Thursday, December 20, 2007

It's beginning to feel a bit like.......

No, not Christmas.

We are trying to extend our short Spanish vacation of next month by entering the Euro-zone now.

As soon as the temperature drops, I set the car thermometer to Celsius.....The whole time we are in Europe the temperature runs between -5 and 10 degrees Celsius. If it is 5 in Cachagua.....which it has been since early November......I must be in Spain. Close your eyes and pretend. Breathe.

I also read Diario Vasco every day, and practice my Spanish with my old-school Palm TX thingie. I check the webcams on La Concha beach in San Sebastian.

The things I learn! The Basque police, the Ertzaintza, stopped every car on a major road one weekend not long ago and made everyone spit in names were taken.

Twenty-five percent were stoned. As in marijuana. Or, I guess...hashish. Who knows?

Today the Erzaintza released figures that reveal that traffic fatalaties in Basque Country were down 20% from last year.

I am sure there is no correlation there.

To give you an idea, Basques die at a rate of about 5.0 per 100,000 of population per month....compared to 5.5 in Monterey County, and about 7 in LA. This is despite the Basques driving cars so light and fuel efficient that the emergency services don't bother with body bags if there is a crash...they have special lightweight coffins they scoop the scattered remains into and save the coroner the needless work. There is not a Hummer, and very few giant SUV's in the province.

But hey: 60 miles per gallon in a handy little five speed, five door! I can't wait.

It is cheaper to drive in Spain....even with gas at $9 per gallon...than it is in America. And last week there was talk that El Presidente Boosh might veto the energy bill because it required US carmakers to reach 35mpg ...... THIRTEEN YEARS FROM NOW! America has now become the pathetic little place where you buy dumb stuff that breaks for your nephews. Like Hong Kong in 1966.

There was a police riot today in San Sebastian at the University because the students (free tuition, free medical care, free housing, free transportation) are protesting the "Bologna Process." Jamie Lynn Spears was not mentioned. What the fuck is the Bologna Process......and should I be rioting?


Another part of my Euro-training is walking the damn dogs on the mountain every morning, rain or the 5 degree weather. In Spain, I walk a lot. See, our pensione is a half mile from the bars and that it an automatic four miles a day, plus. In the freezing cold, rain and snow.

Our mountains are not unlike theirs. In the early morning it is always gorgeous in Carmel Valley. It remains a daily fact that we live in Golden California: the light, the grasses, the layers of hills stacked up in the mist.....almost to the point that I wonder why I am bothering to travel 9,000 km to Spain to look at essentially the same mountains. Well, OK....theirs ARE cooler....well, more spiky anyway.

And, in Spain I am pretty sure you don't encounter bobcat poop.....and giant paw tracks of mountain lions.......and the frantic tracks of the deer the cougar was probably chasing. Or....the place where the eagle poop has built up under the phone wire that crosses the road.

Amanda always asks: "How was your walk?"

Shitty. Spain....the mountains are civilized. There are villages on the mountains and tucked into the valleys.....everywhere. The land is beautiful, but it is being used. Sheep, ducks, mushrooms, saffron crocus, pigeons, blackfoot pigs, hydro-power......It is comfortable with its people.

In Carmel Valley, the land is mostly empty. No hilltop villages. No streamside towns tucked into the crease of the mountain. A few giant tracts owned by a few absentee, idle landlords....or the State.

Amanda finally took a shift of dog walking yesterday in the rain. After her walk up the mountain she felt the hills disdain for humans: "It is like a teenage boy mountain range.....not wanting to be kept, built upon or even walked upon by human feet......."

Edward Abbey once told me that one day the earth would shuck itself of humanity the way a dog scratches off its fleas.....and be better off for it. Looking out from Rolling Ridge Ranch in either direction it is not hard to think that the process has already begun.....

I am a tree-hugger from away back, but there is something more sensible about the Basque arrangement than ours. A few kilometers out from San Sabby you can be driving on a tiny, winding coast road in the middle of nowhere for an hour, and suddenly appears a tiny, bustling, functioning fishing port. Then, back to the wilderness.

In their gorgeous mountains, there are always cows, sheep, ducks and pigs and grapes. There is always cheese, and wine.....and people still connected to an intact culture.

I think that is the main draw for me........

In California, despite my wonderful friends and co-workers....we work most of the year in a vacuum. Brendan and I scour the markets for ingredients....and given the social and commercial pressures....try to bend everything back towards art....or at least craft. We have almost no one to talk to on a regular basis about food.

OK, Kirk and Brendan at Stokes.....Gabe Georis.....Mary and Charyn from the Pine Cone....and the Rana Creek kids.....and Jamie and Katy from Serendipity.......and the occasional email or phone call to David Kinch or Brett from In Praise of Sardines...or an email to Merle.

In preparation for the trip, I called up my people in Spain: Rafa, Joserra and Conchita from Alona Berri, Pedro from Akelarre, Juan Mari from Arzak, the wine kid from Zortziko, the Zubie brothers, the boys at Cuchara San Telmo, the nice lady at Garro, Luis at the cooking school.....and especially Txema at Bar Inopia.....are all actually excited to see us. I don't get that here.

Here, I am a lunatic.

Going to Spain for me is like walking into the warm bath of The Plunge at Tassajara.....It is relaxing into a world where the farmers, the cheese guys, the fish guys, the wine guys, the chefs and the bean counters are all part of one world.....where everyone does his best to pull for the other guy....and the create something of true value and true craftsmanship. Skill and dedication for its own worth. A place where you still do a job well because that is what you are supposed to do, and that is what everyone does. Duh.

Hats off to Charyn from the Pine Cone last week....I think she is the first food writer within memory....and within missile range..... of here to state the obvious: the food and the food craftsmanship in Monterey SUCKS. And not just Monterey. Five minutes of watching Top Chef or Iron Chef will curl your hair. Watching these guys royale oranges would cause Merle to reach for grandpere's lamb splitter and start swinging.....Like Randy Newman sang: Bettah Off Dead.

How can it be that with five hundred plus restaurants in the Monterey Peninsula there are exactly TWO chefs that ever go to the Farmer's Market? Me...and Ted from Passionfish. And we are both OLD. In Spain, Ted and I would be to cuisine like McEnroe and Jimmy Connors are to tennis.

I learned a lot of things from Etienne Merle in my apprenticeship in Ithaca and New York. Probably the most enduring value was this: "In a good house, if everyone does good, everyone does well, and everyone makes money. The politics are irrelevant."

I fear that in America we have decided that the money thing is the most important thing. No one gives a shit about the doing good thing or the doing well thing. The politics take over....and by modus ponens....... for you Latin logic freaks.....the house is no longer good.

Right now it is 2 degrees Centigrade......

A deep breath....some woodsmoke....some moss. I can hear the cows bellowing from Rancho Sin Frenos across the way.......

Bienvenidos en Pais Vascos......


Blogger Pexster said...

Reading about the Basque country reminds me of my old friend Julieu Maeso, who for years ran a 10-seat burger joint down in Eagle Rock. He served up food, beer, and abuse in equal portions. He once made me a 6-egg omelet, but only after I went out and bought him a six-pack of good beer (he served swill on tap).

Julio (his Spanish name) had a Basque flag and map on the wall, and considering his cash accounting methods, we all figured a good portion of our $$$ went directly to ETA.

For good chinks of the year, his sister would be over from the old country, and she would make the best soups and flans I've ever had!

I miss that place, and I miss Julio.

12:37 PM  

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