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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

Sweden comes to Basque Country!

Journalists from Sweden!

When some journalists from Sweden call to say there are coming to the Basque Country, we were all ears!

Pintxo tour around Bilbao they said… I was all theirs for the whole afternoon!

 

This is their wonderful write up in full with a few pics added in that they took at the bottom. You can click on this link for the original or read the text here translated (via google) into English

www.expressen.se/allt-om-resor/resmal/europa/bilbao-en-vacker-och-valsmakande-weekendstad/

  • BASQUE EXPERIENCES SWEDEN

Article in English

Bilbao is a city full of exciting architecture, avant-garde art, the spectacular Guggenheim museum and tables filled with good pintxos.

The white sands of the Bay of Biscay can be reached by subway, and an hour away is the basilica gourmet city of San Sebastian.

new direct flight has recently started to Bilbao, making it easy to get there! Norwegian Airlines Site

Guggenheim

The first thing looking for a short bus ride from the airport into the city is Guggenheim Bilbao’s spectacular architecture. The museum is located on the river Nervión and changes in different colors depending on the light and the time. This unconventional building of concrete, glass and panels of titanium in round shapes opened in 1997, and was designed by architect Frank Gehry. The shapes resemble a ship and is a tribute to the port of Bilbao. Walking around all the glass corridors among the temporary and permanent exhibitions is a pure delight for the eye. For many years, artist Richard Serra has worked on the exhibition “The matter of time” where giant weathered pieces of piece in beautiful round spiral forms symbolize Bilbao’s industrial history with shipbuilding and iron and steel materials.

The Guggenheim Foundation had a large art collection and sought a local in Europe while Bilbao underwent an industrial recession in the late 80’s, informs Egi at Guggenheim Bilbao.

Guggenheim celebrates Bilbao

By the river, just outside the Guggenheim Museum, Louise Bourgeois’s big spider “Maman” in bronze, as well as Jeff Koon’s irresistible shiny tulips in bright colors. In front of the entrance to the museum a large flower-spotted terrier guarded in freshly planted flowers of different colors. It is the artist Jeff Koon’s “Puppy” artwork from 1992, which was initially meant to be a temporary artwork.

Puppy became so popular that people wanted to keep the dog permanently and the city bought the artwork. Twice a year the flowers are replaced, says the wizard Erik Sadler from Basque Experiences.

Guided tour of the city’s best pintxos

In Bilbao you never have to be hungry, and at all bars you will enjoy good pintxos (small Basque tapas served on a roasted bread). In order to find the best pintxos bars in Bilbao, it is worthwhile to go for a guided walk through the city.

Local residents eat pintxos at lunch, and only tourists eating pintxos in the evening. The idea is to buy a pintxos and a glass before moving on to the next bar. During the weekends, I and my friends make a pintxos round where everyone puts money in a common pot, says Erik Sadler who arranges guided pintxo trips in Bilbao.

We start by trying one of the most famous Basque’s pintxos, “Gilda” with green olives, green chili,  and anchovies.

Gilda is a hot, salty and green pintxos who has been named after Hollywood star Rita Hayworth after her role in the movie with the same name. Gilda fits really well with the Basque young white wine, Txakoli, to be served ice cold, says Erik Sadler and we really agree.

The next bar does not even have a sign outside and is run by the lovely sisters Marian and Ione Vallejo. It is a really traditional bar where the sisters serve pintxos with tuna, anchovies and hot red and green peppers. The wine is old-fashioned from a porron with a long glass pipe. We continue across the bridge to the old part of the city, Casco Viejo with a lot of atmosphere among the pedestrian cobbled streets. Around the Plaza Nueva square are many popular pintxos bars side by side, and the evening ends at a bar that serves a dry and good cider.

Beach and surfing in Plentzia

The next day we take the subway to the white sandy beaches of Plentzi, located in a beautiful bay. Plentzia is a nice little small town with a church and the former town hall, which now houses a museum of the city’s history. From the subway there is a walkway along the river, and past the harbor to the wide sandy beach where the schoolchildren practice surfing in the waves of the Bay of Biscay. On the way back, we stop at a restaurant near the river to have a three-day dinner in the sun before it’s time to go back to the big city.

 

So all you Sweden foodies and Scandinavians who are thinking of coming on the new flight.. Give me a call!!

 

Thanks goes to Helene Lundgren res@expressen.se

All pics copyright H Lundgren as well 🙂

 

Biking from Nottingham to Gernika? Are you crazy?

Biking in the Basque Country…….

Eight friends, all with a Nottingham connection, and all biking fans. Some of them had been here before for work and holidays and knew that cycling was big news here. How were they going to get together for a long weekend trip to discover some more of the mythical roads and hills that the Basque Country had hidden away? They had seen the stages in the Pyrenees in the Tour de France, and the Tour of the Basque Country, but how to get it off the ground? And just as importantly, they wanted it to be more than just cycling, they wanted food, drink and a few laughs….

So it was with interest that in Autumn 2017 I received an email regarding putting together a unique tour here. I am not a biker, but arrange all manner of bespoke trips, and the thought of of curating a made-to-measure tour for 8 keen cyclists from the UK got me excited. However, it wasn’t just the biking, the clients wanted me to create something that combined time in the saddle with beautiful places & local traditions. A chance to show off our cuisine, our landscape and our hospitality. A true Tour of the Basque Country.

Cycling, biking, riding, however you call it, it always been big here in the Basque Country. Tour de France winners? Check. Stages of the Tour de France? Check. Long tradition of biking? Check. Varied terrain and excellent surfaces? Check…

Four night tour

Accommodation was organised months in advance. This level or preparedness is essential to ensure a smooth running tour, always! A mix of locations, and styles of beds just adds to the experience. From Camino de Santiago hostels to 4* hotels, we had it all covered. What about my bike? I hear you ask. Well, all spots were chosen with secure storage for your pride and joy uppermost in our selection criteria. Its the little details see…

On the road

Tour design and profile is essential, especially for a mixed group such as this. Routes were chosen in combination with the accommodation, distances, elevation, and activities post-biking. We decided on a post-to-post style tour to give variety and a different feel to everyday. A single base is also an option of course. It allows for less morning prep time, but doesn’t have the feel of a tour. In terms of bikes, it was a mix of own-bikes and rented. We used our good friends at Bizkairoute for the excellent hire bikes, and the GPS/Garmin/Strava apps to enable our riders to see where they were going! In addition we had a ‘Broom Wagon’ to carry all the bike boxes, luggage, spares, drinks etc. Essential on a biking tour in a new location.

The Tour

A long weekend starting on Thursday saw our group of 8 enthusiasts visit a Txoko, a members-only dining club if you will, in the famous town of Gernika. The ritual of preparing food and dining together in the txoko here is a almost a religious thing, so as a visitor it rarely gets seen… It also meant the riders would be fully loaded for the days ahead….

Friday saw us embark from the hostel with San Sebastián as our destination. The route of saw us cover 115km along gorgeous coastal roads with little or no traffic. A couple of decent climbs and elevation of 1,900m, that included Itziar and Mendizorrotz. Passing through the Urdaibai Nature reserve, the villages of Lekeitio, Ondarroa, Deba and into San Sebastian was as one of the riders said afterwards. The best day’s riding I have ever done….

San Sebastian was a welcome respite from the long day in the saddle. Ice-cold beers, a beautiful beach and cool sea to soothe weary legs… Dinner was taken up in a Cider House another great Basque tradition, off-limits to all but the most ‘in-the-know’ travellers. Cider; free flowing, steaks, salt cod all delicious and served on long tables.. the tired legs were a memory…

Heading Inland

A spritely start saw us head east and inland into the interior of the green Basque Country. Sunny start, but the weather soon became Basque with a couple of heavy downpours, adding to the biking experience! A day of 90km, and 1,800m elevation into the the charming Basque village of Elizondo, nestled in the lush Pyrenean foothills. Climbs included Cat 2s Aritxulegi and Agiña. A great traditional lunch followed by an evening of laughs, Gin Tonics and a carb-laden dinner saw everyone happy to bed.

Pyrenees

Riders from the world over know these mountains. Harsh, rugged and with very unpredictable weather, they play a major part in the Tour de France every year. Cyclists such as 5-time Tour winner Indurain hailed from here. The Sky Team were spotted on the road here on another of our tours only days later…. Its big country.

Our final day saw us leave the threatening skies over Elizondo and head east up and over the Cat 2 Col de Izpegi and into France! Some incredible mountain views were taken in before we rolled down into Baigorri, St Jean Pied de Port, and the Camino de Santiago. The border into Spain took us up to the Cat 1 Alto de Ibañeta at 1,062m, and the lovely ride down into Pamplona, city of the Running of the Bulls and Ernest Hemingway! Overall a leg of 113km and climbs totalling 2,100m, the riders were over the moon!! A short biking tour of the Basque Country, into Navarra and the Pyrenees, all rounded off in the great 4* Hotel Maisonnave in Pamplona!!

Next Year.. 2019

Well of course!! We are early in the planning stagess for Basque Country Biking Tour II. Its something that was so successful that we feel we can make this into an event for every year. Great locations, great riding, super meals and the beautiful Basque Country to appreciate.

Speak to me if you fancy organising a similar biking and bike tour across the Basque country, it so much more than just riding here!!

Trip Advisor

Just take a look at the comments left by our clients if you need more convincing….

 

 

  • Biking in the Basque Country
  • basque bike tour

Hiking the Pyrenees and Basque Country

‘We want to do some hiking in the Pyrenees and the Basque Country’

Hiking said the email. Friends of an old client of ours, Manu Feildel who came to record the TV Show ‘My France with Manu’ in 2015, I couldn’t refuse! 6 friends all the way from Sydney Australia.

Months of organising, hotels, hostels, mountain refuges, transport and guides. The tour was a complete success! Starting in San Sebastian at the Hotel Villa Soro we headed east into the Pyrenees via Pamplona. A night in the Hotel Santa Cristina in Canfranc was followed by a tough days hiking, 24km,  in the Pirineo Occidental National Park.  Tired and very weary the group, which included a professional guide and myself as a driver over-nighted in the Refugio de Lizara. The spas in the great hotels we arranged were a godsend!

Ziga

Day 2 and out of the refuge and a shortish 12km trek keeping to the GR -111 route to the Refugio de Gabardito. Picnic lunches everyday meant that the evening meals were hearty and our evening dinner in the Country House in Ziga was no different. The family-run Zigako Etxezuria was exactly what the doctor ordered. From Ziga we walked for part of the Camino de Santiago through leafy and verdant beech forests for a full-days trek. Finishing in Lanz the beers were cold and well deserved!

San Sebastian

Last day saw us make our way back to San Sebastian. The route out of Osses in France saw us visit Espelette, famous for its peppers and chocolate before having  a light lunch or oysters, sardines and wine in the charming seaside and fishing town of St Jean de Luz. The tour was rounded of with a superb dinner in the Ilunpe Sociedad Gastronomica in San Sebastiáns old town, who counts as a member the chef Martin Berasategui owner of 8 Michelin Stars!

 

  • Hiking Pyrenees
  • Basque Hike

Basque Cider House Rocks!

Basque Cider House

Any self-respecting trip to Donostia/San Sebastián has to include a visit to a Sagardotegi – A Basque Cider House. Traditional houses, dotted all over the hills in the hinterland around San Sebastián open their doors in spring. An invitation for foodie folk to come and enjoy the splendid results from the winter’s fermentation!

Cider

The autumn and winter months allow the juices of last season’s apples to ferment gently. Tanks and Chestnut tuns are used to create this heady brew. Popular for centuries by Basque sailors, its ant-scurvy properties enabled long voyages… Newfoundland, its whales and banks of cod were a mere row across the ocean! The result is a scrumpy-like concoction, full of acids and green flavours. Sour and sweet, fizzy yet flat…. There are many types and commercialisation has not pervaded into the production in the vast majority of thee family-run enterprises. Some now open all-year round, but we at Basque Experiences prefer the local ones. Family-run, friendly, smiles all-round and that warm welcoming feeling, and way better food & service than some of the larger ones!

Larre-gain.com

Larre-gain is a family-run business, located way up in the hills behind Hernani. With views of San Sebastian and the stunning Aiako Herria Natural Park, the location is spectacular. Small scale like I said but well respected! Guardian top 10 Cider Houses say so!

The menu; Salt-cod omelette, Fried Salt Cod, Bone-in steak and walnuts & cheese is classic. Quantities are always perfect, but the quality, and my fellow steak experts were speechless, was 10/10. The steak was superb we have to say! Check the pics! Many samples of cider later and we were part of the crowd! Serving the Cider from the barrels like we were born with apples trees coming out of our ears! What a great laugh!

San Sebastian

Staying for a weekend in one of the small hostels or great hotels in this great town is a perfect city break. Even Bilbao, the larger brother to San Sebastián is only an hour by bus (c.16€) and gives another angle to the Basque Country with more nightlife and variety. Wherever you stay though, the Sagardotegi is a must! As is the Gin ‘n’ Tonic we are so famous for as a digestif!! See you here soon! TXOTX!!!!

  • Cider Barrels
  • San Sebastian
  • Basque Cider House
  • Basque Cider House
  • Basque Experiences