitchen.
A lot of young people (myself included) skip from kitchen to kitchen nowadays, seeing countless new techniques and ways to work, but when it comes to the tediousness that settles in after a time, it’s a difficult adjustment to make. But I love routines. I love repetitive tasks and organization and finding joy in the seemingly trivial details.
And now, more than 1,900 pounds later, I love potatoes.
"Yes, um, the answer would be, um, Wedding Season?" "Bingo! I'm gonna go get my suit. Oh, now, who are we this time?"
One might say that I’ve become somewhat of an expert in the field of Basque nuptials this spring season, and sure as shootin, it’s the truth. Back in my last year or so living in Athens, I attended weddings aplenty, usually of people from within the same larger group of friends, and all tending towards the same theme of rustic Southern charm, each one more adorable and precious than the last. I’m really not sure how it came to be, but every single wedding I’ve been to is just the most fun wedding ever. I mean, what’s not to love about a huge gigantic party with all your friends because two of your friends are insanely head-over-heels for each other? While the whole (gulp) wedding industry with all its picture-perfect and marketable charm sends me running for the hills, weddings themselves, the actual nuptials and parties, are one of my most favorite things.
It had been a hot minute since I’d been to a wedding (perhaps yours, C.P.?) and last month, I attended three…in the span of three weeks. They ran the gamut from a full-on noon to four a.m. ordeal to a simple city-hall no-frills affair, and I adored each and every one. Something important to note is that while these might not have been typical Basque weddings, the thing that all of them had in common is that they were very relaxed and without wedding planners or coordinators or whatever running amuck orchestrating the whole “event” down to the last detail; the bride and groom were actually able to enjoy the entire day without worrying that everything was perfectly timed and fit for a magazine spread. There were no props or themes, no bridesmaids or groomsmen, no planning multiple activities months ahead of time, no over-designing. It’s not that huge, giant, perfectly calculated weddings aren’t fun (because as I said before and I’ll say it again: all weddings are the most fun ever), it’s just that they’re not really my thing. The atmosphere of these weddings, however, well, I loved it.
The first was a small family-only wedding held in a tiny Navarran pueblo, and the bride was Iñaki’s cousin. The ceremony was on a hot and sunny Friday afternoon in the town hall, and as we made the short (as in, one block) trek from their grandmother’s house, all eyes were on the well-heeled crowd (although, well-heeled didn’t apply to all: it was originally a super-casual affair, but because Iñaki was going to wear dark jeans and a button-down regardless, and because he couldn’t care less about what his sister and cousins wear, I never got the memo that there had been a wardrobe change. We walked up and all his female cousins were in cocktail dresses and heels, and I was wearing dark jeans and flat shoes. Oops.). After lots of hugs and hellos, we filed upstairs in the town hall, the happy couple sat on either side of a councilman who read them their rights and duties according to the Spanish constitution, they exchanged rings and a kiss, signed their marriage license, and that was that.
Back out to the plaza we went, into the hot afternoon sunlight, and we blew some bubbles and threw some rice. The bride and groom’s t-shirt-clad friends gathered around with champagne to congratulate them, townspeople young and old (and one very drunk) watched the action from the edges of the plaza, I tried to somehow disguise the fact that I was wearing jeans, and soon enough it was time to eat. They’d rented out a small tavern-ish bar in the town and set up folding tables inside. Beer and wine and plastic cups; plates of jamón, cheese, chorizo, and olives: it was a pre-reception of sorts for the those who wouldn’t be going to the dinner later that evening. I even spotted the aforementioned town drunk wander in and take advantage of the open tap.
After closing up shop there, everyone piled into cars and drove the half hour to Pamplona for dinner. And oh, what a dinner. We went to one of Pamplona’s best restaurants and overwhelmed the place. All of the cousins and all of us parejas were seated at one long table. Many bottles and many courses went down, and many shouts of “¡Vivan los novios!” were sounded. As the last of the desserts were sent out, a gigantic Mexican mariachi singer appeared and commenced singing, strumming and sweating old Mexican and Spanish songs. We weren’t sure if he’d been hired for the wedding, or if he was one of those musicians who goes from restaurant to restaurant for tips, and just decided that the wedding was such fun that he’d stay.
Parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles slowly left at around 1a.m. and the rest of us young spring chickens headed out to find some fun in Pamplona. …The rest may or may not be somewhat of a blur…
Wedding number two was set in a small chapel on a cliff as equally striking as this one just to the east. The groom was one of Iñaki and Beñat’s college friends, and he and his bride had decided on an all-day (and night) fiesta. One thing I especially loved about this wedding was that it was obviously planned by the two of them, and not just the bride (or wedding planner..). When we asked Harri later, he said that while his leading lady had made a lot of the decisions, he stood firm when it came to three things (and what great things they were).
Lucía, Beñat, me, and Iñaki. Fantastic Four.
After a sweaty and un-airconditioned drive to the nearby town, we stepped out of the car and into terrific gusts of wind. I suppose that’s what happens when you have your wedding up on a beautiful seaside cliff, but our dresses weren’t such big fans. As people arrived, we saw the groom’s Great Idea #1: a couple of pony kegs and plastic cups on a table outside of the church, just enough for everyone to have a hearty swig before the ceremony.
He may look disgruntled in some pictures here, but I assure you he’s a very fine chap and is actually rather pleasant company. I quite like him.
The chapel was tall and narrow, and we were ushered up to the second balcony, risking life and limb to climb a creaky wooden staircase with rather, um, bendy, wooden boards for steps. The railing was about four inches away from the bench we were perched on, assuring that absolutely everyone down below got a lovely view of the ladies…hardy har har…
On the main balcony below us was a 20-strong group of flamenco musicians and singers. The bride’s family has roots in Andalucía, and this troupe sang half a dozen beautiful and haunting songs throughout the ceremony. It’s not something I thought I’d ever see at a Basque wedding, but it was lovely.
Lucía, Beñat, Julen, Cristina.
Now, here you’ll see the bride and groom standing before their good friend, who is schooled in the art of traditional Basque dance. He leapt and twirled, accompanied by a flautist, as I was told is tradition at many weddings. While I (and the rest of the guests) assumed their tight-lipped expressions to be those of holding back emotions at such a sweet gesture, the truth is, the dude’s pants had split during a particularly high kick, he tried to ignore it, and the couple was trying to avert their eyes, hold back laughter, and remain somewhat serious during the otherwise solemn moment.
Then confetti firecrackers were lit, pictures were taken, the beer was polished off, and we were bused down to the town below.
Iñaki, Julen, Beñat. Dapper gentlemen.
The lunch and reception was held in a port-side restaurant with mountain views, boat views, marsh views, and an open bar. Great Idea #2 came next: in addition to some of the most delicious (and abundant!) hors d’ouevres imaginable, there was a man with a sharp knife and a leg of jamón. He cut slices as thin as smoking paper that disappeared instantly. Should I ever tie the knot, you can be darn sure there will be a man cutting up a cured pig’s leg at the reception, if not before and during the ceremony as well.
Lucía and Beñat were given the bride & groom cookies from the top of the cake. Although they swear they won’t be the next couple to take the plunge…
Drinks and dancing followed lunch. A caricature artist sketched improbable drawings of all the guests. A hawaiian-shirt, bell-bottoms-wearing DJ sang his heart out into his headpiece microphone (for real, y’all). Boyfriends snuck outside for cigarettes. The heavens opened up and poured down into the port outside, filling the floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall windows with gray.
When the downpour paused for a moment, we searched for jackets and shoes, got refills from the bar, and headed out into the muggy evening. After walking a few minutes outside of town, we arrived at a farmhouse that the couple had rented for the late afternoon and night. The ample porch was covered and supplied with chairs and benches, the downstairs was cleared out except for a well-stocked bar and bathrooms, and the two giant rooms and accompanying balconies upstairs played host to a second and extended round of the singing DJ.
As the lunch was held at about three, and as we went over to the farmhouse at about eight, a few concerned souls asked about whether there would be vittles for later in the night. “Not to worry…oh, there will be food later…” was the groom’s response, and sure enough, as night fell, the same hamburger & fries food truck that can be found at all the local pueblo fiestas pulled in next to the house and stayed there into the wee hours of the morning. Great Idea #3: greasy burgers, greasy potatoes, and every unmarried guy’s new wedding reception plan.
Julen. Iñaki’s oldest friend is my newest.
Wedding number three was held right here in San Sebastian and extended over several (loosely planned, very relaxed) weeks. Ane and Erlantz got married, but it was an intentional non-wedding of sorts. I ran into Ane one Friday afternoon and she said casually, “Oh, and we’ve decided that the wedding will be next Friday at the city hall…we’re going to have a party after, so come if you want.” That next Friday I got a text message that was something along the lines of “Hey, it’s this afternoon at 6:30. Um, I guess everyone is just meeting outside.” Wonderful.
I threw on a pair of jeans, shoved my wallet and phone in my pockets, and walked the six minutes to the city hall steps. A group of their friends was waiting outside, and we all went in together; the ceremony had already started, but it was ok. Parents, grandparents, sibling and other relatives were on either side of the aisle, and a city official officiated. They each said their piece, everyone sang a song, and they exchanged what looked like a secret handshake and a small tchotchke instead of rings.
We waited outside with a few plastic bags of rice and assaulted them as is appropriate. Ane’s mom handed her a bouquet to hold during a few pictures. And that was it.
When it looks like this outside, decorating anything is really unnecessary.
The “reception” was a semi-circle of tables out on the sunny Boulevard with two harried bartenders carrying out tray after tray of pintxos and wine and beer. Friends who couldn’t make it to the ceremony stopped by for a while, relatives with small kids headed home after a drink or two, and to make it even sweeter, by sheer coincidence, the couple’s preschool teacher (they’ve been friends since age three) happened to pass by and had no idea that the two were getting married.
Me, Lucía, Ane.
After the sun went down and parents went home, we all went to a bar above the port for drinks, sitting out on the staircase under streetlights. The groom changed into a t-shirt, other friends came and left, and we just whiled away some time on a muggy summer night.
La novia + bugs in the streetlight.
A few weeks later Beñat, Lucía, Ane, and Erlantz come over for dinner, per usual on a Sunday night. I’d made a cherry-custard tart and Iñaki grabbed some extra dough and made bride and groom cookies. We declared it their official wedding cake. In exchange for a bite, they had to pose for a picture. Sense the excitement.
Another couple of weeks passed, and the “official” party happened. There is a mountain overlooking the city with a giant statue of Jesus on top, ruins of a fort throughout, and a makeshift bar halfway up. They rented out the place one Friday night and had dinner there. I finished up at the restaurant late, and as the gates to the mountain close at sundown, Iñaki and I had to be crafty. We scrambled up some rocks and over and around a tall gate behind a restaurant and began a pitch-black, 1:30a.m. walk up the mountain. Rising up above the port at night and seeing the lights across the bay was something that few Donostians have seen at night, and though climbing a hill, then a staircase, then a densely wooded trail, and then a tunnel was terrifying, the views from above and hearing the noise of the city down below was worth it, despite being startled numerous times by disgruntled and disheveled stray cats.
We popped up out of the tunnel and into the front of the bar. It’s a simple kind of place, the type where the bartender told us to “Hold on, lemme wait until this song finishes.” before he made us a couple of mojitos (and before he took the straw out of a half-empty glass, rinsed it, and put it in Iñaki’s drink. Hey, we’re amongst friends.). Random dishes, half-empty bags of chips, a few scattered fridges with beer and ice cream. Moldy walls, plastic chairs and tables, old stereo speakers set out on the steps. I’ve been here during the day, but nothing compared to being up there at night.
After it got cold enough and late enough, we had to trek back down the mountain, and being tipsy walking downhill with twenty other people is much more fun than being sober with one person walking uphill if you simply must be out in the woods at night (woods where you know for a fact that certain people have set up camp, as it were). We went around to the other side where there is a sort of hidden set of stairs made of rocks dangerously close to the edge. One by one we all climbed up and over and made it without a scratch. A fine way to close out a very non-wedding wedding.
All in all, I have to say it’s been nice to be back in wedding-mode (though not, to be very clear, my wedding-mode. Don’t worry, Dad.).