Flying north of Madrid you could see the grid-like patterns of olive groves dotting the countryside. Flying into Pamplona, it suddenly became hilly- the outermost hills partially excavated for gravel (I'm presuming) in beautiful steeped rows.
This town is very old. It's also very typically Spanish- narrow cobblestone streets with high colorful buildings on either sides. I forgot how beautiful the glass enclosed porches are on the second floors, with their plants and character.
As nervous as i was about not knowing anyone, i've already met some very interesting, friendly people from not only Spain but from the US, Cuba and Canada (and Dubai). It's mostly wine reps, though a couple of them are looking to branch out into 'gourmet' foods because they're hurting for business. Being here solely for food, i've been fielding a lot of questions about salt, olive oil, peppers, ham- whathave you. In exchange, they've been telling me what to drink. Not a bad trade off.
The Navarra Gourmet group has put together quite the itenary for this trip, intended to show off the best of what Pamplona and Navarra has to offer. Tonight was a group dinner at the restaurant of chef Alex Mugica (or Mujica, depending on what text you're reading) in the La Perla Hotel. There are about 60 people in our group from all over the world, so the restaurant was closed and fitted to hold us for the evening. Tables were arranged by language spoken.
We were served two local wines- the red was a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot called Inurrieta 400 Crianza. It was fruity, a little sweet. The white was a chardonnay from Juan de Albert. Lots of apple and vanilla in the nose, and a buttery oak flavor.
First course was 'ensalada de esparragos naturales con sal maldon, aceite virgen y mayonesa de bonito'. White asparagus over mixed greens, with a syringe (disposable, individual serving) of olive oil, and a tuna foam on the side. It was delectable- i could have eaten two but it was the perfect amount to satiate me for a first course and whet my palate for what was coming.
In martini glasses they served a couple baked rolls of a mix of chorixo (txistorra in the local basque dialect) and queso. The wrap was made of bread, which was frozen, sliced thin on a meat slicer, wrapped around a spoonfull of the filling and then baked. A Cuban gentleman at my table couldn't get enough of them- his enjoyment was visible in all of the hand gestures for 'the best' and he managed to get the recipe from the chef (no doubt- i'll be on his menu at home soon).
Then, in my opinion, the best part of the meal: huevo estrellado, patatas y perrechicos. Poached eggs with the most brilliant deep orange yolk i've seen since I was last in Italy, on top of thinly sliced potatoes and 'perrechios,' the local mushrooms that are just coming up. They're small, white and very flavorful.
The main course was a choice of two options- lomito de merluza al horno con terrina de borrajas y jamon (hake with garlic, borrage and ham) or chuleta de ternera con patata nueva- veal with new potatoes and a roasted red pepper sauce. I opted for the veal. Again the serving size was satiatingly appropriate- just enough to savor the flavor but not too much to overwhelm you. The roasted red pepper sauce was creamy, not too spicy but full of that roasted-over-coals flavor that I love about good Spanish piquillos.
The desserts- i'm sorry, i didn't take copious notes here. Overall they were very sweet, and whereas the portions for everything else seemed right on, these were so rich that the abundance of three different ones on a plate was a bit overwhelming. It was a lactic romp of leche frita (fried milk cube, dusted with cinnamon), cremoso de queso (cheese creem), sopita de citricos y galleta rota de nuez, cerezas de Milagro (the cherries from Milagro were delicious) salteadas con helado de azafran y crujiente de remolacha. You'll have to translate all of that. The beets (remolacha) were shaved thin and oven dried, used as garnish.