Archive for the Basque Country Category

A flying visit to Bermeo

Posted in Basque Country, Bermeo, Spain with tags on October 22, 2017 by gannet39

Bermeo is a small town by the sea, about twenty minutes drive from Guernica. It’s the most important fishing port in the Basque country and so it must have an amazing history. I just wish I could have stayed longer to find out more about it. As it was I arrived in the morning, worked all day, ate quickly and got the bus to Bilbao, so I can’t tell you much about it.

I was taken for lunch by the school owners to a place on the waterfront called Kai Alde at 15 Lope Diaz de Haro Kalea and the food was very nice as I recall. A good place to try local seafood tapas that’s for sure. I’ve put it on the Guernica Google map.

I’d love to come back. The island of Gaztelugatxe is a famous local sight.

Guernica – eating out

Posted in Basque Country, Guernica, Spain with tags , , , on October 21, 2017 by gannet39

As I say I was only in town for two days, a Sunday and a Monday, which is when many places are closed, so please don’t consider this to be a guide to the dining scene in Guernica. There are other places, like Zallo Barri www.zallobarri.com, that I didn’t get to try that are probably better, but these two are definitely good spots. The first is trad, the second is modern.

Restaurante Boliña El Viejo (Intermediate B+), 1 Calle de Adolfo Urioste, www.restaurantebolinaelviejo.com

I love this kind of old school comedor as it’s like being transported back in time. Don’t expect haute cuisine, just good, honest home-cooked food. It’s a local institution, hence the nickname ‘El Viejo’, so you shouldn’t have any problems finding it.

I came once for Sunday lunch and again on Monday evening when most other places are closed.

To eat a proper sit-down meal, pass by the terrace and go through the boisterous bar to the separate dining room at the back. There you will be cared for by a slightly frail but very lovely old lady. Your best food Spanish will be required as she may go off menu when suggesting things to eat.

On one occasion I had the Menu del Dia (€20) and got Sopa de Pescado; a fish, maybe tuna?, stew (B+).

Then, fluffy and sweet Bacalao Bizkaiaya (B); saltcod baked in tomato sauce in the Biscay style.

The Itsas Mendi Blanco Txakoli was cheap at €9 but okay (B).

Some Leche Frita to finish (B).

Another time I tried the local Gernikako Piperrak, fried green peppers (A), which have their own DOP.

Followed by the Solomillo de Ternera (B).

And finishing with Manchego cheese with Membrillo quince paste (B).

The coffee is surprisingly good too (B+).

On Sunday the comedor gets very busy but on Monday evening after dessert it was so quiet I had to gently wake up my server who was sitting upright having a nap.

For a livelier atmosphere you only have to step back into the busy bar, swapping one character for another. When I was there the funny bartender was communicating with his co-workers through whistles and coarse expressions in English that kept everyone amused.

I had a Pacharan from neighbouring Navarre (B+)…

… and gazed at the pictures on the wall showing Pelota stars and farmers with huge bulls.

My interest was piqued when I saw the bartender making a similar aperitif to a Negroni. As my regular readers will know I love a good cocktail so I had to try it.

The ingredients were ‘Yzaguirre’ Catalan vermouth (an old friend from Oviedo), Campari, Angostura bitters and something unknown from an unlabelled bottle. It wasn’t bad at all (B) but I prefer a gin in there.

On a Monday night when most places were closed the hotel receptionist suggested that I try Restaurant 1000 Azul (same company as below?) or Hiru Saku, both on Calle Pablo Picasso, but the former looked too pricey, albeit very good, and the latter a bit boring, so I went back to Bolina El Viejo instead.

1000 Coloraos (Intermediate A), 9 Plaza San Juan Ibarra

This modern tapas bar was TripAdvisor #3 when I was in town, and #1 at the time of writing in 2017.

I dined here three times in all, twice in the evening, and again for lunch. I ate very well each time but admittedly I also came so that I could watch Euro 2016 in the bar area. The small restaurant area is more secluded should you not be a fan.

All the tapas and raciones I ate here were ‘muy rico’ and very reasonable. I can recommend the Hamburguesita Buey, the Solomillo Foie Hongos and the Arroz Cremoso (all A). Can’t remember what this was but it was undoubtedly very good and more photogenic than the others!

I ate well in Guernica but I’m aware I just scratched the surface of this little town. I’m sure there’s much more to it.

Guernica – walking around

Posted in Basque Country, Guernica, Spain with tags , on October 20, 2017 by gannet39

Although quite a small town, Guernica (or Gernika in Basque) is the political and spiritual home of the Basques. The national assembly for the Basque country is here as is the Gernikako Arbola, an oak tree that is the symbol of their democracy, which is one of the oldest in the world.

The town is also known for being the subject of Picasso’s famous painting Guernica which hangs in the Reina Sofia in Madrid. The picture depicts the horrors of the bombing raid on the town inflicted by German aircraft on behalf of the Francoists during the civil war. 1,654 civilians were killed and much of the town was destroyed as these pictures show.

There is a tiled mural copy of Picasso’s painting called ‘Mural del “Guernica” de Picasso
which you can see on Pedro de Elejalde Kalea, at the top of San Juan Kalea.

I’ve seen the original hanging in the Reina Sofia in Madrid. It’s a huge work and very moving, it made me weep when I saw it. Here’s an informative video about the painting.

The guerniqueses named a street in the centre of town after the famous Catalan painter. There are a few good bars and restaurants along here so it’s a good place to come in the evening.

There is also a statue here for José María Iparraguirre, the Basque bard, who wrote a famous anthem for the Gernikako Arbola.

There are a few attractive buildings nearby, along Carlos Gangoiti Kalea, probably built since the bombing.

The town was founded by Count Tello in 1366 as his statue attests.

As there wasn’t much else to do, I spent my Sunday walking around, taking in the scenes of everyday life.

Rain is a frequent occurrence so it makes sense to take precautions.

These kids going down a suicidally steep hill on anything with wheels reminded me of my own childhood!

Other things that caught my eye included the local council’s attempts at skimping on fountain repairs…

…and all the shop signs were written in Basque-style lettering with its distinctive As.

I was put up at the Hotel Gernika at 17 Carlos Gangoiti www.hotel-gernika.com which was fine if a bit dated but otherwise unremarkable.

There’s lots more to see and do no doubt, I was just unlucky to be here on the two quietest days of the week when everything was closed, I would happily have stayed on a bit longer though. Please see my next post for eating and drinking.

Bilbao – Plaza Nueva

Posted in Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2014 by gannet39

Placa NuevaPlaza Nueva, so named because it replaced Plaza Vieja in 1821, is in my humble opinion, the buzziest and best place for pintxos (basque tapas) in Bilbao.

Under the neo-classical arcades are a throng of famous bars and cafes that will meet all your canape needs, and more.

Click on the pics to get a better view. See this post for other places in Bilbao.

Gure Toki (Intermediate A+), 12 Plaza Nueva, north west corner. guretoki.com

This is my favourite. It doesn’t look as venerable as the others I mention below, but that’s because they are taking a different, more modern approach to pintxos. International, particularly Japanese influences are very apparent. 20130621_212912

Carpachio de Avestruz (A++). Ostrich carpaccio! The best thing I ate all year! Thinly sliced raw ostrich marinated with parmesan and if I remember correctly soya sauce, although it doesn’t seem so from the picture. I must go back to make sure! 20130621_224655

Foie a la Plancha con Manzana y PX (A) goose liver pate from the hotplate, with apple and a Pedro Ximenez reduction. Standard. 20130621_214741

The Hamburguesa Wagyu was fine (B) but probably more hype than substance. It sounds good though. 20130621_221513

Costilla de Vaca con Algas was a revelation (A); a small rib steak with local seaweed, showing the Japanese influence once again. 20130621_214431

With the meat I drank two glasses Juan Gil Monastrell 12 meses (A+) at €2 a glass. This stuff blew my socks off, it’s so different from any other Spanish red. I tried to source it in the UK but their supplier didn’t reply to my emails.

Ironically, the guy next to me noticed I was drinking it and he happened to be a friend of Juan Gil’ who lives in Murcia! He’s a very nice chap apparently, which made his wine taste even better! I try to buy a bottle to take home every time I go to Spain now. 20130621_220704

I also had a glass of Ribeira del Duero, ‘Nacimiento’ by Avan which was good (B+)…

20130621_232438…before moving on to the local Txakoli ‘Senorio de Otxaran’ which was a good example of the genre (B) but I have yet to be fully won over to this wine. 20130621_232344

Sold to me by another friendly customer, Sopa de Idiazabal seemed to consist of a quail’s egg with cream, mushrooms and giant kernels of maize (Peruvian choclo?). The bar won a prize for this tapa in a local competition. It was interesting (B+) but I’d probably try other stuff over it next time. 20130621_234116

The only let down was the lack of decent desserts. They gave me a bowl of dry, flaky mini chocolate croissants which didn’t really do it for me. A chupito of excellent ‘La Gallega’ Orujo des Hierbas (A) cheered me up though. 20130621_234212

As you can see, I met a lot of people while I was here, including a big group of Mexicanas on their jollies. With all the good food, wine and company, I rolled out of here a very happy man!

Café Bilbao, (Intermediate A), 6 Plaza Berria, north east corner of Plaza Nueva (there are two doors, one on Plaze Nueva, the other round the corner on Plaza Berria).

Old school and very busy, the traditional pintxos here are a feast for the eyes. 20130621_203703

I had Makailua Pilpilean, aka in Spanish, ‘bacalao al pilpil’, which was good (B+). Pil pil is a basque cooking technique  where a sauce is made from the oil that the fish was cooked in, along with garlic and small hot peppers called ‘guindillas’. 20130621_204402

Also a canapé with a mushroom and cured ham (A). 20130621_205843

And another with black pudding, pepper and camembert (B+). Victor Montes

Victor Montes, (Intermediate A?), 8 Plaza Nueva, Tel. 944 155 603, www.victormontes.com Montes Tapas

This local institution (since 1931) is for me the most beautiful cafe in town. I’ve only put my head in for a coffee (A) but the pintxos on the bar top looked very enticing. There’s also a sit down dining area where you can have a full meal. Montes Deli

They also have a deli, La Alacena del Victor Monte, on the next side of the square (at # 14 Plaza Nueva on the west side, near Gure Toki) which is a good place to stock up on treats for home.

I like to get some Jerez vinegar, truffles, foie gras and some good Jamon Iberico Bellota from the Jabugo 5 Jotas or ‘Five J’s’ brand from here.

Dipping a toe in San Sebastian

Posted in Basque Country, San Sebastian, Spain with tags on October 23, 2012 by gannet39

San Sebastian, or Donostia in Basque, is a beautiful little resort town that is world famous for its food. The Basque Country, along with Catalunia, is renowned in Spain for having some of the best  chefs in the land and this town, rather than Bilbao, is the culinary capital of the region. The town itself is very pretty with lots of Belle Epoque architecture along the front and a grid of thriving tiny streets in the old quarter.

There is only one long beach, El Playa de La Concha, which gets its name from the beautiful shell-shaped bay. It can get very crowded, although it is wide enough to cope. You can jog the whole length of the promenade in about twenty minutes. At the left end there is a sculpture called the ‘Comb of the Winds’, which gets rave reviews although I can’t see why. It’s essentially just three rusty iron claws sticking out of the rocks. The nearby blowholes which amplify the sound of the waves under the promenade are far more interesting.

So then, to food. San Seb has more Michelin stars per citizen than anywhere else in the world. Also, since the closure of El Bulli in Catalonia, the title  of best restaurant in Spain has been given to Arzak,  a local father and daughter operation. Ideally you need to book ahead by several weeks to get in here. Having had no time to plan ahead, I tried phoning up on a Tuesday night to see if they had any cancellations but sadly there was no table for a single diner.

The second best place is apparently Martin Berasategui’s (the chef who also runs the bistro at the Guggenheim in Bilbao) self-named restaurant, but unfortunately they were closed that night. It was probably the best thing for my wallet as the tasting menu costs about €180 excluding the wine. It’s also about 8km out of town so you should factor the return taxi ride in to the bill as well. http://www.martinberasategui.com

Having failed to get into these places, I decided instead to go on a pintxos (tapas) crawl in the Parte Viejo (old town). Apparently it has the greatest concentration of bars on the planet and I could well believe it, the choice is huge. Even early in the week the streets were humming with tourists and locals. My destination of choice, due to several recommendations, was La Cuchara de San Telmo (up a side street off C/ 31 Agosto) but again I was unlucky as it was closed. Goddamn Mondays! I tried a couple of other places but the only one worth mentioning was…

Astelena Taberna (Intermediate A-) C/ de Inigo 1, on the corner of Plaza de la Constitucion

This is a busy modern bar selling a range of imaginative tapas. I started with a squid brochette which looked great on the skewer but shrank to nothing once grilled and was a bit salty for my taste (B). The accompanying glass of local Txacoli (a young, slightly bitter white wine that should be poured from a height to aerate it) was also rather disappointing (C).

Things got much better (A+) with the Foie alla Plancha (grilled Foie Gras) which was ingeniously married with a swirl of apple sauce and dots of raspberry and reduced balsamic. The glass of Rioja (Pierola) went so well with it had to restrain myself from getting a repeat order of both (A).

Instead I went for the Rabo de Buey (oxtail) which although not particularly attractive, was full of flavour (B+), and the chips it can with were ok too (B). I had to wait for this for an inordinately long time so my waiter kindly gave me another glass of Rioja on the house when it finally arrived.

I also had the Croqueta de Pistachios, a ball of deep fried saltcod with a crust of pistachio nuts, which was interesting but not amazing (B). With a glass of Ribeira del Duero (Figuero), the total came to a reasonable €26.30.

After this I went to Bideluze at 14 Plaza Guipuzkoa. It’s an old bar (Intermediate B) with young staff which was playing uptempo house when I was there. I’d imagine it would be a good spot for early evening drinks at the weekend. I had an excellent hand made Orujo des Hierbas made by Eskartxa here.

And that was it! Only one night on the town, which was hardly enough to do the food scene any justice. Just hope I get to go again.

Bilbao: A Home from Home

Posted in Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2012 by gannet39

Coming from Sheffield I feel a lot of affinity for Bilbao; a former industrial hell-hole based on steel making that has reinvented itself to be a very liveable and chilled out city.

AC Bilbao

Both cities have similarly sized populations (around half a million) as well as quite similar rainy weather and underachieving football teams that play in red and white stripes. That said, the architecture, both modern and old, is a lot better in Bilbao where the city council seems to be much more forward thinking. Bilbao is also the capital of one of Spain’s major culinary regions and eating well is a local obsession, whereas in Sheffield we are more concerned about the contents of our pint pots!

Lovely building near Placa Nueva

Unfortunately though, it took me a while to find a good place to eat here. There were a few things that conspired against me. To start with, I only spent three nights in the city, including a Sunday and a Monday when most of the good places were closed. Secondly, I was on a budget, and although there are plenty of excellent restaurants where you can blow a lot of money, finding cheap or mid-range places with good quality, value-for-money food was quite difficult. As a result, please don’t consider this post as an exhaustive guide to the best places, there are plenty I didn’t get around to trying.

Art Deco Station front

Casa Rufo (High Intermediate A), Calle Hurtado de Amezaga 5, Tel. 944 432 172

This was my favourite place in the short time I was here. Founded in 1955, it’s also a deli and bodega and becomes a restaurant in the evenings, so you sit amongst shelves stacked with local produce and bottles of wine. The building dates from the fifties so there’s lots of wood and nice ceramics, all very atmospheric. The service seems a bit dour, but they lightened up when sprinkled with niceness.

Casa Rufa

I started with a plate of local leeks, Puerros, dressed in oil and vinegar, and topped with raw onions, peppers and olives. It was pretty good but I’ve had better (B).

Puerros

The star however was the huge beefsteak (Chuleton) which arrived ready sliced and still sizzling on a thick earthenware platter. It was huge (the next table shared it between two) and the chef came out of the kitchen to egg me on as I started to flag towards the end. It was one of the best I’d ever had and, along with codfish, is a speciality of the house.

Chuleton

It was helped down by an excellent half bottle of Rioja Crianza (Senoria de Cuzcurrita), a perfect marriage with the meat (A).

Rioja

Sadly my ideal desserts of Plums in Brandy and Pears in Txacoli were not available and I went instead for the cheesecake which was very satisfying (B+).

Finally a glass of ‘Nectar’ Pedro Ximenez which was so nice (A), I bought two to take home. Nectar

Bilbao also has a lot of attractive Art Noveau buildings and there are several cafes from the Belle Epoque period dotted around town. Here are a couple of good ones:

Iruna (Intermediate B+), Calle Berastegui 5 (on the corner with Calle del Musico Ledesma) is a famous old cafe bar dating from 1903 and decorated in the Moorish Mudejar style.Iruna doorway

It’s very atmospheric and seems to be popular with everyone. Back room

They were grilling up lamb Pinchos Morunos here when I went, so of course I had to try.

Pinchos Morunos

And some places to avoid….

Cafe Boulevard, (Intermediate C), Calle Arenal 3

Another feted Art Nouveau place which has been modernised slightly. I only came in for a coffee in the day time but was left empty by the uninteresting decor and lack of atmosphere. Maybe it’s better at the weekends.

Saibigain (Elementary B/C), Calle Barrencale Barrena 16, (closed Sunday)

Times have changed since Cadogan guides put this place on their ‘inexpensive’ list. The €8 menu-del-dia has been superseded by a choice of four set menus. I went for the cheapest at €32 which involved a multitude of starters including; a plate of three hams (B-), foie gras with blueberry jam and tostados (B), prawns with a dish of plain mayo (C), codfish croquettes (B), mushrooms with scrambled egg (D).

Foie and blueberry jam

There were several choices for the main course, the most typical (according to the waitress) being Pequillo red peppers stuffed with salt cod in yellow and red sauces (C). I added a bottle of Txacoli (Aretxaga 2011) to drown my culinary sorrows (B).

Txacoli

With the addition of a slice of apple pie (B) and a glass of Rioja (B+), it was hard to argue about the value, but the food was too mediocre for me to want to return. The place doesn’t seem to have been redecorated since it opened in the 50’s, except for the addition of photos and posters of Athletic de Bilbao from the 70’s. The interior is faded and unspecial but the service was fine.

Asador Indusi (Intermediate C), Calle Maestro Garcia Rivero 7, Tel. 944 417 176

This was the hotel recommended place for Sunday when all other places nearby were closed. There is nothing to recommend it in particular, the food, decor and service are all non-descript (all C). The Rioja and Pedro Ximenez were the only things that made the experience enjoyable. You might want to walk the 20 minutes to the old town for a bit more choice, though most places there will be closed on the Sabbath too.

Finally, here are a few things you might see at the Mercado de la Ribera, down by the river in the old town.

And here’s a guide to shops from the tourist board.

Ham stall

Rendered fat

Hanging meatLardRIP Piggy

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