Vitoria's Secret

The last time Spain’s top chefs got together to discuss all things gastronomic, it wasn’t in Madrid or Barcelona.

It wasn’t even in Girona’s El Celler de Can Roca, the former number one restaurant in the world (knocked into second place by Copenhagen’s Noma in April). It was in a small, little-known city - Vitoria-Gasteiz.

“Where?” you might ask. Most people, when they come to Spain’s Basque Country, make a beeline to one of two major cities - the utilitarian port of Bilbao, transformed into a destination of note with the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997, or glamorous San Sebastián, sitting prettily on the Bay of Biscay.

Until recently, Vitoria-Gasteiz, the Basque Country’s capital, has been something of a tourist wallflower. This year, however, Vitoria is Spain’s Gastronomy Capital, and the city’s restaurants and bars are having no problem stepping into the limelight it’s bringing.

“We have a strong tradition of cuisine in the Basque Country - lots of the country’s top chefs come from here,” says Gonzalo Antón, owner of Zaldiaran, Vitoria’s Michelin-starred restaurant and host of the chefs’ gathering. “Zaldiaran is one of the most important restaurants in Spain,” Antón continues. “Most of the world’s best chefs have cooked here. Joan Roca [El Celler de Can Roca], Ferran Adrià [El Bulli]… ” The names trip off his tongue like a who’s who of the gastronomic world.

Needless to say, then, eating at Zaldiaran is an experience. “Our basis is Basque cuisine with Basque produce, then we experiment with it to do something different,” Antón says. The menu doesn’t disappoint, with dishes such as lobster lasagne, roast pigeon and hazelnut soufflé. Even better, as long as you book a week or so in advance, you’re likely to get a seat - and the tasting menu comes in at a respectable €55.

That’s the thing about Vitoria and the Basque region. Such is its ease with its reputation as a cradle of the country’s gastronomic tradition, there’s no pompousness or pretension. You just get good food in a relaxed setting. And in Vitoria-Gasteiz’s old town, that setting is winding medieval streets, bustling plazas and picturesque churches. It’s an incredibly well-preserved slice of history.

Plazas and pintxos 

One of Vitoria’s not-to-be-missed sights is the 13th-century Catedral de Santa María. Entry comes with your very own hard hat: the tour is as much about the architectural rescue of the building (it was closed to the public in 1994 but is now ‘open for repairs’) as it is about its medieval heritage. The modern additions to the cathedral include chandeliers and a beautiful wooden staircase up to the tower, which affords a view over the city. Here you can see how Vitoria has spiralled out from the ancient settlement on the hill of Gasteiz. This ‘medieval almond’, named for its shape, is encircled by the elegant 19th-century ‘new’ town, which itself gives way to newer developments built as Vitoria’s population grew and grew. Then, all around the city, are lush green hills and mountains - yet for a city of about 240,000 people it feels surprisingly compact.

Not for nothing do residents call it a ‘big village’ and, like so much of Spain, Vitoria revels in its traditions and fiestas. The city’s most important festival celebrates its patron saint, the White Virgin. It starts at 6pm on 4 August in the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca where Celedón, a figure decked out in traditional Basque clothes with an umbrella, descends a wire from the tower of San Miguel church, whizzing over the heads of the thousands of people gathered to watch. Good times ensue, and the next day locals can recover: the Día de la Virgen Blanca is a public holiday.

Of course, waiting all year for an excuse to party is no good. And that’s possibly why, in 2003, the phenomenon of pintxo-pote started. Every Thursday, Vitoria’s bars and restaurants offer a pintxo (a kind of Basque bar snack, often involving bread and a cocktail stick) and a drink for just €2. There are now 11 different pintxo-pote routes around Vitoria’s streets and squares, and the idea has spread to San Sebastián, Bilbao and Pamplona.

Pintxos is big here. There are traditional ones that celebrate the local produce, such as the Gilda: green olives, pickled green peppers and anchovies on a toothpick. Try one washed down with a crisp glass of Txakoli, a local and very dry white wine.

Then there are the innovative pintxos. Sagartoki merits a mention for winning the best omelette in Spain award in 2012 - no small feat, you’d assume. Try its Huevo Frito con Patatas: egg yolk, bacon and potato deep-fried in crispy pastry. Clever and delicious.

In the old town, Toloño Bar and Hor Dago! both serve up great pintxos in stunning medieval surroundings, as does one of Vitoria’s most famous restaurants, El Portalón. It’s a 15th-century inn featuring dark wooden beams and antique Basque furniture which add to the appeal of dining options including roast suckling pig and Basque specialities such as hake cheeks in pil-pil sauce. El Portalón also offers pintxos in the bar and wine cellar downstairs.

At the newer end of the restaurant scene is PerretxiCo, which opened last year. Each restaurant in Vitoria was asked to create an official pintxo for the Year of Gastronomy, and PerretxiCo’s is particularly special: Azulito (roughly translating as ‘little blue’) comes in a cup and looks like a cappuccino, but is actually a frothing, light blue cheese soup with carrots, hazelnuts and dried beef. If you visit, make sure you are hungry: the reasonably priced €29.50 daily menu includes five starters, five mains and dessert. Phew.

The sweet life

If you have any room left in your stomach, the foodie news just gets better: within Spain, Vitoria has a justified reputation for its desserts and chocolate. Most special events are celebrated with a particular cake: a chocolate and strawberry affair for the White Virgin festivities; chocolate and cream for the Feast of San Prudencio in April. Goxua, a dessert of whipped cream, sponge cake, custard cream and a burnt caramel topping is, happily, eaten year-round throughout the Basque region. Chef Luis Lopez de Sosoaga claims he invented the dessert in the 1970s. At his Pasteleria Luis Sosoaga they will make you one to take away, or you can choose from a selection of traditional Basque chocolates, such as txapelas shaped like - and named after - the traditional hat worn by Basque men, and filled with a sloe liqueur-flavoured cream.

While you’re travelling down Vitoria’s ‘sweet route’, make a visit to Confituras Goya, which is famed for its truffles and vasquitos y neskitas, more Basque speciality chocolates.

Another string to the Basque region’s gastronomic bow is Salinas de Añana, a small town about 30 minutes outside of Vitoria. It’s in a beautiful valley where mineral springs from the surrounding hills have facilitated salt production for an incredible 6500 years, according to recent excavations. Although the industry fell into hard times in the 1930s, it’s being brought back to its former glory thanks to a foundation started five years ago. These days it’s championed by many of Spain’s top chefs - from Joan Roca to Martín Berasategui (a local chef serving avant-garde cuisine at his eponymous restaurant in Lasarte-Oria) - who source their salt there. There are several fascinating guided tours, and you can also buy the prized salt while you are there.

Easy being green

Vitoria hasn’t just got gastronomy on its side, though. It was the European Green Capital of 2012 - the smallest city to have been awarded the accolade. Its eco credentials are partly to do with measures to reduce private car use (there’s a growing network of footpaths, cycle routes, bus lanes and light rail, and public transport use is up by 50 per cent) but also to do with its famed Green Belt. The city is surrounded by varying leafy spaces - it’s said that no resident lives more than 300 metres from a patch of green - including the beautiful wetlands of Salburua. In its 200 hectares you can see European mink and all sorts of birdlife. Little wonder it’s a favoured picnic spot for locals.

After all that fresh air and food, a well-earned nap is needed. Vitoria-Gasteiz’s hotels range from the glamorous opulence of La Casa de los Arquillos, among the arches of the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca, to the art nouveau elegance of Hotel Dato. Or try Hotel Centro Vitoria, a modern, low-budget option. Wherever you stay in Vitoria-Gasteiz, you can rest easy knowing that good pintxos and glass of local wine are very, very close.

Top spots to eat around the Basque

Country San Sebastian And Surrounds

This city notches up an impressive two top-10 entries in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list: Mugaritz and Arzak. For something a bit less formal, head to the city’s Gros district. Bar Bergara ticks all the boxes: delicious pintxo creations piled high on the bar, a tasting menu and a buzzing atmosphere.

Bilbao and Surrounds

For fine dining, try Azurmendi, ranked 26th best restaurant in the world, and located in the hillsides near Bilbao’s airport.

Words by Emma Anderson - Published in Voyeur July 2014
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