The Basque Country in northern Spain has strong cultural traditions and a proud sense of identity – they even have a national language. But most famous of all is their cuisine, all made from excellent quality local produce. Here’s how you foodie pilgrims can have a delicious trip to the Basque Country without spending a fortune…
Less fizzy and more citrus than British versions, cider or “sidra” is widely produced in the Basque. Traditionally, cider houses would allow buyers to taste from the different barrels before purchasing, and in order to fend off the effects of drinking on an empty stomach, clients would bring along home-prepared food and beef rib chops (txuleta) to barbecue at the cider house itself. These traditions form the present-day menus of the Cider Houses, and the ritual of tasting from the txotx (cider barrels) as you eat is still going strong. Come along and try salt cod in an omelette or fried with green peppers, and a charcoal-grilled beef rib chop, with cheese, quince jelly and walnuts for dessert.
Txakoli wine, produced in coastal towns of the Basque region, is a young fruity wine. When you order a glass, it will be poured from a height to release the flavours and make it fizz slightly. It’s easy to drink – not too strong with light citrus, herb and floral flavours – and costs considerably less than most sparkling wines. Enjoy as an aperitif or with fish and seafood.
Deriving from the Spanish word for cocktail stick (‘pincho’), pintxos is like tapas with serious style and attitude. Costing a Euro or 2 each, some are hot and made to order; others adorn the region’s bar and counter tops. Great care and attention goes into the presentation of these tasty finger snacks, which are often slices of baguette topped with the finest local ingredients sourced from land and sea. The traditional way to eat pintxos is to stop at a bar, order a small beer, cider, txakoli or Rioja and 1 or 2 pintxos. When you’ve finished, move on to the next bar.
San Sebastian’s restaurants
Although the Basque region has almost 40 Michelin-starred restaurants (many in or around San Sebastián), there are masses of more casual restaurants in the famous city and the standard is extremely high across the board. We had a very special meal at Rekondo restaurant. The menu is traditionally Basque and beautifully simple yet refined, without breaking the bank. The wine list is enormous! (They boast one of the city’s most impressive cellars).
15 minutes’ stroll from San Sebastián’s old town and the city’s beautiful beach is stylish, movie-themed hotel Astoria 7. Each room plays homage to a different film personality – to qualify, the actor or director must have attended the city’s September film festival, and the large photographs of the star above the bed were taken there or locally. The hotel bar is atmospheric and worth a visit; the restaurant is smart but we’d advise eating outside of the hotel – you’re in the gastronomic capital of Spain, after all.
This grand old villa hotel with its marble hall, sweeping staircase, panelled bar and attractive salon is 10 minutes’ walk from San Sebastián’s old town and golden beaches. Or borrow a bike – the hotel has a selection, and the city is very bike-friendly. There’s no restaurant but there is an elegant bar and sitting room for pre- or post-dinner drinks, with a sunny terrace in summer and a fire in winter.
Saiz Getaria is in the popular seaside town of Getaria, 25km from San Sebastián. It’s a town with a happy vibe and lovely beach that’s popular with locals. Potter about and you find a small harbour for local fishing boats, good restaurants serving fresh fish, and a small marina. The hotel has a warm, homely feel and several of the bedrooms have magnificent sea views. Elkano, one of the Basque region’s best restaurants, is only 50 paces from the front door and it’s not madly expensive.
Iriarte Jauregia is around 25 minutes’ drive from San Sebastián, in a mountainous valley in the centre of Gipuzkoa. It’s a gorgeous 300-year-old mansion, positioned on the side of the hill with huge valley views. A beautiful renovation has kept all the lovely old bits while adding contemporary flair. The hotel’s restaurant has a lovely dining terrace and the food is renowned. Try the Iberian pork loin or fried cod with spinach.
This super-cool design hotel is in the pretty village of Villabuena de Alava. Cool, contemporary elegance flows throughout and the excellent restaurant serves modern rustic food. If you’re here over a weekend, head to the Arabarte winery on the edge of Villabuena de Alava for a meal. They serve simple Riojan food washed down with their own wines – some of the best we sampled in the region.