Eating Our Way Through the Basque Country, Northern Spain
A 48 Hour Guide to Some of the Best Food in Northern Spain
The tragedy of a weekend lies in the fact that there's only so much you can physically eat (and drink) over such a short period of time. Tie that truth in with our recent 48-hour-trip to the Basque Country in Northern Spain and you might begin to understand why we had such a hard time coming home (aside from the fact that I could hardly move)… You will not be short on options of where to eat, so to make the decisions a little easier for you, we teamed up with the Spanish and Basque tourism boards to put together some suggestions for a few unmissable restaurants and an incredible culinary experience on a weekend trip to the Basque Country. With all of our suggestions, we recommend you make sure to book ahead to avoid disappointment. But first, a little bit about the food culture in the Basque Country.
The Secrets of Food
There's something magical about food that's inseparable from travel. If you listen carefully enough, food will whisper secrets about a culture, its history and the social values held by the people that prepare and enjoy it. That most certainly rings true in the Basque Country, where so much seems to revolve around a love affair with eating and the appreciation of a good meal. There's a great sense of pride for all that is Basque, and that value is certainly extended to cooking. To miss out on the local cuisine, would be to miss out on the Basque Country experience entirely. So if a few bottles of local wine and the need for late night belly-rubs sound like your game - you may just find yourself (like us) becoming very fond of Basque culture...
Set foot in most any restaurant and you will quickly learn that nothing but the freshest, seasonal ingredients are fundamental to the Basque cuisine. With a long standing maritime history and a deep relationship to the sea, it's no surprise that fresh-caught seafood regularly finds its way into most kitchens throughout the region. Add to that fresh produce from surrounding farms, wild-picked mushrooms from nearby forests, and an abundance of game, free-range meat, butter and cheese; nothing short of creativity will limit the possibilities of a wonderful Basque dish. One thing seems certain; while the Basque kitchen is steeped in tradition, it has flourished with the creative touch of modern cuisine.
If you're planning on eating your way through the Basque Country, be prepared; meals are generally no short ordeal. Around dinner, most restaurants won't even open until around 9:30. Expect to dine for anywhere between two and three hours. Meals are treated as celebrations and quite often, you'll see large groups or families enjoying a sit-down meal out together. If you're pressed for time or would rather have a more active meal try barhopping for Pintxos, where bite-sized specialties are served by the skewer, and wash down excellently with a cold beer (or two)…
Where to eat on a weekend Trip in Basque Country, Spain
Lunch at Basuki
~€50 per person (including wine or cocktail)
Conveniently located near the Guggenheim, Basuki was our first foray into the culinary beauty of Bilbao. Promising a modern twist on traditional Basque gastronomy with freshly sourced local ingredients, we were not disappointed to find hints of Japanese, French and even Peruvian amongst the beautifully presented servings we shared over lunch. Every dish is brimming with flavour as much as it is with creativity. You'll want to share your orders here to get the full experience. Ask for their recommendations, as menus will change according to what's in season. The cocktails are equally colourful and if that's not your thing, fret not - they have a sizeable wine collection as well.
Our highlights included tender pulled duck cannelloni with béchamel sauce and a sprinkle of pine-nuts; Smokey BBQ Iberico with a side of cantarello mushrooms and a picante mojo sauce; White asparagus tips in potato foam with fried boletus mushrooms and a drizzle of truffle oil. These were all part of different set menus which we decided to split and sample.
If you have a sweet-tooth, you will not want to miss out on the desserts at Basuki. (You'll probably be questioning your life choices at this stage, but since you're here to indulge anyway, you might as well tuck in.) The cinnamon kissed French toast with a crunchy caramelised surface is a take on crème-brûlée like none we've ever had before. Also make sure to try their delightful berry cheese cake with a tangy sorbet.
Dinner at Mina
~€85 per person (including paired wines)
Mina, named after the old mine that it was built over sits on a footpath along the Nervión river in the heart of Bilbao. It came highly recommended to me by a friend, so naturally, we had to make it part of our itinerary. It boasts a Michelin Star - something not all too uncommon in the Basque Country. But deservedly so.
Mina places an emphasis on local, fresh and in-season ingredients traditional to Basque cuisine. It seeks to showcase "the very best" of what the local land and sea has to offer, and their friendly staff are very knowledgable about it. Eating at Mina gave me the mini-lesson I needed to better understand so many little elements important to Basque cooking. The interior design is minimalist, but don't let that fool you - the menu is exquisite and offers a creative sensory experience beyond just taste. We would recommend reserving a seat at the "barra" if possible, where you have an unobstructed view of the open kitchen and the chefs at work. The menu changes seasonally and according to what is currently fresh and available at the nearby market. We went with the tasting menu, which focuses on several smaller dishes paired with various wines to give you a well-rounded dining experience.
Mina may not, however, be for everybody. Our impression was that you'll either love it or hate it, and that entirely depends on how open you are to eating some of the more unconventional ingredients and stronger flavours they produce. I absolutely loved the experience (especially because I also got to eat most of Mandy's dishes). As my round belly by the end of the evening can attest to, Mandy didn't enjoy it so much. But don't mind her - she can be horrifically picky with food. She also tends to air on the vegetarian side which, if you haven't picked up yet, you might struggle with in the Basque Country...
My highlights from the menu included fresh clam in smoked paprika soup; squid-ink infused soft cheese with basil and orange; smoked bluefin tuna belly; and lemon sorbet in a salty sea-foam topped with a leaf of crispy seaweed. Mandy asked for a modified menu without seafood and particularly enjoyed the cucumber milk with avocado. I ate the rest.
Lunch at El Portalon
~€45 per person (including wine)
After taking a private tour of the Santa Maria Cathedral in Vitoria and exploring the old town, it was time for (more) food. Despite the fact that we were still full from last night's dinner, we couldn't help but make the best of our short trip and enjoy what little time we had partaking in our favourite cultural activity - eating.
The building itself once served as a 15th century inn. It has an absolutely stunning facade, and the interior is equally beautiful. When we arrived, the restaurant had just opened and was relatively empty. The atmosphere quickly changed, however, and by the time we had received our first course, every room was bustling with large families and groups sitting down to enjoy a meal together. In a classical Basque sense, there was an almost festive atmosphere around eating.
Food at El Portalon has a far more classical feel to it. You won't find any fancy fusion or experimental dishes here, which for us meant that Mandy was more easily pleased. We went with the "Portalín Menu" and were not disappointed.
Our favourites were puff-pastry with asparagus and truffles; seasonal mushrooms with candied yolk; as well as the carpaccio of Cantabrian bonito and marinated salmon. To go with something a little more classic, we followed up with a a main of medium-rare sirloin and for good measure, a bottle of Rioja.
Dinner at The Bost
~€45 per person (including wine)
Right from the start we fell in love with The Bost in Vitoria. It may have even been our overall favourite dining experience on the trip, simply because the food was excellent, the owners were friendly and nothing about the locale felt pretentious. The Bost has a cozy, yet modern atmosphere, and the warm staff will make you feel like you're dining at an old friend's restaurant. To us, it represented the perfect middle-ground of what we had experienced so far with the warmth that typically surrounds meal time in the Basque Country.
We took recommendations from Jon, one of the brothers that owns the restaurant. His recommendations were spot on - He even managed to convince me to eat more than I had originally planned on. I'll admit, it took very little arm twisting. It almost felt like it would have been an insult not to try more of the lovely creations coming from the kitchen. I didn't want to hurt the poor guy's feelings, ya know?
My personal favourite dish was an insanely delicate baked hake with white asparagus tips and a Duck Salad with slivers of foie gras. Mandy loved her seasonal autumn salad with crumbled walnuts, local sheep's cheese (Idiazabal) and green peppers.
We opted to share a traditional Pantxineta (puff pastry) dessert and a chocolate mouse. Feeling ready to burst, I asked what old men drink in the Basque Country to help settle a meal. Patxaran (sloe-liquor) was the answer, to which I kindly obliged.
Pintxos for Lunch
At least, that was the plan... I had my first love-affair with Pintxos in London of all places. So you can imagine my excitement at the prospect of rekindling my fling, and that in the birth-place of all that is Pintxos, San Sebástian. Alas, it wasn't meant to be - an incoming storm sent us rushing back to the airport early and we never got our chance. I will be back my love, I promise.
Pintxos were invented as a mini-version of signature dishes that bars around San Sebastian served. They were a way to allow for thirsty patrons to grab a quick bite rather than sit down for a whole meal. Pintxos are often served on little slices of bread, in mini-bowls or by the skewer. Take what you want from the bar, and then pay by the number of sticks or bowls you have when you finish. For a shortened day before a flight back home, it seems like the ideal way to say goodbye (for now) to an amazing culinary experience, and a weekend I would be more than happy to repeat.
Did you make it to the Basque Country and try any of our experiences? We'd love to hear about it. Let us know in the comments below or shoot us a suggestion of where to go eat next time we're out there.