Both el País Vasco and La Rioja are internationally famed for their gastronomy, the former for its cutting-edge kitchen techniques and the latter for its age-old vineyard traditions. Here’s a peek into what we munch.
The Bilbao weather that greets us can be gently described as “blustery with a hint of hail,” and we take early evening refuge from the ice onslaught in a covered barbeque stall at the end of a river fair. Huddled up in a mass of mujeres around the space heater, we request a little bit of everything, accompanied by a miraculously warmth-bestowing bottle of wine.
The waiters bat their lashes at us just enough to keep things playful, but we only have eyes for the mountain of meat. Chorizo, torreznos, and ribs roasted over the fire, accompanied by the crustiest of hearty Spanish bread and salty year-old sheep’s milk cheese (not pictured) makes for supreme satisfaction, medieval carnivore style. At some point during the fleshfest, a troop of trolls comes bounding past, skipping and jiving to vaguely Celtic tunes despite the hostile weather. The wine invites me to high-five them, and I do so with enormous joy and a bulging belly.
Upon arrival in Donostia-San Sebastián, we head towards La Zurri, recommended as an inexpensive menú del día of “delicately cooked Basque food” on WikiTravel. Emily zeroes in right away on the volovanes con foie, puff pastries overflowing with incredible cream sauce, marvelous mushrooms, and decadent duck liver. Yes. Welcome to town.
As Spanish cuisine ekes its way into the international mainstream consciousness, it becomes more and more chic to “go out for tapas” – which probably doesn’t mean what most Americans think it means. Rather than mere “small plates,” tapear is a social bar-hopping activity, where each bar gifts you some kind of edible along with your caña or vino. In Madrid, this is not all that common a practice, although post-Rastro Sundays in La Latina are certainly worth a jaunt or two; Granada to the south and León to the north hold much more claim to tapas fame.
In País Vasco, tapas are not called pintxos. Pintxos are called pintxos. Vital differences:
- free with your drink,
- bar food – usually greasy, starchy, and/or recently unfrozen, and
- often found congealing in questionable metallic cafeteria trays on the bar,
while pintxos are:
- paid for separately, ranging in price from 1-5€,
- miniature obras de arte – usually beautiful, elaborate, and/or recently reheated, and
- found tastefully arranged on plates lining the establishment, intended as the center of attention.
In pintxo bars, just like in the huge majority of other eating establishments ’round these parts, you tell the bartender what you’ve consumed at the end and pay accordingly – none of this cash-up-front crap. If you encounter a pintxo bar where you are handed a giant plate and told to go to town on your own and pay according to toothpick, you may also want to look for the door – custom is to eat one pintxo (and down one small beer – known as a zurrito – or glass of wine) per bar, then scoot, or stumble, to another locale.
Leah informs us that it is mushroom season, and the champis on a stick – accompanied, inevitably, by a salty slice of jamón – is a crowd favorite. The shrooms’ already meaty flavor blossoms into fully-fledged fleshiness on the grill, accented by a healthy drizzle of sharp garlic sauce. We devour them with our first sip of txakoli, a very dry and slightly bubbly Basque wine.
I can relate to a people this serious about their garlic.
Occasionally the girls would even convince me to go for sweets. But when they’re this elegant, who can stand to eat them?
… what? You say that’s mango sauce? Where’s my fork?