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Basque Country Cooking

Spain's San Sebastian has the best food you've never heard of.
San Sebastián is nestled on the northern coast of Spain, where the hills of Navarre tumble to meet the Cantabrian Sea. France is so close that I'm listening to jazz on an FM station in Bayonne. The harbor, just down the street from my hotel, is framed by twin hills, Monte Igueldo and Monte Urgull, and tamarind trees line the seawall. I've come to this city of wide avenues, tobacco-colored buildings, wrought iron and a Belle Epoque air with one goal: to eat as well as I can for five days. I'm in the right place.

Capital of the Basque province of Guipúzcoa, San Sebastián is a city of gastronomes. Statistics show that the Basques spend more than twice as much of their disposable income on food as we do in the United States, and they probably spend a greater percentage of their time on cooking and eating too. 

Basques, wealthy and working-class alike, know how good fresh ingredients painstakingly prepared can taste. "Almost everybody is absolutely interested in gastronomy," says Luis Irizar, a cooking teacher and former restaurateur who is acknowledged as the father of modern Basque cuisine. "Bad restaurants don't survive in San Sebastián," he assures me. Good ones thrive. So do the city's private culinary societies, where Basque men cook for their friends, their wives, one another or simply themselves. (By tradition, women have not been allowed in the club kitchens, but that is changing.) 

It's an exhilarating, exuberant food scene that hasn't received the attention it deserves--which is fine for the city's 178,000 residents and its regular visitors but a shame for people outside of Spain who love to eat. Even the hundreds of chefs who graduate
every year from local cooking schools do little to spread the word, since most of them find work in the area's 2,000 restaurants. The few who do wander from San Sebastián's dramatic shell-shaped harbor run some of Spain's finest restaurants, including Seville's Egaña Oriza. But San Sebastián itself remains Europe's great undiscovered culinary destination. 

THE CHARACTER OF BASQUE COOKING 

Before setting out to make my own discoveries, I visit Irizar, who has been an enormous influence on many of the best Basque chefs. Irizar, now in his sixties, is famously unpretentious. He wears a tattered green sweater and a mustache as stiff as the bristles of a brush. We sit at a small table outside the kitchen of his school, open a bottle of txakolí, the tangy green wine of the Basque coastal villages, and talk about food. 

Twenty years ago, Irizar initiated a move away from heavy sauces, cream and butter and toward freshness and lightness, much as Paul Bocuse and other French chefs were doing at the same time on the other side of the Pyrenees. Irizar was not merely imitating his peers to the north but was responding to the growing urbanization of Basque society. In the past, Basques ate heavy meals at midday to fortify themselves for an afternoon's labor in the fields. Today they're more likely to work in San Sebastián or Bilbao as bankers, machinists and hotel clerks, so their eating habits had to change. 

What hasn't changed is their love of seafood. Basques have long looked to the nearby sea for sustenance; during the Middle Ages, they ranged as far as Newfoundland, fishing for cod. Basques still eat four times as much fish as the average Frenchman, especially merluza (Spanish hake), sole, cod and the oddly delicious baby eel. Beneath the vaulted ceiling of San Sebastián's central market, stacks of fish and seafood are displayed literally a level above everything else, up a flight of stairs from the poultry, vegetables and cheeses. 

With so exalted an attitude toward fish, you might think that Basque chefs would simply grill or broil it to accentuate its freshness and flavor. Instead, they chop or slice fillets, serve them with complicated sauces, combine them with things that at first glance seem utterly wrong, like foie gras or puff pastry, and sometimes even present the fish alongside a dish based on a meat or an organ meat. Somehow, all this elaboration usually works, and the resulting complex layers of flavor are one hallmark of Basque cuisine. 

Another is the use of rarefied ingredients--such as calves' brains and snouts, hake cheeks, forest mushrooms, sea urchins and wild boar--in unexpected and at times wildly fanciful combinations. Basque cooking at this high level is performance art, presented in however many courses a chef prefers and in whatever order he deems most interesting. What he serves may be a sophisticated masterpiece or an exalted failure, but it is never insipid, uninspired or predictable. 

And then there are the wines. The superb reds from the nearby Rioja are almost as common on the Basque table as fresh seafood (see "Rioja: Spain's Great Red Wine," at right). They are practically local products. The Rioja, Spain's most important wine region, is less than two hours south of San Sebastián. 

SPAIN'S WOLFGANG PUCK 

For my first meal in San Sebastián, I head to Restaurante Akelarre, which is owned by one of Irizar's star disciples, Pedro Subijana. Spain's Wolfgang Puck, he has had television shows and writes regularly for magazines. I take a taxi up Monte Igueldo, winding through villages of stone houses and decrepit barns, with the Cantabrian Sea flashing blue between the trees and rocks to my right. 

In hopes of meeting the chef, I had invoked Irizar's name when I made my reservation. I needn't have bothered. Subijana, 47, not only works the kitchen every afternoon and night but also takes orders and visits the dining room to check on the meals. 

And what meals! I order a seven-course menu for about $60 and a 1985 Marqués de Murrieta Ygay Gran Reserva, an outstanding Rioja, to accompany it. Each plate is better than the one before: marinated partridge salad with lentil vinaigrette and red shrimp; fresh chard and artichoke stew with marrow; baby eels over scrambled eggs with chives. The climax is roasted mallard stewed with cinnamon and served over curried couscous. The successes of the tasting menu are periodically integrated into the regular menu, and I nominate all of the above dishes. 

The daring side of Basque cuisine is more evident in the cooking of Martín Berasategui at his three-year-old restaurant in the suburbs. Outside, Restaurante Martín Berasategui is austere. Inside, however, there's a roaring fire, picture windows and dark green walls with white trim that give the place a formal look, as if it were a room in the White House. 

At 36, Berasategui is half a generation younger than Subijana. His cuisine is postmodern Basque and the most complex I've eaten, which is both commendation and censure. The hot foie gras with apple vinegar is an astonishing experience, but a second dish, a tart of caramelized green apple, home-smoked eel, more foie gras and a sweet onion sauce, attacks my mouth with several flavors too many. And I can't imagine what inspired the corn-filled ravioli with salted langoustines and vanilla oil, though the dish does have a certain baroque appeal. 

TASTING TXITXARRO 

Of the 94 restaurants in Spain with Michelin stars, two--Panier Fleuri and Urepel--are next door to each other on San Sebastián's prosperous but modest Paseo Salamanca. I decide to eat at Urepel. With its curving staircase and brass banister, Urepel looks like a place for jackets and ties, yet I see only sweaters. One of them covers a flowered shirt belonging to the proprietor-chef, Tomas Almandoz, 59, who also decorated the restaurant and designed the plates. 

Almandoz creates dishes from what he finds on daily outings to the market, so what's on the menu  doesn't really matter. His longtime patrons tell him, "Tomas, give me whatever you have today. You decide." 

That's what I do, too, six courses' worth. All I choose is the wine: a glamorous 1970 Marqués de Cáceres Reserva, from one of Rioja's most distinguished producers. The main course is hake, which Almandoz prepares in a parsley broth in the classic Basque style, with two wonderfully chewy glands from the lower jaw of the fish, a pair of clams and roasted garlic. Even better is a delicate combination of anchovies, bluefish and the usually unexciting horse mackerel (called txitxarro); each fish is marinated separately for 24 hours in dark vinegar, then they are pressed together with slices of tomato. The dish is often served with fresh salmon. 

This is classic Basque food, utterly fresh and perfectly satisfying. I drink the whole bottle of wine and wander into the sunlight of midafternoon in a delighted daze. 

THE BEST PLATE OF ALL 

I saved the two most heralded restaurants for last: Arzak, with three Michelin stars, and Zuberoa, with two, plus the distinction of having been ranked among the world's 10 best restaurants by FOOD & WINE Contributing Editor Patricia Wells in The International Herald-Tribune. 

Both Juan Mari Arzak and Zuberoa's Hilario Arbelaitz were literally born where they work: Arzak in a brick-fronted building on the outskirts of the city along the road to France, Arbelaitz in a 500-year-old converted farmhouse that's several miles from San Sebastián. 

Restaurante Arzak feels more formal, with an antique armoire in the dining room and immaculate striped chairs in the bar, though the clientele on the night I went ranged from a table of stylishly casual elderly women eating the $65 tasting menu to a pair of grinning teenagers. The food, too, is formal, even rigorous. I had the sense that nothing happens in the kitchen that doesn't involve great labor. "People cook wonderful food on their own every night," says Arzak, 53. "When they go out, they want something different." 

And he gives it to them: tiny triangles of dough filled with pigeon and dusted with almonds or crayfish with spinach, almonds, pig's feet and leeks. The menu stays interesting because Arzak's daughter Elena arrives early each morning to create new dishes for him to try. Now and then one is deemed fit for the menu. That's the origin of the clam and parsley sauce that accompanies the hake I eat at Arzak, an imaginative riff on an old standard that is probably the best single plate of food I have in San Sebastián. 

Zuberoa is a comfortable room with rustic stone walls, wooden beams and bright blue curtains. Arbelaitz, 45, is the only chef I visit who does not wander into the dining room to take orders or greet customers. "A chef's place is in the kitchen," he says. 

Despite that, he's friendly and informal, and so is his food. It's hard to be stuffy when your specialty is calf's snout, tender and flavorful like glorified brisket. After my binge of heavy eating, I'm craving vegetables, so he prepares a fresh-from-the-garden mélange of peas, limas, green beans, chard, artichoke and asparagus with two sauces. I finish a 1989 Remelluri Gran Reserva, nibble an apple ravioli, then end the meal with a glass of Pedro Ximénez wine from Málaga that's redolent of sweet prunes. 

Arbelaitz happens to be on my flight to Madrid the next morning. Every second Monday he flies to the capital, visits with chefs, tastes their cooking and returns to his kitchen by Tuesday noon. He doesn't want to miss a day. "There's nothing else I want to do and nowhere else I want to be," he says. As a satisfied customer already plotting my return, I wouldn't want it any other way. 

Bruce Schoenfeld lives in Boulder, Colorado, and is the author of The Last Serious Thing: A Season at the Bullfights (Simon & Schuster).

Published July 1996
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