Devouring Northern Spain
Gorging on the fascinating culture and cuisine of the Basque and La Rioja regions of Spain seems only to create an insatiable craving for more.
“Each one is filleted by hand,” our guide explained, “because the fish are so delicate. A machine would destroy their texture.”
As she spoke, a patient-faced woman gently stripped the bones from one tiny fishy treasure after another. Impossibly tedious, but in the Basque region of Spain, anchovies – like all food and drink - are serious business.
http://www.spain.info/Northern Spain is a sort of all-day, all-night food festival where eating seems to be the first item on every agenda. It’s even an integral facet of the region’s religious heritage.
The Camino de Santiago, a walk that annually draws hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims, winds through the charming city of Santo Domingo, past the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada. According to legend, in the 14th century, a pilgrim family stopped at a local inn for the night. The innkeeper tried to seduce the eldest son, Hugonell, into giving up the pilgrimage to stay with her. When he refused, the scorned woman hid a piece of silver in his belongings and accused him of theft. Hugonell was hastily convicted and hanged, but his voice came to his heartsick parents, saying Santo Domingo had saved him. Rushing to the arrogant magistrate who’d sentenced their son to death, the parents found him at the dinner table. He snorted, “I’ll declare your son innocent when the chicken and rooster on my plate come to life and crow.” Rather surprisingly, they did, and Hugonell was similarly resurrected. To commemorate that story, and perhaps to remind us of the miraculous possibilities inherent in a poultry dinner, the cathedral houses live chickens in a glass case above the altar.
If resurrected chickens aren’t to your liking, you might prefer a pintxos feast in San Sebastian’s Parte Vieja or old town. Much more than hors d’oeuvres, Pintxos are the delectable heart and soul of socializing in northern Spain. Each welcoming bar offers an array of one-or-two-bite treats to tempt passersby. My favorites included skewers of mushroom caps dripping in garlic butter, exquisitely thin Jamon Serrano ham slices wrapped around warm bread sticks and freshly grilled, garlicky octopus. Each one costs a few Euros so you sample, enjoy a drink and move on to the next bar’s pintxos lineup.
http://basquecountry-tourism.comMost bars in Parte Vieja don’t really get rolling until midnight but if you’re not a nighthawk the same pintxos, minus the party vibe, are served at lunch.
Speaking of parties…we visited the Lizeaga cider house in San Sebastian where we gathered around a rough wooden table in a low-ceilinged room that smelled of apples and no doubt looked much the same as when it was built in the 16th century. Cutlery was minimal – a fork and a huge serrated knife for each of us - and a clutch of red and white napkins. A glass was our most important equipment for the night ahead. When the food arrived on huge platters, it landed in the middle of the table and was eaten without the benefit of individual plates. You simply stuck your fork into the pile of sausages and grabbed, poked at a delicious omelet, or skewered delectable chunks of grilled local white fish to layer on slices of homemade bread. The pièce de résistance was a massive barbecued steak that smelled like heaven and tasted even better.
Elena Moiseeva- Shutterstock
I was starting to think I was too full to move when someone shouted “chotch!”, everyone grabbed glasses and raced for the barrel room. I ran with them, not knowing why. What they’d yelled, in fact, was “txotx”. Those fluent in Euskara, the language of the Basque Country, know that a txotx is the little plug in a cider barrel. I quickly learned that when the “txotx” shout goes up, the cellar master – a third generation member of the cider-making family - dashes to pull the plug from a barrel and guests catch the slightly bubbly golden stream of cider in their glasses. Apparently, anyone can make the call, at any time – making for a crazy, sticky, wonderful tradition!
Wine is a huge focus in the vineyard rich lands of northern Spain and where some of the finest wines in Europe are produced. Most popular is the wine named for the La Rioja region, and you’ll find many wineries offering tours, tastings and delectable meals in onsite restaurants. Be sure to get a look at the ‘cemetery’ or wine graveyard found deep in the bowels of some of the centuries-old wineries. There, bottles may be stored for decades – even centuries. In the musty confines of the old cellars, mold and cobwebs form on the bottles, shelves and walls, creating an atmosphere so deliciously creepy you almost expect Nosferatu, the silent movie vampire, to slink out with a corkscrew.
From the coastal regions where fishermen catch the freshest of seafood, to the lush orchard lands and vineyards and the fascinating towns and cities along the Camino trail, northern Spain is a banquet for the senses. And what better way to enjoy a sweeping view than from the air, in the basket of a hot air balloon? We finished our northern Spain sojourn in the hands of a balloonist so skilled that he brought us close enough to the ground to chat with the workers picking grapes. We could almost have leaned out to pick some ourselves.
That flight near the border offered us a unique vantage point from which to drink in the beauty of both La Rioja and the Basque region’s countryside. It was so delicious in fact, that I’ve been left with an insatiable thirst to see more – a thirst that I’ll have to quench with a return sometime soon.
IF YOU GO
For more information on touring Spain, please visit: www.spain.info/ca If you’re keen on the Lizeaga Cider House: www.sagardoarenlurraldea.com/eng/comer-en-sidreria-lizeaga/ and if you’d like to learn more about the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada www.english.catedralsantodomingo.es
Written by Liz Fleming and originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles, Spring/Summer 2015 issue.