Style Living Self Celebrity Geeky News and Views
In the Paper BrandedUp Hello! Create with us Privacy Policy

‘Gintonic’ and a secret love

By CLAUDE TAYAG, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 07, 2024 5:00 am

Way back in January 2011, I got to attend the three-day food conference Madrid Fusion in the Spanish capital. It was arranged by the Singapore-based Spanish Tourism Board (STB) for Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

The presentations of the multinational speakers, though quite interesting, have turned into a blur over time. All I remember was, Ferran Adria announced the closure of his El Bulli restaurant in June 30 of that year, and the El Bulli Foundation would begin enseguida the same day. It was voted the world’s best restaurant five times, with the status of a three-Michelin-star to boot. Quit while you’re ahead, as the saying goes.

Author Claude Tayag with a Torrezno de Soria monster

I have to confess, though, that I looked forward to the intermissions in between lectures more than the lectures themselves. I couldn’t wait to go out to the Exhibition Hall to try whatever products they were promoting. I literally had a feast with the different regional Spanish specialties, as well as other international products.

The Rebollar brothers own and operate Embutidos Artesanos Almenar: They are a third-generation family of butchers. Their plant is located in Almenar, Soria, right next to the ruins of a 15th-century castle.

I must have consumed a total of one-half the jamon bellota (from the acorn-fed black pig) during the three-day conference—queuing up at midday, mid-afternoon, and again before 6 p.m. closing; repeat the sequence for three days (wink, wink). There were cheeses galore, seafood, extra-virgin olive oils, beers, and wines as well.

But, just like the speakers’ presentations, it’s all just a blur now, except for two things—two memorable things that have captured my heart, just like the proverbial first kiss lingering on years after it happened.

Inside one of four cavernous jamon chambers at La Hoguera: Each chamber simulates the four different seasons in the natural world.

Luckily for my darleng Mary Ann, the second one is just a preparation of a cocktail drink. In the Exhibition Hall, there was this lone booth promoting several flavors of tonic water, with the mixologist doing his own presentation of serving the Spanish gintonic. I didn’t even know such a thing existed. The Brits may have invented the G&T drink, serving it straightforwardly in a tall glass with a lemon wedge, but the Spaniards have elevated the refreshing drink 10 notches up the mixologist’s ladder, transforming its preparation to an art performance.

Drying stage of raw pork belly, adobado (pre-marinated), in a brine solution with some spice mix at La Hoguera

The man places several ice cubes into a copa de balon (balloon glass, aka burgundy glass, or a tall brandy glass), holds it by its stem and smoothly swirls it until a frost forms around the copa. He then tilts it to pour out the liquefied ice with a strainer, rubs a lemon wedge around its rim, then throws it in and pinches of various botanicals (juniper berries, pink peppers and cardamom). A jigger of gin follows, and lastly, he tilts the copa to pour in, ever so slowly, a chilled can of tonic water, making sure not too much fizz escapes. And for the final touch, he taps the ice cubes with a wooden stick, just enough to cause some movement inside the glass to create a harmonious—nay, magical—blend. I was hooked.

Cooling the first-fried torreznos at La Hoguera

The other “first” thing, my secret love, remained a mystery. Until I received a message some two months ago from Vien Cortes, the longtime regional market analyst of the STB, the same person who arranged my Madrid Fusion trip in 2011. She asked if I was interested to tour the Castilla y Leon region, and to experience a black truffle hunting and tasting in Soria, Soria (name of town, province).

Still at La Hoguera, the finished morcilla are sorted, ready to be shipped out.

“Ping-ping-ping!” rang the jackpot bell in my head. Her full name, or rather, its full name is Torrezno de Soria (pronounced “sor-ya”). Without hesitation I said, “Yes, of course,” hoping I would get a chance meeting with a long-lost, but not-forgotten love. To top it all off, Vien arranged with the Soria Tourism Office and the Chamber of Commerce of Soria for me to tour two torrezno producers after the truffle events. Well, I’m reserving the latter for another column. The meaty part first (wink, wink).

Finas laminas de torreznos or thinly sliced torreznos are served as tapas, quite similar to American bacon but with the skin (rind) on.
Love at first bite 

As mentioned above, I got my first bite of the mysterious “it” at the Madrid Fusion in 2011, and I was smitten by it.

But what, exactly is a torrezno? By its appearance, it looked like our chicharon may laman (pork crackling with meat), but once bitten into, the meaty part tastes like bacon. So, it’s actually a dried, salt-cured bacon slab—pancetta, if you will—made into chicharon. At least, this was the torrezno I tried in Madrid. Or so I thought.

Almenar pre-cooked torreznos

Once I was in Soria, I found out that not all torreznos are created equal. Just before dinner on our first night in town, I walked to the town center looking for torreznos, just like the ones I had in Madrid. Buying a pack, I excitedly walked back to the dinner venue to share it with the media group I was with. Upon seeing the pack, our local guide exclaimed, “Those are not torreznos, they’re cortezas.”

“Wait, wait,” I said, “what’s a corteza, and what does the real torrezno look like?” Showing me several photos from his phone, he explained, “Corteza is the rind or cracklings, they’re the commercial ones being passed off as torreznos. The verdadero (real) torrezno is like a crispy pancetta. They’re usually available in most local bars and restaurants here in Soria.”

In the town of Chiclana de la Frontera in Cadiz, Andalusia, there’s an annual “fiesta del chicharrón” to celebrate the town’s specialty: chicharron de Chiclana. The pork belly is diced into one-inch cubes, heavily marinated (adobado) with salt, paprika and other spices, air-dried, and cooked in several stages.

“They all look like chicharron to me,” I said. “Que no!” (Of course not!) he emphatically countered. “Chicharron is what they call these cracklings down south in Andalusia. They don’t even come close to our torreznos,” he said with finality.

Second-to-none cortezas

The following day, Michael Polster, a German journalist I befriended, and I snuck out during the lunch break of the truffle event. We shared a racion of jamon iberico and a big piece of torrezno, choosing one from a big platter displayed on the tapas bar counter. They look so much like the Ilocano bagnet but elongated in shape rather than big chunks. Our order was chopped into several pieces and served with crusty bread.

Chicharron from Andalusia, aka chicharon bulá (airy)

“Huh, that’s it?” I said to myself. Though the blistery skin was indeed crunchy, its meat was dry and a tad too salty, and the dry bread didn’t help much, either. (How I wished there was spicy vinegar around, atchara, or even the Ilocano salsa of tomatoes, shallots and anchovy paste to go with loads of rice, hehe). But we were in Soria. No wonder it’s served as a tapa. We chugged two rounds of cerveza in a jiffy, not to mention the salty jamon iberico.

Oh, well, sweet memories are meant to remain as such. There’s no point trying to find a long-lost love. Por lo menos (at least), I brought home with me the know-how to make the world’s second-best torreznos and gintonic.