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Study Abroad Programs Madrid: Luis Dhimes Chef Pepper
By: Matt Goulding (justin) 2013.01.27

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The Delicious Underbelly of Spain's Gastronomic Capital


When Chef Federico placed the large, purple octopus on the cutting board in front of me, I brandished my 12-inch knife like some sort of culinary Captain Nemo.

"What the hell is - Que es esto, chef?" I asked, tightening my grip around the rubber handle. My long white apron was covered in black ink splotches, the remnants of an earlier battle with a group of baby squid.

"Tranquilo, Californiano, esta muerto," Fede shot back at me, a mischievous smirk under his rigid, towering toque. One of the tentacles unfolded on the board, its limp, slimy tip hanging off the stainless steel counter, and I saw he was right; the thing was dead. The other study abroad students began to lose it, first the restaurateur from Pamplona, then the lawyer fresh from a study abroad in Madrid and the homemaker from Bilbao not a soul able to contain their utter pleasure in seeing a foreigner, an American at that, struggle with a northern Spanish staple. But after two weeks of searing goose livers and sauteing pigs' faces in a Basque culinary school, I had to be prepared for anything.

ONE:THIRTY P.M.
The city where I study abroad is swollen. Two friends and I are battling through a veritable sea of white linen and red handkerchiefs. The odor of dried sweat and stale beer prevails through the throngs. The bulls have already stormed through the old section of Pamplona, flattening a few and frightening most, but today was better. An Australian was trampled to death yesterday. The grassy parks are filling quickly, tourists vying for an impromptu bed and a few hours of recuperation before the debauchery begins again.

Fatigue and frustration aside, my mission is firm: find the first bus to Pais vasco (the Basque country), back to San Sebastian, the city waiting by the sea. The rabble is satisfied, the bulls await their deaths, and in two and a half hours, I must cook.

THREE:FORTY FIVE P.M.
From the crest of an undulating vineyard, the first glimpse of the city emerges. Nestled snugly between the rolling pastures of the Basque countryside and the emerald bosom of the Spanish Atlantic, San Sebastian is a lesson in the sublime. With a hard stare, I think I see France on the horizon. The bus, buzzing with tales of bucking and goring for much of the trip, grows eerily silent upon descent. I know this city, the one that the locals call Donostia, I have been here for weeks now, but for many, it must be their first time.

The Conch is what strikes newcomers first: a two-mile-long beach around which much of the city unfolds, crescent-shaped, like the moon took a bite from the coast. In the middle is a small island, Isla de Santa Clara, and on a hot July day like today, the bay is wonderfully congested with sailboats, kayaks, and swimmers. The whole scene is flanked by two imposing peaks, on whose eastern tip, Monte Urgull, resides a large statue of Christ watching over the Basque people.

Perhaps they need watching over. The vascos have been engaged in a virtual socio-political war with the central government for hundreds of years now. They have legitimate claims to being the first inhabitants on the Iberian Peninsula, and for myriad reasons they seek independence from the Spanish government. While the Basque Nationalist Party has made an eloquent case for their autonomy, their efforts have been marred in recent years by ETA (Euskeda Ta Askatasuna - Basque Homeland and Freedom), the infamous terrorist group desperate to carve out its own nation. From car bombings to political assassinations, the ETA has infused the fight for independence with brutal aggression and misguided aspiration. Madrid persists, and any form of legitimacy in the Basque movement has been sadly overshadowed by ETA's violence.

While the Basques may be losing the political battle with the Spanish government, they have succeeded in preserving a culture as rich and distinct as any you will encounter in the country, and maybe on the Continent. Pais vasco, in so many ways, is decidedly un-Spanish. Look past the pans of paella and pitchers of sangria, and you'll see and hear things you never expected from this country: from jai-alai, the immensely popular native sport similar to handball, to euskera, the region's dialect, bursting at the seams with unfamiliar X's and K's. Since Franco's death in 1975, the previously banned language has flourished in streets and classrooms alike. And the food - Well, we'll get to that.

FOUR:TEN P.M.
I hit the streets running. It is my last day in the Luis Irizar Escuela de Cocina, and I am determined to be somewhat punctual. I made the mistake of informing the class of my jaunt to Pamplona, and now they are expecting a no-show from the American import.

A run across town in San Sebastian reminds me of the dilemma facing many European city planners, one that we don't really face in our adolescent country: how to blend the ancient with the modern. The vascos have done an admirable job here. The transition appears seamless: I run past brokerages and language schools and century-old bakeries without so much as a thought as to the change from asphalt to cobblestone. One deep inhale is of burning petroleum, the next of fresh baguette.

As I cross into the parte vieja, the oldest section of San Sebastian, I spot a group of Ertzaintza (Basque Special Forces) on the corner, cloaked in red and black, faces masked, eyes peeking through the cloth. In the past 30 years, over 800 police officers and politicians have been killed in the ETA's bloody campaign. They are interrogating two young Basques whose backpacks are filled with cans of spray paint. ETA pleas for independence cover all in the old town: cement, brick, marble. Rejected by the media and the political world, the Basque secessionists voice their anger through graffiti.

Sidestepping the confrontation, I make my way around the edge of the Conch and up to school. Before opening the door, I pause and, wiping the midsummer sweat from my forehead, take a second to survey the scene before I disappear into the culinary abyss: the sublime seascape, the hopping port, the seemingly endless row of outdoor seafood spots, and in front of me, situated oceanside with a commanding view of it all, an entrance into the strange and delicious underbelly of Spain's gastronomic capital.

FIVE:TWENTY P.M.
For a second, I almost feel like Austin Powers receiving the full attention of a group of groping international women: Spanish, Mexican, and Japanese. The roll of paper towels and stain remover they wield, however, thrusts me disappointedly back into reality. While ripping the tentacles from a slimy chipiron, a baby squid, I hooked my finger around its ink sack and squeezed, releasing a thick, jet-black stream all over my apron and undershirt. Now they are blotching and scrubbing me, reminding me all will be fine: "Esta bien Mateo, esta bien." Gracias, chicas.

Yoko makes an extra effort to remove the discouraging stains, reminding me of the situation we share. In her late 20s, she has traveled from Japan to take the summer cooking courses here, hoping to learn enough about nueva cocina vasca, nouvelle Basque cuisine, to start her own tapas restaurant in Tokyo. Though I have spent the last six months at the University of Barcelona, we are the only two students who weren't born speaking Spanish, so to speak.

Chef Fede, a robust young Basque and our teacher for the week, reminds us that we must press forward. We have a schedule to keep: four hours to prep, cook, and ultimately devour an intricate three-course meal. Though the school operates year-round as one the top culinary institutes in Europe, when July comes, the Irizar family (Luis and his three daughters) open their doors to the general public and novices like me just follow their noses. For a $140 a week, you can eat and drink your way through the best San Sebastian has to offer and bring home enough culinary know-how to impress the hell out of the parents and the girlfriend. The casual summer courses run between July and September, alternating topics each week: from pintxos (Basque for tapas) to postres (desserts), all palates are pleased. This week: El Mar en nuestra Mesa, the Sea on our Table. Yeah, it does sound better in Spanish.

We are in the midst of prep work for the main course; Fede gives the instructions, demonstrates the methods, and sends us on our respective missions. At any time, Fede may pause to show the group a trick or technique: how to get a consistent mince out of an onion, the easiest way to beat air into egg whites, or how to keep a hollandaise sauce from breaking. Today's main dish is complex, multifaceted: roasted monkfish served on a bed of Iberian ham and appleslaw with a white wine reduction. I am assigned the daunting task of making calamari "spaghetti" (hence the ink debacle) with Jose Mariean old, sturdy local. His bronzed face beams with Basque pride, no doubt he's a member of the Nationalist Party. As I butterfly the firm, white bodies and begin to julienne the squid into long, narrow strands for garnish, the man gets excited. He tells me about the txoku, San Sebastian's legendary all-male gastronomic societies, of which he is a long-standing member.

"Not even Franco's wife was allowed in," he brags. (Keep in mind I was never fortunate enough to have a translator - though the chefs offered it for this californiano, not a word of English entered the classroom in two weeks.) Say what you want about the infamous machismo, you can't deny the Basque obsession with food, and Jose Marie is no exception. All week long, he has been providing the class with restaurant picks, questioning the chef's decisions, and, his favorite pastime, telling fish stories about epic dinners, the kinds that grow from four to nine courses in the recounting. He reminds me of something I am still learning about this strange and wonderful place: Though political tension pervades the region, the proud Basques are always ready to share their country with a stranger.

SIX:TEN P.M.
We break from the chaos of the kitchen to sip cafe con leche and spoon down bowls of the young sous-chef Alberto's green peppercorn and melon sorbet. The fusion of subtle heat and cool sweetness is transcendent. My classmates take the break as an opportunity to prod me about the Pamplona excursion.

"It looked like a bull chased you all the way to class, Mateo," says Alfonso, a chiseled cook from Navarra, the next region over. Chuckling ensues. "Yeah, you must be tired; I thought you were going to kill that poor octopus a second time," follows Mariana, a schoolteacher from Barcelona. More laughter. To our surprise, Luis Irizar, the school's founder, walks through the door in the middle of the roasting and offers me a moment of relief. From his innovative use of traditional ingredients like salt cod and tripe to his incorporation of classic French technique, modern Basque cuisine owes much to this man. As he makes his way to the kitchen, he pauses in front of me, looks me up and down, and says calmly: "Pamplona."

The place erupts. There is no use in being defensive; for Spaniards, to laugh with a foreigner is to accept him.

SEVEN:FORTY P.M.
The final touches are being made for the feast. For the appetizer, pulpo gallego, we scalded that troublesome octopus three times in boiling water (that'll show it!) before returning it to the pot over a low simmer. Fede slices the suctioned tentacles into bite-size pieces and passes them over to a couple of students to garnish with smoked paprika and an amber drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Most will go back for more oil; aceite de oliva runs thick in Spanish veins.

At the last second, Jose Marie and I take our "spaghetti" to the skillet for searing. When the limp strands hit the hot oil, they tighten and curl like hooked worms, their near translucence giving way to a crispy brown. Alberto is beside us at the school's large, professional range, frying slivers of leeks and jamon iberico to sprinkle liberally around the finished plates. Luis and his team don't cut corners, not even for the summer groups: Iberian ham, the undisputed king of a pork-obsessed populace, can cost up to $120 a kilo, making it Spain's salt-cured answer to Italy's coveted proscuitto di Parma.

A dozen or so ingredients are arranged on the countertop like an edible palette, and each student holds their canvas ready to paint. While Chef Fede's carefully considered plating (he actually makes blueprints at home) normally sets the standard for the class, Yoko is attracting a lot of attention in her corner of the classroom. She slices the crusty monkfish on the bias, pointing its tips towards the sky and spooning it with the warm white wine and fish jus vinaigrette. Using a mold, she leaves two circular piles of the Spanish slaw in opposing corners, allowing our calamari critters to bend and twist their way up them. Years of calligraphy and origami, she tells us, allow for this moment. The chef, too, is impressed: This is nouvelle Basque cuisine at its best; fresh, traditional ingredients combined and arranged in previously unthinkable (and, to traditionalists, often unacceptable) ways.

A musical interlude ensues as a group of eager men begin the ritualistic uncorking of a dozen or so bottles of Rioja red and txacoli, a tart, local white wine. One could drink their tuition in wine if they so chose to. As glasses are filled and refilled, a flame goes up over the stove, and a surge of heat warms the table. Chef Fede has doused a saute pan of crepes with Grand Marnier; his face is bright with juvenile satisfaction. The classroom smells of toasted orange and caramelized sugar. This truly is a school of the senses.

Glasses chime and cameras flash and plates are deconstructed. Classmates with forks full of octopus tell jokes I don't understand, but I laugh anyway. Yes, taking culinary classes in another language has been a challenge, and sure, I've made an ass out of myself too many times in the past weeks, but I wear a genuine smile nonetheless. What I missed in anecdotes and jargon I made up for in immersion and adaptation. I doubt anyone here has learned more. Well, maybe Yoko.

ELEVEN:THIRTY P.M.
I stare at the plate of appetizers longingly. It's not the food that has me down: roasted peppers stuffed with shrimp and Roquefort, stalks of asparagus wrapped in smoked salmon, the ubiquitous tortilla espanola; after all, this is the thumping heart of Spanish tapas culture. It's not the scene, either: San Sebastian's parte vieja claims to have more bars per square meter than any other place in the world, and all on this Friday night are stuffed to drunken implosion. No, it must be this bus ticket I have in my money belt, and that plane ticket I have back in my room. America calls. But below my plate of untouched tapas is a document that I actually would mind losing: a thick cardboard diploma. The signatures from Luis and his family are barely dry. The back is crowded with names and addresses and invites, and I realize this really is something I am taking home with me.


The Low Down

GETTING THERE?
Trains from Madrid ($32, 6 hours) and Barcelona ($32, 8 hours) run to San Sebastian multiple times a day. From Paris, the trip may take up to 11 hours and cost about twice as much.

Spanish buses are clean and efficient and, since they're cheaper and usually quicker, serve as excellent alternatives to hot, tourist-stuffed trains. A half-dozen or so come from Madrid each day ($25, 6 hours) and nearly as many from Barcelona ($22, 7 hours). Remember also, Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum are only a little more than an hour away.

WHERE TO STAY?
From July 7 to 14, tourists who can't find spots in Pamplona for San Fermines flock to San Sebastian, and prices can soar. A basic bed could cost up to $25 a night. Don't fret: A call ahead to a hostel will usually be fruitful (make sure to arrange the price ahead of time). If not, apartment and home owners eager to rent a private room will await your arrival at the train and bus stations. Some of the best lodging in San Sebastian is to be found in the homes of others (I stayed for two weeks in the apartment of a large, rowdy Colombian family, another story in itself).

While San Sebastian is popular in the summer with surfers and foodies alike, lodging should be a bit easier after the bulls have done their thing.

* For more about where to stay, check out www.hostelworld.com or www.hostelz.com.

WHERE TO EAT?
Everywhere (except that McDonald's on the edge of the parte vieja; you know better).

* For more about the Luis Irizar Escuela de Cocina, check out: www.escuelairizar.com.

For more on Spain, check out our travel Spain page.

Photos by Lonely Planet Images/Oliver Strewe

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