I love Spanish food, it always brings a smile to my face. The Hopflower is intrigued by Tasting Asturias

 

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I love Spanish food.  From the simplicity of a bowl of Padron peppers sautéed in olive oil, with a sprinkle of sea salt to a hearty plate of paella, it always brings a smile to my face.

If you’ve read my recent blog on San Sebastian, you will know how much I also enjoy the Pintoxs experience.

I was therefore intrigued when just a few days before heading off to San Sebastian I received an invitation to Tasting Asturias, a Cider and Food event being held at Spanish Restaurant Hispania in London.

Cider is a drink I have dabbled with in the past.   Living in Kent where apples grow in abundance, there is a good choice of Cider producers such as The Kent Cider Company, Rough Old Wife and Dudda’s Tun to name but a few.

When I first took up the role of Women’s Rep on the Bromley CAMRA committee a few years ago I hosted a Cider and Food pairing event.   Bromley CAMRA are very keen to promote Cider, holding an annual Cider Festival.

My knowledge of Cider is however limited but keen to learn more, plus try some Asturian food I headed off to Hispania last Wednesday.

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Asturias is a region in northern Spain west from Santander on the Bay of Biscay.  Gastronomic director of Hispania Marcos Morán is the fifth-generation chef from the Morán family who opened ‘Casa Gerardo’ in the region between Gijón and Avilés in 1882.

Housed in the Lloyds Bank building, Lombard Street right in the City of London, I hadn’t been to Hispania before but a peruse of their menu indicated I was in for a treat.   Tapas such as Crujientes de Quesos  ‘Toffee flavoured filo pastry filled with a blend of Spanish cheeses’ and mains ranging from a whole roasted suckling pig ‘ Segoviana Style’ which is carved at the table to the sumptuous sounding Degustacion de Fabada Asturiana ‘ Casa Gerardo’ a ‘Traditional Asturian bean stew with smoked chorizo and black pudding.’  Fabulous!

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Hispania is exquisite.  The interior was designed by Spanish Interior Designer and Antique Dealer Lorenzo Castillo and features beautifully tilled floors and walls adorned with rows of pictures.   I was directed up an impressive staircase in the centre of the building to the Mezzanine floor for Tasting Asturias.

The Mezzanine floor has a bar and cosy seating areas in front of large half circle windows, not the sort on environment in which I’d normally expect to be drinking cider.

This of course is the point of events such as Tasting Asturias, and indeed this and other alcohol related blogs.   We want to raise the profile of drinks such as beer and cider, get them taken seriously and the let people know about the heritage behind them.

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There were four producers exhibiting a wide range of ciders plus coffee, fish and meat producers all from Asturias.

It was of however Cider I was here to find out about, so I headed for the stands and chatted with the exhibitors.

Each exhibitor has a range of ciders aimed at different markets.  Some aimed at local markets or informal drinking in small bottles and cans.   Some of the Ciders were higher end, intended as an alternative to Wine at celebrations.  I was told Cider is a popular choice at Christmas in Spain and Spanish speaking countries in South America.   There were even Cider cocktails; combinations of Cider with Vermouth or Sangria

I set about trying as varied a selection as possible in between nibbling on delicious food including mini croquettes, cured meats and a little dish of black pudding and quail’s egg which was gorgeous.

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I started with Sansidra, from Manuel Busto Amandi SA, www.mayador.com  a family run company based in La Rasa, Asturias since 1939.  A cocktail of Cider and Sangria, golden to the eye, tarty nose, moderate carbonation and, not surprising, sweet.  The Sangria comes through in the aftertaste.

Sticking with the sweet stuff I then sampled a Red Grape Cider from El Gaitero, Villaviciosa, Asturias.     www.sidraelgaitero.com.   This was a gorgeous dark pink colour which looked very grown up served in a wine glass.   A faintly tarty nose.   Again, sweet and very drinkable.

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The second Cider I had from the El Gaitero Group was recommended to me by a fellow attendee, a Cider enthusiast, and somewhat of an expert I got talking to.  El Gaitero Dry.   This fabulous golden Cider was light on the carbonation, and although dry had a rich mouthfeel and a lot of depth, a great Cider.  Looking smart packaged in a bottle with a foil wrapped top, a Cider fit for any celebration.

El Gaitero Group also have a high-end Cider, Pomarina in their collection.  Beautifully presented in a dark brown bottle and simple, stylish branding, as well as alcohol free Cider and Cider in cans – pretty much got the market covered then!

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Switching brands, I moved onto Trabanco.   www.sidratrabanco.com  Producing Cider since 1925, this Cider company’s headquarters and first Cider mill is just a few kilometres from Gijon and they have a second mill in the region.

The first Trabanco Cider I had was their Home-Grown Natural Cider.  The green bottle with its brown and gold label was held high, the glass held low and the Cider poured expertly into a smooth sided Cider glass by the exhibitor.   Not only did this ritual take me right back to being in Spain but the taste did too.  Exactly as I expect a Spanish Cider to taste, this pale Cider had a slight whiff of sulphur and a wonderful dry, young and fresh taste.

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The next Trabanco Cider I tried was a move away from the traditional.  Everyone was talking about this drink, the demand so high I had to wait a minute whilst the barman grabbed the last bottle.

Alma de Trabanco, served like a G & T with ice and a slice in a wine glass.   Containing Cider, White Wine and a whole list of ingredients as long as the arm of the guy who poured the previous cider.  Botanicals such as Star Anise, Coriander and Thyme.  And there’s fruit in there too; Orange peel, Lemon and Cherry.   And packing a punch at 15% abv.

Alma is pale with notes of Vermouth with an apple twist.   Very fresh and again so very drinkable.

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Also exhibiting were Castañón   www.sidracastanon.com.   Producing Cider since 1938, based in Quintueles, Asturias, Castañón were promoting their Vermouth Cider, Rox Mut and the zappy named Xiz.

When I spoke to Marta on the Castañón stand, she told me Xiz was designed to rival wine.

Yeast is added and fermented with single variety apples.   The result is a lightly carbonated golden drink with notes of pears from the yeast.   Medium sweet, I would certainly serve this to wine drinkers and I thought it would be perfect with apple crumble and custard.

Not very Spanish I know and despite the gorgeous Asturias tapas, the fact that I was craving apple pie led me to make Xiz my last Cider and head off – it was only Wednesday after all.

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I wasn’t surprised by the wonderful food at Hispania, but I was surprised and really impressed by the range of Ciders on show at Tasting Asturias.  Dry, sweet, fruity, cocktails, even non-alcoholic.

Tasting Asturias has really opened my eyes to the variety of Ciders available and I hope this blog has inspired you too.

It’s getting autumnal so maybe this weekend would be a good time for me to go apple picking, make a pie and open some of the lovely Cider I brought back from Spain!

Cheers

Spicy Sunday

I live in Petts Wood, up until recently a pretty unremarkable suburb on the Kent, London borders.  A commuter district full of 1930s semi-detached houses, a railway station and the usual array of estate agents, hairdressers and charity shops.

Things brightened up a few years ago with the opening of Micro pub One Inn the Wood.  Since opening OITW has won Bromley CAMRA’S Pub of the year twice and Regional Pub of the Year.   A great place to go for a beer or two, the focus is on local produce and community.

Just a couple of hundred yards from OITW is Indian Essence. A contemporary Indian restaurant which has Michelin star winning chief Atul Kochhar as an investor.   Also award-winning, Indian Essence has been given the Michelin Bib Gourmand in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

I must confess, I wasn’t familiar with Atul Kochhar until I went to Indian Essence, but a quick look on the internet tells me that in 2001 Atul was the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star whilst Head Chef at Tamarind, London.   He later opened Benares Restaurant & Bar and was awarded second Michelin star in 2007.

I have been to Indian Essence a few times for the fixed price Sunday Lunch which is excellent value at £19.95 for three courses.   The selection varies but is always comprehensive with popular choices such as Khasta Murg – Chicken Tikka pie, served with Spiced Prune compote as a starter.  For main course my favourite is Nariyal Gosht; cuts of lamb cooked in a sauce of coconut, mustard seeds and curry leaves which comes with a tasty lentil pancake.   And for desert, I would highly recommend the Peanut Butter chocolate fondant – but watch out as the pot is hot so you must be a little patient.

I normally go to Indian Essence with my family which spans three generations and all of us with our various requirements love it.  My parents who don’t generally do spicy food often pop along for a mid-week lunch and my youngest nephew raved about it for months after his first visit – when you’ve got a twelve-year-old raving about your food, you are doing something right.   On our last visit our party included a vegan, a pescatarian, a sufferer of lactose intolerance as well as two teenagers.   We all went home happy.

If you have read my previous blogs you will know that as well as loving beer, I LOVE food and in particular love a cookery course.   As well as enjoying learning new dishes to cook I like finding out about the traditions, regional variations and culture surrounding food.   I find this fascinating, so my interest was triggered when I saw Masterclasses with Atul advertised on the Indian Essence website.

I had a birthday coming so dropped a couple of subtle hints to my husband who very kindly booked me on the Masterclass held last Sunday.

So, after a light brunch , I skipped off to Indian Essence for a spicy Sunday. Note book in hand I left my Husband at home anticipating or should that be dreading watching the football- Everton playing his beloved West Ham on the telly.

The Masterclass consisted of twelve people.   We were given samosas and wraps filled with a mildly spicy filling before we even got as far as the kitchen.

Once in there Atul talked us through five different curries from his new book ’30 Minute Curries’ .  We were given a little bowl of each to try.

First a chicken curry using thigh meat, followed by King Prawns from Brixham, both delicious.  Then an unusual egg and Potato curry.  I’ve had egg curry before but hadn’t been too keen but Atuls’ Egg and Potato curry was really good made more interesting by the different textures of the hard-boiled eggs.   Atul told us that a good option was to soft boil the eggs, so the yolk would pour into the curry sauce.  I was intrigued by this and want to give it a try; looks like I’ll be getting our trusty egg boiling machine out to experiment.

Atul finished with two vegetable curry’s, one Okra and a Beetroot curry containing coconut milk.  I really liked this and plan on giving it a bash too.

Atul made the experience an absolute joy.   His friendly nature set us all at ease as he told us about the dietary requirements of different sects as well as how regional diets of India vary.   I didn’t know for example that different regions use different oils.   Furthermore, the oils varying smoking points affect the way the spices react giving different results – if you’re a foodie like me you’ll understand why I find this all fascinating.

It was a really friendly class and I was surprised how far people had been prepared to travel.   One guy had come all the way from Cardiff, and I got talking to another couple from Essex.  They had a real passion for food, and especially liked Atuls’ work.

All the way through Atul was happy for us to take photos, cheerfully posing with each of us after the class – what a gang of chef groupies!

He also answered our questions throughout the class.   I had to ask the question that had been burning on my lips; Why invest in a restaurant in Petts Wood?

The answer … simple, family connections.

The Masterclass finished, and we were treated to a three-course meal which my husband joined me for, obviously he hadn’t realised the meal would clash with the West Ham game…I had consoled him beforehand by saying that it was probably for the best that he’d miss the second half…

The starter was Tandoori Rattan, a platter of Fennel Scented Lamb chops, Lehsuni Malai Tikka and Lime Scented Prawn.  Very tasty and just the right size.  The main course was an equally tasty selection of Murg Makhni, Kosha Mangsho, Malabar Seafood Curry, Saag Corn, Garlic Coriander Naan and rice.

Finally came the dessert platter of Raspberry Bharat Doi, Pista Kulfi and the obligatory Peanut Butter Infused Chocolate Fondant.

We washed this all down with a couple of large bottles of Cobra which was perfect! Cooling down the spices and refreshing my palate which had been well and truly indulged all afternoon.

If I am eating curry at home my choice would always be beer, but I would avoid the robust American Style Pales ( APA’s) opting instead for lighter beer styles such as Pilsner Lager or Pale ales.

If I was sticking to local brews Old Dairy’s Gold Top Pale would be a good choice as would Westerham Brewery’s Bohemian Rhapsody Czech Style Pilsner or their fabulous Summer Perle Extra Pale Ale. Another great beer to accompany curry is Wimbledon based By the Horns’s Rye Blond Ale, Samba King. If you fancy spreading your wings to an overseas number you can’t go wrong with Brooklyn Brewery’s Brooklyn Lager.

I asked Atul how he felt about beer with curry?  He answered ‘it’s great’ adding however that it depended on the day, sometimes he fancied wine and, on another day,he’d have a whiskey.

Taking his example, we finished our meals with Indian Whisky Amrut Single Malt. Despite a powerful nose which packed a real punch, the whiskey itself was incredibly smooth.  The perfect end to a wonderful afternoon oh and West Ham won 3-1 so we were both happy.

Cheers!

‘This is nightmare and any minute I am going to wake up in the hotel room, right?’ The Hopflower looks back on a recent trip to food heaven San Sebastian

Pintxos

‘This is nightmare and any minute I am going to wake up in the hotel room, right?’ I asked my husband last Monday morning as I dragged myself out of bed ready for my first day back at work after a two week break.

The hotel room in question had been in the city of San Sebastian on the north Spanish coast in the Basque country.

San Sebastian or to use its Basque name Donostia has it all; the breath-taking sweeping la Concha Bay with its sandy beach stretching from end to end, Surfing, Football, interesting architecture and plenty of shopping.   It’s no wonder that along with the Wroclaw, Poland it was joint European Capital of Culture in 2016.

Foodies amongst you may know San Sebastian’s reputation for good food and it’s Michelin starred restaurants.   But the thing that keeps us going back is the culture of the Pintxos bars of which there are many in the city.

Pintxos are a type of tapas.   Gorgeous little morsels consisting often of a slice of bread, topped with all manner of delicacies such as cheese, Tuna, peppers or meats to name but a few possibilities.  They range from the simple to the downright extravagant.  Exquisitely topped pieces of bread aside, little pots of Gazpacho, mini skewers, and range of delicious croquettes also come under the Pintxo heading in San Sebastian.

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To clarify, what makes Pintxos different from the tapas you get outside the Basque region is the ritual that accompanies them.

According to all the travel books and articles I have read, the etiquette is you go from bar to bar having just one Pintxos at each with a drink.

When faced with bar tops heaving with platters of these works of art which in some cases look almost too perfect to eat, it is however hard to resist taking a few.    It really feels like the proverbial kid in a sweet shop scenario!

Coming from a family of food lovers who have been known to swoop on a buffet, removing clingfilm with absolutely no shame I have managed over the years to maintain a little decorum and resist piling up the large plate so readily handed to me by a smiling bartender.    But each time I arrive in San Sebastian, this discipline tends to go out of the window until I settle into the routine.

The Pintxos bars are spread throughout the city, but the largest concentration is to be found in San Sebastian’s Parte Vieja – Old Town.

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Here you can wander the narrow streets finding great Pintxos bars next door to each other.   You may approach what looks like a quiet street only to turn the corner and be met with a wall of voices and laughter as crowds enjoy the outdoor air.

Each bar will have its own speciality and I read recently the suggestion that to find out what this is you should watch what the locals eat.

In reality the bars are often packed so my advice would be just tuck in, taking whatever catches your eye.   Some Pintxos bars label their Pintxos but part of the fun for me is taking a chance.  I have yet to find one I haven’t enjoyed.

To my shame I speak very little Spanish and even less Basque, so once I have picked a few Pintxos, I show the bartender and at the same time order drinks and pay in one go.  In some bars they will offer to heat up Pintxos for you.     The costs may vary slightly from bar to bar but are pretty consistent with Pintxos averaging around 2.50€ each.

Don’t be put off if a bar looks busy.  Often the crowd will disappear into the night, probably respecting the ritual and moving on, leaving the bar you are in strangely quiet for a few minutes before another group suddenly appear.

It’s an informal way of eating and drinking which means that unless you really are unshakeable in your habits, no two nights in San Sebastian are going to be the same.

Pintxos and beer

Over the years we have found a few favourites which we always visit such as Meson Portaletas  http://mesonportaletas.com/  at the harbour end of Portu Kalea.   A smart bar with a large sit-down restaurant.  If you are having Pintxos, there are bar stools and as is common with many of the Pintxos bars, high tables and ledges outside on which to rest your drink as you devour a pintxo or five.

Around the corner is a lively spot at the end of Mayor Kalea.   Overlooked by the beautiful church Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro, this corner of the old town is where large numbers convene.   Right here is the recently refurbished Casa Vergara.  We always loved the laid-back feel of this bar in its former incarnation and it has a very different feel now.  it is however still very good.  The food delicious and the staff friendly and helpful.

We normally finish the night next door at Casa Alcalde www.casaalcaldedonostia.com/es/restaurante-tipico-donosti.html.   This being our favourite for a few reasons.  There is a huge and varied range of Pintxos on offer which are arranged beautifully so very tempting.   The staff are friendly and extremely efficient which makes for speedy bar service.   This bar has a lovely feel to it possibly due to its great history illustrated by the old photos displayed on the walls.

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If this slightly frenetic way of eating really isn’t for you, a lot of the bars have seating areas to the rear where you can enjoy a slightly more sedate meal.  You will however probably pay more this way, and quite frankly miss out on the fun.

But let’s not forget the drinks this being a beer blog after all.   In most bars, if you ask for a beer you will get familiar faces such as Estrella Damm or Cruzcampo.   There is however a local award-winning lager called Keler which is sold in some places including Casa Alcalde.

Beer is reasonably priced averaging 3€ for a large glass – quantities can be a tad random, but you will always get a fair amount for your money.

 

If you don’t fancy beer there is a good selection of local wines including Txakoli.    A light white wine made from young grapes so not complex but refreshing and being a local speciality is readily available.  In the bars of San Sebastian Txakoli is ceremoniously poured from an arm’s length into the glass, thus splashing against the glass, releasing the fresh, slightly citrus flavours.

 

FYI another local tradition of the bars in San Sebastian is ringing the bell when a customer leaves a tip so don’t be alarm if you hear the bell, it doesn’t signify last orders!

Also available in abundance is Sidra.  There are many Sidra houses selling a selection of the local Sidras straight from the cask.   Like Txakoli, Sidra is a significant part of the local culture, and with a good glass of Sidra costing as little as 2€ it’s a great option.   It is possible to visit local Sidra producers for a tour and tastings – definitely on my to do list.

Sidra from the cask

 

What I have yet to see in a Pintxos bars sadly is local craft beers which is a shame as San Sebastian has a good selection of microbreweries.

In 2014 I blogged about a craft beer bar I had visited in San Sebastian, which when we checked last year sadly appeared to have closed.  There is however a craft beer bar also in Parte Vieja called Iratxo Taberna, (San Juan Kalea, 9), where I enjoyed a gorgeous drop of the local Basqueland Brewing Project’s IPA in 2017.

I am a fan of the Basqueland Brewing Projects beers, a favourite of mine being their Arraun Amber Ale.  I used Arraun in a beer tasting at the Hoppers Hut micropub, Sidcup, South London last year when I suggested it’s caramel notes make this ale great with burgers.  It would however compliment many a Pintxos perfectly.   It is a really good beer.

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Parte Vieja contains a high density of Pintxos bars, but San Sebastian comprises different neighbourhoods with different personalities.   Across the river, a block or so back from the surfers Zurriola beach is the district of Gross.   Small shops and cafes line the sunny open streets and it was amongst these that two years ago we discovered the Mala Gissona Beer House.

Stumbling across the Mala Gissona Beer House amongst everything else that San Sebastian has to offer was the icing on the cake.   The bar has a bright, contemporary design with wood and metal furniture and brickwork wallpaper depicting the whale imagery used in Mala Gissona’s branding reflecting the Basque heritage of Whaling.

When we visited this year a mixed bag of non-obtrusive music played; everything from The Jam, Reggae and 1950s Rock and Roll.  The staff were super friendly, helpfully taking me through the range of beers on offer and advising me about a forthcoming tap takeover of Barcelona brewery Black Lab.

Between us we had their Red Bay, a rye red ale, the Apatxe APA and another Basque favourite of mine their Höfn Porter   From their food menu, we had locally produced Burgers topped with cheese, a fried egg, accompanied by mayo and fries – perfect before a snooze on the beach!

mala gissona lunch

The Mala Gissona Brewery have been going for four years and the Beer House opened around two and half years ago.   If you went to Craft Beer Rising in Brick Lane earlier this year you may have seen their stand and they also hosted a Beer tasting at the Tapas Room in Tooting Broadway Market, London.   All good news as it signifies I hope the intention of Mala Gissona to play a part in the UK beer market.

 

The Basques are very proud of their heritage and tradition.   Around San Sebastian are numerous shops selling local produce such as locally mined flavoured salt, meats, tinned sardines and increasingly local craft beers.   Mala Gissona’s beers as well as being available from their Beer House can be bought in bottles and cans in the old town, Basqueland Brewing Project Beers are also available as are other brewer’s such as Gross.   All positive signs that beer has been embraced as part of the Basque Heritage.

San Sebastian is a feast in so many ways.   We tend to go at the end of August which coincides with the 31st August celebrations marking the razing of San Sebastian by Allied forces in 1813.   Brass and Drum Bands in traditional dress march through the Parte Vieja, the sound is incredible.   Also, on the first two Sundays in September boat racing is held in La Concha Bay.   Rival teams battle it out on the sea and their supporters can be seen around the city and in the bars in their team’s colours.   This makes for a lively but friendly atmosphere.

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Towards the end of July is the annual Jazz Festival.  Live music echoes around the city with the bay as an amazing backdrop.

 

Year round the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of San Sebastian are a treat.   So, I say forget what the guide books tell you and load up your plate!   Holidays don’t last forever after all, a fact I am all too aware of as I sit typing this with memories of Pintxos still fresh in my mind…

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