Vodka producer who makes Vodka from local ingredients, clumsy black porks, beautiful wines, cheese making experience and lots of cider. Meeting all of those people who are by themselves the history of this amazing place, getting familiar with their traditions and language, tasting local products and getting to know the essence of this place was exactly what food storytelling is about.
Although you can feel the influence of the neighbors – France and Spain, the Basque country is a proud autonomy. The language here is Basque, and even that it has some similarities with Spanish, it is still tough to understand the locals. Bilbao, the biggest city in the area, is famous for the inspiring Guggenheim museum and extremely alive nightlife.
San Sebastian is a great surfing spot, having a beautiful coast and an old city full of gastronomic surprises. The tiny streets of the old city are packed with locals and tourists looking for the best Pintxos in town (the local name for their traditional tapas). Starting from olives and anchovies, bruschettas and crockets, lots of dishes with Bacalao fish (amazingly good is the Bacalao Omelet) the sky is the limit of what you can find in those fantastic bars.
In, Vitoria, that was chosen in 2012 as the Europian Green Capital, we met the Basque Txoko tradition. The Txoko, or gastronomic societies where born originally in San Sebastian in 1870 as a place for people to gather and share food and conversation. Those places continue to leave up to our days as a place for groups of friends to meet, eat, drink, sing and talk. No matter what are the ages and backgrounds of the participants you can count on it being a happy and memorable night.
All around the Basque country we found small-scale local producers with fresh local ingredients. From cider that is made from local apples, with natural methods and spontaneous fermentation to sheep cheese produced from the milk of a particular basque breed in a family-run Queseria Harrobialde dairy farm. Local black beans, the Tolosa beans, that has a fantastic creamy texture when cooked without adding anything – just oil, water, and salt. And of course the local anchovies and their amazing taste. At the Conservas Berober, after the head is removed the anchovies are brined, a process that takes around 12 months, and than capt in olive oil – all by hand. All the fish are local, the morning catch of the fishermen, and they are a Slow-Food Presidia.
Of course, Cider is not the only drink in the area, and the Basque country has been blessed with suitable land for vineyards. The Rioja grapes that are grown in this area are used in 70% for winemaking and the other 30% for Grappa aged in American or Franch oak.
Pigs as an animal are suffering from a terrible reputation, but seeing those funny creatures on the farm, we couldn’t stay indifferent. From three local breeds only one has survived thanks to a local family that decided to breed those unproportional pigs. Except for their incredible meat what is unique about them are their big ears that almost completely cover their eyes.
As a complete opposite to our visit to the pig farm, we got a rare chance to have a glance at one of the world’s best restaurants kitchens – Mugartiz, who has two Michelin stars. Not only that it is located in one of the most beautiful areas at the Basque hills it has a colorful garden with local herbs, flowers and eatable plants that are foraged and used in the menu. They even published a herb book and have a research lab of their own, working on developing food innovations.
Although salt is a widespread product, and supposedly there is nothing special about it when you see the process of its traditional production you gain some appreciation. At Añana Salt Valley, the salt valley, there are endless white fields of salt. Table salt, salt flakes, mineral salt with different additives, salt springs (apparently very healthy and good for your skin), and even a cosmetic line in a salt Spa – I never imaged it is such a diverse world. The natural salt of this magical area is coming to the surface with water and then collected and dried in wooden vats.
As a proper local business, the Basmoon Vodka production is a handmade Vodka producing company owned by three friends who inherited from their grandparents the tradition of making Vodka from potatoes. In the Vodka making business potatoes are considered to be a less profitable ingredient as they contain 80% of water. In spite of that, the Basmoon Vodka guys insist on the traditional recipe and use only local yellow potatoes from the Agria variety. Working with fresh organic yeast, they are producing excellent Vodka since 2016 (from an experience of a very happy and drunk class).
The sweets tradition at the Basque countries is taking its influence both from French patisserie and Spanish desserts. One of the most traditional desserts is the Goxua, coming initially from Vitoria it is a layered dessert served in tiny pots – whipped cream, a layer of sponge cake and a layer of caramelized custard. Another traditional dessert is the Pastel Vasco, in translation the Basque Cake, the crust is similar to a shortbread, golden brown and buttery with crumbles. Usually, it will be filled with an almond-flavored cream or black cherries. It can be made as a cake or personal pies. Except for those dessert and other beautiful pastries found in artisanal bakeries all around, in Cider Houses and different restaurants, you will most likely also see as a dessert the local sheep cheeses served with honey or quince jam and a Basque version of rice pudding.
Excellent meat, lots of Bacalao dishes, the culture of Pintox, delicate cheep cheeses, refreshing cider and local wines combined with green nature, beautiful costs and warm people – Basque country, I will be back.