At Bilbao airport, before you even collect your luggage, a sign welcomes you to “The culinary nation”. From the very traditional hard-core txokos to upscale Michelin starred restaurants, from pintxos to huge turbots in asadores, from gooey kokotxas to succulent txuletas, and from bone dry cider to ubiquitous txakoli, Basque country personifies gastronomy; and gastronomy, somehow, has become just as strong point of reference for Basques as their flag.
And it’s not just fine dining and restaurants from The World's 50 Best Restaurants list. The latter, needs to be pointed out, have all experienced a huge boost after last year’s ceremony in Bilbao which speaks plenty about the worldwide recognition of Basque excellence (Asador Etxebarri sits at #3, Mugaritz at #7, Azurmendi at #14, Elkano at #30, Nerua at #32, Arzak at #53 and Martin Berasategui at #87).
Basques have a long tradition of building up their gastronomy from the ground (and sea) up, sourcing the best ingredients this relatively remote and tiny part of Europe boasts and turning them into dishes that always pay the outmost respect to the produce and seasonality. Be it a humble sardine from the misty, dark, wuthering coast of Bay of Biscay, or a prime beef cut from grass fed cattle from the green slopes in the rural interior.
Today, a kokotxa al pil pil will be served both in txoko or at the 3 Michelin starred Azurmendi, adorned with garlic flowers. Fried pig’s ears will feature on the menu of a Borda Berri pinxto bar in San Sebastian and they will be just as tasty as those in Nerua.
“In Basque Country there has always been a union between chefs to put in value our gastronomy, but above all there is a social attitude - Basques do not understand life without eating and drinking,” tells Josean Alija, head chef at Nerua in Bilbao who turned three Basque mother sauces (pil-pil, green sauce and vizcaina) into an art form, worthy of the Guggenheim museum where his restaurant is based.
“Basque cuisine is characterized by being linked to the territory, the environment, seasonality, sauces, taste, memory. Food is present in everything that’s important to us. The kitchen and the table are fundamental elements for our culture. That makes the people believe in gastronomy as a seal of guarantee, quality, pride, because we are what we eat. We are lucky to have great producers and a region rich in products, but above all to have a local audience that invests in restaurants. We eat a lot at home but also outside, we like to enjoy".
Coming back with revenge
Perhaps what really defines Basques is their pride. Even the chefs, they are all “Euskaldunak” (that means Basques) first and cooks second. It’s because of that the Basque phenomenon can be somewhat explained historically.
“Sometimes even the downsides can be turned into advantages,” tells Andoni Luis Aduriz, Mugaritz’ maestro as he dwells into the turbulent and dark history of Basques and Spain under the Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. “In Basque country, after 40 years of not being able to speak our language, not being able to do anything, we came back almost with a revenge. With an explosion of identity.”
After the fall of Franco’s regime in 1975 the Basque creativity really came to light and started to shine bright – that was the period of the new Basque visual arts, of Basque writers, Basque singers. “I think that cuisine is always a reflection of society, I see food as part of culture, of society; and when the entire society is exploding in a way, cuisine is exploding also and everything coincided with the new Basque cuisine,” ponders Aduriz.
The first wave of the new Basque cuisine that really put the region on the map was spearheaded by the great Juan Mari Arzak (Arzak), Pedro Subijana (Akelarre) and, to some extent, Pedro Arregui (Elkano). The likes of Aduriz, Martin Berasategui and Victor Arguinzoniz (Asador Etxebarri) came later, each bringing in a new take on Basque cuisine, followed by Alija, Eneko Atxa (Azurmendi) and others.
Whereas Arguinzoniz builds on minimalism, on showcasing the insanely high quality produce, sometimes only licked by fire, at other times just slightly charred, Mugaritz to this day remains the pillar of avant-garde cuisine, one that serves up moldy apples as a way of exploring botrytis or Piparra peppers injected with cabernet molecule or a shiny lump of “air” as a play on textures - a quite literal food for thought. And Aduriz knows perfectly well Mugaritz is not a place for everyone.
“Funny thing – Basque people don't come to eat at my restaurant, but they do consider my restaurant as part of their culture. When you say to a taxi driver, I'm going to eat at Mugaritz, he will tell you, wow, in that restaurant you eat amazing, it’s wonderful, there are people from all over the world … And you ask him, how many times have you eaten there, and he goes, No, me, never”.
“For me that’s the ultimate success. When a project isn’t just yours anymore, but it becomes part of the society - says Aduriz - And that’s what makes Basque cuisine so strong. That it’s not a heritage or a propriety of the chefs behind it, but a heritage of the entire society. It’s when people go eat out, they say I’m Basque and in Basque country we eat well. That’s what’s important. Identity. In Basque country being a cook is like being a painter, a sculptor. And I’m a product of that.”
Strength in numbers
This sense of community is very strong and it’s also the reason why, together with good management and local government recognizing the value of gastronomy, Basque region has enjoyed such huge success. With the abundance of great chefs on such a small area this could easily turn into a battle of egos – instead they put up a united front, using the competition as the added motivation.
“The competition makes us better and lets us deliver quality, excellence and also diversity. Sharing knowledge has made us strong. We are united to sell our land and our culture. We accept with pride and honor all the opportunities that we have to show ourselves to the world and to show our path of evolution. We all play with the same cards but with total freedom,” explains Alija.
Aduriz concurs: “Look, in Basque country we have naturalized this – I compete with my colleagues, they are my competition, but I have a genuine friendship with almost everyone. We are tiny. We try to build this place together, we help each other as much as we can. Because for me the most important thing, just as important as my country, is talent. Talent is my country. I am Basque. And I want my people to do well.”
“I am convinced that is some form, Mugaritz has influenced Elkano - says Aduriz - I am convinced, whether Victor knows it or not, Mugaritz has to some extent influenced Etxebarri. But I am also sure that both Elkano and Etxebarri have influenced Mugaritz. It’s impossible not to have. That’s why competition is good. Because if it’s just you, you have no reference and you are lost".
The next wave
And what about the next great generation of Basque chefs? “It’s coming,” smiles Iñaki Bolumburu, 27-year old chef from Derio, a village next to Bilbao, where he spent the last 3 years working as Alija’s sous-chef and head of the development team in Nerua. He left that position in September to pursue his own career path.
“Young chefs now are more prepared. I think that the most complicated work that we have as the next generation of young Basque chefs is to adapt the Basque cuisine to the current times, but of course without forgetting the traditional gastronomic heritage and what we have done in these almost 44 years since the revolution of Basque cuisine,” ponders Bolumburu, now a so called Nomadic Basque chef, doing pop-ups around Europe, his first solo stint being this week in Estonia, as part of the international Ideas, Flavours, Experiences event.
An alumni of Noma, Mugaritz and the before mentioned Nerua, Bolumburu is in favor of “less is more” approach to Basque cooking, but is not afraid to think outside the box. He gives credit to Aduriz for whom he worked for a year and a half, for having learned that in kitchen, everything is possible. “He taught me to break the rules of what was established in some way and made me see paths that I had not even imagined inside a restaurant. Thanks to him and his magnificent team I have a much more open and creative mind as far as the culinary experience is concerned,” he says.
Bolumburu gives special extra credit to Alija. “I do have a special affection for him. In addition to giving me the opportunity to cook alongside him all over the world, he is also the person who took a chance on me and trusted me from the beginning to lead his kitchen and the creativity team.”
In the end, the message Bolumburu wants to send with his own creations, sounds a lot like an echo of chefs who paved his way before him – to showcase his homeland. “With my food, above all and most importantly, I want to make people enjoy, make them achieve that rich gastronomic orgasm that we all look for when we eat. Make them happy. I want to show what I am and where I come from.” And that’s pretty much the essence of Euskadi.
Basque cuisine - The essential restaurants
Etxebarri (chef Victor Arguinzoniz, Atxondo)
A temple among lauded Basque asadores, Etxebarri is, above all, a glorious, impeccable display of Basque produce and the mastery of Victor Arguinzoniz, one of the best fire tamers out there. Everything served in this restaurant in the small village of Atxondo has been in one way or another touched by fire or smoke, be it the home made chorizo or the sea cucumber, the lone huge Palamos prawn or the out-of.this-world txuleta. Arguinzoniz himself developed the sophisticated system that makes up the center part of Etxebarri’s cuisine.
Mugaritz (chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, Renteria)
There’s quite no other restaurant like Mugaritz – where else would you be served a moldy apple, where else would they match the food to wine molecules, where else would you get the dessert in shape of fermented sea urchin with viili and where else would they pour the rarest Bordeaux vintages for one serving? Mugaritz continues to evolve, to push the limits, to play with diners’ minds and taste buds. Mugaritz is an experience that transcends fine dining, it’s just as much of a mind game.
Martin Berasategui (chef Martin Berasategui, Lasarte)
Restaurant Martin Berasategui remains one of the flagships of Basque cuisine. This 3 Michelin star establishment in a serene countryside landscape was setting the trends of the new Basque cuisine when it opened back in 1993 and the tasting menu today takes diners on a time travel from classics to latest creations.
Arzak (chef Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak, San Sebastian)
This iconic 3 Michelin starred Basque restaurant has been in the Arzak family for generations, but it was charismatic Juan Mari who revived the menu and set the standards for Basque fine dining for which he was awarded the Universal Basque award for "adapting gastronomy, one of the most important traditions of the Basque Country, to the new times and making of it one of the most innovative of the world". The venerable chef now co-runs the restaurant with his daughter Elena.
Elkano (chef Aitor Arregui, Getaria)
Elkano is what Basque cuisine is all about – the outmost respect for the produce, without tampering with it too much. In this case, the star of Elkano is everything that comes from the Bay of Biscay, from sardines to spider crabs, from lobsters to, of course, the famous turbots, grilled whole on the parillas outside the restaurant. Aitor who took over from his late father Pedro, is a master of the sea, an encyclopedia of sea creatures’ migrating routes, of spawning, of eating habits. So sit back and relax while the maestro dissects the fish and whisks up a pil-pil sauce from its juices right there in front of you.
Nerua (chef Josean Alija, Bilbao)
Chef Josean Alija is one of the great masters of sauces and broths and they play a prominent role on Nerua’s menu that reflects seasonality, showcases local produce, and is all about the purity of the product with no visual contamination. A lot like the bright, open dining room set inside the stunning Guggenheim museum, overlooking the mists that creep up to your window. It’s a brainy, thought through cuisine, one that commands attention to subtle nuances that make up Alija’s genius.
Azurmendi (chef Eneko Atxa, Larrabetzu)
In a region bursting with accolades, Azurmendi is another perfect 3 Michelin star restaurant in a gorgeous setting not far from Bilbao. Like his before mentioned peers chef Eneko Atxa is basing his cuisine on typical Basque produce like kokotxas al pil pil and squid in its own ink, but gives it a tad more elaborate presentation. Azurmendi is also delivering almost like a fairytale journey that starts with house produced txakoli as a welcome drink and continues through various stops, from the rooftop garden through the kitchen and from the greenhouse to, ultimately, the dining room.