Northern Spain is a misnomer which I hadn't appreciated before our visit. To lump together the regions of the Basque, La Rioja, Castilla y Leon, Asturias, Cantabria and Navarra under one heading is like saying that all olive oils are created the same!
From the wonderful pintxos (tapas) bars of San Sebastian to the tempranillos of La Rioja to the history of the Camino de Santiago as it wends its way through Burgos and Leon to the spectacular mountain gorges of the Asturias and the rolling green hillsides and medieval villages of Cantabria, it is truly a superb place to visit.
Where to start - well, olive oil is always a good beginning. Wherever I go, I am always looking for inspired olive oil dishes and this trip provided plenty. Olive trees are not in evidence - nothing like Andalucia - but our first port of call was a specialist olive oil store in San Sebastian and of course, we had to sample and buy local. This Navarra olive oil was medium intensity and full of flavour, not grassy like ours, more minerally.
The other wonderful discovery was that every table where we had a meal, had a bottle of good (2014) extra virgin olive oil on it and sometimes even two different ones. Several menus had on the bottom - "all our dishes are made with extra virgin olive oil" and this in an area without too many olive trees! Maybe one day in New Zealand!
To the inspiration: tasty pintxos - vegetables- glistening with olive oil and served on crusty bread, fish (usually hake) poached in olive oil and my favourite gazpacho, made with good olive oil + some dainty fish morsels, often anchovies and prawns. Check out my recipe for gazpacho - Salmorejo de Cordoba under Extra Virgin Olive Oil recipes.
My absolute favourite had to be these garlic mushrooms, baby octopus and squid sauteed in good olive oil and this simple tapas of tomatoes, red peppers and anchovies in a cider bar in Santalina del Mar just swimming in olive oil! Red peppers sauteed in olive oil were everywhere; obviously just finished drying on the racks outside.
Every small town and village we went had good restaurants and good wine - usually rioja. For the whole week, we only drank red wine and a major learning experience was our visit to the Vivanco Bodega in Briones, La Rioja for picking grapes, tour of the winery and museum and of course sampling the wines and excellent tapas. I thought we knew a little bit about wine coming from Martinborough but this visit showed that there is always something to be learned.
Lastly the architecture: for part of our journey, we were on the Camino de Santiago staying in amazing 15th century and earlier hostels. Not that we were walking but plenty of people were. We met an older American gentleman in Santo Domingo de la Calzada who had started in Perpignan, France, crossed the Pyrenees on foot and was aiming to reach Compostela before Christmas - probably close to 1000 kilometres and he looked so healthy.
The cathedrals of Burgos and Leon were highlights - it says a lot for the stone masons who were motivated to build such beautiful 'temples'.
And our hotel in Leon! - the parador which is the Hostel de San Marcos - the headquarters of the Knights of Santiago.
Lastly, the Capricho de Gaudi in Comillas - one of only 3 Gaudi buildings outside Barcelona, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao - from the sublime to the incredible.
We had to finish off the week with a dog, of course. This one has 38,000 plants in it.
A great week and I can't wait to try out some of those simple tapas over the summer.