BASKING IN TASTE: Cuisine of the Basque Country

French Basque cheesemonger at the open-air market
in St.-Jean-de-Lu

A special region with a proud history, a distinct language and a unique cuisine

By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author

The Basque country of Europe is a region with a special ambiance all its own. Located in northern Spain and southwestern France, it’s a land of green meadows and high mountains, rugged coastlines and white beaches, wooded valleys and dry plains. Bordering on the Bay of Biscay, the Basque country straddles the Pyrenees Mountains and the coastal foothills along the frontier between France and Spain. It includes the Spanish provinces of Álava, Vizkaya, Gipuzkoa and, historically, parts of Navarra, as well as the western part of the French district of Pyrénées Atlantiques.

The Basques are proud of their regional identity and possess a spirit of independence that has often defined their history. An ancient people unrelated to other Europeans, they speak a unique language peppered with x’s, k’s and z’s. Theirs is also a land of contrasts, between rural and urban, past and present, rich and poor: the elegant boulevards of Biarritz and San Sebastián; the functional red-brick highrises and the soaring steel modernism of the Guggeheim Museum in Bilbao; the somber stone buildings of Vitoria and the picturesque fishing villages along the coast; the grimy industrial suburbs of major cities and the pastoral farmhouses of the interior, their walls, doors, and shutters painted white, red and green, the colors of the regional flag.

Passionate for politics and sports, the Basques are also very serious about food. Basque cuisine is famous on both sides of the border, and several Basque chefs have been among the leaders of Spain’s modernist cuisine movement. There are nearly 40 Michelin-starred restaurants in the French and Spanish Basque regions, with San Sebastián boasting a trio of restaurants awarded three Michelin stars (out of only seven 3-star restaurants in all of Spain). Known as the culinary capital of Spain, the city of San Sebastián has more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world.

The Basques like to cook, and they know how to eat well. Basque cooks of both sexes are renowned in Spain and abroad. Basque women are noted not only for the excellence of their home cooking, but also their success as restaurateurs. And Basque men, as accomplished restaurant chefs and members of local male gastronomic societies first organized in the nineteenth century, have been especially important in perpetuating and promoting Basque culinary traditions.

(left to right) Pork sausages flavored with paprika, in a Basque market; French Basque oil flavored with red peppers from Espelette

High quality ingredients form the basis of any notable cuisine. Fresh fish and shellfish are the mainstays of Basque cooking, caught in the Bay of Biscay and beyond, as well as in the mountain streams that flow to the sea: cod, hake, sardines, anchovies, herring, sole, sea bream, baby eels, tuna, bonito, bass, red mullet, octopus, squid, lobsters, crabs, clams, mussels, oysters, freshwater salmon and mountain trout.

Fish and seafood are mainstays of Basque cuisine on both sides of the Spanish-French border

The interior of the Basque country provides pork, beef, lamb and game, some of which is processed into cured meats like the famous the hams of Bayonne on the French side and the spicy sausages of the Spanish Basque land to the south. Basque dairy products are also of high quality, and the Basques use milk, butter and cream extensively in their cooking. Sheep’s milk goes into the production of several kinds of Basque cheeses made on both sides of the border, many of them matured in caves or huts high in the mountains. And the Basques are crazy about mushrooms. Every spring, summer and fall thousands of Basques head to the forests and meadows to pick the many varieties of wild mushrooms that suddenly pop up in secret places.

Market gardens grow the fresh produce so essential to many Basque regional dishes, including artichokes, asparagus, cabbages, leeks, onions and carrots. With the first Spanish voyages to the Western Hemisphere 500 years ago, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, beans and cacao (later processed into chocolate) began returning in the holds of the ships and eventually became an important part of the Basque diet. Today several specific places in the Basque country are well known for the New World crops they grow: tomatoes in Deusto near Bilbao, potatoes in the province of Álava, many types of beans in Navarra and Gipuzkoa, and long green peppers from Gernika. Across the border in the French Basque country, paprika made from the bright red peppers grown around Espelette is the first and only spice in France to be awarded an AOC (controlled designation of origin) and APO (protected designation of origin) status.

Mild sweet peppers are a popular ingredient in Basque cuisine; peppers are a popular culinary motif in the Basque Country

Spanish Basque meals are often accompanied by excellent red wines from the Alavesa area of the famous Rioja wine region. A different type of Basque wine made near the Spanish coast is txakolí, which is light, slightly effervescent, and fruity but dry. Although the Basques produce white, red and rosé versions of txakolí, the whites are considered the best of these simple table wines, especially good with the fish dishes of the region. Reds are the predominant wines produced on the northern foothills of the Pyrenees in the wine region of Irouléguy, which is the only AOC-certified wine area within the Basque country of France.

Basque sparkling cider is another popular drink on the Spanish side of the border, served not only at home and in restaurants but also at sidrerías, combination cider mills and eating houses where the cider is tapped fresh from the barrels and served as an accompaniment to simple country-style meals.

Fish and seafood dishes—grilled, baked, stewed, sautéed—are an important part of Basque cuisine. One of the most expensive dishes in Spain is the Basque dish of angulas, silvery-white baby eels (which cost up to 1,000 Euros per kilogram!) cooked in a small earthenware casserole containing very hot oil, a clove of garlic and a piece of dried red chile pepper. Much more reasonably priced are the rustic fish stews of this region, including classic marmitako, an oily-rich mélange of white-fleshed bonito and potatoes, usually cooked with tomatoes, garlic, and white wine in an iron pot. And although the Basques have an abundant and continuous supply of fresh fish from the sea, they also love bacalao, dried salt cod that has been split lengthwise, flattened out, heavily salted, and dried in the open air. Reconstituted in water before being prepared in innumerable ways, bacalao has been aptly described as mummified fish brought back to life by the cook.

In the Spanish Basque country, seafood is also paired with classic sauces whose colors reflect those of the Basque flag: red sauce (a la vizcaína, or Biscay-style) made with onions and dried sweet red peppers; green sauce (salsa verde) colored with parsley, peas, and asparagus; and a special kind of white sauce made by cooking the ingredients al pil-pil, in a shallow earthenware casserole set over a low flame, the casserole shaken, not stirred, until the gelatin released by the fish combines with the oil to produce a rich, unctuous sauce. The Basques also prepare baby squid in a thick, creamy, subtly flavored sauce tinted black by the squid’s own ink.

Another classic Basque dish is piparrada (Spanish) or piperade (French). Sweet red or green peppers, roasted and peeled, are sautéed in olive oil, butter, or lard, along with other ingredients such as tomatoes, garlic, onion, and ham. Often beaten eggs are swirled into this sauce just before serving, to make a kind of scrambled egg dish, or the sauce alone is served as an accompaniment to baked, grilled, or roasted meats.

Colorful Basque pintxos at a bar in Bilbao

Pintxos are a particularly popular category of foods in northern Spain. The Basque version of Spanish tapas, these are bar snacks that range from traditional potato omelet slices, mayonnaise-bound potato salads, spicy sausages, and stuffed mussels, to more modern variations made from a thick slice of chewy white bread topped with two or three layers of tasty, colorful ingredients, all held together with a toothpick. Miniature masterpieces of the culinary art, these pretty little open-face sandwiches are enticingly displayed on the counter of each bar. No visit to the Spanish Basque country is complete without a poteo, a kind of civilized pub crawl, where you wander from one bar to the next, drinking a glass or two of local wine and tasting the designer pintxo specialties at each place.

Basque cake
Classic Basque custard-filled cake with the Basque national symbol on top

But leave room for dessert. Traditional Spanish Basque specialties include leche frita (fried milk), thick custard squares dipped in beaten egg and flour, then fried until crisp; intzaursalsa, walnut cream soup made with crushed walnuts, toasted bread crumbs, milk, and sugar; mamiya, milk curds flavored with lemon and sugar; and colorful fruit compotes made with red wine and spices, such as zurracapote served on Christmas Eve. Spanish pastel vasco and French gateau basque are both classic Basque double-crust tarts filled with custard and sometimes jam. And if these old-fashioned desserts don’t appeal to your more modern palate, then spring for dinner at one of those Michelin-starred restaurants to taste (and marvel at) the futuristic sweets prepared by the Basque Country’s many highly acclaimed chefs.

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