Sunday, April 29, 2012

Eating and Drinking Our Way Through the Basque Country

Just to give you an idea of why a post about the Basque Country's highlights would inevitably have this title: 

San Sebastian (Donastia) is said to have the most Michelin stars per capita of any city in the world.

La Rioja won the prize from Wine Enthusiast in 2008 for being the "best wine producing region".

"Foodies" travel to this area like religious pilgrims to the holy land.

So, naturally some of the top highlights of our recent trip to Basque Country are food and drink-related.  These experiences were not only tasty, however, but an immersion in the culture and window in to what makes this area, the people and traditions so intriguing.  Here are my favorites:

Private Wine Tour in Rioja (highlight: Bodegas Launa)
We started with one of the larger wineries, but our guide promised us something unique at the second stop and it did not disappoint.  We were greeted by the wine maker and spent a couple hours with him.  It was not only educational but inspiring, to feel how passionate he was about his business.  What a gift (and maybe a curse at times) to love something so much that you want to work night and day and ensure all the details are done correctly.  This is a family with a long-history in wine, but with a new generation combining the old traditions with the benefits of technology...and producing some award-winning wines.

At the same time, we learned a lot about the area, from past history of how this became a great wine making region to more current developments.  Not long ago, this was one of those wine making areas where you didn't really visit wineries, whereas today you have high-end architectural wonders meant to attract visitors (a la Gehry designed Riscal or the Calatrava's Ysios).  We enjoyed seeing those buildings as we drove around the area, but I have no doubt that the true treasures are the small wineries and personal experiences like we had.  After a couple experiences with small winery tours like this, we have come to appreciate what a great way this is to get to know locals, meet passionate entrepreneurs and learn about an area--even a worthwhile experience if you aren't a wine-lover.

We learned a lot about the wine control board/inspectors and you might enjoy reading more about Rioja's wine control board/quality control.

Petritegi Tolare Sagardotegia (Sidreria in Astigarraga, outside of San Sebastian)
I was reviewing an iPhone app about Basque Culture and Cuisine during this trip and got this recommendation from the guide.  This is more than dinner and some cider--it's an event. You eat a large meal over the course of the evening, while meandering back amongst the large casks of cider to taste the different varieties.  A big group forms, hanging out back by the barrels, tasting, talking and enjoying.  There's a whole technique to holding your glass under the stream and lining up with the others.  The meal is a traditional fixed menu...and enough food to easily absorb all the cider.  Your bread is placed right on the table and the plates are served communal style.  I loved the cod tortilla and the chuleton was not only a massive slab of beef, but a delicious one.

Basque Gastronomic Society (Txoko) experience
I saved the best for last-this is really a not-to-be-missed experience!  We rejoined our same guide for this experience in San Sebastian, which made it even nicer as we had gotten to know him during our Rioja tour. He gave us a brief tour of the city and its history as we walked to the market.  We toured through the market, picking out some extra items to make during our experience.  We decided on some of the local white asparagus that was just coming in to season, a small selection of anchovies to make a special dish and a little jamon iberico for good measure.  Our guide told us part of the fun of the gastro society is the camaraderie while cooking--enjoying snacks leading up to the meal, tasting, talking with others who are there about what you are making, etc.

We got to work with the gastro society's chef, who has cooked in many top kitchens.  He was a great instructor, making the experience fun while imparting some valuable tidbits.  I walked away with a much greater appreciation for how "the little details are the difference between good food and a great meal".  We were especially excited to make a rice dish, being so enamored of all the arroces in Valencia.  A couple "tricks" in particular helped us to discover what we had been missing when trying to reproduce them in our kitchen.  All the dishes were relatively simple, but high quality ingredients and flavors, along with those "details" made them outstanding.  We learned more about the society and shared some cross cultural discovery over our meal (our guide was amazed/amused over beverage carts on golf courses in the U.S. and perhaps horrified at our story of the expose of "fake grouper" being passed off as real in Florida restaurants).  We got to share in the camaraderie while cooking and eating our meal, both with our chef and guide as well as some of the other members there that day.  We were gifted some cigalas to add to our rice, a taste of cider and some jokes from a couple of the men preparing a business lunch that day.

The Basque Country delights all the senses (and I'll share more about the other ones next time).   My most pleasing discovery about Spain has been that there is always more to explore in this diverse country.  Driving up from Valencia, we were truly transported to another country...geographically, linguistically and culturally.  I will need a lot more time in Basque Country to begin to explore all it has to offer, but I'm thankful for these special experiences that gave me a bit of a glimpse in to the locals' perspective.

A special thanks to Clara at Madrid & Beyond for putting together a great trip for us and Inaki Rubio for two delightful days discovering Rioja and San Sebastian.

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