With four flight legs, our fingers were crossed that we would arrive in Bilboa on schedule and our luggage would choose to join us. The first two flight legs on United ran ahead of schedule giving us a chance for the ritual Chicago style frankfurter at O’Hare and a long look at the extensive airport art installations in Toronto (http://urbanemagazine.ca/articles/essence.of.flight/, http://www.gtaa.com/en/travellers/airport_information/art__exhibits/). There’d be pictures, but the camera bag was inadvertently checked in San Francisco so you have to look at the websites.
From Toronto, our route took us through Madrid and then on to Bilbao. I had read that the new Madrid air terminal is architecturally interesting and was looking forward to seeing it. Unfortunately our flights took us to the old terminal, which is looking dowdy and dated. I guess seeing the new portion of the airport will have to wait for a future trip.
As our plane reached Bilbao, a rain squall was passing through. With beams of sunlight passing through the holes in the clouds spotlighting the terminal building we taxied to the gate. From the distance the airport looks like a delta wing airplane or a giant bird perched on the slopes of a shallow valley. Debarking the plane we entered the cavernous symmetrical space that opens on the runway side and floods the ten gates with light. We collected our bags and passed through customs. Soon we were out into the moist, fresh air and into a waiting taxi. The squall had passed but the roads were wet with the recent rain. Our taxi ride to our pension gave us our first glimpses of Bilbao. With the lush green hills split by a muddy brown Nervión River we might have thought we were in Portland, Oregon. Bilbao has undergone a recent renaissance and now striking modern structures are scattered amongst the older buildings of the city. On closer inspection, this was definitely not Portland.
We reached our room at the small and comfortable pension, Iturrienia Ostatua, 28 hrs after leaving our house in California. Surprisingly fresh after a shower and a nap, we were ready to learn first hand what the Basque words Txakoli, sagardo, and pintxos meant. Onto the narrow wet streets of Bilbao’s old town, our coconspirators for the trip, Ganesan and Catherine, joined us. Ganesan once managed to arrange a dinner for us at El Bulli. He had a high standard to live up to on this venture.
We never did decipher much of the Basque language. What is clear is that in the Basque version of Scrabble an “X” is not worth eight points and you couldn’t spell many words without having multiple X’s in the tile set. An “X” appears in the most unusual places in words like in “Txakoli”, which is pronounced “chac-OH-lee”, the ubiquitous Basque white wine of the region.
Our Basque food and wine education also began. On the streets Bilbao we learned that Txakoli varies in styles from bracingly acidic and unripe to a fleshier, fuller bodied style that still retains a strong acidic bite. All variants the wine are low in alcohol, at least on Chardonnay standard. It is hard for me to draw a comparison for the flavor profile. Perhaps Txakoli is most similar to Sauvignon Blancs made from less ripe grapes, though there are more differences than similarities in this comparison.
Sagardo is the hard cider of the Basque region. The cider has an acidic character similar to the Txakoli but retains a taste of the source apples. Pintxos, which is spelled as “pinchos” in Spanish but either way is pronounced “PEEN-chos”, are the Basque equivalent of tapas. The name derives from the spike that is used to hold the food together though a toothpick or wooden skewer is now only occasionally used. Both Txakoli and Sagardo match the pinxtos well with the acidity and fruitiness cutting through the strong, oily flavors of the bar food.
Our first stop was at Bar Restaurante Rio-Oja (c/ Perro 4, Bilbao). Here we started with the local specialty of bacalao that was reconstituted and poached in olive oil with garlic and herbs. We followed with sardines and then pig snout. The snout was braised in a tomato sauce that produced gelatinous meat from the breakdown of the connective tissues and had a slight organ meat flavor. Of everything, our favorite dish was pimentos de padron (see http://www.happyquailfarms.com/padrones.html). The jalapeño-sized pardon peppers are common in this area of Spain. After sautéing in olive oil the peppers were sprinkled with flaky salt and served. The Padron Peppers taste a bit like green bell peppers but have some have a mildly spicy heat that varies from pepper to pepper. Soon we developed cravings for these little peppers.
Back onto Bilbao’s slick wet streets, Xukela, our next stop, was a short walk away. We were up for new things so we were sure to include rooster comb. The dish was served on a small piece of French bread in more of the traditional tapas format. The rooster comb had a gelatinous texture of brought on by slow cooking and a mild chicken flavor.
Our pintxos crawl continued on after Xukela though the cider, txakoli, and jet lag caught up with us, the record keeping broke down. Soon it was time to end our night. It was a good start to our food adventure.
Wikipedia on Txakoli:
Wikipedia on Basque cider: