In 2007, Eusko Ikaskuntza, a centre for the study of Basque culture, published the result of a census aiming to understand the cultural values that best represented the Basque Country. During 2005 and 2006, researchers asked inhabitants of the autonomous community in northern Spain which characteristics best defined local identity. The language (Euskera), of course, stood out in first place in the responses collected. But what surprised the researchers was the fact that gastronomy was one of the most cited aspects in the 22 discussion groups they organised.
The study brought scientific evidence to something that is empirically perceived by those visiting the Basque Country - from the taxi driver to the owner of the vegetable stand, from the front desk staff to the barista in the coffee shop at the corner, food is a recurring theme in local conversations. Basques discuss gastronomy like people from other countries discuss football: very passionately. “For us, food is something that defines us,” explains chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, of Mugaritz, the acclaimed restaurant located in the small village of Errenteria.
Perhaps good evidence for this lies in the fact that San Sebastián (a small region with less than 3 million inhabitants) has the highest concentration of Michelin stars in a single city (Michelin’s 2020 guide granted 33 stars in the whole Basque Country). Or maybe it is the fact that it has the same representation in the World's 50 Best Restaurants list as gastro-power France: in the 2019 edition, five of the world's top restaurants were located in the Basque Country, within a radius of 50 kilometres.
“It is such a strong local appreciation that people in San Sebastián are extremely proud of Arzak [the historical 3-Michelin-star restaurant] without ever having eaten there," says Aduriz. “This is because gastronomy is something we recognise as a heritage, but also as a driving force that helped define what Basque culture is in a global panorama.”
And it has caught the world’s imagination: 40% of the people who visit the region do so because of its gastronomy; wine-related tourism is the second major motivation, according to official data.
Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz photo by Alex Iturralde
The Power of Food
Many countries have awakened to the power of gastronomy as an economic engine and magnet for tourists. But, above all, they see it as means to express their cultural values and identity to the world. Over a decade ago, many countries began to treat cuisine like a national sport, relying on robust government investments, international symposiums (to bring international chefs and journalists) and seeking greater global recognition (which was previously the domain of traditional cuisines, such as French and Italian).
“It is something that we also started to appropriate ourselves, taking advantage of this in-depth relationship we developed around food,” Aduriz adds. “This cuisine that made us recognised worldwide is relatively new and has never been so rich and diverse. This food identity that we project to the world was built the day before yesterday.”
Yesterday, in the case of one of the oldest peoples in Europe, means the second half of the 19th century. The Basque Country had its first contact with haute cuisine when the Gipuzkoa region (and San Sebastián, in particular) became a summer resort for the European aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie. “They used to come accompanied by their chefs and private cooks and, in case of eating out, demanded a high level of culinary quality and service,” explains Bittor Oroz, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
According to Oroz, the crossing between the devotion to the territory, the diverse variety of produce, and the tradition and quality of local ingredients allowed the explosion of a culinary innovation known as ‘Nueva Cocina Vasca’ (New Basque Cuisine) in the 70s. Trailblazer chefs such as Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana led this movement to put the Basque Country on the global gastronomy map.
Since then, local rulers and businessmen have steadily raised the culinary flag higher to attract more attention to this autonomous community, investing in events (such as San Sebastián Gastronomika) and bringing in food leaders (from chefs to media). This became especially important following the actions of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the armed leftist Basque nationalist and separatist organisation better known by the acronym ETA, which made headlines all over the world.
In 40 years, the group killed more than 800 people and spread a violent campaign of bombing, assassinations, and kidnappings. Its activities came to an end in 2018, however, when ETA made public a letter stating that it had "completely dissolved all its structures." And with its gastronomy (and, consequently, its identity values) further recognised worldwide, the Basque Country was able once again to gain the world's attention. This time in a very positive way.