A Quick Tour Through Basque Country
My family and I just got back from an epic vacation. We hit London first and flew home from Barcelona, but I’ll save those big cities for later. Here’s what we did in Basque country, and more importantly, what we ate.
We landed in Bilbao since it has a decently-sized airport and non-stop flights from a lot of European cities. We flew in from London and got ready to shift from fish and chips and pub food to pintxos… lots of pintxos. We posted up at a small bar right across from the Jardines de Albia and got the kids accustomed to tortilla de patata and bocadillos de jamon. While they started there, I began my quest to have as many anchovies and sardines as possible. The quintessential, and supposedly first, pintxos is known as ‘la Gilda.’ It’s simply an anchovy, pippara peppers and an olive, all stacked on a toothpick. I’m pretty sure I had one every place we went.
At the far corner of this square is Cafe Iruna, a popular bar that, in addition to the standard pintxos offerings, has a grill in the corner of the space where a family makes lamb skewers to order. They’re 2.50 euros each and served simply on a plate with a couple of pieces of bread. Seasoned with a mix of middle-eastern spices and lemon, they are outstanding. The bread is necessary as you’ll want to sop up every last drop of the drippings on your plate.
The next morning, we began our day at the Guggenheim Museum. It’s a showstopper of a Gehry building with its iconic Puppy holding court out front. Inside, a rotating exhibition calendar fills the space, but nothing does this as monumentally and as powerful as the Richard Serra installation on the ground floor. It’s absolutely breathtaking. We spent some time exploring the spirals, marvelling at the scale and detail of the geometry. I wandered into one of the spirals and noticed a group forming, almost flash-mob style. Then they started singing—their voices rising and reverberating inside this open-topped, yet cave-like space. Apparently, the baritone was late to the party because he snuck in behind me and his voice thundered from behind my left ear. It was such a treat to be there for this moment. Turns out it was a group from Cal State Fullerton that had a performance at the cathedral later that evening. They thought it would be fun to sing inside the museum… they were right.
There’s an amazing market on the east side of the city, el Mercado de la Ribera, that is about a 25 minute walk from the Guggenheim. It is full of butchers, fishmongers, charcuterie makers as well as an entire floor of stalls serving various pintxos. The kids continued to explore for their favorite tortilla de patata. We made a return visit to Cafe Iruna for some more kebabs before heading out to San Sebastian the next morning.
I was in San Sebastian five years ago, and like everyone else who has visited, I fell in love and couldn’t wait to get back. That trip was just Evangelina and me, so we were a bit more ambitious with our dining. This time we had our kids in tow, and while they’re definitely adventurous eaters, we skipped the Michelin star restaurants. The upside of this decision was that our meal at Exterbarri in 2014 still lingers as a gem of a memory—still my favorite meal of all time. Reservations are incredibly difficult to get, so I suggest that you make a reservation as soon as you book your trip to Basque country. It’s in the tiny town of Atxondo, about an hour southwest of San Sebastian.
Back to what we *did* do…
We can be a bit of a dorky family, and our tradition for bigger cities is to take a bike tour first thing. It’s a great way to get a sense of the geography of the city while getting some info. from a knowledgeable guide. San Sebastian is on the smaller side so we skipped the bike ride. Instead, we booked a cooking class. This is my new favorite thing to do on vacation. We took a class at Mimo San Sebastian which began with a tour of the Mercado San Martin and some info. about classic Basque dishes while we shopped for the lunch we were going to make. Ingredients in hand, we headed back to Mimo’s incredible kitchen to get to work. Guided by Chef Agos, we began to prep vegetables, learned to clean squid, picked the meat off of a pig’s tail and made a beautiful, and mostly delicious lunch.
The first course was kokotxas, a Basque delicacy. Kokotxas are basically the chins of codfish. They’re quite gelatinous and you cook them slowly in olive oil. Gelatin from the fish and olive oil combine to make a pil-pil sauce. It is quite labor intensive as you are constantly moving the pan to create an emulsion of the olive oil and the kokotxa’s gelatin. My family’s verdict, the pil-pil sauce was delicious… the texture of the gelatanish meat itself was a little… ambitious.
The rest was all fantastic. Fried squash blossom stuffed with pig tail served on top of freshly sauteed vegetables, seared squid with caramelized onions and a delicious Galician apple tart. I cannot recommend a class at Mimo strongly enough.
It’s no secret that San Sebastian is a major food destination with a slew of Michelin star restaurants. It’s also no secret that there aren’t really unknown spots left. That said, not every pintxo place is the right one to walk into. This is by no means “the list,” there are plenty of options out there. Here are a few places that we went to and enjoyed.
We like tennis… and finding the Wimbledon finals on television in a pintxos bar was no easy feat. In fact, our hotel didn’t even have a channel with it on. So, we wandered into Bar Sport in old town and they had it on… along with a group of tennis fans from all over the world. Again, I had my fair share of omega-3’s as well as some tortilla, a bocadillo, some peppers and more of the basics. All good… except that Federer lost. I’m still rooting for him to get one more big win.
This is a small, sardine-focused spot. I nearly overdosed on omega 3’s during our trip. I absolutely love these fish and Bar Txepetxa has more than 10 options for sardines with toppings, all of which are freshly made to order with marinated anchovies. My favorites were the Jardinera (diced red and green peppers, onion and guindiallas) and the Bocarta (topped with a piquillo pepper). Next time I’m going to add a couple of the spider crab mixes to the order. The kids had some fried calamari which was also fantastic. This bar will be my first and last stop next time I’m visiting.
We had an amazing-full meal here. Started with snacks at the bar including this epically stacked pintxo of bonito, peppers, anchovy, an olive and just the right amount of olive oil.
Not much has changed in the last five years since I had eaten here. It’s still full of tourists and that’s ok because the food is incredible… and we’re also tourists, for now. Get the lamb rib—an amazing mix of perfectly cooked lamb and seared crispy on the plancha. The risotto with idiazabal cheese is a must-order.
Our one non-pintxo meal was at the beautiful Rekondo restaurant in the hills on the west side of the city. The restaurant was fantastic and our only fine-dining meal in San Sebastian. Rekondo is well-known for its wine list, which is one of the largest I’ve even seen. We kept it simple and ordered a few glasses at the recommendation of their sommelier. The food was lovely and their terrace was the perfect way to spend the afternoon. On the table we had dover sole, some hake, but without a doubt the arroz con almejas that I ordered was the tops. It was a delightfully creamy rice with that was amplified by the briny clams. Make sure that someone at your table orders it.
I waited five years to go back to Basque country. After this trip, I doubt we’ll go that long before a return visit. The people, the food, the scenery and the wine make it one of my very favorite places in the world. It was a joy to share this experience with my family. Give me a shout if you’re headed that way and need any other recommendations. Stay tuned for more about our time eating and cooking in Barcelona.