Basque Country | Pintxos crawl

Kids all ready for their foodie adventure

Kids all ready for their foodie adventure

We love red eye flights and we love road trips! Weird it may seem, but it is the most optimised. On arriving Barcelona early in the morning, we took the car, and headed straight on the road towards San Sebastian. Holidays are bonding time together as a family with the kiddos. We always discover little things about our children, their little nuances and their changing habits too. We get to learn songs they have learnt in school and games they play with each other. This is something we are thankful and would cherish these precious time we have with them.

Our first pit stop was to buy gorgeous red cherries from a farm-stand on the roadside. 3.5 euros per kg was a real bargain! They were really sweet too.

Souper happy Isabella with her cherries

Souper happy Isabella with her cherries. This big box for 3.5!

Huesca, Aragon , Spain

Towering mountains of Murillo de Gallego and white waters for rafting and canoeing

Rolling hills of Aragon country

Acres and acres of rolling hills as far as the eye could see framed with the Pyrenees in the background. Picturesque!

San Sebastian

It was onwards journey to San Sebastian travelling through mountain ranges engulfed by clouds. We had another 250km to cover. We passed acres and acres of farmlands, slowly making our way to the coastal city. San Sebastian or Donostia as it is known in Basque language, lies on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, only 20km from the French border. It has a medieval old town nearest the sea with an expansive sandy beach shaped like a shell hence its name, Playa de La Concha. It is one the top 10 beaches in Europe and has been given the nickname the Monte Carlo of Spain. In the summer months, San Sebastian becomes the most expensive city in Spain when droves of French tourist descend.  Inspired by French nouvelle cuisine, San Sebastian has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other city in the world. Iconic restaurants with Michelin stars are perhaps not my cup of tea especially with 2 kiddos in tow.

Is there a difference between pintxos and tapas? Technically no! Depends on which part of Spain you come from. Pintxos is basque language for tapas which is a pinch of food. So most of the time, it is used interchangeably.  In San Sebastian, excellent food and souperb quality pintxos  (Basque for tapas) are available all over the city particularly in the old town, La Parte Vieja. Although the roots of tapas are in Andalucia, many will agree that it is San Sebastian that has perfected it.

San Sebastian, Spain

In La Parte Vieja (the old town), there were really a lot of people. This was at 8pm and you can see how bright the sky was!

We got into town at 8pm with 2 sleepy kids in tow. It was Saturday and there seems to be a celebration going on with lots of singing and dancing so the streets were packed with people. The hope of doing the pintxos bar crawl became really slim as there was no way we could squeeze into most of the bars that were on my to eat list! We did however managed to get a table outside at La Cuchara de San Telmo, coincidentally the most famous and busiest of pintxo bars serving made to order modern creative dishes.

La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle 31 de Agosto, 28, San Sebastian)

We shared a couple of small plates and a table with an American mother and daughter on holiday. These small plates are actually appetizers or first course sizes. Hence prices were double that when standing at the bar. The food here was really good, on hindsight, indeed a cut above most places we went in Spain. The portions for appetizers were huge as below. No wonder the queues here are so long and practically impossible to even squeeze in. Service was really prompt and one of the waiters could speak English. Phew! The food was priced very reasonably for the quality that we were getting. Highly recommended. Our only gripe was we were too full and would have loved to try all more dishes.

La Cuchara de San Telmo

There was no way we could have squeezed ourselves in especially with the kids.

My favourite for the night: roasted confit of cod with tzatziki.

My favourite for the night: roasted confit of cod with tzatziki. Beautifully executed although perhaps a little salty but when eaten with bread it was perfect, The cod confit was exactly how it should be, flaky, tender with a crisp skin. The tzatziki on fish was an awesome pairing. 9 euros

Roasted pumpkin rositto with sautted cuttlefish and basil oil ( pesto).

Roasted pumpkin risotto with sauteed cuttlefish and basil oil (pesto). I must say I find this soupy rice dish very interesting. The rice was unlike that of risotto, the grains were still pretty firm and had this bite to it, almost felt like eating orzo pasta. Now to come to think about it, maybe this was labelled wrongly! Loved the flavours of pumpkin with the cuttlefish. The basil oil however made everything a little oily and salty but generally I loved this dish. 7 euros

Salamanca suckling pig slow roasted with beer, creamy mash potato and lemongrass.

Salamanca suckling pig slow roasted with beer, creamy mash potato and lemongrass. This was an interesting combination. Another dish well done. The pork was crispy and there was the hint of lemongrass in the mash that made it not boring and the flavours all came together nicely.  10 euros

Pan fried Montford foie gras with honey, mustard and orange peel

Heart-stopping good Montford foie gras pan fried with honey, mustard and orange peel. The combination of the honey with mustard in contrast with the crispy exterior and the melt in your mouth texture was just awesome. For a moment, guilt can wait. 10 euros

Veal cheeks stewed in red wine with chickpea hummus

Veal cheeks stewed in red wine and chickpea hummus has to be the the bomb. Isabella’ favourite for the night. The meat was really tender, it practically melted away! 8 euros. This was a steal!

San Sebastian at night

La Concha, San Sebastian

The waters in the bay at the La Concha was so calm. It was just so beautiful out here

Along La Concha beach at night

La Concha beach at night. There are many hotels along the beach. Most of them are pretty expensive and I could imagine in the peak summer months, they would be full occupancy .

Zabala Kafeak (can’t seem to find the address for now, suppose Google or yelp should be able to help)

While San Sebastian residents were still having a sleep in on Sunday, we had a walk around Parte Vieja (Old Town) and finally stopping for breakfast outside this cafe that had a really long queue. I suppose if there is a queue, it could only mean 2 things, souper good food or souper slow and inefficient. It turned out this place makes souper yummy pastries and has 2 souper efficient staff, making tomato bread, taking customers’ orders, making coffee, collecting money and clearing tables!

Pastries at Zabala Kafeak

Yummy pastries at Zabala Kafeak with 2 souper hard working ladies behind the counter! They have donuts small and large. Interestingly, the Spanish eats soft buns that are sweet and filled with some sort of custard.

Breakfast at Zabala Kafeak

Our scrumptious breakfast. The kids could not wait to dig in. Everything was really fresh. Chocolate and custard are the fillings for everything here. Almonds being the 2nd most grown crop after oranges is widely used in confectionary and all kinds of sweet stuff. With a freshly squeezed orange juice and a cafe con leche, the breakfast costed us 6.7 euros.

We walked around a bit, spent some time lazing around the beach area which was perfect when on holiday. The beach was starting to get crowded by the hour with more and more beach goers coming out to enjoy the sun. But I believe it is not officially tourist season yet.

La Concha beach, San Sebastian

San Sebastian reminded me of Positano in Italy, the place where we would board the ferry or catemaran to Capri island. But this was prettier in my opinion as the beach here has pristine white sands and clear blue sheltered waters.

La Concha, San Sebastian

Indeed a lovely day to be out on the beach. An interesting fact: the night before, when we were having a stroll back to our car, the whole sandy beach was submerged in sea water. Practically, the water came right up to the promenade. But when the tide subsided, one can see the shell shape beach really clearly.

Pintxos Crawl (a must!)

Jamon Iberico at a pintxos bar

The Jamon Iberico usually seen hanging from the ceiling in whole leg portions is ubiquitous, and equally good virtually everywhere. (Bar Le Cepa)

The way to eat pintxos (tapas in the Basque Country  pronounced as pinchos) in San Sebastian is quite different from other cities in Spain. These small savoury canapes are presented in a myriad of colours, forms, and flavour combinations, laid out in giant platters and spread along the bar counters. Twice a day, hundreds of folks will pour into the streets for a traditional pintxos crawl. The trick is to take one or two, have a beer or wine and then move on to the next bar, tasting, drinking and socialising. There are two kinds of tapas: cold and hot ones. Typically, each bar will specialise in one or two pintxos . Each pintxo cost about 2 to 4 euros. A word of caution as I have read on Google, don’t attempt to eat every good looking pintxo at each location, the cost would stack up pretty quickly. Every bar would offer a delicious spread of pintxos to tempt you!

I had some research done as to how the crawl works and how to order before embarking on one. It can be quite intimidating to go into a bar and couldn’t speak a word of Spanish except Hola and Gracias!  It is a very trusting system and the bartenders have a souperb memory. You are given a plate, pick your pintxos and order your drink. A glass of wine ranges from 1.5 euros to 3 euros. Cold ones are displayed on the bar. Hot ones must be ordered from the barman and it is either cooked to order or with heated up using the microwave!  There is always a hot tapas menu hanging from the wall. Not being able to speak Spanish, no worries! We just pointed to the bar man when we see something we like coming out of the kitchen and he will get it ordered for us! Food is the universal language, totally agree!

Inside a pintxos bar

The hot stuff is usually ordered by pointing to the chalkboard hanging on the wall. Most people just hang around the bar. Pretty casual setting. Photo taken at Taberna Gandrias. This place if you notice in the background, has wine dispensing machines.

When you are done eating your tapas and have finished your drink you would ask the barman for the bill, and you have to tell him what you have eaten. It is very important to be honest, and not abuse this long history of tradition. Traditionally, residents would have one or two pintxos in the early evening to stave off any hunger before a later sit-down meal, rather than making a meal out of a large number of pintxos. Wine options I am really not too sure. They don’t really have a wine list. Typically, you just have to tell the barman whether you prefer red or white or sangria or beer. Spanish wines are all pretty decent, so no worries about having something you cannot stomach.

In Spain, everyone eats really late. Lunch starts at anytime after 1pm and most people would have their lunch at 2pm. So a word of advice, is to get in early at say 12 pm and start the pintxos crawl and by the time the crowd starts coming in, lunch is ticked off the list for the day. This was exactly what we did in San Sebastian.

Most of the pintxos bars are to be found in the old town particularly along the street Calle 31 de Agosto between Bar La Vina and A Fuego Nero. We had the opportunity to visit 3 pintxos bar. We were just too greedy and too hungry and broke the rule at the first bar we visited.

Taberna Gandarias

Situated along Called 31 de Agosto, this jatetxea was our first stop. Specialising in Iberian hams and meats as well as other more traditional style pintxos, we tried a few of their cold and hot pintxos and we ordered the txakoli (pronounced chak-o-lee) – a slightly sparkling dry Basque white wine. The wine bottle is held from a height, creating an impressive two foot stream into a tall glass. This helps to aerate the wine, creating more bubbles. We could not capture a picture as the bar was getting busy and he was too efficient.

Taberna Gandarias, San Sebastian

Taberna Gandarias. It was such a contrast from the night before as it was not crowded yet.

A sample of pintxos

The pintxos here are definitely good looking and well presented. They have all the usual suspects with the seafood items but the ones we picked out, felt the most special. All served on really fresh baguette slices. Top: Tempura style cod fish with padron (green pepper), caramelised onions with smoked duck slice and berry and finally morcillas (black pudding with rice) with pimento and a sunny side quail egg.

Hot pintxos

This was from the hot selection from the wall. We ordered this when we saw someone having it and just pointed it to the barman. Freshly grilled squid on a skewer with squid ink.

Pintxo de solomillo

On the plate: grilled sirloin steak with green pepper and seas salt. Actually, we wanted to order the steak on skewers but due to communication breakdown we got this instead. Still good!

Bar Le Cepa

We then moved on to Bar Le Cepa (Calle 31 de Agosto). From online blogs, i have read that their hongos a la plancha (grilled mushrooms) is supposedly the house special, made with meaty grilled wild mushrooms, sea salt and topped with egg yolk. Unfortunately, it was sold out !

Bar La Cepa

The counter at Bar La Cepa is filled with cold pintxos at the front. As you can see, this being at only 12 30 pm, there really was not many customers.

Patatas fritas con huevos fritos with jamon

Patatas fritas con huevos fritos with jamon . We ordered this for the kids. Isabella is a big fan of jamon. The egg was fried lovely in olive oil.

Cold pintxos at Bar Le Cepa

We were good at this place. Only took 1 cold pintxos each! Bar Le Cepa. We were given a big plate each and we were free to choose any pintxos that were at the bar counter. I just showed it to the lady what I ordered, and with a wave of the hand, she sent me off to sit down. They certainly do have an amazing memory.

Bar La Vina

Our final pitstop was at Bar La Vina. This has to be tops  in my list of favourite places. Nothing fanciful, just really traditional pintxos. They are renowned for their Tarte de Queso or cheesecake so it was indeed a nice finish to our pintxos crawl ending with dessert.  But we could not help ourselves and ordered a few other pintxos too!

Bar La Vina

The evening before, it was not possible to even get near the door. But it was still early so it was good for us to be able to enjoy the food they served, seated!

Counter at Bar La Vina

Jamon hanging overhead the bar. This place looks like it has not been updated for a while. There are really old pictures on the wall, accolades for the bar. The kitchen can be seen from the bar and that is a good sign that they make their food here. A common equipment at most bars is the meat or ham slicer. The rattan basket on the left is to fill baguettes, freshly made from a nearby bakery. I had the opportunity to witness the baker deliver the fresh baguettes in big paper bags. Our barman was really friendly. As usual, this is based on a trust system, we dont pay until we are finished with our meal. Loving it here.

Pulpo (octopus) marinated in olive oil

Pulpo a la gallega: A Galician octopus dish: This has to be one of my favourite pintxos. The octopus was really tender.

Kids being models for food at San Sebastian

Isabella and Eli wanted to be models for the food. It was great that kiddos are getting the hang of no eating until photos are taken LOL! This was a pretty candid shot and really lovely.

Tortilla patatas

Tortilla patatas or Tortilla Espanyol  is one of the most common pintxos. It can be found at every bar. Essentially it is a frittata or egg omelette. The trick to making this is that the eggs have to be still pretty soft inside, almost mushy. I have read that there should not be too much browning of the potatoes or the eggs. It has to be golden brown colour.

Paella

Well, how can we come Spain and not eat paella? This was good but a little salty.

Pimento asado

Marinated grilled red peppers. These were really good. I never knew they can be so sweet. This is a pretty common pintxos eaten with the baguette. Sometimes it is also combined with anchovies, fish or meat as cold pintxos with baguette.

Tarte de Queso

Tarte de Queso or cheesecake. The house speciality. This is Andrew’s favourite and the highlight of our San Sebastian pintxos crawl! IT was creamy, light and most importantly not overpoweringly sweet. Could not agree more. Do not be fooled by its non descript slightly charred exterior! This is one of the best cheesecakes I have eaten!

Wall filled with Tarte de Queso

This is a testament that their cheesecake is really popular. Freshly made by the ladies in the open kitchen, they are letting it cool. I really wish I can have a slice now!

Bilbao

Still in Basque country, 100km from San Sebastian, is Bilbao. It is the heart of an exciting and cultured metropolis with a population of 1 million. The city is situated in the area of Bizkaia and is surrounded by a fertile landscape with forests, mountains, beaches and steep coasts. It is the centre of the economic-social development and the main factor of the modernisation of the Bay of Biscay. But not too long ago, it was an industrial hub with major port activities and shipbuilding. However in 1980s, with terrorism, labour demands, arrival of cheap labour from abroad, overcrowding in slums, the city was in a devastating industrial crisis. With some right moves and investments into great architecture and infrastructure projects such as the iconic Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, the city has rejuvenated and today it is a major European art centre. Bravo!

View of The Old Town, Bilboa

The banks of Ria de Bilbao overlooking the Old Town of Bilbao (Casco Viejo)

Guggenheim Museum

Opened in September 1997, Bilbao’s shimmering titanium Museo Guggenheim is one of the iconic buildings of modern architecture and it has thrusted Bilbao out of depression and firmly into a major tourist and artistic centre.

Guggenheim Museum

Gehry designed the museum inspired by Bilbao’s history in shipbuilding and fishing, hence the titanium tiles that sheathe the building is said to be giant scales of fish. This also reflects his childhood fascination with fish.

Spider at Gugghenheim Museum

A sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, a skeletal canopy representing a spider, entitled Maman, said to symbolise a protective embrace.

Jeff Koons’ kitsch whimsy Puppy, a 12m-tall Highland terrier made up of thousands of begonias was supposed to be a part of some world tour but the residents were too fond to give him up. Apparently, the residents of Bilbao have called the museum the kennel for El Poop. LOL.

Guggenheim Museum

Kids being silly and doing levitation in front of the Guggenheim Museum and in from of El Poop, a 12m tall Highland Terrier made up with begonias. A supposedly passing attraction of a world tour, has now become a resident favourite!

Playground right outside the Guggenheim museum

It was Sunday late afternoon when we got into town. The kids enjoyed a little fun at the playground right outside the Museum. Real nice to sit around the park that has an adjoining bar and cafe.

Wall art on one side of the Ria de Bilbao, opposite the Guggenheim museum

Amazing Wall Mural! This is huge. Just for porportion, the cars were tiny in comparison. This was underneath the La Salve Bridge opposite the Guggenheim Museum. I tried to google for the artist and the story behind it but to no avail. It is definitely interesting to find all these street art scattered around town.

It was nice stroll in the evening along the banks of the River Nervion, next to the Guggenheim museum. Bilbao is pedestrian friendly and small enough that a visitor can cover most of it on foot in a day. We wandered the streets of the Old Town in search for dinner.

Bakery in Bilbao

We were captivated by this display of breads and sweets. Really clever use of drawers to face the full length glass.

Statue of Lady of Begona

The Spanish people are mainly Roman Catholics. Here in the Old Town, is the Statue of Our Lady of Begona, Patron Saint of Biscay. In this statue, Blessed Mother seated in an armless chair wearing a crown, and holding the Child Jesus on her knees, with a red rose in her right hand. Christ is giving a blessing with his right hand and holds and open book in his left.

Amarena Bilbao Restaurant

This was not the best place we ate in our Spain trip. But it had lovely interiors, in a really old building and the walls I suppose would have been a few hundred years old. Most of us eating were tourists.

A lot of places were not opened, and after walking for a long time, we settled for this.

A lot of places were not opened, and after walking for a long time, we settled for this.

Once, I saw the menu, I knew what I wanted. Definitely to try some soupy food! Sopa de pescado was an obvious choice for me. Everything from this restaurant was just ok, but I suppose being near the coast, they have amazingly fresh seafood.  This soup we had left such a mark on me, that while I was having this, the whole time I was thinking how I can I bring this taste back and how can I make it slightly different. And thus the souperinspiration Sopa de Pescado my version (spicy!) was created for The Soup Spoon #tsstakemetospain series.

Sopa de pescado

Sopa de pescado, a Basque style seafood soup. This I thoroughly enjoyed as the flavours were robust and the seafood was really fresh. It taste better than it look, I assure you.

Some of the dishes we ordered, we did not enjoy as much. I believe we still have to be open and to try foods from different cultures. It could also be bad translation of the menu that caused some misinterpretation. Just a disclaimer, these are purely my opinions and how I am shaped to like certain food preparations more. The foods may be traditionally prepared with lots of love but it may not be my food love language.

Crab stuffed piquillo peppers over a creamy prawn and leek soup

The menu reads: Crab stuffed piquillo peppers over a creamy prawn and leek soup. But i don’t get it. It said that it has a prawn and leek soup but what came was a sauce. Stuffed piquillo is a very traditional and well loved Basque pintxo. I suppose this is something that I really did not enjoy. The crab inside was like a soft mushy steamed cake with no texture. It certainly did not remind me that it was crab meat.

Bacalao a la vizcaina aka Biscayan Cod

Bacalao a la viscaina. Another very traditional Basque food. When I was doing my research on this, I found out that it was supposedly made with dried cod that had been soaked for 24 hours. It was a pretty generous size of  fish given. To be honest, we did not really like it, as we felt the sauce was overwhelming and we were expecting the fish skin to pan fried till crispy like the one we had at San Sebastian. The cod fish felt like it had been poached and it was just “gelat” (Sg for overwhelmingly rich). After doing some research, I realised that this is the the Biscay way of cooking dried cod and the skin cannot be fried or burnt. I can only say this was not our cup of tea.

Entrecot de ternera con salsa de pimenta verde patatas panaderas

Sirloin steak with green pepper sauce and baked potatoes. We ordered this for the kids. Huge portion. It was ok but not memorable. In Basque country with its expansive inland grasslands, meat is very commonly featured. I think it will be very difficult to be  a vegetarian though.

Paella de arroz bomba con bogavante

Bomba rice paella with clawed lobster and crayfish. This was ok but not the best that I had before.

Overall, the food here was ok, but nothing that would make me come back again. Sometimes with kids, when everyone is really tired, we just make choices for food based on availability and I think we were not the only one with that dilemma that evening. Most of us had walked till the end of the Old Town, and there was nothing much that was really opened and we did not really want to eat pizza so this seemed like a good choice. The food was pretty expensive compared to some of the other places we ate, spending a total of 76 euros for 4 of us.

This concludes our travels in Basque country. Would definitely love to go back to San Sebastian and actually spend a couple of days exploring and just relax on the beach and let the kids play in the waters, enjoy the yummy pintxos and that cheesecake from Bar La Vina!

We travelled inland to Burgos in the region of Castile.

 

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