A day trip to Burano and Mazzorbo

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The ticket inspector on the number 12 vaporetto is a wonder. He is unfailingly pleasant as swarms of confused tourists descend on his boat with fifty euro notes for seven euro fares. And questions. So many questions. He chats to one passenger in French, switches seamlessly to English with the next and ends up back in Italian all the while smiling apologetically as you wait for your change. The boat heaves with passengers on their way to get glass from Murano and that all important canal photo from Burano.

If you’ve never heard Burano, you’ve still probably seen it. Burano is one of the more remote lagoon islands in Venice, where each house is painted a bright colour. It features on Instagram and travel sites with clockwork regularity. Local legend has it that fishermen painted them so that they could see their house from far away at sea and find their way back. A more mundane origin story was that the colours were used to denote the boundaries between properties. Residents still have to get permission from the local council  to change the colour of their house. It is an experience to wander around, especially when you get off the beaten track, but in the centre every bridge hosts an aspiring influencer trying a variety of poses.

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There are plenty of options for lunch on Burano, some with glowing recommendations, but we decided to try somewhere a little off the beaten track. Trattoria Alla Maddalena is located over the bridge from Burano on sleepy Mazzorbo. Just a few minutes from the throng of selfie sticks and you are walking through the tranquil vineyard of Venissa on your way to Alla Maddalena’s quayside terrace. The restaurant has been here since the 1950s and run by local families ever since. The food is fresh, locally-sourced and significantly cheaper than what you will pay for anything of this quality in Venice or even on Burano. Scampi, softshell crabs, spider crab and clams all feature, but there is also wild duck that has been hunted in the lagoon for those not inclined towards shellfish.

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Moeche, softshell crabs, are a specialty in Venice in the autumn and early spring. They only occur when the crabs have shed their shell and not yet grown a new one. They are flat, about the circumference of a table spoon and served whole. They are usually deep fried in a light batter. Occasionally, they are put in the batter beforehand so they can eat it before they are fried, resulting in a creamy omelette-like texture. It’s not a dish for the squeamish.They are often prohibitively expensive in Venice, but Burano is a traditional fishing hub for them.

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Looking at the menu, we want to try everything, but settle on a seafood theme. We start by sharing a portion of gnocchi with spider crab (14 euro). I have spent a long time in my life hating gnocchi, they always seemed stodgy and uncooked, but these are perfect light pillows. They are doused in a crab and tomato bisque with flakes of crab flesh. We have tried versions of this dish in Venice before, but this is by far the best. For mains, we share a portion of deep fried scampi (18 euro) and one of moeche (20 euro). A couple sits down at a nearby table. They order a well-cooked steak and chicken schnitzel. I spent many years in Venice avoiding all seafood and sticking rigidly to tomato pasta. I want to tell them not to make the same mistake.

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The moeche and scampi both arrive in generous heaps with deep fried strips of courgette and pepper. The batter is light and gently coats the crab. The crabs themselves have a creamy texture from the batter they have eaten, combined with a rich fishy flavor. The scampi is also perfectly tender and delicate. The fried vegetables offer just enough variety. All this is washed down with a young white wine from the Veneto, that fizzes ever so slightly. The quayside terrace feels a million miles away from from the bustle of the city, catching the afternoon sun perfectly.

Another great thing about La Maddalena is its proximity to the vaporetto back to Venice, just a few seconds from the front gate. We are too full for dessert, but we round out the meal with two more glasses of wine, pay our bill, and lounge in the sun until our boat  back to town turns the corner.

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Trattoria Alla Maddalena, Venezia Burano Mazzorbo 30142

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Fig, Goat’s Cheese and Candied Bacon Toast (and Repealing the 8th)

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Sometimes I have a great recipe sitting in my drafts for months, because I don’t know what to write about it. This is one of those. It is heavily adapted from one in Sabrina Ghayour’s glorious cookbook Feasts and the perfect easy brunch dish. I thought about writing about why I could buy figs at my local market in February. I didn’t know if they were imported or from one of the many greenhouses around Holland. But the words didn’t flow. Thinking now about importing and exporting things, something else comes to mind.

Anyone who knows me outside of this blog knows that I am a very opinionated person. I am always more than happy to share the opinions I hold passionately and debate about them at length if necessary. Usually until well after the person I’m debating with has stopped caring and is just wishing I would stop talking. And I usually keep this side of my personality separate from the blog. This is a space to talk about lovely food and share great experiences. And after this, normal programming will resume. But, there is a referendum coming up in Ireland on 25 May and when it’s something this important, I need to share my opinion any way that I can. So here it is.

I am a woman in my thirties from Ireland. I have been incredibly privileged. I have never needed an abortion. I have never had to travel abroad to access one. I have never had to worry that financially I would not be able access one to if I needed to. I have never had to worry that I wouldn’t have people to support me if I needed to have one. I have never been a victim of a crime that would force me to make a difficult choice. I have never had to worry that my immigration status might prevent me from leaving the country in time. I have never been so sick that I could no longer get on a plane or a boat. I have never been in an abusive relationship where I could not access my own finances or passport if needed. I have never been told that a longed-for pregnancy would not end with me leaving the hospital with my child. I have been fortunate. Thousands of women living in Ireland have not shared my good fortune. You can read about these women here. Repeal the Eighth.

Ingredients

  • 125g bacon
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1-2 teaspoons harissa
  • 100g ricotta
  • 100g soft goats cheese
  • A few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1/2 of a lemon
  • 4-6 figs
  • 4 slices of sourdough bread

Method

  • Dry fry the bacon in a frying pan over medium heat until crispy.
  • Crumble the bacon in a bowl and mix with the honey and harissa.
  • Whip the ricotta, goats cheese and lemon juice with thyme leaves until light and fluffy.
  • Slice the figs into sixths.
  • Toast the bread.
  • Divide the cheese between the four slices of toast, top with the bacon and finally add the fig slices.

 

 

De Kas revisited

IMG_2565De Kas is an Amsterdam institution, dating back to the early noughties. It has featured in many ‘best of’ lists over the years and set the scene for a popular Dutch novel. It was one of the first places I ate in Amsterdam when I moved to Holland in 2009 and has remained a favourite. When I first visited, I was a fussy eater who refused to eat fish and was terrified of set menus. The dishes at De Kas persuaded me to try things with an open mind, like sweetbreads, and encouraged me to be a bit more adventurous in what I ate.

Very little has been changed since 2009. It still grows a lot of its produce in the greenhouses that surround the kitchen and the rest on a farm near Amsterdam. The staff wear the same indigo denim uniform. The interior is identical, from the giant glass jellyfish lights in the centre of the room down to the Ittala water glasses on the tables.  Despite this, it is all on trend for 2018, from the farm to table concept to the sophisticated but welcoming interior. Even though it opened almost twenty years ago, the dining room looks as contemporary as any new Amsterdam hot spot.

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The one thing they have changed recently is the menu, after bringing in Jos Timmer and Wim de Beer from Michelin-starred Rijks. The three course surprise menu has been updated to a five or six course menu of small plates that changes each week. The focus is still on their own produce,  supplemented with small amounts of meat and fish to balance them, but a more refined style.
We were served popped tapioca crackers with celery mayonnaise and bread while we looked at the menu and chose our wine. Their commitment to Dutch producers goes as far as including a Dutch wine, Wijngoed Thorn, on the menu. This made the news last year as the first Dutch wine to be granted a PDO status.
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After ordering a bottle of the pleasant if unremarkable Wijngoed Thord pinot gris, we were served an amuse of beautiful herb gazpacho and piccalilli radishes dusted with popped grains. Moving onto the menu proper, our first course was celeriac with lovage and black garlic. This was followed by the star of the meal – a deep fried langoustine with horseradish mayonnaise and a ginger shellfish bisque. This dish was perfect mix of rich and fresh. The rich bisque cut with ginger was one of those things you want to go home and try to recreate yourself.
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The butter poached morels were lush and even managed to lure me into eating my most hated food, egg. The main dish, lamb with Persian curry and herbs, was fine but unadventurous. The sauce gave me flashbacks to the curry sauce served from giant tubs in industrial quantities in my university canteen many years ago, although that’s not exactly De Kas’s fault. If I was going back, I’d definitely try the vegetarian option, as the work with vegetables here is way more interesting. The dessert was a well-executed riff on the rhubarb and white chocolate theme that’s popular these days. I’m not a big dessert fan, but this was a lovely end to the meal. My last visit to De Kas was probably about three years ago now. While I still loved the space, I had found the menu was a little less exciting than it had been. The revamped De Kas menu is exciting and enjoyable, and definitely puts it back  squarely on my Amsterdam culinary map.
De Kas, Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3, 1097 DE Amsterdam

A long weekend in Venice

 

IMG_1613Venice has been like a second home to my family for decades. As children, my brother and I were deposited for a week of unbridled TV watching and ice-cream eating at our grandparents’ house each year when my parents went for their anniversary. We first visited as teenagers, after a boat journey from Ireland to France followed by a drive through the length of France and most of Italy. We have returned every few years ever since, and in my twenties I turned down an opportunity to live there, moving to the Netherlands instead.

In November, I returned to Venice for a long weekend with himself. My planning for any trip starts months in advance, and we usually know where we will be eating and on which day long before we have reached our destination. With Venice, this is particularly important, because good restaurants book up fast, and opening times are unpredictable. This post is a guide to the places we went, and when we went to them, to help any other visitors to Venice plan a long weekend. 

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Where to eat breakfast 

I’m not a big fan of traditional breakfast foods. On holidays I usually give it a miss in favour of lunch when the interesting food starts to appear. In Venice, however, you can start on cicchetti and other Venetian snacks from early in the morning, thanks to the bacari around the Rialto. Cantina Do Mori dates back over 500 years and starts serving wine and food at 8am.  The staff are notoriously unfriendly but it’s a great place to start the day. My favourite breakfast was an aubergine meatball (polpetto de melanzane), a ciccheti with artichoke (carciofi) and, because all the locals were doing it, a small glass of prosecco.

IMG_1610Where to eat lunch in the sun

In the afternoons, the sun shines on the Zattere, and trickles into Dorsoduro.  The stretch of canal edged by the Fondamenta Nani is the perfect place to soak up the sun and people-watch, if you don’t mind eating lunch from a plastic plate perched on a wall. The Fondamenta Nani is home to two great cicchetti places: the Cantine del Vino Gia Schiavi, also known as Al Bottegon (which you can read more about here) and Osteria Al Squero. We visited the latter this time, and were faced with a long but swift-moving queue seeking out cicchetti and spritzes. Al Squero offers different cicchetti for €1.80 each. My favourites were lardo with rosemary and truffled ricotta with radicchio and walnuts. If the weather isn’t up to the challenge, it’s still a nice bar to sit in, but the buzz outside on a sunny day makes this worth the trip even without the great food. Afterwards, you can stroll along the Zattere with an ice-cream and bask in the golden light.

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Where to eat late at night

The Fondamenta Misericordia, running parallel to the Strada Nuove in the heart of Canareggio, is a hub of activity from lunchtime until the early hours. Cicchetti bars open from noonish and stay open until midnight or 1am on weekends along its length. Il Paradiso Perduto, an osteria in a long low room with a bar to the front and tables at the back, serves food until after 23:00. It’s essential to book, but this will not save you from queueing. The service here is truly appalling until you make it to your seats. It took us ten minutes just to convey the information that we had a reservation, and another ten before our table was ready. Once you sit down, the service becomes brisk and friendly. Portions here are absolutely huge; a plate of pasta is a meal in itself. We foolishly opted for the house antipasto having seen the display of food at the counter followed by seafood spaghetti and a porcini and radicchio lasagne and could only eat about half of it all.  We got the house Chardonnay, which was lightly fizzy and reminded me a little of Txacoli. After our meal, we witnessed a chef cooking some magical pasta in a hollowed out wheel of Parmesan for a group at another table. If you figure out how to order this, it looks incredible.

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Where to splash out

Alle Testiere is on every insiders guide to Venice, from Russell Norman to Donna Leon.  It’s a small restaurant near the Rialto Bridge, seating just 24 people, so it has to be booked weeks in advance, with an online booking followed by a phone call to confirm your credit card details. The atmosphere is more formal than I had expected, and the room more elegant, but the service is welcoming. This is not a cheap experience, you can expect to pay at least €70 per person. They only serve what is fresh from the market so the menu changes each day. The focus is on the fish, so sauces and other flavours are understated. We shared the fish antipasti, which focused on raw fresh local shellfish, followed by a pumpkin and tuna ravioli and gnocchi with spider crab. The standout was a slab of smoked tuna as part of the antipasti

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Where to get brunch(ish) on a Sunday

Venice has a reputation for being a bit dead on Sundays, but the Fondamenta Misericordia continues its reputation as a lively hub even on Sunday mornings. You can’t get a sit-down brunch, but the cicchetti bars open from 11am onwards, and are soon heaving with locals. Families bring children, walkers stroll in with well-behaved dogs, the crowds spill out onto the canal, and people find every available spot in the sun to drink spritzes and eat cicchetti. If you want something a bit more relaxed, the Pasticceria Rosa Salva is open on Campo San Giovanni e Paolo from 8am, serving traditional cakes and coffee on the square.

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Where to eat dinner on a Sunday 

Most restaurants in Venice revolve around the opening hours of the Rialto Market, so it can be challenging to find a good meal on Sundays and Mondays when it is closed. Vini Da Gigio (not to be confused with the nearby Trattoria da Gigio) is an exception. It’s a cosy place just off the Strada Nuove with warm staff. The clientele is definitely more visitor-based, it’s not a local secret, but the food is fantastic. We started with a seafood antipasti of traditional Venetian specialities like bacala (salt cod), sarde saor (sardines in a sweet and sour onion sauce) and granseola (spider crab). I went on to a giant plate of fritto misto, a place of lightly battered and fried prawns, calamari, whitebait and samphire which should not be missed. They have a selection of nice house wines by the carafe. You can expect to pay €15-25 for an antipasto, about €18 for a small plate of pasta and €20-25 for a secondi like fritto misto but the portions of these are huge. 

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Where to eat on a Monday

The restaurant situation on Monday is even more dire, as the fish market has now been closed for two days. Fortunately, the vegetable market reopens on Monday, so you can take a break from fish and try some of the best vegetarian food I’ve ever had. Osteria La Zucca is not actually a vegetarian restaurant, it has meat dishes too, but the vegetable dishes are the star of the show. They have the usual antipasto, primi, secondi format, but also a dazzling array of vegetable side dishes which can create a meal in themselves. They are €7 each, or you can get two half portions for €8.  This place has to be booked in advance. We turned up at 2pm on a quiet November monday, and were lucky to snag the last seats in the place. If the weather is good, try to book the outdoor tables for some people watching.

 

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Where to drink interesting wine

Venice is full of traditional bacari where you can get an ombra for a euro or two, but finding places to try new wines is more of a challenge. Vino vero on the Fondamenta della Misericordia specialises in organic and biodynamic wines. They also serve cicchetti and plates of cured meats/cheese. We had some particularly lousy service here, but the wine list is very interesting, with local wines and wines from further afield. They had some great natural orange wines when we visited. The bar is small, but there’s seating outside on the canal.

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Chilaquiles Rojos

 

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Chilaquiles are a traditional breakfast dish throughout Mexico, and as such, they vary from region to region and home to home. The baseline dish consists of fried strips of tortilla cooked with a sauce and cheese. They can be made with a green tomatillo salsa, red tomato salsa or a mole sauce.  They originated as a method of using up stale tortillas, much like panzanella in Italy and fatteh in the Middle East. I have been making these semi-regularly for brunch and occasionally dinner over the past few years, and they are truly one of my favourite things to eat. While this may not sound like a ringing endorsement, they remind me of the nachos that I used to have as a child in an American theme restaurant in Dublin, which I still remember vividly 25 years later. They have a wonderful combination of crunch and softness. Whenever I have a tortilla or two leftover at the end of a pack, I chop them up, stick them in a zip lock  bag and freeze them until I have accumulated enough to make a batch.

This recipe is basically a template that you can build on with whatever meat or vegetables you want to add, although it’s also great without any additions. I have sometimes added a handful of finely chopped spinach to the sauce, or mixed some roasted cubes of sweet potato in between the layers. Pulled pork or fried chunks of chorizo would not go amiss. Add more cheese if you like, or scale it down if you’re attempting some semblance of healthy eating.  The sauce can be made a day ahead and refrigerated or frozen so that it can be put together quickly for breakfast. I have also used it as a sauce for baked beans. The one shortcut I have tried and do not recommend is baking the tortillas. They don’t puff and crisp the same way, and end up tasting greasier than if they had been fried. You don’t need to deep-fry them, a thin layer of oil is enough to get the right effect.

Serves 2 very hungry people.

Ingredients

  • 1 tin of tomatoes
  • 1 bunch of fresh coriander
  • One shallot or half of a red onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 chipotle in adobo plus two teaspoons of the sauce
  • Honey to taste
  • 4-6 large corn or flour tortillas, cut into triangles
  • Neutral oil
  • 1 tin of black beans
  • 50-75g grated melting hard cheese like cheddar or gouda
  • 40g feta, crumbled (optional)
  • 2 avocados
  • 1 lime or lemon
  • Sour cream, creme fraiche or yoghurt

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 200C.
  • Make the sauce by blending the tomatoes, most of the coriander leaves (reserving a handful for the avocados), the shallot, cloves of garlic and chipotle with a stick blender until smooth.
  • Add some honey to bring out the sweetness in the tomatoes, and season with salt as required. You can either cook this sauce down a bit for 5-10 minutes in a saucepan on a low heat, or use it as is.
  • Heat a large frying pan to a medium-high heat and coat the bottom with a thin layer of oil.
  • Fry the tortilla triangles in batches, turning them in the oil and leaving them until pockets of air have appeared and they are crispy and lightly golden brown.
  • Season them with some salt, and leave on a piece of kitchen paper to cool.
  • Once all of the tortillas are done, put a layer in a heavy casserole pot or ovenproof dish.
  • Cover with 2 tablespoons of sauce and spread with a spatula to evenly distribute over the tortillas.
  • Drain the beans and add a handful of beans and a sprinkle of mixed cheese on top of the tortillas and sauce.
  • The sauce/bean/cheese ratio will depend on how big your pot is, and how many layers you can make.
  • When you reach the top, cover it with a final layer of grated cheese and stick it in the oven.
  • Cook for 10-15 minutes until everything is bubbling and the cheese is melted. You can also stick it under the grill for a minute or two at the end to melt and crisp a bit more.
  • While the chilaquiles are cooking, scoop out the avocado flesh and roughly dice.
  • Chop the remaining coriander leaves.
  • Season the avocado with lemon and salt to your preference, then mix in the coriander.
  • Serve the chilaquiles warm with avocado and sour cream.

The best pintxos in San Sebastián

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San Sebastián has pretty much been done to death by food writers and bloggers, but with good reason. There is really nowhere comparable, and I have eaten my way around a lot of great European, North American and Australian food cities over the last decade. I have never found anywhere where every restaurant could provide at least one outstanding dish, as well as many excellent ones, for under a fiver. While eating at a bar counter with a stranger’s elbow lodged in your rib as you spill dish after dish down your front may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, even people on a budget can get to try cooking from  incredibly talented chefs. Pintxos start at around two euro, and a glass of txacoli is in the same range.

So with that in mind, here are my favourite dishes or pintxos bars from five days and nights of eating everything humanly possible in San Sebastián. We tried to hit most of the best known places, but missed out on trying the cheesecake in La Vina and the tortilla in Bar Nestor. We tried the anchovies in Txeptxa but since I really just don’t like anchovies, it didn’t make the cut but if you do like them, it’s definitely worth a visit.

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Ganbara – Grilled mushrooms with egg yolk

Ganbara is the grand dame of San Sebastián pinchos. It is pricier than the rest, with luxurious ingredients and a strong focus on pastry. Possibly the most Instagrammed dish in San Sebastián is the wild mushrooms grilled with egg yolk (hongos a la plancha). At close to €20 for a small racion, this is by far the most expensive dish that we tried, but it was utterly perfect. The mushrooms were delicate with a rich meaty texture, and the raw egg yolk brought the dish together. I am completely phobic about eggs but somehow I managed to both eat and adore this dish. Ganbara is always a popular spot with tourists and with foodie tours, but we managed to snag a rare corner bit of counter on a Wednesday lunchtime to try this.

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Anything meaty at La Cuchara de San Telmo

La Cuchara de San Telmo is legendary for its rich meaty dishes like foie gras and beef cheek. On our two visits, we managed to try both of these, plus the duck ravioli with mushrooms and jus (pictured above), the crispy pigs ear with romesco, and a racion of morcilla. With the exception of the morcilla racion, all of these were priced at around €4.00. La Cuchara de San Telmo is a sweaty and tense experience. Two men on either end of the counter take orders sporadically and you try to carve out a bit of space to wait. Food tends to come in waves, so you’ll see portions of foie gras fly out, followed a few minutes later by beef cheeks and so on. If you’re unlucky, you can be waiting ten minutes for each dish. It’s one of the few places that doesn’t have pintxos on the bar, and it’s full of other foodie tourists elbowing each other for counter space. The best move is to bring food onto the little square outside, away from the fray.

Braised Veal Cheek with Red Wine and Orzo Risotto with Idiazabal at Bora Berri

I didn’t manage to get a picture of these dishes, but being totally honest, they were not the most photogenic. Borda Berri has a similar vibe to La Cuchara de San Telmo, which makes sense since its chef came from there, with a list of small hot pintxos at about €3-4 euro a go and no pintxos on the counter. The creamy orzo risotto (risotto de puntalete) with local sheep’s milk cheese was a standout dish, as well as the veal cheek braised in red wine (carrilera de tenera al vino tinto) were standouts. I think these dishes are pretty similar to the ones at La Cuchara, but the space is slightly less hectic and sweaty, and I thought the veal cheeks were better seasoned here.

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Spicy tomato mussels, patatas bravas and squid bravas at La Mejillonera

La Mejillonera is essentially a Spanish version of a chip shop. It serves a few fried dishes instantly at a counter, and has a constant turnover of mainly local customers. There are photos displayed above the counter of the five mussel dishes, patatas bravas, and different squid dishes available. Uniformed men take your order, shout it down the counter with a dramatic emphasis and a minute later you are presented with your food. Mussels in a spicy tomato sauce (mejillones al tigre), deep fried squid with aioli and bravas sauce (calamares bravas), and fried potatoes with the same aioli and bravas sauce (patatas bravas) are essential to try here, and can be seen dotted up and down the counter. You can get a double portion of the bravas for €3.50, mussels for €3.80 and a half racion of calamares for around €5. This is the perfect place for a quick lunch break from the Concha beach, which is just a few minutes away.

Chorizo Croquetas at Bar Gure Txoco

Over the river in Gros, things are a little quieter. Bar Gure Txoco has a huge selection of croquetas to choose from, but our favourites were the chorizo ones, which managed to combine spiciness and sweetness with the creamy bechamel perfectly. They’re a little pricier than most croquetas in San Sebastián, at €2.50 for two, but totally worth it. This is a good spot if you want a break from the slightly relentless Old Town atmosphere.

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Kokotxas, and really anything at Zeruko

Zeruko is a modern, award-winning pintxo place with efficient staff, and often a bit more space than the others. The counter is groaning with excellent pintxos, and they also have a long list of hot pintxos to order from the kitchen. The standout dish was the kokotxas (part of a hake’s throat, I think) which come on a little skewer over a hot grill with some bread and a green sauce. You turn the kokotxas skewer yourself, ten seconds on each side, place it on the bread, and douse it in a sauce from a test tube. I was too busy timing and grilling to get an actual photo. We actually didn’t find this dish on the menu, so I’m not sure what its proper name is, but you will see it at every table so just point and ask for it. It costs €5.50, but is very much worth it, particularly as they have trimmed away a lot of the fat you normally get with kokotxas, leaving a lean and sweet skewer of fish without the weird gelatinous mouthfeel that other kokotxas dishes had. I also loved the goats cheese with foie gras and honey pintxo on the bar, and the sea urchin with avocado.

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Octopus with potato soup and bacon at Casa Urola

Like Ganbara and Borda Berri, Casa Urola is a stalwart of San Sebastián food tours, and we saw loads of groups during our evening there. With a decor that looks like a living room on Desperate Housewives, it does not look anything like what I’d expect from a cutting-edge pintxos bar, but everything we tried was glorious. It is one of the few places with proper tables and chairs in the bar (there is also a dining room upstairs offering similar food at a huge mark-up). If you hang around long enough, you can snag a seat and work your way through the whole tapas menu. The hot dishes are worth the wait, and the staff are great at wrestling through the crowds to give them to you. The food is elegantly presented like an amuse bouche in a Michelin restaurant, but at the same San Sebastian prices of less than €5 a pop.

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Mackobe with Txips at A Fuego Negro

A Fuego Negro is a more recent arrival on the San Sebastián pintxos scene, with an interior like a Nu-Metal band’s fast food franchise. The menu is displayed through a series of illustrated placards on the wall above the bar. The staff here are extremely efficient and manage to stay in a good mood despite the constant pressure. There are different small dishes at between €3 and €6, as well as larger portions of things like fried wild chicken for around €15 to €18. It may seem a bit unadventurous for San Sebastián, but there is a reason everyone around you is ordering the Mackobe, a miniature Kobe beef burger with banana chips.

 

 

 

Pintxo-pote, San Sebastián

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Pintxo-pote is a Basque institution. A selection of bars offer a drink and a pintxo for a small fixed price, usually €2, one night each week. In San Sebastián, the main pintxo-pote scene is on Thursday nights in Gros.  The hub is around Plaza Cataluña, Bermingham Kalea, San Frantzisko Kalea and Zabaleta Kalea.It starts at 19:00 and goes on until around 23:00, or until the food runs out, whichever happens first.

Most bars have signs outside saying they offer pintxo-pote, and some have signs saying they very definitely do not. You can usually tell which is which anyway by the crowds and debris outside. These are not the high-end basque pintxos that tourists elbow each other for in the Old Town, but there are some pretty tasty things on offer. The pintxos are lined on the counter of the bar ready to go. The drink on offer is generally wine, beer or cider.

I have zero photos of our pintxo-pote crawl. Trying to take anything close to a half-decent photo holding a flimsy plastic plate and being jostled by surfers and students is tricky, but here is a round-up of our pintxo-pote experience.

The first thing to be aware of is that the wine on offer is usually pretty disgusting. Sadly, txacoli is rarely part of the deal. The cider and beer, on the other hand, were good everywhere we tried them. Basque cider is light, slightly effervescent and crisp. Sticking with beer and cider is also a smart idea if you’re planning to try a lot of places, and don’t like waking up the next day in a bush with croquette crumbs across your cheeks and grease-smeared hands.

We started in La Plata, just off Plaza Cataluña. The options here were pretty good, and we settled on a squid ink croquette, and some sort of delicious chewy pastry filled with melted cheese that looked a little like a doughnut. This was a stalwart of pintxo-pote spreads as it turned out. They tend towards the stodgier end of things, presumably to soak up all the alcohol. Next up was Bar Mendi on San Frantzisko Kalea which offered the standard bread pintxos, as well as small plates of paella, patatas bravas and ensaladilla rusa. We went for a plate of bravas, and a pintxo with ham, goats cheese and crispy onion. We then moved on to Bora Gerri, on Kalea Bermingham. This had a selection of deep fried things like croquettes and prawns on skewers, as well as some bread tapas, so we went for three prawns on a skewer, and some txistorra sausage on bread.

At this point we needed a break and a sit-down, because unlike most of the crowd, we are not in our twenties anymore. The streets had become a sea of discarded plastic plates and cups, the pavements filled with inebriated students smoking a seemingly endless amount of roll-ups. Fortunately, we spotted Essencia wine bar on Zabaleta Kallea, a glorious place with a giant list of wines by the glass, and, unusually for San Sebastian, a great sherry list too. We decided to go for one more pintxo-pote, which ended up being a fairly lacklustre empanadilla at Bar Labrit opposite, before calling it a night.

Pintxo-pote offerings do not match the kind of gourmet pintxos you get in the old town, but this is the Basque Country, so they are still way better than what you should be able to get for this price. San Sebastián can be a pricey place, but a night out and a meal for €10 is an offer that can’t be missed, and an experience you won’t get in other regions of Spain.

 

 

Guts & Glory, Amsterdam

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In the five months since I returned to once again live in Holland, I have had to do something I hate doing. I have had to acknowledge that I was wrong. The blow has been softened by the fact that I have been proved wrong in a very enjoyable way. Last year, I wrote about the shortage of good, casual restaurants in Amsterdam. I was so very wrong. Over the past few months, I have eaten some of the best meals I can remember, in different restaurants across Amsterdam. I have tried Australian small plates, Dutch tasting menus, Michelin-starred street food, Israeli seafood, and plenty of things besides. And it has all been wonderful.

Most recently, I visited Guts & Glory, on the dodgier end of Utrechtsetraat. Located on a strip of coffee shops, seedy bars, and hipster fast food, it’s an unlikely location for such glorious cooking. The restaurant works with a theme, changing every few months, and develops a set menu around it. The last theme was Japan, the current theme is Spain, and the next is rumoured to be Thailand. They have also created menus revolving entirely around one ingredient. Taking chefs out of their comfort zone, to create quintessential dishes from different countries is an interesting idea, and one that could go very wrong. Here, it just works.

 

IMG-20170809-WA0002I’m not an expert on Spanish food, but it was great to see so many classic dishes brought to life in new ways. We went for the pre-theatre four course menu, on a Monday night after a weekend of heavy eating. The sun was glimmering, so we braved the breeze for a table on the street. The meal started with a plate of pan con tomate. Light crispy bread rubbed with garlic, topped with chunks of tomato and drizzled in olive oil. It’s a simple dish, but one that requires excellent ingredients. Here the tomatoes were fresh and sweet, the bread was light, and the olive oil grassy. We moved on to an amuse (still not hitting our first actual course) of watermelon gazpacho, a miniature jamon croquette, and olive stuffed with jalapeno cream cheese and topped with crispy chorizo crumbs. My recreations of this gazpacho have since become a weekly event in my house.

Our first actual course was corvina marinated in sherry in an ajo blanco sauce with slices of fresh grape on top. Corvina is the fish of the moment in Amsterdam, and this was a beautiful way to serve it. The sherry slightly cured the white meat and gave bite, which was balanced by the creamy almond sauce, and the sweetness of the grapes. Sadly, I did not get a picture of this dish but it was lovely.

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The next course was a riff on paella, a simple tomato rice with chorizo oil, blow-torched at the last minute to crisp on top and served with three plump mussels. After that came a rump of Dorset lamb with romesco sauce and goats curd. I don’t eat meat regularly, and I sometimes think I could probably give it up entirely. This was the kind of lamb that shatters those illusions. Perfectly pink, soft and with just the right amount of fat to keep it juicy. We moved on to a pre-dessert of crema catalana flavoured with orange blossom and a truly incredible dessert of fresh churros coated in fennel seeds and sugar, chocolate sorbet and a liquorice caramel sauce.

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Guts & Glory also manages that rare combination of great food and excellent customer service. Our waitress let my dad try several wines when he couldn’t decide which he wanted from the list. She kept a good eye on everything that was happening on the terrace outside the restaurant throughout the evening. When the chef noticed that a man at a neighbouring table was not a fan of the fishy dishes that had been served, he offered to cook him something different and gave him some options.

 

Despite the intimidating name, there were no dishes here to frighten the horses. What we had was a menu of classic dishes that had small innovations, but focused mainly on flavour. Each dish was one that I had tried in one guise or another before on trips to Spain, but the best version I’d ever had. If they stuck with just this theme, and turned into a Spanish restaurant, I would happily keep coming back for these same dishes. But I’m also really excited to see what comes next.

Guts & Glory, Utrechtsestraat 6, Amsterdam

 

Watermelon Gazpacho

Gazpacho2017 has been a big year so far, for me at least. I have moved job twice, house twice, and country once. I am now back in the canal-strewn city that gave this blog its name a long time ago. Very little has changed since I left in 2011, as befits a city where you can live in a house that was built in the 1590s, but returning to a student city as a proper adult makes you see it in a whole new light. So, in honour of the theme of the same but different, an updated recipe from the early days of the blog.  I have been making gazpacho for years, and didn’t think it needed improving until I tried a watermelon version at Guts & Glory in Amsterdam. The watermelon balances out the heaviness of the garlic and oil, and brings out the sweetness in the tomatoes. It’s simple and quick to make, but chilling it properly is the key to bringing all the flavours together.

Serves four as a starter portion

Ingredients

  • 500g cherry tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 2 red peppers (preferably the sweet, pointed kind), roughly chopped
  • 350g watermelon, peeled and cubed
  • 1 fat garlic clove, roughly chopped
  • 1 shallot, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons sherry, white or red wine vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil + a little extra for drizzling before serving
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika (optional)
  • Salt & pepper
  • 2 tablespoons of toasted pumpkin seeds

Method

  • Blend all of the ingredients together in a food processor or with a stick blender until  you have a thick, smooth soup.
  • Chill overnight, or for at least two hours.
  • Season well before serving, according to your preference.
  • Serve topped with some toasted pumpkin seeds, and a swirl of olive oil.

Pea and Pistachio Chelow Rice

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Lately, I have started to experiment with different ways of cooking rice. I’m in my thirties, so it seems like the right time. I can no longer get away with experimenting with blue hair, cocktails made from whatever bottles of drink were left behind from the last party or unsuitable romantic partners, so I have to make my own fun and embrace my sad hobbies. This chelow rice is a traditional Persian dish from Greg and Lucy Malouf’s beautiful book Saraban and it’s simply a foolproof way to cook perfect rice. There are quite a lot of instructions, and it’s a bit more complicated then your standard plain boil approach, or even Anna  Jones’ lovely ‘high heat, low heat, no heat’ method, but it is worth it for the fluffy but defined rice with the slightest bite that it yields. You can just use the method to make plain rice, with the butter and oil, and it will still be an outstanding dish.

Serves 4-6 as a side dish

Ingredients

  • 300g basmati rice
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt
  • 350g peas
  • 70ml rapeseed oil
  • 1 large Spanish onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 bunch of dill, chopped
  • 100g pistachio nuts
  • 40g unsalted butter
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 strip of lemon peel
  • Neutral oil e.g. sunflower or rapeseed

Method

  • Wash the rice in cold running water, and then leave to soak for 30 minutes in a large bowl of lukewarm water, stirring occasionally with your hand to loosen the starch.
  • Strain the rice and rinse again with warm water.
  • Boil two litres of water in a large saucepan, add the salt and then the rice.
  • Boil, uncovered, for five minutes.
  • Quickly blanch the peas in boiling water in a separate pan for thirty seconds then drain.
  • You can test the rice by biting into it, it should be soft on the outside but still hard in the middle.
  • Drain the rice in a sieve and rinse with warm water, then shake and toss it a few times to try and drain as much water out as you can.
  • Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add two tablespoons of warm water.
  • Heat the saucepan again over a medium heat and add the oil and two teaspoons of water (be careful, it might spit a bit).
  • When the oil begins to sizzle, carefully spoon in a layer of rice to cover the base.
  • Quickly mix the peas with the remaining rice and then gradually, spoon by spoon, build a pyramid of rice over the base of rice in the saucepan.
  • Poke five or six holes into the pyramid using the handle of a wooden spoon to allow the steam to escape.
  • Sit the garlic and lemon peel on top of the rice.
  • Drizzle the melted butter and water evenly over the rice.
  • Wrap the sauce pan lid in a tea towel, being careful to tuck it in so none of the towel ends up burning on your stove, and cover the pan with it.
  • Leave the rice on a high heat for two to three minutes until steam is escaping from the sides of the pan, then turn the heat to low and leave for 40 minutes without opening the lid to check on it.
  • Meanwhile, season the flour with salt and pepper, toss the onions in it, and fry in a tablespoon or two of neutral oil over a medium heat for 20-25 minute until golden brown and crispy.
  • When you are ready to serve, put the saucepan into a basin of cold water to separate the crispy rice from the pan.
  • Stir through most of the pistachios and  the chopped dill, saving a bit of both for the top.