13 Jun June Food Travel – Chef Greg Martin’s Basque Country Culinary Tour
Currently the world’s culinary epicenter with over 21 Michelin stars, the Basque country in north eastern Spain is a dizzying combination of scenic ocean vistas and steep mountain ranges giving way to the rolling hills of wine regions to the south.
Home to the proud Basque people, this region embraces the best of local seafood and produce. Their reverence for local resources including lamb and pork is demonstrated in the vast array of dishes that elevate their simple components to remarkable heights. Basque cuisine is certainly on foodie’s radars.
My main goal for visiting the region was to take in the sights, sample great food including their famed pintxos (plus learning how to make them), visit a couple of fine restaurants and head south into the wine region of La Rioja to visit a couple of wineries whose wines we feature at Bistro Menil.
Getting there and where to stay
We took a bit of a round about route to our home base in San Sebastian (Donostia). Our intention was to tour our way from Madrid via rental car to the Basque country, stopping where the mood struck. Because of rain delays out of Houston we lost some time and ended up making a straight line to San Sebastian in order to settle into our rented apartment in the Centro city area. The central location meant we were just steps from the best places for pintxos.
We used feelfreerentals.com to secure a nice 6th floor apartment with a great patio overlooking the city. I highly recommend their services plus they took care of the necessary detail of securing a parking spot for our car.
San Sebastian highlights:
San Sebastian is the is the most famous tourist destination in Spain and looking at the the city encircling La Concha Bay, it is easy to see why. It is lively in a casual way with an abundance of things to do. It happens to be the European Capital of Culture for 2016.
Be sure to walk along the long promenade to take in the ocean view, visit the old town area for markets and shopping, then rest up for a night of pintxos. We certainly had a great time, but here were our highlights:
Dinner at Casa Urola
Not bad for our first night in town, Casa Urola was a taste of things to come. Fresh local ingredients prepared with care and served with the highest of standards, we greatly approved. Not to mention that downstairs this restaurant served some of the best pintxos in town.
Tenador Cooking Class and Pintxos Tour
I was really keen to find a cooking class in San Sebastian where I could learn to make new pintxos and work with their local ingredients. Perhaps gain a bit of inspiration for Bistro Menil’s happy hour menu. I was fortunate enough to find a great operation, Tenador Tours that provided two fantastic experiences.
Our cooking class included a tour of the local markets and great information on the ingredients. The founder of Tenador Tours, Gabriella Ranelli met us at our apartment door and guided us through the best markets and shops (including those for Jamon and cheeses) as we collected the ingredients for our class. She is an American expat, a well known and respected ambassador for Basque cuisine, teaches at the Basque Culinary Center and happens to have a master’s degree in viticulture and oenology. It is no wonder that she is such a sought out resource on Basque Cuisine and wine by some of the most recognizable media outlets in the world.
After gathering the ingredients, we headed to Gabriella’s cooking studio to begin cooking. We met her assistant Katherine, a lovely young lady originally from Georgia, with a great knowledge of cooking and Basque cuisine from her years of living there and her work in well known local restaurants.
Both ladies were very engaging and provided such a relaxed atmosphere, it was a real pleasure to cook and learn some from them, not to mention sample so many delicious wines. We prepared a multitude of pintxos, a tasty pork entree and a local dessert that was outstanding. They regaled us with local restaurant insights and really provided a great culinary experience for us in addition to being a wealth of information concerning the region.
That evening, Katherine met up with us at our apartment door for a separate pintxos tour and lead us to her favorite establishments for pintxos near our apartment. Gabriella joined us in the old town section and helped direct us to more pintxos. It was so great to have this curated experience. I would greatly recommend Tenador Tours and was so pleased with the great experiences, I would do them both again in a heart beat. Gabriella and Katherine even provided us with a list of their favorite restaurants and asked us to contact them with any questions or help, so great! See below for a list of visited establishments during our trip.
As great as San Sebastian is, there were plenty of places within quick driving distance to enjoy. Here are the best of the best:
Quick visit to the Guggenheim Bilbao
The building is impressive no doubt. The museum seems to anchor the entire city and with the permanent collection’s vastness, you can’t be in the area and not stop off for a visit. I was able to see Andy Worhol’s “Shadows” again and even stopped by for lunch at the museum bistro. It was kind of fun to compare Bistro Menil with the museum’s eatery. See the photo below and the expressive wall treatment–reminded me of a Jackson Pollock painting.
Rioja Wine tours sandwiching Michelin star rated restaurant:
We made our way down to Haro to visit Bodegas Muga and had a great tour followed by a private wine tasting with Carmen, a Muga represenative. We were able to sample a lovely cava that I hope to bring to Bistro Menil along with some truly spectacular reds. This is a must visit if you are in the area, their reverence for traditional wine making techniques and attention to detail is remarkable. I really enjoyed seeing their production of wine barrels.
Making our way south east to the sleepy village of Daroca de Rioja with a population of 57 we arrived at Venta Moncalvillo, a one Michelin star restaurant truly in the middle of nowhere. With an imaginative menu featuring regional dishes often transformed into other things, this unique restaurant has gathered raves from across the globe. We were the only customers for a Monday lunch for a good two hours before other customers arrived. After a four hour tasting lunch, each course paired with a generous glass of wine, we were ready for a siesta. It was truly one of the best meals I’ve had in Spain. The starter and dessert pictured below were particularly imaginative and tasty.
Fighting our postprandal sleepiness, we headed east to the village of Aldeanueva de Ebro to visit bodegas Vina Herminia. We were fortunate enough to be given a private tour of the winery by the vintner. Our hosts were so kind to wait for us even though we were tardy after our long lunch and even provided us with barrel samples of upcoming wines. They generously gifted us with two bottles of extraordinary red wine as we left. Such great wines and friendly representatives of the winery.
I can say that the Basque Country is a destination not to be missed by the foodie that appreciates natural beauty, a relaxed pace of life and simple food made extraordinary. I’m ready to go again.
San Sebastian pintxos:
Bar Antonio–tortilla, pulpo, txipiron, rabo de buey
Bodega Donostiarra- completo
Martinez- pimiento relleno de salsa Tartara
Txuleta-txuleta a la parilla
Ganbara- hojaldre de setas
Casa Urola- txipirones de “potera” a la parilla con crema, anything really!
Borda Berri- braised lamb