Bilbao according to Alija / 1

Discovering the Basque capital, through its roads, its people and gastronomy

05-07-2014

Spanish chef Josean Alija was born in Bilbao, in the Basque Country: for over 10 years he’s been at the helm of the Guggenheim Museum restaurant, which a few years ago became Nerua, tel. +34.944.000430. We republish, in two episodes, the article he wrote for Guida ai ristoranti di Identità Golose 2014, published by Mondadori, and dedicated to the city where he works and lives

What’s Bilbao’s flavour? In order to discover the essence of a town, one needs lots of curiosity. In Bilbao I like being a guide and, while I’m showing it, discover myself the heart of a city that is evolving all the time. A city which, thanks to its inhabitants, preserves a sound identity and character, contributing to a special and seductive scenery.

There are many ways to get to know the town, but one of the most complete is moving down the estuary. A journey that helps discovering the history of the city as the estuary has represented the access to the sea for a long time, and thus a source of richness. On its banks an industry was established which fed the city over time. This is still shown by some ancient factories and even the cranes in the abandoned boatyards such as the famous “Carola”, which today is a symbol for the Bilbao Maritime Museum. The connection with sea and steel, linked with the estuary, was the origin for the close relation with England, reflected in the very British character of some facades.

We move in front of the town hall and cross the Arenal and then get inside the 7 calles, the network of pedestrian roads that lead to Mercado de la Ribera and form the casco viejo, the historic centre of the town. For many years this market was the point of sale for food in town and even today it is a place where we can find a marvellous meeting of places and products, one more beautiful, tasty and cheap than the other, as the inhabitants who spend their morning here, from Mondays to Saturdays, know well when the come shopping: here one can find good fresh products, in a wide range and the right price. For instance pimientos choriceros and red onions, the essential ingredients in the preparation of a sauce that reflects our personality as no other, namely bizkaina.

A nice view of Mercado de la Ribera

A nice view of Mercado de la Ribera

The setting of the market offers a natural x-ray of the city, reflecting its traditions, its concerns, sensitivities, economic situation and even the feelings of what surrounds it. Very close to the market one can find the old train station of Atxuri, one of Bilbao’s most ancient neighbourhoods; this station represents a joining between the railway lines of Biscay, the coast and the province of Gipuzkoa.

Back to our journey, again on the 7 roads, and precisely on Calle La Pelota. Here we can find a small and ancient tavern where one can have a “hamaiketako” (the 11 o’clock snack). In Basaras (Calle La Pelota 2), run by Pepe and Bea, Tortilla with potato and red-wine-chorizo is a luxury that anyone can afford, the anchovies preserved in salt are unique with the liveliness of Rioja.

A few steps further, in Calle El Perro, close to one of the most ancient fountains in Bilbao, one can find Rotterdam (Calle del Perro 6, +34.944162165), a tavern offering food and good wine, meatballs, tongue with sauce, salted codfish with pilpil and Bilbao-style anchovies. Rotterdam serves cassolette by the counter, a traditional and very popular dish that is hard to find these days. It represents a heritage of the old times when this type of restaurant could allow many families to dine out in a simple way, but it is an almost extinct format.

While bizkaina is the sauce that best characterises the Basque culinary tradition, pimientos choriceros are an essential ingredient

While bizkaina is the sauce that best characterises the Basque culinary tradition, pimientos choriceros are an essential ingredient

On the corner between Calle del Perro and Calle de la Pelota there’s the only place in the casco viejo from which one can enjoy the view of the Begoña cathedral, with a copy of the virgin patron of Bilbao, and the “txikiteros”, the bands of friends who roam from one tavern to the other, drinking “txikitos” (wines) and in the days when it is allowed, usually Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the year, they sing typical Basque and Bilbao songs and habaneras.

In Bilbao pintxos are used as a snack and in order to better hold wine before dining. Funny enough this tradition of drinking and eating something as an aperitif has led visitors to dine exclusively with pintxos, giving us the perfect excuse to meet the bands.

1. to be continued


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