Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc. --> A Food and Wine Tour of Spain Part 4... A Basque Cooking Class

A Food and Wine Tour of Spain Part 4... A Basque Cooking Class
By Mark Gapinski

San Sebastián Bay

As our trip to Spain neared its conclusion, we found ourselves in the beautiful coastal city of San Sebastián in the heart of the Basque country.  San Sebastián boasts some incredible beaches, including the Playa de la Concha, a wide, gracefully curved sandy beach that, from the top of Monte Igueldo, provides a beautiful frame for the city. San Sebastián is also a foodie haven, or perhaps, heaven. From countless tapas (called pinxtos in Basque) bars to more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the world. Food and drink are front and center here.  

In San Sebastián, our four-hour, hands-on cooking class in Basque cuisine turned out to be the highlight experience of the trip for me. The class was offered by the MIMO cooking school (https://www.mimofood.com/en/location/san-sebastian) located in the spectacularly elegant Hotel Maria Cristina. We were welcomed by chefs Augustín and Eneko, who would be our guides (and taskmasters!) for the afternoon.  

Our goal was to create a six-course lunch that we would then consume, with wine pairings, of course. The chefs gave us a quick tour around the state-of-the-art kitchen. Sous-vide, check. Four convection ovens, check. Blowtorch, check. Fifteen fully-equipped work stations, check. White chef’s coats for everyone, check. Looks like we’re ready to go! To get us relaxed and comfortable, we were all presented with a glass of Txakoli poured in the flamboyant Basque-style with the bottle held above the head into a glass held at the waist. Txakoli is made in the Basque country from the Hondarabbi Zuri grape. It is lightly fruity, low in alcohol and has a mild spritz. It is the ubiquitous social lubricant in the countless Pinxtos bars in San Sebastián.

 The first task presented to our group, oddly enough, was to prepare the dessert, a flourless cheesecake that consisted of cream cheese, eggs and cream beaten together and poured into a parchment-lined spring-form pan. The cheesecake required a fairly lengthy baking and cooling time, so once dessert was in the oven, the rest of the work could begin.

Next, we were divided into pairs to create the mise en place for each course. Connie and I were given the assignment of shucking a couple of dozen oysters. Although avid home cooks, being mid-westerners, our experience with oysters was limited: eating oysters, someone else had shucked. With a bit of tutoring and two or three practice oysters, we got the hang of it. It took a little more force than I thought it might, but when applied to the right spot, the oyster easily gave way. We chopped the oysters along with an equal quantity of clams.

The liquor from the oysters, along with a little Amontillado sherry, was added to the chopped oyster and clams along with a generous dollop of black caviar. For plating, the oyster mixture was transferred back to a shell half and garnished with chopped green apple, onion and olive oil “caviar” pearls (Google olive oil “caviar” pearls; they are very cool). Lastly, microgreens were applied with tweezers. This became our first course paired with a crisp Rosé.

A couple of workstations over a team of cooks were blackening ripe tomatoes with a blowtorch. Once blackened, the tomatoes could be skinned effortlessly. The tomatoes were turned into a salad that included a vinegary Spanish anchovy, curls of a lovely smoked cheese, and a quenelle of meringue prepared from tomato water and dried egg white. It made a beautiful salad course.

I was recruited to help prepare the fish course, pan-seared turbot filet. Mercifully, someone else had prepped the turbot. My task was to pan sear it. Several times at home, I’ve attempted to pan sear fish to create a crispy skin with only mixed results. Soggy skin, fish irreversibly welded to the pan, or charred fish were only some of the more unfortunate outcomes. Clearly, I needed professional advice. We started with a large stainless-steel pan. No nonstick cookware in this kitchen! Chef told me to get the pan very hot and then add a bit of salt to the hot pan. We oiled the skin side of the turbot filets and laid them in the pan, pressing them firmly to ensure all the skin was in contact with the hot pan.

The main course was entrecote of beef (aka ribeye). We started with a massive slab of beef, pan-seared it, and finished it to medium rare in the oven, only then cutting it into individual steaks. The beef was served with a confit of Spanish piquillo peppers and garlic. This plate was served with a 2017 Bodega 5 Navajos Syrah/Garnacha blend from La Mancha. 

Our lunch concluded with the cheesecake dessert that our group had begun to create some four hours earlier. This Basque take on cheesecake was rich in taste, yet feathery light in texture.

The dessert was paired with a 2017 Toro Albala Pedro Ximenez from the Montilla-Moriles D.O. Wines made from the Pedro Ximenez grape (often abbreviated as PX) are generally sweet with honey and dried fruit flavors such as fig and raisin. Sweet sherries are also made with this grape. This wine was a good fit for the cheesecake which, while rich, was not especially sweet.  

Of the many experiences we enjoyed in our trip to Spain, the cooking course in San Sebastián was my favorite. It not only provided a glimpse into the world of Basque cuisine, but the “hands on” experience left me with some culinary skills that I can practice at home. I’m thinking that beautifully crispy skinned fish is going to be a menu regular! 

Do you find travel experiences like this one appealing? If so, place your name on the “interest list” for future wine and food tours of Spain by emailing Dr. Linda Elman at lindae25@gmail.com or Lesley Reser of Seminars International at Lesley@semint.com