Unlike the classic French mother sauces, those of the Basque Country – pil-pil, ink sauce, green sauce and vizcaina – are constantly evolving. “These sauces are alive,” says chef Andoni Luis Aduriz of the two Michelin star Mugaritz restaurant in San Sebastián, number nine on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. “Each town, restaurant or person can provide their own characteristic and adapted version by changing an ingredient or perhaps modifying the process. This is beautiful and necessary.”
They have been shaped over centuries by migration in and out of the Basque country, as well as a series of happy accidents – legend has it that the Basque fondness for salt cod resulted from a telegraph typo sent during the First Carlist War of the 1830s, which led to Bilbao being flooded with over a million preserved cods. As we’ll discover, for more than one reason, pil-pil in particular could be described as a sauce of serendipity.
With the emergence of New Basque Cuisine in the 1970s, following a lengthy period of what Ferran Adrià refers to as “Post-Escoffier immobility,” the sauces became lighter, less salty – true to the original flavour but cooked for a lot less time, according to Elena Arzak, Aduriz’s three Michelin star neighbour in San Sebastián. Indeed, one of the original slogans of New Basque Cuisine was “Salsa verde isn’t made with flour.”
What are the Basque mother sauces?
Like all the Basque mother sauces, pil-pil and the dish it dresses, usually either salt cod or cod kokotxas (the meat under the mouth), are essentially one and the same, cooked and often served together in earthenware. The fish is cooked confit in garlic and guindilla pepper-infused olive oil, which releases gelatine and water – ‘pil-pil’ is the noise the collagen bubbles from the fish make, as they burst on the surface of the oil. The oil is then worked into an emulsion. Legend has it Basque sailors stumbled on the sauce after noticing that the oil they were cooking their cod in was emulsifying due to the movement of the boats.
Also known as salsa de tinta, this none-more-black sauce is believed to have travelled to the Basque Country with the Jesuits sometime in the 16th century. It starts with an onion cooked in squid ink, to which tomatoes, fried bread, white wine or txakoli (light sparkling wine), and fish stock are added. The squid meat is then braised in the sauce, infusing both with flavour. According to a master of the dish, José Juan Castillo, the squid must be Cantabrian, caught with a hook and cooked the same day.
As with a pil-pil, green sauce starts with garlic-infused olive oil, which is flavoured with fish juices and parsley, and then emulsified. The protein, for example hake kokotxas or clams, or potatoes or vegetables are then cooked in the sauce. It is, it should be noted, quite dissimilar to the salsa verde of Italy or Central and South America.
This satisfyingly deep red/orange sauce has at its base a puree of red onion and choricero pepper, a kind of semi-sofrito (the Spanish mirepoix). Once cooked off, bread, flour, and the cooking juices of the protein – whether that is cod, pork meat or tripe – are added.
Step into any neighbourhood restaurant in the Basque country and you’ll likely find versions of the four Basque mother sauces. But then there are chefs who are taking the concept and running with it. “In a certain way we could say we have made an interpretation of some sauces, for example silky ‘kokotxa de bacalao’ served over its cooking broth and acacia honey, or cod tongues in a bone marrow emulsion,” says Aduriz of the 2017 menu at Mugaritz.
Meanwhile, at Nerua in Bilbao, chef Josean Alija uses, as the bases for his mother sauces, a multitude of his signature broths. So a green sauce made from cockle broth, almost a pil-pil, dresses hake morrillo (collar), while a dish of salted leeks, grapes, fish stock and herbs reinterprets green sauce, fundamentally “a union of fish and vegetables.” There is ink sauce with shallots, garnished with a squid-shaped whole shallot sitting on top of the silky liquid, and two intriguing interpretations of cod with pil-pil: one in which the kokotxas are cooked to the same gelatinous consistency as the pil-pil, and another with a white onion topped with cod skin on a green pepper pil-pil. “The onion is a vegetable that has uplifted sauces throughout the history of cooking, which made me believe that I could turn it into a magnificent dish,” says Alija. “Cut correctly with its layers overlapping, an onion bears a strong resemblance to a portion of cod.”
The sauce masters
Pedro Subijana, Hilario Arbelaitz, Genaro Pildain – these are just some of the individuals chefs like Aduriz, Alija, Arzak and Victor Arguinzoniz of Asador Etxebarri point to as the masters of the Basque mother sauces. But credit must be given first to “the creators of the sauces and grandmothers and mothers who cooked at home, they knew the secrets and shared their knowledge,” says Alija. And to those curious sailors and a certain telegraph operator.