The staunchly proud and authentic Basque Country offers up some of the world’s best food you’ve probably never heard of, says Ben Lerwill.
Spain is dangerously easy to love. Sunshine, siestas and sangria make for a heady combination, and that’s before you factor in the sleepless energy and history-soaked architecture of the cities. The country’s food, meanwhile, is arguably the biggest selling point of all. I’ve had phenomenal meals in Madrid’s tapas bars, Andalusian seafood joints and Barcelona’s paella restaurants, but there’s one region that tops the lot: the Basque Country. A forested coastal region at the very top of the national map, the Basque Country is fiercely independent. Most of its residents don’t even consider themselves Spanish. It has its own language, its own culture and, yes, its own cuisine. Gourmet attention tends to fall squarely on the city of San Sebastian, regularly touted as one of the world’s top ‘foodie’ destinations, but there are rewards right across the region.
So what makes it such a special place to eat and drink?
In many ways, it’s no surprise that the Basque Country has become such a talked-about food region. Nature has been especially kind to it. Facing onto the seafood-rich Bay of Biscay in one direction and backed by the fruitful hills of the Ebro Valley in the other, it’s somewhere that doesn’t need to cast its net far to source quality produce. Fresh vegetables, beans, meat and fish are all close at hand – you’ll even find sparkling wine and cider. On a broader culinary level, it’s also sandwiched between southwest France and northern Spain, and there’s been no shortage of neighborly influence over the centuries.The weight of the region’s reputation, however, is based not so much on the produce itself as on how its ingredients and techniques are put into practice. Critic-wowing local chefs like Juan Mari Arzak, Pedro Subijana Reza and Andoni Luis Aduriz have helped create a deeply innovative, mold-breaking style, which sees meticulously concocted menus featuring everything from roasted pigeon with mole sauce and cocoa, to ice shreds with scarlet shrimp perfume.
That’s not to say that mealtimes here have to be about haute cuisine. The Basque Country’s most famous gift to food-lovers is pintxos, the moreish tapas-like snacks served at every tavern and cider bar you choose to wander into. Almost always spiked with toothpicks, common examples include prawn skewers, veal cheeks, grilled squid, and white anchovy with peppers and olives. They make for absolutely incredible meals. The Basque language can be hard to master, but two words – on egin (cheers, or bon appetit) – go a long way. To appreciate the food of today’s region, it’s worth looking quickly at the past. The Basque culture is an ancient one, predating the Roman Empire, and early historians talk of a largely impoverished race of people whose living standards were only enhanced with the emergence of a proper fishing industry in the Middle Ages and, later, the discovery of America. Being conveniently located for transatlantic travel, many Basques journeyed to and from the New World, which in turn brought new ingredients and new ideas.
The hardships of Spain’s 20th-century history ushered in another tough period, and it’s been only since the death of Franco in the mid-1970s that the now famed Nueva Cocina Vasca (New Basque Cuisine) movement can really be said to have started. Fast forward 40 years and the region’s two principal cities – San Sebastian and Bilbao, just 60 miles apart – have a staggering 29 Michelin stars between them, including no less than four restaurants with three-star ratings.
Both of the above cities are hugely rewarding visitor attractions. Colorful Bilbao is best known for being home to the groundbreaking Guggenheim Museum, while beach-fringed San Sebastian, one of Europe’s most lovable resort cities, takes the top culinary honors. Worldwide, only Kyoto in Japan holds more Michelin accolades per square foot, and the place is bursting with a mixture of traditional and avant-garde eateries.
It’s not only the perfect place to try the ‘molecular gastronomy’ of big-name restaurants such as Mugaritz, Arzak and Akelarre (tip: book as far in advance as possible) but also it’s a perfect place to sample classic examples of the Basque dishes found in towns and villages across the coastal region. These include the famous bacalao (salt cod) and the hearty fish stew known as marmitako, which usually includes tuna.
Remember that Basque cuisine isn’t just about the food. A visit to a sagardotegi (old-fashioned cider houses, many of which are located in the Gipuzkoa area around San Sebastian) is an atmospheric way to enjoy the local barrel cider, while txakoli, the region’s softly sparkling white wine, is of fine quality these days.
Five to Try
Kokotxas al Pil Pil: Kokotxas are essentially fish throats (hake is most commonly used), and they’re a Basque specialty. This version is cooked in pil-pil sauce, a mixture of olive oil, chili and garlic.
The Arzak Egg: Arzak – currently listed in the top 20 of San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants – is renowned for its eggs, which are seasoned before being poached in plastic wrap.
Txistorra: Basque food – hard to spell, easy to eat. This cured sausage is made from minced pork and beef then flavored with paprika and garlic. It’s usually rich red in color.
Idiazabal: A handmade sheep’s cheese produced using unpasteurized milk. After maturing for a few months it takes on a smoky, nutty flavor, and is often eaten with quince jelly.
Piperrada: A popular vegetarian option, the dish combines green peppers and onion with sauteed tomatoes and the local Espelette red pepper, a very common ingredient in Basque cuisine.
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