Yesterday the announcement for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants was made, and Basque Country chefs continue to have a very outsized presence on this list.
Coming in at NUMBER THREE is a personal favorite of mine, located ten minutes outside of San Sebastián, Mugaritz. Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz and his team is truly deserving of that spot. Arzak also holds strong, at number 8, with Elena Arzak winning an additional accolade of Best Female Chef.
For me, what is truly special about the Basque presence in the top 50 is not only the outsized presence Basque chefs hold (for a region that isn’t much bigger than an American state) but also how loyal they are to their culinary traditions. Eating at one of these restaurants is NOT a cosmopolitan, global experience. It’s quite the opposite-the meals tend to be strongly tied to their location and traditions (like the Wind Comb dessert, from Arzak, above). It’s a strength.
Etxebarri, in leaps and bounds that can be attributed to word of mouth as well as alignment with current gastronomic trends such as using amazing product and leaving well enough alone, comes in this year at number 31. Martín Berasategui, on the other hand, drops to 67.
A pintxo bar that’s a modern take on Donostian small plate staples like foie and croquetas (which were particularly delicious), it’s located in the heart of the old town on 31st of August Street in the locale that used to be home to Bide Bide.
Here’s a sneak pintxo peek, a contrast of textures: grilled scallop + popcorn | vieira + palomitas.
Another installment of the Basque Food ABC’s. Today, we talk about the letter…B!
B is for….babarrunak. Babarrunak is basque for beans, and nowhere are beans more treasured than in the nearby town of Tolosa. Alubiadas, loosely translated as bean fests, are parties for groups of friends from the age of 15 to 95. And they revolve around a relaxed afternoon of eating beans, drinking, and talking. I’ve been to a fair share thanks to a good friend, and there’s something special about sitting in a square in Tolosa, knocking off the chill and eating your fill of the famous black Tolosa bean, and lingering over cocktails for hours.
The Tolosa bean is peculiar for several reasons: it’s quite expensive, usually running between 7 and 15 euros a kilo. It’s also misleading: when you buy them, they resemble black frijoles. However, after hours of cooking, they turn a dark red and take on their luscious silky smooth texture. These are a must try. My mom was probably confused when I sent her a bag for Christmas, but these beans are as close to a luxury item as legumes get.
Since we’re just starting out together, I thought it might be appropriate to begin with the basics. The really basic basics. So I will be highlighting the ABC’s of Basque food on the blog.
A is for….ANGULAK. Also known as txitxardina, these are elvers, or baby eels. They also cost 1000 euros per kilogram. What, you didn’t know that in a certain corner of the world baby eels were nearly as precious as caviar? Well here in Basque Country, the price of these little guys skyrocketed when demand from foreign soil nearly wiped them out.
Nowadays they are usually enjoyed by the upper crust on special days, such as the Day of San Sebastián (January 20). They are typically cooked really, really simply: a bit of garlic, hot olive oil and just a moment in the pan. It’s a moment for steel nerves, even among the expert cooks of the local gastronomic societies.
You can find the imitation version lining the bars of the old town in San Sebastián. They are served as a simple pintxo on top of bread, with a pepper vinaigrette, or atop salads. It’s worth a try, but neither the texture or taste will come close to the real thing. You can save that for a special occasion.
This is a question that is so much more complex than what most would have you believe. It’s not just pintxos. It’s not just chuleta (steak) or seafood. And it’s not just food.
It’s a table set for all your friends, in a txoko, or dining society. It’s fresh products, eaten at their peak time and with hardly anything added. Basque food means leave your curries, leave your spices, and heck, you don’t really even need your black pepper.
Basque food is a sporting event. Who has the best marmitako? Where do you have your hamaiketako (midday snack)? And most importantly…how many courses can you fit in your stomach? There is no room for people with a hesitant relationship with food. And there is definitely no room for the word ‘calories’. I can’t remember the last time I used it, in fact.
Basque food is bar food, to be eaten one at a time, moving from place to place and always accompanied by a small glass of wine or beer.
Basque food is a food that is shrouded in mystery. Due in part to the mysterious language and in part to the tendency of Basques to stick with their social group of toda la vida (lifelong).
This is just a little intro. Here we’ll be talking about all things Basque, so I hope you chime in!
What do you think of when you think of Basque cuisine?