Eating and Drinking Well in the Basque Country

Basque cuisine, Spain's most prestigious regional gastronomy, draws 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) movement began more than 40 years ago and was originally 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 topped with emulsified garlic sauce) with the aim to redefine and promote Basque cooking on the global stage. Today the region has the world's second-highest concentration of Michelin stars per capita, second only to Kyoto.

Although the core of Basque cooking hinges on the art of preparing fish, there is no dearth of lamb, beef, goat, or pork in the Basque diet or on menus.

Cider

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.

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 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 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 processed whitefish.

Bacalao

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.

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. Most of today's ox steaks and chops (txuleta de buey, also translated as "beef chop") aren't be from authentic work oxen, but a hulking beefsteak, tender and fragrant, cooked over coals with garlic and a few flakes of sea salt, is almost 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. One bite, and you'll understand why the dish was the preferred restorative for weatherbeaten seafarers. Taken from the French name of the cooking pot (marmite), there are marmitako competitions held annually.

Wine

Basque txakoli, a simple, zippy white made from tart green 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.

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