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We are going to taste WHAT?

That’s right, a scotch tasting at the historic Berry Bros. and Rudd in London, Britain’s oldest wine and spirit merchant, having traded from the same shop for over 300 years. If that’s not intimidating enough, our host for the tasting is Doug McIvor, the Spirits Manager — the man who has garnished many awards and is responsible for all BB&R’s whisky blending and making activities.

Doug McIvor

We rounded up a couple friends to join us and showed up not knowing exactly what to expect. We started with Champagne and a little history of the store then Doug arrived, the room hushed and we were initiated into the society of scotch whiskey  tasters with a 1990 Berry’s Own Selection Bladnoch, a light colored and slightly oaky (American oak)  whisky we were told would be perfect for an aperitif.

We continued through 5 more wee-tastes ranging from the lighter to the heavier and smokier. Doug was a fabulous host, so expert he made my ignorance profound in comparison. He told us about the various blends and why he selected them and about the individual small whisky makers and the regions. I told Michelle that my Scotch knowledge had increased by 1000x by Doug using 1% or his knowledge.

After a delightful tasting we sat down to a wonderful lunch before buying a few bottles, available exclusively there.

Factoid: There are basically three kinds of scotches (technically more, but I simplify).  Most common is a blend like Dewars or Cutty Sark. These contain about 70% whisky produced from practically any grain like corn or rye and 30% whiskeys made from just malted barley made by those who we know as the “single malt producers”. Most of the whisky these artisanal producers make is not sold under their own label, “Glenlivet” for example, but is blended into the large brands. What they sell directly are known as the “single malts”.

There is another kind, a bit of a rarity and blended by BB&R – a blend of single malts from more than one producer producing what is called a “blended malt whisky”. These were some of my favorites.

I don’t think I will add regular scotch sipping to my already long list of vices, but it was fun and educational.

Bibendum and my first Irish oyster of the odyssey

Michelin Man ("Bibendum") in stained glass at the Michelin building

Everyone knows the Michelin man, but not everyone knows his real name is Bibendum. The figure was inspired by a pile of tires at an exposition in the late 1800’s. The name comes from a poem in Latin by Horace in which one line is “Nunc est Bibendum” meaning now is the time to drink. By drink Michelin meant cups of nails and shards of glass to illustrate the durability of their tires. I think it now has a more modern connotation.

Bibendum is also a restaurant in the Michelin Building in London, a beautiful art-deco building. Actually, it is two restaurants — a formal emporium of the finest food upstairs and a oyster/shell fish bar downstairs. I love both, but this visit was downstairs.

The Bibendum shellfish bar downstairs

This was also my first time on this “oyster odyssey” to sample an Irish oyster, and not just any Irish oyster. This was labeled on the menu as a “Donegal Bay Divine Rock Oyster”.  After a little deciphering, it turns these are “sélects” or “speciales” meaning very plump and in this case large — probably a #2 (small numbers are larger oysters). I generally prefer a #3 or maybe a #4 (I would say the Hog Island Oyster company oysters would generally be a #4). But, this one ran small and tasted great. The others on the plate are Brittany’s fines de clair, a favorite of mine.

Great experience for my last oyster of the trip.

The building itself is a great example of Art-deco architecture from the early 1900s. In the 1980s Sir Terence Conran purchased the building and restored many of the original details. Great place to eat oysters and other crustacea, buy flowers and shop in Conran’s design store, all in one marvelous building.

Our bags are packed again

And packed for the last time this trip. We are sitting on a BA flight waiting 30 minutes to take off due to fog delays in London. If all goes as planned — home today. (Ipdate — we made it just 45 minutes late)

Don’t stop reading though, we have a few more posts to write. Next post up, scotch tasting at Berry Brothers.

Cooking Pintxos with Gabriella

Michelle and Gabriella at the Market

One of our activities in San Sebastian was a cooking class for tapas (pintxos is the Basque word). It was great fun, we learned a lot and got to meet Gabriella who dropped out of the art world to pursue her love of food and wine tourism, She arranges all sorts of foodie travel experiences around Northern Spain. Her website is here. Of course before we could cook, we had to first understand the essence of the food and buy some ingredients.

Tasting some Iberico ham

Our first stop was a ham shop that had anything you wanted in ham from the common serrano to the caviar and truffles of ham, the Iberico de bellota. This is a cured ham from a black Iberian pig that is allowed to range freely feeding on acorns (bellota). The result, which is virtually unavailable in the US due to the USDA regulation of slaughterhouses, is a highly marbled and highly prized melt-in-your-mouth delight. The ham shop we visited was  just opening for the day and they were removing the saran wrap from the ham and the sheets of fat that are replaced each evening to keep the meat moist. Great way to start a day with a few slivers of Iberico de bellota.

Next off to the market to get a few ingredients for our pintxos, a little shrimp and a little bread.

Lunchtime at a traditional Pintxos bar

Then, more importantly, we went by a few of the pintxos bars to see what the traditional lunchtime presentation looked like. Here is a typical one on the right — each tapas substantial and all about the same price. Traditionally, each bar has a speciality, and you would stop in for just one and one drink. The drinks are small, by our standards, but in the course of an evening many are consumed as you go bar to bar. I was told by Gabriella that for the preferred white wine, Txakoli, you pour little but pour often. Interestingly, there is a tradition of pouring it from quite high above the glass through a special pour spout that aims and aerates the wine. Another note on tapas — they seem to be popular about the lunch hour, noon to 2 or so, then after work until dinner, about 7 pm to 10. Also, the billing is an honor system — when you go to pay, they ask you how many you had and then they compute the bill. From my experience, it was 3 to 4 euros per tapas at the better bars.

Then it was off to Gabriella’s studio to actually do some cooking. We made an egg with anchovy (or was it onion) and a tuna with onion (or was it anchovy), memory fails me, maybe too much Txakoli? Also a fried shrimp dish. There was also a stuffed piquillo pepper dish. All delicious and simple to make.

After our fabulous tasting, Gabriella took us to Arzak and introduced us to the staff that gave us a fabulous tour of the caves, kitchen and laboratory, but that’s in an earlier post.

Hope you don’t mind we have lost  bit of the chronology here, We tend to post the quick posts first and think longer about the things we enjoyed the most — like this experience.

Fines de clair

It turns out that “fines de clair” aren’t an oyster variety but the designation of the “affinage” or finishing method used for oysters in France as well as a designation of the meat-to-shell ratio or plumpness. “Fines” are not quite as plump as “sélects” and the “clair” refers finishing the oysters for a few months in very clear water to allow the flavor and texture to reach their peak. These were from southern Brittany, likely Morbihan Bay and were delicious at J. Sheekey.

Guggenheim Bilbao

Richard Serra's semi-permanent exhibit (not sure how he would remove it!)

Like everyone, I have seen photos of the Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. In the pictures it is quite beautiful and innovative — evocative to me of another monumental structure on a river/harbor, the Sydney Opera House. Nothing prepared me for the scale of the building or the scale of Serra semi-permanent exhibit. Both were overwhelming.

Our terrific PhD and pregnant guide, Susana. Made the museum come alive.

By great luck we ended up on a private tour with Susana, a PhD educator/guide who has been with the museum since it opened in 1997. I’m not really a museum person, but Susana really made the place come alive. There was no question whether it be about window washing or the hidden secrets of the installations she couldn’t answer. We were sad to leave her but she gave us a great recommendation for a local wine we found in a restaurant later that day and we raised a toast to her.

From Michelle:  I went to the Guggenheim Bilbao twice in one day as it just required that much to take it all in.  On the guided visit in the morning, I just kept looking up at the entire structure.  It is one of the most complicated buildings I have ever seen and immense in terms of scale, mass and quantity of materials used.  Just a few quick facts:

–  One half million sq. ft. = total area of the museum

–  Built around the clock, 24 hours a day.  Not really but as Susana told us, when it was night in Bilbao, CAD drawings and other instructions would be sent form Frank Gehry’s LA office.

–  The building consists of a steel grid, which defines the sculptural volumes (visions of boat bows on the estuary next to the museum), 33,000 titanium panels (80 x 115 centimeters each), limestone (inside the stone is actually curved!), and specialized glass (a mere 2,500 panes of glass) that appears clear.

–  25 skylights

–  120,000 square feet of exhibition space

–  The canopy outside (see pics) is supported by a 24-meter tall column.

–  41 steps DOWN from street level lead to the entrance of the museum because of the already existing difference in height between the city and the estuary.  If you think about it, most (all?) museums have stairs leading UP to the entrance.

This museum in every respect is worlds apart from anything I have been in, esp. in the museum world.

Oh yes, there is art but I think it gets dwarfed and overshadowed by the building.  I did see the new exhibition of BRANCUSI / SERRA and if you had asked me a year ago before my SFMOMA training, I would not have know either artist.  But that’s another post.

My first wild oyster of the trip


At J. Sheekey oyster bar in London and tried two oysters, a farmed variety called Maldon Rocks and a wild variety called West Mersea Natives, both from near Essex. The natives were flatter, had more iodine and cost 50% more. Both delicious with a glass of Picpoul de Pinet. Although I preferred the French (oysters, that is). J. Sheekey is a fabulous oyster bar though. I’ll try to post better pictures later.

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