The noble duck is a fine animal indeed, as Police Man Michael from “Make Way for Ducklings” can confirm. I’ve decided it’s my favorite feathered friend, far ahead of the bland and monumentally stupid turkey and trumping the overly abundant (and gross-but-occasionally-fancy) chicken. They can be farmed and raised for their precious, precious livers. They can be tricked by a decoy and then shot down from their flight to be retrieved by a faithful Lab. Their heft lends the respectability generally encountered in a rotund 19th century robber baron, and their foot-webbing incites envy from anyone who frantically dog-paddles during weekend lake trips.
And oh, to eat one. It’s a proven fact that potatoes and other vegetables fried in duck fat are at their most delicious. Foie gras is a heavenly delicacy. Period. A roasted duck is an oft-forgotten treat in many circles, and a stolen crunch of crispy skin is enough to send a shiver down the spine.
On a rare venture outside the city, we found ourselves far up in the mountains above Itxassou across the border in the French Pays Basque at Restaurant Saint Pierre. Eight of us piled in for the nearly two-hour drive from San Sebastian to make a pilgrimage to this place where my friend Lucía comes once or twice a year with her family. They “discovered” the place by accident and it’s such a special gem that the trek is worth it.
Feeling queasy while winding up the single-lane mountain-climbing “road” isn’t the most pleasant way to arrive at an eatery, but a jolt of fresh mountain air woke us up again and we were ready to begin the several seated hours ahead. Unfortunately it was cold and raining (surprise, surprise) so we resigned ourselves to sitting inside at one of the five or six long tables. Lutxi and the proprietress chattered away in a mix of French and Basque in what I assume were the menu negotiations, as we neither decided on anything nor saw a list of the offerings.
First came a steaming pot of vegetable stew which varies with the seasons and what’s available from the garden outside. It was rich and hearty and just the thing to warm us up. Across the street is a small stream in which someone built a small holding tank for little trout who live in the running water until they’re fit to be fried. Platters of the crispy whole trout came along with other plates of homemade sausages and patés…and we were just beginning.
After we’d licked the plates clean we were faced with a real dilemma: when there are abundant platters of roasted lamb with piquillo peppers, the best roasted duck you’ve ever seen, lettuces from just outside, and freshly cut fries, where do you begin? It’s tough, but it’s a decision that needs to be made, and fast.
Piling our plates high and observing that silence that comes with a good meal, we spent a blissful while enjoying one of the best lunches I’ve ever had. The lamb was from a rather old (this is relative, of course. I’m sure it was still adorable.) animal and had a strong “sheepy” flavor; it was still good…but let’s move on to the duck. The duck. OH GRACIOUS it was good. Dark and rich and juicy, it’s the specialty of the house and I could easily justify driving all the way out there on a regular basis. The coveted crispy skin was TO DIE FOR and I think we all wished we’d skipped breakfast (and dinner the day before) just to be able to manage an extra bite or two. Divine. (This very duck is the reason that Lutxi and her family have dubbed Restaurant St. Pierre “El Pato”)
After clearing our plates, the lady of the house had more surprises in store. Her husband and son are shepherds and so naturally we were presented with a round of cheese made from sheep’s milk gathered(?) from the woolly beasts in the front yard. It was unique in that it was fresh rather than cured and had a tang and texture similar to fresh goat cheese. It was served with cherry jam made from the famous Itxassou black cherries that are only available for a few short weeks each year. To top it all off, just in case we had any room to move, we each had a wedge of gâteau basque (pastel vasco/Basque cake) filled with pastry cream.
My first introduction to the Basques and the Basque Country was Mark Kurlansky’s The Basque History of the World (a great read even if you’ve never been here nor plan to) which begins with an introduction to the importance of Basque traditions by describing the traditional Basque cake. According to some sources, the original cake was filled with cherry jam, and later bakers made the switch to pastry cream. Kurlansky specifically mentioned Itxassou cherries, and quite by coincidence I had both Pastel Vasco and Itxassou cherries. Though they were separate, I was happy.
Caroline has never met a stranger in her life and Iñaki, well…he’d just never met anyone quite like Caroline. There’s no better bonding strategy than a road trip, so the crème de la crème of lifelong friends and the finest of (non-Southern) gentleman and I headed southward in search of a little peace and quiet: a tiny town in Navarra where Iñaki’s sweet grandmother lives along with just seven hundred other residents. The one and only time I’d visited was an overwhelming meeting-the-whole-giant-family on New Year’s Eve, and I’d been wanting to go back in the daylight hours.
We stomped around with cameras in tow, surely the only foreigners around, attracting the stares of many a confused child. Nevertheless we journeyed on, taking in the whole town in about five minutes.
The attic of his grandparents’ house has the original stone walls that are older than our country.
Yes, yes, I’m home again in the United States, but I’ve got blog-post leftovers aplenty and thus have a delicious blend of things-I-just-never-posted-before-I-left and things-currently-cooked-up-on-this-side-of-the-pond.
Going from one seaside town to another, a little bivalve talk seems apropos for this bi-coastal (but not bi-curious) blog, to help, you know, ease the transition.
La Mejillonera (basically “the Musselry”) was one of the first places I ever sampled San Sebastian’s oceanic delights (but not, thankfully, Saint Sebastian’s delights), and has been a favorite ever since. Being the mussel (and muscle) lover that she is, this was at the top of my list of places for Caroline to visit. Like a few of my other favorite spots, this is a throw-your-used-napkins-on-the-floor kind of place (plus toothpicks, mussel shells, and—formerly—cigarette butts) with cheap grub, shouting barmen, and large (large) glasses of beer.
As one would guess, mussels are the specialty here, with half a dozen options displayed on back-lit posters behind the bar. There are steamed mussels with lemon and mayo-drenched mussels with a bit of spice amongst others, but I always go for the vinagreta: mussels heaped with chopped onions and vinegar. Patatas bravas and calamares are also to be had, as well as a basketful of mediocre bread. The “new” calamari sandwich has been “new” for as long as Iñaki can remember, and the mayonnaise is noted as being pasteurized. I just love this place.
So you’ve got the local fruit and veggies covered, as well as meat and seafood, but you’ve been rethinking your idea to get a pet cow. Sooo….what do you do?
Farmers in Gipuzkoa have solved this dilemma by using the break-room vending machine as inspiration. In several plazas throughout the city, fresh milk can be had at the push of a button. Glass bottles are sold if you don’t have your own (now I do!) and for one Euro you get a liter of milk that’s delivered daily from local farmers.
A few friendly Pottokak (a breed of indigenous Basque horses). I have somewhat of an obsession with them and a near superpower-sense to know when some are close-by (Boyfriend is not impressed). Believe you me, you’ll be reading more about these frisky little gems in the future.
Mount Igeldo sits at the far end of Bahía de la Concha and overlooks the entire city. There’s a terribly creepy old amusement park at the top, of which I am not fond in the least. Pictures, however, are mandatory for any and all visitors.
Dr. Caroline needed a break from doling out drugs in her ghetto pharmacy and came for a visit.
This time last year she was getting hourly airline updates letting her know that her flight was delayed, delayed, and then canceled due to the Icelandic volcano.
Iñaki and I met her at the Bilbao airport with fake mustaches in place (photos not allowed, so I was informed). We drove the loooong slow way back along the coast to Donostia, stopping in the port town of Getaria, home of designer Cristobal Balenciaga and first-man-to-circumnavigate-the-world Juan Sebastián Elcano. With the smell of grilled fish in the air, we had a beer outside and introduced Caroline to her first of many, many pintxos.
Juan Sebastián Elcano, gloriously welcoming Caroline to Euskadi.