8 days on a Basque Gastro Tour and in good company…beat it! – Part One

26 11 2014

I´ve had the great pleasure to enjoy a gastronomic tour in the Basque Country with a couple of Hong Kong friends…and moreover when the weather at the end of November has been incredibly warm and sunny 7 of the 8 days. Regrettably, some of the restaurants we had chosen as a first option were closed for holidays, but having a great meal has never been a problem in the Basque Country.

Just an hour after arrival, we arrived in Asador Etxebarri, one Michelin star, in the beautiful town of Axpe. The tasting menu consists of a wide array of dishes, all based on the mastering of the grill by Bittor Arginzoniz, the cook and owner. He has develop his own grilling technique and instruments, and so he´s able to grill an oyster, baby eels or a boneless steak. Product is mostly local or from his own garden. Service is friendly, close and very efficient. Two and a half hours of wonders in your mouth, at a reasonable price for a Michelin star if we compare it to those in the US or France, for example. Some pics:

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Next day we went to a very special place in the slopes of the hills surrounding Bilbao, the Kate Zaharra (in Basque, the Old Chain). A classic in Bilbao, it probably has the best views of town. When you enter, they offer you to visit the cellar, where you can choose your wine and enjoy some fresh cut ibérico ham, as well as some anchovies or other delicacies. Then you go upstairs to your table, where you can taste great grilled fish, clams, the freshest seafood…Product, product and product, and a lovely aftermeal upstairs where you can enjoy a drink of your favorite spirit and awesome views of the city.

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A visit to a medieval castle in the outskirts of Bilbao as well as to the amazing Old Town marked a perfect day for the three of us…

More to come…





Small family Wineries in Rioja—A Different Approach to Wine Culture

3 07 2014

Marqués de Riscal winerySo you love wine and therefore you´re coming to the best wine region in the world, Rioja. It belongs to three political regions (La Rioja, Basque Country and Navarre) and has three distinctive wine areas (Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja), each one produces wine with different characteristics and personality. Rioja Alavesa is the region where top quality wines are produced, and here you can visit many worldwide famous wineries, such as Marqués de Riscal (with its famous Frank Gehry´s building) in Elciego, Muga, CVNE and Rioja Alta in Haro, , Viña Real, Remelluri in Labastida, Ysios in Laguardia, Baigorri, etc….

 

Francisco extracting his wine from the barrelBut there are hundreds of small family wineries that are not visited by massive tourism. Places that welcome visitors and offer also a guided visit to show their family business and their traditional wine making processes.

 

In a town like Villabuena de Alava, for example, there are more wineries than inhabitants (300 people live there), and it´s a similar thing in most towns in the area. Most families own a small private winery where they produce wine for friends or a reduced number of visitors. It´s also true that many are semi-abandoned or falling apart due to not being used anymore. It´s a real pity, but I guess sometimes it´s hard work to keep this business going. So if you have the chance when visiting Rioja, don´t miss the opportunity to visit at least a small family winery to see how wine has been produced throughout several family generations. (Pictures here belong to a 17th century winery, no name outside, that produces an excellent wine and it´s still running by the retired owner)Old wine bottles in the cellarEntrance to the cellar





How To Eat Pintxos Like A Local in the Basque Country

23 06 2014

Given the increasing number of tourists (don´t worry, the Basque Country is still a heaven for those that feel comfortable far from the madding crowds) that come to this gourmet´s paradise in search of the best pintxos in the world, please find below a few suggestions on how to eat pintxos like a local. Having experienced and seen lots of guests on my pintxos tours at a loss when faced with a counter full of these delicacies, I feel this post as a must for those that want to do it right:

1) Peek into the bar and take a look at its counter. If you don´t like what´s shown there, just look for another bar. There´re plenty.Barra Irrintzi 1

2) Yes, I know that in your native country you don´t have as many bars as we do here, and you tend to spend your time and money in just one for the whole evening. No, we don´t do it that way. We visit as many bars as possible.

3) We like to have ONE pintxo per bar, maximum TWO, and ONE drink.Ham and tomato on bread

4) We don´t have pintxos meals or anything of the kind. It´s an appetizer and not a meal. It´s meant to dilute the amount of alcohol in blood and facilitate conversation while standing close to the counter.

5) STANDING, we have them standing, we don´t sit down for pintxos. Please. Stand. Talk. Enjoy. But don´t seat.

6) Never, ever, accept the plate handed by the waiter. We locals just grab them with our hand from the counter. Or order them from the list on the wall to have them made on order.

7) We pay based on an honour system, that is, we tell the waiter how many we´ve had and he believes us. We don´t lie, ever. The toothpick thing (counting toothpicks as a proof of how many pintxos you´ve had) is nowadays an urban legend.

8) ALL pintxos are good, all taste great. Ibérico ham is good for your health and great for your heart and arteries. And yes, those fresh looking things are real anchovies, not that thing you have on pizza.Pintxos

9) There´s no such thing as “pintxos bars”. 99% of bars offer pintxos, all bars are “pintxos bars”.

10) Order a “zurito” (a third of a glass of beer), a “rioja” (a glass of red wine), a “blanco” (white wine) or a “cider” (natural cider, not fizzy). Ignore Coke or any other sweet drinks, they are not meant for pintxos.

11) Enjoy the atmosphere, ask the waiter about the pintxos, talk to strangers, throw napkins on the floor (YES!!!), pay on leaving, try different things, get a bit tipsy, enjoy this wonderful pintxos culture…pintxos counter





Two days in Bilbao without a car-The Basics

8 02 2010

Right, you´ve come to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim. A city you´d never thought in your “to visit” list, but the museum is a “must-see” and you´ve read very good reports about the area. So you arrive at our new (small and convenient) airport, take a taxi to your hotel on the city centre (20 Euros, aprox.) or the bus (1,50, I think). There you are, 10AM and the full morning to see the museum.

Good, you´ve spent 4 hours inside it and you´re now hungry. I´d go to the Old Town (Casco Viejo) to have a drink and a couple of pintxos. You can either take the tram that leaves you in front of the Arriaga theatre in 5 minutes or walk along the promenade by the river. You´re now in the Plaza Nueva, if it´s nice sit outside and enjoy your drink. It´s 14:30, time to have lunch. I´d suggest to have a “menú del día”, where for 11-12 euros per person you will have a first, a second, a dessert, bread and wine or water. There´s a wide choice all over Bilbao, but as you´re in the Old Town I´d suggest Jardines Street or El Perro Street, and any of its restaurants. I particularly like Harrobia, in El Perro, www.harrobia.com.

16:00 and you´re feeling tired. You may take a nap in your hotel, and by six or so you may want to walk the Gran Vía and parallel streets, full of shops and interesting buildings. Or you may want to explore the Old Town, the cathedral and the 7 original streets of Bilbao, as well as take some pictures of the Arriaga theatre and the riverfront.

20:00 and you notice that there are lots of people on the streets, hanging around and socializing while having a drink. You may want to enter in Café Iruña, http://www.cafesdebilbao.net/cafes/caf_iru.php, serving drinks and food since 1903, together with its “brothers” Café La Granja and Café Boulevard (soon to re-open), and order a glass of wine (1,60 euros per glass) or a “zurito”, half a glass of beer. Next, at Ledesma st, you will find many other interesting bars, such as the Artajo or Taurino.

I´d go on a pintxos crawl for dinner on Bilbao city center, there will be people until 09:00PM or so. If tired, you may want to go back to your hotel. If not, you can walk to Licenciado Poza street where you will find more people and more bars open. I assume you´re not going clubbing tonight…correct?

Next morning, take the funicular train to Artxanda and enjoy the spectacular views of Bilbao, the Guggenheim, the mountains and the sea from above. http://www.bilbao.net/funicularArtxanda/jsp/home.jsp?idioma=9&color=rojo& Then, after all the pictures and maybe some exploring of the area, get down to town again and get the metro to Areeta-Las Arenas. From there you have a 5 minute walk to El Puente Colgante, the hanging bridge, a Unesco World Heritage Monument, one of a kind, over a 100 years old and running 365/24, as a public service. You may want to climb to the top for stunning views of Bilbao stuary and the beaches. www.puente-colgante.com. Walk then all the way to Ereaga beach and enjoy a meal at Tamarises restaurant or at the cozy fishing port of Algorta (google “puerto viejo algorta” for images).

From there you can take the elevator to Algorta city centre and then the metro back to Bilbao. Once in Bilbao, step off at Indautxu station and look for García Rivero street, and enter in El Huevo Frito, for great pintxos and a zurito. Or in the Okela, for more elaborate ones.

It´s getting late and you haven´t visited the Museum of Fine Arts, second to El Prado in importance in Spain. Well, maybe for next visit…

This itinerary is based on a medium budget, for those of you without a car and short of time. Of course, there are many alternatives, but this one may be a good option if you want to make the most of Bilbao in just a day and a half.





Txoko and Batzoki-II

19 01 2010

So you arrive into the Basque Country and notice that, unlike your country of origin, there are bars. Many bars, as in the rest of Spain (although our level of alcoholism is not higher to that of your country, paradoxically). Bars in Spain and in the Basque Country are places to socialize, to meet, to talk, to enjoy a small drink and a “pintxo” or “tapa”, but not to get drunk (at least, not their main target)…well, you already know this. So you enter in a bar, and find that there´s a lot of Basque memorabilia on it: flags, pictures of people in Basque berets and of traditional Basque sports, Basque symbols everywhere…welcome, you´re now in a “batzoki”, roughly translated, “the place to meet”. Batzokis belong to the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV-EAJ) and are everywhere…there´s one per town over 1000 people, at least. They serve as places where members of this party (over 100 years old and in power for 30 years, just until last year) like to have a drink and hold meetings. They are bars in the strictest sense of the word: entrance is public and you get the same as in every other bar. Famed for their excellent food, pintxos and low prices (not so low now), they are very popular, even among those that do not hold the same political views.

The new strategy of the PNV regarding batzokis is to modernize them with a mixture of traditional and very modern interior arquitecture, to offer excellent menus at very good prices and to win every pintxo contest held in the Basque Country. And a familiar atmosphere too.

The extreme left nationalist parties also have their “Herriko Tabernas” or “People´s Taverns”, much more radical in looks and many of them clearly supporting ETA violence (many are being closed now under the new laws that have ilegalize these parties). The socialist party has their “Casa del Pueblo”, “People´s Home”, also a bar but not as popular as batzokis.





Cider Houses – “Sidrerías”

11 01 2010

It´s now the start of the new “cider season”, meaning that the cider that was produced last year will be consumed during the next few months, before the season ends again at the end of April. It´s natural cider, with a low alcohol content (4º), fresh and still, no artificial anything added.

Most “sidrerías” are concentrated around Donostia-San Sebastián, in the Gipuzkoa province, although you can find them now in many other places in the Basque Country. Season begins with the traditional opening of the Kupela (huge cider barrel) by someone locally famous, and following the expression “The new cider has arrived”, the season is officially opened. All sidrerías offer a closed menu for around 25-30 euros, including cod omelette, peppers, t-bone steak, walnuts and cheese (with slight variations). It´s typical to have this menu standing or in long shared tables, and you can have AS MUCH CIDER as you want, it´s included in the price. Sometimes there´s singing of traditional songs and maybe some dancing.

For more info, www.sagardotegiak.com, also in English. It describes the process, the rites and lists the names of the most popular sidrerías.





San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Eneperi, San Pelayo,…

1 12 2009

On the road to Bakio to Bermeo there are three places that you can´t miss on your visit to Euskadi: the church of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, the restaurant Eneperi and the chapel of San Pelayo.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a small church built in the X century, dedicated to St John. The peculiarity of this church is the place where it was built: on top of a small isthmus (or peninsula) linked to land by a narrow pass. And to get there you must first go down from the small parking lot by the main road and then climb the 237 stairs that lead you to one of the most special places in the Basque Country. You can get a very good idea of the place on this amazing 3 minute video, a bird´s eye of the church. More info, videos and pictures on www.sanjuandegaztelugatxe.com, available only in Spanish (international promotion is not one of our strong points…). I´ve been there several times, the climb is not that hard, the views are spectacular (cliffs, forests and a rough sea) and the legend goes that if you sound the bell three times your wishes will be fulfilled.

On the way there from Bakio, to your left, you will see the sign for Eneperi, an ancient “baserri” or Basque farmhouse turned into a restaurant, www.eneperi.com. The restaurant offers excellent local food in a very cozy atmosphere, and the bar area has just been renovated, adding a glass balcony that overlooks the island of Aketxe. There´s also a “cervecera”, that is, a popular place that offers grilled chicken, chorizo, green peppers, black sausage and the likes, plus wine, beer or cider, on the “help yourself” concept, at good prices. A meadow to lay down overlooking the ocean and a kid´s play area complete the scenario.

And on th right hand side of the road, the chapel of San Pelayo, a very popular XII romanic church. Many Basque couples celebrate there their wedding ceremony, not only because of the special significance of the site, but also because of the great views and closeness to Eneperi restaurant.

For those looking for a more lively atmosphere, there´s the 01, with a huge open air terrace and ocean views. DJ music, live shows,…