My dad and I snuck out of the house without telling anyone where we were going. He grabbed his camera, I grabbed my camera, and we tippy-toed out the door. We decided we would go explore the little neighborhoods that surround my hometown, Amorebieta, where life seems to stand still.
I rolled down the window, rested my head on my arm, and took in a deep breath of that spring cold air. The landscape seemed almost painted — blue sky and the greenest grass.
I turned my head and noticed a big grin on my dad’s face. “The sheep are out” he said.
And that was it — I knew what I had come for.
Every time I go back home there seems to be a purpose to my visit. It is never clear of what that might be when I first arrive, but as we settle into our routine, a theme always appears — almost as if I had an impeding mission. A void I must fill. With time I have learned that I need soil and dirt in my life.
When I set foot in Basque land, all I want to do is run for the hills. And so I did, and there they were — the sheep and the newborn lambs that were taking over the landscape and feeding on this painted-like grass. It was a beautiful thing.
That morning my dad and I drove to San Migel, only a couple of miles from where I went to school.
“They make really good sheep’s milk cheese in this house” he said. My heart skipped a beat and I quickly asked him to stop. “Then we must get some milk from them!” I replied in a rush.
I had been thinking about mamia for days, almost to the point of an obsession. I think you might have noticed from all the references I have made to it lately. Mamia is almost a cheese-like product. A curd made with ewe’s milk and rennet. Simple yes, but when the milk is fresh, it can be the most delightful, naturally sweet, and creamy dessert. Ask any Basque and you shall see. I have tried to recreate it in the US to no avail. It is all about the milk.
We knocked on their door.
The farmhouse is old, almost decrepit, but a family still lives there raising sheep and making cheese just like generations passed. I love that – such a romantic notion, isn’t it?
A tall, rosy-cheeked man came to the door. He greeted my dad with the cordiality of an old customer. He was paused and spoke Basque with a gentle voice. Such a contrast to my hyper excitement, of one who only gets to savor these moments once a year. “This is a daily affair for him” I thought to myself.
When we asked about the milk, he explained they had run out. “You have to come before eleven o’clock in the morning or it will all be gone”.
“Even with the 600 sheep you have?” I asked surprised.
“Yes, the milk we don’t use for making cheese is sold in a matter of a couple of hours. Chefs and cooks alike come early” he explained.
We thanked him and decided to return the next morning for more. This time we would bring Jon and Miren along.
They were in for a treat.
The next morning after breakfast, we returned to the farm for the coveted sheep’s milk. He was not kidding. We were greeted by a line of people waiting to get their share of the freshly-milked goodness — almost like a pilgrimage, I thought.
While my dad waited, I steered the kids towards the barn. It was cold and too early for the sheep to be out. There they lied, close to one another, mothers with their newborns. What a sight that was. As we later learned, three of them had just been born a couple of hours earlier. Bloody umbilical cords still hanging and covered in amniotic fluid.
I held one of them in my arms. “Most people are afraid of them” said the matriarch of the house. I shook my head. Not me. I love sheep- always have. Jon and Miren gathered around me unsure of what they were witnessing, but they quickly warmed up to the newborn lamb.
We watched them make some cheese that morning and took a stroll around the neighborhood. The apple trees were not yet blooming but it was definitely spring in the Basque Country.
Back at my parents’, my mom gently simmered the raw milk. It smelled like my childhood.
We had mamia for dessert when both my brothers and their families came over for lunch. Drizzled with raw honey and walnuts is how I like it.
“I think I will make a tart with it” I said to my mom. As it turns-out, our schedules didn’t allow it, but when I returned back to the US, I made a custard tart inspired by that day. Sheep’s milk yogurt, raw honey, vanilla bean, and a bit of lemon make the creamiest tart.
The days that followed were spent taking walks, hiking to Santuario de la Virgen de Oro, spending time with friends, cooking with my mom, and visiting my uncle Javi’s sheep and his fruitful garden. His plum and peach trees were already blooming and his citrus trees plentiful.
It was anchovy season for Basque fishermen and we indulged everyday. Quickly fried in garlic-infused olive oil, they are such a treat that I miss living away. It was a pleasure to see Jon and Miren enjoy fish as much as I do- such a staple in Basque cuisine.
“Arraine (fish)” Miren would say when asked what she wanted for lunch. Made us smile.
Marinated anchovies, salad of shaved carrots and fennel with sorrel and watercress. rabbit stew, pea and potato soup… all foods of spring.
We had amazing spring weather during our entire trip, which is not to be taken lightly because spring can be quite unpredictable in the Basque Country. Just a few days before we arrived, snow had covered some of the nearby mountains.
“The trees will start blooming soon then” I exclaimed with optimism.
First plum and cherry trees, then apples will follow.
On a sunny Saturday morning, we drove to the valley of Etxauri. This is fertile land where endless rows of cherry trees paint the landscape. The blooms are to be admired from afar and up close. Fluffy, white petals that almost look like snow.
Wheat grass surrounds the cherry trees. Soft and tall. I had forgotten how soft the grass in the Basque Country is. The kids hid in the fields and ran free.
That afternoon we visited Urdiain, a small but beautiful town where we used to spend our summer holidays when we were kids. We walked around the grove where we used to set up camp and the hundred-year old oak trees where we played.
There were trips to the beach of Laga with salmon and pea shoot tarts and a stop for ice cream on the way home.
During these visits to see my parents, we rarely eat out. We cook at home with the abundant fresh ingredients available and restaurants are saved for special occasions.
This time however, I was thrilled to join my aunt Aran (I was named after her, yes) for a farm to table lunch at Boroa. I will share that day on another post but I came back home completely inspired by that meal of tiny shelled favas, a perfectly poached egg and shaved truffle. Simple yes? But perfectly executed.
Inspired by that dish, I made a spring panzanella salad with English peas, soft-cooked quail eggs, and chive blossoms in a lemon and chive vinaigrette.
It was perfect.
And I leave you with these images and these recipes that made our time away special.
“I missed the sheep” said Miren when we returned to Florida.
“Me too, me too” I replied.
I really did.
Sheep’s Milk Yogurt and Honey Tart
makes a 9-inch tart
2/3 cup (90 g) superfine brown rice flour
1/4 cup (35 g) millet flour
1/4 cup (25 g) almond flour
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon natural cane sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (110 g) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water
Combine the first six ingredients in the food processor. Pulse to aerate. Add the butter and pulse until it is the size of peas. Add 3 tablespoons of ice water and pulse until it comes together. It will not form a ball. Press the dough between your fingers to see if it comes together. Add more ice water if needed.
Transfer dough to a cold surface. Knead a couple of times, form into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and flatten it. Refrigerate the dough for an hour.
Dust your cold surface with some superfine brown rice flour. Roll your dough to 1/8-inch thickness. If it cracks, pinch it back together. If it’s too cold it tends to crack so you can let it come to temperature for a few minutes.
Fill your 9-inch tart pan with the dough and cut off excess. Refrigerate the tart dough for 30 minutes.
1/4 cup (50 g) natural cane sugar
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped
1 cup (250 ml) sheep’s milk yogurt or mamia
1/2 cup (125 ml) heavy cream
1 tablespoon raw honey
Preheat oven to 350F (180C).
In a bowl, rub the sugar and lemon zest together to release the lemon oils. Add the eggs and whisk until combined. Add the cornstarch and vanilla seeds and whisk until lump free. Add the yogurt, heavy cream, and honey and whisk until smooth.
Dock the bottom of the tart dough. Pour the yogurt mixture into the tart and bake for 45 minutes or until the edges start to turn golden brown and the center is set.
Let the tart cool for a few minutes before cutting. Serve warm or at room temperature.
English Pea, Quail Egg and Chive Blossom Panzanella
If you don’t have chive blossoms, you can simply use some finely chopped chives or very thinly sliced red onion. It is all about getting the onion flavor in the salad.
serves 4 to 6
1 pound (450 g) shelled English peas
12 quail eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup (85 ml) olive oil
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Juice 1 lemon
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
1 tablespoon lemon thyme leaves
4 or 5 slices of multigrain gluten-free bread, toasted and broken into pieces
4 chive blossoms
1 ounce Idiazabal or Manchego cheese, shaved
In a medium sauce pan, bring water to a boil over high heat. Season with a generous amount of salt. Add the shelled peas and cook them for 4 to 5 minutes depending on the size until they are al dente. We don’t want them mushy. Immediately, remove them from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and submerge them in a bowl of ice water and let them cool. Drain them well and reserve.
Continue to boil the water in the pan. Gently add the quail eggs being careful not to crack them. Reduce heat to medium so that water continues to boil but not too rapidly. Cook the eggs for 2 minutes. Immediately remove them from the boiling water and submerge them in a bowl of ice water until they cool. Peel them and reserve.
In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, chives, thyme leaves, salt, and pepper. Add the blanched peas, bread, and chive blossoms. Toss the salad so that the bread is coated in the dressing. Let the salad rest for 10 minutes. Top with the quail eggs and shaved cheese. Serve immediately.