A quick trip to Girona!

After our day trip to Montserrat we hoped in a rental car for a weekend away in the nearby medieval walled town of Girona. For some reason we didn’t have high expectations but boy were we ever mistaken! It’s a beautiful quaint little town that should be everyone’s list of places to visit when in Spain.

We were visiting at the start of winter so the streets were fairly empty. I can only imagine what it’s like in the summer!

We strolled around the town …

Walked along the wall edge …

… posed for some photos on said walls …

… walked on some bridges …

Those yellow ribbons are symbols of Catalan independence. This is a pretty staunchly separatist town! As seen by this massive Catalan flag …

… and more yellow independence ribbons, this time in the old town …

It’s really a beautiful town, Girona, with a meandering river going through the center of town. This picture doesn’t do the beauty justice – I blame the cloudy cold weather.

… and its filled with beautiful squares that must be packed in the summertime …

And some beautiful doors too!

The last season of Game of Thrones was filmed here too. These steps are where there was a famous scene where one of the leads rode a white horse up the steps!

We are definitely going back to Girona!

A Day Trip to a Monastery!

As we suspected we would be, we’ve been fairly negligent so far in our adventure here in exploring Spain. We’ve focused on European travel at the cost of not exploring our own back door. Well, last weekend we tried to rectify that. The girls had a 5 day long weekend (*love* Europe!) and they refused out-of-country travel and insisted on staying closer. Spoiled kids!

Our first day of travel we took the (local) train …

… to a famous monastery in the mountains just an hour or so from Barcelona.

It’s called Montserrat, and to be honest, I don’t know anything about it. It’s Catholic (duh) and there are still some clergy walking around, and there’s an opulent church …

What we had come for is the amazing setting. The monastery is perched on the side of a bare rock mountain-side.

We took a funicular train thing up the hill to get there, and it went super steep …

And then we took a hike out to a visit point under a cross …

Instead of taking the funicular down we took the Gondola. The sign says it was made almost 100 years ago! Safety third!

But it was an amazing view on the way down!

Then it was back to Barcelona to get ready for a weekend trip to Girona!

Last day in San Sebastian

Okay, everyone, listen up! You all need to book a vacation to San Sebastian. Right now! Not only is it an amazing food town (both at the high-end Michelin starred level, but also at the pintxos level), it’s stunningly beautiful. Look at some of these shots.

The beaches are stunning…

And at least in the fall they are pretty empty!

The architecture is beautiful …

The views incredible …

This was taken up at the top of one of the peaks at the gate to the harbor…

And at night the sunsets, sky, and lights are beautiful …

I suspect the streets are more crowded at night in the summer!

Love this town!

But the visiting with Sara and Rafa wasn’t over! The day after Etxebarri we were scheduled on a late afternoon flight home to Barcelona, and Rafa said “Perfect! Lets go for lunch!”

First we took a walk on the beach. In France. Yup, San Sebastian is pretty much on the border. The girls were so shocked when I said “Welcome to France!”

There was a lovely boardwalk …

And the boys had a chance to jump onto the beach …

And then it was off to lunch at Patxikuenea Erretegia, a great country restaurant, simple and cozy and homey, serving top top notch food. As is expected of any place Sara and Rafa bring us to!

We had some killer grilled fish …

And some steaks. Ooh, some more delicious Galician steaks! We had a tour of the kitchen/asador …

And just by chance the ineffable effervescent Martine Saunier was close by – she joined us for lunch, with her two friends Marie and Jean-Jacques!

Then we had to race off to the airport to go home. Let me be clear with how close we cut this. We were eating dessert 45 minutes before the flight was due to take off! But Rafa kept reassuring us, “Don’t worry don’t worry, you’ll make it. And if you don’t, how bad would one more night in San Sebastian be!?

The airport only has 10-15 flights a day, really just to Madrid and Barcelona. When we got there the desk was closed and we didn’t have boarding passes. Somehow we conned our way through security without boarding passes! Then we got to the gate and were admonished that we were way way late and the doors were about to close. We were so late that these were our boarding passes!

We got on the plane, with our girls fully relieved! They were shooting us dagger-eyes when we had ordered espresso to go with our dessert 40 minutes before! Then the plane sat there for a few minutes, I guess as the crew was readying the plane. Noticing no activity, Melinda leaned over and said “See, we could have stayed at lunch a little longer.” Ha!!

What a trip to San Sebastian. A whirlwind of food and drinks and sightseeing and time with our new friends Sara and Rafa! Can’t wait to go back!

 

Asador Etxebarri!

The real excuse for us to come to San Sebastian with Sara and Jim and the clan was to go to one of the most famous restaurants in the world – Asador Etxebarri. Somehow Sara had managed to secure a reservation, which is seriously one of the most difficult ones to get anywhere. Seriously, anywhere. We jumped on the chance to go.

After our big day with Sara and Rafa the day before, I needed a bit more “exercise”, this time I called it Heine-walls …

And we needed a bit of a walk down the beautiful San Sebastian beach …

… on the way to, yup, even more glorious food! This time at Bodega Donostiarra, another recommendation from Rafa …

… where we snacked on great food like this pig snout dish. God, it was sooooo good.

But we didn’t want to stuff ourselves because we wanted to save ourselves for the main event – Etxebarri!!!

Arriving at Etxebarri was a bit of a surprise. We had heard it was a simple farmhouse but it was really really simple. But that was just the downstairs “bar” entryway. Once we got upstairs it was super elegant and beautiful, just like us!  😉

We had a lovely greeting and evening from the wine director, Agusti. He had real fun with us, knowing we were wine people, and brought out some killer rare Spanish wines.

We sipped some champagne while perusing the tasting menu …

Then the games began! I won’t post a picture of every single dish, but rather just the highlights.

Like the anchovy on toasted bread …

And the chlamys varia …

And an etheral squid. It was just a baby squid. We’ve all had squid in our life, often just chewy flavorless rings dipped in batter and deep fried. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some fried calamari (especially the baby ones at Cal Pep in Barcelona!), but this was say different. Super simply prepared, touched with heat over charcoal and served unadorned, except for some squid ink. The texture was perfect, the taste pure and powerful, unlike any other squid I’ve ever had.

And then gambas rojas from the Mediterranean!

There is a method to eating these. First you break off the head, gently and upside down so as to preserve the liquid inside. Then you tilt the head into your mouth and suck out all the goodness. It tastes like truffles! Then you attack the bodies. I have to include an “after” shot here. Down to bones! I’ll never be able to eat another crappy Thai/Vietnamese shrimp again, and may not even be able to eat another great South Carolina one again even! These were so damn good.


But the two highlights were the anguiles and the steak. Two ultra ultra simple preparations, that could only be made to that quality with the utmost of care and attention to, well, pretty much everything.

The anguiles are tiny little eels, a super rarity, especially fresh like these were, just touched with heat over charcoal. A super delicate flavor, fresh from the water but also with some earthy character. Oh god, I’ll never forget these.

And then there was the steak. Ooh, the steak! I’ve always thought the best beef came from the USA, but after this steak, I totally agree the best steak comes from Galicia!

But the level of detail chef put into this is crazy. First he determined the best beef comes from Galicia, then he had to find out which breed he wants. Then he had to find a farmer who raises that breed the way he wants it to be raised. Also to get it slaughtered and butchered to his desires. Then to age it just the right amount of time for that cow. And then to determine which of the multitude of choices of wood he wants to cook it over. Then to figure out what is the best temperature for cooking of that piece of beef, and for how long. The result is this glorious glorious piece of beef. Amazing.

The dessert courses weren’t the highlight unfortunately, except for this beautiful reduced ice cream with beet. Two unlikely flavors to go together, but it worked so so well.

So what did we think of the experience? Well, I’ve always thought that a good sign is if the diners talk about the meal on the way home afterwards, which we did. We also talked about it the next day. And later that week too. Part of it was we were trying to understand it. What did it all mean? What was this restaurant really about? Well, here’s my take.

Many restaurants try to source the best ingredients and cook them simply and try to get the most pure flavour out of each ingredient. Think Chez Panisse. You could also even think of the top molecular places in a similar way – while they might not be simply prepared, they are trying to coax out as much pure flavour as they can from each ingredient.

Etxebarri is different. The dishes are indeed very simple, often with a very small number of ingredients (i.e. the eels were made with just eels and smoke). But I think chef is doing something different. I think he’s trying to take away ingredients, rather than just use a small number. Think of it like the modern art of the 1950s, where artists reduced the canvas to simple colours, or just one colour, or a single straight line. They weren’t making that art that way because they didn’t want to put more on the canvas. Rather they removed everything else they thought that would interfere. I think Etxebarri is doing the same thing. They are taking the best, I mean absolute best, quality ingredients and then making sure they take away every possible option that would not emphasize that single quality ingredient. Sometimes that means taking away alot, and sometimes it means taking away only a little.

Anyway, that’s my take on the place. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Stunning food, great wines, beautiful company! Thanks for making the reservation, Sara!

 

 

 

San Sebastian!

The highlight of the visit from Sara and Jim and family was a trip to San Sebastian, which we planned not just because it’s an awesome city with a crazy food and booze culture, but also because Sara had secured an impossible beyond crazy reservation at Asador Etxebarri! Yes, more of that later.

But first we had to catch a flight to San Sebastian, just an hour away. Obligatory airport beer selfie …

We landed, dropped our stuff at our awesome apartment rental and jumped head first into pintxo land!

A quick bite (though not a small amount!) later we crashed into bed and woke to a fantastic view from the apartment we rented …

Always good to do a little exercise while enjoying the gastronomic riches of a place like San Sebastian, but we’re an efficient group so we multi-tasked and did some exploration of the local Txakolina wine. We call these “Wall Txakies” …

But enough of the hard exercise! It was time to go meet our friends Sara and Rafael for the fantastic day they had planned for us.

A brief aside, one of a couple in this post. One of the fantastic things we have experienced here in our adventure in Spain has been the lovely friendliness and hospitality of the Spanish people we have met. Sara and Rafa epitomize that experience we have had. We met them while they were on vacation in San Francisco and had rented the apartment above our garage. I saw the Spanish name on the reservation, did a little to confirm they were from Spain, and since we had just decided to move to Barcelona, invited them over for a glass of wine at our house while they were visiting SF. From that one brief time together (where I must say we just peppered them with a million questions about Spain!) they invited us to see them in San Sebastian once we had moved. Well, we didn’t just go out for a drink with them. They had a huge multi-day experience planned for us and hosted by them! Two of the most hospitable people we have ever met, two people we are so happy to now call friends!

So what did Rafa have planned for us that first day? Well, Rafa is a member of a Txoko, a Basque gastronomic society. I’ve never heard of clubs like this outside of Basque country, and have always wanted to experience one. Rafa is a member of one of most famous ones – Gaztelubide.

Another brief aside. Txokos are gastronomic societies. They’re places with professional kitchens where members prepare meals for a smallish (i.e. 2-20) group of invited guests, often just a crowd of other members. But they could also be cooking for friends and family. They don’t mess around – these are serious meals, multi-course, prepared by serious non-professional cooks, with the absolute best ingredients. Take a look at this plating, which was de rigeur for what we saw that day …

But it’s also important to note that Txokos are “mens clubs”, and in the past women weren’t even allowed in the door.

Now most clubs allow women to be guests, though women are still not allowed in the kitchens. At Gaztelubide, women were allowed as guests, though not Monday through Thursday at dinner time.  Rafa told us that he sees progress towards equality continuing and feels eventually all Txokos will have equal standing for both sexes, both as diners and as cooks. In time.

We’ve been fortunate to have two strong feminist teenagers in our house (in addition to us “grown-up” feminists!), and, um, they took some exception to this exclusion! Emma broke down and cried after not being allowed in the kitchen. Alexis was a bit more stoic in her disapproval. We didn’t have the heart to tell them that we are heading to parts of the Middle East at Christmas where they may be obligated to cover their hair!

But back to the experience of the day.

We met Rafa at a very cool locals pintxos place called Antonio Bar …

… had a beer and a quick bite from their beautiful selection of mouth-watering pintxos …

… then it was time to start shopping for food for lunch, starting with some local cheeses ….

… then onto the local fish monger …

… where amongst the treats was some barnacles! I’ve always wanted to try these. Turns out they are outrageously good!

Then after a quick stop at the market for some vegetables …

… it was on to the Txoko to start cooking! The kitchens are serious profession set-ups, filled with men passionate about cooking.

Rafa got me going on the technically difficult, and labor intensive, preparation of the pil-pil, this one made with the jowls from hake.

But it wasn’t “labor” really, as the first action was to open some Txakoli! We had a good time cooking, don’t you worry!

Here’s how lovely the hake pil pil turned out. Near perfect emulsion …

And here’s a shot of Rafa portioning up the heavenly monkfish (pun intended). I love how the picture has Sara pointing her instructions – women may not be allowed in the kitchen, but they can still make their opinion heard!

A truly fantastic meal, a unforgettable lifetime-dream experience to eat in a Txoko, and made especially great with two such great hosts.

But that wasn’t the end of the activities for the day they had planned for us!

After a quick visit to the merry-go-round so the kids could let loose a bit …

… we let the kids head home, and Rafa took for a pintxos-crawl!

After stopping by Antonio Bar again for a couple warm-ups…

… then we headed over to Bar La Espiga …

Where we kicked it up a notch with some GinTonics …

… before finishing the gastronomic day off well with some tripas …

… and some veal brains …

Melinda had a small bite of the brains, and I replied with “Viente años, vaca loco!” Might as well go down with mad-cow together!

An incredible day, one I’ll never forget! Thanks so much to the hospitality of Spanish, of the Basque, and in particular of Sara and Rafa!

(But their hospitality was not complete! More to come!)

Sara and Jim and the boys come to visit!

Our livers are broken! The visit from Sara and Jim and the boys, Finn and Jack, has taken it’s toll! As I like to say, the wagon is so rusty and the wheels so flat that it’s hard to get back on it! But what an amazing visit it’s been. Our first friends visiting us in Barcelona!

We ate and drink our way through Barcelona, Penedes, Priorat, and San Sebastian for 13 beautiful days. Pretty much non-stop!

We drank GinTonics on rooftop hotel bars …

We got hugs …

We talked on the phone at the dinner table …

We went to awesome bars (this one was Collage, our new favourite bar in Barcelona!) …

We jumped for joy …

We looked irresistibly cute …

I even dragged Sara to a “Natural” wine bar!

We ate al fresco in the Born …

We even took roller coasters!

A fantastic 13 days!

But I’m not done telling the story of their visit! I’m going to split up their visit into a number of posts. We just did too much to pile it all into one!

Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

London for the MW ceremony

For the last 10 years I have dreamed of entering Vintners Hall in London and becoming a Master of Wine. Ten years. In times of doubt or anxiety I would envision myself walking up to the podium, in an effort to give me the motivation I needed to continue the journey.

Well, it finally happened. And it was the highest level of euphoria I have *ever* felt in my life. Walking in from the back of the room to thunderous applause was an absolutely incredible experience.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before all the MW ceremony stuff we had a bunch of other things to do! First thing was a little touristing of this fantastic city!

Emma found an old school telephone booth to horse around in …

And we went on a double decker hop-on hop-off bus tour, always a great way to see a city…

… and that included a boat ride on the Thames too …

London is really a beautiful city! As I see it, the only other city in the world that can compare with London is NYC.

Then it was time to get the celebrations started! We started with a dinner at 67 Pall Mall, but on the way Emma spotted the pop-up window display (actually Berry Bros & Rudd wine merchants) for the tailor shop in the movie, Kingsmen! Super fun!

Then it was on to the club for dinner with the family!

I need to mention how special this was for me to have my entire family there. My family from Barcelona, and my parents flew in from Toronto for this, and my brother flew up from Switzerland. If I hadn’t had all their love and support through this entire MW journey, I don’t think I would have made it through to the finish line. It was so special to have dinner with them all the night before the ceremony.

The next day it was all about the ceremony!

As the Brits would say, I got all “suited and booted” …

… and off to Vintners Hall!

Where the places were arranged and ready to go …

Including this one!

Before the festivities there was picture time, where all us new MWs had our picture taken with the current Chairman of the Institute, Jane Masters (yes that’s her real last name – Jane Masters, Master of Wine!) …

And we had opportunity for family portraits too! Again, I have to say how great it was to be able to have my family there for the ceremony.

And then the most important picture was set to be taken, the group shot of all the new MWs, though I couldn’t help but ham it up with a selfie before hand …

And here’s the real one!

And then it was on to the ceremony!

I actually don’t really remember walking on stage to get my MW. It’s all sort of a hazy blur, but I do remember feeling a sense of relief!

There was a fantastic after party at Vintners Hall, during which the Bollinger flowed and flowed!

With still more selfies, this one with my honey …

(I’ll save the pictures of the raucous after-after party for private viewing on request!)

The next morning was a little rough, to be sure. I needed a little (non-vinous) reinforcement while I stared longingly at the piece of paper I’ve been pursuing so hard all these years!

But that wasn’t the end of the celebrations! My brother took us all out to the famous River Cafe for lunch the next day! What a fantastic spot! I’d never eaten there before and it lived up to its lofty expectations!

Where he got the sneaky idea to make a shortcut to getting his MW …

And then it was off to the airport for the flight home to Barcelona, with framed MW under my arm!

With that ceremony the journey to the MW has come to an end. But now a new journey begins, one with me as an actual MW.  A journey where I can continue to learn, can add value to the world of wine, and can contribute to the Institute of Masters of Wine!

Cambridge visit before London for the MW ceremony

{Please excuse the lateness of this post – it happened 2 weeks ago! – but we’ve been super busy with the follow on and visitors! I’ll catch up soon, I promise!}

We spend a glorious 5 days in the UK last weekend. An amazing, packed, glorious 5 days.

We started with a couple days visiting our dear friends Tim and Jo in Cambridge. Tim and I go way back – we worked together at Sequus Pharmaceuticals when Melinda and I first moved to California. God, that was over 18 years ago! We have seen them intermittently on holidays over the years, once in the Lot et Garonne and another time in San Francisco & Carmel. They’re both the loveliest people, and have two beautiful girls, Esme and Phoebe.

We landed, got picked up by Tim and arrived to a gigantic feast at their house and Tim opened up some great wines: 2010 Les Hauts de Smith, 2006 Castelnau de Sufuiraut, and 1995 Warre’s Port! Thanks Tim!

The next day we toured around Cambridge, to check it out as tourists but also to show Alexis around the colleges, as she needs to apply for University next year! Yikes, how did that come up so fast!

Jo is an honest-to-goodness certified Cambridge tour guide – the training she took was extensive – a year long. We loved all the insights and history she gave us.

What a crazy beautiful “campus”! In quotes because the colleges of Cambridge University aren’t really it’s campus, rather they are the residences and social and well-being centers for the students. And boy are they beautiful …

The rule is you’re not allowed to walk on the grass. Unless you’re a “fellow” of the college. My dad is allowed to walk on the grass at Kings ….

I think Alexis is standing in front of King’s in this one …

And here’s a crazy old one, I forget the name. The room block on the left there is so old it doesn’t have indoor plumbing and they can’t retrofit it in! The students need to walk to another wing of the building to find toilets and sinks!

Oh, one more, just for the hell of it …

All that walking made me and Tim thirsty so when Melinda and Jo went off to hear some lovely choral music at Kings. Pictures we’re allowed inside, but here’s one of the line-up to get in!

… and Emma and Phoebe went off to explore town …

… Tim and I snuck off to the pub for a pint (or two!) …

But then Tim and Jo showed us the real surprise of the day – they had put on a fireworks show just for us visiting! (Not true, ob – it was Guy Fawkes day!)

Then we went for the classic English meal of Indian food! But the lovely new British Indian – aka fancy!

We sure don’t get much Indian in Barcelona, so this was sure a treat!

The next day we went down memory lane and I was able to visit the house I lived in when I was born!

And also the house we lived in when we were in Cambridge in 1978!

A fantastic, albeit too short, visit to see Tim and Jo and Esme and Phoebe, and to explore the town of my birth!

And then it was on to London for the MW ceremony! But that’s for a different post!

 

 

Berlin Day Four – Heading home. Sunday October 15th

Steps: 7,885

Four years ago in Paris on holiday, our most memorable meal was one on the banks of the Sienne. We got a baguette, some cheese and charcuterie, a bottle of wine (come on who am I lying to, it was two bottles) and laid out a blanket with the other Parisians and watch the boats go by. Top memory! Here’s a blast-from-the-past photo:

Oh, one more for old times sake!

We’ve made a commitment to making sure we do a picnic on every trip on our adventure in Barcelona. The nice thing is that it gets us to explore the markets of every city. Emma found a great market for us to load up on provisions…

So on the morning of our departure, we found a great little spot on the canal near our apartment and laid out a mid morning spread.

Please excuse my squinting! At least I wasn’t like the group of 20-somethings down the way who were clearly having a relaxing morning after having just left a nightclub. It was 10am and they were having one last drink in the morning sunlight before heading off to bed!

It was a beautiful morning, and a beautiful part of Kreuzberg…

Canal boats, swans, the works …

A great way to finish our trip in Berlin!

So what were our takeaways from Berlin?

1) Berlin is, well, Berlin! There’s no other place like it. Art (not just graffiti), great food, pretty cool fashion. I was really surprised at how great the food scene is in Berlin. We had only one dud meal out of 10+. And what’s not to love about having a fast currywurst and a pilsner standing at a counter!
2) There’s serious history here. And the Germans really own it, as Alexis would say. We can’t learn from the mistakes of our past if we don’t fully acknowledge it.
3) It is way more international than I thought it was. German was the first language for at most 50% of the people there. And the foreigners were not just tourists or part of the large Turkish population. Berlin’s got huge numbers of non-Germans living and working there.
4) I’m not sure I could live in Berlin. As we got out of the terminal in Barcelona, the warm Spanish sun hit my face (Berlin is cold!), I saw smiling Spaniards (Berliners didn’t strike me as the warmest and happiest), and felt at home. Ahh.

 

 

Berlin Day Three – the Wall! Saturday October 14th

Steps: 16,888

Come on, there’s some serious history in Berlin, right? You’ve got all the Nazi and war history, but when the word Berlin pops in your head, what do you envision. Yeah, the Wall. Built in 1961, it cordoned off West Berlin until 1989! For 28 years there were two walls, with a death strip in the middle, around the entire 40+ kilometer circumference of West Berlin.  Crazy! Places like Brandenburg Gate, once a bustling excise gate, didn’t have non-military people walking through it for 28 years!

So we had to check it out as much as we could. We signed up for a bike tour to take us around the highlights.

Alexis got to do a little spray painting again at one section …

Emma too …

We got the famous stretch of the wall at Bernauer Strasse…

… a site of many escape attempts and successes. And of tunnels under the death strip. Now it’s home to a Google incubator called the Factory …

Sigh. “Progress”.

But next door they did keep a stretch of the death strip intact as a memorial. Crazy to think that this snaked on for 40+km. For 28 years.

We saw one place where the S-Bahn was barricaded so that a train could not barrel through and escape to the West.

Oh, and we saw a Trabant rally! Hilarious! Stinky little lawn mower engine things!

Why am I adding this picture of satellite dishes to a Berlin Wall post?

This building was in the West, and right on the edge of the Wall, overlooking it really. When Germany had it’s big influx of Turks to the city, the Turks didn’t mind being next to the Wall. The rest of Berliners considered those dangerous areas, as the East Germans could start shooting at any moment. But the Turks had come from way worse situations so they jumped on these apartments! So why the satellite dishes? So they can get news (and prayers) from home!

Our guide had a great knowledge of the Wall, and he certainly had no problems discussing difficult topics. When one of the Israelis on the tour asked about the height of the wall he replied, “Nowhere near as tall as *your* wall.” Nice! Addressing the 500 pound gorilla in the room straight up.

At one point on the ride back, we were going through a park, and a youngish German woman walking her dog started having strong words in German with our guide (he’s a native Kenyan, by the way, that’s important to the story), and he started replying very loudly, in German, with the only words I could recognize being “Eva Braun”. After he had calmed down, I asked him about the altercation. Turns out the lady had yelled at him to get rid of us tourists, and then addressed him directly saying “get the fuck out of here too, you fucking monkey.” He replied by calling her Eva Braun. Yup, true story.

Berlin Observation #5: Racism is alive and well in Germany! But hey, they don’t have a lock on it – look at the USA! #MAGA!