Writing a post (or more than one, really) about the Camino has proved much more challenging than I thought when I wrote my post last week. I anticipated writing every day. But that clearly has not happened. It’s been much more emotional and thought provoking than just trying to come up with the perfect recipe for a tortilla, patatas bravas or remembering what wine we drank each night. Firstly, I finally got around to putting up all of the photos on Flickr- yes, all 5,000+ of them onto two accounts (KitchenConundrum and Riseson) and then weeding them down to just a few hundred for the blog photos – and of course, going through them brought back so many wonderful memories. One of my dear friends had to leave the Camino due to an injury while we were walking, but right at this moment, he is back on the path and nearly to Santiago. We’ve been texting all week and I’ve been steering him towards some of the nicer albergues that we stayed in along the way. I have to say that I am a bit jealous that he is there now as I would love to be hiking it again right along side of him. To feel that exhilaration and the emotional pinnacle when you finally reach Santiago is probably one of the most triumphant feelings I have experienced outside of childbirth. Now, that’s saying a lot! But it’s true. And unfortunately, it’s one of those things that you just have to experience for yourself in order to truly understand. I think it must be quite similar to how climbers feel reaching the top of Everest. (Although, that may be better, but in my opinion, certainly not as much fun!)
I arrived on the Pilgrim train from Paris in St. Jean Pied du Port on a frigid evening with my backpack and a very heavy carry-on bag, in the pouring rain-no map and not a clue where to go. Everyone else on the train clearly knew where they were off to and I was left completely alone at the train station with not a single soul in sight. There wasn’t even a pay phone or a sign for a taxi. (A very small town, indeed, for this city girl!) And just as I went to retrieve my poncho/rain jacket from my bag, my lock froze, rendering it impossible to get inside my pack! I tried and tried to no avail but couldn’t get it unhinged. So, this was the beginning and how it was going to be, I thought. Not a good way to start at all.
Despite getting lost a few times, I made my way to L’Esprit du Chemin , the albergue, where, when I finally arrived looking like a drowned rat, they greeted me warmly saying they were worried that something had happened to me. They took my bags and ushered me outside to the porch and to dinner where a huge bowl of hot soup and a towel awaited me. I am pretty sure that was the best bowl of soup I had ever eaten. They cut my lock and unleashed my not only my belongings but the start to my Camino as well.
The owners of the albergue, Arno and Huberta, really make everyone feel at home. They are amazing hosts and sadly, there were only a few other places along the Camino that had hosts as warm and as welcoming as them. They embody the true spirit of the Camino. One wonderful ritual, as most people begin the Camino Frances in St. Jean, was to leave a burden behind. In a plastic bubble, you could leave a note, a small item or anything that you may think would weigh you down (mentally) as you made your spiritual/self-discovery journey. Then, you’d push it through a square wire hole in a sculpture they had in their garden. A simple gesture. But filled with so much meaning. I didn’t think I would cry but there I was, crying my eyes out pushing this clear plastic Easter egg into a wire hole before setting off. (I did feel a bit more cleansed after the act and really left my burden there!)
At dinner we went ‘round the table introducing ourselves and telling a little of why we were walking. There were many tears then too, along with quite a few laughs. There are hosts of reasons why people walk the Camino. One wonderful person survived cancer, one was seeking more spiritualism, one was seeking clarity, and several were thinking of things to do now that they had retired or were in-between careers. And of course, there was me… my reasons for walking changed many times over. But on that day, eating soup, followed by a birthday celebration and a wonderful meal, I started my journey in earnest.
The following morning, we went to the Pilgrims office to register our trip and pick up the “passports” we would need to present to collect our Compostela, a certificate you receive upon completion of your hike in Santiago. Technically, you only have to walk the last 100kms to receive a Compostela, but the most popular route starts in St. Jean – a mere 825ish kms away. In the passport, we’d collect stamps from all the albergues, churches, bars and restaurants we stopped in. It was quite fun collecting them all and most people ended up with two full passports by the time the trip was done.
The first day took us straight uphill to L’auberge refuge d’Orisson. It was an extremely hard day (it did get easier later on once we were in better shape) and it was snowing/raining/sleeting for most of the day.
They say the Camino gives you what you need (not what you want). I’d have to say that it is true- it happened on more than one occasion along the entire Camino. It’s almost as if by some miracle, when you ask for something you need, you receive it.
A walking companion and I were literally dying on our way up the mountain (we were just a few kms away from our destination) and a man in a pick-up truck pulled alongside and asked if he could take our bags up to Orisson. Turns out he was the albergue’s owner, Jean-Jacques. We gladly tossed our bags into the truck and continued walking unhindered all the way there. What a relief that was! My bag, later known as “Lucifer” was crazy heavy and we were really struggling with the steep climb up the mountain on the first day out. I kept asking myself why’d I leave Paris and what the hell had I gotten myself into! But “The Camino” didn’t let me quit before I’d barely started. It gave me a much needed ride for the bag and the strength to carry on.
Well… it was full on blizzarding that night and the discussion turned to which way to go- over the Pyrenees through the snow or head back down the mountain and go around. Several in the group that was staying at Orisson decided to go over the top and through the cold. Me? Being underdressed, underprepared and just plain chicken cold wanted to take the route down and around. And boy, am I glad I did! While some of my new friends were trudging through the snow and cold, I and my other new friends were happily sitting at a café, in the sunshine, having rillettes and baguettes for lunch. It was the best choice I could have made and I am so happy that I went that way! By nightfall, both groups had arrived safe and sound on the other side of the mountain in Roncesvalles.
The first major city we arrived to was just 74kms into the trip, or four days. Pamplona, most famous for the running of the bulls, also has some of the best pintxos (tapas) in Northern Spain.
These petite nouvelle cuisine bites are well worth the two Euros you’ll spend. Make sure to try an ample variety. But keep in mind, the key to Tapas bars/Pintxos bars, is to bar ‘hop’. Try a little something at each bar along an entire Calle (road). Each has its own specialty and its own atmosphere. Some bars are dark, rustic pubs, while others are bright, modern eateries. When you have had your fill, find the one place you like and stay for a while.
Another wonderful thing about Pamplona is that there are several places to get the highly sought after 5J Iberian Ham. What makes this “bellota” ham so special? Well, it’s acorn fed, free range ham from 100% Iberian pigs. These pigs are very rare, native to the Iberian peninsula in South West Spain and only available in limited numbers. It is considered to be the very finest ham in the world. And no doubt, 5J possesses a sweet, nutty flavor and just melts in your mouth. It really lives up to it’s reputation.
Here in NYC, the front leg (called the paleta) is around $150 a pound, machine-sliced and around $180 a pound for hand-sliced ham at Despaña Foods in Soho and in Queens.
You can also order 5J online from tienda.com -whole, bone-in paleta (about 9.5 pounds) is $650 (on sale right now from $750). Or just in case you feel like you can splurge, the Boneless Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Ham (hind leg) is on sale for just $1,290(from $1,600!). Now, that’s 6-7 pounds of pure heavenly pig! Unfortunately, the black hoof is removed here due to the USDA regulations, which to me makes it a tad bit more difficult to prove authenticity. But if you are buying from reputable sources you shouldn’t have any problems. Check out how to identify an authentic 5J ham here.
So now you can understand why it’s good to try it in Spain, if and whenever and as often as you can!
Pamplona’s cuisine also stands apart for the quality of its vegetables-the white asparagus and the piquillo red peppers, often marinated in a tangy vinaigrette, are superb. Of course, tortillas and patatas fritas (French fries) are a standard daily favorite while on the Camino. Every day when we would stop lunch would consist of either a tortilla or a platter of these crunchy fried potatoes.
But it was a real treat to have Patatas Bravas, crispy chunks of potatoes with creamy centers that had been coated in a spicy tomato sauce-sometimes served with a garlicky aioli. Patatas Bravas are famous in Spain and can be found nearly everywhere. And nearly everyone loves them once they have tried them. It’s the one dish where everyone at the table just dives right in with their forks.
So I began my search for the perfect recipe.
Born in the northern region of Asturias and raised outside of Barcelona, José Andrés is the chef credited with introducing the U.S. to traditional Spanish cooking and the concept of tapas. He trained in Michelin-starred restaurants including elBulli with world-renowned Master Chef and friend Ferran Adrià (who I had the pleasure of meeting once and receiving congratulations from when KC came in as a runner up in a molecular-gastronomy contest.) So I knew that his patatas bravas would be incredible. My recipe is inspired by his creation.
One of the differences is that I oven fried my potatoes, which is less greasy, but equally crisp (and less messy). I tend not to stove top fry potatoes anymore because just doing it in the oven is so much easier and the results are just as good, if not better.
The sauce I made is based loosely on Andrés’ recipe. The creamy, garlic aioli completes the dish and complements the spicy tang of the tomatoes. Serve with a cold beer and prepare to lick the plate clean!
Note: If you follow my tweets/facebook, you will find that I had some issues with the first aioli I tried to make for this. I rescued it and it came out great. The first batch was too thin- so I removed what I could from the food processor and set it aside. I added another egg yolk to the processor and gave it a whirl while slowly adding back in the reserved aioli. Then I added just a bit more olive oil -slowly drizzling into the food processor- watching the mixture come together and whizzed it to perfection.