Sunday 27 June 2010

food from the basque country

San Sebastian harbour

In early June, Jonas and I spent 6 days in Bilbao and San Sebastian, the two major cities of Spain’s Basque Country (Euskadi in Basque and País Vasco in Spanish).

This is an area laden with Michelin star venues, including Arzak.

Fiercely independent, and speaking an ancient language from before Indo-European arrival (7000 BCE), their food is focused on seafood and dominated by pintxos (tapas).

Txikito is the act of pintxo bar hopping and a cuadrilla is the squadron of revellers on a pub crawl. We certainly saw those!

Pintxos are a great way to eat. They are small bite-sized samples of local flavours and allow you to wander from bar to bar, drinking and eating for hours.

In fact, during our time in Spain we never got drunk or hung over. We drank as much as we would at home but the constant grazing meant perfect sobriety and a healthy morning after. It was great!

The only problem is that, although the prices and quality of the pintxos vary, they are pretty much the same formula at each bar. There’s a lot of bread, cream, seafood and specifically anchovies.

A typical pintxos bar

I loved the pintxos, but be warned they’re delicious at the beginning but might become a bit tiring after a few days. Be sure to break up your meals with some of main dishes of the region too.

A typical pintxo of sliced bread topped with seafood goodness (in this case boquerones, tartar sauce and caviar).

Piquillo peppers stuffed with morcilla (blood sausage) and topped with bacon.

These little txangurro tarts (spider crab) are quite a common pintxo option around San Sebastian, flavoured with a little piquillo peppers.

The Guggenheim in Bilbao

Txakoli is a very green, very dry, slightly sparkling white wine made in the three local areas of Arabako, Bizkaiko and Getariako. The wine is drunk within a year of bottling and its poured from a height to allow aeration and increase the frothiness. It has a very crisp, acidic, young flavour and goes well with seafood.

A plate of smoked fish: cod, anchovy and salmon.

Gulas, or elvers, are tiny baby eels. Unlike earthy regular eels, gulas are smooth and squid-like with a lovely clean flavour.

Al fresco dining in Bilbao's Plaza Nueva

Txangurro (spider crab) meat sits on boiled eggs and is topped with Idiazabal, a local sheep cheese.

These peppers come from Gernika and are very similar to their cousins from Padrón (Galicia), only a bit bigger.

The kalimotxo is a strange drink: half cola, half red wine. It sounds terrible but on a hot San Sebastian beach it’s a quick-fix sangria.

San Sebastian’s busy Playa de la Concha

Piquillos are spicy, sweet peppers stuffed with txangurro (spider crab) meat.

Txipirones en su Tinta are little squids with their legs removed and stuffed inside them, then cooked in a sauce made from their ink. Delicious!

Amazing deep fried balls of molten cheese and chilli.

The busy marina in San Sebastian's harbour

Basque apple cider is served in sagardotegi (cider houses) all over the Basque region, with quite a few in the hills around San Sebastian. It tastes similar to non-sweetened alcoholic apple cider found in other countries, like Germany and Switzerland.

Bacalao (salt cod) is grilled under cheese in a gratinade style pintxo.

Unfortunately there were a few things I missed out on:
• Lunch at the world famous grill house, Asador Extebarri, in Axpe
• Seafood at one of Getaria’s famous restaurants
Kokotxas – hake cheeks
Marmitako – tuna stew
Bacalao al Pil-Pil – garlic cod
Bacalao a la Vizcaina – cod in red pepper (capsicum) sauce
Merluza en Salsa Verde – hake in parsley sauce

Bilbao's main bridge

So what are my top picks for the Basque Country's two major cities?


El Globo
Calle de la Diputación, 8
Located in the centre of town and packed out with business people chowing down on delicious pintxos.

Calle Santa María, 8
Small, funky bar serving basic pinxtos to a grungy, rock vibe.

Casa Víctor Montes
Plaza Nueva, 8
Fantastic lively pinxtos venue with friendly staff and celebratory atmosphere. Great food.

View Bilbao, Spain in a larger map


Arzak (Anna's review)
Avenida del Alcalde José Elosegi, 273
Amazing three Michelin star experience.

A Fuego Negro (Anna's review)
Calle 31 De Agosto, 31
Something a little inventive and unique. An excellent break from traditional pintxos.

Konstituzio Plaza, 15
Great traditional pintxos with particularly good meat skewers and seating in the square.

Casa Tiburcio
Calle de Fermín Calbetón, 40
Packed with local people delivering an authentic charm. A few of the rarer regional specialities are on the menu.

View San Sebastian, Spain in a larger map

Other posts from our Spain trip:
Arzak, three Michelin star restaurant
A Fuego Negro, San Sebastian pinxtos bar
Feasting in Galicia


  1. I've heard such good things about the food in that part of Spain and it looks like it was all true! It all looks sooo good. Thanks for putting the recommendations - I'll be looking them up when I finally make it myself.

  2. my best friend here is from the basque country, i am gutted i never made it there and from singapore, it's looking more and more unlikely! she has introduced me to the joys of homemade pintxos, though, and there are even a few pintxos bars that have cropped up in london!

  3. Wow, I love this post! Those baby eels on the bread look crazy! We spent time in Spain and have fond memories of the tapas. You have some really cool one listed here - a great reference blog post! Beautiful!


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