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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!