San Sebastian, Spain
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
The Basque country, on the Bay of Biscay in Spain’s Atlantic northeast, is without doubt the most idiosyncratic region of Spain, with its own language, culture, and history, and its distinctive and mysterious origins. No one has ever determined the historic source of the Basque language or that of the Basque people. This region has a warm, rainy climate, a coastline that has been a historic source of seafood, and an interior of rolling hills and high, grassy plateaux, perfect grazing land for dairy cows and sheep, especially the latxa breed whose milk produces stellar Idiazábal, a lightly smoked farmstead cheese that is the pride of the Basque Country.
In addition to these riches, the Basque Country lays claim to more great chefs than any other region—in fact, Basques are frequently premier chefs throughout the entire country, and Basque chefs like Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana are credited with la nueva cocina vasca, the beginning of the great revival of Spanish haute cuisine. Between San Sebastian and Bilbao, two important coastal cities of the region, there are 17 Michelin stars awarded to restaurants that are famous right around the world—said to be greater than the number of stars in Paris. Why that is may lie in that odd institution, la sociedad gastronómica, an all-male cooking and eating club peculiar to the region. One authority claims there are at least 200 of these sociedades, and since their membership ranges from 100 to 150 each, that means some 20,000 to 30,000 Basque males who are more or less enthusiastic members of clubs whose sole motive for existence is to gather with other men and cook.
Beyond the celestial heights of the Michelin guides, however, there is a lot of excellent, somewhat plainer eating in the rest of the País Vasco—which includes a sizable chunk of territory on the other side of the now no longer existent border with France. From the delights of tapas bars—tapas here are called pintxos—to countryside asadores or grills, this is a region of plain cooking, of hearty country and coastal dishes, with meats (lamb and beef more than pork) and fish grilled over wood fires, and robust bean stews, made with the magnificent alubias de Tolosa. Despite the riches of the sea (everything from prestigious turbot to lowly but succulent sardines and anchovies), salt cod, bacalao, is also popular—it was, after all, Basque fishermen, Basque patriots say, who sought cod on the Grand Banks long before Columbus set sail. But Basque seafood can also be delicately prepared, as in various techniques that involve swirling the cooking pan to create a delicate sauce (see column to the right), or as in angulas, tiny baby eels, not more than a few inches long and looking more like weird pasta than any kind of fish—and killingly expensive these days.
It’s not always acknowledged as such, but the Basque Country, which isn’t otherwise noted for its wines, does include the province of Alava, home of Rioja Alavesa, one of Rioja’s premier wine districts. Most writers include Rioja Alavesa in their descriptions of Rioja, but the district is in fact contained within the political boundaries of the Basque Country. The province spreads from the steep rocky heights of the Sierra de Cantabria down to the north bank of the Ebro, and is clustered around its unofficial capital, the delightful walled town of Laguardia (the official capitol is Vitoria) with a honeycomb of wine cellars beneath the town streets.
Apart from this distinguished red wine, the Basque Country is noted for txakoli, a spritzy white made along the coast west of San Sebastian and a lively accompaniment to the robust cuisine of the region, especially when sampling pintxos in the old quarters of San Sebastian or Bilbao. Another, equally satisfying local drink is the cider that is served foaming in the glass in sidrerias.
Iconic Basque Dishes and Products
Alubias de Tolosa: shiny black beans from the town of Tolosa, usually cooked with spicy green peppers (guindillas), garlic, and pork ribs.
Pimientos de Gernika: Similar to Galicia’s pimientos de Padrón, these are small, sweet green chiles (except for the occasional hot one) from the Basque town of Guernica, usually grilled a la plancha and sprinkled with crisp sea salt.
Marmitako: a rich chowder (but without milk) of freshly caught tuna, onions, and potatoes, so called from the marmita, the pot in which it is cooked.
Bacalao a la vizcaina: A favorite from Vizcaya province, salt cod is cooked with dried sweet red peppers, garlic, bits of ham, and parsley.
Bacalao al pilpil: As the cook swirls the pan, the skin of the salt cod releases its gelatin, which melts into the garlic-flavored cooking oil and gradually emulsifies to make a creamy sauce for the fish.
Txipirones en su tinta: Tender little baby squid cooked in a rich sauce of their own ink.
Kokotxas de merluza: In a similar technique, hake “cheeks” (kokotxas) are cooked in a sauté pan with olive oil and garlic; the cook’s gentle but constant swirling motion with the pan creates a lush emulsified sauce for the fish. Merluza en salsa verde is similar but with lots of parsley added to make a green sauce.
Txangurro: Spider crab, usually served stuffed with its own meat baked in a savory, peppery, lightly tomatoed sauce, with hot pimentón and brandy.
Txistorra: Finger lengths of savory chorizo sausage, a favorite to serve with sparkling Txakoli.
Piperrada: garlic, onion, red peppers, tomatoes, and fresh herbs, all cooked together and served with a slice of country jamón serrano or with scrambled eggs.
Perritxikos: prized mushrooms in the Tricholoma family, only available during their spring season, often sautéed with garlic and parsley, or served mixed into freshly scrambled eggs.