Wednesday, January 23, 2008


So....the meals are all eaten...well, most of them. I may die of liver failure if I see another slice of foie. The Alfa is thrashed to within a whisper of its former self.......4,000 km at last count. It is easy to spot because it is covered with mud. They cancelled the East Africa Road Rally due to terrorism, but you would never know it to look at my car. And the weather has been nice!

We were struggling with the notion of "Why are we here?" To just not be "There"? To "Relax"? What is that like?

Like all good philosophers, we repaired to a bar to contemplate the questions.

The town is still shut down. First there was the fiesta on Sunday, which required closing all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday.....and then what the hell, why open on Tuesday, either? On top of this, Madrid Fusion is on....and every top chef in Spain is in Madrid, along with his and her crews. The coke dealers must be going mad!

We have an appointment tomorrow with one of the old dons of food in San Sebastian. We are trying to weasel our way into the yearly pintxo contest. Pintxos are what dumb tourists think are tapas. Every bar is carpeted with little ready made sandwiches that you breathe on while you drink new Rioja and wait for them to make something really cool in the back.

Amanda has the metabolism of a hummingbird....and can charge through the pintxos. Yesterday at lunch she downed nine without a breath.....sardine and olive, sardine and artichoke, bacalao quiche.....the whole gamut. The old farts at the bars are highly amused.

I had big plans to hit all these nice pintxo joints and restaurants yesterday.....all closed. We were resigned to normal town bar fare. Awww shucks, $400 a pound ham sandwiches again? And they cost a whole dollar? Damn. I guess I will just wash it down with another dollar glass of new wine.....

Then I noticed a display in the looked like really bad ceramic mushrooms....three or four porcelain platters of them. They were so beautiful that they could not be Carmel Bad Art Wave Paintings. Then I noticed some business guys eating from a plate of what appeared to be......grilled mushrooms. Huh.

Then the gnarly rugby lock barman brought out a basket of black chanterelles and started piling them on yet another platter. There were tons.....and they fell all over the counter and on the floor.

"Can we get a platter?"

No worries, mate.

Amanda went completely nuts and actually started dancing with joy. Six or seven different wild mushrooms, grilled on iron with a little olive oil. The old bear of a chef was completely amused and brought over his mushroom book. This is the low season.....normally they have fifteen or so varieties. Thomas Keller buys them for French Laundry.

The old guy was so amused he reached back in the back and brought out the real deal.....fresh truffles from Teruel.......900 euros a kilo. Amanda started to cry.....and I used my old line again:

"La diferencia entre "llorando" y "orando" es muy pequeña!"

The difference between "crying" and "praying" is very in one letter.

The old guy produced a dozen eggs he had been storing with some truffles, and made our girl scrambled eggs and fresh truffles....

Where did that early morning guilt go anyway?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I am falling so far behind in my posts.....We dodged out of modern Spain and spent two days back in the mountains of Navarre and Aragon, where things have not changed a ton since........well, maybe Henri IV? And no, that is not Henri the I.V., as in the Intra Venous, junkie Henri.....that is Henri Quatre. Henri was a Frenchman, who reinvigorated the stale and sterile Aragonese bloodline, and got blessed with the Kingdom of France for his trouble.

OldHenri seems to have set the technical standards for the Pyrenees, and was not a firm believer in the system of tubes known as the internet.....or the whole cell phone thing. If you ever want a real vacation, away from all that communication stuff.....Aragon and Navarre are the place for you. I suggest an MV Agusta or a good Alfa Romeo as travelling companions, because Henri definitely believed in roads......and they are all perfect. And empty.

Upon arrival here in España, we ran the table.......with seven Michelin stars in less than a week, plus Bar Inopia, Victor's and two days at Rafa's in Roses. There were serious gastric and financial side effects to go along with the gastronomic excess. Think: two bowls of angulas......tiny baby eels the size of angel hair pasta......90 euros a bowl. That is what I get for ordering in Basque! Eskerrik asko!

The angulas were sauteed in stainless mesh pans over cherrywood charcoal.........Ah, forget it. I hope PETA does not find out.......we felt like Anthony Hopkins should have been dining with us, with Jody Foster as his date.

I am thinking that PETA does not have a strong presence in Spain as yet. In two days of kicking it with Rafa we did not eat a single thing that had not been twitching until moments before. Before we left, Amanda had sworn off lobster after spending a day babysitting six two-pounders and then being in the room for their dispatch. Hey, I even stabbed them in the head before boiling them alive! Rafa doesn´t go for lose to much juju when you stab them. Rafa just tosses them on the grill and holds them down until their juju parts coagulate. Sort of like waterboarding for lobsters. He did admit that most Americans only order lobster once from him......

Rafa, like virtually every other magic Spanish chef, does not go in for those frufru vegetable and potatoey things. Straight protein....maybe a little bread on the side. Whew.....rough on the Yank innards.

Anyway......we finally made it to Donostia for the big weekend of marching bands, and marching Michelin stars. We have been waiting for a year to eat at Arzak again, and weep into our plates. We have dined sending three or four groups of friends to dine in our places.

Last year we also made rezzies in the middle of the Tamorrada, and discovered too late that our car was trapped and all the cab drivers were drunk. We had to run about three miles.....Amanda in her nice shoes, me in my jacket and tie. Nice American arrival.....soaked in sweat, late, flustered, filthy.

This year we did some research, and took the bus. Something about taking the bus to a three-star meal appeals to the rebel in me. All power to the people! Pass the foie gras!

I remain incapable of being such a prick Ugly American that I take fotos of each plate, and I do not have Conall´s professional skill and discretion, so I came up with an alternative: I bought a DAT recorder that looks like a cell phone and leave it innocently on the table. This way we have a fighting chance at remembering the dozen or more courses.....each!!!!! and maybe translating the sommelier´s aria about the obscure wines they find for us.

We arrived in one piece, and tried to be cool about the masked anti-terror police with the machine guns in front of the restaurant. They were just kicking it, waiting for the bus. We were shown to the dreaded Siberia of upstairs....which we like, because of the light and the windows. We are comforted by the presence of other douche bag foreigners like the French, Japanese and the Canadians we found around us. The waiters prefer the upstairs because we furriners are more fun, and less demanding. Even so, they had done their homework once again...they knew who we were, when we had been there, what we had ordered, who we had sent to them....and what they had ordered! Attention to detail!

Hold that thought......

So here is what you get for 150 euros for lunch these days:

Mango relleno de queso
Arroz crujiente con hongos
Raiz de loto con mousse de arraitxiki

Ostras templadas con piel de pimientos y encina
Manazanas con aceite de foie
Polvo de aceite de oliva blanco y bogavente
El huevo a la gallina

Rape con bronce
Lenguado mimetico

Corzo con bizcocho de algas
Tacos de vacuno con resina vegetal y yn9o de bota

Caldo frio y piedra pomez
Chocolate con esmeraldas y minerales
Ravioli de champagne
Pina asada pomposa

Arraitxiki is the town fish...Basque sea bream
Corzo is roebuck
Vacuno is a kind of beef
Rape is monkfish
Lengua is sole
Bogavente is lobster.....don´t look!
The big winners were the lobster with powdered olive oil. Don´t ask....they have a lab at Arzak where a loonie (in a good way....) named Xabi Guttierrez works on concepts. Xabi does all the design work. The appetizers were presented on a steel grill reminiscent of a subway grating, and on a block of alabaster. All the plates are interesting shapes and colors......Spanish plate and flatware makers compete to get the contracts with the big chefs the way Adidas tries to get Michael Vick to......well, you get the picture.
Amanda had the best egg she ever had. Duck skin crunchies.....a big sheet of pepper and oak something that covered the dish and then melted to season the egg. Her roebuck had something similar.....showy, but it all blended together and was part of the taste as well as the look.
The monkfish was the chick in Goldfinger. The bronze was made only of onion somehow, and accompanied by bronze flowers....also only onion.
Meanwhile, for our 300 euros.....I was already drifting. The sommelier is a famous asshole who I have always defended because he treated us well. This time, rather than struggle with a huge wine list of wines we have no clue of (last time Amanda picked number 22 red....and it worked!) we asked him to do a wine pairing for us. This had worked out fabulously at Zortziko, El Poblet and Sant Pau. We had stuff we would never order (palomino fino?) and that matched the food in ways only a true artist could conceive of.
This time, Prick Face suggested the Cava we already had ordered, Txacoli, a Rioja chardonnay and the house Rioja. I thought, well......he must know. Txacoli is a bar wine, made locally.....and slightly spumante. Great for a cheap date with your college girl friend. The chardonnay was.....well, chardonnay. The red was actually good, what we saw of it, because we never saw the wine guy after the Txacoli course. We spent two courses with no wine at all.
I started to get grumpy. Then I noticed the edges of the plates weren´t wiped, and that there were fingerprints in the various elegant presentations. One of the sauces painted on one of my dishes did not respond to a finger touch for a taste....or to a full on scraping with a knife. I suspected piles of painted plates, stacked in the back, waiting for foreigners.
We are reasonably anal about plate wiping, even in Cachagua. The ghost of Momie Hilde, my German chef godmother is always at my elbow: "You can vipe it, Mika.....but iss it clean?" I had lunch with Albert of Ferran....and he talked about how at El Bulli they have five plate inspectors.....and then Ferran. If one plate in a group for a table is the slightest bit off.....all five or six plates go in the trash. This was clearly not happening at Arzak.
I figured maybe the chef and his daughter were off for the fiesta that day.....but no. Here they came to take their bows. What the fuck is going on in their kitchen?
I was pretty well over it by dessert.....having sat through my meat course with no red wine. They had five wait people that I could see: the disappearing Prick Face, the fetal alcohol bread chick, the waitress Yolande, the captain Urco, and a waitress for the other end of the room of 13 tables. Urco, Fetal Alcohol, and Prick Face were apparently doing double duty downstairs as well with the white folks. Even in Cachagua we have more staff than this, and you have to push it to get more than four courses.
And our wine guy does not disappear.
One of the desserts involved pouring things and dry ice and foaming fumes. Cool, but Bahama Billy´s has it, too.
I suddenly realized! I was trapped in the Spanish Sardine Factory with the other tourists....and they were stealing my wallet. Fuck.
Urco and Yolande realized the depth of my.........grumpiness to be polite. Urco grovelled impressively. Yolande was smooth as silk. At first I was reassured...then I realized: they are GOOD at covering up mistakes. They should have been freaked out and blushing.....not seamlessly making excuses and plying us with Cava. This is the routine.
Anyway.....we got a private tour of the secret lab of Xabi out of the deal. The inner sanctum.
One can only hope that Xabi comes up with way to pull the chefs attention from the lines of coke they are cleaning up....and focus them more on the plates going out to the customers. What would that be like?
But, was a gorgeous day. The bus ride back to town was great. What the heck was I going to do with three hours and 390 euros anyway on a Saturday?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cada Caca!

San Sebastian is getting ready for the big blow........the yearly city festival. There is a definitely buzz in the air.....a 60 cycle background humm. Cops are roping off parking on all the downtown streets. Delivery guys are wheeling carts of food and booze into the Parte Vieja. The city sound system blasts recordings of the March every few minutes.

Amanda is dreading the next 72 hours. The sound of the March gives me goosebumps......I am like an old firehorse when the fire bell rings: "Let's go!"

San Sebastian......the real name is much easier to type.......celebrates being overrun by Napoleon back in the early 1800's. It may seem weird to celebrate losing a battle.....but not if you have the long, Basque view of history, and not if you have the extremely dry Basque sense of humor and irony. Yes......Napoleon won back then. Say.......what happened to that guy anyway? So, hjow is that French economy doing anyhow?

The, women and kids.....all form into marching bands and costumed clubs. There are chefs, milkmaids, and variious kinds of random Napoleonic soldiers in uniform. Squads and sqauds of them.

Back in the day, it quickly developed that the French could not venture safely out in public. The Basque women were highly skilled at skinning lambs.....or Frenchmen. Usually, the lambs were dead first, however......and the Frenchmen never were. Napoleon's boys holed up in the Citadel on top of the mountain above the Parte Vieja, and ventured out only once a day to the city well for water.

When they came out, they came in force.....and accompanied by drums and music. The Pas de Charge.....the march that preceded Napoleon's attacks all across Europe....was so terrifying to local yokels that oftentimes opposing armies just ran away upon hearing it. In Donostia.....not so much.

The milkmaids, etc would march in step behind the French on the way to the pump, beating in time on empty flour kegs or milk buckets......completely mocking and humiliating the invaders.

The whole process is repeated over and over for 72 straight hours.......just outside our hotel room. Yippee! Alcohol is involved in minor ways.....I know you are shocked. part of getting the town ready for the invasion, there was a big public debate on local TV today about dog poop.

Donostia dogs are the best behaved dogs on the planet. Everyone has a dog. There are no leash laws, because the dogs don't need leashes. They just walk with their people, and patiently wait outside shops and bars until their people have finished whatever dumb human things they think need to be done. Today I saw a 12 week old golden retriever puppy.....calmly walking alongside her master in the middle of insane rush hour leash in sight.

Meanwhile, the streets these dogs walk on are pristine....they are not paved, they are tiled. Every night special city Zamboni's come along and wash and polish all the streets downtown. (For you ignorant f**ks who grew up without hockey and don't know from is an ice cleaning machine invented in Azusa, California back in the day to clean and smooth ice).

The problem this weekend is that the Zamboni's will be overwhelmed by the volume of Cava (i.e. champagne) bottles and won't be able to keep up with the normal dog poop deal.

I am a regular habituent of Carmel Beach.......and a dogophile. Xabi, my grandpuppy is even in the Carmel Dog Calendar this year. In Carmel, when your dog poops on a two mile beach regularly washed by the grand Pacific.....a properly prepared person already has a City of Carmel issued pooper scooper to scoop the poop and after the beach walk.......ready to deposit in an official City of Carmel trash can.

Not so in Donostia.

No one picks up poop.......that is what the Zamboni's are for.

So.......this busy weekend only......while the Zamboni's are otherwise occupied scooping Cava/champagne bottles up from the immigrant drunks (present company possibly excepted)........the City of Donostia has issued special sticker/flags to all the little old ladies.

The flags say "Cada Caca!".....which translates to "Every Poop!"

Rather than Scoop the Poop.....all the LOL's have to do is stick a tiny flag into the poop to warn passersby and to target the poop for the beleaguered Zamboni operators........

No.....don't worry. Tomorrow I am ordering a few thousand stickers......and the T-shirts.....

Cada Caca!

Montaña Banaña

We finally arrived in San Sebastian after fighting our way acrioss the mountains of northern Spain.

And what a struggle it was.

A thousand kilometers of driving the Alfa on perfectly maintained tiny little roads in the midst of pristine mountain scenery straight out of "Sound of Music".


Picture 1000 kilometers of Cachagua Road.......without the mega ranches and locked gates and the meth heads.

We spent an entire afternoon without seeing another car or human under the age of 80. Some dogs.......and some cows. A few vultures or condors, and some eagles. Some old farts in black berets like mine walking along the road, with and without cows.......closely watched by the vultures. At least I believe the big birds were watching the locals.....and not the Alfa and its contents.

At one point our perfectly maintained road stopped being so, and it turned from Cachagua Road into Tassajara Road for 50 km or so. Up and down mountains, through rivers......past abandoned farms. Gravel and rocks, the little Alfa blasting through frozen potholes and dodging grumpy cattle. No people. I stopped to take a foto and pee, and left the camera on top of the car when I drove off. I realized my mistake 10 km later and went back, fearing the worst. No problem, it was still sitting there in the middle of the road.....guarded by a cow.

In the middle of the middle of nowhere we saw a road sign, just when we were getting scared. It said: "Bogota, 7,000km; Saigon, 16,000km."

Apparently there are sarcastic bastards everywhere.......

While driving we fasted......except for cafe con leche and chocolate croissants in the morning, of course. We are still digestively recovering from a solid week of solid protein.....m,ost of it obscure, underdone, and very expensive. The tactic seems to be working........though we have had to perfect the art of stopping at tiny redneck bars in the middle of Bumfuck Eeegypt, casually ordering a copa de tinto as all the locals stare at the Yank appartion.......and sprinting for the servicios. Often times I even peruse the soccer news in the local paper before the big sprint. Very cool, I am........I can say Hello, Good Day, Good Evening, Thank You and Goodbye in Catalan, Aragonese, Navarese and Basque. No one speaks Spanish.

Recently, the Spanish government came down on the government of Catalonia about Education. No Nino Left Behind......except the Spanish bureaucrats were pissed because they discovered that Spanish is not taught in Catalonian schools. English and French are.....and Catalan.....but not Spanish. You go, Catalans!

I am with the Catalans on this one. I stumble along impressively in French and long as the topics stick to food and soccer. Catalan is the language made for those of us who got over being bitched at by Mme. DeFarge for not having "oooo" enough ooooo's or rolly enough double r's by Senora Puta.

Catalonia is independent of the national government in the way we all wish and think California is......pot clubs, better cars, better environment and food laws, etc. They even collect their own customs duties and tariffs. They have the largest port in Spain, their own army, a lot of mountains for the army to hide in if need be, and most of the land border with the rest of the world, so they can tell the Spaniards to fuck a language the Madrid bureaucrats don't understand, of course.

Their are at least seven normally spoken languages in Spain.....the above, plus Castillian. I think the Carary Island and Balearic guys are in there, plus the Arabic folks from Ceuta and down by Cadiz. Like I said yesterday.....Spain is BIG.

The Spainsh National anthem is the only one in the world without words.....because no on can agree on even what language they should be in.

Recently the Spanish Olympic committee held a contest to write words for the anthem. They were embarrassed that their athletes just stand there humming when they win something. Personally, I think it is so much better than watching Americans win and realizing that our sport warriors have no clue what the words are, or what they mean.

Anyway a taxi driver in Madrid won the contest, with a song kind of like "America The Beautiful" bombs, no fighting, no struggle against the enemy.......just amber waves of grain and babes in clubs or some such.

The anthem cleared the seven language barrier, but got the shitcan at the political hurdle. Despite being more than 200 years old, and having been sung.......or played, that massacres from Chile to Florida to Morocco.....the lefty anti-cleric folks objected that it reminds everyone of Francisco Franco and his homoerotic over gilded crew of murdering thugs from last century.

Come on, guys........Germany still uses Deutschland Uber Alles, and the French are still charging 250 year old barricades, and we pathetic Yanks are waxing lame about fireworks in Baltimore in a fight with the Brits to the tune of an old whorehouse song.

So......this summer in Peking.....when the Spanish win the various bicycle races and some closely.

Hmmmmm hmmmm hmmmm hmmmmm.

The local TV news here in San Sebastian interviewed a local old fart about his opinion on the whole flap.

"I actually like the words to the anthem. It doesn't really matter to us Basques, though. We have our own song. To me those Spanish are so amusing with their little quarrels.....don't you think?"

Here I was thinking that we might have ventured into Spain after our long trek today......

Apparently not!

We are somewhere else.......

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


A little lunch at Rafa´s in Roses.......text to follow.

Coulda Woulda Shoulda.......

I am always amazed at folks like Brendan´s friends Pants and Jay who can bop over to Europe and back in a week. We are just now at the one week mark, and are barely over the jet lag.....and still gobbling Vicodin to try to recover from spinal damage caused by the bulkhead seats on the way over.

Things that are strangest for us Yanks:

It is still pitch black at 7am....and barely light at 8am (no worries for the schoolkids, since they don´t roll out until 9am).

There is mixed-use planning everywhere....every little shop has apartments over it, even in ancient towns like Cadaques.......little shops you can walk to everywhere for everything....The car is just to get from one town to another, and why would you want to do that?

Coffee shops barely open at 8am, and nothing else until at least 10am....then everything shuts down at noon or so for siesta. Shops are still open at 8pm, though. I stood in line at the butcher´s here the other day behind a posse of little old ladies at one in a hurry, there was even a bench to lol bought: a rabbit, two pigs feet, a large dark meat bird, a big chicken with the head and feat still attached, a tiny little veal leg with the foot still on, some hamburger (for the dog) and a couple of quail. Cost? About 30 bucks....or what the chicken would have been at Whole Foods in Monterey. The rabbit was 5 euros...I pay $17 wholesale in Monterey. Then, the supermodel behind the immaculate counter whacked everything up with a big cleaver and wrapped it like Gump´s wraps crystal.

People in shops are super nice and kind.....they actually seem to like their jobs. Even when we stumble around the mix of three or four available languages (Castillian, Catalan, French, English), they smile and accommodate. It actually takes an effort of will power to remember to not feel like you are putting the shopclerk out by actually buying something.....and that it doesn´t matter that you are a tourist.

The quality and selection of meats, cheeses, produce, wines, etc is off the charts. Each corner market makes Nielsen´s look sick. Amanda had to choose between twelve different kinds of oranges the other day in a little shop in Sant Cugat outside Barcelona. We won´t even talk about the meats......or the fish. Rafa was getting ready to open on Monday night and was wading through a big bucket of stuff that The Aquarium would be hard-pressed to match.....most of it still alive. He had a big bag of what looked like plaster ice cream cones that turned out to be some kind of snail......all of it from Roses, the little town we were standing in.

There was an accident in Barça the other night: two idiots racing and one of them nudged the other into an oncoming car....two innocent deaths. Four days later people are so outraged at the uncivilized behavior of the racers that the nightly news in every city is still covering the story. Two guys robbed a 7-11 with a pistol outside Madrid....same deal. And Spain is not some quaint little country.....we drive for five hours on a super highway to get a tiny percentage of the way down the coast, say from Barça to Valencia.

There is frank nudity on the national TV.....and this is a Catholic country. In Zaragoza there are five free channels of hard core porn advertising whorehouses and outcall outfits. There are some seriously hot fragrance ads....ohmigod. Be still my heart!

They have a big abortion problem this week. One could expect this is a country overrun with fundamentalist Catholics and Moslems. Abortion is one of the few things not available for free for everyone through the State health program. Wait, what is the problem? The unionized workers in the private women´s health clinics are on strike. Everyone has an opinion about their wages and benefits.

The young people have actual jobs making actual things. Every time I am blown away by some wild piece of flatware or a crazy plate or glass in a high end restaurant, I turn it over and it is made in Spain. Every little cute village seems to have a couple of big factories on the outskirts, and even art centers like Figueres (Dali´s home town) require fighting through a commercial factory zone before you get to the downtown.

The roads are packed with trucks full of stuff.....packed, solid lines of trucks in the slow lane for hundreds of kilometers.

Real estate is tiny....and insanely expensive. Even in the middle of some industrial area an apartment in a giant high rise will run at least three quarters of a million bucks. In the beautiful areas? Millions and millions. Carmel, by comparison is a shitty boardwalk town for middle manager types.

The dollar, and everything American is worth crap, and is the object of pity and derision.....more pity in the last year. Random gas station attendants will engage you in long discussions about Obama, Hillary and Kucinich....and actually grab your arm and look deep into your eyes and explain how important it is that America get it right this time.

The political news will run on with pictures of meetings between various leaders of all kinds and stripes from all kind of crazy countries....everybody making deals and getting along. Then it will cut to a ten second clip of George Bush standing in front of a bunch of camo-clad soldiers demanding that the world help him attack Iran. Everyone in the every bar in Spain....shakes his or her head, laughs and orders another drink. We have elected a four year old as President, and he is running amok breaking all the other kids´toys.....and is such a pathetic figure that no one is even mad anymore. It is humiliating in the extreme to be so pitied.

My car that I love is an Alfa 147 diesel. Five door, goes like a bat out of hell....and actually gets only 45 miles per gallon, not 60. It is a middle high end car here. Standing in line to change money....another humiliating experience in being pitied by the teller.....I picked up a bank brochure. I could buy my beautiful Alfa Romeo for only 16,000 euros...about $24,, license, doc fees, sales tax, VAT included. There is no remote possibility that any sane European will ever buy anything with wheels made in America, except maybe a Harley Davidson.

Today we drove over the mountain to Cadaques, Salvador Dali´s hometown. It is a gorgeous little port with amazing light....which explains why every painter you ever heard of spent time there eventually. It is located at the end of our peninsula through country very much like that of Big Sur. You pass El Bulli on your way...the world´s most famous restaurant....though El Bulli has its own road and its own little bay. The entire way one can´t help but notice that every inch of every mountain and valley has been terraced. The place is full of slate, and to get topsoil the ancients had to pull out the slate and build little terraces. There are wild olive trees everywhere.....and no people. Thousands and thousands of people must have lived here back in the Greek and Roman times...but the only trace is hundreds of thousands of miles of abandoned terracing. Ask the locals about it and they just shrug. "Oh, that was the Roman times. It didn´t work out."

Perhaps that explains in part why Spain is the country that the United States could have been. Progressive. Intelligent. Functioning industry. Low on violence. Very high tech. Tolerant.

Especially tolerant. All one has to do is look around and you can see the artifacts of one of the last big empires......millions and millions of hours of hard work that eventually went nowhere. The Romans were sure they were right and laid out with swords right and left until...... Until it took the world two thousand years to recover in some Cadaques.

I wish George Bush could escape his retinue of 900 enablers and spend a quiet morning in a cafe in Cadaques, and maybe look out the window on the way in and out.

Humility and perspective seem to be really uselful tools of a modern nation.....


Monday, January 14, 2008


OK....I am writing this on my little Palm T/X sitting in a big overstuffed chair front of a fire in a big stone fireplace in a 18th century farmhouse up a tiny path along a creek in the coastal mountains of Bizcaya.....the Balcony of Bizkaya, as they say here. Biskaya is Basque for Biscay.....well, actually Biscay is our talk for Biskaya.....the north coast of Spain vaguely near France. There is no cell service, no internet....but there is a big sheepdog named Ilargy. And a big grandfather clock thumping away in the background like the old house's beating heart. We are the only guests.

We stayed here last year in the midst of a one-meter snowstorm......we barely made it in, and barely made it out the next day. The house is stone, with cherrywood beams, stairs and flooring. You definitely take off your shoes in this farmhouse.

Last year we could not help but notice all the stone, metal and wood modern sculpture all around the interior.......the work of the elderly owners' son, the Madrid artist Carlos Lopez de Ceballos, aka UBE. This year, the artist is in residence. His studio is the haybarn part of the big old farmhouse. And this year.....without a meter of snow everywhere....we can see his stuff everywhere around the prooperty.

The artist was the third person we met when we arrived, after the grumpy old farmer.....and the dog. The farmer told us the dog's name was Ilargy......Luna in Castillian, he said.

We asked the artist again for the name of the dog: "Ilargy, almost like 'Luna'. Except in Basque 'moon' really means 'light from souls of the dead.'"

"Here, boy! Here, Light of the Souls of the Dead!"

Good dog.

I knew I liked these Basques

And.....leave it to the artist to give us the real story.

The floors are highly polished cherrywood, not just your normal everyday sort of cherrywood. Amanda noticed that the sheets on the bed are not just embroidered, but the emboidered edge swoops and curls. This means that they cannot be is all handwork.

"We should be wearing these sheets.....not sleeping under them!"

Handmade embroidered sheets, hand polished cherry floors and stairs....intricate sculpture all around......big fireplace with a fire. Fifty euros a night. This includes breakfast with fresh squeezed oranges, big bowls of coffee, bread baked in the fire with jam from the trees outside and home made eclairs.

These people are not in this for the is performance art.

There are other sounds now coming from the back hall of the old place.

Uh oh. What was it the artist said?

'"Moon' in Basque means 'the light of the souls of the dead.'"

I hope that is the four-footed Ilargy back there...........

Stars get in my eyes......

We are beginning to learn that the world of Michelin ranked restaurants is a lot like, especially. In soccer, on any given day, any team can beat any other team. Just last week a tiny Division 3B team nearly beat Real took a last second goal by galactico Guti to save the best (or at least the most expensive team) in the galaxy from losing to some random guys with day jobs in Alicante..

Eventually though, day after day, class will out......and the galacticos will usually kick some serious amateur ass. Michelin's inspectors are the talent scouts of the food world who are supposed to be able sort the galacticos from the day-job guys.....along with the places that are expensive and pretty but not good (the places most Americans go, in other words).

They do a pretty good job in Spain and Italy. In France, I am not so sure. The London guide is utter bullshit. The jury is still out on the California guide.

Basically, in Spain and Italy, a one-star restaurant will give you superior food with a lot of attention to detail. The service will be fussy, and the winelist will be wide and varied. The dining room will be immaculate.....and even the bathrooms. The Cachagua Store will not be getting any stars anytime soon.

The jump up to two stars seems mostly cosmetic. The dining room will be exquisite, and the service will be super fussy. There will be a wine-steward and a crazy cellar. The glassware and china will be scary to handle. The bathrooms will have stuff you want to the soaps, towels and toothbrushes at Mugaritz. The food is not always much better than at the one-stars, but the kitchen will be big and immaculate, with lots of guys.....probably a dozen., which works out to be about one per table since most places are small by American standards. Mugaritz has a 1500 square foot dining room served by a 3500 square foot, two storey kitchen.....with as many as 25 guys working in back.

Going up the final notch to three stars is to get to degrees of perfection. Everything will be technically perfect......some things will be so over the top that the putting a grade on the objective quality is purely personal. Ferrari or Maserati? Chelsea or Man U? Yankees or Red Sox?

History and politics play a role as well. In Spain, Arzak has been a king for a long time, but the the family for 50 years.... is limiting. Still, Juan Mari Arzak is a master, keeps right out on the cutting edge of the weirdness, and balances it with a strong traditional, local feel. He has Xabi Guttierez working as a designer and artistic concept guy in a studio out back to keep the kids in the kitchen and the molecular cuisine guys on their toes. Still, lots of the new guard think he is stodgy and past his prime.

Not me.

Akelarre just got its third star last year. Pedro Subijiana is a contemporary of Arzak's and long labored in the two star range. Akelarre is physcially spectacular.....overlooking the Cantabrian sea from the top of a mountain. The service is actually intelligent.....the waiters and wine guys will engage you in philosophical discussions about the food and wine......which is not surprising since Pedro is that way himself. Poet, philosopher, artist. He gets the same sniveling from the young guys as Arzak. Again, not from me. Amanda and I always cry....even though we know we are going to and try not to.

But, the new wave guys think Pedro is an old fat guy also past his prime.

It is not coincidental that the new wave guys are almost all based out of Barcelona, and Arzak and Akelarre are on the other coast.

Yankess and Red Sox.

Last year we ate at Can Fabres on the other coast north of Barcelona. Can Fabres is nestled into a little village in an ancient building on a side street. An insane amount of money was spent inside......spectacular glasswork and fabrics and woods. The food was super old school though: technically perfect but not as visually and sensorily inspiring as the boys from Basque country. The service was beyond creepy. We had a chick apparently assigned just to watch us fulll time from ten feet away. I always try to sneak some pictures of the dishes to help my feeble mind remember the ten or twelve courses....not even close to possible at this place. This woman was supported by a maitre d', a captain, a waiter, a runner and a wine steward. Foie, pigeon, salmonete, venison, octupus.....Jesus wept. And big portions. We were so riched out that we literallty gagged on the underdone stuffed baby octopus. There was nowhere to hide it, and we could not even sneak it into a purse or pocket with the spy chick staring at us. We had to leave it on the plate.....and then the chef came out to grill us about why we had not eaten it. I needed Etienne Merle with old school guy genetically, professionally, and spiritually able to deal with that kind of weight of fat and protein. 100 pound Amanda was out of her league......

Meanwhile, Mugaritz gets only two stars. Brand new, super modern in a gorgeous country setting. Crazy artsy tableware, china and glassware. A world famous wine steward. Insane attention to quality and detail in the kitchen and equally insane modern twists on local produce with dizzing flavors and textures. Not to mention that bathroom. Go figure.

Last year Amanda and I totalled eighteen Michelin stars in our 21 day trip. We hit three three-stars, a two-star, and a passel of one-stars. And, of course......two of our favorite meals were at places not even rated by because it is so small and idiosyncratic.....the other because the chef rejects the whole star concept and refuses to play ball with Michelin.

Last year Zortziko's (a one-star) food was just passable, and only the wine guy brought us back for a second try. This year Zortziko´s food blew our minds.

Last year we had two beautiful meals at Andra Mari (also a one-star).....starting and finishing there. Each course was perfect, and we rated it our favorite restaurant of the trip. I spent the past year trying to convince the young turks of the Spanish food scene to even think about Andra Mari as being worthy. I was thinking two stars, for sure.

So....we were really looking forward to our return today. We were thrilled to see the old Civil War vet still charmingly extorting euros in the car park.....thrilled to see the view of the alps across the valley.....thrilled to be recognized and welcomed with smiles all around......

And it sucked.

One inspiring dish amongst the nine courses (foie wrapped in smoked bread with cherry membrillo), one idea worth stealing (mango ravioli....with the mango as the pasta wrap), a couple of OK ones......and some clangers. Super undercooked attempt to imitate the Arzak poached egg. Gluten-y espuma. The martini glass my copa de txangurro came in was even chipped and cracked.....which is suicidally poor attention to detail in Michelin land. Even Cachagua doesn't let that slide..

Turns out the chef "won" the contract to run the kitchen at the new Sheraton in Bilbao.

Amanda and I feel like it was a death in the family.

Oh, well......we have two new one-stars, a new two-star of the insane Mugaritz variety (El Poblet), and three new three-stars to look forward to. Where there is life there is hope.

Hating Bilbao

Amanda and I hate the midst of the beautiful Basque countryside it is like a giant cold sore: huge apartment complexes, heavy industry, freeways shooting all over the place with obscure exits waiting to trap the unwary into even more obscure suburb/ghettoes.

And the downtown....nice river, nice museum....but a crazy quilt of streets and roads that instantly has even an experienced traveller and navigator driving in cirlces and loops in a maze of one-way car traps. Traffic lights every block that stay red forever with no other traffic or pedestrians in sight. Oh....and no parking......and few street signs.

The people are busy and cold. Shopping is a perfect picture of hell.....the best department store has low ceilings, another maze of obscure cash registers, and packs of aggressive grannies with NHL quality elbows. Oh.....and nothing fits American bodies. Oh, everything is crazy expensive. An American $100 bill is worth about $60.00 Thank you, Mr. Bush.....and your Strong Dollar Policy. Thank Jesus the idiot did not go for a weak dollar.......

Our little oasis in all of this madness is the Iturrienea Ostatua: a second story pensione in the heart of the Casco Viejo....the old city. It is run by Igones, an artist/beatnik straight out of an art movie in the fifties....beret and all. She fills the place with idiosyncratic old antiques and art, serves a sweet breakfast and is concierge to all of Spain. We can call her from Barcelona and she will make reservations or argue with some bureaucrat from across the country.

Our crazy schedule called for arrival in Bilbao at 8:15; rent a car; drive into town and check in with Igones......shower and change and walk to Zortziko for dinner at 10:00....... after 36 hours without sleep. Crazy.

Even crazier: it all worked. We strolled into Zortziko four minutes late.

We booked this crazy dinner because Amanda loves the wine steward, Mikel. Last year we had to kill a day in Bilbao waiting for luggage and randomly booked a dinner at Zortziko for something to do. Mikel brought us a wine he liked and proceeded to open, taste, describe and pour it in a little ceremony that reduced Amanda to tears. Mikel is 22, and loves his job so muich that he generates a force field of happy competence worth flying 30 hours to experience.

We did not see him when we arrived. Amanda figured he had moved on to the big time in Barça or San Sebastian. He seemed way to good for such a quiet little place. The maitre d' opened our wine, and gave a nice speech.....but it was a pale imitation of Mikel. Eventually, we asked about him..... and sure enough he came bouncing out from the cellar. Seems he had been promoted to doing all the ordering and actually running the cellar. A year older, twenty pounds heavier....good suit....and now a man, not the cute boy from last year.

He told us about his promotion, and that he had won a competition for the best wine steward in Biskaia....the state. He goes on to the national finals this month. No surprise at all to us.......

So......for any is the menu. 80 euros per.....once about $50, now $120 each in the Buish Era.

Rabo de buey envuelto en frutos secos crujientes
(In Mexican Spanish this would mean "the dick of the idiot in crusty nuts" Spain it is a kind of local lobster tail encrusted in almond dust).

Croqueta langostino con arroz inflado
(A crispy fried croquette, covered in puffed rice, with another kind of lobster liquid that melts in your mouth when you bite it).

Mejillon de roca con golpe de aire de mar y lechugas de mar
(A cocktail of rock mussels with sea foam and crispy, see-through fried sea lettuce).

Esparragos asados, borrajas, vegetales, y leche de Almendra
(A warm salad of baby green and white aparagus, borage flowers and almond milk).

Carabinero a la plancha sobre verduras salteadas y hugo de su Coral
(A kind of local prawn grilled on iron with perfect tiny cubes of fennel, carrot and potato in an amazing sauce made from the shrimp coral).

Chiperon a la plancha sobre pan negro, foie liquido y galleta de arroz cruhiente de su tinta
(Iron grilled baby calamari over crispy black bread in a foie gras bath, garnished with a rice cookie shaped like the squid tentacles that was flavored with the ink of the squid.).

Pescado a nuestro estilo sugun el capricho del mar
(Salmonete, served with a razor thin slice of perfectly cooked roman bean, strawberry essence and cauliflower purée).

Presa de Iberico asada al aceite de Arbequina, oregano sivestre, jugo de naranja y zanahoria y risotto al Parmesano
(Loin of Blackfoot Iberian pork, grilled; Arbequina EEVO, wild oregano, a carrot/orange reduction and Parmesan risotto).

Granizado de Manzana con crema de queso fresco y membrillo
(Apple granité with fresh cream cheese and quince jelly)

Croqueta liquida de Castana con frutos del bosquee
(Liquid chestnut croquette with wild nuts).

Bizcocho de Pinones
(Traditional Basque almond cake, but made with pine was so light and gorgeous, with a perfect glossy glaze that I knew it was not made by a man.....too much time, patience and attention to detail for such a humble and subtle result. Sure enough, Maria is the pastry chef.)

Last year the food was ehhh......we came back for the Mikel experience. This time the food was close to spectacular, and very very good with no clangers.

Before leaving we asked to see the kitchen, and Mikel proudly showed us the whole place: display kitchen for the chef's TV show and private demonstrations, the cellar, and the immaculate kitchen. The cellar had Mikel's certificate from winning the State championship. I noticed his last name: Garcia......hmmmm, same as the chef.

It turns our cute, bubbly, hardworking wine steward who just got a hard won promotion is the son of the chef.....and Maria is his aunt. A full on family operation. Mikel glowed with pride and such joie de vivre that we were swept out onto the streets of Bilbao on a wave of enthusiasm.

Damnedest thing.....the river glowed, the streets sparkled......the bridges lined up ever so, flanked by beautifully lit golden buildings.

Suddenly it was Paris......

Gracias, gave us a great meal.....and the gift of a city.....

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Who needs a vacation?

So.....we finally made it away from Cachagua for Spain. Just as we left we got news that the entire assembled weight of Monterey County was falling on Jensen Camp: Code Enforcement, regular Sheriffs, Animal Control, Child Protective Serrvices........evictions and property seizures of the poor and helpless by the mighty in the middle of winter. A scene straight out of "Les Miserables".....and not the musical......with Javert played by Phil Higgenbotham.

Have a nice vacation!

Why were we flying across the world for vacation anyway? My last walk with the dogs up the mountain was as gorgeous in its own way as any in the Pyrenees. There is so much work to can we justify taking time off, anyway? Leaving Brendan with the phones, dogs, birds......The Store......the Camp. What were we thinking? This is wrong......

After twenty hours of driving, flying, waiting, searching frantically for lost luggage....and still depressed and worried about things at home.......the plane touched down in Bilbao. The immigration took 10 seconds. The bags were right there, ten feet away. Customs and security was two nice soldiers who laughed at Amanda's voice and waved us through .....and this is a country with actual, functioning terrorists.

Then the rent a car lady....a gorgeous, shy, dark haired wonder with a beautiful Castillian voice that you could spread on bread. Kind, concerned......and just the flow of her words....the lilt and the cadence as she described the franquicia (whatever that is....) washed away all the fears, stress and exhaustion.

She showed us our little car.....a 60 mpg Alfa Romeo 147 diesel....and I actually teared up as if I was hearing an aria from Aida at The Met.

All emotional over the supermodel rent-a-car lady and the Alfa?.....

Maybe I DO need a vacation.....

Friday, January 04, 2008

Ziggy Stardust...

This is an outline...because I have no time...

Huge storm.......trees down, creeks overflow.....power out. Dig out the generator from the shed......hire the car thief to siphon gas from the few trucks that Cocksucker Phil Higgenbotham missed so that we can run the generator to save the beer and ice cream at The Store.

The car thief and the old wild boar hunter, Pete Scardina, help us organize our whole scene off The Net.....and relaxing in the warmth of our praise, behind a bunch of giant jars of Harp....start talking shit.

Our friend Rod died last week, and his ashes are going to be spread at Pine Valley....about a four hour hike in from China Camp.....miles up the Tassajara Road from the officially closed Wilderness Area.

Pete pointed out that he had been running food into the only freehold in the Pine Valley area with mules for a week recently.....

There is a guy named Jack English that has the cabin at Pine Valley, and five acres....Jack hand carried in each board in to build the cabin........a four hour hike with a board. Many boards to build a cabin.....

Jack's son got interested in bluegrass, and Jack started making bows for fiddles in all his spare time in Pine Valley......A couple of local kids played cello....and Jack made some bows for them....

Word spread....

The car thief pointed out that Jack is thinking of leaving his freehold to the Cultural Council because of the experience he had recently, making bows for some random cello player.

The Freehold is the only privately owned space in the middle of the forest of hundreds of square miles of Wilderness Area......

I will fill in later with my experiences there......


The car thief and the pig hunter were comparing notes about how tough it was to extract Jack English when his gout got so bad.......the car thief actually had to stay at the cabin to help out because Jack could not use his fingers because of the pain.

The Chinese guy hung in pun intended......

And made some bows that might work.....Abalone faced, madrone....horsehair from the local mountain horses.

I asked......"What was this guy's name?"

The car thief and the pig hunter looked at each other......"Uh......something Chinese"

"Yo Yo Mah?"

"THAT'S IT!......How did you know? You know him? He did his apprenticeship....nice guy. He spent a week there."

In the mountains.....we have a guy with a tiny piece of property in the midst of the National Forest that is an artisan good enough to have Yo Yo Mah come and spend a week with no power, no water, and food packed in on mules by criminals.....and make cello bows.

I have to take a break and think about this......