Basques live for cooking and eating. I haven't found a similar level of
passion anywhere I have traveled. If we try to describe Basque cuisine, a fair
answer might be that it is deeply felt, honors tradition, and respects the
natural flavors of the ingredients. These qualities are on display in the
significant number of dishes that are distinctively Basque. The international
acclaim achieved by the new Basque cuisine movement led by Juan Mari Arzak is
only the most recent example of how Basque cookery has influenced the tables of
the rest of Spain and beyond.
From the sea
Basque fishermen have been sailing the northern Atlantic since the eleventh
century. While following the whale, which at the time was the most treasured
catch, they encountered banks of cod off the coasts of Terranova (Newfoundland)
in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. On nearby islands, some settlements still carry
Basque names, and salt cod, or bacalao, is a hallmark of Basque cuisine.
Some historians believe that Basques landed in America before the arrival of
Columbus, but while explorers and discoverers proudly proclaim their findings,
fishermen never disclose the source of their catch.
The sea has always provided nourishment for the Basques. Squid, preferably
the small ones called txipirones, are cooked in an onion sauce with their
ink, to produce
txipirones en su tinta. The deep black of the sauce initially
evokes curiosity and sometimes aversion in the uninitiated, but after the first
bite, reservations dissolve in the velvety texture of the squid and sublime
taste of the sauce. Though more and more scarce, merluza (hake), or
lebatza in Basque, from the Bay of Biscay knows no paragon (with all due
respect to its austral relative from the southern seas). The darker-skinned
Basque hake has firm, delicious flesh. Cooks typically panfry the medallions
from the upper body and either roast the tail in one piece or cut it crosswise
into "steaks" for
merluza en salsa verde,
the classical green sauce preparation.
Marmitako, the potato and tuna stew originally prepared by fishermen on their
boats, has become a standard offering in many restaurants. The tuna belly,
ventresca (or ijada in Basque), is extremely juicy, flakes
beautifully, and is the best tuna for salads. It is usually roasted in the oven
with just a little garlic and a splash of olive oil.
Bacalao, or salt cod, is a staple of the Basque kitchen. Basques are masters
of the art of turning a stale and salty fish into something sumptuous, specially
when prepared pil-pil style, in an emulsion of the cod's gelatin and
olive oil. Other cod preparations, such as a la vizcaína, Club Ranero,
and ajoarriero, the latter a loan from neighboring Navarra, are also
A la vizcaína, or Biscayne style, describes a dish cooked in salsa
vizcaína, a dried-pepper sauce. The dried peppers, called choriceros
because of their importance in the production of chorizo sausages, are harvested
at the end of the summer when ripe and hung from the facades of farmhouses to
dry. The area surrounding Gernika is famous for these sweet and delicate
Those not destined for drying are harvested while still green, fried
with olive oil, and served as accompaniment to meats and fish, and sometimes
alone as a first course. Delicious red beans also come from Gernika, although
those from Tolosa are better known. Both are equally tender and buttery and
usually cooked with sausages in a stew, supplanting the chickpea stews so
popular in other areas of Spain.
Txokos and pintxos
All of these dishes are staples of txokos, the gastronomic societies
of Basque Country. These culinary havens are the dominion of men, as their rules
restrict women from joining, though some societies make exceptions and allow
them in once a month or sometimes once a year. Their purpose is to give members
a place to show off their culinary techniques and creations and to have a good
time cooking, eating, and drinking. These traditional societies have made
significant contributions to the annals of Basque cooking, and some dishes that
originated in txokos, such as
marmitako made with salmon instead
of tuna or various foie gras and duck breast dishes, have become classics.
Equally traditional is barhopping before lunch of dinner, which is
essentially a regional sport. Bar counters display numerous
equivalent to tapas in other areas of the country. Making the rounds consists of
popping in and out of several bars, usually the same ones every day, grabbing a
pintxo and drinking a txikito (a small glass of wine) in each one.
It is a way to meet friends an acquaintances without arranging a specific date,
before heading home for a proper meal.
Cheeses are among the typical
pintxos found in the region's many bars, with Idiazábal, produced in Navarra
as well, the most highly regarded. The sheep's milk cheese holds such importance
for the Basques that a contest to judge the best artisanal Idiazábal cheeses is
held every September in the town of Ordizia, in Guipúzcoa.
Rioja Alavesa, one of the three subregions of the La Rioja wine-producing
area, is in the Basque province of Alava, an the wines from there are much
lighter and fruitier than the ones from the other two sectors.
Txakolí is a distinct wine made from grapes - Ondarribi Beltza for the reds,
Ondarribi Zuri for the whites - cultivated in the provinces of Vizcaya and
Guipúzcoa (Bizkaiko Txakolina and Getariako Txakolina DOs). Generally young,
light, and fresh tasting, it is available everywhere in the Basque Country, but
specially in coastal areas, where it is a perfect match for seafood. Its
effervescence makes it comparable to young whites from Penedès and Rías Baixas.
Cider has long been drunk in Basque Country as well, but the wine drinking,
perhaps because of the proximity to the Rioja region, is of greater cultural
- Merluza en Salsa Verde: This
recipe is one of the front-runners of traditional Basque cooking. Salsa
verde appears in many dishes: with clams alone, with monkfish or fresh cod,
or with a combination of clams and hake, as in this recipe.
- Marmitako: Marmita translates as
'pot' or 'casserole' in Basque, while the suffix
ko is the genitive case, so that marmitako literally means 'from
the pot'. Of course, just about everything in Basque cooking comes 'from the
pot', but only this venerable dish goes by that name.
- Bacalao al Pil-Pil (Salt Cod in an Olive
oil Emulsion): Bacalao al Pil-Pil is a classic Basque fare. After you
prepare the garnish and simmer the cod for several minutes, you make the
sauce by engaging the cod in a 'dance' with the olive oil to create an
emulsion that looks very much like a mayonnaise. The dance is not without
challenge, but even the patient novice cook can produce an excellent result.
- Prawn and
Bacon Brochettes: The Spanish love bacon, which we cure and air-dry in the same way as our
famous jamon. This combination of prawns and bacon is inspired and very
popular, and can be found at most Tapas bar, as well as in many banquets and
receptions. It is an ideal treat for your guests when having a party at home!
- Gildas: Gilda means lollipop, and the classic Gilda is a simple assembly of a
guindilla (Spanish chile pepper), an anchovy and an olive. The combination of
good-quality pinkish anchovies, smallish, crisp, unwrinkled chillies and a
freshly pitted olive produce a sophisticaded mélange.
- Stuffed Mussels (Tigres): In Bilbao, these stuffed mussels are called Tigres because of their
fieriness. I fondly remember the crowded little bars in the old part of
Bilbao, where orders of tigres would emerge by the dozens from the tiny
- Smoked Fish
and Fruit Pintxos: Smoked fish and fresh fruit make a perfect match when combined in this recipe
and served as an appetizer. Smoked salmon is now ubiquitous in Spain,
particularly in the cities. Less evidence is traditional bacalao (salt cod), for
which smoked mackerel is a substitute here.
del Norte' Tuna in Olive oil: Bonito del Norte is considered by
Spaniards to be the finest of tunas. This dolphin-safe tuna is packed in
olive oil to keep it moist and flavorful. Each tuna is line caught by
hand, preserving the texture and flavor that can be damaged by the
stress of harvesting by net. Coleman Andrew, the Editor-in Chief of "Saveur"
Magazine, writes that Bonito tuna is "one of the great gastronomic
pleasures of every day life." It is a far cry from the water-packed tuna
you get at the supermarket.
Warning: once you taste this silky smooth tuna, you may never buy
another tin of ordinary tuna.
Salt Cod Tenderloins (Solomillos de Bacalao): This is the very best
bacalao from Spain: the top cut of the cod, the solomillo. Spanish
fishermen catch these fish in the traditional manner using their own
boats. The freshly caught fish is immediately hand-cleaned and packed in
sea salt. This method has been used by these fishermen for centuries.
The result is a firmer fish that is flakier when cooked. When you see
the characteristic spots and stripes on the skin you will recognize that
these gourmet pieces of bacalao are authentic, and not just a cod
look-alike. The skin is retained so that you will experience the
delicate flavor at its best.
Tuna - Belly Fillets in Olive Oil: As long as tuna boats have plied
the seas, ventresca, the belly of the tuna, has been highly prized by
connoisseurs as the tastiest and most tender part of the entire tuna.
The Japanese treasure it under the name: toro. Ventresca is the
finest part of the Bonito del Norte tuna otherwise known as albacore.
Each tuna is line caught by hand, and freshly cleaned and dressed,
without being frozen. This preserves the texture and flavor that can be
damaged by the stress of harvesting by net. This method also assures
that other creatures of the sea, such as dolphin or turtles, are not
harmed. Our ventresca is prepared in limited quantities. It is cut by
hand from the ventral area of a freshly caught Bonito tuna. Once it is
perfectly cleaned it is filleted and put in a tin, always by hand,
because no machine process would be capable of leaving intact such a
delicate and tender meat. The ventresca it is then packed in olive oil
thereby keeping it moist and enhancing its delicate flavor.
en su tinta: If you select this handy three pack you will have some
of these Basque delicacies on hand -- after you feast on the first tin!
Chipirones (squid) sautéed in their own ink are highly prized in Pais
Vasco -- the Basque Country. These baby calamari/squid are popularly
eaten directly from the tin. But I prefer to warm them in their ink and
serve them with Calasparra or Bomba rice. This rice is preferable to
other kinds of rice (such as Arborio or long grain) because it absorbs
the broth from the tin, yet each grain remains distinct.
Remirez de Ganuza - Reserva - 2000: Wine Spectator - "This rich red
shows dark yet alluring flavors of coffee, plum, prune and tobacco. It
has a silky texture, firm tannins and a long finish. Sophisticated and
harmonious; it should develop nicely. Drink now through 2015. 500 cases
Etxaniz - Txacoli (Chacolí) 2004: The Basque Country's fresh, white
wine, called txakoli on home ground and chacolí elsewhere in Spain , is
produced in the Region's three provinces. The DO, which encompasses the
growing area in the province of Guipuzcoa (Gipuzkoa), is called
Getariako Txakolina in Basque.
check out the spain-recipes swicki at eurekster.com