Food tours in the Basque Country, part 1: Bilbao

It has been a while since I published a post but the waiting is over. I have two stories to share of food experiences during my 8-day adventure in the Basque Country in northern Spain. You think I was going to Spain? I thought so, too. But Pais Vasco is a rather different story. Story number one is from the capital of one of the three Basque provinces, Viscaya –  Bilbao. All I knew of the city was the football team (Athletic) and that this is the first stop of a foodie destination, known for pintxos and cider. I learned so much more!

Straight on the second day I had a food tour lined up. I met this friendly, smiling woman my age who welcomed me by name (always a sign of hospitality for me), and we immediately started chatting, uninterruptedly until the end of the tour 3,5 hours later. Patrizia is Basque, in fact she was born in San Sebastian (more on that in the next post) but has been living in Bilbao since 2009 when she started her legal degree. She’s a lawyer by profession but a foodie at heart and last December she decided to start her own food tour company, inspired by the many tours she had done, particularly one in Krakow, Poland (immediately on my foodie destinations list).

Enough chatter – the food! First stop, a 160-year-old bakery for a slice of breakfast. Welcome to Arrese and here is a taste of the most popular dessert in Bilbao – the Carolina.

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The story goes that there was once a baker in Bilbao, whose daughter loved to eat pastries but every time she did so, she would make a total mess, getting the food all over her fingers and face. So he decided to create a dessert, which would be easy for his daughter to eat and she would not have to get dirty. The daughter’s name was Carolina. And apparently, now many girls born in Bilbao bear the same name, said Patrizia. The top is merengue and egg yolk, bottom is something similar to the Portuguese pasteis de nata. The cream was fabulous; probably like Carolina herself.

Next stop, unusual for.. most people actually, but Patrizia took me to a brewery at 11:30 am! She was particularly proud that since only a month ago Bilbao had its own locally brewed Bilbao beer. The place was called Tabeern, the beer, Basquery.

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Patrizia orders IPAs and explains how when Germans and Dutch people come to Bilbao they say the beer here is s**t but now finally they have something to show. I’m almost certain she included this stop in the tour because I live in the Netherlands.

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Good beer, hipster place, cute little brewery. But I was more interested in the food.

Third stop, on to Plaza Nueva. The kind of inner court square that speaks Europe to me every single time. And pintxos! The first one remained a highlight – fried squid in black bread at Sorginzulo. Colour comes from the ink of the squid, injected into the dough. What a colour.

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And cider! Finally, it was time to taste this (in)famous Basque fermented-apple drink.

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The bar-woman opened a new bottle for us and it was time for Patrizia to teach me how to pour it. There is a special add-on you put on the mouth of the bottle for better outcome, hold the glass at the level of your belly with one hand, and the bottle high up at the level of your head with the other. As you start pouring, you slowly bring the two closer together. Not sure how professional my pouring was, but it was a lot of fun. The bar-woman even gave me the thingy as a present. Athletic Bilbao, of course.

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But I have to admit, the cider was not really to my liking. Too strong a smell, taste resembles rotten fruit… which it kind of is. So, a pass for the cider, sorry Bilbao.

Fourth stop is again on the Plaza Nueva and finally it is time for the iconic Gilda – the most famous pintxo in the Basque country. The name comes from the character of Rita Hayworth in the movie “Gilda” from back in the day. Quite simple: olives, green peppers, an anchovy. All in one bite – loved it.

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You can find this in every bar in Bilbao, says Patrizia. I started spotting them everywhere thereafter.

Then, it was time for ice-cream. Didn’t really have time for pictures, it was a hot day and ice-cream was a welcome refreshment. This one was made from the special Idiazabal cheese from a special kind of goat from the Basque Country. Of course. Not bad but did not make the top of my list.

The next one definitely would! Both the pintxo and the drink. Firstly, it is worth mentioning the street where we ate this and the next two pintxos – Calle Santa Maria in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo (Old Town). Great bars where all pintxos are under 2 EUR. At Irrintzi we had duck with apple, which was so tender and full in taste, I’d go back for more and more (in fact, I did, but was out of luck as they did not have the duck at that moment).

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Paired with Coca Cola you think? Think again! Here I was introduced to the summer drink of the Basque youth, the tinto de verano of northern Spain – kalimotxo. For the first time in my life I just have to like red wine mixed with something else. This is half red wine and half Coca Cola. I know it sounds terrible but it’s quite refreshing. I had a few more throughout my holiday 🙂 . The story goes that back in the day two students didn’t have money to buy rum to make “Cuba Libre” so they decided to go with the cheaper option, red wine. One was called Kali, the other one Motxo.

Further down the street we entered Gatz – just in time for freshly prepared steak tartare. I was never a fan of this but decided to challenge myself and pick this one on purpose (Patrizia asked me to choose). And it was totally worth it. This was the best pintxo of the whole tour.

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Divine. It was also paired with the famous Basque wine, Txakoli. Wine there was so incredibly cheap… almost dangerous!

I went back for more tartare there just before I left the country, and was very lucky to have another taste of heaven (also tried the tuna tartare – equally amazing!).

The last stop on this special street – cheese croquets. Not much to look at but the place was very cool, old style, old people knowing what they want, fresh croquets coming in batches of 5-6. We had ours for free, as the owner recognized Patrizia from the tours and decided to treat the two of us.

Out of Casco Viejo, we headed to the Ribera market – supposedly the biggest covered market in Europe. Full of charcuterias – there were probably around 15 meat stalls and only one for cheese. But it’s the meat that brought us here. And some very very special meat – the Lomo Iberico de Bellota. Pork Loin from pigs that were only fed acorns (bellota). The best piece of cured meat I have ever had.

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And some Iberico ham, of course. I went back to buy some Lomo for home, the lady behind the stall remembered me.

Finally time for the final stop. Back at Plaza Nueva, we had torrija – an award-winning one, caramelized with tangerine ice cream and crunchy orange.

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This is basically the equivalent of French toast in the Basque country. The bread had been soaked in milk for a few hours, it was completely soft and melting in the mouth. I asked Patrizia for the recipe but by that time I was so full that I almost felt sick. It was 100 times worth it, though.

This was a fantastic food tour. I learned a lot and had some spectacular bites. Check out the tours on Trip Advisor. For now, here’s a mouth-watering picture of my new best friend, steak tartare, until you get to go there and try this yourselves.

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4 thoughts on “Food tours in the Basque Country, part 1: Bilbao

  1. This food tour sounds mouthwateringly good! Food tours are probably my favourite kind of tours 🙂 I’ve been to Spain a couple of times, but never to the Basque Country and the food looks quite different. Very cool 🙂 Sounds like you had a private tour! Was it expensive?

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    1. It was really really good! 🙂 But it just happened that no-one else had booked the tour so it was just me and the guide. I was lucky I guess 🙂 Otherwise, it’s 85 EUR. Not cheap but in the end worth it!

      Liked by 1 person

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