Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Spanish Gastronomy Redux - Bilbao

On a recent visit to Bilbao, Spain, I found out that tapas, by any other name, still taste great! Where's Bilbao, you ask? Since the 1997 opening of the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao is on all the art & architecture tourism maps, but it is only recently being discovered for its food. That will change when the new harbor for cruise ships opens in March of 2006. Then Bilbao will be the immediate world's "new" destination. For now, off season, there are just surfers and a few stray "foodies" such as myself, in the heart of Basque country, on Spain's Northern coast, enjoying the best the region has to offer: good surf, great food and genial company.
Naturally, people here speak Basque, which isn't similar to Spanish, and has enough x's and z's to be Greek to me. So when I asked at the first tavern for tapas, they said pintxos (peenchos), literally meaning food on a stick. Both are bite sized snacks either on little skewers, or with a toothpick stuck in them. They come in all shapes and sizes, and are usually served on a crusty slice of bread. Eating them is the social equivalent of a buffet dinner party. You can eat them as appetizers, or make a meal of them while visiting with people around you. Either way, you're enjoying very good food!
Pintxos can be something as simple as olives with an anchovy filet, a fried sweet green pepper dipped in salt, or a single, translucent slice of Iberian ham in a small dinner roll, each with a toothpick holding it together. Some more complex varieties are a skewered fresh anchovy filet wrapped around squid, with tomatoes and watercress in an ink sauce, or a puff pastry "boat" stuffed with crab salad skewered with an upright shrimp "sail". These beautiful and elaborate creations aren't the "norm", but when bar-hopping for pintxos I found that the selection was only limited by the creativity of the cook. One thing for sure, all are made with the freshest local ingredients.
A typical pintxos crowd moves from bar to bar, so if you stay in one place long enough you can meet the whole community as the waves of patrons move through the neighborhood. Eventually I got caught up in the rhythm, nodding to familiar faces as I ate and drank my way around the old section of the city. The dining is so casual that one helps oneself to the lavish spread along the bar, motioning for a glass of wine or beer to wash them down. A plate is a rarity, but napkins abound, and the custom is to drop them on the floor when you're done. The best way to settle up is by counting the toothpicks. It's all done on the honor system, holding up fingers if language is a problem. When it comes to food, language is never a problem for me! Besides, the Basque are a trusting, if somewhat stern looking bunch. I found that a smile and a kind word were always returned, and what at first seemed brusque was just the natural reticence of a warm and friendly people. They love their food as much as I did, and proudly show it off.
If you are looking for a wonderful place to visit, with great regional food, this cultured, but still relatively simple city is recommended. Go soon. When Bilbao completes its transformation from the industrial center of Northern Spain to "the" world-class destination for haute cuisine, you can say, "I remember it when."
(the exchange rate during our visit was $1.17 = 1 euro) Generally tips were included, but great service could have a 5% tip, although it is not expected. Add 7% VAT to hotel & restaurant bills.
Guide Service: Guia turistico (Xabier Lexartza Argiarro)
Bilbao Tourism:
Sheraton Bilbao Hotel - off season 85 euros per night double room plus 18 euros breakfast buffet. Good food, bar and cordial service. Promised 5 star facilities and services such as a pool, and Internet access in the rooms, were not yet available at this extremely convenient location.
Guggenheim Museum 9 to 12 euros depending on exhibits. The current Richard Serra exhibit is amazing, as is the odd phenomenon that every 62 minutes the museum becomes enshrouded in a man-made fog, rising from the fountains and pools outside the building as if Penn & Teller were hired to make it disappear and appear again as the winds dissipate the mist!
Jatetxea Restaurante price fixed 53 euros (plus wine & vat)
Restaurante Etxanobe Gastronomy Menu 65 euros (plus wine & vat)
Zortziko 50 to 60 euros (plus wine & vat)
See for more photos and side trips