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Are you a “foodie”? Just what makes you one?  If you´re not sure check out Wikipedia’s definition here.  Are you intrepid too?

I´d classify myself as a foodie with a hint of gourmet (although I love a grilled cheese just as much as a Michelin star meal).  I won´t bore you with my grilled cheese (although I make a mean one), rather I´ll share our latest “foodie” experience.  It was definitely for the intrepid, a category I´d place myself in easily food wise (I mean I´ve eaten grasshoppers, ant larvae and worms, if that´s not intrepid I don´t know what is) and otherwise… I love a good adventure…

We had some American friends in Spain from Austin (Texas) recently. We in Cantabria, they in Madrid…they´ve been to see us in Northern Spain before…umm… let´s meet in the middle.  We got a bit off track from the middle and met in the province of Zamora.  Zamora is home to excellent wine (Toro being one of my favorite D.O.s (wine regions)), awesome sheep cheese and hearty food, and when I say hearty, I mean hearty.

It was a very food and wine oriented weekend.  Lynne and I hit Leon on our way for some tapas in El Humedo and to have one of my favorite steak tartares on the planet at La Trastienda del 13 near the cathedral.

Best steak tartare around. Lynne went with a Rueda. I stuck to local, Prieto Picudo.

We went to Zamora partly becasue I found this cool place to stay at.

Zamoran countryside design and wine

It is in the middle of nowhere really, but it has a small vineyard and is architecturally interesting to say the least.  Two of my loves (wine and architecture).  The owners shared their wine and fresh produce from the vegetable garden.  We drank quite a bit of the wine (OK, fine, all of it) and ate all the fresh produce too.  I even made a tortilla, the potatoes and eggs were fresher than fresh and awesome. A great night hanging out and catching up with friends.

Interior… note the flowers in the empty wine bottles which had been full… as I said a great evening with friends (no I won´t tell you how many friends they were)…

We hit Toro to visit some bodegas and have some wonderful tapas for lunch the next day.  We did quite a bit of Toro D.O. sampling becasue we wanted to take plenty home with us as we love this wine region.

A little Toro wine sampler for us

Zamoran morcilla and cheese… re-friggin de-licious… we had several each…

We cruised around the province of Zamora, hitting the town of Toro then onto the capital (Zamora) and even made it to Portugal, just to say we did really.  I had scoped a Michelin guide restaurant and we headed to Benavente for dinner closer to our place.

We tend to go for tasting menus when they are available as you get more variety and a good overall impression of a place.  We were offered the traditional tasting menu but there was also a very hearty and very traditional fall tasting menu available.  Everybody trusted my judgement and even though I saw several things others might have balked it if they knew what they were going to eat, we went fall.  I mean, it is the season.  We opted for the “maridaje” as well, so each dish would be paired with an appropriate beverage… uhh?… yes?

Here is our experience at El Ermitaño in Benavente, Zamora. I´ll give the description in Spanish with the corresponding photo caption in English.  It will give you a sense for the experience of my table mates not knowing what they were eating before they did and a little language learning for you!

Aperitivo: Sardina ahumada con pimientso, cebolleta y berenjena asadas, ajo y piparras.

Smoked sardine

Willy Wetter: Smoked sardine with roasted peppers, french onion and eggplant, garlic and Basque chile peppers.

It was tasty and paired with carbonated Vichy water to get our palates clean and off to a fresh start.  Next was the first of several surprises.  Surprise becasue had I told my American table mates what we were about to eat, they would have certainly said no…

Entrante 1: El tartar de potro a la mostaza con cebolleta, alcaparra y cremoso de higado de pato al Pedro Ximénez

This was really delicious and everybody literally sopped up every bit of it…. read on to find out what exactly we ate…

Colt Tartare

Starter 1: Mustard based colt tartare with french onions, capers and cream of duck liver ala Pedro Ximenez (sherry)

No, that is not a misprint. Colt.  As in young horse.  While eating horse meat is not customary in many countries, in Spain it is a very traditional meat and although not consumed that much anymore mainstream, it still is.  Regardless of what you may think, it was wonderful.  Everyone nearly had a heart attack after I told them, but couldn´t get over how good it was.  Sorry if that offends anyone.

The colt tartare was paired with a Raventos i Blanc Brut Reserva cava, made with Macabeo, Xarello and Parellada varieties.  It was delicious too and helped mingle all the flavors of the dish for us.

Cava

2009 Reserva Brut Cava, Raventós i Blanc

As the cat was out of the bag on surprise food items, everyone insisted on knowing what they were eating from then on.  I agreed, but insisted everyone at least try everything.  Without putting up much of a stink, we moved on…

Entrante 2: El huevo de corral con setas silvestres, lengua adobada, parmentier de puerros y trufa negra

Egg Tongue

Starter 2: Free range egg with wild mushrooms, marinated beef tongue, leek parmentier and black truffle

Ok, this one didn´t go over as well.  I love all of the ingredients but was a bit disappointed with the combo of it all.  My aunt´s beef tongue is some of the tenderest, best tasting beef I know (my personal expectations were too high).  She prepares it sliced super thin and in a tomato sauce though.  Here it was cubed and not that tender.  The wild mushrooms were great (chanterelles and bolets if I had to guess) but the truffle was a bit overpowering.  Too much of a good thing can go bad, especially with truffles. We blended it all up with the lightly poached egg and it was passable, but I was the only one that finished it as it was too hearty and traditional for the rest…

The saving grace was a wonderful pairing and discovery for me.  Aora Mil Cien, wheat and barley Pale Ale  from Leon.  This beer was refreshing and citrusy, and even though it said pale ale, I´d put it somewhere between a Belgian white and a Heffe-Weizen, two of my faves.

Pale Ale

Aora, Mil Cien ale, Compañia Leonesa de Cervezas y Maltas

Onto something “lighter” in the food area, but with another semi-surprise in order…

Entrante 3: La sopa de bacalao ahumado con salteado de hongos, mollejas de lechazo, ajetes y vieiras

Cod Scallop

Starter 3: Smoked cod soup with a saute of wild mushrooms, suckling lamb tonsils, young garlic and scallops

Ok, so everyone is probably fine with it all that until you read “suckling lamb tonsils”.  I have a bias for these and everyone at the table had tried them at my aunts before so it wasn´t that big a stretch.  We eat a lot of suckling lamb in Spain and the butchers save the tonsils. They are tender and delicious.  It is a definite case of not being wasteful with what you eat.  The combination of flavors in this dish was really well done.  The seafoodiness with the lighter meat of the tonsils combined with the sauted garlic and mushrooms was an unexpected mix that was quite enjoyable.  Another plate cleaner.

Great pairing this time as well with a 2011 Carredueñas tempranillo rosé from Ciglaes.  Rosés are so under appreciated in my opinion, even dismissed. Fine, more for me. I like a good fresh one in the right situation and this was one of them.  It was marvelous with the risky seafood lamb combo we had on our plate.  Love Cigales rosés, if I might like the Navarran ones better.  This Cigales was exceptionally good, on my short list now.

Rosado

2011 Carredueñas, Rosado joven, tempranillo

Onto the mains with the fish first, of course.

El Pescado: El San Pedro con pil-pil de oreja de cochinillo a lo tío, rebozuelos y ajetes tiernos

Gallo San Pedro

The Fish: John Dory with an oil, garlic and chile emulsion of earthen pot roasted suckling pig ear, chanterelle mushrooms and tender young garlic

This was the dish that everyone had the hardest time with.  The fish was great but the emulsion was a bit off and the texture of the pig ear put us all off.  I have never been a big fan to begin with but this was way cartilaginous, even if there wasn´t that much of it (the tiny white strips in the pic).  My precious chanterelles and garlic couldn´t save it completely for me, if I did finish it all. I like to give it a full go, especially on dishes that require an open mind.  Something has to be really wrong with it for me to not finish a dish.

The wine pairing didn´t fix this one either.  The 2011 Viñas del Vero gewürztraminer from Somontano was way too sweet for all of us.  I am not a fan of sweet wines or of Spanish wine makers delving into non traditional grapes… it´s kind of like a Japanese automaker trying to make an American muscle car… why?

Gewurtraminer

2011 Viñas del Vero, blanco joven, gewürtztraminer

All in all our least favorite dish and wine.  Onto some redemption and eating my words a bit…

La Carne: El lomo de ciervo asado en sal de setas con su jugo y risotto de boletus edulis al queso Zamorano

Ciervo

The Meat: European red deer loin roasted in a wild mushroom salt au jus and risotto of boletus edulis mushrooms and Zamoran sheep cheese

Game can be tough to get right, and when it´s wrong, it sucks frankly.  Bad game is generally like eating the sole of your boot with cardboard.  Not the case here, it was done just right.  This loin of European red deer was cooked perfectly, al punto, as we say in Spain (literally meaning on the mark or in layman´s terms, medium rare).  It was juicy and thick.  The risotto had a unique flavor in part due to the bolets (edulis being one of my favorite varieties of bolets) and to the unique local cheese employed.  Even the risotto was hearty, especially with the jus soaking it all around.  Delicious.

It was paired with a (eat my words as this is not a Spanish variety) 2004 Absum Colección merlot from Somontano. This was a great wine for the venison, matching the game dish with an 8 year old, oak aged merlot from Aragon was also on the mark.

Absum

2004 Absum, Tinto crianza, merlot

Needless to say by this point we were all pushing maximum density, but there always seems to be room for a little something sweet… or two… with more tasty beverage pairings of course…

Los Dulces 1: Reineta, Pera, Regaliz, te Negro y Especias

Postre Reineta

Reineta apple with pear ice cream, black tea, licorice and spices

This was delightlful.  Reinetas are a kind of apple that is commonly roasted in Spain for desert dishes and pie making.  A wicked combination of fruitiness, spiciness and exotic.  It was very fall to me, but with a strong hint of Far East and a pinch of Middle East (the mint leaf).  Could have had another but there was a second dessert to be had…

Let´s not forget the wine pairing either, a Candidus, sweet verdejo from Leon.  I love the verdejo grape, if I am not a fan of sweeter wines as I said before.  In this case though, the fact that I love verdejo offset the sweetness of the wine, which although was present wasn´t sappy sweet, which I hate.  This wine is made by Bodegas Gordonzello, which happens to also make a red that we love from Leon , a prieto picudo called Peregrino (pilgrim, which we appropriately discovered on the Camino de Santiago as pilgrims!)

Candidus

Candidus, verdejo, blanco semi-dulce

Ok, I think we are going to make it… I think…

Los Dulces 2: Leche, Cacao, Avellanas y Azúcar

Cacao

Sweets 2: Milk, cocoa, hazelnuts and sugar

This was almost too pretty to eat… almost.  The cotton candy (sugar) was my first point of attack.  Then onto combining spoonfuls of hazelnut creamy goodness, with chocolatey brownieness topped with sweet cream ice cream… I left that little sugary cube to finish myself off with.  Hell, it was all so good I was tempted to eat the sprig of sage as well… oh and don´t think that chocolaty skid on the plate didn´t get spooned off into my mouth.

The pairing I used as a posting instead saving it for after. A real dessert wine bordering digestive.  A 2007 Don Pedro Ximenez from Cordoba.  Again, I am not a sweet wine fan but this is a different league.  It´s the right combination of sweet and flavorful, in a very dried fruit kind of way (think dates, figs).  Excellent way to finish ourselves off.

Pedro Ximenez

2007 Toro Albala Don PX, pedro ximenez, dulce

All in all a good experience, very autumnal, very traditional yet modern (a combo I love).  Unfortunately, the strength of some of the local ingredients made this one tougher for some of us than others.  I´d go back for sure but order the regular tasting menu.

We were so stuffed we all went home and crashed as soon as we got there.  Food overload.  We rounded out the weekend the next day in Puebla de Sanabria, a cool little mountain town in Northern Zamora, where we had, of course, more great food and wine.  We than headed back home to Cantabria and our friends went onto Segovia to visit family.  Something new is never that far in Northern Spain. Thanks Zamora, we´ll swing back by sometime.

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