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BASQUE

INTERVIEW: From homeless heroin addict to Basque Culinary World Prize winner

How did a Scot raised on mince and tatties and with a teenage heroin addiction become a pioneering chef whose experimental use of native Australian ingredients earned him the prestigious Basque Culinary World Prize? Graham Keeley traveled to San Sebastian to find out.

INTERVIEW: From homeless heroin addict to Basque Culinary World Prize winner
Jock Zonfrillo was awarded the prestigious prize at a ceremony in San Sebastian last week. Photo: basqueculinaryworldprize.com

Most chefs visit markets to find ingredients to cook but Jock Zonfrillo literally risks his own life.

The Scottish cook dives for scallops in waters infested by Great White sharks when he scours the seas in his adopted home in Australia.

“If you see a shark, you must dive to the bottom because sharks only attack from below so you are vulnerable when you are on the surface,” he said.

“About one out of every three times we go diving for scallops or sea snails we see sharks.” To prove his point, he shows me a video of a five-metre Great White which was angling to have him for lunch.

It is typical of a chef who was once described as the Mad Max of foraging or a man who makes Bear Grylls look like a Boy Scout.

Mr Zonfrillo, 42, who was born in Glasgow but whose Italian-Scottish family grew up in Ayr, was honoured with the Basque Culinary World Prize – regarded as the Oscar of cooking – at a ceremony in San Sebastian last week.

The award from this Spanish school for leading chefs is given to cooks who try to use gastronomy for social change. 

The €100,000 prize was for the work Mr Zonfrillo has done ten thousand miles from his native Scotland exploring the food of native Australians.

He spends weeks rooting out traditional ingredients like green ants – which have a zingy taste like lemon – freshwater lobster or mangrove seeds and turns them into delicious plates to serve up in his acclaimed restaurant.

Mr Zonfrillo credits cooking with saving his life after he developed a serious heroin habit by the age of 15.

By the age of 17, he replaced drugs with a new fix, working 12-hour days for Marco Pierre-White, the enfant terrible of celebrity chefs who won three Michelin stars with his London restaurant.

When he tired of the pursuit of perfection and “cutting one-centrimetre square tomatoes” in London, Mr Zonfrillo fled to Australia.

Curious to explore the potential of native Australian food, he set up Restaurant Orana in Adelaide.

The money from the Basque Culinary Prize will go to help the not-for-profit Orana Foundation which Mr Zonfrillo set up to preserve up to 15,000 edible native ingredients to save them from being lost forever.

“I just wanted to give acknowledgement to indigenous people of Australia through food. They seem to have got the rough end of the stick,” he said.

“I thought through the world of gastronomy where I am an expert I could perhaps ignite a bit of change around the perception of that world.”

With only eleven tables, a meal at Orana – native Australian for Welcome – does not come cheap at Aus$ 300 or €193. 

Mr Zonfrillo credits the time he spent as a child among the Italian side of his family for his love of gastronomy while the Scottish branch were raised mostly on mince and tatties.

“You would go round Italian side of the family and its loud and there are amazing smells. I will never forget the smell of fresh focaccio or panettone,” he remembers.

“There is more inspiring food on the Italian side of the family.”

Mr Zonfrillo, a father of three who has been married three times, says coming from an Italian Catholic family, he had no choice but to support Celtic Football Club.

After so many years in Australia, his accent is mostly Scottish with the occasional twang from Down Under.

Despite his time abroad, he still wears his roots with pride – literally.

On his right arm is a tattoo in Latin which reads Nemo me imune lacessit – the motto on Scotland's coat of arms which means No one crosses me unharmed. The message is clear.

READ ALSO: ‘Wars have been started over less’: Spain reacts brilliantly to UK supermarket's cheesy churros

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FOOD & DRINK

Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Not everywhere will offer you free tapas in Spain, but there are some cities where the tradition lives on. Read on to find out where they are, how you can get a free 'tapa' and the slight differences between each place.

Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Tapas are an important part of Spanish culture, not only because of the gastronomical aspect but because of the social aspect of sharing dishes too. 

The word ‘tapa’ – meaning ‘lid’ – is thought to derive from a 13th-century law passed by a Castilian king requiring taverns to serve food with alcohol, perhaps in a bid to avoid inebriation of the serfs.

A ‘tapa’ was a small plate of ham or olives used as a lid to keep insects and dust away from a drink and usually came free. 

The tradition of free tapas has died out across much of Spain, but there are still some cities where it is alive and well. Most of these cities can be found in three regions – the eastern part of Andalusia, Castilla y León and Galicia. 

READ ALSO: Fourteen classic Spanish dishes to celebrate World Tapas Day

Granada

Granada is the undisputed king of free tapas in Spain, famed for its offerings which can be anything from a piece of Spanish tortilla to almost a whole meal, such as a mini burger and fries or small fried fish. It works like this – each time you buy a drink, you will be given a free tapas dish. If you order consecutive drinks in the same bar, each of the tapa dishes you get will be different. Free tapa will come with everything from beer and wine to soft drinks and sparkling water, but not with coffee or tea. Keep in mind that the price of drinks in Granada is slightly higher than in some Spanish cities, which helps to cover the cost of the food.

Calle Navas, Calle Virgen del Rosario and the area around the Cathedral offer some of the best tapas in the city. Remember that if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, ask for una tapa vegetariana o tapa vegana. While most bars in the city should have a suitable alternative, some of the more rough and ready ones might not, or you may just get something simple like bread and cheese. One of Granada’s best-loved vegetarian tapas dishes is berenjena con miel (deep fried aubergine drizzled with treacle). 

READ ALSO: What to order at a restaurant in each region of Spain

Almería

Just southeast of Granada on the coast, Almería is another of Spain’s great free-tapas cities. The tradition is a little different here than in other Spanish cities because you get to choose your tapa instead of just getting a surprise. Many of the tapas menus here are vast and you’ll be spoilt for choice. It could be anything from a goat’s cheese and caramelised onion montadito (small sandwich) to paté on toast. Almeríans love their toast, so don’t be surprised if you find many different variations of topped toasts on the menu.

You’ll also have to speak up here, waiters will often come over to ask for your drink order, but not come back and ask for your tapa order. It’s best to tell your waiter what you want when your drinks arrive.

You may be able to get a free pulpo (octopus) tapa in Galicia. Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP

Jaén

The city and province of the same name to the north of Granada is also known for its tapa gratis when ordering a drink. Like in Granada, here you’ll be given the tapa of the house and generally won’t be given a choice in what you get. The prices of beers here are not as high as in Almería, but tapas portions are generally pretty generous, meaning you can easily have enough for dinner by going to just a few places.

Dishes here may include a plate of migas (fried breadcrumbs or flour with pieces of meat and fried peppers) or morcilla (blood sausage or black pudding). You can try asking for a vegetarian or vegan tapa here too, but the bars may not be as accommodating as the ones in Granada and may not have so many options, although they will try with what they have. 

León

It’s not just the eastern provinces of Andalusia where you can get free tapas. One of the best foodie cities in northern Spain that has carried on this tradition is León. Some of the most typical tapas dishes you may be served here include patatas leonesas (León-style potatoes), or morcilla de León (blood sausage or black pudding from León).

During the pandemic, a few bars in León started charging around €0.30 to €0.50 for tapas, but you’ll be happy to know that the majority of them still offer it for free. Bars will generally charge less for the wine, beers and other drinks here than in Granada too. The best places to go are around the famed Barrio del Húmedo or the Barrio Romántico. There are even some bars that will offer free tapas with your coffee order for breakfast here, which is unheard of elsewhere. 

Ávila

In almost every bar in Ávila you will be served a free tapa along with your drink. You’re unlikely to be served a simple piece of bread with a topping, here the dishes are almost like mini meals. Much of the cuisine here is based on meat, so you might expect a small plate of stewed wild boar or kidney with potatoes.

You will also find that they’re pretty big compared to free tapas in some other cities and filling too, but along with that, you will be paying slightly above average for your drink. The best street to head to for free tapas here is Calle San Segundo.

Alcalá de Henares

There may only be some bars left in Madrid that will offer you a free tapa with your drink, but head just east to the student town of Alcalá de Henares and you’ll find that they’re given out freely. Lots of places here will let you choose what you want too. You’ll pay above average for a caña here, around 3, but for that you’ll get a fairly decent tapa which could include patatas bravas, burgers or scrambled eggs with potatoes.

READ ALSO: Top ten Madrid bars serving free tapas, one for each barrio

Santiago de Compostela

When you’ve finally completed the Camino, what could be better than sitting down to a nice cold beer and plate of free tapas? The majority of bars here offer simple tapa such as a piece of bread with some type of meat on top, such as jamón or sausage or a small slice of tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette).

Lugo
Another Galician place, known for offering free tapas is the walled city of Lugo. Here you’ll be given a free snack with your glass of Albariño wine or beer. Lugo’s tapas scene works differently from elsewhere too, here a waiter will come around with a tray of various types of dishes and you’ll select the one you like the look of best. These may include anything from pulpo (octopus) to empanadas (Galician-style pies), tortilla rellena (filled omelette) or anchoas (anchovies).

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