Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Everything Else

I would be remiss if I did not chronicle a bit more of our trip to Basque country.  The food alone is certainly blog-worthy.  The Basque have their own version of tapas, called pinxos (pinchos).  At lunch and dinner time every day, the countertops of all the bars in every town are covered with platters of pinxos.  You wander in, pick up one, two, or three, and enjoy the tasty morsels with a glass of sidre (hard cider), beer, or wine.  Somehow the bartender knows exactly how many you've eaten, even if there are 20 other people standing alongside the bar with you. 
Pinxos in San Sebastian

Pinxos tend to revolve around either fish or pork, which in general are the two most common food categories in the region.  I cannot possibly tell you what is actually on any of them as they are all combinations of tapenades, vegetables, fish, etc.  The first day we ate pinxos for lunch, I said to the bartender, in my best high school Spanish, that we had never eaten pinxos before and we were unsure how to eat them.  What I meant was that I didn't know whether we ordered specific items, or if it was an all-you-can-eat situation, etc. The bartender took it to mean that I was a total idiot, and looked at me with a strange expression on his face as he replied, "Put them in your mouth." 
More pinxos in San Sebastian

The best part about pinxos is just the camraderie and ambiance in the bars.  Don't let the word "bars" make you think this is just for adults - strollers were everywhere. I have never seen so many grandfathers taking care of their grandchildren, and on top of that making sure to enjoy a drink and a pinxo with another grandfather-nanny.  On Sunday afternoon in Bilbao, we stumbled across the Plaza Nueva, a square lined with bars and restaurants serving pinxos and drinks to hundreds of families, 20-somethings, grandparents, and everyone in between.  Many of the bars had hand-printed signs stating, "Hay calamares", explaining that they were also serving hot fried calamari.  This was clearly the most popular dish with the Sunday afternoon crowd judging by the number of people we saw popping calamari bits into their mouths around the plaza.

With its location on the rough Atlantic coast, fish of course plays a huge role in the local cuisine.  On Saturday night, we headed to the seaside town of Getaria for dinner.  After a drink in one of the bars (with two other strollers present, and one pregnant woman drinking beer), we headed to dinner at Elkano.   We didn't realize at the time that some of the most renowned chefs in the world have eaten here and declared it the best fish restaurant in the world. We also didn't realize that it was a pretty fancy place.  Nonetheless, we showed up with our baby and toddler in tow.  Unfazed, the hostess supplied us with a booster seat for Baby Oil - apparently it is commonplace in Spain to bring very young children to very expensive meals! 
Getaria harbor

And then we found out about kokotxas.  Kokotxas, a Basque specialty, is part of the chin or throat of a deep-sea cod called hake.  At Elkano, they offer kokotxas served in multiple ways - lightly battered, grilled, and with "green sauce" (seemed to be garlic and butter).  Rocked. Our. World. And our mouths.  Both of us took one bite, looked at the other and said, "I have never tasted anything like this before."  It was, simply, awesome. 
Kokotxas three ways

The grilled hake was also some of the best fish I have ever, ever eaten.  So fresh, so tasty, so perfectly prepared on the outside grill located on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.  Baby Oil and Mademoiselle were also perfect - though Baby Oil declined to eat anything but bread, and we decided we would forgo caring about his nutritional needs for one night - so we successfully pulled off eating one of the nicest meals we've had in Europe with two small children. 
They are cute small children!!

On the French side of Basque territory, the food is more...French.  We chose to focus on desserts, which are vastly superior in France compared with Spain.  Paries and Adam are probably the two most well-known patisseries in the Pays Basque.  Paries features mouchous, which are a type of macaron with no filling, and kanougas, which are caramels (unclear if anything is actually different or unusual about them).  Adam features one simple macaron - one layer, no flavors save traditional almond.  The Adam macaron is chewier than Parisian macarons but it is seriously delicious.  Both shops offer touron, which is made of honey, sugar, and almond paste.  Frankly we found the tourons too sweet for our tastes, though we tried a few flavors.  Since it was raining for 2 days straight while we were in St Jean de Luz, we decided to spend most of our time eating. 

We also sampled quite a bit of gateau basque, or traditional Basque cake.  Again this features an almond filling - they really have a thing for almonds down there in Basque country - but in a delicious crust, and the traditional kind has cherries in it.  A great gateau basque is excellent.  Our favorite one was from a small bakery in the town of Espelette.  This little town in the foothills of the Pyrenees is most well-known for piment d'Espelette, a specific type of chili pepper used in many Basque dishes.  In Espelette, you can find everything with piment d'Espelette, from cheese to chocolate and anything else you might want.
Sheep's milk cheese with piment d'Espelette, in Espelette

In addition to the food, I should also briefly mention the bright and beautiful world of Basque textiles.

Ubiquitous throughout the region, ranging from cheap touristy items to upscale fabrics, you can find towels, tablecloths, robes, napkins, bags, portfolios, and much more in these lovely patterns.  Our favorite shops included Artiga, Tissage de Luz, and Euskal Linge

While the beret is a worldwide symbol of France that you never actually see in Paris, it turns out that the beret is a Basque symbol of victory in the world of Basque rural sports.  We almost bought a Basque beret for Baby Oil but instead just took this photo.

Despite some feelings of loyalty toward France, I have to say that the Spanish side of the Basque region felt significantly more Basque. The French side felt more like France with a Basque veneer, and better desserts.  I am truly glad we decided to explore this part of Europe, even if we ended the week declaring that we would never go on vacation again with small children.  Which is why we are headed to Scotland in two weeks.