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Chef John Foster: An amazing experience in Spain, enjoying the people, the scenery, the fantastic food

Spain, was mind-blowing, a trip of a lifetime for me. Prime location in the Basque region, two must-see locations in Bilbao and San Sebastian. From the Guggenheim Museum to the gilt-edged romanticism of a seaport city, it was in many ways eye-opening. It was also a much-needed break and an anniversary with the one person in the world who probably appreciated it more than I did: my wife of 30 years.

It was somewhat emotional to walk some of the same streets that Anthony Bourdain walked, knowing we would never hear from him again, knowing in the back of mind that he valued the differences in this culture just as I was doing now.

The Basque region compares quite favorably with several other iconoclastic spots we’ve traveled to. Fiercely independent in many ways, isolated in others, it exists in the ever-present mist that sweeps in from the ocean. History has not always been kind to this region, with war, economic hardship, the collapse of fishing and shipbuilding, and the Franco years all driving a steel rod into the backs of the people, enabling them in the long run, to persevere.

In the process, they kept their language alive and their sense of family intact. They are open, passionate, and genuinely happy to be right where they are. The past is not a dark reflection on the present or future. The tourist is in most cases welcome, treated with kindness and encouraged to join the party. If you speak the language, so much the better for your chances of moving to a better seat to watch Spain play Iran in the World Cup!

Judging from the welcome we got, the feeling is a sincere reaction to our travels, a welcome relief from the tolerance one finds in some places. You are at once a visitor and observer, and eventually, to paraphrase Chef Bourdain, a traveler. If ever there was a lesson to be learned by 21st century America, it’s by observing other countries and people who even recently have found the need to be enthusiastically resilient.

Ah, but the food, that was a peek into their soul that will last a long time for me. Of course, the wine helped as well, and the fact that this part of the trip was extremely affordable, pushed us to be more adventurous. No continental breakfast at the hotel, but palmier and café con leche on the street with the morning rush hour.

One sit-down dinner in the old part of Bilbao, at Victor Montes, morphed into a mini pintxos fest with cheeses and morcilla (blood sausage), more Rioja, and ice cream to die for. Not our intention, but the ease of eating this way was too good to pass up.

Nothing changed when we bussed to Haro for a day and then to San Sebastian for a couple more.

Food is everywhere, and it’s universally great. Strolling from place to place, I was struck by the fact that each establishment, part bar, part takeout window, all restaurants were hard up against the other. Rather than being isolated from one another, the restaurants piggyback on business, feeding into the relaxed notion of pintxos which encourages grazing and moving.

In one night we were able to enjoy three to four different places all with their unique décor and food. Far from the cookie-cutter mentality, it was the little things that made each place standout.

It could be the patrons, ranging from senior citizen to millennial, all squeezed in together. A group of women sharing wine and conversation joined by their children for an early evening meal.

Bilboa, Spain

And what a meal! We never went hungry, didn’t fill up in a half hour, and actually saw a lot of the neighborhoods each day. It helped to have a fluent speaker by my side, but even my poor language skills were forgiven as I struggled first to even order and then to explain in detail to a server why I didn’t finish the seafood soup. It was a gracious way to dine, without any time constraints, and something new to discover at each stop.

Located by the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastian and Bilbao featured a lot of great seafood. Fresh, salted, preserved in oil, each stop did a little something different with some mainstay dishes.

Of course, the Spanish tortilla was a must at every stop. A potato “cake” doesn’t do the dish justice as several renditions were served warm and barely held together with lightly cooked egg and the starch from the potato. Well-seasoned each time, some also contained cod or hake, shrimp, peppers or ham. Served with a glass of Rioja chilled to about 68 degrees (I know, but it was fantastic) the tortilla started us off, breakfast lunch and dinner.

From there, our next favorite dish was probably the ensaladilla rusa, a mayonnaise-based salad that is sometimes punctuated with crab, peppers or bonito. It’s a traditional bound salad, made in a form that was developed in Russia at The Hermitage hotel. How it got to Spain is beyond me, but it’s fabulous. Think of a great tuna salad, add garlic aioli and roasted peppers, finish with cooked potato and enjoy. And then there is the ham, Ibérico ham to be precise. I’m not a chef who likes to compare one item by using another to describe it, so let’s just say if you love prosciutto, get yourself some Ibérico ham. Similar in the curing process to the other best hams in the world, I find it more muscular and deeply flavored, possibly even a bit leaner. Still it melts on the tongue, flavors soups, salads and croquetas, and became a great companion to any wine we chose to drink.

This food is not for everyone, in some cases, it’s a bit strange to see it sitting on the bar for hours at a time. We never felt queasy, never missed a meal or a chance to try something new. And with an eating schedule that was wide open from 5 p.m. to the wee hours of the morning, there was no hurry to eat and run.

I will always remember strolling down the hill in Bilbao arm in arm with my wife, the streets filled with happy people who were still conversant, all at midnight. We finished that night off with a bit of charcoal grilled lamb and another great Rioja, and never looked back from there.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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