Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hearty Food for Mountain People

Hiking beneath La Ripasa near Panticosa, Spain
Dark was closing in, a gentle but persistent rain had soaked through my top layer, and the lights from the village were still distressingly far away.  It was hard to remember that we had started our day nearly ten hours earlier at an inn in that village over a breakfast of jamon, toast, and strong café con leche.  Since then we had tread 28 kilometers on rocks, road, scree, and snowpack; we had been pelted by hail and rain and caressed by the warmth of the shy sun; we had shared beers, coffee, and tales of the trail with fellow hikers seeking refuge from a passing storm. 

But at that moment, trying to make out the rooftops of Sallént de Gallego through a grove of threateningly dark trees, all I wanted was a hot shower, a dry towel, and the hearty mountain dinner that I knew was waiting at the end of the trail.

Half Grilled Rabbit with aioli
This past July, John and I spent eight days hiking in the Spanish Pyrenees.  Our journey was a self-guided loop around the Valle de Tena arranged through the outfitter Hike Pyrenees, a tour operator offering a variety of Spanish hiking trips both guided and independent, as we had chosen.  The idea of setting out each day with a detailed set of directions and map (in English) and needing to take along nothing more than our daypacks sounded like a dream opportunity to explore a mountain range that not many native English speakers get to.  At the end of each day, our suitcases would appear in the next village having been spirited there by car while we traversed by foot.

When planning this trip, in addition to the expectation of epic mountain vistas, I also harbored fantasies of pan con tomate for breakfast, leisurely vino soaked lunches and long dinners ending in a table littered with the leftovers of a tapas feast.  As it turned out, we would eat well and plenty, and tapas would occasionally be involved, but the mountain cuisine of Basque country was a far cry from the gambas ajillo, patatas bravas, and paella that many people think constitutes “Spanish cuisine”. 

As we hiked from idyllic village to idyllic village, we worked up an appetite.  Each morning we would eat our fill of fresh scrambled eggs, tostada con jamon (toasted bread with olive oil, crushed tomatoes, and cured ham), and fresh juice.  The proprietor of each inn would pack us a small lunch, usually a bocadillo stuffed with grilled chorizo or longaniza, or one layered with jamon, thin omelet, crushed tomato, and fresh lettuce from the owner’s garden.

When we stopped for lunch, sometimes it was in a rush, trying to eat in a breezy spot by the side of a river having found a place where the flies were not swarming and the mosquitoes might layoff of us for a minute. Other days we just powered through the hike, drinking our lunch in the form of an ice-cold cerveza, followed by a snack, and then the requisite siesta. 

But dinner in the Pyrenees was where the cuisine really shined.  In eight nights there was not a paella pan in sight.  The seafood was more bacalao (salt cod) than gambas.  And there was meat, well, in every form imaginable.  When it came to vegetables, the chefs did their best when the vegetable in question was a potato- and those were always best when fried.  In other words, this was hearty food for mountain people.   

In Sandiníes, a village of no more than a handful of old stone buildings, rests a non-descript structure called Casa Pelentos.  They have rooms, but you would be mistaken if you thought this was a hotel with a restaurant.  No, this is more a famous, under-the-radar beacon of Spanish regional cooking that happens to have a few rooms attached where you can spend the night.  We were happy to spend the night, as it gave us a chance to taste from the chef’s much-celebrated repertoire of Pirineos cuisine. 

Piquillo peppers stuffed with bacalao
 The energetic owner walked us through the menu nodding every few sentences until I nodded back indicating that I was following her rapid-fire, thickly accented Spanish.  In reality I only picked up a few words here and there but it was enough to point and order some of the dishes she enthusiastically recommended.  A starter of soup filled with chickpeas and morcilla sausage was robust and filling enough to be a meal on its own.  This followed with piquillo peppers stuffed with creamy bacalao that were none too attractive when smothered in a rich tomato sauce.  But the sweet peppers balanced well with the luscious salt cod filling.  John’s chilled asparagus soup was pure summer in its vibrant color while his lamb chops were juicy and grassy as if the lambs had been feeding off the same verdant fields through which we had been hiking.

Back in Sallénte we finally knocked on the door of the Hotel Almud at 8:30pm.  Maria, the owner, whisked away our soaking wet hiking shoes and backpacks to dry in her boiler room over night.  She even called the restaurant to push our reservation back, though assured us that our 9pm dinner time was still plenty early by Spanish standards.

Clean, warm, and dry, we limped our tired bodies 200 meters away and poured ourselves into chairs at Asador Casa Jaimico.  I don’t much remember ordering wine, but when a bottle of red magically appeared neither of us objected.  I will admit a tiny amount of shock at the enormity of my leg of lamb when it emerged from the kitchen a crusty oven crisped brown in a pool of its juices, but the size did not deter me from finishing the entire thing.

Leg of lamb at Asador Casa Jaimico
Nor did John have a problem polishing off a decadent starter of mushroom risotto with duck confit followed by half a grilled rabbit.  This was almost an obscene amount of meat between the two of us, yet we found ourselves picking at the bones for every last morsel.  It was easy to see after days of trudging up steep mountain slopes in sometimes dangerous conditions how this cuisine would evolve.  It was food as rugged and natural as the people who live there.

Eight days eating as they do in the Pyrenees was more than enough for two omnivores.  Our hard treks behind us and back in the modest sized village of Biescas for our last night, we did as many locals were doing that beautiful Sunday evening and went out to find a plate of vegetarian pesto pasta.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer currently on her honeymoon, en route to a new home in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

1 comment:

  1. I read your recipe descriptions and try to make this. But could not making that. But it is really delicious to all and but to me. I have some recipe ideas. Please visit this. Easy Chicken Recipes| Chicken Recipes