Wooly pigs from the 16th century…

…in a rather charming oil painting from Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum…

…and some great charcuterie displays, courtesy Sean Brock’s Husk team…

Industry, oaks, food and the earth:

The people of the Basque country call it Euskal Heria or ‘the Country of Euskara’. They, the people, belong to their land and their language. Their soul is defined by these two things. Without both, they aren’t Basque. If they lose either, they lose their identity. A central concept in Basque identity is belonging, not only to the Basque people but also to a house, known in the Basque language as etxea.

I’ve talked before here about a pig breeder Pello Urdapilleta (whose last name means “herd of pigs”) and his farm, who helped save the Euskal Txerria breed. His farm is key to understanding him and his work.

“Even today, some Basques recall their origins by introducing themselves to a compatriot from the same region not by their family name, but by the name of their house, a building which may have vanished centuries ago. The founders may have vanished, the family name may disappear, but the name of the house endures. “But the house of my father will endure,” wrote the twentieth-century poet Gabriel Aresti.” from “The Basque History of the World” by Mark Kurlansky.

The pride in their land and language is therefore rooted deep in their psyche; without both, they cease to exist. And it’s this that partially explains their place in the world and their resistance to external dangers as well as to such as Franco who tried (and failed to extirpate the Basques). But you really need to read Kurlansky’s book to get the full skinny. I’d highly recommend it.

Their industrial heritage is long and storied although there’s large swathes of it that haven’t and won’t now ever recover, such as those graffitied, shuttered specimens along the Zorrozaurre peninsula.

Some of the relics preserved as in aspic, as in the old dry dock area.

It reminds me a lot of photos I’ve seen of Detroit — a city I visited only once, some 25 years ago. The same old beautiful buildings and machinery, not yet all fallen into rack and ruin, but surviving, deliberately in some cases, in others as just an accident of location.

And then — as a not so subtle reminder of and homage to their past — elements of that iron and steel used in their long-gone industries, now an ingredient of the cladding for new, modern, up-market riverside buildings; this one a conference centre.

Other, smaller, artefacts kept as a reminder of that quite recent past in city parks.














Or used to frame views over Bilbo.

Whilst the modern industries start putting up their own markers overlooking the city they serve.

And the old are still recalled in paintings

The town of Portugalete, where these paintings are housed, in a wonderful, small and curiously deserted industrial museum is also home to the Vizcaya transporter bridge, a working — and hugely wonderful — artefact, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that towers over the mouth of the estuary. A view up and down river expanding on either side.

That day was one of the first of the estropadak rowing races held between July and October and from the top of the bridge we could see the minute trainera and their crews below.

Exhausted by all their endeavours, the crowd were able to eat this fresh tuna, cooked over a grill, to conserve their strength for further rigorous viewing

Back in Bilboa, there’s others of the modern world — this one a monument to a water company — trying to define a new Basque way of making their way in the world.

The fish-scales museum silhouetted against the bridge over the river was the start of the push to regenerate the city.

Others still serving their original purpose, as here at the main railway station.

And sometimes not; an old market now turned into an exercise club and luxury apartments. Just what the city needs eh? The regeneration projects talked about (this obvious egregious example aside) doesn’t, yet, appear to have had the same “gentrifying” AirBnB <spit> damaging effects seen in other Spanish cities such as Barcelona. I hope it never does but this sort of “progress” is hard for the people to resist or for their politicians to see it for the social (and ethnic) cleansing that it so often turns out to be.

I liked this one located at the riverside — which reminded me of the NY Flatiron — and is still being used for its original purposes

Unlike this old lift, now closed up. A concrete pantheon.

But before we faint from hunger, let’s stop for a few minutes and take a quick break for some food shall we?

At a buzzy, busy, friendly pintxos bar in the market

Before, suitably refreshed, we head back to the bridge next to the Guggenheim, soon itself to be the subject of a new art installation.

Which, in turn, leads onto this new steel structure, a walkway down to the riverside…

Modern artwork is everywhere; this huge mural under that same bridge on the opposite bank across from the museum, is only fully visible if you climb the lung-aching set of steps up to the top.

Just along the riverbank stands the University; an impressive steel and glass edifice, with other gracious old buildings part of the campus on either side, gardens rising all the way up the hillside.

The socialist past of Bilbo is never far from the surface; this is one of a series of public artwork located directly across the river from the University, examining Spain’s reaction to the human crisis still unfolding across the Mediterranean

And on the day of our arrival, the city — brought to a standstill by the taxi drivers — protesting the incursion of the Uberites. Fuck Uber. Burn it down, salt the ground under it.

Modern street art carries on reflecting this continual struggle

And this to me, a reminder of the Eta struggles of the past.

The museum at Donostia — when you visit you’ll understand why it was voted European Museum of the Year 2013 — uses concrete over the entrance to good effect; to grow and put down new roots into the earth.

Whilst inside, the birds congregate…

And the cinematic master looms, watching over an exhibition dedicated to his life and films.

At Bilbao airport, this glass reminding everyone that Gernika is a city of peace.

With their own copy of the original.

A small town, but the still beating heart of the Basques. Where their council has sat for centuries, where their important literature is stored, where the oak tree has grown and lived and died and been re-planted; a very visible symbol of their connection with the earth.

A working town again. The bombing scars long covered from that day, 80 years ago, although the original air raid shelters used in the Civil War to hide from the Nazi and Franco aircraft are still open. It’s a sombre feeling visiting — as I imagine are all such places, Hiroshima, Oradour-sur-Glane, My Lai etc. — but whilst they display their past frankly and with an understandable sadness, the people and the place is bright, open and welcoming.

We ate, of course. Some of the delicious cold sidra.

as part of a menu del dia delight in the town.

This monument — another one to the deaths of so many innocent people under Franco — is located in Portugalete, alongside an elevator that helps the residents and visitors move up and down a quite vertiginous hill.

Right next to this graffiti on the side of their cultural centre.

And this rather splendid and succinct political statement is plastered on a wall less than a 100 yards down the street.

To my disappointment, I saw no live Euskal Txerria on the trip. Understandable in the city of course, but none appeared on the hillsides out in the country as we wended our slow way up and down on the railway track between Bilbo and Gernika. But this little one popped up its head in the museum in Gernika, so he’ll have to do as a representative of the breed for the moment.

And finally, for this post, I leave you with this charming piece of folk-art fabric wall-hanging in Bilbao museum; ships, food, farm sidra, chacoli and friends and talking. A great summary of the place.





Can you help maestro Massimo Bottura?

Yes, You can. There’s “No More Excuses” people…

I’ve talked before here about the fantastic work this chef is doing to feed the homeless and the poor in newly setup community kitchens based around using waste food.

© Ecocucina & Repubblica.it

There’s now a film available which you can stream through Netflix showing him working to open one of his refettorios, this one in Milan. It shows the people he and his team and the community are helping. Stefi, a rough sleeper, and one of the people profiled and helped says:

“I only have two things. My life. And my freedom. My skin is my home. The stars are my ceiling. My blanket are my dreams”

That brought tears to my eyes.

Highly recommended. Watch it. Then vow to help locally. Wherever you are. In the UK there’s Crisis. Give regularly. Or help by donating to food banks. That this is needed in the 21st Century is, as I’ve ranted before, a national disgrace. But we can change this state of affairs if we try. With love and care for our fellow humans.


Down (but not dirty) in Bilbo:

Tired maybe, sweaty sure, foot-sore, some under-utilised muscles complaining about unexpected use, pale Northern European skin sun reddened, yes, all those. But not dirty.

Unlike the surface of this wonderfully expressive old face*; that of a man whose whole life was spent outdoors, sun and wind leathered skin, ingrained dirt — like the miners over here — hard to scrub away. And the hipsters of Hoxton would kill for that hat and pipe….

*[NOTE: the face of the guy in the photo; not my reflected face. Obvs.]

Brother perhaps to this pig herder, photographed back in the 1930s, you think?

Returning home after a hard day in the hills and fields to the (extended) family meal

Although poor as they were, they’d be unlikely to to able to afford to slaughter (or buy) one of these lovelies

Or shop at La Casa de la Carne

There’s generally not as much fat on the pigs today — even in Spain — as the bulk (see what I did there?) of the supply is still of the Cassius (“lean and healthy”) type, very unlike this pair of lovelies from the last century

I think it was this latter one who was the cause of this Basque farmer’s discomfiture at his gaming table

Much better to have a quiet picnic on the hills above Bilbo as did these three 18th C. ladies, the picture drawn to show the riverbank & a plan of the old city in the period before its seemingly relentless rise as an industrial powerhouse had really got started.

But the importance attached to food and eating has never left this area; they build murals in homage to eating and drinking well…

…whilst shops like Charcutería Alemana La Moderna, who I mentioned in the earlier piece continue to supply great meat (inc. to The Basquery) continue to supply great charcuterie and meats to Bilboans today…

…along with other stalls at the magnificent La Ribera market, shaped like an ocean-going ship, land locked, stranded on the edge of the old town, right on the banks of the river Nervión.

Were we lucky enough to be living and working in Bilbo, there’d be no desire to shop for food anywhere else. Full of butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers and an amazing array of pintxos bars; the latter somewhere to eat and drink at when the sheer volume of natural bounty available to buy threatens to overwhelm you or your shopping bags, groaning with purchases, starting to disintegrate, seeming to weigh more than the core of a red dwarf star…

Backstage controlled chaos at one of these bars…

Then there’s some items at the butchers that you would be a little hard pressed to find in England…

Some others that would delight the hearts of Messrs. Henderson and Turner

Smoked and cured delights almost too many to count…

Perfect porcine produce. Trotters, ears. The whole nine yards.

Bu this place isn’t just meat. Here’s a huge range of dried peppers and pulses to drool over.

Acres of shellfish. Beautifully, almost lovingly presented. Fresh, smelling of the sea (of course) and the faint tang of their juices…

Fearsome fish faces fighting for favour. The flavour is a given of course.

Each stall taking prideful care, individually show-casing how much they love the produce they’re selling…

Think you’ll run out of Bacalao anytime soon? Not here you won’t…

Bilbo is a busy city, dirty and run-down still in places reflecting the changes that came in the 1980s as heavy industry was hollowed out by global free trade and the insanity of the neo-liberal policies but bright and buzzy and fun and noisy as well.

And passionate. Fiercely protective of their language, their culture, their food and drink. But still quite calm in many places; we were surprised at the comparative lack of cars. The subway, the trams and the buses are uniformly excellent (OK, the buses could do with some logistical improvements; even native Spanish seemed uniformly bewildered at the intricacies of the timetables and where to actually catch the damn bus they were hoping for but..) and we used them all the time.

There’s more to follow on Bildo and Donostia in some (sometimes) less food related posts. Be back soon with those; all these food photos have given me a killer appetite which needs urgently to be assuaged.

And finally? Finally. Did you know that China eats fully HALF of the total number of pigs produced worldwide annually. And those pigs in turn consume ½ of the worlds’ animal feed. Yes, that’s right. Read that statistic slowly again. Then start worrying about how we can move to better sustainability and animal welfare and a reduction in global warming with that as a downward driver. Animal agriculture causes 18% of greenhouse gas emissions; and it’s recommended that we choose local meat to minimise carbon footprints — but that’s hard to square when the amount used by China is so vast…

Dining is about friends, not food

I said this yesterday, then everyone, inc. @Francisjmallman, jumps on the band-wagon, saying the very same thing in this interview from The London Evening Standard. 

“I really believe that the only reason to sit down and have delicious food is to have conversations with your friends, family, lovers,” he said. “Food and wine can’t be the most important thing. The only reason is to sit down with friends, is to get food and wine to make you more witty and truthful. The food and wine is not the reason to be there.”

Mallman, a slightly larger than life character, hailing from Argentina, specialises in cooking everything on and over burning wood. I realise that’s something of an understatement, like saying Genghis Khan “specialised in riding horses and fighting a bit” but hey…

He was the subject of some pieces during the Mind Of  A Chef series, with Chef Ed Lee, showing seven different techniques to cook pretty much anything you chose to use:

  1. Parilla – A barbecue set over hot coals.
  2. Chapa – Cooking on a cast iron grill.
  3. Horno de Barro – The wood oven.
  4. Caldero – The calderon, cooking in a cast iron kettle.
  5. Rescoldo – Cooking in ashes, especially vegetables.
  6. Infiernillo – “Little Hell,” cooking in between 2 fires so you have heat from both sides and finally
  7. Asador – The “Iron Cross,” cooking things standings & overlooking a fire.

Watch this short clip to see him work some magic…

He’s now coming to England and opening a restaurant here later this year. We shall probably have to go…