By finally visiting Bilbao and San Sebastián, I fulfilled a long-held ambition. The Basque Country, and particularly San Sebastián, has loomed large in my consciousness ever since I read Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.
It's not even very far away from London, which makes my inability to have reached its shores until now, even more pathetic.
San Sebastián was a once small fishing village on the north coast of Spain. Known as Donostia in colloquial Basque, it achieved fame in the 19th century as the summer resort for Spanish royalty. By the 20th century, the Spanish Queen had moved there. Today it has a reputation as Spain's culinary capital, with 15 Michelin restaurants, including three three-stars in Akelarre, Arzak, and Martín Berasategui.
But I'd had it on my bucket list long before the culinary revolution took hold. Before the UK press were spluttering with hysteria over the pintxo bars and the hullabaloo of Michelin madness. I had the giant presence of Spain and the Basque Country fixed in my imagination, thanks to Hemingway. I longed to see his San Sebastián, the city where Jake drank and ate and swam in The Sun Also Rises. The land he described as the "...over foliaged, wet, green, Basque Country".
But Hemingway's Spain is not the tourist Spain of the coasts and beaches. His is the interior, a country he called "the last good country left."
I flew into Bilbao. The two-hour flight from Heathrow was yet another strikingly obvious blow as to just how close this sun-bleached meseta is from our grey shores. That cloudless Spanish sky, a pale blue streak, and the air. Clean air. Crisp and clean in a salubrious climate. Air that's a pleasure to breath.
Before arriving in San Sebastián, I visited the Beronia winery in Ollauri village, La Rioja. The Rioja region is situated in the valley of Ebro and its primary produce of wine, what locals call vino tinto, is one of the country's great exports, along with with Penélope Cruz and siestas.
The Basques are fine eaters, but they're better drinkers. This is a culture that dedicate much of their lives to the noble pursuit of drinking, hence the creation of the siesta, when a nation hit the sack in unison.
Beronia's history started in 1973, when a group of holidaying friends wanted to fix a location to meet and enjoy food and wine. Together, they bought a merendero (an outdoor picnic area) in Ollauri, where they'd meet to cook, socialise, and get feck-arsed together, away from the matriarchal bully of 'her at home'.
At the beginning they bought wine from other wineries, however they soon decided to make their own. And so, they purchased some land, planted vineyards, and started to build a winery, naming it Beronia. In 1982, the González family, looking to buy in the region, recognised the potential of the Beronia estate and began their long-term commitment to the winery and to Rioja.
The winery's central building, with its deep passive cellar of stacked Spanish red in French oak barrels, sits majestically upon the hill. Views from the top-floor veranda overlook the village and 20-hectares of vineyard. Bodegas Beronia control another 850-hectares, specifically selected within a 10km radius of the winery.
For lunch I ate local roast lamb, cordero asado al horno, with red peppers, and with Matias Calleja, the chief winemaker and technical director of Bodegas Beronia, drank through dark-cherry flavours of Beronia's Reserva Rioja.
Bottles fell easily, as they do when you drink in the company of winemakers, and we moved through the 198 Barricas 2008 and the 2011 Beronia III.
The best sign of a good wine to me, is one that can be enjoyed on its own, so post-spatchcock lamb, that's exactly what we did; and bottles of Beronia Ecológico, Beronia Crianza and the Reserva were drank solo, giving me full exposure to the Beronia range.
- - - - -
Part two of David's Culinary Adventures in Bilbao and San Sebastián will follow shortly.
David stayed at the Hotel Convento San Roque in Biscay, north of Bilbao.
International Sherry Week runs from the 2nd - 8th November 2015. Find out more from González Byass including events in the UK.