This series premiered in May 2011 on the Cooking Channel and instantly captivated me. I DVR’d this premiere episode after seeing its host, Annie Sibonney on a Food Network programme called The Best Thing I Ever Ate. There was an ad for From Spain With Love during the episode and it was clearly worth a look. Despite my well documented girl-crush on Annie, I’ll maintain my objectivity for these articles because as much as she’s a lovely person (gorgeousness and awesomeness combined), we have one major thing in common. We love Spain and that’s what this television series is all about. In this episode, Annie began our culinary journey in Northern Spain’s Basque Country and its coastal town of San Sebastian.
The first stop was a food club or gastronomic society called Gaztelubide. Steeped in tradition, there was a no-ladies policy; however, Annie had a secret weapon. Food writer, Peio Garcia Amiano not only helped her get in, but permission to help cook a meal. They went to the San Martin market to buy ingredients for including Hake (cod), rib chops (chuletas) and Idiazabal cheese. Back at the club, we were introduced to traditional Basque music in the form of Txalaparta, before joining Annie, Peio and his son in the kitchen. They prepared Merluza en Salsa Verde (Hake in a Green Sauce). That was followed by the chuletas coupled with charred piquilo peppers. The cheese was for dessert while the club provided Basque cider, wine and handsome company.
“La kokotxa es como un beso. The kokotxa is like a kiss.” – Annie Sibonney
Our next stop was Mugaritz Restaurant, to behold the culinary spectacle that is renowned chef Andoni Aduriz’s Kokotxas. No Reservations fans may remember when Anthony Bourdain visited Spain in 2008. Yes, that was the same Señor Anduriz dining at El Bulli. Did I mention he’s a former student of the master of all things culinary, Ferran Adria? (Feel free to take a moment to let that soak in, if you’d like.) Annie assisted him in the kitchen and reaped the benefits, by eating Kokotxas with the man who makes the best in the country. His precise methods are a tell-tale sign of that El Bulli training. He was also quite nervous but I’m not sure if it was the cameras or Annie’s unknown cooking skills that threw him off. That was gone in no time, as they were soon joking around.
A big part of Spanish and indeed Latin American culture is the Tapas Spree or Txikiteo, as it’s known in Basque. In fact, they’re not even called tapas but pintxos. Just about every self-respecting drinking establishment serves these, in multitudinous flavours but all are small…and free. However, the drinks are not but with good company and great food, the bill should be worth every euro. Annie introduced us to Gildas: a kebab with guindilla peppers, an anchovy and olives. Shrimp Brochettes then Grilled Squid drizzled in a squid ink sauce. My eyes popped at the McKobe: a mini burger made from Kobe beef with plaintain chips. This was followed by a perfectly cooked, Roasted Garlic Risotto. Then a tray of wild mushrooms with a black truffle topped poached egg yolk and fois gras. Wow, we need to train for that level of bar-hopping.
There was no mention of place names (unfortunately), except for Asador Sagartoki in the Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz. There chef Senén González challenged Annie to help him make Bocado de Huevo frito con Patatas (Fried Egg and Potatoes) and his award-winning pintxo, Tortilla de Patata. The final stop on our whirlwind tour of Basque was back in San Sebastian to see Juan Mari Arzak at his the world-famous Arzak Restaurante. I put this gentleman in the same category as Ferran Adria, Eric Ripert, Joël Robuchon, Guy Rubino, Jose Andres, Wolfgang Puck and a very few others. These are the people who God put on earth, not merely to cook but create culinary magic. We should walk over hot coals in exchange for a meal, if they asked us to. With his daughter Elena, Annie was treated to Cromlechs Stuffed with Foie Gras and Poached Onions. The very execution of their preparation was fascinating; and the fact that nobody spoke while they ate, is a testament of the meal’s tastiness.
From Spain With Love is one of those series that would show off what an HD television can do. Unfortunately, Cooking Channel isn’t in HD but that doesn’t hinder the startling visual elements. Vibrant colours, swift camera work, sharp editing and an excellent soundtrack make for quite the sensory experience. Only Smell-O-Vision could make this any better. Annie’s fluency in five languages shines in the kitchen scenes. She interacted with the audience giving explanations about ingredients and cultural facts about the Basque people. All the while simultaneously fielding jokes and asking questions herself. It kept the pace quick, smooth and put our focus squarely on her. The removal of the translator/middle-middle man actually made me feel like we’re right there with them. Could this show possibly get better or will there be a misstep somewhere along the line? I don’t know about you but I want more of this love. The next episode is Paella: Tradition in a Pan.