A recent trip to the Basque region in Northern Spain showcased why this part of the world is at the top of the list for international culinary delights. It a gorgeous place with warm temperatures and beautiful beaches but the real draw to this part of the world is the food. Here are my top 5 reasons why anyone with taste buds should plan a trip immediately.
- Ham. It’s everywhere. Greasy, succulent and all you could want from a pig is hanging from the ceiling in a store on nearly every corner of Northern Spain. I’m from North Carolina and love my Eastern Style BBQ but we have nothing on Jamón ibérico. Our first night in Bilbao, my friends and I ordered a plate of ibérico ham as a starter. It came with some crackers that you could roll your ham around to eat. No one needed those crackers (though they too were delicious). The ham stood out on its own and raised the bar from what we should expect during our week in Spain.
- Pintxos. I was looking everywhere for tapas it the Basque region, this sytle of eating small bites is called pintxos, or pinchos. The word apparently comes from the Spanish verb “to pierce” which makes sense because many times these yummy and often quite decadent “bites” were held together with a toothpick. You go into a cafe, tripping over your feet because your eyes are immediately drawn to a bar filled with colorful, tempting treats. After looking it up online, we learned the right way to eat Pintxos is to first ask for a plate. The “pintxos bartender” will either give you a plate to fill yourself or fill the plate with whatever you’d like. Either way is dangerous because you want it all. And you never tire of wanting it all. I put my public health career aside and dove right in. I think in three days in San Sebastian we must have stopped for pintxos at least twice a day.
- Stars. There are nearly 40 Michelin Star restaurants in the Basque country. San Sebastian in particular is overrun with them and thank goodness for us, we were able to get a table last minute at Mirador de Ulía. The restaurant is on a hill, very high above the town. A picturesque setting for a proposal (we saw one) and delicious food. From amuse-bouche to desert, I revealed in the delights including a lobster cappuccino (see picture – served with grapefruit); beef tenderloin with leeks; and a desert with chocolate on chocolate. Our second Michelin stop was at Auga in Gijon. First, the plates were impressive. Food was served on what appeared to be slabs of stone, which added to the creativity of the menu. Here seafood was the centerpiece for my meal. I adored the Galician Scallop, with Cauliflower Purée, Celery and Seaweed. One was not enough but I was quickly satisfied by my fish, a line-caught Hake embellished with “Potato Soup”, Citrus and Cardamom. Other dinner highlights were “Gran Reserva Iberian Acorn-fed Ham” and the most succulent suckling pig any of us had ever tasted. Kudos to Michelin for continuing to raise the bar on gastronomy dining experiences!
- Cider or Sidra. Humor me. The Cider in Northern Spain is unique, especially in Asturias. In fact, it is said to be the best cider in Europe. It is unique in how it is served – poured from as high as a waiter can extend their arm, and into a glass below. Only a small amount is poured at a time – just enough for a sip. This is the way you drink (and drink, and drink) cider in Asturias. At one restaurant in Gijon, we ordered cider with a quite creative dispenser that emulated a man pouring it for you at your table (see photo). The pouring from high up is truly an art and there are even competitions in the region.
- Ham. I’m serious about the ham. And you will be too as soon as you have your first taste in the Basque Region.
In the time it took you to read this blog, you could go online and book your flight. Your taste buds will thank you.