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The Basque country – a journey of culinary discovery
On the heels of Pintxos and Txokos
There is a blossoming culinary scene of haute cuisine nestled between Bilbao and San Sebastián. Here, the Basque tradition is celebrated together with contemporary, international cooking, making the Basque country one of Europe’s gastronomic hotspots.
The Basque country is one of those magical destinations where cosmopolitan flair melds perfectly with heritage and local traditions. Food has always been a high priority for the people living in the Basque country, and their respect for their gastronomic heritage is only equaled by their passion for discovering new methods and ideas. Vivid colours and delicious smells can be found in every corner, providing food lovers from around the world with an exciting playground of gastronomic discovery. The streets of the old cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián are filled with small establishments, pintxo-bars, restaurants and markets, from bite-size nibbles and freshly caught seafood to avant-garde cuisine - every niche that a food lover could desire is catered for in abundance.
From London to Melbourne, the World’s 50 Best has been hosted in gourmet cities of the world since its inception in 2002. It’s no surprise that this year, the world’s best establishments should be honoured in the heart of the Basque country for the very first time. The prestigious #50BestTalks presented by Miele will be held in the Basque Culinary Centre in San Sebastián and the event will bring together some of the most esteemed chefs from around the world.
It is clear that the Basque country exerts an almost magical attraction for foodies, top chefs, gourmands and restaurant critics. But what is the secret of this small and unique region? Where does this deep-seated passion for food come from?
As we delve deeper into the heritage of the Basque country, it becomes immediately evident that the media is not just jumping on the bandwagon, but that the cuisine and its skillful use of local produce count among the oldest traditions of the Basques.
The rich endowments of nature.
Basque culture is one of the oldest, if not the oldest European cultural tradition, passed down from generation to generation by the people who settled from the Bay of Biscay down to the fertile lowlands of the Ebro.
And in this unique setting, between the soaring mountains, the rolling foothills of the North Sea, and the fertile river plains of northern Spain lies our first insight into the culinary secrets of the Basque country: its incredible natural abundance. It boasts of superb wine terroirs, fish, seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables. Where nature offers such richness, it is no wonder that the inhabitants have learnt how to make the most of it.
Eneko Atxa and his restaurant Azurmendi, ranked 38 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list 2017, is deeply rooted in the cuisine and traditions of the Basque. “In the Basque country, the kitchen has always been at the heart of every household,” says Atxa, who deeply values regional produce and close relationships with his suppliers. Many of his colleagues share his dedication to local specialities. Working together with Basque research centres and universities, local restaurateurs have developed innovative new sustainable seeds such as edible cotton, one of Atxa’s specialities.
The Basque Culinary Centre is a private university that has dedicated itself to the development and advancement of haute cuisine. The vibrant street-food culture is fostered by its connection to culinary institutions and encourages new generations of adventurous, ambitious cooking enthusiasts to realise their full potential.
Unsurprisingly, cooking also commands a high degree of respect outside of the professional sphere. Tourists can sign up for any number of private cooking courses and dinners, which offer the perfect opportunity for locals to present an assortment of regional specialities. Other examples of cooking societies in the Basque country are ‘txokos’, which are age-old private institutions that were traditionally limited to male members. Small, intimate groups meet to sing, talk and above all cook. Some the oldest active txokos have existed for centuries, and to this day they continue to promote community, tradition and the flourishing of Basque cuisine.
Pintxos – a distant relative of Tapas
One of the most famous specialities from the Basque country is unquestionably pintxos. These small, delicious snacks are available in a large number of varieties at almost every bar in the region. In Spanish, pincho means skewer, and this gives us a clue about the function of pintxos – the various ingredients are skewered on wooden sticks and served directly from the counter.
Pintxos originate from San Sebastián, where they are served as a small accompaniment to an aperitif. The pintxos culture has since spread rapidly throughout the entire Basque country and beyond. Meeting for a drink and pintxos in a local bar is a highly social and enjoyable way to spend an evening with friends.
As the Basque locals will tell you, it’s best not to over-indulge at the first place you find, but instead to order one or two pintxos before hopping to the next location. This is a lovely way to experience the different flavours of the city, and the locals affectionally refer to this as ‘txikiteo’.
More often than not, the pintxos are made from seasonal produce at the local markets. Seafood, cheese and vegetables, as well as chorizo and ham, make up the most popular varieties.
To celebrate the occasion of The World’s 50 Best Awards 2018, Miele will treat the guests to an exclusive selection of pintxos by Chef Iker Erauzkin, one of the most established pintxos chefs in the Basque country. As a special highlight, two exciting chefs - Kyle Connaughton, who recently won the 2018 Miele One To Watch Award (SingleThread) and Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa, winner of the Miele One To Watch Award 2016 (Den) will be tempting taste buds with their locally inspired creations.
In addition, Miele Spain is proud to strengthen its presence in the Basque country with its innovative appliances. The Marketing Communications Manager of Miele Iberia, Paloma Freire related the importance of this development: “We are proud to announce the opening of a Miele Experience Centre in Bilbao this autumn. Through an ongoing series of events at the new Experience Center, we will showcase how our innovative kitchen solutions perfectly complement the culinary heritage of the Basque country.”
There is so much to experience when travelling in the Basque country, from the coziest snack bar to some of the best restaurants in the world – make sure you bring a healthy appetite and a delicious sense of adventure.
Author: Philipp Gosselck
Photos: Markel Redondo