When in Basque country, enjoy pintxos (pronounced peen-choes), the more elaborate Basque version of tapas. Generally these are bite-sized rounds of toast topped with anything, from salt cod and sea urchin to goat’s cheese in manzanilla sherry. It is customary locally to crawl through various pintxos bars, enjoying many plates of pintxos with their drinks, before going home to dinner. One particular pintxos bar to note is Gure Toki, an award-winning establishment which combines traditional and experimental pintxos, located at Plaza Nueva in the heart of Casco Viejo (the Old Town).
Bilbao has added its own quirks to some particular pintxos dishes, such as pisto a la bilbaina, a ratatouille made with onions, peppers, courgettes, tomatoes, beaten eggs and hamm, all cut up into very small pieces. The ‘Ranero Club Cod’ was invented by the Bilbao Society Club’s French chef, Alejandro Caverivière, in the 1930s. It is not known for sure as to how the dish got its name, but there are two popular theories: the first is that the cod was served to a group gathered at wine tables to play a game of rana (the throwing game of ‘frog’) and Caverivière added fried onions, green peppers, tomato and chorizo peppers to the traditional bacalao al pil-pil cod dish as more friends turned up. The second theory is simply that the French chef created it in honour of the Rana Players’ Club.
Mixed vegetables feature in typical Bilbao dishes, including battered and fried vegetables such as chard, artichokes, peas, beans or chard stalks, as well as egg and lamb. This is usually finished with a dessert called the Straws of Bilbao, and two sandwiches.
Bilbao bakers specialise in various desserts, many of which are based on pastry. A typical Bilbao sweet is the ‘bollo de mantequilla’ or butter bun. First adapted by two Swiss cousins, Pedro Bernardo and Francesco Matossi Franconi, who established a bakery in the old town in 1813, this butter bun is a kind of Swiss or brioche bun cut in half, and filled with a layer of butter cream, egg and a layer of sugar on top. A similar sweet with a pastry base and creamy filling is the pastel de arro\. Puff patties filled with custard, known as Canutillo are another traditional Bilbao sweet. Another Bilbao sweet is a meringue tart coated in chocolate, with a puff pastry based, known as a Carolina. Jesuita de cabello de ángel are puff pastry triangles with sweet pumpkin filling. Popular Bilbao cakes include the pastel ruso (Russian cake) and the relleno de Vergara cake.
During September, you will find that restaurants will serve dishes featuring partridges, woodcock, wild boar, and mushrooms.
Since the early 20th century, cava and champagne have been known as ‘Bilbao water’ when the Basques became renowned for boasting that ‘champagne was drunk like water’. Txakoli, or Chacoli, is a slightly sparkling, very dry white wine produced locally, and is a popular accompaniment to pintxos. Nearby, the 18th century Palace of Mendibile houses a museum, the Museo del Txakoli, which is dedicated to the history of txakoli, explaining its history and exhibiting a large collection of machinery used for its production. Txakoli is normally served as an aperitif, and drunk within one year of bottling as it cannot be stored for longer. The most common variety is white, with a pale green colour, although red and rosé varieties are available.
More regional, Basque drinks include Basque cider, or sagardoa, served at sagardotegia (cider houses), which also traditionally serve salted cod omelettes, quince jelly and nuts with the cider. A sloe-flavoured liqueur, patxaran, is also commonly drunk in the Basque region, and served as a digestif, either chilled or on ice. Made by soaking sloe berries, collected from the blackthorn shrub, along with coffee beans and a cinnamon pod in anisette, and first produced in Navarre in the Middle Ages. Patxaran became popular during the late 19th century and commercialised in the 1950s, becoming popular outside Navarre. It is commonly believed that its popularity spread as young Navarrese took bottles with them whilst on National Service.
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