Spain, Food Exploration at its Best

After Terra Madre we flew to Barcelona to meet our good friends and customers Ben and Karen Barker of Magnolia Grill in Durham.  This is the second time we have traveled with them in Europe to discover new foods and food stuffs.  Yeah I know, sounds like a hard job but trust me this is as much about business as it is about travel.  We now have a well developed system.  Karen and Ben research the restaurants they want to eat at and we research the farmers’ markets and other kinds of markets in the area near the restaurants.

Typically we will visit a market in the morning looking at displays and for new products, then go and have a great lunch.  In the afternoons we will explore some more and then have another great meal in the evening.  When eating we all order different dishes and then share them around the table, smelling, tasting, dissecting and discussing what it is, how the chef prepared it, what the ingredients are and so on.

I know for us we are looking for new products (mostly vegetables) to grow or new ways for our customers to use things we already produce.  I am sure for the Barkers they are taking home fresh ideas for recipes and plate presentation as well as ingredients.

Ben and Karen had been to the areas we would travel in just last June so had a good idea of the lay of the country and the logistics.  We went to some places they had been to before but it was now a different season with different ingredients and dishes.  We also found plenty of new places to try too.

Betsy and I flew in Sunday afternoon and had a chance to regroup after the full experience in Italy.  8:00 Monday morning we met the Barkers at the airport, rental car and we are off across the north of Spain.  It is about a four hour drive to the Rioja region through an arid landscape that looks like west Texas with lots of wind turbine and solar farms.

I knew from research that we would be driving right by the epicenter of the famous Piquillo pepper, Lodosa.  Picked dead red (fully ripe) and usually wood fire roasted and then canned.  A medium small conical pepper with thick walls and no heat.  We landed in Lodosa at the extended Spanish lunch break and all stores, etc. were closed but there were lots of peppers hanging on the houses drying.

We stayed the night in the old, walled, hilltop town of La Guardia in the heart of the Rioja wine region and on the edge of the Basque country.  It was pretty cool out but we walked around the town for a few hours including a tour of the incredible church of Santa Maria de los Reyes with its polychrome portal.

Back to the hotel with a chance for Karen and Ben to rest up from the jet lag and then the first of our typically Spanish, late dinners.  The restaurants in Spain don’t even start serving until 8:30 or later.

A great meal with more typical Riojan dishes including two with peppers

chorizo sausage with quernica peppers

a plate of piquillo peppers

Tuesday we hit the small market in town early, picked up some piquillo peppers for seed

and then headed out around the wine country and toured the incredible wine museum.

A great lunch and then we drove on over the mountains to the Atlantic ocean and the city of San Sebastian.  On the way you go through a dry country side that reminded me of the wheat producing areas of eastern Washington state.

San Sebastian is on a beautiful bay and is the heart of the Basque country food culture.  We stayed here for three nights and each night did the pintxos crawl.

Pintxos (tapas in the rest of Spain) are small dishes that the bars there have developed into a ritual and competition, with each having their specialties.  So every evening we would try out 3-4 places and 3-4 dishes at each place.

more traditional, jamon and prawns

more modern, sweetbreads with red eye gravy

pickled pigs ears




























Each day we would travel the country side.  On Wednesday we actually drove over the border into France and to the town of Espelette.  Famous for its dried red pepper powder, we stumbled into the middle of its pepper festival.  Similar to the piquillo but with some heat.  They use it both dried and fresh.  Needless to say we brought some of those seeds back too.

espelette pepper field

drying peppers

Thursday we spent the morning in the good market in San Sebastian, which is actually under ground.  The seafood displays were incredible and Ben was teary eyed at the quality and selection and that he can’t get that kind of fish back in North Carolina.

We found several vendors selling the guindilla pepper we wanted to get seeds for.  This pepper is used in many of the pintxos and is like eating a green bean, meaty because it is packed with seeds.  We also saw several vendors selling “soup kits” an idea we have seen before in Italy.

soup kits


















Friday we drove back to Barcelona for the last three nights of the trip.  A big and beautiful city with lots to see but it was packed with people!  It was the Day of the Dead holiday weekend and maybe a big soccer game too.  People everywhere.  A very walkable city and we walked everywhere, which helped with the extra calories we were ingesting.

Saturday’s main objective was to spend the morning at the La Boqueria market, supposed to be the largest and best in Europe.

Truly amazing with every kind of food stuff you can think of, below is a number of shots in the market.

mushrooms are in season

eggs of every kind

apples and padron peppers












We finished the morning with “breakfast” of a roasted green pepper called cristal (kind of like an Anaheim without heat)

and a plate of fried eggs with baby squid.  In the picture you can see my watch next to the glass of red wine, 11:30 a.m., research is hell.

We did of course see a number of the great architectural sites, my favorites being the crazy Gaudi Sagrada Familia cathedral

and the incredible tiled and stained glass Palau de la Musica Catalana.
















On our walks we also went into several other really good markets and maybe the biggest florist Betsy has ever seen.

Sunday we walked all the way down to the far tip of the harbor in the Barceloneta and had a really great lunch which included this wonderful paella.

Halloween on the Mediterranean

Back on up the Rambla and its masses of people and street performers including this flower inspired guy.
















Monday came and it was time to return to the farm.  Nineteen days gone is a long time and we were ready to head home.  Great trip; food, sights, travel partners.  We ended up bringing back five new peppers to try and a new tomato.  You can look forward to tasting them next year!

3 thoughts on “Spain, Food Exploration at its Best

  1. Pingback: Peregrine Farm News Vol. 7 #30, 12/15/10 « Peregrine Farm

    Wish I could have been there- the markets OMG!!!
    I know its a tough job, but somebodies got to do it and I’m glad it can be you two.

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