Monday, October 14, 2013

I'd love to tell you this story starts at the cider house.  It could, of course.  I could take you right through the front door, describing the tangy yeast in the air, the smoke from the grills.

We could get started that way.  But let's hold off for a second.

Because, you see, this particular cider house, Sagardotegia Petritegi, is in Basque Country, the uncontrolled, proud, gorgeous, decadent region between northeastern Spain and Southwestern France.  And frankly, if I didn't give you a tour of the neighborhood, it would be a true injustice.

The Basque country is mostly farmland, surrounded by deep forests that rise up to the sky.  As you drive along, small towns with quiet creeks beckon you to stop for a spell.

And if you do pull over, you're in for a treat.  In Tolosa, for example, the town square was bursting with the bounty of local farms.  Hard cheeses, local honey, fig jam; by the end of the day, we had filled a suitcase with treasures to smuggle back to the States.

The heartbeat of the region, however, is the bustling town of San Sebastian. We happened to arrive in the middle of the Semana Grande, the annual summer festival, and a celebration of the Basques' independent spirit.

Indeed, the spirit of rebellion is still heady in the streets here -- a common sign, hung from houses, read as such:  "Remember:  You are not in Spain.  You are not in France.  You are in the Basque Country."

This desire to break free finds true expression in the wonderful cuisine of the city, a culinary tradition unlike any other in the world.  Focused around the pinxtos bars that appear every few feet, the offerings combine the best of local ingredients with truly original thought and experimentation.

We ravenously dove in.  From the pickled cod egg sacs . . .

. . . to the ubiquitous and outrageously fresh white anchovies in herbs . . .

. . . to plates of wild mushrooms mixed with orange eggs of a radioactive hue . . . 

. . .  there was not a single misstep, not a flawed dish.  Every night, we skipped from bar to bar, drinking, eating, exploring.  It was glorious.

One afternoon, on a tip from our host, we made the voyage out to the cider region, picking Sagardotegia Petriregi as our ultimate destination.

Situated in a thick-walled farmhouse, Petritegi is one of the oldest and most traditional producers in the region.  As we pulled up to the door, the place was quiet, providing little hint of the wonders within.

And what wonders there were.  Petritegi's traditional methods dictate that the cider be fermented in giant, 15-foot barrels of burnished oak, each several inches thick.

Adding to the complexity of the process, Petritegi ferments each varietal of apple separately, meaning that nearly every tank contained a different product.

Unlike traditional English or French hard ciders, the varieties produced by Petritegi are powerfully dry and funky, with a wickedly sour snap.  If you like Belgian gueuzes, like I do, this is right up your alley.

As one last wrinkle, the cider is not carbonated at any stage in the process.  Rather, it is served in long streams fresh from the fermentation tanks, allowing oxygen to whip into the liquid.

After watching one or two brave souls manage to fill their glasses without getting covered in juice, the Pasta Burner stepped up to the plate.

She handled it like a pro, and I performed serviceably soon after.  With our glasses full, we headed out to the main hall for an early dinner.  Petritegi, you see, also serves a full dinner every night, offering the same menu since they first opened many years ago.

The first course was quite simple -- a pork sausage laced with paprika and gently boiled.  It was here that the cider truly began to shine; the sourness made it a perfect pair for salty foods, and the match here was near perfect.

Next came a grilled filet of cod, covered in sweet green peppers and fried onions.  The fish was exceptionally creamy and sweet, the peppers and onions full of crunch.

By this point in the meal, the hall began to fill with other diners.  As we would see through the night, folks from all walks of life centered their evenings here:  Each of the tables told a story; a birthday for a small child; a group of thirtysomethings casually flirting and joshing with each other; a trio of elderly couples enjoying the warm and familiar bonds of friendship.  Whether in suits and ties, or jeans and a t-shirt, this was the place to be.

Our glasses running low, we headed back to the cellar, knowing that the main event -- the beefsteak -- would be next.  As we passed the kitchen, we stared deep into the the glowing oak coals, wondering which slab of meat would be ours.

We moved deeper into the cellars, each room colder than the next.  By holding the rooms at different temperatures, the cellarmaster manages to produce different esters and flavors from the juice.  The variety was dazzling, and I particularly liked the focused intensity and a clean bite of the cold-fermented ciders.

Our steak arrived only moments after we returned to the table, dripping with blood and fat.  The picture, in truth, doesn't do it justice -- it was of a monstrous size, and equal flavor.

Bursting at the seams, we limped gamely into the final course -- tuiles, quince paste, manchego cheese, and raw, uncracked walnuts.  It was a perfect capper to our gluttonous feast.

After one last glass, it was time to go.  Of course, we managed to escape with a fresh bottle, lined at the bottom with a healthy and active layer of yeast.  Am I making cider in Los Angeles this fall?  You bet I am.

That's all for now.  Join us next time as the travelogue moves into France, and we tour the grand cru vineyards of Bordeaux.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Marrakech is a city of fragments, largely hidden.  What else can you say about a city where kilometers of city streets are unmarked, where every corner you turn holds an equal chance of confronting you with unimaginable opulence or abject poverty?

Within sight of the glowing La Mamounia hotel, with its bottles of Cuban cigars and Louis XIII de Rémy Martin cognac, women hold their babies out to passers-by on the street.  Is this the influence of the interior, or the rest of the world?

One thing is clear -- the city's idiosyncratic nature is slipping away.  Condominium developments are growing out of the desert; plastic Coca-Cola bottles pile up on the inner-city sidewalks.  Morocco has fought off invaders since time immemorial -- most recently France, in 1956 -- but Royal Dutch Shell, Groupe Danone, and Glencore International employ more subtle soldiers.  They will homogenize this land, too.

So what is our role here, as visitors?  We are undeniably of the outside.  We arrive, we spend money, we take away experiences and baubles.  And in being accommodated, we also unleash change.

Which is to say that this post is about a piece of chicken.  And also not.

I had made some phone calls and found a cooking class, deep in the souks of the city, where no map marks the streets, no doors bear numbers.  First, a cab ride, which penetrated into the old walls until the alleys became too narrow to pass.  Then I met a young man, offered a few dirham, and asked him to lead us along.  The journey was pungent, hot, and vivid.  Metal works, leather tanneries, and their products lined the way.

More turns.  Fruit markets, with gushing figs.

Later, a local bakery, where, in between batches of bread, mountains of peanuts are roasted, soaked in salt water, and dried.

And eventually, just around the corner from the bakery, we found the cooking school.  Gleaming ranges, HD cameras and monitors, a mother and daughter from Manhattan joining in, armed with iPhones.  Yet another turn, yet another unexpected circumstance.  This?  Here?  Apparently.

I'll tell you this.  The class?  Undeniably fun.  The food?  Delicious.  No amount of cognitive dissonance can confuse the wondrous pleasures that emerge from combining butter, garlic, onions, tumeric, and preserved lemons.  And so we dove in, and yes, loved it.

There's no big statement for me to make at the end of all of this.  I didn't and don't raise questions of authenticity about our experience in that kitchen.  I'm not sure that's what travel is all about, anyway.  Instead, this trip to Morocco was about gratitude.  I knew this experience -- to come here, to eat this food, to enjoy such opportunity and agency -- was a privilege.  For it, the chicken tasted sweeter, the relishes brighter.  And I scraped the plate.

Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemon and Olives
Adapted from the teachers of La Maison Arabe, Marrakech, Morocco

1 Pound dark meat chicken (thighs are best)
1/2 preserved lemon, skin and flesh
10 mellow purple olives

1 Tablespoon parsley, finely minced
1 Tablespoon cilantro, finely minced
3 cloves of garlic
1/2 of a medium red onion, minced

1/2 teaspoon freshly-cracked black pepper
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 Tablespoon powdered tumeric

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Cup water
Separate the flesh of the preserved lemon from the peel.  Slice the peel into thin strips and set aside.  Take the flesh and mince until fine together with the parsley, cilantro, and garlic.  Scrape the mixture against the cutting board with your blade to create a fine paste.  Rub your chicken with the paste, and set aside.

Meanwhile, add the oil to a cooking vessel (a tagine is best, but a dutch oven will work as well).  Turn the heat on to medium.  When the oil begins to shimmer, add the marinated chicken.  Keeping an eye on the meat, sear the chicken on each side until just barely browned.  You do not want a hard-sear, as the garlic may blacken and turn bitter.  Remove the chicken to a plate.

Turn the heat to low.  Add your butter and sweat the onions.  Once they start to turn translucent, add in the black pepper, ginger, and tumeric.  The mixture will dry up.  Slowly stir in the cup of water, until a loose sauce is formed.  Return the chicken to the cooking vessel.  If using a tagine, place the lid on top. If using a dutch oven, place the lid on top, but leave a crack for steam to escape through.

Simmer for 45 minutes, turning the chicken halfway through.  Allow the sauce to thicken, but add more water if the mixture threatens to burn.  Once the meat is loose from the bone, remove the tagine from the heat.  Add in the olives and slices of lemon peel, and serve.

That's all for now.  Be sure to return for the next post of our travelogue, when we visit Sagardotegia Petritegi, a traditional cider house in the Basque Country of Gipuzkoa, Spain.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

You notice the glow first.  Walking into Jemma el-Fna, the main square of Marrakech, Morocco, a sea of incandescent light bulbs -- thousands of them, create a deep, alive, orange halo.  

The light is particularly striking in contrast to the rest of the darkened city and the desert beyond, as if all life had been drawn into a single, swirling, swarming nucleus.

And then you arrive.

Tents proliferate like lilypads, nearly a half-mile in each direction.  Families, three or four generations together, walk from stand to stand, each with a local specialty -- fresh-squeezed citron juice; dried fruit; soap; lanterns.

Other tents provide entertainment; storytellers and comedians, snake and monkey handlers, the spectacle holding local children in delight.  Over it all, far at the end of the square, the Koutoubia Mosque stands as a solemn sentry.


In the very center of the square, thick, redolent, fatty smoke rises from the local barbecues.  This is why we are here.

There are about 24 or 25 stands, each with their own barker, each advertising their specialty -- merguez sausage, glowing red; goat, both shanks and brains; Berber tagine, with local root vegetables; fish stands, chicken stands, and, of course, lamb -- in every cut, form, or preparation you might imagine.

Competition is fierce -- menus are jabbed in faces, elbows pulled, mellifluous descriptions of charred meats are offered.  Eventually, a stand catches your eye, and you settle in.


Our first night, bone-tired from the plane, we wandered into a stand with a wide diversity of delectable dishes to offer.  We were not disappointed.

There was a little bit of everything, including a wide selection of cold Moroccan salads (the recipes for some of which I'll be sharing with you in a future post), which piqued our interest after traveling all day in 110 degree heat.

In the end, though, the lure of charred meat won out, directing our fingers to items which were promptly skewered, butchered, and placed onto hot glowing coals.  We ended up with (from the top, clockwise) roasted aubergine, a Berber tagine, a loaf of Khobz dyal Zraa' (a half-wheat, half-cornmeal bread ubiquitous in the city), skewers of chicken, kafta, and beef, roasted lamb chops, and a cold plate of green and yellow olives, dressed with fresh oregano, dried herbs, and orange zest.  On the side, two dishes of tomato sauce arrived as well, one sweet and mellow, the other piquant and vinegary.

Ravenous, we dove right in, our lips quickly slick with lamb fat.  Everything played off each other brilliantly; the spice and smoke of the skewers, the creamy, mellow aubergine, the citrusy snap of the green olives.  It was brilliant, and we wiped the plates clean.

Don't believe me?  Just look at the expression on the Pasta Burner's face.

Another night.  Steps off the square, we went up a narrow staircase to whet our appetites with a few cold Flag Spéciale beers, and then plunged down into the fray.

This time, we headed straight for the row of snail stands lining the edge of the food bazaar, drawn in by the universally-alluring perfume of roasted garlic.

Young men, each with their own cauldron, stew mountains of snails braised in their own juices.  A good-sized bowl sells for 5 dirham (50 cents US).

We dove right in.  Succulent, tender, and with a subtle nuttiness, the simple preparation was perfect, right down to the garlicky broth.

I could go on and on about the tastes, the textures, the sounds and sights.  But the most striking element of Jemma el-Fna is the sense of community.  It is a place of congregation, a place to meet with family, with old friends, and to break bread with them.

As the evening grows long, and the grills begin to wane, sated diners wander, inevitably making their way to the mint tea and egg stands that sit on the square's eastern border.  The tea is hot, strong, and tooth-rattlingly sweet, providing an instantly narcoleptic effect.

Time slows.  The tea glass drains, and the square begins to imperceptibly thin.

Sweet carts arrive, weighed down with date rolls, honey cake, and dried fig tarts.  A few peckish souls swoop in to find something to nibble on during the walk home.

The walk back to our riad is quiet, the sensory overload over.  An occasional motorbike shoots by, seamlessly weaving through pedestrians before whipping down a side alley.

We travel further and further into the darkness, a turn here, a turn there, looking for a heavy wooden door, and our comfortable bed within.

Tomorrow night, we'll do it again.

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