“The adoption of gastronomy as local soft power not only affected our image and our international presence, but also influenced our local pride and appreciation, for our own internal dynamics as a society, which has not ceased to be contoured in our recent history,” Oroz explains. During the Franco dictatorship, Basque cultural expressions, such as its language and celebrations, were prohibited. Inside the home, however, families resisted with their food.
It is proof that Basque cuisine is hardly represented by the fine dining restaurants that most people around the world are aware of. “It permeates our whole society: bars, small family restaurants, gastronomy societies - a constellation of places and moments that have played a fundamental role in the softening of positions and generated the dialogue that marked the egalitarianism of Basque society,” says Oroz.
The region is home to more than 1,500 txokos, or culinary societies, which have historically served as venues for people to gather for company, conversation and food away from the home. “Food, along with the value of the community, is a pillar of our culture. One cannot be understood without the other,” says chef Josean Alija of Nerua, the acclaimed restaurant at Guggenheim Bilbao.
According to him, for Basques, the act of eating does not begin at the table, but much earlier. “It is the process that interests us: choosing what we are going to cook, going to the market to get the ingredients, choosing the product carefully, looking for the best recipe, cooking it, setting the table... and of course, sharing it with the people who are close to us,” he says.
There are so many factors involved in this act that, in the end, the entire chain acquires a much larger volume. The local food and gastronomy value chain represents almost 11% of GDP and directly employs 96,000 people. “This is a differentiating element of our culture that has attracted a lot of attention outside our borders, and that we have promoted because it is a sign of our identity,” he concludes.
Joxe Mari Aizega of the Basque Culinary Centre
Although food represented an innate cultural value, there was no structured approach to local gastronomy, which encompassed a broader understanding of it. "For us, gastronomy is a natural, organic value, but something was missing that could connect the dots: what is the product, its transformation in the chain, the entire catering sector, tourism, identity, innovation, social projects," says Joxe Mari Aizega, director of the Basque Culinary Center, a professional training and research body that helped to place Basque cuisine on the international stage.
This is something that has changed dramatically in recent years. In 2018, when Bilbao was chosen to host the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, the organisation board came up with the idea of rebranding the Basque Country as a Culinary Nation for the international audience they would welcome. "A person from the Bizkaia delegation, very close to entrepreneurship, gave me a book that focused on how Israel managed to build a whole environment around innovation and new startups called Startup Nation. That helped define the country's international image, and we thought that Culinary Nation could be something very conducive to defining Basque Country. We decided to adopt it,” Aizega recalls.
According to Bittor Oroz, the idea of the Culinary Nation worked as a formidable introduction to the wider food industry in the Basque Country. "It is the visible face of the entire agri-food value chain we value so much. It represents the tip of an iceberg made up of our producers, our small companies, restaurants, gastronomy societies, small businesses, and our lifestyle."
Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz agrees that what is happening in the Basque Country is a significant improvement based on gastronomy. "I believe there are more interesting than negative things happening now [during this pandemic], such as in the universe of cider, with txakoli [the local wine]. Today we have much better cheeses than we had years ago, for example.”
For Aduriz, the ripple effect has boosted the entire chain, allowing the whole food industry to rise in the Basque Country. "If you rely on cooks as your spearheads, you can win the battle; but you will only win the war if you have the society as your base," he explains. "Don’t worry only about having restaurants in the 50 Best list, or having restaurants in the Michelin Guide. But worry that your society cares deeply about its food.” This is maybe the only way to build up a culinary nation.