Monday began a pattern that would be repeated frequently during the trip. We started with a walk under the glow of the rising sun followed by a light breakfast. After a catnap in the room, we headed out for lunch that was, more often than not, our big meal of the day. “Lunch” usually started around two and often lasted until the early evening. Afterwards, we recovered in the room preparing for the continuation of the search for the best pintxos in the Spain that started around nine.
On our first morning in Bilbao, the jet lag made getting up early easier. We headed out on the wet streets of the old town the short distance to Mercado de la Ribera. Mercado de la Ribera is, according to the Guiness Book of World Records, Europe’s largest covered market. The bustling businesses, bright colors, and musty-sweet smells that identify markets worldwide were fully evident when we arrived. On a Monday, the fish stalls were closed but the other stands offering fresh fruits, vegetables and meats were open. In a market this size, many stands compete selling essentially the same items. Some stalls were more popular than others and attracted large crowds of regulars who continued their morning conversations while waiting to be served. The butcher shops focused on specialty areas. Some stalls sold pork, others offered beef, and still others had poultry on sale. Seemingly all parts of the animals, from nose, beak, or snout to tail, were available for the market goers who knew how to use them.
Mercado de la Ribera:
Back outside, we headed on foot along the paver-lined banks of the muddy and slow moving estuary of the Nervión river to the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao’s iconic structure. The museum was closed on Monday but the outside of any Frank Gehry building is as much of an attraction as what is on the inside. Across the river, the Guggenheim first appears seemingly as a surreal sailing ship, fantastically clad in metal and somehow docked on the shores of the Nervión. With a loop around the building, we watched the titanium panels change in appearance from silver to gold depending on how the light struck the many angles of the building. Typical of Gehry’s buildings, you’re never certain where the line between the art of sculpture and the functional building lies. Is Gehry just using the design of large public buildings as a pretext for creating massive sculptures?
Finishing our loop around the Guggenheim, we headed back to our pension. We chose a route that took us through the narrow, traffic-less streets and old stone buildings of Bilbao’s historic district that contrasted the modern art structure of the Guggenheim. Back at the room, after a rest, we were ready for our big meal of the day.
The day’s lunch was at Andra Mari, a Michelin one starred restaurant a short taxi ride out of town. On the hills around Bilbao the houses have a distinct European alpine look. Flower boxes sit below the windows of the stone and wood beam buildings. It would have been easy enough to believe that we were in Switzerland.
We entered the rustic dining room staffed by waitresses in traditional costume. Restaurante Andra Mari is perched on a hillside and the room’s large windows provided views of the surrounding lush green terrain that were partially masked under the drizzle of the day’s weather.
A glass of Txakoli began our meal. Our table ordered the prix fix dinners, two each from the “Menu Degustacion” and “Menu Tradicional Elexalde,” to give us a broader view of the food. Amongst my favorite dishes was the “Garbanzos estofados con bacalao y morcilla” or “Chickpeas with salt cod and sausage stew” from the Menu Tradicional Elexalde. This stop on the menu was a hearty garbanzo bean soup with the silky, salty cod luxuriously taking over the usual role of ham hocks in a typical bean soup. The food emphasized the ingredients of the region and was prepared in the modern, international style. This was not a meal that sought to amaze, astound, or amuse the diners. Instead, it was simply a delicious, comfortable, and tasty treat. With wine, the meal for two came to 128 euros, without tax, which was a good value for the quality of the meal. Our trip’s fine dining excursions were off to an excellent start.
After our siesta, another pintxos search was in order. It went without saying that there would be another plate of pimentos de Padron. Some of the bars offered Jamón Iberico de Bellota with the curing hams and their pendant drip cups often suspended over the bar. Jamon Iberico is the Cadillac of country hams. The ham comes from a prized and pampered black-footed Iberico pigs. Higher quality ham, Jamón Iberico de Recebo, comes from pigs that run free and eat a diet that consists largely of acorns for the last months of their lives. The most prized ham is Jamón Iberico de Bellota where the black-footed pigs consume herbs and acorns for their entire life. Prior to our visit to Spain, our exposure to Iberico ham was unfortunately limited. This changed quickly on our visit. At Bar Gatz (10 Calle Santa María) we ordered a plate of ham that was cut fresh from the bone. As we waited, a plate for another table headed out from the bar. Becky, who sometimes refers to herself as a vegetarian, was drooling profusely and nearly tackled the server thinking the plate was for her. We were nervously embarrassed and feared expulsion from the country. The staff was clearly concerned and our plate of meat was hurriedly prepared.
Becky senses must have been working well as this was the best country style ham that we had ever had. The thin cut meat is tender and melts in the mouth with a buttery texture. I was expecting a stronger taste than Serrano ham or Prosciutto de Parma, but instead the taste was well balanced with distinct nutty and buttery flavors.
Back in our room I was pretty sure that Becky fell asleep this night fantasizing that I was leg of Jamón Iberico de Bellota. Usually, being viewed as a piece of meat is a bad thing, but in this particular case, it was understandable. I was just careful to keep my hind limbs away from Becky’s prodigious chompers.
What we ate: