If ever there was a heaven on earth, I would have to say that it is nestled in the mountainous region between France and Spain. I have travelled quite a bit in my life so far and have only come across one place that has the three pillars of happiness: great food, surf and happy people. The Basque Country has all three of these and is, on the whole, happy to share them with the world.
Upon arriving in the Basque Country I was overcome with a feeling for the first time in my life, that I was in the place where I was meant to spend the rest of my days. I was lucky enough to live in Parte Vieja (the old part) or the Old Town. This pedestrian only haven which juts out into the Bay of Biscay is packed full of pintxo bars, wine bars and churches. For a foodie, there is no greater piece of land on this earth.
The view of San Sebastian from Mount Urgeldo
While living in San Sebastian, I surfed every day and would often spend my afternoons strolling from bar to bar with friends, sampling their daily offerings of food while we drank wine from Rioja or from over the French border. A typical afternoon would often stretch out into the early hours of the next morning after one of the bar owners would open his cellar to his regular patrons. The pintxo bars and restaurants in the old town ranged from the artistic Fuegro Negro to the traditional Narikas, where the old Basque lady would serve wine all day while enjoying a tipple herself. This lady fell in love with my Mexican friend, but that is a story for another day.
Magret (duck breast) served on a bed of pureed prunes (photo courtesy of http://www.tripadvisor.com)
Txakoli (local sparkling wine) in the town square: an easy way to spend an afternoon
The Mejillonera serves only mussels. They were cooked by the hundreds in four different ways and the long bar was forever crammed full of locals and tourists alike. Paco Bueno was a bar that specialised in Tempura gambas (prawns). Sounds simple, but the batter was so light that it would melt in your mouth. In the Basque tradition, the tails were discarded on the floor at the base of the bar. In the peak of the tourist season, the pile of tails is ankle deep.
Gambas at Paco Bueno was a favourite of mine
Basatxerri (wild boar) served on a bed of guacamole (photo courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/AtariGastroteka)
Guindellas with anchovies, pan (bread) and a bloody mary is the perfect hangover cure (photo courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/AtariGastroteka)
The art of taking yourself on a Pintxo tour is something that takes many months of refining. It is important to learn which drink goes with what Pintxo. It is equally important to not overeat. The perfect tour takes into account the few minutes it takes to make your way to the next bar. By the time you get there, you should be hungry again and also ready for another glass of wine.
Bar Nestor was another favourite of mine. The bar was opened in 1980 by the charismatic Nestor and his brother Tito. Various members of the family serve drinks to the salivating customers while Tito finely slices the cured meats and chorizo and Nestor slaves over the coal fired barbecue cooking what can only be explained as a carnivores delight. For me, and many others, Bar Nestor serves the best Txuleta, pronounced chu-leta, (steak) in town. The cuts are taken from the high loin and are approximately an inch to an inch and half thick. Once you order, Nestor brings out your Tomates (Basque tomatoes roughly chopped and covered in olive oil and sea salt) and Guindillas (grilled peppers in olive oil and sea salt). He then comes out and presents you with your raw Txuleta that you can give the thumbs up to or politely request another. The key to picking a good Txuleta is finding one that contains a moderate marbelling throughout so that the fat melts through the meat when cooked.
When your stomach has been satisfied and needs time to process the hours of work it has just undertaken, it is time to head to Atari Gastroteka. The owner, a crazy Basque named Asier, will have the lights down and the wine flowing. More often than not, I was persuaded to order the house specialty Crème Bruleè is served with a scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream placed delicately under the caramelised lid.
Pintxos at Atari. Bell pepper stuffed with tuna and Jamon Serrano bocadillos
Local cider which is poured from a height to allow the it to airate, causing the flavour to burst from the glass
Bar Nestor. Feeding those lucky enough to eat there since 1980
The man himself: Nestor with my fiance and my inlaws
The pride of the Basque people to maintain their traditions are evident in their food. The flavour combinations have been perfected over the centuries and their close proximity and relationship to both the land and sea means that the produce is always fresh. The Basques celebrate food like a religion. It brings the family together, gives old men an excuse to celebrate the past and it is a big part of the reason that a small piece of the Basque Country will forever remain with me.
Typical Basque farmhouse sitting at the base of the Pyrenees
The famous Wind Combs
Basque Cider House. If you are in the Basque Country, do not miss out on this experience! For a reasonable price, you get an amazing meal and unlimited access to the giant barrels of cider
Cider shooting from the barrel at the Cider House
I was given the chance to cook for my friends at one of Donosti’s famous Gastronomic societies. A privilege usually reserved for members. I accepted without hesitation!