Monday, 30 July 2012

The Basque Country

We the left Bayonne the morning after the Dylan concert and headed south, crossing the border into Spain and following the coast road west towards the little fishing village of Getaria.

It’s a really beautiful drive along the northern Basque coast and we decided to stop in a little town called Zarautz. Zarautz is a lovely town and like Getaria, it is located in the Gipuzoka province of the Basque country.  Zarautz is a very popular summer destination for the Spanish inlanders as it is cooler and has one of the longest stretches of sandy beach anywhere along the Cantabrian cornice  coastline. The population triples in the summer months. 

It was just before midday when we arrived, so relatively quiet, but being Sunday the town was already starting to buzz with life. Parking the car was surprisingly easy but getting the ticket required determination, patience and a detective mind.

Eventually we found a ticket machine but when you choose the option ‘English’ it stays in Basque. After some time we realised that you had to punch in your vehicle number plate first in order for the option of payment to be issued. You then have to put in the exact money or it will not give you a ticket, so the search for change began. Anyway, we solved the puzzle and I hope this information will help anyone visiting Zarautz in the future.  

The town is split into two with the beach front being separated from the narrow streets of the old town by the main road. The beach is very clean and lined with colourful, rather English-looking punch and Judy tents.

It’s a great surf spot but for now we were interested in finding lunch! As is tradition in the Basque country, gastronomy is very important and Zarautz is no different being full of little tapas bars. One of the most famous Spanish chefs Karlos Arguiñano also has a restaurant here

We wandered the streets stopping here and there for a drink of either local crisp white wine called Txakoli, a glass of joven Rioja or a Basque cider coupled with a selection of delicious tapas. Prices vary, but in general it is cheap and a tapas will cost you €1.60 apiece, a wine or beer €1.90 and a plate (raciones) €6-9 (apart from the Bellota ham). 

I can recommend the Bar Naparrax for a good selection of wines by the glass, a plate of ham and pimentos and a couple of tapas. Also the Jai Txiki Taberna for a glass of Txacoli and the Iruna for ham croquettes and gambas a la plancha. If you can’t find them, not to worry because out of the five or six bars we tried out, all were very good indeed!

We enjoyed some beach time and then continued along the coast to the neighbouring and much smaller town of Getaria.  The further along you get, you begin to notice that this is very much a wine region. We were staying high in the hills of the incredible Txakoli DO wine appellation which spreads across Gipuzkoa, Bizkaiko (Biscay), Arabako (Alava), Cantabrian Chacolí and Burgos. 

The DO is very small and Gipuzkoa, where we were, is only around 170 hectares so vineyards are very hard to come by.  Txakoli is for the most part a crisp, dry, spritzy white wine made from the local varietal Hondarribi Beltza. I have to constantly ask my good friend and Basque winemaker Maitena how it’s pronounced and when she does it sounds nothing like its spelt! The vines are cultivated on a pergola system called ‘parra’ but guyot vertical row systems are now also beginning to be used. 

Our Hotel ‘The Iturregi’ was right the heart of the vineyards with the most stunning sea views from the gardens and bedrooms. Our room, called Jaizkibel – the Basque name for the mountain that divides Spain and France – was fantastic. Our huge balcony looked out over the peninsula known as the ‘Ratón de Getaria’ (the mouse of Getaria) and down onto the vines and a great pool. The service was fantastic, too and I can highly recommend a stay. 

 After settling in we took a taxi down into Getaria as I had booked us into for me (and many winemakers will agree) one of the best  fish restaurants known. Called Kaia, it overlooks the small harbour of Getaria, and has the most diverse Spanish/French wine list with lots of back vintages at very tempting prices. There was plenty of time before dinner as the Spanish don’t even turn up to restaurants until 10pm so we had a walk around the old town, having the occasional drink and constantly resisting the temptation of the tapas!

The restaurant has two entrances; one down by the harbour and the second up behind on the town ramparts. As you pass the lower entrance you can see the fish chef outside with his huge BBQ, grilling the various fish on the coals. We went upstairs and were seated with the beautiful view over the harbour. I spent about 15-minutes reading about a quarter of the wine menu, but I had known what we were going to order since the moment I left the restaurant last year! 
To start we had a superb 2011 Rías Baixas Albariiño from Terras Gauda with white tuna, pimentos and freshly cooked prawns whilst the whole turbot was being grilled down below.  For the main course I chose a 2001 Gran Reserva Rioja from Bodega Muga which, with the elegance of age, was a superb match to the divine turbot.

Another great time in Spain. Back in the Chai now, and harvest is approaching!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Bob Dylan, Bayonne 20th July 2012

Libby and I live just outside of Bordeaux so Bayonne was a perfect venue for us. We also adore both the French and Spanish side of the Pays Basque. We arrived in good time at the beautiful town of Bayonne; the sun was shining with a good temperature and a gentle breeze off the River Nive was sure to be perfect for Bob’s concert.

The concert was being held at the Arènes de Bayonne, a classic bull ring, but more importantly a French stronghold for bull fighting. The hotel was central so we had time to wander into town for something to eat before the 21:30 Show Time. I had heard of a great little restaurant called the Bar du Marche serving traditional Basque dishes. It had a great bustling ambience, complete with organised chaos and the typically local dishes such as ‘chipirones marines au piment d’Espelette a la plancha’ and ‘cochon au lait’ were delicious … as was a Basque red wine from the region of Irouleguy. 

This set us in fine mood for a Bob concert and we headed on foot to the Arènes de Bayonne. It was a beautiful walk, passing through the old town with its half timbers and shutters throwing out the national Basque colours of red and green from a white wall background. 

We passed the Gothic Cathédrale of Sainte-Marie whose magnificent cloisters watch down on you from high above the narrow streets. And as we rounded the massive citadel and up towards the Arènes, we caught a glimpse of Bob’s black tour bus!  
(Photo 2&3 of town and cathedral)

The Arènes was bathed in warm sunshine even now at 9pm and the circular shape adorned with bullfighters, the mustard yellow trims and dark red shutters made a dream setting!  

We quickly got inside without fuss and a there was a definite air of excitement. We had a cold beer then made our way inside to the open-air arena. The inside was stunning and before I noticed the amazing white stone seating, I spotted what I had been hearing about this year: Bob’s big black grand piano on the right of the set! 

I had selected the seats at a perfect height above the number one staircase so nobody would be in front of us. There was good legroom from the aisle and we were just off-centre as I knew Bob would be facing us from his left of the stage.  

The atmosphere was buzzing; the standing area below us was steadily filling up and the cries from the red and white dressed nut sellers hopping up, down and between the spectators made good comedy. The crowd were aware it was now 9:30pm and after a bit of encouraging cheering, the band entered with Bob coming out last, dressed immaculately in white trousers and shoes, black jacket, bootlace tie and a white, wide-brimmed hat. With no introductions the band blasted into a racy version of ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’, Bob at the keyboard. Without a second’s pause Bob slid effortlessly over to the grand piano and gave a brilliantly clean voiced ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’. You could really hear the keys and just how good Bob is on the piano.  

Again, no pause and Bob was up to centre stage with the harmonica for ‘Things Have Changed’, the clear lyrics telling exactly the way it is now! Bob stayed centre stage for the start of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ – Stu backing excellently on acoustic guitar – before moving back to the grand piano and playing some really excellent melodies in synch with Charlie’s lead guitar. Now Bob’s legs were moving under the piano and he took on a half-sit-down, half-stand-up pose with some right handed piano playing and left hand harmonica: brilliant.

The crowd were going now and he speeded up the tempo staying at the piano with a raspy loud ‘Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum’. Donnie pulled out his electric mandolin, Tony swapped onto the stand-up bass and George excelled on the drums for a controlled and perfect ‘Desolation Row’

Bob was obviously enjoying the new piano sound and stayed half-seated to the piano for a bouncy ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’. Then a real treat, as if to say “hey people this is my song by the way and this is how it’s done”: a really fantastic ‘Make You Feel My Love’. ‘Honest With Me’ came next with lovely harmonica, then a spot-on version of Spirit On The Water’.

With Bob still at the grand piano, the band belted out ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, before Bob came to the front of the stage to surprise us all with the best-ever version of ‘Forgetful Heart’. He dominated the stage and led the band in style, arms out wide. And he sang beautifully; this is the Dylan of today, the next invention, just brilliant!

A blistering ‘Thunder On The Mountain’ lifted the tempo once more, with Bob really in the groove now. And then, what I was waiting for, ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ and Bob on the piano. The vocals were superb, with an eerie echo after each line really creating the mood of the song.  Then he introduced the band and slipped with ease into a classic and solid ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.

I have heard ‘All Along the Watchtower’ live many times, but tonight’s version was just so special. Bob’s grand piano changed the song, making it so much more personal. The band came to the stage front to loud applause and Bob stood for a good while, pointing with two hands and open armed to the crowd and then back to him. He skipped off and the lights went down. 

I wasn’t sure if he would come back out after such a great last song and he let the crowd wait a good few minutes before the encore of Blowin’ In The Wind’. As was the theme of the evening Bob was back behind the grand piano.  A last goodbye from Bob and the band and he was gone. Wow! What a performance from the band and I just love this grand piano sound!

Set List Bayonne 20th July:
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Things Have Changed  
Tangled Up In Blue
Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum
Desolation Row
The Levee's Gonna Break
Make You Feel My Love
Honest With Me  
Spirit On The Water
Highway 61 Revisited
Forgetful Heart
Thunder On The Mountain
Ballad Of A Thin Man
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower

Blowin' In The Wind 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

La Rioja

I've been on my summer holidays for a week now and I'm having vineyards and winery withdrawal. So I thought a quick trip down to Rioja was needed!

I arrived in Laguardia at around 7pm after a stunning, clear blue sky drive from Bordeaux. After tasting some seriously good wines at Altos, we went for dinner at Carlos' restaurant in Logrono.

 Carlos was as usual busy at the front of house whilst his mother, as always, was preparing the most delicious food in the kitchen. We let Carlos choose the food and wine. We started with one of the best whites I have tasted a 2011 Rias Baixas Albarino from Do Frerrer with smoked paprika melt-in-the-mouth pulpo and the ham was equally good.

We had a glass of JMS' Pigeage with amazing lamb cutlets before a traditional but lovely 2004 Rioja Reserva from Marques de Murrieta with beautiful sea bass, heaven!

Up early to blistering sunshine so I was glad of a couple of cellar visits starting at Bodega Eguia  then onto the stunning Marquis de Riscal. I've often been passed the place, hard to miss the hotel in the little village of Elciego!

But it was a first time visit for me to the cellars and to taste the wines in the winery. Plenty of barrels to keep my winery withdrawal symptoms at bay!

I then headed round the corner to Bodega Muriel to see my good friend, owner Javier Mura. We had a walk round a few barrels (about 20,000), then tasted some new blends and the excellent 2004 Gran Reserva from bottle.

Just time for a spot of lunch with the Altos guys before heading back up to Bordeaux!