Thursday, November 29, 2007

Slow Food from Spain

I went to a Slow Food dinner at Ideas restaurant last night. The chef, Jose Ignacio Castrodeza, was in flown in from Spain for the event. There, his restaurant Villa Paramesa specializes in medieval Castillian cuisine, as far as I can gather from the Spanish brochures we found at our place settings. The actual dinner he prepared used modern tweaks on traditional recipes and ingredients, possibly due to the regular Ideas chef, Alvaro Beadex, who collaborated.

The event announcement said there were sixty spots and I think fifty-nine people attended as the only empty seat I saw was the one by me. This is not an unusual occurrence, but I think this time it was due less to unfriendly vibes I may emit and more to the fact that I sat right by a big window looking into the kitchen as that was the only place with enough light for me to photograph my plates without using a flash. It was gauche enough to be pulling out my phone at regular intervals for snapping pics without drawing the whole room's attention with a flash of light. Amongst the other 58 attendees was Kyra White, the proprietress of Theine, my local tea shop, where I also pick up my weekly farm subscription vegetables. At the first subscription pick up she asked if I had joined the co-op due to her and I had to say no. She asked the same thing at the Slow Food dinner and I had to disappoint her again. Frankly, I don't remember her ever mentioning either one to me when I was buying tea, but next time I bump into her I'll tell her, yes, I am in fact stalking her just to make her feel better. As she saw me sitting alone, she offered me seat by her, but I declined saying that the empty seats near me would soon be filled with possibly-interesting strangers while I can talk to her every Saturday. She wasn't sure if that was a compliment or an insult. I'm not certain either as It was intended as a statement of fact. Anyway, I wanted to keep my seat for the light, and at least one of the people who sat at my table said something interesting before the crowd noise drowned everything out (which happened before the soup. With my hearing problems I'm essentially eating alone even at a full table so there would have been no real point in going with her, anyway.)

The first course was Serrano ham and castillian cheeses, both very nice. Serrano ham is rather similar to prosciutto and considered by many, including me, to be a bit superior. Like prosciutto, it's salted and aged up to a year. According to McGee's On Food and Cooking, the difference is that Serrano ham is cured with saltpeter to provide nitrite. To get a sense of what it's like, think of good quality prosciutto that you've kept in the refrigerator a bit too long and its started to dry out a little and it's started to go from soft and silken on its way to crispily dried out (and thrown out). In between, there's a stage where the ham's firmed up a bit and has a bit more tooth to it and the flavor is a bit more intense. Serrano ham is like that but much much better since it's not half gone off. The cheese, which the menu leaves nameless, was similar to an aged Parmesan in flavor, but the texture was a bit creamier so it could still be sliced into nice wedges instead of chiseled into uneven chunks. The crystals meant that it was aged too, around a year if I'm any judge, and I'm not. It was served warm but not quite hot, which really brought out the flavors. That's not something I've done with Parmesan, but I'll have to try it, even if I don't usually have the patience to let it get up to room temperature.

There was also Manzanilla sherry which had a lot of young green and vanilla notes. I asked the hostess for a bit more information (it's the sea breeze on the vineyard slopes that gives it its distinctive flavor, she said) and she poured me a glass of an older bottle from the same region. It was more refined (her words; I was thinking that, but I wasn't going to say.), and to more to my taste, but not nearly as good a match for the ham and cheese.

That course was followed up with some bread that didn't appear on the menu at all. (nor in my photographs. Either it's vampire bread or I need to actually wait when my phone says to wait.) The bread left at each table setting was a batard with a thick crunchy crust and a light fluffy inside. Over-baked if you ask me, but maybe that's what they were going for. Waiters also doled out wedges of another bread that was pretty much a Philadelphia-style soft pretzel in loaf form. It needed salt.

The meal proper began with creamy lentil soup with quail and foie gras. Also yummy. I liked how the lentil soup itself was under-seasoned and only really shone when a spoonful also included some fat from the quail or a bit of the oil that was drizzled on top. Unless that was some liquid form of foie gras I'm unfamiliar with (which is quite possible), I didn't notice the foie gras at all. I mentioned the fat from the quail, but not the meat. The meat was dark poultry meat (I had a leg) somewhere between chicken and duck. Not at all bad, and well prepared certainly, but nothing too special.

The wine for this course was Pares Balta Cuvee de Carol small bath Cava. That's a sparkling white wine if your oenology failed you. It was very flinty, which along with the bubbles, made it a bit harsh, really. But nothing wimpy would stand up to lentil soup, and the soup toned down the wine's excesses which a good food/wine pairing is supposed to do, so no complaints to the match.

The main course was a choice of anisette duck with a chestnut puree stuffed pear or a confit of Spanish cod on creamy garlic sauce with fried garbanzos. I'm not a huge fan of either anise or chestnut so despite my concern about confit of cod, that's the one I went with. Now, if you're familiar with north Atlantic cod (or the scrod you find in Boston) this wasn't that. If you're familiar with bacalao, the Spanish preserved salt-cod, it wasn't quite that either. I was quite surprised to learn (from questioning the hostess again) that the very firm texture that I had always attributed to the drying and salting procedure is actually what fresh Spanish cod is like. I'm sure if I read the blockbuster natural history book Cod I would know this. The undistinguished small tender whitefish I had in Boston must be the young over-fished version. This, according to the hostess, was a chunk from a very large adult fish. It certainly explains why cod and not some other whitefish was the one that ended up salted and stored; it's halfway to hardtack already. So, the upshot is that, while this was the best piece of cod I've ever had, that's not saying much. It's used today because it's traditional, not because it's good. The garlic sauce perked it up a bit, but I really was impressed by the fried garbanzos. I'll have to do that myself the next time I make the garbanzo, pasta, chorizo dish I discussed a few posts back.

The wine was a 2005 Martinsancho Verdejo, Rueda a very soft understated white wine. I had trouble putting my finger on a description, and I don't usually go for the fancy professional wine-talk, but the menu talked about this wine's "lanolin-and-melon textural richness" which really nails it, I think.

Unlike the last Slow Food dinner I attended, I was the only single at the table so there was nobody for me to share with to try the other entre. Ah well. Hmm, that's a lousy picture. The duck is the brown lump to the right; I think it was a boneless breast. The pear is the yellow disc on the left. Nice presentation, anyway.

Finally was dessert, Castillian cheese with quince foam and raspberries. Well, the menu says raspberries, but we got raspberry sorbet. I was not entirely thrilled with it. The quince foam was, I thought, a little too stabilized. It was kind of like the semi-solid Whip'n'Chill the University of Delaware dining halls used to serve back in the day. And raspberries in general and raspberry sorbet in particular are getting pretty tired in fine dining circles. At least it wasn't polluting perfectly good chocolate this time around. The cheese was soft and creamy but ripe. Eaten with the quince or raspberry, the sweet and tart flavors would overwhelm the cheesiness leaving only the creamy mouthfeel until the aftertaste. It was an interesting added element, but I think it would have been nice with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, too. There was also a crispbread with anise seed in it, but, as you may recall from a couple paragraphs up, I don't really care for anise so I don't think it added anything.

To finish things off was a glass of Williams and Humbert Dry Sack 15 year Oloroso Sherry 'Solera Especial'. You really shouldn't serve me anything especial when I've had four glasses already; I'm in no fit state to tell the difference. It seemed nice enough as far as I could tell. So I threw that back and headed home. And that was that.

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