I panicked, having never been, as I realised I only had 10 days to absorb this iconic country celebrated for its outstanding gastronomy.
Rather than hit Instagram for food leads, I started planning my itinerary around my late great mother, Lannice Snyman’s, last trip to Spain.
Navigating Spain with her handwritten notes made my journey so much more nostalgic as I combined some old classics with some new, trending leads I had in mind.
Freewheeling down Las Ramblas we discovered the beating food heart of the city at Boqueria Market.
Arguably the best market in the world selling food and fresh product of the highest standard attracting not only international gastro-hunters but local customers from the city as well as day trippers from all parts of Catalonia.
After a day of sensational tapas we secret-coded ourselves through the doors of Enigma where my food mind was totally, blissfully blown. Culinary genius Albert Adrià calls this a “culinary amusement park” and a space where he wants to “reinvent the way we go to restaurants”.
We couldn’t simply open the front door and walk in; on making the reservation, I was sent a secret passcode to punch into a keypad on arrival at our allocated time.
The space is 7 534 square feet and seats only 24 diners.
We worked our way through a personal all-time best record of 40 dishes presented in 7 different dining spaces. They have a strict no-photo rule and no sharing of food photos on social media.
This reinforces the experiential element and keeps the Enigma! Stand-out dishes included wild strawberry filled elderflower frozen cloud, air pancake with pistachio cream, broth cooked sea cucumber served with dashi and slippery sea cucumber spaghetti, cured red mullet with confit roe and crispy fried fish scales seasoned with a powder made from the fish bones, deep fried sea anemone and my bravest moment … rooster comb, garlic flowers and porcini mushrooms.
We left bewildered but beyond intrigued.
A 45-minute train trip took us to the medieval city of Girona for a long, lavish lunch at El Celler de Can Roca. Two Michelin stars, twice named best restaurant in the world and currently number 2 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list; this could not be missed.
The three Roca brothers showcase traditional Catalan cuisine on a completely modern level. You need time here, which is why we dedicated a whole day to appreciate top level dining at its global best.
Sea water bonbons are the first of 27 magic mouthful moments. Forever flavour memories include brioche filled with warm truffle cream; oyster tartare with earl grey mayo and bergamot dust; charcoal grilled eel with garlic and saffron foam and to end, a sweet celebration of Girona’s flower time with blueberry sorbet, sour almond, vanilla and fresh flowers.
We traded a two hour flight for a car and self-drove from Barcelona to Bilboa, via Pamplona where we meandered through narrow cobbled streets overflowing with cafes and speciality food stores; picking up armfuls of plump cherries, jamón ibérico-crammed fresh loaves, on-the-spot squeezed juices, octopus and paprika potato tapas from Otano Bar and headed for Plaza del Castillo; the beating heart of Pamplona.
Before hitting the road to Bilbao, a strong coffee and exquisite pastry at the legendary 130 year old Café Iruña where writer Ernest Hemingway was once a loyal customer.
We crossed into Basque country and discovered beautiful Bilbao, a west coast village founded by Don Diego Lopez de Haro V, Lord of Biscay, in 1300. The Guggenheim Museum became the symbol of the ‘new’ Bilbao and is a massive tourist attraction along with the city’s extraordinary buildings and fine food offering.
Azurmendi (#43) is Bilbao’s only 3 star Michelin restaurant which kicks off your experience in their rooftop garden, weaves you through their kitchen to the greenhouse for snacks before the main event in the dining room screened by fabric walls projecting the finest food to come.
Having won The Sustainable Restaurant Award in 2014, its hard not to appreciate this space made of environmentally friendly building materials. Every drop of the cooler season rainfall is harvested and the restaurant cools itself using geothermal energy.
To balance the star-studded-stuff, make your way into the medieval neighbourhood of Casco Viejo and find a Txoko; a typical Basque style of a closed gastronomical society where people unite to experiment with cooking, socialise and cook as a community.
The most traditional Txoko’s are only open to men, so ask the locals where’s best.
Less than one hour picture-perfect drive away is the tiny seaside village of Mundaka, known as one of the best river-mouth waves in the world. The waves were warm and delivered on the day of our visit. Hotel El Puerto is the best breakfast spot that serves excellent coffee after a satisfying surf.
Our trip ended in San Sebastián, on Spain’s north coast in the Basque Country and undoubtedly known as one of the world’s greatest food cities for foodies. Certainly the pintxos capital of Spain but also home to countless Michelin-starred restaurants’s tucked into the surrounding hills.
Don’t miss traditional food markets such as San Martin and La Bretxa, which are frequented daily by top city chefs who personally select their produce to take back to their restaurants.
Start your food-graze day with a chorizo-crammed tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette) breakfast at Bodega Donostiarra. Directing you to top pintxos spots for midday mouthfuls would be fruitless. Be brave and graze your way through as many as possible. We succeeded by doing just this; a pintxos here, two next door, a pint around the corner, more pintxos across the road, a G&T with our 12th pintxos and then wind down towards the outskirts of the Old Town and find the best family run pastry shop in town, Pasteleria Oiartzun.
Try their goxua if you never want to forget a mouth moment that is a caramel cream sponge cake and don’t forget to pack a few Basque cakes; these perfect almond paste filled pastries make perfect travel companion en route to Bilbao Airport, homeward bound as you leave this lavish land of gastronomy.
As a true believer of not returning to places for a ‘life’s-too-short’ fear of not navigating myself satisfyingly across the globe before I die; never have I felt a stronger, insatiable urge to return to Spain.
I have penned mountains of Spanish travel notes in the hopes that my daughter will pick up my diaries and walk these streets when she’s ready to roam this great gourmet giant of a country.
*Tamsin Snyman owns her own cookbook publishing company and culinary consultancy. She heads up the local American Express Dining Awards and is Academy Chair for the region Africa & Indian Ocean Islands for the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards. She is the Cape Town restaurant selector for 12forward, the White Guide’s restaurant App that lists top gourmet cities worldwide and their 12 ahead-of-the-curve eateries.