With its tumultuous and rich history, the Basque region, in Spain’s north east, must be considered as one of it’s most interesting. Once another kingdom but now absorbed into Spain, Basques are a still fiercely independent and proud race using their own cultural and language heritage. Surely in culinary circles that they have a lot to be proud of, the place is traditionally considered Spain’s best for gastronomy and a seemingly endless production line of top chefs and Michelin stars have maintained the area’s reputation as a gourmand’s dream.
Food is invisibly to the regular fiber of Basque life and is a really serious business to the majority of people in the area. The men are often members of gastronomic societies, steeped in tradition, who take it in turns to prepare enormous feasts for the remaining members. Women are usually not welcome to enter these culinary brotherhoods however they do get invited to come along on certain special occasions. Slightly primitive some might say but these practices have been happening for quite a long time.
Like all fantastic culinary locations, the Basques wed the customs of land and sea. Probably more famous for its abundant fish, the scenic interiors of this area create cheese (often made from Ewe’s milk such as Idazabal), green peas and mushrooms. The spring months see the sprouting of the areas most famous mushroom, the highly sort after and expensive «Zizaks», a specific favorite in the Alava area of the region.
A distinct lack of good pasture land in the area has traditionally pushed up the cost of livestock but the scenic hinterlands of the Basque area do produce a thinner, often tastier breed of sheep, pig or cow. Local meat specialities include»txerri patak» (pig’s feet), the famous»Morcilla» (blood sausage) and»Lengua a la Tolosana» (calf’s tongue) that is simmered in wine with onion and tomatoes. These dishes demonstrate that the Basques do not share the American and British squeamishness of employing every part of the creature.
With a long coastline across the bottom corner of the Bay of Biscay the area has a long tradition of seafaring and fishing. As you’d expect, the Atlantic Ocean’s bounty is widespread in a standard regional kitchen. The abundant waters yield langoustines, hake, anchovies, tuna and squid to mention but some of the favourites. «Angulas» (juvenile eels, called Elvers in English) are something of a delicacy and can fetch up to #250 per pound and the»Chiporones» (Baby squid) are considered as some of the sweetest you will find anywhere. Favourite recipes include»Merluza en Salsa Verde» (Hake in green sauce),»Marmitako» (a traditional fisherman’s stew made with tuna) and»Bacalao al Pil-Pil» (salt cod in a garlic sauce).
If fine dining or just old fashioned great eating, are your thing then you can do much worse than a visit to the Basque country, indeed, it is the ideal location to get a culinary odyssey. San Sebastián is recognised among the world’s greatest cities for foodies, whether it’s for the unlimited amount bars serving a limitless collection of»pintxos» (the Basque term for tapas) or if you would like to sample some of the best haute cuisine in Spain. Many have tried and failed to eat their way across this city but have experienced an awesome gastronomic journey in the procedure. The Basques even have the term»txikiteo» – loosely translated as»tapas spree», a kind of bar crawl where meals, as opposed to alcohol, is the primary concern (I am sure we Brits have been missing a trick somewhere along the line). For more formal dining there region boasts a good deal of choice, you will find no less than eight Michelin starred restaurants in or nearby town and a range of others springing up around the rest of the Basque area. The most famous restaurant is unquestionably»Arzak», pretty much a permanent resident at the restaurant globally top 50 list. Head chef and charismatic leader of the Basque»neuva cocina» revolution, Juan Mari Arzak, epitomises all that is great about modern Basque cooking, blending the exact fresh ingredients using a groundbreaking new twist.