I was thrilled to have the chance to attend the 50 Best Restaurants event in Bilbao earlier this summer. The town was buzzing with excitement and food was being celebrated wherever we looked. Pintxos are the tapas of northern Spain – morsels of roast pepper, glistening jamon and an incredible variety of seafood come perched atop a chunk of bread, skewered through to hold everything in place. In bars across town the pintxos gleam like arrays of delicious gems, just waiting for you to step in, order a cool glass of local txakoli wine and pop one into your mouth.
Of course, there was one major problem for me – all the bread! I watched the rest of our group pointing and munching and enjoyed my own breadless plates of sweet, nutty, jamon iberico de belota (jamon from free range iberico pigs that are fed on acorns) and piquillo peppers. There was even a trip to the Mercado de la Ribera in the old town where the pintxos came on gluten free bread – I was touched, but the bread was so awful I just ate the yummy toppings instead. So, I enjoyed the atmosphere of pintxos rather than the ease of drifting from bar to bar until your stomach tells you it’s full.
I loved the sense of place in food that I got from both the Basque people I met and the chefs who spoke at the Miele 50 Best Talks in San Sebastian. No exotic produce is flown in and everywhere there is evidence of the pride that people take in the incredibly verdant land and sea that surround them. Seafood of all sorts, local meat, sheep cheese and luscious fruits at the peak of their ripeness are all given respect because they represent the bounty of the Basque country (Euskal herria in Euskara). Although we didn’t have a kitchen, I loved visiting the greengrocers around town to feast my eyes on pale, thin skinned sweet onions, gnarly tomatoes and tiny blushing apricots – picking up a punnet of fruit while I imagined what I would do with all those brightly coloured vegetables.
In place of pintxos excitement, I looked forward to my breakfast every morning at our delightfully old-fashioned hotel. Beside the tempting array of summer fruit, marcona almonds and other sprinkles was a tray of little clay pots, full of something called cuajada. I can’t tolerate cow’s milk, but sheep milk is the perfect alternative and at home I often start the day with some sheep kefir. In northern Spain, you’re almost as likely to come across sheep cheese as cow cheese and I found when I picked up one of these little pots that cuajada is simply curdled sheep milk (cuajada means curdled in Castilian). Traditionally eaten as a dessert with walnuts and honey, sometimes people take the breakfast route like me and eat cuajada with fresh fruit. Cuajada is a little like junket, for anyone old enough to remember it! Mild, soft and without the sourness of yogurt, the sweet creaminess of sheep milk shines in cuajada, allowing fragrant flat peaches (paraguyos) and white fleshed nectarines to sing alongside. A sprinkle of deeply toasty almonds, crushed linseed and squishy raisins made my first meal of the day one to remember.
When I got home I bought some rennet and found that making cuajada is about the simplest thing in the world. So here’s a recipe. You can make it with cow or goat milk, but I would search out some sheep milk (try the Sheep Milk Company) for that authentic Bilbao experience. If you’re going to keep the cuajada for longer than a couple of days then I would sterilise your jars in a hot wash in the dishwasher (over 60ºC) or wash in hot soapy water and dry in the oven at 140ºC – this takes about 10-15 minutes. Invest in a food thermometer too, so that you can get exactly the right temperature – this helps if you’re making yogurt too. I plan to write a post about making yogurt in my oven soon as it’s so easy and requires no extra gadgets to clutter up my work surface!
If you’re looking for some kitchen inspiration, I can absolutely recommend Miele. Their products are beautiful, precise, reliable and last for years. I’m delighted to be a contributor to the Miele website Der Kern, where you can find my exclusive recipe for a simple gluten free baguette. Pour yourself of cup of tea while your cuajada sets and head over for a browse.
If you like, you can add a little sugar and vanilla or a pinch of cinnamon to your cuajada. Add about 1-2 tablespoons of sugar and ½-1 tsp of vanilla extract.
1 litre sheep milk
18 drops vegetarian rennet (for animal rennet follow instructions on the bottle for dosing)
8 small jars, sterilised as above – at least 125ml capacity
Heat the milk very gently to 32ºC (this will feel slightly cooler than body temperature) and pour into a clean jug. Add flavouring and sweetener if using and stir to dissolve.
Measure the rennet into a tablespoon and stir into the milk all at once – I’ve found that the droppers on rennet bottles can be hit and miss and you don’t want the milk to curdle before it’s in the jar.
Pour evenly into the jars, put the lids on and place carefully in the fridge. In a couple of hours they will be chilled and set.
Cuajada will keep for about a week in the fridge.