One Fish to Eat Before You Die

March 12, 2017

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This is Aitor Arregi of the restaurant Elkano in Gaitara, just outside San Sebastian.  And that is one of the turbots for which he is justly famous.  If you can eat only one fish in your life, this is the one you want.  But only after Aitor has explained it to you, for he can find the entire world in a fish

If only I could capture Aitor’s passion at the table, the way he talks about the turbot.  “I don’t like the little ones,” he will begin, “they need to be fat to get flavor.”  He will go on to tell you that they are influenced by the temperature of the water, the time of the year, and mostly by what they eat.…

I want you see Aitor waving his eloquent hands to demonstrate how these flat fish swim. Turning the turbot he will show you the black skin on the bottom “the side that looks toward the sea,” and then over again to display the white skin on top.  “That side looks toward the sky.”  And yes, tasting carefully you do discern the difference, the slightly algal taste of the black side which has spent its entire life under water,  compared to the more cosmopolitan white side, which has had the whole wide world to see.

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Aitor will gently filet the fish, separating the left side from the right, pointing to his own body as he explains that the side with the organs – the liver, the heart – has a more complex flavor than the side that is pure flesh.  

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Pulling out the bones he will hand them to you, insisting you eat with your fingers, pulling the soft, slick flesh from the crunchy bones with your teeth.  

Then he will take the larger bones at the head and crack them, exposing the marrow.  “Taste it,” he will urge, holding it out.

When you have finished you will not believe that a single fish can offer such variety. And you will never eat another fish without remembering this one.

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Before the turbot you will eat cocochas – the tender flesh from the throat of the hake – which has the texture of the most perfect oyster you have ever eaten. He will offer them cooked in various ways, and you will love them all.

What else will you eat?  Almost nothing. A bit of  bread. Some of the restaurant’s wonderful olive oil.  And perhaps to end, their cheese ice cream with strawberry sauce.

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Aitor will insist you drink the local txakoli, but from different years so you can taste the way it changes over time. You will drink another glass, and then another, thinking how lucky you are to be here in this wonderful restaurant.

And leaving, you will wonder how soon you can come back.

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