Art, architecture and food art in Bilbao….

I miss the Basque Country even when I am there for work every few weeks. It has now been almost 8 months and I am having serious withdrawal for pretty much everything Basque. Today I was reminded of two of the best things to have ever touched my lips. And I mean that, because they provoked a feeling that is difficult to describe in words. These are only two of many amazing dishes I have had in the Basque Country.

Bilbao, or Bilbo in Euskera, is the city of my dreams. I loved Bilbao even before the Guggenheim was built when it was still a bit gritty and grey around the edges. The casco antiguo has always intrigued me with its Catedral de Santiago, Plaza Nueva, winding streets and fantastic pintxo bars. I remember wandering through those streets on my first visit to Bilbao and taking in its bohemian feeling, an industrial city still struggling to exist. But, nowadays Bilbao is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. A true example of class, elegance and ingenious infrastructure. The Guggenheim and the Andoibarra neighborhood neighborhood surrounding it are phenomenal. Its streets will welcome you to pasear and take in the fascinating architecture and green parks that it offers. And don’t forget to eat. Eat a lot. Remember, you are in the Basque Country. https://mooninspain.com/2015/08/18/tourist-remember/

Cordero Deshuesado en el Guggenheim Bistro

Inside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao you will find two restaurants. One is Nerua, a Michelin star restaurant where I hope to dine one day. The other is The Bistro which you fill find at the level near our friend, Puppy, by Jeff Koons. Here you only need to order two items off the menu. The roast deboned lamb and a torrija for dessert. The roast deboned lamb is a masterpiece served with a squash purée and it will make you want to kiss the chef. A work of art worthy of a photo.

Amazing torrijas by my daughter, Luna.

Now, the torrija. For a bit of background, in Spain we eat torrijas during the Easter holidays. You will find them in every pastry shop, especially in Madrid. Traditionally it is stale bread soaked in either milk or wine, dipped in beaten egg and fried and sprinkled with cinnamon. One might compare it to french toast. This year my daughter was unable to visit her Abuela in Madrid for easter so she took it upon herself to prepare a large plate of torrijas that she has become accustomed to consuming during that visit.

Torrija con helado de queso, Guggenheim Bistro en Bilbao

Now, the Guggenheim Bistro takes the torrija up about 20 notches or more. It is pan fried and carmelized and served with ice-cream. The flavor of the ice-cream can vary but my very favorite is when it is served with an “helado de queso“, ice-cream prepared with a local cheese. This takes the torrija from an ordinary local pastry to something sinful and provocative. It is the torrija of all torrijas and you will never forget it. I hope they never change the menu at the Bistro.

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More pieces of my Granada….tapas with history and without.

Papas con Huevo from Bar Pedro with a nice view of a some local graffiti in the background

On Monday the province of Granada entered “phase 3” of Spain’s de-escalation plan, or so we call it around here. We are slowly moving into some type of normalcy and the weather invites us to sit down at a local bar for a tapa. Since supporting local business in our neighborhood is important these days, we did just that. Unemployed as I am, I thought to myself “what goes around will surely come around”, right? This thought turned out to be a great coincidence in retrospect. (keep reading) Either way, I’ve been cooking for almost 3 months straight: breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was finally time for a tapa.

We are lucky that our neighborhood bars serve great tapas. They are simple and traditional. I need to remind you that in Granada you get a free tapa with each drink ordered. At most local places you get to choose from a list of their special tapas. I don’t know what it is about the papas con huevo at Pedro’s bar on our street that makes me feel like everything is going to be alright. It is always the same, never fails. Perfectly sautéed potatoes and onions with a fried egg on top. Pedro also has Victoria Beer from Málaga which I happen to love. It is basically sacrilegious to not drink Alhambra Beer in Granada but we can make just this one exception.

Bacalao Ajoarriero in La Croqueta, Granada

There is a another tapas bar around the corner from Pedro called La Croqueta. I have a few ties with the woman who owns it. Our children went to the same nursery school and her father is one of my most beloved yoga students, sweet Manuel. Lola has a long menu with different types of croquetas (I explain these to my guests as fried bits of love) made with bechamel and different fillings. Read more here https://mooninspain.com/2011/10/30/introducing-the-croqueta. She also has a great variety of other tapas to choose from and serves an extremely cheap plato del día. The other day I felt the need to try her plate of the day, Bacalao Ajoarriero. I have to be extremely compelled to order bacalao anywhere unless I already know it is excellent. The last and quite possibly the only time I had Ajoarriero was in Cuenca, with my friend Miguel, where it is also called Atascaburras (to trap a donkey). The original recipe in that area of Cuenca is made of potatoes, garlic, egg and bacalao originating from a dish eaten by the Sephardic Jews. There are many variations of the recipe throughout the Northern and Central part of Spain.

Arriero on top of the Cathedral in Astorga, Margatería, Castilla y León

An arriero or mulero was somebody who traveled by mule transporting goods from one place to another. The Arrieros Maragatos are likely the most well-known in Spain. The Maragatería is located in a small pocket of Castilla y León where the town of Astorga is located. The Arrieros Maragatos would transport fish and other goods from Galicia in the Northwest to the areas of Castile. They were so well known in this area that on top of the Cathedral in Astorga you will find a statue of an arriero. The English writer Richard Ford commented on the Arrieros Maragatos in his book The Handbook for Travelers in Spain, “The Maragatos take precedence on the road: they are the lords of the highway, and channels of commerce in those parts where mules and asses represent railway luggage trains.” There were other arrieros who traveled from Bilbao to Zaragoza passing through most of the Basque Country on their way to Aragón carrying cod and other merchandise. It is is most likely on these roads where the recipe that I enjoyed in my neighborhood came about. This Basque recipe includes salt cod, tomato, garlic, two types of local red peppers (choriceros and piquillos), onion, egg and a bit of cayenne pepper. The Bacalao Ajoarriero prepared at La Croqueta was absolutely delicious. I plan on making it at home or for my mother in law very soon.

Though the arrieros that I have been writing about here worked in the 19th century, we still have arrieros today in Southern Spain and Portugal. One of my closest friends actually worked as an arriero in a small town in the province of Almería. He may be the only American arriero in Spanish history. There is a lovely Spanish proverb that says, Arrieros somos y en el camino nos encontrarémos. In English we can easily translate this to, “What goes around, comes around.”

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From Cod to Albacore….

Bacalao al Pil Pil with a Gilda

My legendary Italian Nana used to threaten us when we acted like little monsters around her house. She would raise her hand with her perfectly painted long nails and wave it saying, “I”m going to give you a Bacalla”!!! I’ve never actually been smacked by that dried piece of salt cod but the image stands clear in my head. For the past 25 years of my life I have spent a lot of time in places where my Nana’s baccala is seen everywhere. Be it Baccala, Bacalao, Bacalhau or just plain salt cod; it is everywhere in Spain and Portugal. My favorite preparation of Bacalao in the Basque Country is Bacalao al Pil Pil. It has only 4 ingredients of salt cod, olive oil, garlic and red chilis. The sauce is made by the jelly released by the fish when fried combined with the oil and the constant movement of the pan. If prepared on a fishing boat, the movement comes naturally with the waves of the sea.

Bacalao al Pil Pil and wine from the market in Guernika

We spend a lot of time in the Basque Country, for both work and pleasure. Gernika is one of my favorite towns on the way to the coast. The weekly market is phenomenal and there are some amazing pintxo bars as well. This summer we visited the Peace Museum for the first time and then were welcomed with a festival of free wine and Bacalao al Pil Pil in the market area. We arrived as it was coming to an end and got the last plate of cod. It was such a perfect visit. We continued on with a few more pintxos and Txakoli, the local white wine that deserves a post all of its own. We had one more balcalao al pil pil at a favorite bar of mine. Served with a “Gilda” of spicy pepper, olive and anchovy it was just perfect. As a sidenote, the name Gilda is a reference to the role of Rita Hayworth in the 1946 film Gilda since it is salty, green and a little bit spicy!!

More excellent Pintxos at Bar Auzokoa in Gernika

The Basques adopted curing codfish with salt from the Vikings sometime in the 9th century but the history of Basque seafaring is long and deeply woven into its people and their culture. They prospered greatly from fishing thanks to the Catholic religion which required people to eat only fish on Fridays, holy days and lent. The Basque coast is dotted with prominent fishing villages like Bermeo, Getaria, Lekeiteo and Ondarroa. In the spring and summer months, if you are lucky, you can catch the fishing boats as they arrive in the ports or as they set sail out into the Bay of Biscay and beyond. Anchovies, Albacore and Blue Finn Tuna are also very important to the seafarers in the Basque Country.

Statue outside of the Jai Alai court in Gernika

This summer we parked Amelie (our van) in the fishing town of Ondarroa for the night. We took a walk through the town and watched the kids (and grown up kids) jumping of slates of wood into the water at sunset. A perfect August evening. Hungry after many stops for swimming at different coves along the coast we decided to have dinner at the restaurant right in front of where we parked our van. They were just firing up the outside grill and we were lucky enough to get a table in what turned out to be one of the best places in town. Asador Erretagi Jose Manuel served us a fantastic meal with warm and congenial service. It was outstanding to say the least. The manager told us how she would make it first to the market every morning to get the best tomatoes possible. The albacore tuna with onions was one of the best fish dishes I have ever been served. I would go back there right now if I could.

Albacore Tuna with Onions Bonito Encebollado

I am missing the Basque Country quite a bit right about now so you will be reading more about it soon. It’s the time of year when I would be spending a lot of time there. I miss my friends , the txakoli and my beautiful hotel. I miss traveling with my family through the Spanish and French part of the Basque Country and enjoying the beautiful beaches, the atmosphere and all the amazing food and wine. I would have been there quite a bit this year and will continue praying for 2021 to take me there many times like it promises. Topa!

Ondarroa

Tourist, Remember!

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Some of my favorite coastline in the Basque Country is between Bilbao and San Sebastian on the Cantabrian sea. Zarauz is a relaxing village that comes to life in the summer offering excellent food and one of the longest beaches along the Cantabrian sea.  Last year we spent a few days in the nearby fishing town of Getaria and walked the 3 mile seaside walk to Zarauz a few times to enjoy the beach and to dine at Karlos Arguiñano, a restaurant owned by the famous television chef. The walk between the two towns is right along the Northern Route of the Camino de Santiago.  We fell in love with the rhythm of Zarauz and decided to spend a few nights there in a hotel and returned again this summer with the van.

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Last year we stayed in a hotel right in the main square and there was a protest going on about the attempt to close one of the local bars due to political reasons.  In the Basque Country there are bars called “Herriko Tavernas” where members of the Basque Nationalist organization meet.  They are also just regular bars with excellent pintxos. The Spanish Government is trying to close them down. The protest consisted of the signing a proposition, selling t-shirts and live music.

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One of our favorite bars, also in the main square, has a great display of pintxos.  Everyday at 10 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. the bar was quickly covered in various types of Tortilla (spanish omelette).  Some are sliced in half and layered with different fillings like crab salad, ham and cheese or tuna salad with piquillo peppers.  Others are prepared with potato and onion, chorizo and peppers, or any mixture of fresh vegetables.  The choices are endless.

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The classic Pinxto, which should be eaten in one big bit, is the “Gilda”.  Named after Rita Hayworth as “Gilda”, this pintxo is spicy, salty and green! An olive, a spicy pickled pepper and a cured anchovy are what you get on this long toothpick.  Whether you are in Zarauz or any other bar in the Basque Country you can always find a “Gilda” surrounded by many other plates of art that are prepared to touch all of our senses.

El txikiteo………………

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I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Basque Country. This area of about 20,000 square kilometers is rich in its own tradition, culture, politics and gastronomy. Something special about their gastronomy is that men tend to be the cooks, not just in restaurants but in private homes and families. This is a unique part of their culture and what is the history behind the “Txoko” or closed gastronomical societies that were orignially only open to male members. The Txoco originally began in San Sebastian in the late 1800’s. A restaurant or a basement with a kitchen is rented by the society to cook, eat and socialize. Nowadays many Txokos also allow women to drink, eat and socialize within the txokos but not to cook.
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Another great part of the Basque gastronomical tradition is the Txikiteo (chiquiteo). Friends gather in the early afternoon to go from bar to bar and enjoy small glasses of wine or beer accompanied by the ever elaborate pintxos (pinchos) which are usually small slices of bread topped by any artistical combination of ingredients. A pintxo could be pate with an anchovy, goat cheese with carmelized onion and cured ham, or wild mushrooms with garlic. Really there are no limits to the pintxo; sushi, grilled vegetables, a lebanese kebab. I have tried it all. For me they always go best with a glass of Txacoli, the typical white wine from the Basque country (more to follow).
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The top of a bar all throughout the Basque Country is a colorful procession of pintxos and some of the best “food art” I have ever seen. In most bars you are given a plate and take what you like from the assortment on the bar. The bar person will then charge you by the amount of toothpicks on your plate. All on the honor system. Just the way life should be!
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distracted in Northern Spain and Portugal………………

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To quote Ani Difranco, ¨ I just got kind of distracted.¨  With a new tour, with a new life, and with just about a new everything.  A good and healthy fresh start. And most of this distraction began up North on a new tour that I have been doing from Lisbon to Barcelona.  The saying is ¨what goes up, must come down¨………….well, not in my case.  I went up and never came back down.  So, since last March it has been the North for me, over and over and over again.  Happy and at home along my ever significant Path of St.James and eager to share every bit of what I love about this special part of the peninsula.  Sometimes our job on tour can feel like a bit of a roller coaster without a place to get off and rest your spinning brain.  But, I think I now have the chance to rest and to share a bit of my experience.

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 From the electrico in Lisbon to a fine port tasting in Porto, from the majestic maze of the Parador in Santiago de Compostela to the pintxos in the Basque Country.  The Guggenheim in Bilbao to my beloved chamois in the Aragonese Pyrenees.

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This year has been a great adventure in travel, love and of course great food and wine.  All of which will follow soon.

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