A Winter Trip to Spain Day 5 Part II: Food and Mood in the Basque Country

We’ve finally made it to Spain, albeit only on a day-trip from Biarritz to the interior of the Basque country.

We’ll learn tomorrow if our limping Volvo’s woes are terminal or only financially ruinous. Meanwhile, it’s raining when we get to the town of Tolosa, and I’m reminded that the nice big National Trust umbrella we (obviously I mean I) bought last summer has disappeared. En route the unfamiliar SatNav in our rental replacement car kept crashing, we took some wrong turns and we nearly ran out of petrol. Now we can’t find anywhere to park. Even if I was really good at managing stress I’d be tetchy by now. And as explained in Part I, I didn’t start the day in tiptop form.

Tolosa’s charms aren’t immediately apparent on a wet Sunday morning in February.

As mood swings go, this one is manageable and en route I’m able to multi-task, listening to the boys in the back while keeping up a consistent carping commentary on my partner’s driving.

A big motorbike with panniers growls past us (Tissy was probably driving too slowly after being ticked off for driving too quickly ten minutes earlier).

Hugh, 5 on the brink of 6, is impressed with the guttural sound and observes: “Actually, motorbikes can go much faster than cars.”

James, 3, replies: “I wish I had a motorbike. They can go much faster than cars.”

Hugh: “And cars are much faster than tractors.”

James: “Yeah. Tractors are really slow.”

James’s blind faith in his big brother’s omniwisdom is touching: I’m pretty sure he regards some of the whacks he gets as justifiable use of force.

After breakfast in our studio, I’d taken James for a glass of milk in the hotel bar to give Tissy some space to do Hugh’s reading practice.

My cafe au lait came with two mini-pastries: a pain au chocolat that James wolfed down and a croissant that he kept for Hugh. Returning to the room, Hugh snatched the tribute offering from his sibling’s hand and chomped it.

“If that had been you, would you have shared with James?” I ask. Hugh, who is a master of the scornfully dismissive expression, gave me a “Duh, no brainer” look and replied, “no.”

My middle son’s display of visceral egotism naturally gave me a lift*.

Still, overall, as we got out of the car in Tolosa, the odds on my mood disintegrating further were 50-50.

And then suddenly everything started to go right, starting with the discovery of this lovely covered market square.

Strolling around in the drizzle, we get a sense that there is more to this place than you might assume. A friend from the region will later tell me it is considered a stronghold of Basque culture in terms of language, sport**, the arts and food: some of which we are about to discover.

At the tourist office, they highlight a sculpture-themed walking tour, and James, who likes to act the baby bear, is much taken by a mural on a nearby square.

Baby bear meets a Cantabrian brown bear. The bears were nearly driven to extinction by illegal hunting but their numbers have doubled in the past 10 years.
Mural by Emily Read https://www.instagram.com/emilyreadart/

Part of the reason for this trip was curiosity about all the positive press Spanish cuisine has been getting lately. More precisely, for a few years now, I’ve had an unsettling feeling that, due to Italophile disdain, I’d been missing out on something in the Basque country and Catalonia.

Turns out my anxiety was well-founded, for once. Tolosa has two long-established places of culinary pilgrimage in Casa Nicolas and Casa Julian. I’d tried to book the latter by email en route but hadn’t heard back from them by the time we dived into the town’s puppet museum. http://www.topictolosa.com

King Kong, Punch and Judy and pink elephants are useful assistants if you have to entertain boys in a window of educational opportunity before their concentration spam is consumed by hunger. Check the website for kids workshops they sometimes organise.


We emerge to learn Casa Julian has no table before 1515, so I have another scan online and come up with Ama Taberna, which is only 200m away.

Just after midday, the tiny place is mobbed, but Tissy correctly judges that the crowd drinking at the bar (just out of church, she thought***) might move on quickly. We squeeze in and, just before 1pm, bag the only four-person table for what is, by Spanish standards, an early doors lunch.

A university acquaintance once said that, with the exception of sex, the things that make you happiest as an adult always somehow remind you of happy times in your childhood, with his specific example being getting chips on the way to Blackburn Rovers matches with his grandfather.

The Rovers and chips rule has stuck in my mind for 30+ years and while I think it is basically accurate, I’d refine it to allow an additional exception: food, perfectly sourced, cooked and delivered in the right surroundings with the right company, can be every bit as mood transforming as adult snuggles.

So it proves this afternoon after we switch off Google translate and ask our waitress to bring us a bottle of Albariño and choose our lunch for us. This is what she came up with:

Granna Padano, Rice, John Dory, Duck, Presa (Pork shoulder)

The duck must have been a Sunday special. The full menu for Basque/Spanish speakers:

Everything was fantastic but two dishes stood out: the rice, which I neglected to snap, was a kind of tomato risotto infused with the most delicious prawn-y intensity, and the John Dory (also known as St Peter’s fish), was fried in butter with capers to a state of saintly scrumptiousness.

Boys loved this: Granna Padano cheese, anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes and mustard cress

John Dory is also known as St Peter’s fish because of black marks on either side of the body that are said to be the thumb prints of the saint.

Presa – pork shoulder from Iberian acorn-fed pigs

These prices will not last. https://www.amataberna.net

On duty when we were there: On the left is head chef Javier Rivero Yarza.


*This was a joke: https://books.google.es/books?

** Xabi Alonso, one of the most cerebral of footballers, was born here

*** She was brought up a Catholic.


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