The ship docked at around 8:00am. There wasn’t the fanfare you might expect. No whistles or horns. Not even an announcement to say we had arrived. Just an electronic beep alerting the shore crew the massive cruise liner was ready to make contact. I enjoyed a slow morning and got off the ship around 11:00am. A majority of the passengers opted to explore Bilbao with a group bus tour. Instead I decided to go by foot. I walked the length of the port and along a green and meticulously paved boulevard, lined with mansion in various Spanish architectural styles. Some looked almost medieval. Some were your typical hacienda. Some reminded me of Australia. The cliffs out towards the mouth of the port were grassy green on top and limestone coloured below. Save a few palm trees, they looked just like the cliffs of Dover. Strange how when you travel, sometime you recognise places you’ve never seen. It never fails to amaze me how similar the world really is.
I climbed the winding road up to a village on the hill. I was in search of a good cappuccino. I had found a recommendation online and was eager to enjoy some quality European cafe after three days at sea. When I finally found the place, I was disappointed. The street corner cafe was dark and mahogany. People were drinking espresso, but not cappuccini, which I sometimes take as a sign. And there were slot machines in the cafe. Pokies! One I saw a skinny man sipping on his dry espresso and pumping the level on a run-down game, I knew it was not the place for me.
I decided I’d have better luck in the town centre of Bilbao, so I headed east down the hill towards the metro stop. Yes, there is a new and fully accessible train line reaching as far as this tiny cliff village. Ah, Europe. The hill was quite steep, and if I had been taking any kind of pace, I might have missed it. But the laughing faces of the few customers inside drew my attention to a hole-in-the-wall cafe bar, halfway down the hill. There was a promising photo of a cappuccino in the window. Despite my better judgement I am often seduced by images. I went inside. The cafe was narrow and short, possible only a 10 metres squared space. The bar ran the length of the cafe, with a few bar stool run along it. The patrons were a mix of young and old. Two men in their fifties sipped their espresso in the back. A dark curly haired woman in her mid thirties and a woman in her 60s gossiped and laughed by the window. A younger guy in a tight t-shirt smoked outside, coffee in hand. Behind the bar was a delightful cheerful man. He had that kind of manic expression I’ve come to know from Spanish men. A fast talking, urgent happiness. His silver hair was casually styled with gel. He wore a blue polo shirt and his long arms were tanned and strong. I imagine he might be in his late 40s. But he looked weathered with a kind of false age. His mouth smiled cheerfully but his eyes were soulful. I ordered a cappuccino, which I received within about 30 seconds from this smiling barista. I took one sip and learned what I already new. The coffee was terrible. Huge slimy bubbles in the milk, topped with icing sugar, watery, burned espresso and much too hot. But, I am aware that I am an insufferable snob when it comes to coffee. So I stayed and sipped and smiled. I noticed a very tasty looking tortilla de patata on the bench. This is also known as a Spanish omelette, although it is closes to a frittata. Red onions are caramelised and tossed with roasted potatoes. An egg mixtures is then poured over the top and the whole thing is fried and flipped and fried again. I knew this to be a delicacy in Spain and particularly that the Basque region prides itself on its food. I ordered a piece. The barista cut the slice very carefully, scraping extra potatoes onto my plate. He took a fork and stabbed a piece of baguette and laid it on my plate. I thanked him. This tortilla looked fantastic. It was still warm and I could smell its juiciness. I took a bite and was overwhelmed. The potatoes were soft and creamy, with a crunch on the outside from their roasting. The sweet, delicate onions melted on my tongue. And the egg. Oh the egg. A saucy flavourful savoury custard spilled through the whole tortilla. Juicy in the middle and with a delicious crust on the top and bottom. I was blown away. In this tiny cafe I was having an out of body food experience. This tortilla was too good. I immediately had the feeling there was more to this story.
I piped up “Did you make this?”
The barista replied, always smiling, “Jesi, Jesi, I make.”
“It’s phenomenal” I said, wanting to know more.
“Well, actually, I’m a professional chef.”
I knew it. The barista, or chef, went on to explain how he came to be working in this little cafe. He has been working as a chef for a long while in this region. And if the tortilla was anything to go by, then a very good chef. His wife passed away in a car accident three years ago. They have a four-year-old son. The barista pointed to a portrait of his son framed, resting above the coffee machine like a baby Jesus without a madonna. The crazy life of a professional chef was not possible for a suddenly single dad. So he quit his high-profile job, and bought this tiny cafe, so he could have more time with his son. He only opens for short hours, when his son is at kindergarten. On weekends they are closed. He likes to play with his son in the garden. There were opportunities to move into town and perhaps continue cheffing, and find a nanny for his son. But the chef comes from this region, where they speak a special dialect. He wanted his son to grow up speaking the mother tongue of his mother. There is only one primary school in all of Spain that teaches in this dialogue. For the chef, there was no choice. He had to stay in Getxo. For his wife, for his son and for himself. “I try to be happy”, he said. “My son is alive. He is my light. I am lucky.”