Basque, You Ask?
Their language is difficult, their politics more so. Even the local wine is sharp like a knife. But at the table, the Basques of northern Spain set aside their toughness over something they all can agree upon: the importance of good food.
It is July along the northern coast of Spain, and I am making a long overdue first trip to the Mecca of fine dining: San Sebastián. But before we complete the scenic drive from Bilbao to the city with the most Michelin stars per capita, there will be tastes of local cider and more than a few sips of Txakoli, the austere but refreshing regional wine made from the obscure Hondarribi Zuri grape. There will also be seafood galore, highlighted by salt cod (bacalao), monkfish, preserved tuna, anchovies, octopus and more.
Suffice it to say there is no shortage of fine raw ingredients in the Basque Country, an independent region within Spain comprised
of Navarra but more prominently the provinces of Vizcaya (anchored by Bilbao), Alava and Gipuzkoa (home to San Sebastián, aka
Donostia in Basque). And it’s these ingredients, most of which are derived from the Atlantic Ocean or nearby farms, that form the basis of Basque cooking, something Bilbao-born-and-raised Chef Eder Montero describes as “food that’s all about quality, cooked by people who really care about food, and who talk about food when eating, even if it’s different food from what they are eating.”
Such is the dynamic of the Basque table, insists Montero. The chef and his wife, Alexandra Raij, own and operate the Basque-influenced restaurant Txikito in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood along with the nearby tapas bar El Quinto Pino. “The Basque table isn’t about vibrant colors or strict seasonal cooking,” he says. “It’s earthy and traditional, and very good. The interesting thing is that, more or less, we all do the same dishes, except that if yours is good, and I’m sure that it is, mine will be better. At least that’s how we think.”
And there in a nutshell lies the Basques’ attitude toward cuisine: the emphasis is squarely on quasi-competitive, home-cooked local dishes based on traditional recipes and local products. And what local product is number one on the shopping list of any serious Basque cook? That would be bacalao, something Montero says is “ingredient number 1, 2 and 3” in the Basque country. As for fresh fish, the Basques are fond of using monkfish (rape), turbot (rodaballo) and hake (merluza), often grilled and topped with olive oil and lemon juice, or dressed in a utilitarian salsa vizcaina (recipe below).
“We don’t do pretentious,” Montero tells me as I bite into a canapé of cured anchovy, piquillo pepper and hard-boiled egg at the bar at Txikito. “But we are perceived as being trendy due to the success of San Sebastián’s famous chefs, people like Luis Irizar and Juan Marí Arzak, and later Martín Berasategui and my personal favorite among younger chefs, Andoni Aduriz.”
If the Basque people are staunchly committed to their own cuisine, which they are, it would stand to reason that they are also big consumers of their own wines, even if they inhabit a cool, often rainy section of Spain that hardly qualifies as textbook wine country.
To wit, during our July venture across Basque country, daytime temperatures barely topped 70°F and there was frequent mist, rain and a perpetual cloud cover. Weather like this makes you wonder if any grape can properly ripen here, and in truth it’s only the thick-skinned, green-colored Hondarribi Zuri that has any chance of producing palatable wine in such conditions.
Free of oak and endowed with natural carbon dioxide that lends a pleasant spritz, Txakoli (pronounced CHAH-ko-lee and made from Hondarribi Zuri) is the wine of the Basques. It’s a jumpy, low-alcohol white wine that comes out of the bottle with so much spunk that native Basques “break” the wine by pouring it from at least a foot above the glass in order to get some air into it. If a foot isn’t enough, I’ve seen bartenders break Txakoli with a pour from several feet above the glass, much the way Middle Easterners pour their mint tea.
“Believe it or not, Txakoli is really trendy in the United States,” says Marnie Old, a Philadelphia-based sommelier and wine educator who I traveled with to Basque Country. “Young people especially seem to like the name. It’s fun for them to say and uncomplicated to drink.”
Yes, but isn’t it potentially too sour for anything other than a salty green olive stuffed with an anchovy? Not according to Ilil Talpaz, an Israeli server at Txikito who gave me an earful when I suggested that for some wine drinkers, Txakoli is akin to battery acid. After taking my verbal lashing, I looked to Montero, who was grinning in amusement.
“We like our Txakoli,” he said. “It is recognized for what it is: Basque wine. Maybe you don’t drink a lot of it, but with something salty it’s great.”
Following are three Basque recipes courtesy of Alexandra Raij and Eder Montero, chef/owners of Txikito and El Quinto Pino in New York City.
Almejas en Salsa Verde (Clams in Parsley Sauce)
This classic Basque seafood dish is quick and easy to prepare. Its success relies on using high-quality fresh clams that have not been overcooked. To achieve the proper texture for your clams, lightly cook the clams until they just open and then pour the finished green sauce over them.
24 manila clams
1⁄4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, grated on a micro plane
1 Basque red Guindilla pepper or
1 Thai Birdseye chile
3 tablespoons parsley, chopped
3⁄4 cup dry white wine, i.e. Txakoli or
Salt to taste
Rinse clams in several changes of fresh water and pat dry. Heat a small pan that’s just large enough to accommodate the clams. Add olive oil and reduce the heat. Add garlic and red pepper/chile of choice and cook until just opaque (only a few seconds). Add clams, half the parsley and the wine. Reduce heat to medium and shake the pan a bit. As clams begin to open, remove them one by one to a warm ceramic dish. When all are removed, add remaining parsley to pan and taste for salt. Adjust seasoning and reduce sauce further if the alcohol in the wine hasn’t cooked off. Pour liquid over clams and serve immediately with bread for mopping up green sauce. Serves 4 to 6.
Wine Recommendation: Txomín Etxaniz’s Txakoli offers pure flavors of green apple and lemon-lime, which are perfect for this salty, garlicky preparation. It is difficult to suggest alternatives to Txakoli, due to its unique character and the fact that it’s the only Basque white, but other dry whites to consider include Albariño, Chablis, Vermentino and Sauvignon Blanc.
Alubias Con Sacramentos (Tolosa-style Red Beans with Braised Meats)
Because every bean is different and thus cooks differently, this dish requires that you use your instincts and buy beans from a source who sells enough beans so they aren’t too old. It is better to use American beans that are fresh as opposed to imported Spanish beans that may have been sitting around in a warehouse. If you can’t find fresh Navarran or Basque beans, substitute domestic Rio Zape beans from Rancho Gordo (ranchogordo.com) or a similar thin-skinned red bean.
1 pound red beans, soaked the night before in refrigerator
1 large Spanish onion, whole and unpeeled
1 leek, split and rinsed
1 carrot, peeled
1 head garlic, whole and unpeeled
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
1⁄2 small head of savoy cabbage (preserve other half for garnish)
2 ounces Serrano ham or prosciutto
1 link Spanish chorizo
8 ounces pork belly
11⁄2 pounds baby back rib slab, or 6 ribs in one slab, uncut
2 links morcilla blood sausage, optional (available from
Despaña brand foods)
2 Guajillo chiles, seeded, or 3 Nora peppers, seeded
(available from Despaña brand foods)
3 tablespoons salt, and more as needed
1⁄4 cup olive oil
1⁄4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 pickled green peppers like pepperoncini, sliced thin
Remaining half of savoy cabbage, cut in ribbons and boiled
until tender in salted water, reserved
In an 8–quart pot, cover the beans and all ingredients except those for the garnish with 6 inches of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the meats and vegetables are tender, removing the pork belly, sausages and ribs as each is cooked (do not overcook). Set meats (los sacramentos) aside to cool before cutting each into 6 pieces. Continue to cook the beans, checking frequently and adding water as needed (up to 3 hours total). When beans are tender, remove and discard the cabbage, dried chile peppers and garlic head. Peel the onion and purée with carrot, some of the bean liquor and a cup of beans. Whisk back into the beans for body.
To Serve: Heat the beans and adjust seasoning. Divide between 6 bowls and then serve with meats and cabbage on the side. To garnish, sprinkle beans with pickled peppers. Meanwhile, heat olive oil and garlic together until the garlic is just golden and spoon over the beans. Serves 6.
Wine Recommendation: Despite the presence of meats and sausages in this dish, Txakoli goes with any Basque food. If you tried Txomín Extaniz with your clams in green sauce, then opt for a Txakoli from Ameztoi or Itsas Mendi. Should you be able to find it, Ameztoi’s pink-colored Rubentis made from the red Hondarribi Beltza grape veers more toward nectarine than green apple and citrus. Certain reds from Rioja or Navarra might work as well.
This typical Basque sauce has myriad versions, but this simple rendition is made with everyday ingredients. Pour on top of roasted or fried potatoes, salt cod or grilled chicken breasts.
10 dry Choricero peppers, or substitute Guajillo
peppers, available at most Mexican and specialty
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces Serrano ham or bacon, diced small
8 cups thinly sliced yellow onion
3 tablespoons kosher salt
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon pimentón or any quality unsmoked
1 cup canned tomatoes
Toast the peppers in a dry, hot pan on both sides until just pliable, about 30 seconds. Remove the stems and tear open peppers to remove and discard seeds. Place seeded peppers in boiling hot water, using a weight to keep them from floating. Let steep until they are plump and you can scrape the rehydrated flesh away from the skin with a spoon. Discard the skin. Reserve the pepper pulp as well as the water.
Meanwhile, in a 3-quart pot, heat olive oil gently and add ham or bacon. Cook for 5 minutes and add the onions and garlic, coating everything in oil. Stir for 5 minutes uncovered. Add salt and cook covered over low heat until onions are sweet and wilted. Uncover and continue to cook, stirring until onions are very sweet and uniformly golden but not browned; you are looking to melt the onions. Add the reserved pepper pulp and pimentón. Cook 5 minutes. Increase heat to medium high and add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hand as you add. Cook until the tomatoes have lost their acidity. Remove from heat and let cool for at least 20 minutes.
If using Choricero peppers add a pinch of Cayenne powder for punch. If Guajillo are used, they should have plenty of punch. Transfer to
a blender or food processor in batches and purée while warm but not hot. If needed, add reserved pepper soaking water back to mixture. Serves 6.