Restaurante Acio – Santiago de Compostela.

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Meet Iago Castrillón and Eva Pizarro, joint owners of Restaurante Acio in Santiago de Compostela, winners of the 1st prize in the “Revelation Restaurant” category at the prestigious gastro show Madrid Fusion 2013. The jury, made up of more than forty representatives from the Spanish gastronomic press, placed their votes in absolute secrecy. This year, for the first time, 2nd and 3rd prizes were awarded to Abadía Retuerta of Valladolid and Apicius of Valencia respectively. Congratulations are order.

Adrian: How did it all begin for you at Restaurante Acio?

Eva: We’ve always worked at high-end restaurants. While on holiday in Italy once, a dining experience we had one evening had a huge impact on us. The cook was working alone in the kitchen, calmly preparing dishes. Lamb was roasting slowly in the fireplace. Dinner that night was fabulous, most of all because the cook himself came out of the kitchen to serve us a few of the dishes he’d prepared.

Iago: It changed our perspective a little and we started thinking about having our own restaurant, for the both of us where we’d cook the food ourselves, provide a calm, unhurried service and actually enjoy doing something we like… away from haute cuisine where you have predetermined roles and a brutal pace of work. So this idea gradually began to take form till it became Acio, our restaurant, where little by little we’ve built a reputation for our cooking, unhurriedly, at our own pace, maintaining our philosophy.  The awards and recognition came later, which came as a real boost enabling us to keep doing what we were already doing, without going crazy in the process. 

Iago, tell us something about your experiences as a chef in Madrid and London and why they were so important to you in terms of your current success.

My time at these restaurants provided me with the basis of the cooking I’m developing today at Acio.  At each restaurant, in each city, in each place I’ve spent time in, I’ve tried to absorb trends, ways of doing things, and of course, learn from the great chefs I’ve had the privilege of being trained by.

Adrian: A lot has been said in recent years about the concept of time and space, championed by people like René Redzepi, owner of NOMA in Copenhagen, until very recently the Nº1 restaurant in the world. What’s your opinion on these particular trends?

Iago: In the last few years it seems as if every restaurant has had to identify itself with one particular trend, or alternatively differentiate itself from that trend in order to have some kind of identity. I think that as chefs each of us has his or her own vision of cooking and he or she translates that vision into a set of ideas or trends that people will either identify themselves with or not. 

Adrian: How do you select the ingredients you use in your cooking?

Eva: The essence of our cooking is based on Galician produce. Galicia is a magnificent, natural pantry of high quality food products.  Iago goes to the Plaza de Abastos every day, the great market in Santiago de Compostela, and selects the ingredients he’ll use in his kitchen, placing great emphasis on seasonal items.  

Iago: Having said that, we don’t rule out the idea of fusion so you’ll find Japanese products, for example, adapted to our dishes, rice dishes…

Adrian: How important are the local farmers when supplying your restaurant?

Iago: They’re the ones who guarantee the supply of seasonal products, the freshest ones, the ones that are in their prime.  In order to achieve that, it has to be a two-way thing. You have to tell the producer what type of product you’re looking for and get him involved in your ‘cause’ so he comes up with the goods.

Adrian: Eva, what’s your opinion on natural wines?

Eva: Natural wine is wine made from the natural grape, neither adding nor removing anything from that grape. The net result will be a true reflection of the land the wine was ‘born in’. Using that definition of natural wine as a starting point and the commitment to environmentally sound growing methods, respect for the environment itself, the grower as the ‘author’, authenticity and singularity… I believe it’s the future of wine if we want unique wines that represent the terroir that produces them. In short, if we want wines to inspire and excite us.

Adrian: Do you have any one day of the week reserved for ‘special sessions’ as in other vanguard restaurants?

Eva: We don’t set aside a specific day of the week, but we do organize wine tastings, winery presentations and wine pairing dinners. It’s something extra that our customers enjoy and appreciate.  

Adrian: Since the closure of El Bulli, the world of what some people call ‘molecular cooking’ has evolved substantially. Where does Acio situate itself amid all this change, new trends etc?

Iago:  We do what we do, our cooking, the way we like it, the one we believe in. We don’t follow any kind of trend, we simply do what we think is best in any given moment. This means that at times you do traditional recipes that happen to sit comfortably on the menu with the very latest gastronomic techniques.

Adrian: On one occasion, Ferrán Adrià was asked if he ever ate ‘normally’.  What are your favorite ‘everyday’ dishes?

Iago: I love my mother’s cooking, traditional Galician cooking, with its slowly cooked stews: el cocido gallego, with ‘all the splendor of the pig’, los callos… Traditional, home cooked food, made with all the love and affection of our mothers.  

Adrian: Do you ever get customers that simply don’t ‘get’ your cooking, however much you try to explain it to them?

Eva: Normally the people that come to Acio already know something about us and our cooking. They know it’s a safe bet, a sure thing, though a very personal one. They tend to go with the flow and allow us to show them what we can do.

Adrian: Do you see yourselves opening a restaurant outside Galicia or Spain?

Iago: You never know. Right now, it’s ‘poco a poco’, the way we always wanted it to be. Taking short steps, but positive ones.

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Of Sea Lamprey, risk premiums and toxic banking…

With the opening of the Galician Sea-Lamprey Season 2013 just around the corner on January 15th, I thought it only right and fitting that I talked to Nito Calviño of Casa Calviño in As Neves (Pontevedra), one of the ‘consecrated temples’ of Sea-Lamprey cuisine on Galicia’s River Miño. I have to admit that the first time I went to Casa Calviño I wasn’t exactly sure what I was letting myself in for. I was doing some research for a gastronomic piece which was later published in Living Spain Magazine, at the time the definitive journal on Spain and all things Spanish.

The very idea of tucking into what is essentially a parasitical fish with a hideous blood-sucking mouth, cooked Bordelaise style, i.e. in its own blood, albeit with the addition of red wine and some distinctly medieval spicing, seemed a little daunting. Little did I know at the time I would be transformed overnight into a total Sea-Lamprey nut, compelled to seek her out (she’s grammatically feminine in Spanish) at least three times a season, which runs from the beginning of January to the end of April.

As Neves is a pretty little village nestling in the hills that overlook the majestic River Miño and Portugal, it was in this idyllic setting that Casa Calviño’s host Nito Calviño spared me a few minutes to talk about his passion for Petromyzon Marinus or Sea Lamprey.

Adrian McManus: What are your expectations for the coming season, taking into the critically low water levels of last season and the bleak economic situation right now in Spain?

Nito Calviño: In spite of last year’s poor catches, the prospects for the coming 2013 season are looking very good, due mainly to all the rainfall we’ve had so far this month. The ban on the extraction of sand from the river bottom, introduced in 1999, has also gone a long way in improving annual catches. Given the fact that lamprey and other species lay their eggs in the sand, dredging and extraction had a catastrophic effect on their reproduction cycles. Regarding the grim economic situation the country finds itself in, we sincerely hope our clients will grasp the opportunity to come and enjoy a dish that can only be eaten for the first four months of the year. As front of house manager of the restaurant, I can assure you we’ll rise to the occasion and strive to ensure our prices are competitive.

AM: Casa Calviño has a long history. Where did it all begin for you?

NC: Casa Calviño was founded in 1935. I actually belong to the third generation of this family business. In 1935 it was a ‘tasca’ or simple village bar where my grandfather sold the typical tapas of the day and the local Rubiós wine, which of course is very well known today and absolutely perfect for pairing with lamprey. The second generation began to specialise more exclusively in the lamprey area and during the 1980s the business really took off with the house undergoing considerable structural change, but also introducing the necessary culinary developments along the way.

AM: Apart from the classic Bordelaise style, featuring freshly caught Sea-Lamprey, how else do you serve it?

NC: Basically, we prepare lamprey in three different ways: Firstly, in the classic Bordelaise style i.e.  braising it in its own blood in an earthenware dish, served with boiled rice and crutons. Secondly, we offer stuffed and rolled lamprey, which contains good cured ham, hard-boiled egg and ‘piquillo’ peppers. Finally, there’s smoked lamprey which we grill ‘a la brasa’ or over charcoal and wood.

AM: What wines pair well with Sea-Lamprey?

NC: As I mentioned previously, the local Rubiós wine, a young, fruity red and made from a local grape variety is highly recommended as is the excellent Mencía red from the Ribeira Sacra appellation located upstream from us.

AM: Are there any other house specialities you serve if fear and loathing of ‘the beast’ gets the better of your customers?

NC: One of the most popular dishes is our ‘cabrito lechal’ or roast suckling goat which we serve either roasted or in the form of fried ribs that we call ‘costilletas’. You can also order our other house special ‘callos’, a classic, spicy stew made with tripe, chickpeas, shin of beef and homemade chorizoFor fish lovers our menu also features locally caught produce from the Galician rías or estuaries and some of the best veal and beef in Spain.  

AM: Well it goes without saying that you’ll be seeing me quite soon, so I’d just like to wish you all, and especially Doña Maruxa, the ‘jefa’ and heart and soul of the operation, a very happy Christmas and New Year. Is there anything you’d like to add?

NC: Only that the lamprey season will begin on January 1st and run through to the 30th of April and that we look forward to seeing our friends, old and new. Have a very happy Christmas and a better 2013.

 

LAMPREY PIE – A DISH TO SET BEFORE THE KING

In accordance with a centuries old English court tradition, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was presented with one on her coronation day in 1952. In the small Galician town of Pontecesures, on the River Ulla, lamprey pies are still very much a part of local tradtion. Every year, coinciding with the lamprey’s long journey from the ocean to its freshwater spawning grounds, usually from early January to the end of April, thousands of these prehistoric creatures are caught in special traps called ‘butrones’. Pontecesures, along with the villages of Arbo and As Neves on the River Miño, holds an annual lamprey festival in April where you can sample the beast in its many guises: smoked, stuffed, fried or braised, bordelaise style. The pies themselves are a work of art and coveted prizes are awarded at the festival for the most beautiful examples, taking into account tradition, presentation, creativity and, most importantly, texture and flavour. Many thanks to my good friend Carlos Cadilla for his excellent photo.