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On Tour with José Pizarro – Basque Country

Basque Gastronomy Tour with Chef José Pizarro

A couple of years back now, Spanish chef José Pizarro decided to write a book about the gastronomy of the Basque region. Fast forward to Autumn 2018 and the book was made into a tour!

Our 7 guests discovered the gastronomy of the Basque Country on a four night tour. Visits to small farms and producers, tastings of  indigenous varieties, sampling great wines, dining like locals, and learning the best of what this country has to offer. All under Jose’s guidance in a series of dedicated cookery courses and visits.

Bilbao

Principal city of the Basque Country, the formerly polluted, industrial and conflictive city has shed its grimy and rusty coating and transformed itself into a shiny, cosmopolitan, modern, dynamic metropolis. Busy, dense, and diverse, the city is now home to the world-famous Guggenheim Bilbao. Boasting the largest indoor covered food market in Europe, dining is never far from you here. Excellent pintxos, bars, restaurants and a lively old quarter, ensure that you will have no time to stand still.

Pintxos are a classic here, the idea being to have a drink and a pintxo in one establishment and then move on. The number of bars means you are never short of options. We took advantage of a busy Thursday evening to discover this tradition and ended up sampling gildas, jamon, croquetas, asparagus, spider crab, salt cod, txakoli, cider, crianzas and a few local beers too! A great way to break the ice and for José to set the scene for the next 4 days….

Indigenous varieties

A day dedicated to discover the other Basque Country, the province of Alava. Much less visited than its two coastal neighbours of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, but more steeped in history and a variety of produce one wouldn’t perhaps expect.

Salt is an often forgotten, sometimes maligned yet absolutely fundamental element when it comes to gastronomy. Our day started at a truly remarkable place, Salinas de Añana. For thousands of years salt has been extracted from this hidden spot close to Vitoria, an hour’s drive from Bilbao. Learning about and sampling this base resource was fascinating. We had a super informative private tour of the whole extraction and processing area, its history literally springing out from the ground. Salt tasting isn’t something many folk have done, but here, we learned so much about its chemical make-up, texture, flavour and uses. A perfect start to a gastronomic tour I would say.

Txakoli!

Back to the 21st Century, and we visited the modern and innovative wine-maker Astobiza to sample what is only found here in the Basque Country, Txakoli. The drizzle didn’t deter us and we learned from the owner Jon and the husband and wife team of Bittor and Lorena all about this minerally, fresh wine before retiring to the superb on-site kitchen… Here, aprons on we commenced our classes. Assisted ably by Jon and the team, we all created pintxos under José’s expert eye. His friendly way, was so helpful, and his infectious attitude and care made even the less experienced of those among us really comfortable. Gildas, squid, roasted peppers, black pudding, gernika peppers, were all made easily by all of us together. The txakoli helped as well as you can imagine!!

Next visit was to discover another of the Basque Country’s most famous exports, that of Idiazabal Cheese. One of the three ‘Denominacion de Origen’ products seen today, Leire Ibarrola and her family have won international prizes for the family-made produce Izoria Cheese and Honey and they opened their doors for us to learn about, taste and enjoy this very Basque cheese. It was not only cheese here however, as Leire, who is such a great character, took us on a gastronomic trip of the area with some surprises! Our bus driver Javi also enjoyed chatting to Leire’s Mum! 😉 The roasted lamb served up straight out of the brick oven will not be forgotten quickly either I can assure you!

Back in Bilbao and we managed to get a few Gin ‘n’ Tonics in us before we called it a day at the truly great Hotel Miro, Basque Experiences’ favourite hotel in all of Bilbao…

Provenance

Heading east along the coast on Friday morning, we made a made a visit to the small fishing village of Getaria. Famous for whaling and ship-building in the middle-ages, this maritime culture is reflected in its cuisine and society. Our first visit took us to Ezkurtxerri, a family run pig farm run by Agurtxane and her Dad, Patxi. Learning about the indigenous Basque pig (massive floppy ears) its meat and the processes used to make some of the tastiest sausages, chorizos, black puddings etc and all km 0 and organic, got the juices going. Tasting was superb, the flavours were great, they jumped out in the mouth! Thanks guys!!

Just around the corner (after about 45 bends in the road) we stopped for another informative visit with Jaime of Aroa, a small rare-variety vegetable producer. Sampling his exotic flowers, leaves and of course the famous tear-shaped peas was an eye-opener for all of us!

Lunch was meant to be short affair… But with José onboard the plans adapt!! We stopped by the fabulous restaurant Elkano in the heart of Getaria… The owner Aitor an old friend of José’s was so pleased by our surprise visit that he gave us the best seats on the terrace and proceeded to serve up some of the finest fish you will eat anywhere in the world…. It takes weeks to get a reservation here normally… Such a great surprise for all of us, and believe me, the Turbot is simply the best I have tried after many years of tasting!!!! Thanks again José Pizarro!!

Donostia/San Sebastián

After such a great lunch, our planned ‘rest-time’ vanished! so after arriving at the unique Hotel Villa Soro we freshened up and made the walk along past Zurriola beach towards the old town and the Sociedad Gastronomica La Artesana. Over 150 years old , with members including artists, writers, politicians and the odd famous chef, our friend Txuno treated us to a course in traditional Basque cooking in this private dining club. Aprons on with José Pizarro and we were making Hake throats and clams in green sauce, roasted cod, asparagus, grilled languostines…. and txakoli!! Dessert was a surprise as we weren’t expecting one of our group to strike up a conversation with one of the locals who happily donated half their tart to us! A home-made Pantxineta, and the local turned out to be the owner of the oldest patisserie in town… you can’t imagine how good it was!!

Such a feast needed a digestif so we headed into the old town for some entertainment…. The Whiskeria in Donostia has never seen the likes…. and what goes on on tour, stays on tour 😉

José Pizarro Cooking Masterclass

San Sebastián, is without doubt one of the gastronomic capitals of the world. Compact, charming and aristocratic, this city, hemmed in by mountains and beaches was our base for two nights. A rich history comprising elements of Basque, Spanish and French cultures has enabled this city to develop a very unique culinary profile. Internationally famous for its array of Michelin Star restaurants, it is the local culture which is held up by many as the reason for this success. Abundant local produce, a former summer resort for the French and Spanish aristocracy and the competitive nature of the Basques ensures that procuring, preparing and dining well are always high on the list here.

Saturday morning after a serious(ly-needed)  breakfast, we met with Imanol from the Basque Culinary Center at the Mercado de San Martín in San Sebastián, the venue where the serious chefs source their produce.

The Basque Culinary Center is a world-leading Faculty of Gastronomic Science, the first in Spain and the second in Europe, part of Mondragon University here in the Basque Country. It is also an internationally acclaimed Research and Innovation Centre in the field of Food and Gastronomy founded by the Basque Government alongside the Basque Chefs; Arzak, Berasategui, Subijana, Aduriz and Atxa among others. The Basque Culinary Center also has an International Advisory Committee, chaired by Ferran Adrià  and made up of some prominent international chefs including; Yukio Hattori, Massimo Bottura, Michel Bras, Dan Barber, Heston Blumenthal and René Redzepi.

The market saw us select some of the day’s best produce; squid cleaned in front of us, red zalla onions, tiny carrots, lettuce, green peppers, parsley, all from smallholders. Amazing fresh Boletus Edulis (cep mushrooms), live spider crabs, even special bread for thickening stocks and sauces!

Aprons on!

Up to the fantastic kitchens where we had world-class facilities and our own bespoke cookery course in our own private lecture theatre/kitchen.  José Pizarro and Imanol personally gave one-to-one instruction throughout the day’s course. We prepared a beautiful San Sebastián style freshly dressed spider crab salad, the very typical Basque dish of baby squid cooked in a black ink sauce, and firm wild mushrooms with a slow-cooked egg and jamon… and for dessert we ourselves made Pantxineta from scratch (instead of ‘borrowing’ it)

All this learning and and tasting and preparing is thirsty work, as I am sure you will agree. So, to help us re-hydrate we invited Mikel from the superb Bodegas Gomez Cruzado to assist. Mikel selected 4 of their Rioja Alta wines; Blanco 2016, Honorable 2014, Pancrudo 2016 and Reserva 2011 the tasting notes are available on their website.

Six O’clock and we headed back to the old town to go over the great day’s class and to sample some more of Donostia’s early evening social scene.. A great day!

Guggenheim and a 3*

Our final day in the Basque Country saw us visit two world famous destinations; The Guggenheim Bilbao and Azurmendi restaurant.

The Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, famous the world over for its ground-breaking architectural design is an icon for us ‘Bilbainos’. Our final morning saw us expertly guided by Susana, our own English-speaking art expert who introduced us to the permanent and temporary exhibits of the Guggenheim Foundation collection. Busy as it was she really shed light on the simple amazing Joana Vasconcelos exhibition and the Serra permanent exhibits.

Azurmendi is a short drive from Bilbao city centre and our visit to the restaurant, accompanied by José and one of the Azurmendi staff, saw us embark upon a behind-the-scenes look at the kitchens, the allotments, and the ‘research and development’ being undertaken here. It was a real eye-opener for us to see the amount of work, and staff, that were present, and so young!

Lunch though was the star… A huge round table for our group, looking out over the green hills of Bizkaia set the scene. The 2018 Autumn menu had just been presented the day before so we were some of the first to try the incredible menu. The Welcome Picnic, 4 delicate morsels: Dry asparagus, smoked fish brioche, tartar of iberico, and hibiscus. The Kitchen where we were able to taste the truffled egg and a unique vermouth. The greenhouse: Fermented apple, spices cornetto, herb quark and kaipiritxa.. All simply incredible and no words can really do them justice!

Menu

Seated now and we were treated to:

Mushroom praline,/beans/limon grass/sea txakoli.

Oyster, essence of herbs and fino.

Shrimp, vegetable juice and frozen old tomato.

Sea Urchin, emulsion, air, fritter and caviar.

Roasted and peeled lobster, juice coffee butter and purple onion from Zalla.

Garlic soup.

Red Mullet in 2 services: Flame roasted red mullet and grilled red mullet, red pepper juice on charcoal and parsley.

Iberian Pork castañeta, Idiazabal cheese bonbon and shaken mushroom broth.

Stewed piglet tail and anchovies from Bermeo….

Not finshed yet, we had dessert to follow!!!

Avocado and Mango.

Yoghurt honey and five spice.

Black olives, sheep’s milk and cocoa.

Wow…. Its was unique. A truly magnificent with an autumnal feel and colour running through the whole menu. The blog will never do it justice and as I am not a fan of taking photos of food on the plate, there is no photographic evidence.. But who needs it!! We all loved it, so much so we stayed too long and nearly missed our flights!!!!

2019

I think, know we all had an amazing time. José was a star, he really made the whole trip into something superb. His enthusiasm, passion and knowledge was perfect and so infectious. He really put his all into the tour, and was really more like one of us!

We met up in José’s restaurant in early November, another great meal, a chance to laugh about our 5 days together, and to put the wheels in motion for a repeat tour in 2019!!

Watch this space as thay say!!!

  • Cooking with the Chef

    Cooking at BCC with Pizarro

    Part of the day's cooking course at the world-renowned Basque Culinary Center with Jose Pizarro
  • Basque Experiences & Jose Pizarro 2018

    Basque Experiences & Jose Pizarro 2018

    Tour 2018
  • José Pizarro & Basque Experiences

    Cooking Course

    Basque Experiences cooking course with José Pizarro at the Basque Culinary Center
  • Astobiza Kitchen

    Pintxo prep in the kitchen at Bodega Astobiza
  • Patxi and Jose Pizarro

    Tasting the wonderful Basque Pork products at Eskurtxerri
  • SAlinas de Añana

    Fascinating Tour at the Salinas de Añana

Eneko – Michelin Star Restaurant

Eneko Restaurant

Hidden away up in the hills close to Bilbao sits a restaurant that has been gaining international acclaim. The Azurmendi is a Three Michelin Star restaurant that was named as 38th best restaurant in the Worlds’ 50 Best awards in 2017  However, it has a little brother, called Eneko

This off-shoot has been created by the Azurmendi’s main chef and owner, Eneko Atxa with the intention of making the restaurant more accesible. A holder of one Michelin Star by itself, the menu is focused on local provenance.

We at Basque Experiences were delighted to be invited in early March to sample the magnificent dishes…  The visit also included a tour and tastings of txakoli wines produced at their own Bodega!

Menu

Local produce is fundamental here and the principle runs through the Menu. Wines were their own; Gorka Izagirre, G22, 42, and Arima as well as a Campillo from Rioja Alavesa. Seven courses of which some of which you can see n the photos! Can you guess what was used though? The variety of methods, ingredients and presentation was great, and everything was delicious!! I had a couple of favourites but I am not going to give the game away… You will have to come with us and try or let us reserve a table for you and your group…

Pizarro

Talking groups, we have our Pizarro ‘Basque’ Gastronomy Tour in late 2018. For our final day with Jose Pizarro we will be visiting the Azurmendi Restaurant and kitchens, a unique chance to dine and discover this superb restaurant!

  • Basque Hake
  • Egg.... and peppers and corn....
  • Foie or Chestnut
  • Olives
  • Rich beef
  • Eneko's Team
  • Eneko restaurant
  • Dessert

Basque Country Food. Where is it from ? pt. 2

Food…thats it!

Where does our amazing produce come from and how do we use this great resource. Part 2 of our quick look at Basque Country food, produce and gastronomy with the chef José Pizarro, owner of 4 restaurants in London.

Alava, Inland Basque Country

Sometimes overlooked by visitors keen to see Bilbao and San Sebastian, Alava is the 3rd province of Euskadi, Basque Country and is completely landlocked. This is wine country, and many visitors come to learn and sample our famous Rioja Alavesa wine However, it holds many surprises as Jose found out!

Salt Cheese and Txakoli

Hidden in the green valleys lies a geological gem, millions of years old but very relevant today. The Salt Pans of Añana are marvellous. A fountain (or 3) of saline liquid, used over millenia to cure, store and flavour the Basque peoples food. Today we can visit and learn about this amazing place but also taste it in our own Denominacion de Origen Idiazabal Cheese. We visited our good friend Leire who is the only producer of this most Basque of Basque cheeses who uses this salt in the production of her award winning cheeses. The surprise here though is its not only Idiazabal that one tries… 🙂

Close by and another good friend sees us visit BarraskiBide, a farm producing organic snails, a popular dish all over Spain and especially those who are fond of Biscayan Sauce…. Nestled under the Sierra Salvada mountain range, the snails are well guarded so they don’t escape….

And what would one choose to wash these delicious products down with? Well our own Txakoli Arabako. The third region with the D.O. to produce Txakoli wine in the Basque Country. Our friends at Astobiza and Beldui are perfect hosts and enable Jose to learn taste and discuss the amazing advances this wine has experienced since it became regulated in the 1980’s.

Sleeping it off….

After all these foodie gastronomic exertions, sometimes there is nothing better than a siesta… However, when staying with us here at Basque Experiences we have our own favourite places, and top of the list in Bilbao is the great Hotel Miro. Opposite the iconic Guggenheim Bilbao, the service is what you would expect from a small privately -run hotel. It never fails!!

Just a short blog extolling some of our food highlights here in the Basque Country with Basque Experiences. But keep your eyes open for a foodie surprise in the coming weeks…..

 

    Basque Gastronomy in a weekend!

    Our world-famous gastronomy here in the Basque Country is all some guests need to come and visit!

    We have been busy these past weeks showing our guests some of the fantastic produce and gastronomy the Basque Country has to offer.  A recent Basque Tour saw us help celebrate a 40th wedding anniversary, in Bilbao and in San Sebastian. We took in some of the best pintxos, best restaurants and a fantastic and indeed unique wine bodega, all right on our doorstep!

    A private tour with chauffer driven transfers, staying at the best hotels in the country such as the Maria Cristina and the Castillo Arteaga. Dining at some of the best restaurants in the world (not my words… but those of  The 50 Best Restaurants…) in Mugaritz and Azurmendi, and a visit to the unique and indeed to one of our favourite places, not to mention the wine which is spectacular, Crusoe Treasure – Undewater Bodega right here in Plentzia!!

    Indeed it was a short trip in the Basque Country but one packed with intense flavours, some of the best hotels one can find in some dramatic locations, and visits to the finest restaurants with world-class gastronomy.

    This is what we at Basque Experiences do best, listen to our clients and create a bespoke, private Basque Tour so that our guests can make the absolute most of their sometimes limited time here. We can’t wait to accompany you on your visit here….

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