Eating out in Bilbao.
Having farewelled Barcelona to spend a few days in Bilbao before leaving Spain, it was interesting to note some of the gastronomical differences between the two cities. Barcelona, as the cosmopolitan capital of Spain’s Catalonia region, is defined by its medieval roots in combination with a modernist personality, and the city’s food reflects this, anchored by the products of the Boqueria market
For example, the typical breakfast for most people, and a true Catalan staple, would be Pa Amb Tomaquet (Pan Con Tomate), bread rubbed with fresh tomatoes and drizzled with oil and salt…..……..in this case accompanied by a slab of tortilla and coffee and consumed one early morning at the Boqueria market.
Then there is the unique Spanish ham. Of the three ham categories, the prize is the jamón ibérico de bellota (bellota meaning ‘acorn’) which comes from those animals that are allowed to free range in the oak forests (dehesas) foraging for acorns, wild fruit and grass. The hams made from these pigs boasts a luxurious amount of fat, an incredibly silky, melting texture and uniquely sweet-salty flavor.The Iberian pig is an ancient breed of (usually) black pig, most likely originating from a cross between one brought to Spain by the Phoenicians during the 9th century BC with the Mediterranean wild boar. Here being prepared for a tasting by Eva Vila from La Teca de Vila Viniteca in downtown Barcelona.
Catalonia’s cuisine is also based on the sea with the infamous Bacallà amb samfaina – a salt cod dish with tomato sauce and vegetables……..……..or it comes from the mountains and the country’s interior in the form of a rich array of cheeses……
…..and so on and so on.
Likewise, Bilbao is surrounded by rural areas in the form of its hilly terrain, that can make for some intersting wind gusts when landing at its iconic airport by Spanish designer, Santiago Calatrava.
Bilbao is an industrial port city in northern Spain – the de facto capital of the Basque Country – with its famed Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao……..………which sparked the city’s revitalization when it opened in 1997. With its history of heavy industry, Bilbao found itself floundering during the 1980s until it reinvented itself through an adventurous architectural building programme that started with Gehry and continued on with the likes of Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava to name a few.
The nature of the Basque cuisine is reflected in this ability to reinvent, and during the 1970s and 1980s Basque chefs were influenced by the nouvelle cuisine of France, creating their own basque version – radically original in its form but still solidly Basque in substance, but with lighter and less rustic versions of traditional dishes and flavours.
This is particularly evident at the tapas bars around town, particularly in the Plaza Nueva, a central square in Bilbao’s old quarter, where they serve modern-style pintxos that employ novel techniques and ingredients.In more recent years, the Basque chef Martin Berasategui has given even greater impetus to Basque cuisine, influencing the international gastronomy scene, particularly the Catalan chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame. Despite being a non household name, Berasategui holds 8 Michelin stars since 2001, more than any other Spanish chef. Amongst those that have learnt from him is Josean Martínez Alija, the current chef at Nerua, a newly opened cutting-edge restaurant located in the Guggenheim Bilbao. With a nigh on impossible to find entry on the outside of the Guggenheim, with a Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture crouching above its entrance……….……..Nerua’s interior is a cool understatement of minimal design.Firstly, entry to the restaurant is through the busy kitchen, where Brunyfire was met by the young chef Miguel who introduced her to the workings of the kitchen, and the first appetisers of the 9 course degustation menu that was to follow.Firstly, a shot of chilled pea juice gazpacho, followed by crispy puffed sheets of deep fried cod skin…..……..followed by a deep fried quail’s egg, meant to be eaten in one bite, before the meal itself started in earnest. The 95€ meal started with little cherry tomatoes…………each individual tomato injected with a different herbal infusion and served up in a caper broth. These babies just exploded in the mouth – each flooding the palate with a wash of flavoured juice…….…….a great introduction to the mustardy and crispy cheese combo of wild asparagus, avocado, arugula (a pungent leafed Mediterranean plant, Eruca vesicaria sativa, of the mustard family, similar to rocket) with green wheat extract and Parmesan crisps.
This then set the scene for the shrimps, finely julienned green bean pods and peach – a mildly sweet and smooth textured marriage ……..……..followed by the crunch of deep fried anchovies with a smear of oat foam and a sprinkling of sage. A real taste of the sea.
The next course was an intriguing revamp of a traditional fish favourite – cod. In this version of cod kokotxas and pil pil sauce with cockles, the treatment of the cod to create the sauce is unusual. For starters, it is only the flesh of the fish’s head just under the mouth (rather like its double chin) that is used. The fish is simmered in garlic, chillies, olive oil and a little water. After a while, the natural gelatine is released from the flesh during cooking. The whole mixture is then engaged in a ‘dance’ with the olive oil – a continuous and gentle swirling of all the ingredients whilst still over a gentle heat, that gradually turns the sauce into an emulsified, mayonnaise style sauce. This dish was a little weird in texture with the pil pil sauce ending up more mousse like than mayo.
The fish theme continued on with tuna, green peppers and tomato juice. Again, a rather unctuous texture with the slightly rare cooked tuna and mild broth.
So by the time the Duck foie gras green lentils cream, garlic and chervil came along, it was nice to have a bit of texture with the crunchy skin of the liver – full of rich flavour and a welcome relief after the somewhat slimyness of the previous courses.
Desert followed with quinoa ice cream, carrot, liquorice and hazelnut biscuit, this latter being a somewhat alarming prospect as liquorice is not a Brunyfire favourite. However, the liquorice in the biscuit element was not overpowering – altogether a fairly ambiguous flavour with some mild natural sweetness in the carrot. The next desert was a big disappointment though……..………the peach, lemon thyme, vanilla and iced almond milk was badly let down by the fruit. These were not peach but bruised nectarines – they’d obviously been refrigerated or even defrosted. The final flourish was the complimentary macaroons and a silky kind of pannecotta – an improvement on the previous dish.
All in all, fun to participate in a long, lazy lunch – to feel pampered – and to pretend to be an important food critique………
………….who’s kidding who here??…….