What is common to restaurants like Arzak, Akelarre, Martín Berasategui, Azurmendi, Mugaritz, Andra Mari, Marqués De Riscal, Zaldiarán and El Molino De Urdániz? Sure they are all Spanish, their names are a dead giveaway. But two other things that they share in common are that they are all Michelin star establishments and are based in the Basque region of Spain.
In fact, most of them are located in the seaside resort town of San Sebastian, where it is said that you can’t throw a stone without it ricocheting from the door of one of the 40 Michelin star restaurants. The profusion of these renowned establishments has turned the spotlight on Basque cuisine, which till a few years ago was considered to be too rustic to feature on the menu of a tony restaurant catering to the swish set. Today, the same upmarket clientele set can’t seem to get enough of this cuisine and the growing culinary tourism to San Sebastian offers enough proof of this.
Geographically, the Basque region has been blessed by nature several times over. Located in the south-west part of Europe, it has the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Mediterranean sea on the other, with the mountain chains of the Pyrenees, Aralar, Aizkorri and Gorbeia acting as giant barriers between the two gigantic water bodies. Seafood is found as abundantly as game, domesticated animals and fresh plant produce.
Despite the availability of this natural richness, the local Basque people were not very affluent. Most were farmers, hunters or fishermen, who reared, grew or hunted their food. Till the 15th century, the main crops cultivated in the region included millets, beans, lentils, fruits and some vegetables, though seafood, beef, and fresh game were the main source of sustenance.
When the news of the discovery of America reached the seafaring community of Basque, they decided to venture there to explore trading opportunities. On their return to their homeland, they brought back produce like potatoes, tomatoes, corn and peppers. Spanish homemakers started experimenting with these exotic (for them) ingredients, while cultivators started farming them. Soon, these produce became an intrinsic part of Basque cuisine.
WHOLESOME IS WELCOME
Like the rest of Spanish food, the Basque cuisine is wholesome and hearty. Seafood is still the mainstay of the cuisine. Centuries ago, when fishermen would spend upto a week to haul a good catch before heading home, they had to come up with ways to preserve the fish.
Since cod was the most common fish they could find in the sea, they figured out that coating it with salt and then drying it increased the shelf life of the fish. In fact, salted cod used to feature frequently in most Basque meals, though with over fishing the fish is harder to find and has now become a delicacy to savour.
What most people do not know is that Basque cuisine has many dimensions based on the three different provinces in the region. The cold Álava region in the south is mountainous with ravines, valleys and vast rivers, and the food here has lot of game, fresh water fish, pork, poultry and beef, in addition to tubular roots, mushrooms and other vegetables that grow in the mountains. The climate of Álava is ideal for vineyards and the famous Rioja wine is grown and bottled here.
The Vizcaya region is located along the coastline of Cantabric Sea. Fresh seafood, including shrimps, squids, sardines, tuna, anchovies and clams are available in plenitude. Salted cod is another specialty of this region. Guipúzcoa in the northern part of the Basque region is faced alongside the Atlantic Ocean, and is close to France. It has the sea on one side and mountains on the other and this popular tourist spot has access to all kinds of fresh seafood, meat and plant produce that one can imagine. This is also the region where the French influence is most evident in the local cuisine and where every meal is nothing short of a celebration. If you gobble your food in a hurry, you truly run the risk of inviting the cook’s ire, and rubbing a Spaniard the wrong way is truly a folly.
Over the years, given its proximity to France, Basque cuisine has assimilated some of the French finesse, and this influence is evident in the modern cooking techniques adopted by local chefs. This new age cooking is popularly known as nueva cocina vasca, where seasonal produce are cooked simply with an emphasis on freshness, but still holding on to some elements of the robust traditional Basque cuisine.
Conventional Basque cuisine of yore relied heavily on thick and creamy sauces, cream and butter, which was to help people deal with the harsh winters and their labour-intensive lifestyle as farmers and fisherfolk. Food preparation was elaborate and relied on slow cooking, especially the stews, which would be bubbling in the pot from early afternoon till they were eaten with some bread, tapas and fish during dinner.
Like the rest of Spain, tapas is a way of life in Basque especially as a late evening snack. The most popular tapas is Pintxos, where small bread slices are combined with various ingredients, fastened with a toothpick, cooked and eaten as an appetizer with friends at the bar.
The Basque people were also master butchers and there was hardly any part or organ of an animal that they could not cook – where it was offal, brains, snouts, feet, etc. To make these look less gory and appetite suppressing, they would concentrate on presenting them captivatingly, presenting partridge eggs with shrimps in a salad with olive oil dressing, or adding the chewy glands located near the lower jaw of fish in a broth.
Even today, Basque chefs are busy experimenting with various ways to use and cook the locally available produce in a neo-classical Basque-meets-French style. Given the enthusiasm that locals have about food, and the high expectations that visiting tourists bring along, they aim to be sophisticated and unpredictable yet rustic in the same breath. So passionate and patriotic are they about Basque cuisine that they would rather hang up their aprons than have adjectives like insipid or uninspired ever get attached to their native food.