“That’s a sign of bad luck” I was told, when my whole family landed in Hong Kong seven years ago during a furious Black Rainstorm. The flight had been interesting – the plane dropped several hundred feet without warning as we circled to land, causing some passengers to scream and one poor man to emerge from the lavatory with a bleeding scalp. If I had been on such an “exciting” flight just a couple of years previously (before having hypnotherapy for my fear of flying) I might have joined the screamers. The black rainstorm was certainly bad luck for bleeding-scalp-man, but I felt very lucky to be alive – and subsequently had a happy few years living in Hong Kong.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I had another “exciting” flight, as we travelled to San Sebastián in Northern Spain to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. The weather was grim and windy, the nervous lady across the aisle from us was tucking into whisky for her breakfast as we jolted and bumped the length of France. Moments before we were due to land at Biarritz, the plane lurched forwards with a loud charging of engines and we soared back above the thick, black clouds to make a second attempt at landing.
The cabin crew were amusing over the intercom: “We have experienced a missed approach” said one crew member: “We will try again and hopefully we will make it”. This prompted half the passengers to chuckle with gallows humour and the other half to ask for whisky. We landed beautifully, but I could not help wondering what kind of omen this could be – is an aborted landing a metaphor for a troubled marriage, or just a portent of a turbulent weekend?
San Sebastián was a pleasant place, with filthy weather. The grey sea churned; the heavy skies drowned the many visitors (who were a strange mix of food-lovers and religious pilgrims walking to Santiago de Compostela); the strong winds made strolling the length of the promenade into a challenge – but the charming architecture, polite people and interesting food proved adequate compensation.
I wouldn’t rave about San Sebastián as a destination, although I did like it. It reminded me slightly of Brighton, with a funicular railway instead of a pier. As for the fabled bars where you can sample the local pintxos (small plates of food designed to be eaten with alcohol) – I found them crowded, loud and touristy. This is fine if you enjoy eating sauce-laden octopus tentacles with your elbows clamped firmly to your sides, while a sweaty group of loud British men pushes past you to get to the bar. A pintxo bar is a little like being on the tube at rush hour – which makes it a difficult place to drink really foamy lager from a glorified sherry glass, and I wasn’t keen on the experience. But my husband loves noise, crowds, peculiar animal parts and effervescent foreign brews -so he was in heaven.
Pintxos are difficult for a Brit like me to comprehend. Firstly – people seem to enjoy pintxos at strange times of day – either at afternoon tea time or in the dead of night. Technically ‘bar snacks’, pintxos are more satisfying than a bag of crisps, or a pickled egg, yet don’t really work as ‘lunch’ or ‘dinner’ unless you eat three or four plates of the things. And for a Brit, eating between meals would normally consist of nibbling biscuits with tea, rather than drinking very fizzy cider paired with pigs’ ears or highly salted fish.
Additionally, British drinking culture is founded on the principle “Eating is cheating”: the idea that by drinking on an empty stomach, one reaches inebriation quickly and cheaply. Ordering small plates of quite lardy food along with alcohol has the opposite effect. Pintxos are designed to act as blotting paper for booze and to stop people from getting hammered and fighting in the street, something which is frowned upon in Southern Europe. Brits prefer to load up on lager, then soak the drink up at the end of the evening with a lovely late night takeaway. Staggering one’s food intake over the course of an evening just makes for a more expensive and staid night.
I found myself craving a cone of chips, until I saw a circle of caramel-coloured loveliness hiding under a glass cloche on a high shelf behind the heaving pintxo bar. It looked very like a cheesecake with no crust and I desperately wanted to eat something which had not been made from a pig part. I fought my way between two men discussing their golf handicaps in loud Home Counties’ accents and ordered a piece of cake in my terrible Spanish. The barman reached to slop a lump of gelatinous calf-cheek onto a saucer, but I stopped him in time. He passed me a triangle of slightly charred cheesecake, which I took outside to savour, away from the stale air and sport chat.
It was heavenly – rich in flavour with the lightest texture; crumbly and creamy at the same time. The barman had given me an enormous slice of cheesecake, which I devoured silently while my husband got himself outside a chunk of baguette topped with shredded spider crab and hoovered up a miniscule beer. He looked at me in an amused fashion as I drank my tepid, weak Lipton’s tea. “It’s 4 pm” I said, defensively “I don’t want a cod cheek or a thimbleful of fruit cider right now. I could totally get on it and start on the cava -but then I don’t really want all this” and I waved my hand in the direction of the crowded bar and the open sandwiches with cocktail sticks poking out, and the tiny saucers of stewed innards. “I find it stressful. Eating shouldn’t feel like Asda on Black Friday“.
Pintxos are a peculiar combination of street food, eaten off your granny’s china in a stuffy pub pantry. I like street food when it is eaten in the street and served on a paper plate or from a cardboard box. I also like pubs, but not if I have to order a new lager every twenty seconds because the servings are for elves. However – the “basque burnt cheesecake” as I discovered this delicious dish was named, is a magnificent object and as such, I am indebted to the pintxo bar for its creation. After a lot of practice and experimenting, I have managed to replicate it. – which I believe to be a truly good omen.
Saintly Sebastián’s Cheesecake
600g cream cheese
4 small, or 3 large eggs ( If in doubt use 3)
250ml double cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
zest of half a lemon
225g caster sugar
pinch sea salt
2 tbsp rice flour
Preheat the oven to 180C
Using an electric hand mixer, beat the cream cheese and caster sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time and beat well. Add the cream, lemon zest, vanilla and salt and mix through using a wooden spoon. Fold in the rice flour.
Take a 9 inch spring form tin and line well with greaseproof paper. Make sure the paper is taller than the tin (a couple of inches should do it). During cooking, the cheesecake puffs right up and rises above the tin, before shrinking down as it cools. Because the texture of the cake is very delicate, you need the extra paper circle to stop the cake mixture from escaping all over your oven.
Pour the mixture into the tin and use a spatula to remove any mixture clinging to the bowl. Place the tin in the centre of the oven, making sure that the cake has plenty of space above it to rise. Cook for 50 to 60 minutes. The top should be quite brown and feel fairly firm to the touch when properly cooked.
Remove from the oven and let the cheesecake cool completely in the tin. This is almost impossible to do, if you are like me and are dying to taste it. However -the cake is a million times more delicious when cold, and, annoyingly, even better still when left in the fridge overnight.