3 days in Basque Country, Part II

23 Jul

I realized I’m being remiss since I didn’t include any facts about Basque Country in yesterday’s post. So, before I continue on with day 2 and more great food we ate, I’m going to give a very brief history of Basque country. The Basque Country, also known as “Euskadi” in Basque and “País Vasco” in Spanish, has a population of a little over 2 million people. Vitoria-Gasteiz is the capital. Vitoria is in Spanish, Gasteiz is in Basque. Both are official languages. Here are roughly the populations of the 3 major cities we visited: Bilbao: 354,145; Vitoria-Gasteiz: 226,490; and San Sebastián: 183,308.

History of Industry: Traditionally, industrial activities were centered on steel and shipbuilding, mainly due to the rich iron ore resources found during the 19th century around Bilbao. The Estuary of Bilbao was the center of the Basque Country’s industrial revolution during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. These activities decayed during the economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, giving ground for the development of the services sector and new technologies. Today, the strongest industrial sectors of the Basque Country’s economy are machine tool, present in the valleys of Biscay and Gipuzkoa; aeronautics in Vitoria-Gasteiz; and energy in Bilbao.

Okay, onto day 2. Ana picked us up at 9:30 a.m. and we were off on another gorgeous, sunny day, which Borja said is atypical because it’s usually overcast due to it’s proximity to the ocean. We set out north through towns called Ongi Etorri and Mañaria. Our first destination: a 1 year old winery called Hiruzta in the town of Hondarribia. See www.hiruzta.com. Ana’s daughter’s friend, Maya, is the chef at the winery.

After getting lost four times due to bad directions, we finally made it. We got the grand tour and some pintxos to go along with our txacoli – the young white wine that is famous in Basque Country. The picture of the pintxos and txacoli is at top. My most favorite tapa/pintxo since I’ve been in Spain is the one in the glasses on the palillos (sticks). Simply: high quality marinated anchovies wrapped around very good green olives and a pickled pepper called Ibarrako Piparrak found only in Basque country. Here’s a picture of the peppers:

Outstanding!  I could eat those every day!  The winery was very modern, but the grape picking is still done all by hand.  Here’s a picture of a cloud system that moved in swiftly as we were there.  One of the owners called in to tell us to go outside and look, as that’s not unusual there, but we probably wouldn’t see it again.  Cool:

Ana is so sweet. It’s not enough that she drove me around 3 days in a row, showing me the sights for 11 hours each day. She had to buy me gifts, as well. She bought me a cookbook of the Hondabrribia region and a bottle of Txacoli from the winery.

Next, it was on to lunch at a 1 Michelin starred restaurant in Hondarribia, called Alameda. We sat outside on the deck of this very large, old restaurant. Ana had been there a long, long time ago and she had read that they had a new chef, who won the best chef in Basque country award in 2010, I believe. It was another fine meal.

We started out with a lovely little shooter of tomato gazpacho (there are many kinds of gazpacho served in Spain from tomato to almond to red pepper) with some honey-parsley oil on top. The sweetness of the honey was a brilliant addition to the gazpacho. Sometimes I think tomato-based gazpachos can be too acidic, but this one was perfect.

Next up: a crab and apple salad. Good, but I’ve made better. See my recipe in my Nov. 8 blog post entitled, “Days 87-92: Menu project…”

Second course: The infamous 63 degree egg. This one was in a lovely mushroom broth and done just perfectly! The setas (mushrooms) on top were a great textural contrast to the rest of the dish. Yummmmmmm, and my favorite of the meal.

Third course: Hake with a parsley foam. The parsley foam was really boring. It needed a kick of acid and salt to be anything other than a nice decoration. But, the fish was cooked perfectly and all around it was a very successful dish. Here’s a pic:

Meat course: Lamb with oozy mashed potatoes. They were so rich in butter and cream.

Dessert: I opted for the chocolate ganache over the apple tart. Good choice by me.

And, another bottle of txacoli because when in Basque Country….

The owner of Alameda was there and she was this darling 70-something, 4 foot maybe 8 inches tall, petite little thing that looked like she was dressed in Balenciaga from the 60s. She was SUPER adorable. She was witty and charming and super chatty. I think we stayed at the restaurant 1 hour longer after we had finished dessert just to chat with her.

And, of course I liked her because she called me young. I smiled and thanked her and told her my real age and she said something else I didn’t understand, but that I decided to take as a compliment as I was a little tipsy. My new motto: if someone says something about you you don’t understand, you should probably just smile and take it as a compliment. What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll just think I’m dumb and probably forgive me for it. No harm there.

Anyway, Borja loved her so much that later when we were talking about how much fun we had that day and how darling this woman was, Borja declared, “I’ll take two.” I laughed. She is so cute, most of us would take her another one just like her.

So, after stuffing ourselves on yet another fine meal, we walked through the town. Here are a few pics:

Ana and me overlooking France on the other side of the water behind us:

The inside ceiling of a castle that Maya got married in:

Ana and I were chatting away in Spanish and getting along so fabulously that Borja proclaimed, “I don’t even know why I need to come tomorrow.” He was kidding, but I think maybe half serious as I was really into playing tourist and Ana was really into playing tour guide. Ana and I were snapping pictures left and right. I’m not sure Borja was having as much fun as we were. But, he did say that he’d never had a chance to spend so much time with his aunt and it had been since he was very little that he had visited many of the places she took us. The lesson in there: don’t let it take a visitor to your hometown to make time to see your family and places in your home turf that you’ve either never been or not been in 20 years.

It was around 6:30 by the time we left and headed back to Vitoria. We went straight to the jazz festival as I had pre-purchased tickets to one of my favorite jazz artists – Joshua Redman. He’s a saxophonist and if you’ve never heard him, go ahead and download some of his music. If you’re a jazz fan, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. The man can jam.

Here’s a pic of our ticket:

Joshua Redman played with a 3 man band called The Bad Plus. The drummer of this band was one of the best I’ve heard in a long, long time. It’s also worth checking these guys out if you’re a percussionist or a fan of percussion. I also appreciated that the bassist spoke in his best California-Spanish (not perfect, but great attempt!), instead of just in English like all of the other English-speaking bands we’d seen.

Another fantastic day in Basque Country. I want to go back to the jazz festival again next year!

Because this was another rather long post, I’ll continue with Day 3 (Part III) of Basque Country tomorrow.

Buen Provecho!

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