Bilbao and the Basque Country Feature

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Eating and Drinking Well in the Basque Country

Basque cuisine, Spain's most prestigious regional gastronomy, derives from the refined French culinary sensibility combined with a rough-and-tumble passion for the camaraderie of the table and for perfectly prepared seafood, meat, and vegetables.

The so-called nueva cocina vasca (new Basque cooking) is now about 30 years old, but it was originally inspired by the nouvelle cuisine of neighboring France, and meant the invention of streamlined versions of classic Basque dishes such as marmitako (tuna and potato stew). This region has the greatest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants anywhere in the world.

Though experts have often defined Basque cooking as simply "the art of preparing fish," there is no dearth of lamb, beef, goat, or pork in the Basque diet or on menus. Cooking both beef and fish over coals is a popular favorite as are—new Basque cooking notwithstanding—bracing stews combining legumes such as lentils and garbanzos with sausage.

Cider

Don't miss a chance to go to a sidrería, a cider house where the cider is poured from overhead and quaffed in a single gulp. Chuletas de buey (garlicky beefsteak grilled over coals) and tortilla de bacalao (cod omelet) provide ballast for hard apple cider al txotx. The cider-cod combination is linked to the Basque fishermen and whalers who carried longer-lasting cider rather than wine in their galleys.

Baby Eels

Angulas, known as elvers in English, are a Basque delicacy that has become an expensive treat, with prices reaching €1,000 a kilogram (about 2.2 pounds). The 3- to 4-inch-long eels look like spaghetti, but with tiny black eyes, and are typically served in a small earthenware dish sizzling with olive oil, garlic, and a single slice of chili. A special wooden fork is used to eat them, to avoid any metallic taste, and because the wood works better with the slippery eels. Don’t be misled by the plethora of "gulas" sold in lower-end tapas bars and groceries across Spain. They look just like angulas, but they’re fake—synthetic eels made from reconstituted fish stock.

Bacalao

Codfish, a Basque favorite since the Stone Age, comes in various guises. Bacalao al pil pil (stewed codfish) is a classic Bilbao specialty simmered—rather than fried—with garlic and olive oil in its own juices. The "pil pil" refers to the sound of the emulsion of cod and olive oil bubbling up from the bottom of the pan. Served with a red chili pepper, this is a beloved Basque delicacy.

Besugo a la Donostiarra

Besugo (sea bream) cooked San Sebastián style is baked in the oven, covered with flakes of garlic that look like scales (but taste better), with a last-minute splash of vinegar and parsley on top. The flesh of the sea bream is flaky and firm.

Ox

Oxen in the Basque Country have traditionally been work animals, fed and maintained with great reverence and care. When sacrificed for meat at the age of 12 or 13, their flesh is tender and marbled with streaks of fat rich with grassy aromas and tastes. Many of today's ox steaks/chops (txuleta de buey, also translated as "beef chop") may not be from authentic work oxen, but the meat, tender and fragrant, cooked over coals with garlic and a few flakes of sea salt, is dark and delicious.

Tuna and Potato Stew

Using the dark-maroon-color meat of the Thunnus albacares (yellowfin tuna), marmitako, a stick-to-your-ribs potato, tuna, and red pepper stew is the classic Basque fishermen's concoction made for the restoration of weather-beaten seafarers. Taken from the French name of the cooking pot (marmite), there are marmitako competitions held annually.

Wine

Basque txakolítxakolí, a young white wine made from tart green grapes, is refreshing with either seafood or meat. But those who prefer a Basque red with their Basque cuisine could choose a Rioja Alavesa, from the part of the Rioja wine-growing country north of the Ebro.

Updated: 2014-07-24

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