Gastronomy was never on the menu during previous trips to the Basque Country in Northern Spain.
Great food is a low priority when you’re visiting Pamplona during the San Fermin fiesta and fleeing from marauding bulls and drunken Aussie backpackers – the latter infinitely more scary.
So it’s long overdue that I embrace the region’s exceptional dishes. We start in San Sebastian, the capital of Basque cuisine, home to some of the world’s best restaurants. There’s even a gastronomic university, the Basque Culinary Centre.
‘For Basques, it’s all about eating together. They grow up around the dinner table,’ says our guide Gabriella Ranelli, who runs Tenedor Tours.
She leads our group of six from bar to bar in the city’s old town. We’re soon on a crash course in Basque pintxo culture, sampling delicious small bites washed down with local txakoli sparkling wine.
It’s red peppers filled with beef in batter in a bar called Tamboril, then ravioli with cuttlefish in La Cuchara de San Telmo.
The following morning we are back in the old town at La Bretxa, in one of the city’s two markets. Stalls display prime meat, cheese and fish including red snapper, monkfish and scorpion fish.
Near the market, we visit family-owned food shops such as the marble-fronted bakery Pasteleria Otaegui, which has made chocolates and biscuits since 1886, and delicatessens like Zapore Jai, where hams are hand carved in front of us.
These shops know everything about their products: which region the ham is from, and what the pigs were fed on. We lunch along the coast in Elkano, a Michelin-starred fish restaurant in the fishing village of Getaria.
Cheers to that: A wine-tasting at Bodegas Baigorri in Samaniego is dominated by views of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains
Our exceptional turbot main is prepared outside on a charcoal grill. ‘You don’t need anything else when you have such a quality product,’ says manager Aitor Arregui.
Next day we head south into Rioja Alavesa, a rolling landscape of wineries and villages like the hilltop walled town of Laguardia, with its medieval centre. A wine-tasting at Bodegas Baigorri in Samaniego is dominated by views of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains that shield the vineyards from cold northerly winds.
Inventive Basque food is matched by innovative architecture. Near Laguardia, we see architect Santiago Calatrava’s striking Ysios winery, and in the medieval village of Elciego, the futuristic Hotel Marques de Riscal designed by Frank Gehry.
Our gastronomic tour finishes as it began, back in San Sebastian, this time at Arzak, one of the city’s best-known restaurants. Chef Elena Arzak’s great-grandparents opened it in 1897 and she works alongside her father, Juan Mari. Arzak, and nearby Akelarre, situated atop Mount Igueldo and overlooking the Cantabrian Sea, helped spearhead the Basque culinary evolution where tradition meets innovation.
Dishes include marinated anchovies with strawberries, and sea bass with patxaran, a local liqueur made from wild sloe berries. ‘Our mission is the same as always: to work hard to make something delicious,’ says Elena, leaving us to enjoy her creations.
Read more: 10 versions of pizza worldwide