Food is particularly good here in the Basque Country. To be honest, it is particularly good throughout Spain. That said, this week’s blog breaks a rule – it goes beyond its Basque bounds and briefly into La Rioja. Not to would be a shame, and since rules are meant to be broken, so they will be.
Good food is easy to come by whether in the seaside city of Donostia-San Sebastián, the mountain town of Tolosa, or in wine country’s unofficial capital, Haro. Discerning, however, between good food and its delicious counterparts is not a passive act. It’s a deliberate search for what’s in-season in these parts; it is a matter of knowing and choosing wisely, whether in a restaurant or at the market.
December and its fellow winter months stand up to the challenges of cold, wet weather offering up what cold, wet weather does best – hearty vegetables and the wares of caza (hunting season). It’s also impossible not to see “setas” and “hongos” (wild mushrooms) on every menu, a holdover from the recent fall forage. They often take center-stage marinated and/or grilled as an appetizer or accompaniment to a big piece of meat.
In the Basque Country, there are many local, winter delights on offer. In an effort to learn about and experience them trips, festivals, and a fair amount of consumption was required. After visiting countless pintxo bars, restaurants, and tastings, it became clear that the following dishes composed the ultimate in-season meal.
Entrante (appetizer): Alcachofas con almejas (artichokes with clams)
The Blanca de Tudela, a variety of artichoke that is small and elongated, is grown locally to País Vasco’s south and east in La Rioja and Navarra.¹ Currently at the top of its game, the vegetable is everywhere often paired with jamón, Spain’s famous dry-cured ham. At El Rincón del Noble, a restaurant in La Rioja, they serve the local specialty with seafood. They’re marinated in a thick, emerald olive oil, grilled top-side down and served with steamed clams. The soft artichokes, creamy on the inside, crunchy where grilled, and glazed with a strong olive oil on the outside, followed by salty and slightly chewy clams, achieves a balance of textures and a subtly of flavor best suited for whetting the appetite.
Segundo plato (entrée): Magret de pato con setas y salsa de castañas (duck breast with wild mushrooms and chestnut sauce) vs. Chuleta de Buey con pimientos del piquillo (ox steak with roasted red peppers)
A tie between duck and steak can only mean one thing: the duck must taste like steak. It’s served raw, sliced thick, and presented on a plate surrounding a heap of wild mushrooms. With a cast-iron pan set on the table over a small flame, you can grill the duck to your liking. It’s a lean meat, but the layer of fat on the outer edge of each slice provides just the right amount of moisture, not to mention flavor, to grill the duck and mushrooms to personal, juicy perfection. The large crystals of salt sprinkled on each slice bring out the meat’s depth of flavor. It doesn’t have that typical gamey taste; it’s like red meat with a twist. Paired with a wild mushroom and dipped lightly into the chestnut sauce, the bite is complete – it is lent a smokey, woodsy flavor with a final touch of sweetness.
Yet, the chuleta de Buey con pimientos del piquillo is tough competition. The chuleta, weighing in at a kilo, is meant to feed two people (about one pound per person). It is served rare, without the option of requesting otherwise, and lacks the crude, chewiness with which we often associate juicy red meat. Served with bright red peppers, roasted and skinned, the combination is dramatic. A piece of sweet, slightly acidic pimiento atop a chunk of juicy meat is a burst of flavors that both contrast and compliment one another. More than sweet meeting salty, it is the intensity and strength of both that proves unforgettable.
Postre (dessert): Idiazábal con membrillo y nueces (Idiazábal cheese with quince paste and walnuts)
Idiazábal con membrillo y nueces is a typical ending to any Basque lunch, an event that can last hours. It is the kind of dessert offered almost anywhere, but Oquendo, a restaurant in Donostia-San Sebastián is great at transforming traditional dishes into art. Organized in three neat rows, this dessert is a beautiful display of the Basque Country’s wintertime fruits. Idiazábal is strictly the product of Latxua and Carranzana sheep, a breed native to the Basque Country, and is ready to eat by the fall and winter after having cured over the summer. A hard cheese, it is surprisingly low in intensity – a little salty, a little sweet, with a bite at the end – and yet it subdues the concentrated sweetness of the membrillo. Followed by a crunchy walnut, there is no dessert that incorporates these light, delicate flavors better after a long meal.
These dishes exemplify the variety and quality of seasonal meals served in and around the Basque Country. Indeed the presence of seasonal fare exists across a spectrum of menus in this region – from the avant-garde to the traditional – and necessarily means encountering similar food from place to place. This repetition can only mean one thing – menus reflect the desires of the people ordering. Basques love their land (they spent centuries fighting for and defending it), and above all, appreciate what it is capable of producing. They also seek to consume that which their fellow Basques have labored over and created. Finally, Basques seek the best, and since December is capable of what August is not, and vice versa, they choose wisely.