Bilbao in Spain's Basque Country has an internationally recognized food culture that embraces everything from the simple pintxos to elegant fine dining.
By John Jacobs
What makes a place earn a spot on the list of the world's most interesting foodie experiences? For Bilbao in Spain's Basque Country, it was the combination of being the birthplace of the snack food pintxo and home to some of the finest dining experiences. Enjoy a quickly eaten pintxo at a stand-and-eat bar or spend delicious hours at a Michelin-rated restaurant savoring world-class recipes, both experiences inclusive of a glass of wine.
Whether standing and eating or sitting and dining, it is a cultural experience that uses food as an irresistible enticement.
Building a Finger Foods Culture
Basque Country is located in the western Pyrenees in northern Spain, and Bilbao is the largest city in the province of Biscay. "Large" in this case is a population of a little over 345,100, small compared to other cities.
Bilbao's size in terms of population has no relationship to its world-renowned food culture that ranges from snack foods to white tablecloth dining. Just like "large" may not describe the city correctly in the eyes of people from Paris or New York, calling pintxos "snack" food can easily give the wrong impression.
The word pintxo is a modified version of the Spanish word "pincho" which means spike. In this case, the spike is a stick (think: toothpick) that holds food items together. Originally, the toothpick held something to bread, but the modern pintxo has become a foodie's delicacy in which bread is often nowhere to be found. Pintxos are finger foods found at bars and taverns, some of which are historic or elegant or just interesting. Closely related to the tapa, the pintxo can be a plain piece of meat pinned to a piece of bread or an exquisitely stacked food item that makes the toothpick an essential item for a pickup food.
Pintxos are small, diverse, bite-sized appetizers served warm or cold. The small appetizers are placed on plates on bar counters so customers can pick and choose the ones that appear most appetizing. Many of the bars have few seats so people have learned to stand-and-eat with a glass of wine in one hand, leaving the other hand free to select the small delicacies.
Advice from experienced travelers says to walk in and let the bartender know you plan on eating pintxos. You can ask for a plate, and if the barperson hands it to you, then start selecting appetizers and tell the barperson at the end how many you ate for purposes of calculating the final bill. If the barperson hangs on to the plate, then you will select pintxos and the barperson will place each one on the plate.
Beste Bat (Ask for Another!)
The bars serving pintxos are in clusters, so you can pintxo crawl. Calling some of the pintxos "appetizers" seems like such a misnomer.
There are competitions in the region that give awards to the most creative pintxos. Think of grilled scallops, quail eggs, red pepper stuffed with a fish soufflé, lamb pieces on skewers, Iberian ham covered with leek salad, and cod neck served with fish sauce. You really can get fairly ordinary ham sandwich type appetizers, but why would you?
Picture walking into a bar and the counter is lined from end to end with plates full of a variety of pintxos – colorful, interesting, and culturally inspired. Behind the bar is someone pouring draft beers and glasses of wine to supplement the food. It is a time of adventure and camaraderie that makes for a foodie's paradise on earth.
In an interesting twist, the bars and taverns offering plates of pinxtos are juxtaposed with Michelin-starred restaurants.
Bilbao has several, including the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Auzrmendi. This elegant restaurant combines cultural recipes with modern chef-inspired alterations and additions that create a contemporary cuisine built on history. The restaurant is located in an environmentally sustainable building which blends nature and modern architecture. A peek at one menu offers servings of oyster, tear peas, roasted lobster, spider crab, pigeon and stewed piglet tail. Diners enjoy a variety of breads baked in traditional ways, and many of the vegetables, flowers, herbs and buds used in recipes are locally sourced.
On Egin (Enjoy Your Meal)
Feel free to explore Bilbao's cultural foods served at various restaurants.
Some foods, like bacalao pil-pil are standard fare. It is a dish that is made of cod fish fried in olive oil and garlic until the skin pops (pil-pil) and is crispy.
Txangurros are spider crabs, and they are stuffed and baked. The stuffing is a delightful mixture of crab meat, tomato, onions and bread crumbs that is enhanced with parsley, garlic, olive oil and brandy. The crab is baked in an oven until the stuffing is crispy.
Marmitako is a traditional Basque tuna and potato stew with red and green peppers, garlic, onions, tomato sauce, paprika and parsley.
Then there is kokotxas which is only found in Basque Country. Cod or hake fish cheeks are served in a flour-thickened white wine and olive oil sauce that is flavored with garlic. Seafood plays a big role in the diet with baby squid cooked in its own ink (txipirones) and hake fish in green sauce (merluza en salsa verde) being just two of the local recipes.
Of course, every culture has its desserts, and dessert is regularly served at the end of each meal. The Basque tart is a vanilla custard filled spongy pastry that may contain fruit. Etxeko biskotxoa is a Basque cake that has a light crust with a filling like black cherry preserves or almond-flavored pastry cream; it actually looks more like a type of pie than a cake. Goxua is a very sweet layered dessert of whipped cream, sponge cake and carmelized custard.
The dessert list goes on and on, but pastries, pies, tarts and puddings are often found at the end of bar counters filled with pintxos. What a delightful culinary experience!
Bilbao is a place where food rules. From the easygoing bars serving pintxos to the elegant fine-dining restaurants, visitors can travel a culinary journey that is exquisite, unique and so enjoyable. Ondo pasa! Have a good time!