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!!!!!

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Tolosa Chuleta Fest – Yippee!!!

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Yum Yum Eat’m Up — Chuleta Fest @ Tolosa


WARNING: To all vegetarian and vegan folks, this post contains meat photos.

The Hounds had recently paid a visit to the Basque town of Tolosa to check out the famous weekly Saturday market (which we loved BTW) and we spotted some announcements regarding a Festival de Chuleta – a Steak Fest to put it simply. A few weeks later, I read in my regular Saturday El Diario Vasco newspaper a detailed article on said festival with loads of history, ticket details, etc…I decided – “I’m in on this deal”.

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Street Scenes Tolosa…

I made the tactical decision to catch a train to Tolosa so as not to put a cap on any potential fun by having to drive my 1975 Land Rover back home post visiting vino & chuleta heaven. Like many other things here in Spain, trains are sort of an approximation…más o menos. The web site said a train departed from the Irun station at 11AM, so got myself there by 10:30AM only to find there is no 11AM, there is a 10:53AM. Said train, according to the web site, would deposit me in Tolosa at 11:40AM…try 12:05PM. But no pasa nada – I was not in a hurry & still had a decent chunk of time to wander old town Tolosa.

Casco Antiguo (Old Town) is, like many other Spanish cities or towns, the best part of the town with narrow, cobble stoned, pedestrianised streets that simply reek with character & charm. The only negative or slightly creepy thing was that they had loudspeakers strung up & down every street, playing a very weird mix of traditional Basque music, which was then followed by a Heavy Metal tune…go figure.

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Old Town Tolosa…

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Lots of Tolosa Graffiti…And Hay Muchos Signs…

The Tolosa Chuleta Fest was started in 2006 to commemorate the 750th (yes, that’s right 750th) birthday celebration of the founding of Tolosa. Tolosa, over several generations if not centuries, has earned a well deserved reputation for expertise in all things grilled. The chefs who grill are called asadores in Spanish & the restaurants are asadors. And originally the meat used came from the ox, but has now shifted to beef and is called locally ‘vaca vieja’ or old/aged beef.

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The festival runs for 3 days (6th, 7th and 8th of December in 2016) and is housed in the ‘Tinglado‘ (translates to ‘shed’) which was constructed in 1899 & 1900 to be the new home to the Saturday weekly market. The Tinglado sits smack dab on the Oria River, with glassed walls providing a very up close & personal river view.

The Festival Folks had divided the Tinglado into 2 bits – a sweet, spacious dining room for the lunches & dinners and a casual pintxo & bar area for a bit of Chuleta Fest warmups. There were 5 or 6 stalls, each offering a different pintxo or two, and of course, a bar serving the usual suspects – vino tinto (Rioja) & blanco (local Basque star txakoli) , cerveza & cider.

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The Best Fest – Pintxo Alley. Bottom Right – Pintxo to Beat All Pintxos!

I started my festival warmup with the pintxo pictured above (slow braised beef in a pork bun with micro greens, pickled red onion & a secret sauce) which was SO delicious that I came within in inch of having another, but given I was only an hour or so away from a massive steak fest I decided to spread the wealth and sample a different taste treat.

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Top Left: Local Brew Called La Salve (Translates to ‘Hail Mary’); Family Who Made Da Vino; Chistorra (Basque Sausage); Grill’n Up Some Pintxos…

My second comestible treat came in the form of the locally famed chistorra, a Basque sausage that is often cooked up in some local cider. Again, a hit right out of the park – 3 different types of chistorra perfectly grilled with another secret sauce (pictured above). Excelente & washed it down with a local brew call La Salve (translates as ‘Hail Mary’ – cool).

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Chuletas de Vacas….The Star Attraction

When the clock struck 2, folks started queuing up at the dining hall entrance…tickets in hand and appetites, just like the charcoal, on fire. As we passed through the foyer entrance, we were greeted with a chuleta display to get the juices flowing and we could plainly see the asadores hard & hot at work.

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Table Is Set…Wine is Open. Ready, Set, Go!

We had 10 folks at our table – 5 native Spanish-speakers, 2 Americans from Denver speaking American, a couple from Holland (who live in France) & me. Besides the asadores hard at work, the Ibérico Jamón carvers were all non-stop knife action to repeatedly fill & refill our plates to kick off the luncheon with a bang. The jamón goes down SO easy & marries perfectly with a glass or two of red vino.

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First Up – Sliced Ibérico Jamón…The Good Stuff – Black Label.

Next up was the veggie portion of the fest – white asparagus in a tangy vinaigrette dressing (sorry, no pics…too busy eating & drinking) followed by cogollos de Tudela – Romain lettuce hearts. Perfect foil to the previous salty & savoury jamón flavours, and the beef that was to follow…a light interlude was mos def called for…

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Top Left: Dining Room; The Veggie Plate – Hearts of Lettuce; The Dining Room Cow

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All Fired Up & the Grilling Begins!…A Man & His Ox.

As you can see by the grilling photo above, the Spanish are generous with their salt. As many chefs & cooks will tell you, salting the meat generously prior to grilling or cooking works small wonders as does brining (particularly chicken, turkey or even pork). Despite what appears to be, to me, an excessive amount of the salty stuff, you could not in any way taste it on the finished steak.

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Turn Away Now Vegetarians…

So the goods get delivered, and they are oh, oh so good. Cooked (for me) just the way I like it, as I think many meats become totally devoid of flavour when singed to within an inch of their life – might as well eat your shoe. This was perfecto – a crispy, char broiled brown crust with a deep, deep red centre and flowing with good steak juices. The meat was well balanced with just the right amount of fat marbling (relative to the meat) which added delectable, flavourful bits to the overall flavour.

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Steak & Roasted Pimientos….

The plates of steak just kept coming – no one @ our table seem to be able to get enough chuleta, nor vino as our Spanish table mates kept hailing our waitress with ‘Más Vino! Más!’ & bottles magically kept appearing.

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Lonely Dessert Cheese Plate & Sweet Snack…

To say I had a good time would be the understatement of the day or week – our festive table was the last to leave the Tinglado & its merry surrounds…all happy campers toddling off home for a wee siesta…Great job Tolosa! Keep up the good work!

 

 

The Bacalao Pil-Pil Cookoff…

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The Beginning Prep: Top Left – Bacalao/Cod & Olive Oil; Sauce Happening; Swirl & Swirl; Key Ingredient – Garlic.

Bacalao (or cod) is a mainstay ingredient for many dishes here in the Basque Country, but probably the most famous bacalao dish of all is bacalao pil-pil. Recently we were privileged to watch a Basque Cook Off of this very famous Basque dish right here in Hondarribia. About a dozen contestants had been rounded up or entered to try & make the bacalao pil-pil supreme to tickle the judges taste buds & snare a trophy.

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Basque Billie; The Trophies (looks like everyone wins!)’ Da Fish

It is pretty simple as far as ingredients go – garlic, olive oil and bacalao (cod). The challenge is in making the sauce which happens by an emulsion process, very similar to making mayonnaise. So if you have ever attempted mayonnaise by whisking in the oil by hand & ended up with a disaster, you can appreciate the skills at work here.

The cooks place the oil & garlic in the ceramic pan & then the bacalao, which starts the gentle swirling motion – first to the right, then to the left, back to the right, etc…until it all, hopefully, gels into the classic pil pil sauce.

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Top: Chefs Prep & Swirl; Judges Tasting: The Finished Product

The only mildly disappointing thing about the cook off is that we, the audience, never got to sample the goods. All we were offered is what you can see below in the photo – a fried cod pintxo or a chistorra sausage! They both tasted great but where’s my bacalao pil-pil?

Have to venture out to one of the local tavernas then….

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The Sad Offerings for the Audience 😦

Kiwis Come A Calling…

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Paddle Board Day…Billie Goes To Sea!

We were fortunate to have our Kiwi mate Shelley and her 2 kids (Finn & Stella) come by for 3 weeks & experience & enjoy the wonderful Hondarribia (Spain) & surrounds – and we packed it in!. It being the depths of winter Down Under, our first few days were spent lapping up the warmth & sunshine. We grabbed the local ferry to Hendaye (France – 5 minute ferry ride) where the beach is magnificent, and just enough wave action to get a few boogie board rides in. It was also good weather for everyone to have a go at paddle boarding…I was not so successful (top left picture below)…but Billie on the other hand, Hound #1, is a goer!

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Hondarribia, Spain – The Kiwi Home For 3 Weeks!

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Stinking HOT in Hondy! Even I Had To Jump In!

And besides the aquatic fun, we of course dove into the food & vino experience! Shelley is a long time Food Hound and was my partner in our restaurant London Street in Lyttelton, New Zealand. And of course, Spain and the Basque Country are a bountiful cornucopias for a food loving person – not just the amazing pintxo & raciones and menú del día offerings, but also the vast array of stellar products & produce. From the fresh as fish, to the veggies, to the olive oils & spices, to the cheeses & jamón – it’s all here.

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Hondy Treats – Top Left: Calle San Pedro Pintxo Fest; Pintxo; Pintxo; Special New Zealand Juice Courtesy of Shelley

After exhausting many of our regular Hondarribia haunts like Gran Sol, Vinoteca Ardoka, Sadara, Extebarri and Txantxangorri, we headed out to our only 1 star Michelin joint Alameda, which is top of the line on the pintxos front. We loved the mackerel ceviche (twice in fact), and the patatas brava (classic Basque dish) which totally vanished (by the kids) before any photos could be taken! And we had one of our fave wines of the trip – a stunning Rioja white (95% Viura – Spanish varietal)  by Bodega Allende.

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High Class @ Alameda

Next on the ‘to do’ list was our first visit of several visits to the most beautiful city in the world by most folks counts, San Sebastián (or Donosti in Basque). You need to either hang here for a number of days, or make multiple visits (we took the bus from Hondarribia – easy peezy) to get a decent dose of this wonderful wee city by the sea. What’s not to love? Grand architecture, museums & art spaces, beaches to beat the band, food & drink to die for, vistas to make ya cry, cool shopping galore and even a 100+ year old amusement park.

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San Seabstián: Top Left – Mount Igueldo Rollercoaster; On the Climb to Jesus; Jesus; La Concha Beach & City

We had a set of priorities to tick off so we set off on a mission….first, to eat. The vast array of choices to try pintxos, or raciones and eat a full meal in San Sebastián are head spinning to say the least. It is pretty hard to go too far wrong – much of the time you get to ‘look before you eat’ as you wander in & out of various tavernas checking out the types & quality of comestibles. We sampled a few of our standard spots like Paco Bueno (serious Old School & even has a signed All Blacks t-shirt framed); Bar Goiz Argi where we go for the calamare a la plancha (grilled – pictured below, top left); Borda Berri – ex-Cuchara de San Telmo folks & super pintxos; and Bar Zeruko – the award wining champ. And of course there are squadron of other places to gobble, gobble….

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San Sebastián Pintxos

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Bretxa Market, San Sebastian – Top Left: Kids; Blue Fin Tuna; Mate @ BretxOliva; Sardines; Veggies; Shrimps

On any true food person’s must do list is to pay a respectful visit to the local market(s) and have an extended wander up & down the aisles, chat away with the producers and learn a wee bit about what that region/country is proud to sell & eat. In San Sebastián that would be the Bretxa Market & related outdoor veggie stalls. It is hard to think of anything you cannot find or buy here with an extensive fish & seafood section offering the ocean’s finest; poultry vendors & butchers busy at work carving up various carcasses into fine cuts of meat; charcuterie & cheese & delicatessen stalls that will simply make your mouth water; and fruit & veggie stalls packed with the season’s produce.

Since we were in the city for the day, perishable purchases were not an option so we got happily stuck at BretxOliva, and amazing olive-everything stand (and extremely amenable host – you must try everything! he said)…excelente! We made fast friends and weighed down our backpacks with a decent assortment of Spanish goodies.

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Tasting Vino At GOÑI ardoteca

And besides the captivating Bretxa Market, quite nearby is our favourite wine store GOÑI ardoteka. They have an excellent range of vino, including some very good French wine which can be next to impossible to find in Spain, go figure?. But the best thing about GOÑI ardoteka is the staff – always super friendly & accommodating, informative & patient. On this day we lucked out and managed to be served by William, who offered us a range of wines to taste, including some quite old (and expensive) vino. He wanted us to taste the style differences and effects of age – well done William (and yes, we did buy a few bottle)!

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La Cuchara de San Telmo, San Sebastian – Yum! Top Left: Tuna, Kids, Veal Cheeks, Tomato Gazpacho com Idiazabal Cheese, Pulpo!

Even though we had managed an early pintxo pit stop to satiate growing Finn’s insatiable hunger, it was now approaching the opening time of one of our favourite regular haunts – La Cuchara de San Telmo. Now the Basque Pintxo World is basically divided into 2 worlds, the pre-made-cold-on-the-bar (can be heated sometimes) pintxos and the hot, made to order pintxos. La Cuchara de San Telmo falls into the latter camp and it is oh so good – it pays to arrive smack dab @ the opening @ 12:30pm (or there abouts as they often open late) for a lunchtime snack as within 20-25 minutes you just about cannot get in. Words of wisdom folks…

After a week’s explore of Hondarribia & San Sebastián & surrounds, it was now time for a road trip…so we grabbed a rental bus (literally) & took off for a whirlwind tour of Pais Vasco with stops in Getaria, Laguardia, Logroño, La Rioja Alavesa and Pamplona.

First destination: Getaria. A more than picturesque fishing village just an hour or so west along the Basque Coast from Hondarribia. Though still sort of quaint, it has changed a fair bit in just the 3 or so years since my first visit, with a number of more upscale shops for the shoppers and a small tourist crush. Shelley & Finn paid a visit to the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museo and they rated it a 5 star attraction – Stella & I hit the beach…as ya do.

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Getaria – Top Left: Family Pic Down Getaria Calle; Menú del Día @ Taverna Politena; Getaria’s Surf Beach; Grilled Dorado

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Laguardia, La Rioja Alavesa: Top Left – Santa Maria Church; Santa Maria Altar; La Rioja Alavesa View; Family Photo; Tower of Santa Maria

If you are ever tempted to visit the La Rioja region and taste some exquisite vino, you could not be more perfectly placed than Laguardia. And besides being perfectly placed you will be hanging in one of the most beautiful pueblos to be found in all of Spain, bar none. Like many old pueblos in Spain, it sits atop a decent hill, enclosed in an ancient fortress wall with encompassing views of the La Rioja vineyards that run right up to the start of the sheer cliff faces of the Cantabria Mountains.

Our first port of call for the day was a tasting stop at Bodegas Baigorri – one of our better go to drops. Spain’s wine scene has started to change – 3 or so years ago you needed to make an appointment & most likely take a cellar / winery tour (or even commit to lunch) before you could taste. But Bodegas Biagorri now offers tastings (only 2 wines) if you rock up on a normal working day (they do the tours/lunch thing too).

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Bodegas Baigorri, La Rioja Alavesa

It was fast approaching pintxo time, so after a fruitless search to find Bodegas Allende (the vino we had @ Alameda…we did find it, but there are no tastings or tours) we made a bee line for the Casco Viejo of Logroño which is renowned for its pintxo bars that all have a signature dish, usually centred around one prime ingredient (e.g., mushrooms or grilled pork).

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Logroño Pintxo Fest…

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Bodegas Ysios, La Rioja Alavesa

On our way to Bodegas Baigorri, we stopped in at Bodegas Ysios & found that they do require a winery tour – well so be it, as we wanted to taste their wines. Bodegas Ysios only makes 2 wines, both reds and it sometimes seems to be better known for the grand winery building than the wines! They are part of the PernodRicard empire so not exactly your mom & pop operation. All in all, they were decent vinos with one from the 2008 vintage and one from the 2009 and they were generous with the pours…and left us the bottles!

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Wine Tasting @ Bodega Ysios, La Rioja Alavesa

Post 2 picture perfect & massively enjoyable days in Laguardia & La Rioja Alavesa, we packed up and made our way up & over the Cantabria Mountains with Pamplona in our sites. Pamplona as many folks know, is mainly famous or infamous for the Running of the Bulls or the Festival of  San Fermin. We scheduled our visit the day after the festival ended which was both a blessing & a curse. A blessing in that much of the craziness (and it is VERY CRAZY) had subsided, but a curse in several ways as the town was: (a) slightly dead (guess bar & restaurant owners & staff et al needed a rest); (b) it was a tad dirty & smelled of vomit in places; (c) Shelley had her wallet pinched.

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Top Left: Magina Aceites de la Sierra & Owner; Vermut @ Baserriberri; Group Pic; Catedral de Santa Maria; Final Pintxos @ Baserriberri

Despite the curses, we toddled on & managed to find some excellent pintxos at the open bars, pay a visit to the sweet wee Mercado de Santa Domingo which has one of the best & cheapest cheese stalls anywhere, and round up quite a few gourmet goodies at Magina Aceites de la Sierra shop where the owner was beyond generous and helpful (photo above).

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Hondarribia Blues Fest – Awesome!

One of the awesome things about living in Hondarribia (and in close proximity to San Sebastián) is there is always something going on…and usually free! And such was Shelley & the Kids’s luck that upon our road trip return, they happened to time it right for the Hondarribia Blues Festival. Four days and nights of stellar performances from musicians from round the world, on multiple stages about the town. Not sure how or who pays for it, but it is a seriously fun event.

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Hondarribia Blues Fest – Good Time Had By All!!!

After a wee rest (except for Shelley & the Kids who headed off to Paris for 4 days! Lucky sods…), we caught the slow train from San Sebastián that goes along the coast & ends up in the Big Smoke of Bilbao, one of the Basque Country’s biggest cities. I did not expect to really like Bilbao much on my first visit – besides the infamous Guggenheim Museum, what could the industrial capital of the Pais Vasco offer? Well, a lot to be honest.

We checked into our sweet accommodation @ Casual Gurea in the late afternoon & got out for a decent wander in the Parte Viejo. As always, growing boy Finn was hungry, so we made our way to Plaza Nueva which is lined with numerous pintxo bars and fed the beast…we sampled the wares of Bar Zuga and of course had to drop in at the classic Victor Montes.

I had made a dinner reservation at El Perro Chico, a place the Hounds had managed to grab a quick lunch at on our first visit to Bilbao but it had been firmly put on the ‘food radar’ for a return visit for a full on meal…

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El Perro Chico, Bilbao – Best Food in Spain So Far!

Pretty much all we call say is a big WOW! El Perro Chico, without any doubt, serves some of the best food I/we have had in Spain so far. It is one of those rare breeds that takes the abundance & variety of Spanish food products, and gives them an innovative, international or other worldly twist. The food has no focus on a specific style or ethnicity except to make damn good tasting food, creatively prepared.

We all tucked into our respective plates and no one chose poorly – it all tickled the taste buds (even the salad starter was AWESOME), but the general consensus was Shelley won the day with her seared tuna, perfectly cooked & flavoured. We LOVED it here so much that upon paying our bill & leaving, we booked in for lunch on our last day…

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El Perro Chico Dinner: Top Left – Seared Tuna; Smoked Beef; Veal Chop; Pork Belly

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El Perro Chico Dog Bill & Dessert

On our first full day in Bilbao we opted for a full on museum day – first the infamous Guggenheim (I like the building the best), followed up by a visit to the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao (far better art in my humble opinion). The Guggenheim certainly has the “wow” factor going for it, but I could easily just walk around the building having a good squizzy from all sides & be more than happy.

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Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum

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Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum

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Guggenheim Fun…

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Bilbao Museo – Life Like Exhibition…Slightly Creepy.

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Museo de Bilbao

Post some seriously heavy museum time, we all had worked up some hunger pains so we walked as straight as the crow flies to Cafe Iruña, a cafe rightly famous for its lamb kebabs (called Pintxo Moruno) cooked over a charcoal grill & served by Ahmed. In general, Spanish food is not too spicy or highly flavoured, so it was a nice mouth jolt to bite into a clearly Moroccan flavoured skewer of roast lamb.

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Cafe Iruña, Bilbao – Lamb Kebabs by Ahmed

Besides the museums, the great food market, the riverside walks, the tasty bars & restaurants and the Old Town, one of the other ‘must sees’ is the Alhóndiga Cultural and Leisure Centre designed/renovated by Bad Boy Frenchman Philippe Starck. Originally a massive La Rioja wine warehouse that was built in 1909, it is now a full function space with art & culture exhibits, cinema, restaurants & bars and sporting activities. We all found the rooftop, glass bottomed swimming pool of most curious interest.

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Alhóndiga Cultural and Leisure Center by Philippe Starck

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Shelley & The Kids Take A Dip At The Alhóndiga Cultural and Leisure Center’s Glass Bottom Pool

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Group Fun – Bilbao, Spain

And just like me after my first visit, Shelley & the Kids really loved the Big Smoke of Bilbao. They felt they could easily have spent a couple more days there (just like me) to more fully explore the rich variety of experiences this Basque city has to offer.

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Out on the Town – Bilbao, Spain – Plaza Nueva with some Bacarones & Vermut!

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El Perro Chico, Bilbao -Again! For Goodbye Lunch…

And here we all are, back again @ El Perro Chico for our goodbye lunch (Shelley & the Kids were flying out of Bilboa @ 6:30pm for home, New Zealand) and once again, we were totally pleased. At lunch El Perro Chico offer a menú del día for the wee sum of €13.50 (they were super nice & let us adults have the kids’s vino). I also need to mention that besides the stunning food, the staff are simply superb, simply superb.

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Lunch @ El Perro Chico, Bilbao: Top – Waldorf Salad, Roasted Tomatoes & Polenta; Watermelon Salmorejo

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El Pero Chico, Bilbao – Goodbye Lunch….

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El Perro Chico, Bilbao: Top Left – Yellow Veg Chicken Curry, Fajitas With Beef & Crispy Red Onions, Crispy Chicken on a Parmesan Base & Thyme Polenta

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El Perro Chico, Bilbao: Dessert…So Good We Almost Forgot to Take A Photo…

So with a grand mix of happiness (great to spend such fun times with the crew & eat so well) and sadness (saying goodbye to great mates), we bid our final goodbyes & I toddled off to catch the slow train to San Sebastián with a few wee tears in my eyes. Shelley & the Kids made it home safe & sound though by a flight(s) from Hell & I hope to see them soon on the Other Side…

A Day Out In Donosti with Idoia…Then A Surprise!

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Donosti Crew

Our good mate Idoia, who runs our local taberna, invited us to a Day in Donosti (San Sebastián) for a personally guided pintxo stroll…and a wee bit of lunch. And we were also told to keep the evening, round 6:45pm, free for a surprise!

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Our first port of call was a mutual favourite – Bar Goiz Argi. The Hounds had discovered this place on our recon strip more than 3 years ago and have been back many times since to enjoy its tasty offerings, in a tiny, tiny space in the Old Town.

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Calamari & Shrimps & Cervezas

A recent discovery has been their hot calamari pintxo, of which 2 are needed to satisfy our hunger…slathered in a minced garlic oil, grilled to a slightly caramelised brown – estupendo! The sauce is oh so good wiped up with some bread brooms…Idoia took the gambas (shrimps) path and polished off 4 perfectly seared specimens…and, of course, some cervazas!

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Top Left: Hot Duck; Mushroom Rice; Veal Cheek

Idoia had her list ready, but some of the bars were not co-operating, and for the random Spanish reasons we have not fully fathomed, they were closed on a sweet Thursday arvo. So on we trudged and landed at the next open place for some hot, made-to-order pintxos at a joint I’d forgotten to get or remember the name of – shite. This place was in the very same vein as La Cuchara de San Telmo, one of our regular Donosti pintxo stops (when we can squeeze in). There’s nothing displayed on the bar, just a hand scribbled blackboard list with about a dozen excellent choices (our choices are in the pic above)…

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Top Left: Summer Veggie Spread; Awesome Apple Thingy Dessert; Seared Steak Loin & Ash Dust; Lamb Chops & New Potatoes

Then it was time for lunch…yes, some lunch folks. The 2 pintxo stops had put a minor dent in our hunger pangs, so Idoia led us out of the Old Town, past Gipuzkoa Square, to Restaurante Zazpi. This was a new discovery for the Hounds as we’d never crossed its path in all our San Sebastián food wanderings. They had a Plato del Día (main plate, dessert, drink) for a mere €7 & we choose a stunning pulpo salad to share as a starter – perfectly cooked pulpo arrayed on 2 cones of yummy potato mash with a fresh green salad in between. Our mains were: me, lamb chops with roasted new potatoes; Hound #2 went the veggie route (beautifully displayed); and Idoia got some seared steak loin with an amazing crumbled ash dust…Dessert was a quickly devoured apple pudding crumble thing – all 3 spoons were in active, furious use.

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Up To The Bells!

Now we were stuffed, so we jumped on the bus to return us to Hondarribia to await the arrival of 6:45PM and the surprise! Spot on time, Idoia led us up to Arma Plaza where a group of her mates were waiting. We all proceeded to the old church where Ramón, armed with a key that could kill someone, opened up the doors.

We then started our climb – up & up & up to the top of the main bell tower. Wow! Once on top, we had a 360 degree panoramic view of our adopted hometown. And then they started to ring the bells as it just happened to be the Festival of San Juan (Saint John), a festival when it is customary to set bonfires alight & cast things or lists of bad people you want removed from your life into the flames.

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On Top Of Da World in Hondarribia!

 

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Top Left: View from the Bell Tower Deck; The Parador; Hound #2 By Da Bell; Calle Mayor Casco Antiguo & San Juan Fires…

Muchas gracias Idoia for once again showing us a very special day – to have a inside glimpse of real, local Pais Vasco.

For your listening pleasure…the bells of Hondarribia

Road Trip – The End…La Costa Norte de España

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Dark Clouds Ahead…

NB: I apologise in advance for the length of this post, but I simply wanted to wrap it up & move on to writing about other more recent events & happenings before they fade from memory. And in general, I write this post as our ‘electronic diary’ so we do not forget all the good times & people we’ve met…you don’t have to read it, just look at the photos!

We headed south from Viveiro towards the Galician big smoke of A Coruña (in Galician, or La Coruña in Spanish). A Coruña was as far west as we planned to go before turning around for home…one thing that always surprises me a little is how big many of Spain’s other cities (other than Madrid, Barcelona or Sevilla) truly are. And A Coruña was no exception…

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A Coruña, Galicia…

We managed to find our accommodation, Hostal Socaire, with no problemas and the staff were sweet as with help vis a vis parking for Gertie (the port has paddocks of free parking – just a 5-10 minute walk) and a bit of neighbourhood and city orientation. Our first night ended up a wee bit quiet & local as our day had knackered us out. We had a few nibbles at a local bar & the hostal staff gladly gave us another chair from the bar for our balcony, so we sat out with a bottle of vino…

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A Coruña – Roman Lighthouse…Weather Vane…Roman Lighthouse Up Close…Giant Compass

The next morning was a bit of a mixed bag – generally grey & cloudy but patches of blue poking through. We toddled off towards one of the city’s beaches for Hound #2 to take here customary dip in the sea, and then ambled along the seaside promenade towards the ancient Roman Tower of Hercules lighthouse. The weather gods were leaning in our favour as we circled the impressive faro antiguo with patches of blue sky beginning to make more sporadic appearances.

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A Coruña Scenes…Plaza de María Pita…

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Amazing Lamp post Tiles…

All along the seaside promenade they had these amazing, massive street lamp posts – they appeared to be of iron (not the best choice cerca the sea) – that had 4 ceramic tiles per post, with each set of tiles being totally different!

We were gradually working our way to the Old Town section for a bit of an explore and, of course, lunch….We strolled through some crooked laneways, poking our heads in here, then there, strolled the Plaza María Pita and then the weather gods crapped out and incredibly huge droplets started to descend. But our timing was perfecto as we were in a gorgeous tree filled plaza whose periphery was lined with bars – yippee! So 2 cervezas of draught Estrella were promptly brought table side (we chose to sit outside under the awning so Hound #1 Billie could hang) & we serenely watched the rain tumble down.

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Marvellous Momo’s…

Once the rain had lightened up, we headed off to locate a couple of ‘researched’ places to attempt lunch. We popped into one of our first choices, Jamonería La Leonesa, and all seemed more than kosher with a couple of vino tintos in hand & plates of stunning iberco jamón being whisked past our sniffing noses (unfortunately, Hound #1 was tied up outside). But a Galician chap next to us kicked off a conversation (initially in Spanish but flip-flopped to English too) which lead to some expert dining advice. He said we needed to go to Momo’s, just up the street – better food, better value he said. He told us to tell them he’d sent us, but not to use his real name, Fernando, but his nickname Manero which was how he’s known round Coruña proper.

We followed his instructions to a ‘T’ – the Momo staff had a good chuckle and appeared to pass the word round the entire place that Manero was at it again. We struck menu del día platinum @ Momo’s with an €8.70 sticker price folks…cheap as chups as they say in New Zealand.

Post our mid day repast, we wiggled & waggled our way back to our hotel for a mini-siesta and scouted out several of the touted pintxo streets for that evening’s activities…

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El Rey Del Jamón – We Concur!: Top Left – Cecina (Dried Beef); Queen of Jamón; Muchos Jamónes; El Rey del Jamón

We had a short & sweet list of places for our pintxo stroll, but we had spotted a number of other inviting establishments…our ‘tactical plan’ was to walk to the end of several of the connected, sequential pintxo alleys & work our way back, one pintxo & bebida at a time. Our first docking place for the night was El Rey del Jamón, the name (the king of jamón) says it all folks. We placed an order for a plate of cecina (air dried beef – Spanish version of bresaola) & two pours of some Spanish red – estupendo! The night was officially kicked off…

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Vintoteca Estupendo!

The next door we sidled through was Vinoteca Argudelo – a top of the line joint where we had our 2 best copas de tintos of the night. My glass held some delicious Mencia grape juice with the label ‘Tilenus’ from Bodega Estefanía  (I had sampled this in Oviedo – yum) whilst Hound #2 grabbed a glass of the meaty, mouth filling Carramimbre from Bodegas Pingón – a wine to look out for. And a nice feature of A Coruña pintxo bars is the pintxos are free with your drink – yippee!

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La Bombilla; A Taberna – A Coruña, Spain

Our next pit stop was La Bombilla, and only because we loved the sign, shallow & superficial we know, but it works sometimes. The vino was good & we got a couple of free plates of calamari. Then we decided to alter our tactical plan & wander to the back streets for a bit of an explore as we’d read that: (a) the drinks are way cheaper and (b) some places served wine in Chinese tea cups. What’s not to like??? So we found A Taberna – about as rustic & basic & simple a taberna as you will ever find (just check out the web site). So we ordered up a couple of Chinese tea cups of white vino from a barrel, poured from a pitcher for the whopping cost of €0.60 each. Yes, you read that right folks – €0.60 each. The hombre next to us gladly & proudly announced that he has 30-40 a day…and you could tell.

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Manteleria, A Coruña, Spain – Raquel @ Manteleria

We tapped a couple more spots in our wander home, but finished out the night at Manteleria where we met & had a great and interesting chat with Raquel (you will find her blog here), an architect but currently running this fine establishment. We chose the right spot to close out the night with a couple of choice glasses, fresh from a new bottle, of Finca Cuarta from Prior de Pantón, one of the best, refined & meaty renditions of the Mencia grape I had on the trip – and worth a search. Buenas noches…

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A Coruña, Spain: Breakfast Deal To Make Ya Squeal!

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Tapia Casariego, Asturias, Spain

We bid a sweet goodbye to A Coruña (Gertie was safe & sound – phew!), and plotted a path to return to a renowned surf beach in the pueblo of Tapia de Casariego (say that 5 times fast) for Hound #2 to have a go. But the tide & waves were not co-operating, so after a good college try, we headed off in search of lunch….

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Tapia de Casariego, Spain: El Muelle, Ensalada Mixta, Pulpo a la Plancha, Port View

We made a bee line for the port for both the views, and possibly better seafood & settled into an outdoor table at El Muelle (means jetty, wharf or pier in Spanish). All worked to plan & we once again enjoyed some pulpo a la plancha and a refreshing ensalada mixta…and 2 cervezas.

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Cudillero

Our resting place for the night was a camp in the much-written-about fishing village of Cudillero. We parked Gertie up at the very top of the very steep town street (yes, just one street) & wandered down…and down and down. We would agree that Cudillero is pretty and met many of the accolades that have been written about it, but it has also gone a wee bit past the tipping point on the tourism scale. Chocka with restaurants & bars, almost hocking their menus and a smattering of very twee shops to catch the tourist’s eye.

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Cudillero, Spain: Top Left – Pulpo a la Plancha; Hound #2 & Pulpo; Clams; El Faro; Scallops

So we opted to deploy our ‘back streets’ strategy and came across the almost empty El Faro restaurant. And since we were no starv’n marvins, and we were again in a fishing port, the obvious choice was a couple of raciones (small plates) del mar. First order of business – vino…so with 2 glasses of Albariño a mano, we put the order in for some clams (almejas) & scallops (zamburinas in Galician, or vieiras in Spanish). What was delivered to our table was, both presentation & taste-wise, a true masterpiece of culinary art & flavours. So good in fact, we decided we needed to have a go @ the octopus (pulpo)…and another glass of wine (awesome Verdejo that paired perfectly with all the seafood taste treats).

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Playa del Silencio, Cudillero, Spain

The next day brought us another patchwork of a day with somber clouds dispersing to reveal a burning sun. We checked our Top 10 Beach list & Playa del Silencio was on it & we were within spitting distance, so off we went…

To say we were impressed would be a massive understatement – wow! So beautiful, and so empty…

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Playa del Silencio, Cudillero, Spain: Empty Beach, Billie & The Stick Game; Chill Bill

Another fishing village on our ‘to do’ list was Lastres, and once again, lunch time was fast approaching. Simply said, we liked Lastres a lot – not past its prime tourist-wise, chocka with old or ancient buildings that were very well kept & maintained (Cudillero was a shambles compared to Lastres) and just enough restaurants & bars to keep the locals happy & well fed & full of vino.

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Lastres

We used Dad’s Rule again (many locals filled the tables & bar), and plopped ourselves at an outside seat at Bar El Meson for the menu del día.

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Menu del Día de Lastres @ El Meson

For starters Hound #2 picked the mussels (mejillones), and I was almost beside myself as they were serving the fabada asturiana! A dish that’d been on my comida list the whole trip but I’d failed to try…Now this was my kind of food folks – big bean stew with hunks of ham hock, blood sausage & chorizo floating about in a most savoury broth. I loved it so much I forgot to take a picture of the mussels….and Hound #2 had to take a taste test with a 1/2 dozen spoonfuls of my fabada. For our mains we both got what we wanted – a wonderfully grilled, fresh sea bass (lubina)  for Hound #2 and a perfectly seared sirloin steak (entrecot) para mi.

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Our Last Night’s Camp Site…

The timing of the finale to our trip was a bit open ended, and mainly weather dependent. So with a day or two of decent weather holding a place in the forecast, we headed for another campground surrounded by some of our must see beaches.

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Top: Playa de Rodiles – Too Many People; Campground Beach; Last Camp…

We awoke to a sparkling morning and decided to seize the day as the weather forecast had radically changed – par for the course here on the Northern coast of Spain. Hound #2 had her required dips in the campground beaches whilst the Beach Ground Crew (me & Billie) had a wander. Then we plotted a course for a well written about seaside town – Llanes.

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Llanes

Llanes is one of the bigger seaside towns we hit on this trip – not at all in the league of Santander or A Coruña but significantly larger than Cudillero or Lastres or Luarca. It has a modest Casco Viejo (Old Town) where we stocked up on Asturian specialities like cider, cheeses & picante chorizo. Then it was one last beach before we pointed Gertie to the East, and home.

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Playa Ballota, Llanes, Spain

A stunner of a beach to end the trip – Playa Ballota, just a skip & a jump out of Llanes and, once again, too many people!!!

So folks, we think we can unanimously say, that if you are thinking at all about a visit to Spain, the Northern Coast is ESTUPENDO! A jewel in the Spanish crown with majestic beaches, drop dead scenery (Picos de Europa are a must see), savoury food, gulpable drink and warm & welcoming people.  So go…go now before they pave over paradise       ;-)….

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Vinos de Viaje…

An Intercambio Lunch…

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Pintxo Bar Sardara…

We make an effort every Wednesday (a bit lax lately due to travels) to meet our Spanish mate Maria for lunch to have a mini, 1 on 1 (or 2) intercambio. An intercambio is when folks who speak different languages but are learning another (Spanish & English in this case) get together to practice. Our time together is usually split fairly evenly so that half the time we speak English, the other half we chat away in Español. We have been opting for places that offer the bargain deal of the menu del día but Maria suggested we go the pintxo & racíon route at Bar Sadara on Calle San Pedro. So off we toddled…

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Tuna, Tomate, Guindillas & Sprout Salad

The Hounds had sampled Bar Sadara’s pintxo offerings before on one of our regular weekend pintxiteos (pintxo crawl) and we knew they were top notch, so we had no hesitations here. First to arrive on our table was a fresh as tomato & tuna (the tuna is exceptionally good round these parts) salad sprinkled with the local delicacy – guindillas. Guindillas are pickled chillies that have a smidgeon of heat but really add a nice tartness or piquancy to the dish.

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Grilled Artichokes and Jamón

And as we are in or near the end of artichoke season, a racíon of grilled alcachofas & jamón was next to make an appearance. Hard to beat this combo folks – a crowd pleaser with a perfect mix of veg & meat, cooked to perfection with the artichokes crisp but tender & the jamón spicing it up with a bit of saltiness.

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Morros de Cerdo – Pig’s Nose…With Sprouts

On to the pintxo round – Maria and I opted for the Morros de Credo, which I only found out later (post eating) that I had had pig’s snout. Tasted great…ignorance is bliss.

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Puff Pastry de Marisco

Hound #2 went the seafood route with a puff pastry stuffed with a marisco assortment…vanished from the plate.

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Desserts – Apple Tart & a Delish Warm, Chocolate Ozzing Cakelet

One of the nice things about of eating this way (probably a health benefit too) is that your stomach has sufficient time to catch up with your eyes & mouth. The amount of food you actually have consumed almost never seems to be too much. Thus, there always seems to be room for dessert (pleases Hound #2 to no end), so Alex & Maria tucked in while I got to finish the wine (my kind of dessert)….

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Dessert Gurls…