Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Discovering Bilbao and Eating Pintxos

When you think of Spain, what city springs to mind? 
Barcelona and Madrid? There's a lot more to discover in Spain than these two magnificent cities.
Bilbao, a unique little city in the beautiful Basque country in northern Spain
is a treasure trove of art, culture, architecture and culinary delights but is often overlooked and skipped on Spain itineraries. Bilbao is one of the most charming places to see. Spend at least some of your holidays exploring Bilbao's hidden gems and immerse yourself in a pintxos crawl.

 My favourite neighborhood in Bilbao is its old quarter and at the centre of it is the Siete Calles or Seven Streets, the same streets that formed the original medieval town. The historical seven streets are: Somera (upper), Artekale (middle street), Tendería (shopkeepers), Belostikale (rapid street), Carnicería Vieja (old butchery), Barrenkale (lower street), and Barrenkale Barrena (lower lower street). 

Casco Viejo, a lovely old neighbourhood in Bilbao.

This beautiful structure located by the river housing Mercado de la Ribera  was registered to be the largest covered market in Europe in the book of Guinness World Records in 1990. With a surface area of 10,000 square metres and three levels packed with excellent range of fish, seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables, it was just incredible. On top of that, a fantastic food hall is located on the second level with heaps of counters filled with a variety of pintxos ready to be tasted, it was simply divine. Mercado de la Ribera is truly a foodie paradise in the heart of Bilbao.You mustn't miss this one.

The stunning stained-glass entry along Erribera Kalea. 
To be looking up at this great architecture for the first time was a pure delight.

Like many cities in the Basque country, Bilbao is noted for its excellent cuisine particularly the small tapas known as pintxos.
So what are pintxos? Pintxos (pronounced like "peen-chos") are the Basque Country's equivalent of Spanish tapas but the serving size is smaller. The word pintxos comes from the Spanish verb 'pinchar', which means 'to pierce'. Hence pintxos are held together by a toothpick. These skewered small bites usually consist of a bread topped with a variety of ingredients. A typical bar in Basque country will have its counter filled with these yummy nibbles. Locals eat them standing up with a glass of txakoli, a slightly sparkling, very dry white wine.

Unlike La Boqueria in Barcelona, this market is not yet swarmed with tourists.

I felt like I've gained weight just by looking at these little bites of heaven.

Goat Cheese with Caramelised Onions

The humble bocadillo jamon iberico is easily the most delicious sandwich on earth.

Nervion River

Bidebarrieta Central Library, the unsung gem of Bilbao, known only by locals and often missed out by tourists. Located in the heart of Bilbao and housed in a French eclectic style building it contains more than 100,000 books available to borrow, as well as computers, music CDs, audiobooks, videos, newspapers and other items. For lovers of books and great architecture, do yourself a favour and visit this gorgeous library. 
The stair case leads up to an impressive stained glass window that dates back to 1880's.

Detail of the rose window on the building's facade. On the right, a beautiful vintage cast iron radiator in the Study Room.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Pachamanca Farm Lunch at El Albergue, Ollantaytambo, Peru (Cusco Region)

Pachamanca, which translates to "earth oven" in Quechua language, is an ancient cooking technique that dates back to the time of the Incan Empire in which the meal is cooked on hot rocks under the soil. This method of cooking remains to be an important part of Peruvian cuisine as it emphasizes on the strong link between food and nature because Incas believed that cooking the food underground is paying a homage to the goddess Pachamama 
or Mother Earth.
To prepare the Pachamanca, you start with digging a hole in the soil and heat some stones over a fire and layer them into the pit. Next, place the toughest ingredients to cook first like the potatoes placing them at the bottom then add the meat and the vegetables last. Finally, cover everything with banana leaves or corn husks and a layer of canvas then seal it with heaps of dirt. This will allow the food to be slowly cooked inside.

Oven's ready to go! Add ingredients according to its cooking time. 

Chicken and meat marinated in garlic, vinegar, salt and a variety of aromatic Andean herbs.


While waiting for our Pachamanca meal to cook, we had a walk through the organic farm. I found the farm-to-table concept terrific and enjoyed learning about the large selection of organic vegetables grown for the restaurant.

Peruvian Black Mint or Haucatay.

Notice the amazing terraced fields. These were built more than 500 years ago.

Don't be deceived by the humble looking rocoto peppers, they may resemble bell peppers in appearance but be ready for a fiery surprise.

Buckwheat seeds

These lovely deep red and purple flowered plants produce a steady stream of seeds known as quinoa. Quinoa is not a grain at all although we cook and eat it like grain. What we eat is actually the seed which is why quinoa is gluten-free.

White beans (below) called tarwi from the Lupin plant (above).

(left) These small round zucchinis are perfect for stuffing.
(right) A goldenberry or cape gooseberry fruit encased by its papery leaves.
It 's got a unique taste that is a bit sweet and tangy with peachy flavour.


Table setup for our private lunch.

Et voila! Our pachamanca meal is ready.

Fava beans

Cooked lamb and chicken pieces.

Root vegetables and tubers.


(left) Sauces and dips. (right) Chicha Morada is a Peruvian beverage made from purple corn. It has a sweet and pleasant fruity flavour that's really refreshing. 

These potatoes were incredibly good and I found myself eating more and more of the ollucos, the ones which are tubular in shape with bright yellow skin. It has a soft texture, slimier than most potatoes and a slightly sweet taste.

Chicken is well seasoned and cooked perfectly.

Chocolate cake topped with goldenberries.

We had the most beautilful meal and unique experience at El Albergue which was also the hotel where we stayed. 
It was definitely the highlight of our time in the Sacred Valley.

 After that wonderful meal, we lingered around the property soaking up the gorgeous and relaxing scenery of Ollantaytambo. It's an atmosphere of calm and absolute tranquility. Then we visited Cafe Mayu's roasting facility located on the property grounds where we watched the coffee roasting process and were shown how to use an automated system to register color and temperature. We also learned how to choose the right coffee and grinding technique to prepare for a delicious coffee. Café Mayu, by the way is located next to the train station platform where train arrives and departs to Macchu Picchu Pueblo (also known as Aguas Calientes) and is open to hotel guests and travellers alike.

We enjoyed cups of freshly brewed coffee made with the same beans roasted and grounded on the spot by the master roaster. 

Just beside Cafe Mayu's roasting facility is The Destilería Andina. It is the Sacred Valley's first distillery and has been growing sugar cane in these high valleys for generations.

After sugar cane is converted to cañazo it goes through a second distillation in copper alembic still at an altitude of 2,792 meters above sea level in Ollantaytambo then only the heart is kept.

They produce Caña Alta in two versions, azul y verde (blue and green). These Andean spirits are twice distilled.

The spirits are aged using organic herb extracts which are harvested from their organic farm.

Matacuy is a compuesto, a traditional Andean digestive made with local botanicals. The recipe was developed by Wendy Weeks 35 years ago.

Using Wendy Weeks' painting as label for the Matacuy bottles.