09 December 2006

Sojourn through Malta, December 2006

Due to some unavoidable circumstances, I ended up in Malta for a week at the beginning of December 2006. As usual, I did my usual research by simply asking a friend who has lived there for a year or so and her curt advice was generally not to bother unless I liked esoteric modern glass works, eating fish or drinking a lot, not necessarily in that order. However, in the end, things were not as dire as that and it proved to be quite an interesting visit to a place steeped in history, with lots of curious buses, bad roads, friendly people and quite surprisingly good food.

The first thing one notices is that the Maltese tourist spots are rather like seedy versions of Brighton in England, or Zinnowitz in Ruegen, only bigger and warmer. However, the roads are invariably in a state of chronic disrepair and designed to twist the ankles of the unwary or test the suspension of your hire car. But the people are friendly, and even friendlier if you leave them tips. It is not unusual to have complete strangers "assist" you in finding a parking space and then holding a hand out for a coin or two. It seems that any Maltese can become a self-authorised parking assistant or tourist guide and they are generally so friendly that it seems impolite not to hand over a little silver every day to people who just loiter around car parks or tourist attractions. By the way, watch out for people selling you timeshares or excursion tickets. The timeshares are always ripoffs or scams and the excursions sold are not always for the specified time.

Outside of the tourist spots, Malta is, well, different. The whole island is practically a walled fort and has been for centuries, and the Maltese still seem to like to build walls. All over the countryside are fields and orchards divided by walls and crisscrossed by more walls, all painstakingly assembled from large chunks of limestone or local sandstone. Why they like walls so much is a bit of a mystery and when they are not building walls, the Maltese are building little solid sandstone forts all over the countryside as well.

Still, Malta can be very pretty and impressive, especially when viewed from the sea. Do a Captain Morgain excursion around the Grand Harbour and Marsamxetto Harbour to get a flavour of how stunningly secure Malta is as a fort and how beautiful it looks, especially in the sunset. The capital Valletta is a complete city within a fort, the only capital in the world to be such. More inland and on Gozo (an island north of Malta), one can find prehistoric hypogeums and temples that date back as far as 5,000 years BC, even older than the pyramids in Egypt. For a quick synopsis of what Malta is about, just attend the Malta Experience, an audio-visual show in Valletta, but it is also worth visiting some of the historic sites later.

But I digress. This is a food site and I have to say that the food in Malta is quite tolerable, if not actually pretty good and nearly always amazingly cheap. For example, it is at Bobbyland at the Dingli Cliffs where I had the best rabbit ever in my life, a superb fenek done with a fragrant garlic and wine sauce that complemented a supremely juicy whole wild rabbit. Normally I hate rabbit but Bobbyland had such a reputation that I had to try it there and I am so glad I did. Even the local red wine was quite tolerable and its dryness matched the rabbit well. My partner had bragioli, which is a little like a rind rouladen but stuffed with local Maltese sausage meat. It was also very good, but not as good as the fenek. Both dishes together, including drinks, costed less than 25 Euro, by the way. However, a little warning is in order. I was later wandering around Valletta and was convinced by an earnest Maltese lady to try fenek again at her "original" Maltese restaurant. The only differences I can find are (a) her version had potatoes boiled with the stew, and (b) it tasted horrible, exactly the dry grassy-gamy rabbit meat that I hate. I had to get out and (i) drink a coffee (ii) eat a vanilla cake and (iii) drink a milkshake, to get rid of the aftertaste.

The normal Maltese breakfast, available practically everywhere, is the standard English fry-up; eggs, sausages, bacon, toast and beans, plus coffee, tea or fruit juice. It is somewhat better and cheaper than in England but the sausages, being Maltese, have a different taste and does not have so much rusk as in England. I rather like it but it is not something I can have every day. It is ridiculously cheap though, less than 5 Euro in general, and less than 2.50 Euro in some places!

As fish is such a staple dish in Malta, for a true experience of it, I was recommended to Tal Familja in Marsascala. The lampuki was out so I had to settle for cerna, a lovely silvery fish with firm white meat, filleted beautifully in sauce meuniere with roast potatoes and steamed vegetables. I also tried the same fish at another restaurant near St Paul's Bay but it was not nearly as good, even though it was more expensive, although I guess that is to be expected.

I was walking around Xemxija Hill one evening, which in the low season, is a dusty moribund district full of empty restaurants and bars and where the only people around are those scuttling away in cars. To my amazement, I saw a line of cars parked outside Zeus, a Greek restaurant that advertises a 10-dish meze for less than 15 Euro. So I strolled in and ended up having a surprisingly good meal of fried zucchini and charcoal-grilled kotixia (quail) on tomato rice. Which goes to show that it is always a good idea to follow the locals.

Because it looks so wholesome, one night I bought a Maltese loaf, a round crusty bread costing less than half a Euro. So here is a simple sandwich idea which will provide ample sustenance as a lunch or picnic snack: Cut 2 thickish slices of Maltese loaf. Spread 2 squares of French Kiri cream cheese on one of the slices. Layer 3 slices of Parma ham on top of the cheese and close with the other slice. And that's it! Great, especially when washed down with a beer.

I also wandered over to Gozo, a smaller calmer island north of Malta. It's a pretty place, lots of greenery, agriculture and even nicer people. Here one can see the world's oldest upright structures created by man, a strange double temple where I guess prehistoric man used to have BBQs and chew the fat around muddy cups of grass tea after work or something. In Gozo, the centre of food is Xlendi and I was there especially to try It-Tmun, only to be annoyed and disappointed as we arrived 1 minute after last orders at 2 pm. Discussing this with the manager proved pointless so we repaired to Zafiro, a newish-looking place on Xlendi Promenade. This proved to be a very good move as they served a wonderful lampuki, bordered by fresh mussels cooked in white wine. Despite looking a lot like mackerel, lampuki tastes more like grouper, not oily at all, firm delicious white meat simply cooked in butter and garlic sauce.

On returning from Gozo, we stopped at Arches in Mellieha, reputed to be the best restaurant in Malta. Perhaps I had raised the expectations bar a little too high, but for me, such a reputation would remain a subjective matter rather than fact. Saying that, the atmosphere and service is good, the decor is elegant and more classy than other Maltese places and the wine list was surprisingly good, with even Petrus available for around 1375 Euro a bottle. Yes, it is that sort of place. But, none of the fish was fresh and all the meat is not local either, with the lamb and beef coming from New Zealand and the fowl from other European countries. Oh well.

We also had dinner one night in Bacchus, a huge sprawling restaurant that takes up a twelveth of the fortress town of Mdina. Passable food (but a little over-ambitiously creative), good ambience as the main public restaurant was located in interesting gunpowder vaults built in the 17th and 18th centuries, and nice friendly service. Definitely a place to sample if you are ever in Mdina but not worth a special trip just for the food.

Pretty much all of my pictures taken in Malta can be seen here, and following are recommendations and some places where I have dined:

Zafiro, Xlendi Promenade, Xlendi, Gozo. Linked to San Andrea Hotel which looks a cool place to stay in Gozo.

It-Tmun, Xlendi, Gozo.

Tal-Familja, Triq il-Gardiel, Marsascala, Malta.

Bacchus, Inguanez Street, Mdina, Malta.

Arches, Millieha, opposite Maritim Hotel, Malta.

Bobbyland, Dingli Cliffs, Malta. Best rabbit (fenek) ever.

It-Rizzu, near seafront, Marsaxlokk, Malta.

30 October 2006

Advance news of March 2007 Trip to San Sebastian

Here is THE chance to experience a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience at the place where there are more Michelin stars per head of population than any other town in the world. For the March 2007 Dinner Club event, we are planning a full 4-day visit to San Sebastian, capital of the Basque region in Spain, and home to the finest restaurants and bars in Europe. You don't have to believe me - just read some of the links and attached reviews.

Anyway, as this is an extended event, from 16-19 March 2007, there will be several options available, as follows:

1. Dinner at Martin Berasategui, by far the finest cook I know in Europe. Apparently, even Alain Ducasse is awed by him and I can completely understand why.

2. Dinner at a Sideria. This is a crazy, fun event which you really cannot afford to miss. We will go to an apple farm where they will serve a traditional 4-course sideria menu: 2 fish courses, 1 huge fantastic beef course and then finish with Spanish cheese and fruit. That's the boring bit. The fun part is the drinking of the sidra (or cider). Huge barrels of cider are opened to squirt cider all over the floor and you have to hold a glass out to catch what you want to drink from the stream of flying cider! Really. I cannot describe it but it is amazingly good fun, so you don't want to miss this event for sure.

3. Dinner at Arzak. This is a family-run restaurant which also has 3 Michelin stars and has been voted the best restaurant in Spain. Need I say more? However, if I had to choose between Arzak and Martin Berasategui, I would marginally prefer Martin.

4. Pinxto crawls. This is another incredible fun thing to do, but I am afraid that one has to be a little restrained. Basically, San Sebastian has got more bars per square kilometre than any other place in the world. However, as I found to my cost, it is way too easy to fall in love with the food and the wines in the first bar you go into, so I will now warn everyone that they can only have 2 pinxtos per bar and a wine before we head off to the next pinxto bar. Trust me - you can thank me for this later. And there are different areas of San Sebastian which have their own style of pinxtos - my favourite is Aloña Berri in Gros. You might even get to find out why! And with several different districts to visit, one can never try them all.

5. Whatever you like! There are so many cool places, even a couple of live jazz bars, that we can spontaneously pick what we like to do.

The current plan, which is not fixed at all at the moment, is that we gather somewhere in San Sebastian around Friday, 16 March 2007, and then do a pinxto tour of the town that evening, just to get your palate started. You will not regret this. Then on Saturday, we will plan for a dinner at either Martin Berasategui or Arzak, depending on circumstances. For Sunday lunch we will literally splash around in the best sideria I know. Finally, on Monday, we might try pinxtos again in different parts of San Sebastian as most of the top restaurants are closed this day.

I do not expect a lot of people to turn up, and even if they do, I do not expect everyone to last the full 4 nights as they may have to leave early for work or something. But what I do NEED to know now is how many people are interested in coming along, and for how long, so that I can make the bookings for the restaurants and suggest places to stay and flights and itineraries. Also, I am leaving the mornings and afternoons free so that people can do whatever they like, although everyone is welcome to hang out with me even though I am boring as mud. There are lots of things to do in the town (markets, museums, churches, aquarium, walks, shopping, etc), and many fantastic places to visit around San Sebastian, so I am sure everyone will have a good time. Using the buses is really cheap and easy, and the tourist office is also very helpful.

Well, we have been talking about this trip a long time, and now it is finally going to happen! Believe me, this is not a cheap event, so I would budget for at least 300 Euro for the food and drinks alone. Accomodation might be cheaper if people would team up to rent an apartment and I will try to help with this. And then there are the flights (it might be cheaper to fly via London using Ryanair or EasyJet to Biarritz or Bilbao, and then taking a coach to San Sebastian).

Anyway, I have already bought my flight tickets and will book an apartment soon. I will actually arrive on Thursday evening so as not to get too stressed out, and leave on the Tuesday and if you can spare the time, then I would suggest doing this as well, or preferably, stay even longer!

So, let us see who likes good food enough to join us by sending me an email! :o)

Oh, by the way, here are a few pictures I took the last time I was in San Sebastian.


PS. Click here for a newspaper article about San Sebastian with tips about travel and accomodation.

PPS. Another article in the UK press:

By John Carlin, March 13 2005 Observer

Further evidence that, never mind what Tony Blair might have you believe, the British are very different from the Americans was provided in a conversation I had with Gabriella Ranelli de Aguirre during a coff ee break at San Sebastián's sixth international gastronomy congress.

Gabriella, despite the name, is herself American. But she is married to a Basque, lives in San Sebastián and earns her bacon running what she calls 'culinary and cultural tours' in northern Spain. Sounds like hell, but she seems to make a decent living out of it.

Most of her customers are either American or British. 'The Americans are serious, hard-working tourists,' Gabriella observed. 'The Brits are more fun-loving.' Was she by any chance referring to the islanders' distinctly un-American national pastime of getting sloshed? 'Of course!' she said, smiling the complicit smile of the converted fun-lover. 'But that's not the whole story. The Brits have less need to go to the big-name restaurants than the Americans do. They enjoy going out for tapas just as much - maybe more.'

Count me in with the fun-loving Brits. It's not that I distrust haute cuisine. It's just that in San Sebastián the quality of everyday grub is so remarkably, spectacularly haute already that it seems a waste to spend the night dining solemnly at a Michelin three-star when you can nosh it away in the city's magnificent tapas bars. The reason I was in San Sebastián in the first place was to see some of the world's most celebrated chefs performing at the gastronomy congress; the biggest event of its kind anywhere, I was reliably told. There's a reason why they hold it here. Spain is the 'in' place for the culinary elite these days, and San Sebastián is the best place to eat in Spain. The congress did justice to the city. The grand masters - Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adriá - put on a terrific show. Watching the extraordinary Adriá in action, freezefrying eggs in liquid nitrogen, was a mouthopening experience. But if the plan was to close your mouth around an item of food, then to savour and swallow, you were better off abandoning the centre where the congress was being held and diving into the nearest bar. Any bar.

On a previous visit to the city Spaniards consider not only the most elegant in the Basque country, but in the whole of Spain, I had formed the opinion that you could spend your entire life trying - and failing - to find a place where they would serve you a less than delicious piece of food.

Within minutes of arriving in San Sebastián, I put my theory to the test by walking early in the afternoon into the first bar that caught my eye. There was nothing remarkable about it to the eye. It was called Bideluze. It was what passes in San Sebastián for a local pub . And it was outstanding. The bar itself, la barra they call it, was creaking under the weight of plate after plate of delicious morsels, most of them astride a slice of txapata or baguette. They don't call them tapas here, though they know exactly what you mean if that is what you do call them. They call them pinchos. The Basque custom, observed in every single bar in the region, is to lay out assorted pinchos on the barra. What you do is ask the barman (it is not often a barwoman) for a plate, and simply load onto it the things you wish to eat. It is up to you to keep tabs of how many pinchos you've eaten; when the time comes to add up the tally and pay up, the barman will trust you not to have cheated.

Apart from the standard red pimientos stuffed with bacalao paste that Bideluze offered, apart from the plump, green Gernika peppers, the garlic-speckled anchovies in oil and vinegar, the chorizos, the cheeses and chicken croquettes, the bar also had quails' eggs and bacon, and a little dish known locally as mejillones tigres - tiger mussels. These are served hot on a large, flat seashell and covered with a thin crust of egg-fried breadcrumbs under which nestles a tangy little concoction of finely chopped mussels swimming in a creamy blend of olive oil, chile and bechamel sauce. As I scooped the shell's contents out and drank the fizzy rosé the locals seemed to consider the tigres' correct accompaniment (there was also Guinness and Murphy's Irish Red on tap), I saw a barman glide past. The plate he was bearing was dripping with the most wondrously marbled, acorn-oil-drenched slices of Jabugo ham - more evidence for the eyes of what was abundantly clear, that everything we were eating here was the freshest, finest quality produce. The proud locals would not have it any other way. Basques are exquisitely fussy about their food, especially the natives of San Sebastián. 'Try setting up an eating establishment that does not serve the freshest food, bought that morning in the market,' a friend there told me, 'and you'll be out of business in a week.'

It is striking, this fineness of sensibility - the almost Japanese delicacy - the Basques have with their food. Because it is so at odds with the national character: they're a brusque lot, headstrong, easily angered. You can see where the fanatical nationalism comes from, the sheer madness - never mind the ETA terrorists - of that 50 per cent or so of the population whose voting patterns indicate they would like to secede from Spain.

Like many Catalans, only more so, this breed of Basque insist on seeing themselves as victims, on feeling aggrieved at the unfair treatment they receive from what they call 'the Spanish state'. And yet there is quite possibly no other group of people in Europe that enjoys a better quality of life. Such thoughts passed through my mind on a stroll along the arching promenade that lines San Sebastián's Concha, the city's beautiful beach, in the direction of my next pincho stop, Casa Gandarias, in the old heart of the city. I had not found the Gandarias in any tourist guide. Nor had it been recommended by any of the half dozen or so locals I was to consult during my stay in the city. (In fact, the locals seemed distinctly underwhelmed when I told them later that I had eaten there.)

The idea had come from a couple of friends of mine in Teddington, Surrey. Either the Teddington couple and I were pitifully easy to please, or the local experts were the most impossible snobs. I want to believe it is the latter. Because the truth is that during the hour and a half I spent at Gandarias I was in food heaven. It was 2.30 in the afternoon and the clientele were spilling out onto the street, it was so busy. I elbowed my way through to the barra, heaving under the weight of a tapas spread four times more abundantly than the one at Bideluze. The dishes that were not on display, because they needed to be cooked on the spot, were listed on a blackboard.

By astounding good fortune I found myself an empty stool at the barra, summoned the nearest barman - big, bald, as gruff as it gets - and asked him if it was actually true, as another blackboard before me indicated, that Belondrade y Lurton white wine was available, 'by the glass'. 'That's right,' the barman replied, looking me menacingly in the eye, as if a bell were about to ring in the first round of a prize fight. 'Belondrade y Lurton, the finest white wine in Spain ...by the glass?' I repeated. 'That's correct,' my antagonist said, betraying, I thought, the faintest germ of pride; and maybe even a suggestion of surprise at this non-Basque barbarian's appreciation of the quality of beverage on display.

In either case, it was staggering to come across such a find in such a place, and a most eloquent expression of what is so special about eating out in San Sebastián. The most ordinary, everyday, humdrum of establishments serve food and drink of the standard you would expect to find in a restaurant run by the most lubricious maitre d', the most pompous sommelier. So I ordered a glass of Belondrade - made by a French couple in Rueda, an hour and a half north of Madrid, from the ancient Verdejo grape - and then some crab and octopus and prawns and some sizzling kidneys and a lamb brochette and black pudding (morcilla) with red peppers and the best, moistest potato omelette I've ever tasted and a few more slices of that glistening ham. You have to order ham in Spanish tapas joints if you want to be taken seriously.

Ham - of endless quality and variety - is the great national unifier. It is what gives lie to the delusion the Basques - and the Catalans and some Galicians - have that they are culturally different from their Iberian neighbours. (The Portuguese are different, of course, because, among other reasons, for them it is cod, not ham, that is king.) There were also some quite spectacular pieces of dark red meat on show, available either in the form of a fat slab of steak or in choice little cuts delivered on a slice of crusty bread. My friend from Teddington had memorably feasted on a fat one. The best piece of meat he'd ever had, he said. But he was still digesting it three months later so I plumped for just the one little pincho, garnished to simple perfection with thick chunks of rock salt. The piece de resistance, though, was the foie, also in pincho form. Rinsed down with that liquid Belondrade bouquet, it was an Elysean excess.

But Belondrade wasn't all that was on offer - there were plenty of other terrific wines, too. There was also a range of Scotch whisky that beggared belief. The labels on the bottles were a Who's Who of single malt's finest: Ardbeg, Bladnoch, Caol Ila, Laphroaig, Inverleven, and more - further proof, if at this stage it were needed, that I had penetrated a superior civilisation. I stuck to another glass of my favourite Spanish white for my cheesecake dessert, delivered on a raspberry-lined, toothpaste-white oval plate. And that's another thing. Each dish had its own plate: round, square, triangular or oval, depending, as far as I could surmise , on whether it was fish, meat or fowl.

I rounded the meal off with a cortado coffee, which is an espresso cut with hot milk. I have had thousands of cortados but this one tasted better than any other . The rough enchantment of the place had got to me. During the whole 90 minutes I spent at Gandarias, I never ceased to be amazed and entranced by the fact that I was eating and drinking in a place as regular to San Sebastiánites as the local King's Arms is to the inhabitants of Stockton-on-Tees. Oh, and it all came to €30, including tip.

'The secret,' Gabriella Ranelli reflected, 'is that they approach their food with so much mimo.' Mimo is what you do with babies you love. It means a combination of things, both abstract and physical. It means to cherish, but also to pamper, typically while making a tender cooing sound. 'That's how the Basques relate to food,' Gabriella continued. 'In the restaurants and bars it's not just about making money. It's about pleasing - and not just your clients, but yourself.' That is why even the wine glasses at Gandarias were of the finest quality. It isn't about money but about doing justice to a culture. There is a phenomenon in the Basque country known as 'la sociedad gastronómica' . It's a kind of club, usually based around a group of male friends who inhabit the same neighbourhood, in which people gather to discuss and cook food. The gastronomic society will have its own fully equipped kitchen and members will take turns to cook for each other.

Where, in other latitudes, people play golf or tennis or bridge, the Basque sport is cooking. An Andalucían friend who recently moved from Madrid to San Sebastián said he was surprised to discover a state-of-the art kitchen on the ground fl oor for the use of residents in the block of fl ats where he was living . 'In the block where I lived in Madrid we had a pool and a tennis court,' he said. 'Here - and it's the same in these kinds of places all over the Basque country - we have this great big communal kitchen.'

The measure of how fanatical these gastronomic society people must be about their food was provided by a Basque friend José Luis, who does not belong to one. In fact, he told me, he's not very good at cooking at all. José Luis is in his forties and has a group of a dozen or so mates he has been hanging out with all his life. They have a number of rituals, the most solemn of which is that on your birthday you must cook a great big extravagant meal for everybody else. 'So you cook one, too?' I said. 'Of course,' he replied. 'But I thought you said you couldn't cook.' 'Well, I need a couple of days to prepare the meal, and I follow practically every step from a recipe book.' 'And you do this for a dozen people and you say that's not cooking?' 'No, of course not. Cooking is when I put three or four fresh ingredients in front of you and in an hour you've made a great dish out of them.' So there you are. As far as Basques who are not too fussed about their food are concerned, using a recipe book is cheating. The gastronomic societies have existed forever.

Perhaps the historical reason why they should have emerged in this part of the world in the first place has to do with the natural abundance of food. There is the sea (the Basques are fi shing folk by ancient tradition) and there is excellent agricultural land. Most of Spain is dry and brown but the Basque country is lush and green, with big valleys and gentle slopes that suggest the Swiss lowlands, but with more heat and sun. 'There are still lots of small farms and San Sebastián has more Michelin stars per head than any place on earth the quality of the produce really is fabulous,' said Gabriella, who has lived in the Basque country for 15 years and knows a fresh Gernika pepper when she sees one.

Talking of which, a visit to the main market in San Sebastián is the city's second obligatory tourist destination after la Concha beach. The fish counters are a pleasure to behold, but what will stay with me is the fragrant smell of the lettuce. Another reason why the food is so good has to do with the emergence 25 years ago of what is known as 'new Basque cuisine'. Its champion is local legend Juan Mari Arzak, who runs a three-star Michelin restaurant by the same name. Since then the sky's been the limit. As Gabriella says, 'In San Sebastián you have it all, the entire range - from the most avant-garde dishes you'll fi nd anywhere, to the best set-price lunches, to the best tapas; everything!' Ask the inhabitants of southwest France: they flock to San Sebastián, which they consider their food mecca. Actually, it is, in all likelihood, the best place to eat in the entire Western world. If you doubt it, consider this: San Sebastián, which has the same population as Stockton-on-Tees, has more Michelin stars per inhabitant than any place on earth. Fifteen, to be precise. 180,000 people live in San Sebastián, Spain's 27th largest city but the one with the highest property prices. That means one star for every 12,000 inhabitants. (London, with a population 200 times larger, has 34 stars.)

'What the top restaurants do is raise the level of the ordinary eating place,' Gabriella said. 'But the great chefs take much of their inspiration in turn from the everyday places. One feeds the other, so to speak, and the public, who get accustomed to better and better food, become more and more demanding.'

One of the reasons why the gastronomy congress was held in San Sebastián is that it is the one place in Spain where the public can be relied upon to turn up in large numbers. These are people who save up all year to eat at Arzak or one of the other mega-star restaurants like Martin Berasategui, Akelare or Zuberoa, in the same way that people elsewhere save up for a holiday in Miami. So offering them a gathering of the cream of the world's chefs is like the Beatles coming to town.

The congress venue was a big, boxshaped convention centre by the sea known as the Kursaal, the kernel of which is a large amphitheatre used by symphony orchestras. It was standing room only in the amphitheatre when Ferran Adriá (who is to San Sebastián as David Beckham still is to Tokyo) did the first of his star turns. There were about 30 chefs in all - from France, Italy and the United States as well as Spain - who did half-hour presentations on stage of some of their favourite dishes, complete with live video connections to kitchens where their staff did the chopping and mixing. This was decidedly not for the housewife back home to imitate. It was - especially in the case of the show-offy Spaniards - the culinary equivalent of going to a wayout-there haute couture fashion show. In the case of Adriá, it was like his restaurant, el Bulli. It was beyond food, beyond eating. That was what I had been doing at Bideluze and Gandarias. This was pure spectacle. Virtuoso for virtuoso's sake. There was an elaborate machine that made mint juice, long syringes, odd Styrofoam contraptions, deep pots belching white smoke (this was the liquid nitrogen).

The ingredients were eggs, asparagus, olive juice (green as pea soup), vinegar dust and raw powdered calcium. The point was to cook not by applying heat to the raw materials, but extreme cold. The end result was a sort of poached egg encased in a transparent asparagus gelatine. You cut through it and the yolk ran liquid as a fried egg's. It was a staggering spectator sport, as was the act of creation by which another playful Catalan, Joan Roca, made a brittle, see-through, balloon-sized orb densely packed with cep smoke. To 'eat' it, you crack the balloon and inhale. In between all this there was some delightfully simple stuff , like warm oysters with green apple juice. One of the French chefs (I think he was taking the mick) offered as his contribution a big fat roast chicken. An Italian made snails. An American chef cooked bread. The most notable difference between the Spaniards and the rest was that the Spaniards worked with the cool precision of laboratory scientists, or heart surgeons. In the case of Andoni Aduriz (the most avant of the avant-garde Gabriella was talking about) the analogy is not extreme. Every one at the congress I spoke to mentioned his name in hushed tones.

Thirty years old, Andoni - as everyone calls him, the same way Brazilians call their football superstars by their first names - is the boy wonder of global cuisine. (Well, actually, if you ask Ferran Adriá, the most interesting contemporary genius is Britain's very own Heston Blumenthal, but that's another story.) His special gift, I was told, is making foie. So obsessive is Andoni, who looks like Harry Potter, about this particular art that he frequented Spain's leading liver research hospital in Granada for a period of two years in order fully to grasp the ins and outs, the precise fat-protein ratio, the exact enzyme composition of the said organ.

As a consequence he understands foie and can cook it better than anyone alive, gauging the different temperatures required at every forensically delicate stage of the coction process to a thousandth of a degree. I went to his restaurant, Mugaritz, in San Sebastián's mountainous southern outskirts, for dinner. I had the dégustation menu, each of a dozen dishes more minimalist than the next, and nothing to do with everything else that's going on in Spanish cooking. The Adriá school is exuberantly Dalíesque. Andoni is Zen austere. The first off ering, consumed in one gulp at the end of a very long spoon, was a sea anemone, a gooey grey thing whose naturally kidneyish, urine tang was helpfully off set by a hint of lemon.

Next up, raw thistle leaves with milk skin, garlic dressing and an olive infusion. Then herb salad and laminated mushroom followed by hay consomme and a morsel of sea urchin leavened with garlic and walnuts. A tasty little chunk of Iberian pig went down nicely after that, as did the scallop of foie, first roasted, then chargrilled and accompanied by a consomme of date pips . And so it went on. A Spanish food critic sharing the table with me noted that I was consuming rather more bread than one might ordinarily expect to eat at a top-of-the-range Michelin establishment, but the truth was that for most of the meal I was bloody hungry.

'He takes risks, Andoni,' my dinner companion observed. 'He lives on a knife edge.' But, I asked, did he like Andoni's food? 'Look,' the Spanish gourmand replied, 'you either go along with this spiritual game of his or, frankly, you find him a pain in the balls.' A bunch of Catalan chefs at the table next to me who'd come along to San Sebastián to pick up some tricks at the gastronomy congress really got it badly in the balls. There were five of them, all good-quality chefs in their own right who serve straightforward fine food in a town on the foothills of the Pyrenees. After dinner I drove back with them to the city centre. They were indignant. Enraged. I couldn't print most of what they said but it boiled down to this: 'What a load of pretentious rubbish!' I said I tended to agree, while humbly acknowledging that if the cream of Spanish cheffery believed this guy to be the Picasso of his day, well, cubism was derided too when it first appeared on the art scene.

What was true, and where I entirely agreed with my outraged Catalan crew, was that I badly felt a need for one of those fat crimson super-steaks my friend from Teddington had gorged on. The next day my friend José Luis, the Basque who doesn't care about food, had us walk the streets for an hour before we found just the right place to have lunch. Asador Trapos, which dishes up traditional pre-nouvelle cuisine Basque food, was just what the doctor ordered. José Luis and I shared a plate of thick green beans with garlic and another of artichokes with clams, and then I had my longed-for half-kilo slab of red meat.

Chuletón de buey is what you ask for, the literal translation of which is 'ox chop', but what it really means is beef steak. I loved the fact that the waiter did not even ask me how I'd like the meat done. He brought it blood rare, sprinkled with rock salt, and accompanied by a bottle of red honest-to-goodness Rioja. I kept going back to the congress, gawping at the cutting-edgery of it all, but it was Asador Trapos and the tapas bars I went to that will linger much longer in the mind. Take a place called Barandiarán that I popped into one morning for breakfast. Again, I had never heard of this place before walking in, again it was a regular everyday place with soiled napkins on the floor but the spectacle that awaited me at the barra was a feast for the eyes.

This being breakfast, they had held back on the kidneys and foie wasn't on the menu. Instead, among the self-service goodies on display were succulent pieces of cinnamon-coated French toast, smoked salmon, crabmeat and shrimp on toast and, of course, potato and onion omelette. The only juice available was orange, freshly squeezed, and the cortado coff ee was of a quality, as they say in Spain, to revive the dead. A tapas bar that the locals did recommend was Bar la Cepa, just down the road from Gandarias in the old quarter of San Sebastián, which is where most of the best pinchos in town are to be found. As far as I could tell, it was Casa Gandarias all over again, though (and the local experts will have to forgive me) not quite as fine.

The best recommendation was that four pinchos into my meal, Ferran Adriá walked in with his wife. It is the second time this has happened to me in a year, the first having been at a very hip tapas place indeed in Adriá's native Barcelona. I was struck by the fact that, on arrival, he ordered, as he had done the first time around, a large plate of ham. It is his antidote, you can't help feeling, to the elaborate intricacies with which he concerns himself in his day job. So, I asked Adriá, was San Sebastián the best place to eat in the world? My expectation was that he would cry 'yes', or make some sly remark along the lines that it was almost the best, after Barcelona. Yet there was not a tinge of patriotic prejudice in his reply. Quick as a flash he said, 'No. Shanghai is better. Maybe Thailand, too.' Shanghai? 'The variety and inventiveness is amazing.' And Thailand? 'The freshness of the produce is remarkable .' So was San Sebastián the best in Spain at least? 'Of course! What do you mean?' he replied. 'It's the best in Europe. The best in the West. No doubt about that at all. And if you push me, in terms of the average quality of the food, in terms of what you can get at any place you happen to walk into, maybe it is - probably it is, yes - the best in the world.'

A (very) few interesting pinxto bars are as follows:

Bideluze, Plaza de Guipuzcoa, 14, (00 34 943 422 880)

Casa Gandarias, Calle 31 de Agosto, 25, (00 34 943 428 106)

Barandiarán, Alameda del Boulevard, 38 (no phone)

Bar La Cepa, Calle 31 de Agosto, 9, (00 34 943 426 394)

Bar Astelena, Inigo, 1, 00 34 943 426 275)

Alona Berri, Calle Birmingham, 24, (00 34 943 290 818)

Ganbara, Calle de San Geronimo, 21, (00 34 943 422 575)

28 October 2006

Other dining places in Berlin

The best value-for-money dinner restaurant in Berlin, in my opinion, is the Modern Art of Asia, in Leipziger Platz 8 near Potsdamer Platz. The atmosphere is great, with cool minimalistic modern settings and a nice friendly (but a little slow) service. Go for their eat-all-you-can buffet at less than 20 Euro and sample some interesting food combinations, which you make yourself! I won't say more except that it is definitely not traditional German cooking, but the place really does interesting food which you can vary yourself by changing the sauces. It is simply a great place to take friends and have a fun dinner. You can mention the Berlin Dinner Club there if you need a table when they are full. We did a dinner there recently so it might help.

Earlier, I had forgotten to mention that the traditional Berlin signature dish is actually the Eisbein (pronounced Ice-Bind). Lots and lots of places serve it, including some traditional breweries and kneipes (German pubs). It is actually the foot of a pig, boiled and served with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes. Don't mix it up with Schweinehaxe, which is a ROAST foot of pig from Bavaria. Once a year, I force an eisbein down in places like the Lindenbrau or the Grossbeerenkeller (and am slowly getting used to it), but I guess it is something you can choose to try or not. It does not matter, unless you need the novelty value but if you like stodgy, filling food, it is really quite good and ridiculously cheap. Another very interesting dining place is the Nocti Vagus, but you might need nerves of steel although I think the food and dining experience is quite fun. Again, I won't describe the place as it is something you will either really find exciting, or make you run out screaming!

Oh, how can I forget to mention the oldest restaurant in Berlin, which has served both Napoleon and Gobachev: Zur letzten Instanz. This is another cool place to try with friends and visitors to Berlin. Yet another must-do place in a city full of must-do things and places. Oh well...


What to do in Berlin Xmas/New Year 2006/7

Well, the immediate "German" dinner event that springs to mind for a visitor would be the Medieval Knight's Dinner at the Spandau Zitadelle. The websites are www.zitadelle-spandau.de and www.zitadellenschaenke.de The atmosphere is great, food is excellent and copious and the wine is excellent (and free) and I always have a great time there. We also did a dinner club night there on April 2004 if you want to see more "real life" pictures of the place.

But, saying that, the Spandau Zitadelle is probably well booked out by now. However, the good news is that Berlin is full of very good restaurants, and depending on the atmosphere and budget, one can have a very good time. If you must have German Xmas food, beware that the traditional German Xmas dinner is large slabs of goose, cooked in its oil and with lots of sauerkraut and dumplings. I personally hate it as it almost always makes me ill afterwards, but if you must do fowl, then I would suggest Aigner in the Gendarmermarkt (more upmarket) or Restaurant Friedenau (more traditional and cheaper).

On the other hand, if you like gourmet German food, then please consider Vau, Vox, Facil or Hugos. Not cheap by any means, but very, very good. The best German food is actually Alsace-German and the 3 best ones in Berlin are the Berlin Sankt-Moritz, Storch or Borchardt (Tom Cruise eats here). Do a Google search and you will find reviews about them. Great restaurants, great food and not too expensive (compared to London). Vau's cook is Hr Kleeburg, quite a character if you get to meet him, Felix is the very knowledgeable sommelier at Facil, and last year, I had my Xmas dinner at Vox. One of the top restaurants in Berlin, in my opinion, is Facil but regrettably they are not open on weekends. Try also Gugelhof. President Clinton had dinner there once, so at least the politicians like the place. Angela Merkel's favourite restaurant is Chez Maurice and her favourite dish there is the blutwurst which is a great dish, but, well, it might not be to everyone's taste.

Note that Berlin dining has a different character to dining elsewhere in Germany, mainly because Berlin is so much more cosmopolitan. But if one wants other forms of German food, then you can also get Bavarian food (and beer) in Berlin as well. Try Loewenbraeu. For Schwabian food, it would be hard to beat Oma Mina (or Mink's as it is also called). Some members of the German football team eat here. Or try eating at a brewery. It's great fun and quite cheap as some places tend to serve food by weight so you can (should) never overdo it. There are lots of independent breweries in Berlin, some of them since the 16th century. A fine example is the Luisen Brau where you can order beer by the metre! A branch of a famous Bavarian brewery is also in Berlin. Or try something a little more afield, like Austrian food, in which case, you cannot beat Ottenthal in Kantstrasse.

If you want to combine a show with the dinner, then one really should consider Pomp, Duck & Circumstance. It is an unusual dining experience and something one will seldom see in the UK. It was pretty good when I was there but it would help if you speak German. The food is quite tolerable as with these sort of places but you go for the experience (and ignore the price). Another show-and-dine place is the Wintergarten, but I have no idea what their current Xmas show is like as the last one I attended was 10 years ago. But I remember it was really pretty good.

The best part about Xmas is actually the Christmas markets. You will probably know the main ones: Breitscheidplatz (near the Zoo), Schlossplatz, Gendarmermarkt, and Opernpalais (Unter den Linden) but I like the one at the old town in Spandau as well. It's a little cheaper and less "heavy commercial" but they are all very good markets where you can snack on half-metre bratwursts, bouletten and gluhwein. In Potsdamer Platz, there is usually Europe's largest artifical snow slope where you can slide down rubber tyres and play the original ice version of curling in the Sony Center. Talking of the Sony Center, there is also an English cinema there, Cinestar, and you should see the Sony Center roof at night after 8 pm!

To check out locations, please use Stadtplandienst. It's the best free map service in Germany. If you are staying a few days and moving around a lot, consider buying a daily ticket or weekly travel pass. The same tickets work for underground, overground, regional trains, trams and bus services so they are really good value for money but don't forget to stamp them at the stations or the buses. There is a tourist office in Tegel airport and the Europa Center near the Zoo where you can get free maps and brochures. Don't worry - Berlin is such a great city that you will never manage to do everything you feel like doing, so just get used to the feeling. I have been here 11 years and been around a lot and still there are things I have not managed to do yet and somehow, the list grows longer every year. :o)

Hope this helps!