Jose and Isabel Macicior have fast become the faces of bespoke food and culture trips to Spain and southern France. They have hit the ground running, and seem to have a finger on the pulse of high-end vacationers offering tours with Travels and Tapas!
Food tourism is now big business and it’s raised awareness of delicious national specialities and regional restaurants; and it has introduced remarkable chefs to a wider audience. Jose and Isabel have created a company, Travels and Tapas, which tailors visits to the particular needs of its clients, and in a region that encompasses some of the best food and cultural pursuits in Europe.
Jose is a local, and has impeccable connections with owners of stately homes. He can elicit invitations across those usually private thresholds, through those usually closed doors. Travels and Tapas has already garnered a reputation for arranging seats at the best tables and places at the best pintxos (tapas) bars (see article here). If you are interested in history then you will be delighted with an itinerary that could encompass iconic architecture, museums and anecdotal adventure in the guise of Jose’s own family history, which is so much entwined with these towns and villages. Such a change from the UK, where many consider themselves nobility if they can trace their family tree all the way back to their father.
Travels and Tapas arranged dinner at a local restaurant with a firmament of glittering awards. Zuberoa is thoroughly deserving of its Michelin star but it exudes a quiet confidence and a smart-casual ambiance that makes it a cosy pleasure to visit. Chef Hilario Arbelaitz explains something of the restaurant’s past. ‘This is the oldest house of the village – 650 years old.’ Hilario is the 4th generation of his family to live here. ‘It was a farmhouse, and there was a little bar, and the terrace is where the chickens were kept.’
When Hilario was 20 and away at a seminary, and his brothers were small, his father passed away and Hilario had to come back to work the farm. The farmhouse was converted to ‘tea rooms’ and it grew from there. The base of the traditional Basque cuisine that he now presents is what he learnt from this mother, and he has researched and developed more dishes.
His brother and right-hand man, Eusebius, is in charge of the customers and front-of-house. Chef Hilario presides over the kitchen which attracts young chefs on stage from all over the world. I asked Hilario about his menu. ‘It has its focus on good seasonal products – hake in green sauce, squid in black ink, bacalau (salted cod). The tradition in this country was that the fishermen used to go to Nova Scotia, and of course the fish had to be salted, so here the usual way of cooking cod is always salted. In the spring there are broad beans – like green caviar, also pigeon, and partridge. 50-60% of the menu is traditional.’ There is a tasting menu, ‘menu degustation’, where Hilario can experiment and devise new recipes. ‘The tasting menu is 7 dishes, and in winter there is crab, langoustine, ravioli, sometimes white mushrooms and green asparagus – a kind of ‘surf and turf’ in a way; scallop, foie gras, with caramelised onion sauce and truffles; oysters in aspic with a lemon cream and caviar.
‘In the Basque country you have to do Basque cooking, I am not aligned with those who do new things for tourists who come and go. I have repeat business which is why I have to concentrate on Basque cooking, and keep traditional dishes on the menu because people ask for them.
Feran Adria has done a lot for the profile of Spanish cooking. I asked Hilario for his thoughts.
‘He has done a lot. Nouvelle Basque cuisine has opened the country to the world. In the past, no French chefs would come to the Basque country; now even 3-Michelin star French chefs will come here. Now the tourism in summer is gastronomic! Perhaps there are just two tables of Spanish people, surrounded by Australian, German, British tourists. I go to England a lot – I see Tom Aikens and a lot of friends of his, and Heston Blumenthal.’
Who are Hilario’s food heroes? ‘Feran Adria is one. El Bulli was a kind of ‘Picasso’ in the gastronomy world, that has elevated Spanish cuisine, and now everyone acknowledges it. Amongst the Basque chefs the best is Martin Berasategui. Martin used to come here to help a little in the kitchen and we are very close friends.’
Zuberoa is a flagship for Basque cuisine, and should be requested by any Travels and Tapas clients. Jose Macicior understands his native dishes and is an accomplished cook himself. He will proudly introduce visitors to restaurants that present the best, including some that are hidden gems known only to the discerning and very lucky locals.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018