With its turbulent and rich history, the Basque region, in Spain's north east, must be regarded as one of it's most interesting. Once a separate kingdom but now absorbed into Spain, Basques are a still fiercely independent and proud race with their own language and cultural heritage. Certainly in culinary circles they have a lot to be proud of, the area is traditionally regarded as Spain's finest for gastronomy and a seemingly endless production line of top chefs and Michelin stars have maintained the area's reputation as a gourmand's dream.
Food is engrained into the everyday fibre of Basque life and is a very serious business to most people in the region. The men are often members of gastronomic societies, steeped in tradition, who take it in turns to prepare huge feasts for the rest of the members. Women are generally not welcome to enter these culinary brotherhoods but they do get invited to come along on certain special occasions. Slightly archaic some would say but these practices have been going on for a long time.
Like all good culinary areas, the Basques marry the traditions of sea and land. Probably more famous for its abundant fish, the hilly interiors of the region produce cheese (often made from Ewe's milk such as Idazabal), green peas and mushrooms. The spring months see the sprouting of the regions most famous mushroom, the highly sort after and expensive "Zizaks", a particular favourite in the Alava area of the region.
A distinct lack of good pasture land in the region has traditionally driven up the price of livestock but the hilly hinterlands of the Basque region do produce a leaner, often tastier breed of sheep, cow or pig. Local meat specialities include "txerri patak" (pig's feet), the famous "Morcilla" (blood sausage) and "Lengua a la Tolosana" (calf's tongue) which is simmered in wine with tomatoes and onion. These dishes show that the Basques don't share the British and American squeamishness of using every part of the animal. With a long coastline across the bottom corner of the Bay of Biscay the region has a long tradition of seafaring and fishing.
As you'd expect, the Atlantic Ocean's bounty is prevalent in a typical regional kitchen. The plentiful waters yield langoustines, hake, anchovies, tuna and squid to name but a few of the favourites. "Angulas" (juvenile eels, known as Elvers in English) are something of a delicacy and can fetch up to £250 per pound and the "Chiporones" (Baby squid) are regarded as some of the sweetest you'll find anywhere. Favourite recipes include "Merluza en Salsa Verde" (Hake in green sauce), "Marmitako" (a classic fisherman's stew made with tuna) and "Bacalao al Pil-Pil" (salt cod in a garlic sauce).
If fine dining or just old fashioned good eating, are your thing then you could do a lot worse than a trip to the Basque country, indeed, it's the perfect place for a culinary odyssey. San SebastiŠn is recognised as one of the world's finest cities for foodies, whether it's for the endless amount bars serving a limitless array of "pintxos" (the Basque word for tapas) or whether you want to sample some of the finest haute cuisine in Spain. Many have tried and failed to eat their way around this city but have had an amazing gastronomic journey in the process.
The Basques even have the word "txikiteo" - loosely translated as "tapas spree", a sort of bar crawl where food, rather than alcohol, is the main concern (I'm sure we Brits have been missing a trick somewhere along the line). For more formal dining there area boasts a lot of choice, there are no less than eight Michelin starred restaurants in or nearby the city and a host of others springing up around the rest of the Basque region. The most famous restaurant is undoubtedly "Arzak", pretty much a permanent resident in the restaurant worldwide top 50 list. Head chef and charismatic leader of the Basque "neuva cocina" revolution, Juan Mari Arzak, epitomises all that is good about modern Basque cooking, combining the same fresh ingredients with a radical new spin .
By: Mike McDougall