Last week my job once again took me out of the kitchen and on the road – or through the air in this case – to the beautiful Basque region of northern Spain. A few colleagues and I went there to visit with one of our suppliers and we were given the royal treatment.
My flight left Chicago at 4:30 PM and we landed 8 hours later in Madrid where it was already 7:00 the next morning. I got to watch the sunrise from 40,000 feet at what would have been midnight in Chicago. So cool!
After a 4 hour layover in Madrid, another 1 hour flight to Bilbao and a 1 hour drive to San Sebastian I was beyond exhausted, but with scenery this beautiful I couldn’t possibly go to sleep. Besides it was 4:00 in the afternoon so staying awake was going to be the best way to combat jet lag.
Our gracious hosts took us on a walking tour through this beautiful city which included plenty of stops for “pinxtos” along the way. We stopped in several bars where there was a wide array of snacks to choose from.
And I don’t mean a bowl of nuts or chips and dip! Baguettes with smoked salmon, whipped cheese and caviar, anyone? How about anchovies, peppers and shrimp?
The ubiquitous Jamon Iberico? Or my personal favorite…sundried tomatoes, caramelized goat cheese, balsamic vinegar and pistachios? Seriously, it was like I had died and gone to foodie heaven.
Jamon Iberico is cured ham made from pigs fattened on barley for the first several weeks. Then they are allowed to roam and feed naturally on grass and acorns. The pigs are finished on a strict diet of olives and acorns which produces the signature flavor of their meat. The meat is eventually salted and cured for at least 12 months, sometimes up to 48 months. Jamon Iberico is known for its rich, salty, savory taste and it is absolutely delicious!
We finished our first night in Spain by visiting a pastry shop where I had the most wonderful dulce de leche gelato and a cafe macchiato. Oh. My. God. At this rate I thought I was going to have to book a double-wide seat for my flight home. Thankfully I had some downtime during the trip and was able to get in a few long runs. It was a great way to explore the city and undo some of the damage the pinxtos had done.
Interestingly enough, I couldn’t help but notice that despite the abundance of food, there wasn’t an overweight person in sight. Spaniards savor their food. Everything is enjoyed and appreciated. The servings are small. The food is real. Not a low-fat anything in sight and I rarely saw anything in a bag, box or can. They eat for pleasure, not gluttony. And everyone it seemed was walking, running or biking through the streets or kayaking down the river. Reasonable portions of real food savored amongst family and friends and lots of physical activity. Hmmm, what a concept! America, I’m looking at us and our gargantuan servings of preservative-laden “food” and high-fructose-corn-syrup-in-everything food culture. I’m guilty as charged – the first thing I did when I got to Madrid was order a large coffee and I was shocked at how small it was and frustrated I couldn’t find my favorite sugar substitute to pour in it. My point is, this trip was a real eye opener for me about how terribly unhealthy our relationship is with food. The way we grow, manufacture, market, preserve, cook and eat it. I think I’ll stick to the “a little of the real stuff instead of gobs of the fake stuff” style I learned in Spain. Getting off my soap box now…. 🙂
The next day we had business to attend to so we visited the Basque Culinary Center where some of the world’s most respected chefs like Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Rene Redzepi of Noma, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck and Dan Barber of Blue Hill make up the International Advisory Council.
On our last day we had lunch in a charming little restaurant in the stunningly beautiful countryside. After another delicious meal of bread, black ink squid, vegetable salad and lemon cake we took a leisurely stroll before returning to the office to finish our work. Because we were there to do business – not just eat – after all. But lucky for us eating is part of our business – job perk!
My last night in Spain I was on my own. One of my colleagues had returned home and the other was taking a few days to travel with his wife. By this point in my trip I’d eaten my fill of olives, bread, cheese, tuna belly, sausages and squid so I treated myself to another gelato and full-fat cafe macchiato for dinner. It was a perfect ending to an amazing trip.