More than just top quality local products and a style of cooking bordering on art, Basque cuisine stands out because it holds the heart of an entire population.
Gastronomy is not just about food in the Basque Country. It is a ritual from an ancient tradition that goes back a long way in history. It is also a way of life for the Basque people, who celebrate everything at the table. Food, which is life, is the greatest celebration of all. This enjoyment and delight in food is embodied in the soul, but the pleasure in sharing it is also engraved into the Basque character. These people find quality of life in the multiple variations of their food. It is an active gastronomy, highly present in anyone's visit to Euskadi. This is why food has become a temptation in this country. The quality of the products, from the sea, the mountains and the valleys, is so good and the cuisine so distinguished that it holds a gold medal all over the world. Both the arrantzales, or fishermen, who use sustainable fishing techniques and who respect highly controlled fishing quotas when harvesting the hake and anchovies from the Cantabrian Sea, and the baserritarras, the farmers, who produce such excellent products from the land. For example, delights such as Espelette pepper D.O., a spicy condiment to brighten up food, the Ibarra chilli pepper or the Gernika pepper. Not to mention cheeses such as Idiazabal D.O. or Roncal D.O.
International recognition of Basque cuisine started in the 20th century and today, in the 21st century, is an indisputable reality. The work of distinguished chefs, headed by Juan Mari Arzak, in designing the new Basque cuisine has had much to do with this recognition. But none of this would have been possible without the work of all those who have passed the extensive legacy of Basque gastronomy from one generation to the next: the women. Not in vain, all the great Basque chefs recognise that they learnt their trade from the lady of the house, their mothers who taught them the secrets of this delicious cuisine.
Today, veritable pilgrimages of food-lovers make their way to Euskadi every year to enjoy the great creations from the many Michelin star restaurants: in little more than 100 kilometres there are no less than 28 stars for absolutely top cuisine. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, since there is plenty more to try. You can also enjoy a meal based on pintxos, those tiny creations that combine the art of local cuisine in just one bite. They are displayed on the bar counter in bars and restaurants for the visitor to choose from. A bite of glory, full of flavour and the heart of the people. Washed down with a wine from Rioja Alavesa, a txakoli or a cider, they make for high levels of gourmet pleasure.
At each grill house, tavern, txoko (gastronomic society) or restaurant, just watching the people eat is a joy. And there are plenty of places to choose from. It is estimated that there is one restaurant for every thousand inhabitants, and one gastronomic society for every 2000. There is no shortage of food and places to enjoy it both food and a good conversation. This country is used to long and lively after-dinner talk, with good conversation and the ever-present songs, another of the watchwords of the inhabitants of this country.
To understand the art of Basque cuisine properly, you need to visit the txokos (as they are known in Bizkaia) and the sociedades gastronómicas (as they are known in Gipuzkoa). These are cooking and dining venues reserved for members. They have a large kitchen, long tables and a store of drinks. They do not have a cook as each member is responsible for preparing and creating the menu, shopping at the market – well worth a visit – and preparing the meal. Each member then pays for what they have eaten to a common kitty and the meals usually end in song.
Want a tip? Follow your instinct and, as well as the great restaurants listed in the guide books, try your luck in one of the smaller ones, where home-made cooking offers a broad vision of the character of the people, their culture and traditions which are permanently tied to the kitchen. If you are not sure, just watch where the locals go. The marmitako, cod al pil pil, such a simple dish but so difficult to prepare in all its splendour, Tolosa beans, or the famous T-bone steak, say more than it would ever be possible to write.