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Chorizo de Bilbao

In my youth,Sunday lunch was always a family affair. The heart of our home was the kitchen where it was customary for the girls to learn the basics of cooking. Instead of playing with Barbie dolls, we were busy washing vegetables, slicing and dicing various ingredients, stirring the pot and remembering the step-by-step method of how each dish was prepared. This was my grandmother’s decree. Girls have to learn how to cook. Along with my mother, my aunts and sisters, I dutifully spent my Sunday mornings cooking. In hindsight, this experience was my initiation to food appreciation.

As rituals go, after mass each Sunday, we unquestioningly donned our aprons and assembled in the kitchen, which always had appetising whiffs of crushed garlic and chopped onions sautéed in olive oil. This, amongst the aroma of pork or chicken slowly roasting in the oven wafting throughout the house was the norm on Sundays. It was also time to listen to the latest scandals and gossip as well as catching up with family news. We always anticipated these moments while the pervading smell of food whet our appetites for lunch that was yet to come. It wasn’t just a matter of learning to cook. My grandmother made sure we understood why the flavours of her dishes were such while preaching the merits of choosing the right ingredients for every recipe we were made to learn.

One of our favourites was her callos– (Spanish stew of tripe). It was during the preparation of this dish that I often heard the word Bilbao. At the time, as far as I was concerned, Bilbao was synonymous to the ubiquitous Spanish chorizo, a spicy semi-cured sausage that came in a green tin, packed in lard. I recall my grandmother saying repeatedly that the chorizo de Bilbao was an important secret ingredient to her version of the Madrileño tripe stew. My familiarity then of the chorizo itself was limited to how it looked and tasted and it wasn’t until years later that I discovered a great deal more about the sausage and Bilbao, the 14th century Basque municipality in northern Spain. Of course now Bilbao is known as a modern urban town and a cultural hub in northern Spain with the advent of its iconic titanium covered Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Gehry. Naturally, it was on our travel bucket list and when we saw an opportunity to visit Bilbao, we jumped at it.

In Spain, Ferrocarriles Espaňoles de Vía Estrecha (FEVE) or narrow gauge railroads, now owned by RENFE launched El Transcantábrico-Gran Lujo in 2011. It is the luxurious and exclusive train that traverses “Green Spain” between San Sebastian to Santiago de Compostela and vice-versa. The itinerary with a stop in Bilbao appealed the most and was one of the major reasons why we decided to be reckless and join this gastronomic and cultural tour.

As it turned out, there were so many more reasons why this train was special and admittedly….decadent! My debut travel ebook – Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203, attempts to express the numerous experiences we had on this trip (available at Barnes & Noble and Google Books).

In Bilbao, I had a mission. Chorizo de Bilbao was on top of the list so, when the time came for us to explore, I set off with determination to find this chorizo of my childhood.

The limited time I had searching for the green tin of chorizos ended in disappointment. In fact, I was crushed! In every deli we went to, there was the usual perplexed look on the shopkeepers’ faces when I enquired “Venden chorizo de Bilbao?” I soon found out that my grandmother’s secret ingredient was unheard of in Bilbao. How can this be? Months later, a celebrity chef in Manila informed me that my romantic notion of this chorizo was based on marketing and image rather than fact. I was grossly misinformed. The chorizo de Bilbao is in fact a descriptive name coined by a food manufacturer in the USA for the tinned Spanish chorizo. And for some reason it has become popular among the Filipinos of Spanish origin who reside in the Philippines. Nursing my disappointment to this very day, I would like to think that regardless of the provenance of this special chorizo, it was an impetus for wanting to visit Bilbao and experience what has to be one of the best trips we have ever made to date and for me will be more than just my grandmother’s favourite chorizo.