Cider Time…

Well it’s almost, almost Spring here in the Basque Country – the primavera smell is in the air & the birds seem to think it has arrived already, but the winter weather gods have another thing or five up their sleeves. So it was a perfecto day to be inside, at a local Basque sideria sampling this year’s vintage from the barrels. And once again, our good mate Idoia had sussed & sorted all the details out – all we had to do was make it to the bus stop on time. This year, as opposed to last year, was a luncheon (versus a late Basque dinner) date which held the promise of being a wee bit more on the tame side…

Idoia had chosen a sideria called Gartziategi – a very old school sideria with a serious history. The main building sits on the banks of the River Urumea in a caserio (country house) dating from the 16th century and it most definitely feels like 16th century – cold as and a tad damp which added to the cidery atmosphere. Julian Arrieta was the core bloke behind the start of the cider house in the early 20th century as cider making is a big & honoured tradition here ever since the French, post a battle defeat, ripped out all the Basque grape vines.

Idoia told us that many local folks (both French & Basque) flock to the siderias starting in January, but she feels the cider is far too young then & needs some time in the barrels to settle down & mellow out. But you cannot wait too long as the bottling process for the new vintage kicks off sometime in April and your chance of a visit & a sample vanishes.

The ‘process’ (called a txotx in Basque – pronounced ‘choch’) follows a set pattern both for food & drink. Once seated at your table, a baguette of bread & small plate of sautéd mushrooms & caramelised onions arrives to pleasure your taste buds while you wait for the first shout out of ‘Txotx!!!’, which triggers the mass migration to the cider barrels. You queue up, taking your turn to slip your cider glass under the continuous stream of golden, slightly cloudy & effervescent liquid until all are satisfied.

Back to your table where the second comestible has arrived – a bacalao (salt cod) tortilla. A perfect foil for the crisp, slightly acidy cider that comes from a specific barrel, made from specific apple variety or varieties. This is a lot of the fun – to sample the various barrels and try & pick your fave to return to. Then the shout of ‘Txotx!!!’ is heard again & back we all go…

Top Right: Bacalao Tortilla; Dessert of Basque Cheese, Fresh Walnuts & Apple Paste; Serious Chuleta de Vaca (Ribeye); Steamed Bacalao; Sautéd Mushrooms & Caramelised Onions; Devoured Chuleta

Next table delivery is a chunky, chunky slice of steamed bacalao smothered in sweet onions & sautéd scallion greens – yumbola! And once again (it is repeated A LOT OF TIMES) the call to drink, ‘Txotx!’, was shouted out & we have another barrel to slay…

And then the pièce de résistance awaits us at our table – a perfectly wood grilled chuleta de vaca (rib eye) that could feed a small village (or Billie our Jack Russell). We make a mess of it, but it is all carne fenomenal and tasty as (the 3 French dudes sitting next to us requested another chuleta de vaca – they were BIG FELLAS).

We close out this marvellous, festive feast with a more modest, lighter plate of Basque cheese, freshly harvested walnuts & apple paste…perfect counter-balance to all that preceded it, but of course more cider was needed…

Top Left: The Txotx Pour Begins; And Continues from Another Barrel; 2 Txotx Chicas; Wooden Apple Art

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Basque Artisanal Beer Fest In Irun…

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Artesanal Cerveza Fest!!!!!

Another week in Spain, another festival! It seems a week just cannot go by without a festival or carnival or big event happening here. This past weekend was the artisanal beer fest hosted by our next door neighbour, Irun. Artisanal beers have, as in the rest of the world, hit Spain like a big cerveza tsunami. People seem to be craving for and are enjoying brews with a bit more punch or flavour than the bog standard bar pours like Heineken or Amstel. And like elsewhere, the Big Boys are taking notice with several small breweries being snapped up by the corporate big fellas.

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The Beer Bash Kicks Off…

This was a 2 day event held at the Irun event centre called FICOBA. It is a vast hall with garage doors an 18 wheeler could easily pass through with space to spare and there were at least 2 dozen breweries in attendance as well as a dozen or so pop up food trucks. The admission fee was €5 which got you in and a ‘special’ tasting glass, but to actually drink the beer costs a wee bit extra :-(. As a general if not universal rule, artisanal beer cost a tad more than your normal pour, and that was the case here. Our special glasses held 200ml of the precious liquid (a normal caña of local beer like Mahou or Keler is around 350ml or more depending on the pour & runs 2 euros – $3NZ, $2.80AUS, £1.72BP, $2.1US) and the general price was €2.5 ($3.75NZ, $3.5AUS, £2.15BP, $2.65US) but sometimes €3. We have a great specialty beer bar in the Casco Antiguo area of Hondarribia called EtxeBerria, which only serves artisanal brews and a small pour is normally €3-4 and a caña size is in the the €5-7 range (sort of like the rest of the world).

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Serious Artisanal Brewing on show here…also very high alcohol levels…like 7% or 8% for most.

One of my all round favourite styles of beer is the IPA (India Pale Ale), so that was the theme I stuck to for the day and sampled about 5 or 6…tough to do much more embibing as the alcohol levels averaged 6-8%, so even after just 2 you could feel the buzz and drinking during the day is not my usual modus operandi. I tend to like my IPA a bit chunky, with serious flavour & what can be described as chewiness so the Little Bichos (‘bicho’ translates to ‘creatures’) IPA took the fist place prize. And it was slightly ironic given my fave beer in Australia was Little Creatures…not sure who copied who!

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Da Food Trucks – Big Help!

And thank the Food Gods that be that there were a series of decent pop up food trucks on hand, otherwise it may have all been over before it began! We had a good squizzy and everyone opted for the appetising Gala hamburger stall – Hamburguesa Tex Mex to be precise. Generally an excellent dish (which I washed down with another IPA from Naparbier) but Hound #2 complained – ‘Not spicy enough for a Tex Mex burger’…oh well, she’s a tough one to please.

All in all a most fun event – not too tough an assignment to drink well crafted artisanal beers on a semi-rainy Saturday arvo with next to no crowd hassles & loads of way cool beermeisters manning the stalls to talk shop. Can’t wait till the next fest ;-)…

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Top Left: Box of Special Fries & Hot Sauce; Gala Food Truck Burger Menu; Gala Burgers on Display; Our ‘Special’ Beer Glass

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Top Left: Bob’s Beer (Bob’s English) from France; Brew & Taps from Bar Boulevard; Dos Borachas (2 Drunks); Naparbier from Navarra; Free Lions Beer Coaster

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A Salamanca Weekend…A Savoury Visit.

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Pueblo de Palencia…Top: Plaza Mayor & Town Hall; Local Band; Church.

We had decided to opt out of a Valentine’s Day Valentine’s Day with all it requisite paraphernalia & fluff and instead, 2 weeks later, have a romantic weekend (minus our ‘child’ Billie the Jack Russell) in Salamanca.  With our time in Spain rapidly diminishing (we leave on August 1st for the U.K. to prep our New Zealand return), we have assembled a decently long list of to do’s & Salamanca was top of the list.

It is a reasonably long drive (5+ hours) so we sorted out a few pit stops along the way which was a tad difficult as there seems to be, by all appearances, nothing much of real interest on the road to Salamanca (Burgos is great but we’d already been there). We have a Spanish friend who was born & raised in Palencia, so that was where we headed for a roadway breather & something to eat…

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Bar Alaska, Palencia – Estupendo!

Though many of our guide books or articles gave Palencia a minor pass, we made the most of it & headed straight through the Old Town to highly recommended Bar Alaska. And the reviewers were spot on – our only mistake was we did not take stock of exactly how good this place was & simply stop here & enjoy. But no, Hound #2 had read about a Turkish place called El Rincon de Istanbul which by Tripadvisor ticks was the bee’s knees for Turkish food outside of Turkey itself. Not…we were both slightly suspicious when the menu was: (a) almost longer than the Bible (obviously not freshly cooked); and (b) the menu & the restaurant walls were plastered with florescent plastic photos of their food.

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Lunch @ Rincon de Istanbul, Palencia – Not Too Good…

And our gut instincts were right – the falafel came out of a frozen packet, the bread was also a packet product and my curried chicken was almost stone cold & Hound #2 summed it up precisely by stating that it looked like ‘sick’. Onward to Salamanca…

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View of Stunning Salamanca & the Roman Bridge that crosses the River Torme (trout are in there!)…

Our arrival into Salamanca was easy as due to the fact that our hotel Vincci Ciudad de Salamanca, was right on the outskirts, only a 10 minute walk into the centro, so easily avoiding all the driving & parking hassles of a central Old Town space. We quickly settled in & headed out for a Friday arvo / evening stroll to the City Centre – across a beautiful Roman bridge over the River Torme. Once again, the Weather Gods smiled upon us and we had a perfecto winter’s day of blue skies, sun, no wind & mild temps…

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Beautiful Architecture Round Every Corner….

The Old Town is, thankfully, very pedestrianised so walking or strolling is a breeze. Salamanca is a big university town & has one of, if not the oldest, university in Europe. And it is chocka with students – we heard more American/Canadian/British accents in one weekend than we have heard in our entire time in Hondarribia. We were late to find out that this weekend was El Carnaval weekend – so a wee bit fearful of possible chaos & craziness. No problema…tranquilo…sweet as.

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Top Left: Back Street View, Cathedral in the lights, Plaza Mayor – Excellent Space!

Salamanca is a bit closer in modus operandi to the South of Spain than the North, which means that many places open later (round 8PM or after). So with a small chunk of time on our hands we made a bee line for La Vendimia Vinoteca – tienda de vino supreme!

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Tienda de Vino Excelente!

It is ALWAYS a great pleasure to peruse a wine store that offers up a distinctly different range of vino bebidas….not your bog standard super mercado or local bodega selection but different juices from small producer folks that I only seem to read about in magazines. Several bottles were purchased (and 3 more the next day) and off we went into the Salamanca night…

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Bodega Cuzco – Our Salamanca Fave….

At the top of our list & just about everyone else’s was Bodega Cuzco which offered up caliente made-to-order pintxos paired with a superbly chosen wine list. The staff were top notch too – friendly & super efficient. I had the chicken curry mini burger while Hound #2 went with her usual favourite – pulpo (octopus) a la plancha (grilled).

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Bambú – Another Great Choice for Friday’s Comestibles…

Next on our visitation agenda was Bambú – again a crowd pleaser and a highly rated establishment. A really well oiled hospitality machine (not President Trump’s kind) that was cranking on all cylinders & buzzing with Friday night crowds filling the place to the max. Salamanca is technically reputed to be a city that falls into the category of a free pintxo with every drink order. What we found were 3 distinct offers: (a) order a drink & get a gratis pintxo; (b) order a drink & not get a free pintxo but notice that most of the locals were getting one so we asked…and usually, begrudgingly got one; and (c) you pay for your pintxos (like at  Bodega Cuzco) . Bambú fits into the first bucket so with our first round of cervezas, I got the universal Spanish sandwich – jamón with pimiento pepper on a wee roll. Hound #2 scored with a smoked salmon wrapped around cream cheese & dusted in bread crumbs. Round 2 was accompanied by some delicious meatballs or albondigas as they are called here.

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Salamanca Scenes…

Up early on Saturday to have a full on day in Salamanca, first port of call was the Casa de las Conchas. Unfortunately, La Casa was undergoing some renovation works so the full beauty of its facade was hidden by some serious scaffolding. But still a marvel – and we had a nice chat with the librarian (yes, there is a library inside) who told us a bit about the history & construction and said it was VERY difficult to find qualified people to do the restoration so they had ONE woman doing it bit by bit as they could afford to pay her.

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Casa de las Conchas….

Next on our Saturday morning agenda was our required visit to the local mercado – the Mercado Central de Salamanca to be exact. An always fascinating adventure to walk the aisles & floors (2 levels here) and have a decent perusal of all of the local products on offer. Salamanca has a reputation as serious ‘meat country’ in all its various forms – fresh beef or pork or veal or fowl or ox; charcuterie of all shapes & sizes like chorizo or jamón sliced or full legs, salchichon (salami extraordinaire), morcilla (blood sausage), sausages & cecina (dried beef or ox).

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Mercado Central de Salamanca….

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Mercado Central de Salamanca: Top – Serious Spanish Beef; Veggies Galore; More Meat & Charcuterie…

And of course you will find a decent collection of veggie & dry goods stalls too, and as icing on the cake, a magnificent fish section stuffed to the gills with everything possible from the sea or fresh water. The Spanish love their seafood and we are quite blessed living in Hondarribia as it is a fishing port town so we see el pescado as fresh as it can be.

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Mercado Central de Salamanca – Fish Section….

Post our mercado visit, we paid a second visit to La Vendimia vino store and then set our course for Calle Van Dyck. This street is a renowned student haunt due to its cheap eats & drinks. We were hesitant to see it in all its glory, late at night on Carnaval weekend so we opted for a mid day visit to see what the fuss was about.

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La Cocina de la Yaya (affectionate term for grandma)…Top: Braised Mushrooms; A Moruno skewer – usually lamb but this was pork…

We did a couple block walking tour, sticking our noses into various joints & decided we liked the look of La Cocina de la Yaya (Spanish for grandma). And yes folks, the price was right – 2 cervezas & 2 LARGE pintxos for all of 6 euros. The students have sussed this out correctly…

We popped into one other taberna on Calle Van Dyck before aiming ourselves to return to the Old Town & we came across Restaurante Don Bustos in our wanders. Following, once again, Hound #2’s Dad’s Rule – if it has loads of local folks inside there is a high probability it is a keeper. Score for Dad’s Rule – busy as & buzzing with Spanish. Two cañas (beer) ordered straight away & 2 pintxos gratis of fried eggplant handed across the bar. Delish.

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Restaurante Don Bustos….Pintxo of Fried Eggplant. Place was hop’n!

We had built up a respectable ‘to do’ list with regards to bars & pintxo places, so we next made our way to La Casa de Las Pulgas (House of the Fleas) which was warp speed busy with only one bartender, but scored a sweet pintxo of chickpea stew with diced shrimp & mussels. Yum.

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Casa de las Pulgas (Fleas) – Chickpea Stew with Shrimps & Mussels…

And just down the street on Plaza Angel was a super popular place called Casa Vallejo which people spilling out onto the street & plaza. And here the free pintxo was a white bean stew with various bits of diced chorizo mixed through it. Perfecto…

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Casa Vallejo – Busy As…

Queued up next was La Cocina de Toño, a place known for its hot, freshly made pintxos (versus cold or microwaved off the bar). This place got the 2 thumbs (maybe 4) up as super tasty, excellent pintxo snacks at a fair price with a great vino selection and, thankfully, in a slightly less hectic atmosphere than our previous 2 bars.

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La Cocina de Toño – 2nd Fave of the Trip…Top Left: Chickpeas with Shrimps; Back Bar & Hanging Jamón; Pulpo (Octopus).

After a wee siesta back at the hotel, we geared up for a Saturday night in Salamanca with Carnaval supposedly in full swing. We were again quite relieved to find out that carnaval in Salamanca, despite all the youngsters, was a quiet affair.

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A Return Visit to Bodega Cuzco – Great Again…Top: Goats Cheese with Caramelised Onion Topping; 2 Copas de Toro; Duck Confit Fajita.

We made our plan to be @ Bodega Cuzco spot on the 8PM opening to avoid the inevitable throngs. We got two cozy seats at the bar & placed our order for two vino tintos de Toro and 2 pintxos – Hound #2 had warmed Goat’s Cheese with a topping of Caramelised Onions while I satisfied my duck craving with a Duck Confit Fajita.

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2 Blogger Favorites….

We popped into to several other places on our list like La Viga and Bar Montero but ended up just having a wine. La Viga was packed with locals but the food on offer was not our cuppa tea – fried pork crackling & other fried things. Bar Montero seemed a bit more formal with very little being offered on the bar and only a full menu to order from.

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Live Music @ Local Salamanca Dive Bar….

We decided to call it a night & zig zagged our way through the narrow back streets & stumbled across a teeny tiny bar & decided on a nightcap. Happy to find that they served Alhambra Reserva 1925 but even more surprised to see a group setting up to play. We hung around for some tunes which, again, were not our cuppa tea but a fun way to end the evening…

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Goodbye Beautiful Salamanca…

We felt we had seen what we wanted to see in Salamanca, so we set off early to take advantage of another spectacular winter’s day & drop in on Valledolid as we had never been & had no plans to visit.

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Stretch Your Legs Pit Stop @ Valledolid….

We spent an hour or so wandering around the Old Town, stopping off @ Plaza Mayor for some coffee in the winter sun and finding 2 serious wine stores right next to each other but closed (it was Sunday) – damn!. We concluded it was a city mos def worth a night & day’s stay…

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Lunch in Burgos @ La Pez…Simple As – Tuna Fillets Topped with Pimiento Peppers & Then Turned Over – Yum!

With Burgos up ahead on our road trip home, we made the executive decision to make it our lunch destination. We had had a stupendous time in Burgos on another trip and had fond memories of its Old Town section & excellent food. We laid out a direct walking line to Plaza Mayor & its various side streets and popped in at an old fave – Meson Los Herreros. Two pintxos & two cervazas down the gullet we navigated to La Pez de la Senda which is a very different pintxo bar from your bog standard. La Pez had just recently opened on our first visit to Burgos and we found the staff super friendly and they seemed to be always giving us free pintxos or samples of vino or vermouth. La Pez is also a mini deli with various products available for sale to take home. Our pintxo of the day was a beautiful jar of the local tuna  topped with cooked pimiento peppers, then turned upside down – what a presentation! Tasted great too…

So if you have never visited or heard of Salamanca, it is a city to put on your Spanish to do list. You will be rewarded with awesome architecture, old world charm, food & drink to please any palate – go!!!!!