About ten years ago we spent a few glorious weeks in the Basque Country. We were staying with friends, who were Basque, and who knew all the best places to go and the best things to eat. We had a ball. One of the things I remember well from that trip, however, is sitting and watching everyone else eat. I am coeliac, and cannot eat gluten. I also don’t eat meat. (Fish yes, meat no.) Of course, there were lovely things to eat on that trip. I remember beautiful fresh fish, and salads, and lovely wine, and at one fantastic little farmstead B&B up in the hills we sat outside at breakfast and ate the best scrambled eggs we’ve ever had. (Doug has tried to re-create them many times. I think they must be eaten on a farm to be appreciated.)
I also remember stopping in a tiny town that was famous for its Iberico ham. (Iberico ham is a local specialty: the pigs are free-range and roam in forested areas, eating acorns. The meat is cured for 36 months. I am told that it is to ham what a Lamborghini is to my Vauxhaul.) We stopped in a little bar which served only four things: wine, bread, Iberico ham, and Gernika peppers, which are small green peppers that are fried and served sprinkled with coarse salt. Everyone else enjoyed the bread and Iberico ham, ordering extra platters, while I sat and ate fried peppers and drank wine. That night I was spectacularly ill. (The peppers, by the way, are amazing, but should be accompanied by other food, especially when drinking wine.)
I had a similar “watching others eat” experience when we would go out in Bilbao and eat pintxos (small finger foods served in bars). Pintxos and wine is a meal in and of itself, but even with a Basque native ordering for me and interacting with the chef, there were only a few things I could eat. Most pintxos are served on bread or are otherwise gluten-contaminated. I ate many portions of tortilla (a type of omelette cooked with eggs and potato) and consoled myself with good local wine.
So, when Doug and I went back to the Basque country earlier this month, I was a little bit concerned about food. What I learned is that ten years makes a huge difference!
We travelled around a bit on this trip, spending a few days in San Sebastian, and then travelling south to Rioja for a few days (where we stayed in the Marqués de Riscal, the magnificent Frank Gehry-designed hotel in Elciego) then over to Burgos, and then north to Santillana del Mar in Cantabria before heading back to Bilbao for the flight home. We ate in a few very high end restaurants, including the three Michelin star Akelarre in San Sebastian. (This is a fantastic restaurant with a glorious view. The hotel is amazing; if I were to win the lottery, I would stay there for three days – Akellare has three different tasting menus – and eat there every night.) They did not even blink over making the necessary substitutions so that my meal – all 11 courses – would be both gluten- and meat-free.
Of course, one would expect this in such a high end restaurant, but I found that most restaurants could accomodate me. One of the best meals we had was in a small neighbourhood bar in San Sebastian, called Kapela. We happened across this bar by happenstance one evening while exploring the area around our hotel. It is in a quiet, residential area across from a park, and the place was buzzing and filled with locals. One look and I immediately wanted to eat there. I told the lovely proprietess (that’s her on the webpage) that I could not eat gluten or meat, and we placed an order. She brought Doug a basket full of bread, brought us a bottle of local wine, and a plate full of anchovies (and another of Iberico ham, for Doug, of course). Just as I reached out to grab an anchovie and pop it in my mouth, she placed a steaming hot baguette in front of me. “Gluten-free”, she said. Oh my, heaven! I tore off hot pieces of bread, drizzled it with olive oil, plopped an anchovie on top (gorgeous, fresh anchovies – the best in the world), and ate like a king. She then brought me an Ensalda de Bacalao – this is traditionally Basque, a salad made from slices of warm potato, topped with roasted peppers, and then with freshly cooked Bacalao (cod). It may sound simple but this one was fantastic! The best I’ve ever had. In fact, I don’t think I ever had cod as fresh and perfectly cooked. (Later in the trip, Doug and I considered driving two hours back to San Sebastian just to eat here again. It was that good.)
We had another great meal in San Sebastian at Xarma, a funky kind of place with a bar upstairs and restaurant downstairs serving excellent modern interpretations of traditional foods. On their website they say “Fusion and evolution in our cooking. We put a piece of ourselves in every dish. History, tradition and the avent-garde.” We ordered a bunch of dishes for the table, and they carefully prepared a gluten-free version of each, which they presented beautifully. The chef himself came to the table to deliver freshly-baked gluten-free bread and to make sure that I was being well served. They do recommend that you call in advance and let them know you have dietary restrictions, which I would suggest generally for restaurants.
One of the things that really struck me in Donostia/San Sebastian (the Basque name for the city is Donostia, but it is more well-known outside of the Basque country as San Sebastian) was when Doug and I went into a grocery store to buy some fruit for our drive. We stopped at a large, local grocery store in a residential neighbourhood, and while there, I went to check out the gluten-free section. (As one does.) Wow! Their gluten-free section was three times the size of the one at my local Waitrose here in the UK. They had so much on offer. Much of it was by Schar, the German company that specialises in GF foods. If you don’t know it, you can trust it. Schar is a good brand and they have lots of variety.
We had excellent food at the Marques de Riscal – we ate in both of their restaurants (one of which has a Michelin star) and in their bar. The fancy restaurant served a 21 course taster menu, and they seamlessly made mine gluten- and meat-free. I ended up eating an awful lot of fish courses – because of the no meat thing, and well, 21 courses – but they were all delicious. (By the way, we found their second restaurant to be more relaxed – especially on the patio – and the food was excellent. The kitchen is the same though the menu is more traditional and less experimental.) For lunch in the bar I had a lovely salad with warm goat cheese. The entire experience at the Marques de Riscal was great – they have a beautiful spa, and the rooms are lovely. We especially enjoyed a really well-designed tour of the vineyard and wine production facilities. They have been producing wine since 1862.
The historical cellar, also called “The Cathedral”, was very impressive.
Probably the most difficult experience in menus I had was in Burgos. For lunch, I had a tortilla (my old stand-by) as there was not much choice available. In the evening, we wanted to eat in our hotel, and were too tired that night to sit for a meal in the restaurant. In the bar, the menu was mostly pintxos – heavy on the bread and meat. I had a long chat with the bartender, going through each item on the menu only to be told “No, this one is served on bread; no, this one has meat.”. I found two things I could eat: cheese, and roasted peppers. Both of which I like but it didn’t sound like a meal. And then, almost on an afterthought, he said “Of course, we have gluten-free bread.” Problem solved! I ordered the cheese, which came baked – a beautiful, creamy, warm, locally-produced cheese – and the peppers. They brought me out a piping hot bag, with two small loaves of bread in it. I was served this identical bag of bread in two different restaurants in two different provinces while there, so this is clearly a thing. The restaurant keeps them in the freezer and pops them in the oven when needed, and serve them hot, still in the bag. One loaf was seeded, and the other had walnuts and apricots. They were good – especially when slathered with cheese and peppers!
The end of our trip, however, held a real find: the small medieval town of Santillana del Mar has a gluten-free restaurant! It is called Pasaje de los Nobles. It is a wonderful restaurant, which is always full (call in advance if you can). Note that this is not a restaurant which is great for a gluten-free restaurant, but rather a fantastic restaurant which also happens to be gluten-free. We ate there two days in a row, it was that good, and the experience of being able to eat everything on the menu was not to be missed. It has very traditional dishes as well as more modern dishes, and it is all beautifully cooked. The best thing we had there was the black rice with mussels and aioli, but the mango and langoustine ceviche and the tuna tartar were also excellent. I had a piece of Bacalao in green sauce which was delicate and lovely. The cheesecake was so good, it brought back memories of cheesecake from 30 years ago in my gluten eating days. (Actually, this one was probably better.) The pumpkin flan and lemon mousse were also great. I was so happy to have dessert choices!
One of the difficult things when travelling gluten-free is breakfast. We didn’t eat any breakfast while we were there, so I am afraid I have no insights to offer. We had lunch every day at 2pm and dinner at 10pm, and that suited us quite well. When you spend a few hours enjoying a late dinner, you aren’t hungry when you wake up! On our trip, we stayed in hotels with a range of price tags, from standard to luxury, and ate in a range of restaurants, from local bars to trendy eateries to Michelin-starred restaurants. I was able to find delicious, fresh, gluten-free meals everywhere I went. What a difference ten years has made!
For those of you asking where the knitting content is, here is a photo of me knitting in San Sebastian. Doug thought this permanent sculpture installation was called “Knitting the Wind”, so he insisted on getting a photo of me knitting in front of it. It turns out he translated it wrong; it is called “The comb of the wind”. (Basque: Haizearen Orrazia XV, Spanish: Peine del Viento XV. Sculptures by Eduardo Chillida, installed as an architectural work by the Basque architect Luis Peña Ganchegui.) The five minutes I knitted while taking this shot is the sum total of all of the knitting I did on this holiday!