Eating and Drinking Well in the Basque Country
Basque cuisine, Spain's most prestigious regional gastronomy, may incorporate the refined culinary sensibilities of the French and the no-nonsense country cooking of inland Iberia, but it's no hybrid cuisine.
The distinctive seafood, meat, and vegetable dishes served here are often impossible to find elsewhere in Spain, thanks to hyperlocal ingredients and culinary secrets passed down from generation to generation.
The so-called nueva cocina vasca (new Basque cooking) movement began more than 40 years ago as an echo of the nouvelle cuisine of France. Young chefs like Pedro Subijana and Juan Mari Arzak began deconstructing versions of classic Basque dishes like marmitako (tuna and potato stew) and bacalao al pil pil (salt cod bathed in emulsified garlic sauce) with the aim to redefine and promote Basque cooking globally. Today the region has the world's second-highest concentration of Michelin stars per capita. Although the core of Basque cooking hinges on the art of preparing fish, there is no dearth of lamb, beef, or pork in the Basque diet or on menus.
Don't miss a chance to go to a sagardotegi, a boisterous cider house where the cider spurts into your glass straight from the barrel to be quaffed in a single gulp. Txuletas de buey (juicy rib eyes grilled over coals) and tortilla de bacalao (cod omelet) provide ballast for the rustic apple cider. The cider-cod combination is linked to the Basque fishermen and whalers who carried cider, rather than wine, in their galleys.
Angulas, known as elvers in English, are a Basque delicacy that has become an expensive treat, with prices reaching €1,000 a kilogram. The 3- to 4-inch-long eels look like spaghetti with 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 grips the slippery eels better than metal. Don’t be misled by the "gulas" sold in lower-end tapas bars and groceries across Spain. They look just like angulas, but they’re made from processed whitefish.
Cod, a Basque favorite since the Stone Age, comes in various guises. Bacalao al pil pil 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, and sprinkled with vinegar and parsley before serving.
Oxen in the Basque Country have traditionally been work animals, fed and maintained with great reverence and care. When slaughtered at the age of 12 or 13, their flesh is tender and marbled with streaks of fat rich with grassy aromas. Most of today's ox steaks and chops (txuletas de buey, or "beef chops") aren't cut from work oxen, but a hulking beefsteak, cooked to juicy perfection over coals, is still as beguiling.
Tuna and Potato Stew
Marmitako, the Basques' answer to bouillabaisse, is a stick-to-your-ribs potato, yellowfin tuna, and red pepper stew. Beware: it usually has a strong fishy taste. One bite, and you'll understand why the dish, named after the French for cooking pot (marmite), has long been the preferred restorative for weather-beaten seafarers.
Basque Txakoli, a simple, zippy white (and, increasingly, rosé) made from tart indigenous grapes, is refreshing with seafood and pintxos. Those who prefer a red should spring for a wine from Rioja Alavesa, the Basque part of Rioja wine country north of the Ebro.