Tag: Basque gastronomy (page 2 of 3)

Women chefs and their influence on Basque gastronomy: Part 2

In a previous post we spoke about the increasing public face of women chefs and their contribution to the Basque gastronomic scene.  But did you know that women played a prominent role in establishing the Basque restaurant world in the first place? In what follows, I gratefully acknowledge the information offered by both Olga Macias Muñoz and food blogger Biscayenne (aka Ana Vega) in the articles cited below. Eskerrik asko!

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Women take a stroll on the beach in Donostia-San Sebastián in 1915. Photo by Ricardo Martín. The picture captures something of the vigor and arguably even empowerment that women could increasingly express in turn-of-the-century Basque society. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Azcaray Sisters

Vicenta, Úrsula, and Sira Azcaray Eguileor were born in 1866, 1870,  and 1870 respectively, into a comfortable middle-class family from what is today the Abando neighborhood of Bilbao. Their mother, the redoubtable Felipa Eguileor (1831-1898), was already a successful restaurateur-businesswoman who had married Sebastián Azcaray, vice chairman of the Bank of Bilbao. In 1886 the couple founded what would become a thriving restaurant, El Amparo, in Bilbao, in which Felipa prepared traditional Basque dishes, but on Sebastián’s death, she was left widowed with four children to look after (the youngest, a son Enrique). The girls were thus sent to study cooking in France and prepare for careers in the restaurant business. On their return, they helped their mother at El Amparo and the resulting fusion cuisine–between what they learned from the traditional Basque cooking of their mother and their studies in France–led to the restaurant occupying a distinguished place at the vanguard of Basque gastronomy in turn-of-the-century Bilbao, a golden age for the city that was experiencing a major industrial boom and significant economic growth. The restaurant closed its doors in 1918 on the death of Vicenta Azcaray, although her sisters continued to operate a catering business thereafter. After the death of his last sister, Sira, Enrique gathered together all the notes and recipes written down by the siblings and published them in book form in 1933; a work that remains a classic today in Bilbao and beyond.

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A 1949 edition of the recipe book by the Azcaray Eguileor sisters. From Biscayenne’s food blogging site.

Maria Mestayer de Echagüe: The “Marquess of Parabere”

Maria Manuela Eugenia Carolina Mestayer Jaquet was born in 1878 in Bilbao, the daughter of Eugenio Mestayer Demelier (the French consul in the city) and his local wife, María Jacquet la Salle, the daughter of a well-known Bilbao banker also of French origin. Maria enjoyed a privileged upbringing, attending the best schools and traveling across Europe, where here parents also took her to the most famous restaurants of the day (including that of Auguste Escoffier, the renowned French chef and writer who revolutionized and popularized French cuisine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). In 1901 she married Ramón Echagüe y Churruca, a wealthy lawyer from Donostia-San Sebastián, and the couple settled in Bilbao.

Early on in her marriage, on realizing that her husband was finding excuses not to come home for lunch, she found out that it was on account of the food being prepared by the domestic staff the couple employed. She therefore decided to study gastronomy and prepare her husband’s meals herself. This she did by a voracious diet of reading everything she could about the history and culture of food. What’s more, the self-taught Maritxu, as she was affectionately known at home, found time to do all this while giving birth to eight children in the process!

Passionate about writing, she began publishing articles about food for newspapers and magazines. She also began giving cooking classes and by the 1920s she was a well-known figure in her own right in Bilbao; famously, she is reputed to have been gifted the first refrigerator to arrive in Bilbao around this time. By the end of the decade she began to use the pseudonym the “Marquess of Parabere” and published the first of her many books on gastronomy, including a work on Basque cuisine in 1935. The following year she embarked on yet another groundbreaking venture, opening her own restaurant (financed with her own money), the Parabere, in Madrid, where she settled while her husband remained in Bilbao.

An initial success, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War that same year resulted in the Parabere being requisitioned for use by the anarchist CNT labor union, with Maritxu still at the helm. There followed a somewhat crazy period of Casablanca-like intrigues in the restaurant, which was frequented by spies and agents as well as well-known figures like Ernest Hemingway in his capacity as war correspondent during the conflict.  It was while in Madrid, too, that she received news of the death of her husband Ramón during the war. With the triumph of Franco, the restaurant closed and her children moved to Madrid. There she eventually died in 1949.

Nicolasa Pradera

Nicolasa Pradera Mendibe was born in Markina-Xemein, Bizkaia, in 1870. as a young woman she entered into domestic service for the well-to-do Gaitán de Ayala family. When one of the family’s daughters married and settled in Donostia-San Sebastián, Nicolasa moved there with the woman in question to take charge of kitchen duties. There she met and married Narciso Dolhagaray, a well-known butcher in the city. In 1912 the couple opened a restaurant, the Casa Nicolasa, which also introduced a French touch into traditional Basque cuisine and quickly attracted the attention of the city’s high society. In 1932 she sold the Casa Nicolasa to Maria Urrestarazuri and opened another establishment together with her children, Andia, in the city. And in 1933 a book of her recipes was published that still sells today. Following the civil war she moved to Madrid where she opened another restaurant, Nicolasa. She died in Madrid in 1959.

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Nicolasa Pradera’s emblematic work.

Note: Casa Nicolasa, founded by Nicolasa Pradera in 1912, continued to be one of the main reference points of the Donostia-San Sebastián restaurant scene through much of the 20th century. In 1996 the renowned Basque chef José Juan Castillo took over the restaurant, which he ran until his retirement in 2010. The site, an emblematic feature of the city center, was subsequently converted into the Casa Nicolasa guesthouse.

Publications

All these women were connected not just in the innovative techniques they introduced and the prominent roles they occupied in championing and developing Basque cuisine–one could even say in laying the foundations for the international reputation of Basque cooking–but also in their didactic or instructive influence on the gastronomy of the country.  The recipes of the Azcaray sisters were first published posthumously in 1930 as El Amparo, sus 685 platos clásicos (El Amparo, its 685 favorite recipes). Likewise, Maria Mestayer was a prolific author who published many works, among them La Enciclopedia Culinaria: la cocina completa (The culinary encyclopedia: Complete cooking) in 1933 and Platos escogidos de la cocina vasca, Entremeses, aperitivos y ensaladas (Selected dishes of Basque cuisine, appetizers, snacks, and salads) in 1934. Finally, as noted, Nicolasa Pradera’s La cocina de Nicolasa (Nicolasa’s kitchen), first published in 1933, is still a well-loved book today.

A Long List

These are just some of the important women in the history of Basque gastronomy, but they are by no means the only ones, so I list here a few more names by way of at least recognizing their contribution as well (all the establishments named here were in Bilbao): (María) Dolores Vedia de Uhagón (b. 1809) from Bilbao, author of Libro de Cocina a propósito para La Mesa Vizcaína (1892); Brígida de Murua Izaguirre, owner of and head chef at the Hotel Boulevard; Elvira Arias de Apraiz (1856-1922) from Vitoria-Gasteiz, author of Libro de cocina (1912); Pura Iturralde Gorostiaga (1898-1984), who owned and ran the famed Shanti El Marinero restaurant; Antonia Idígoras, owner of the Hotel Antonia (the first Bilbao hotel to be included in the Michelin Guide, in 1927); Josefa Aloa Ugarte, chef at the hotel-restaurant Ocerinjaúregui inn; Clarita de Armendáriz, joint owner and chef at the Armendáriz; Tomasa de Asúa, chef at the Chacolí de Zoilo restaurant; and the sisters Luisa and Escolástica Goikoetxea who ran the Las Navarras inn.

By way of conclusion, I’ll cite part of the prologue to the first edition of La cocina de Nicolasa, written by Gregorio Marañón–one of the towering figures of Spanish intellectual life in the 20th century–who wrote of Basque women’s influence on their national cuisine:

attentive and intelligent cooking dates back, without any doubt, hundreds of years in these provinces; because one does not improvise in just a few generations the profound disposition, almost specific to these people, toward the gastronomic art that Bizkaian, Gipuzkoan, and Navarrese women have, women made of ancient noble attributes, among whom I place this admirable culinary aptitude.

 

Further Reading

Biscayenne, “Bilbainas&Cocineras: las hermanas Azcaray y El Amparo.”

Biscayenne, “Bilbainas&Cocineras: Maritxu, la marquesa de Parabere,” part I and part II.

Olga Macías Muñoz, “Cocineras vascas: tradición e innovación en las postrimerías del siglo XIX y comienzos del siglo XX,” in Euskonews no. 525, March 19-26, 2010.

The Marquise of Parabere website, dedicated to the history of this fascinating woman and including photos, articles, and recipes.

 

Women chefs and their influence on Basque gastronomy: Part 1

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Zuriñe Garcia, head chef at the Andra Mari restaurant in Galdakao, Bizkaia.

I’m sure everyone out there is aware of the reputation of Basque cuisine at the world level. The food and drink of the Basque Country now serve as major attractions for visitors to this singular and spirited little corner of Europe, where world-renowned chefs like Juan Mari Arzak, Martin Berasategi, Pedro Subijana, Hilario Arbelaitz, Andoni Aduriz, Eneko Atxa, and Victor Arguinzoniz, among many others, ply their trade. While all these chefs publicly acknowledge, whenever they can, the influence of their mothers on their own love of cooking, what about Basque women chefs? How come women’s names appear to be missing from such lists?

The first and most obvious answer is that women’s names could of course be added to any checklist of contemporary Basque chefs. The first name that immediately springs to mind is Elena Arzak, joint owner with her father, Juan Mari, of the Arzak restaurant. Indeed, after its beginnings as a bar in 1897, Arzak was converted into a restaurant and later run, on the death of her husband Juan Ramon Arzak, by her grandmother, Francisca “Paquita” Arratibel. Juan Mari was nine-years-old at the time, and in the words of Elena, in an interview with The Guardian (see below): “He was an only child surrounded by women, in a matriarchy … I think that is why he idolises women now.” Indeed, today, Arzak is 80 percent female, with six women chefs in the kitchen.

Besides Elena Arzak, both Zuriñe Garcia at the Andra Mari restaurant in Galdakao, Bizkaia, and Pilar Idoate, who heads up the Europa hotel-restaurant in Pamplona-Iruñea, have Michelin stars.

Alongside such prominent women chefs, Basque-language TV viewers may well be familiar with Aizpea Oihaneder, who, as well as presenting her own cooking show on ETB1, Oihaneder bere satsan, jointly runs the Xarma Jatetxea in Donostia-San Sebastián with Xabi Diez. Likewise, Eva Arguiñano, from Beasain, Gipuzkoa, is a well-known TV chef, while also working at the restaurant of her brother, the famous Karlos Arguiñano. We could also list other contemporary women chefs like Txaro Zapiain at the Roxario restaurant and cider house in Astigarraga, Gipuzkoa, Estibaliz Mekoalde at the Castillo de Arteaga restaurant in Gautegiz-Arteaga, Bizkaia, and Aitziber Lekerika at the Errekaondo restaurant in Zamudio, Bizkaia (to name just a few).

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Nieves Barragán Mohacho, from Santurtzi. Picture from the Barrafina website.

Mention should also be made of the growing reputation of Nieves Barragán Mohacho from Santurtzi, Bizkaia, the Executive Head Chef of the Michelin-starred Barrafina in London, where, as in the case of Arzak, other women chefs are front and center in the kitchen. Barrafina was named UK restaurant of the year in 2015 (and runner-up in 2016) as well as being named the OFM Awards Best Restaurant 2016. In the words of Four Magazine:

Nieves Barragán Mohacho grew up in the Basque region of Spain, in the capital city of Bilbao. From a young age she was aware of food and cooking. Her mother spent most of her time looking after Nieves’s grandmother in the house and so to keep Nieves entertained she involved her in the kitchen’s daily activity. She began with simple things, peeling potatoes and stirring the contents of pans but progressed quickly and by the age of seven Nieves was roasting her own chicken. Nieves quickly understood there was an abundance of excellent local ingredients that surrounded her and a strong tradition of local cooking.

Nor should we forget the huge contribution of one of the main ambassadors of Basque cuisine abroad, Teresa Barrenechea from Bilbao, whose Marichu restaurant was such a feature of the New York restaurant scene for many years.

So things are changing, it would seem. But it’s also interesting to note an arguably forgotten dimension to this story: the historical impact of women chefs on Basque gastronomy. In fact, Paquita Arratibel, who established Arzak as a restaurant, was only one of many women pioneers in the Basque restaurant world, and there were others before her … a story we continue in Part 2 of this post tomorrow.

Further Reading

Allan Jenkins, “Elena Arzak: The best female chef on the planet,The Guardian, August 19, 2012.

Rachael Pells, “Barrafina: No reservations about Britain’s best restaurant, which puts female chefs centre stage,” The Independent, July 5, 2015.

Sudi Pigott, “Why a Basque woman’s place is in the kitchen,” The Independent, April 27, 2012.

 

2017: The Year of Basque Cuisine?

More than just a sausage! The great (and blanket-free) txistorra or chistorra. Image by Flickr user jlastras, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Is 2017 the year of Basque cuisine? Perhaps (although for all of us here at the Center, every year is the year of Basque cuisine!). We recently came across a charming post by epicurean adventurer and culinary sleuth Christina Mueller for the  online restaurant-reservation service Open Table that, if you’re at all interested in Basque food, is well worth checking out. Titled “Basque to the Future: 2017 Will be the Year of Basque Cuisine,” she takes us on a quick culinary ride through the contemporary Basque cuisine on offer in the United States today. In her own words:

Basque cuisine has a long history in the western United States, but many chefs across the country have recently discovered the unique ingredients and storied history of the region that straddles northeastern Spain and southwestern France. Traditionalists will revel in the regional flavors that mark Basque cuisine while modernists will exult in new interpretations that are emerging from forward-thinking chefs around the country.

So if you want to find out where you can ask for Chistorra in a Blanket or a Veal Tongue Bocadillo … mmmm, my mouth’s watering already …  check out the full post here.

And if you haven’t done so already, check out Hasier Etxeberria’s On Basque Cuisine, published by the Etxepare Basque Institute and available free to download here.

What do Basques eat during the Holiday Season?

“Make sure to buy good fish and wine because Christmas only happens once a year. And Christmas is for people to enjoy. At least for those who can … Have a good Christmas. I’m planning on spending it with the sheep.”

Part of a letter from a Basque sheepherder back home to the Old Country, quoted in John Bieter and Mark Bieter, An Enduring Legacy: The Story of Basques in Idaho, p. 43.

This poignant letter is, I think, a reminder to all of us about the connection between special times of the year or celebrations and certain food rituals: A Fourth of July barbecue or a Thanksgiving meal including turkey and pumpkin pie, for example. So how do Basques celebrate the holiday season when it comes to food? What’s on the menu in Basque homes? I don’t think there’s any straightforward answer to this question, and I’m even more certain that I’ll miss something somewhere along the line in my attempt to answer it (so apologies beforehand!). First of all, the main meal at which families sit down together to celebrate is dinner on Christmas Eve, rather than a Christmas-day lunch. But from there, the food ritual can go in a number of directions (including even pizza nowadays I guess).

In former times, and maybe still even today, prior to sitting down to the meal, a loaf of bread would be blessed by making the sign of the cross over it with a knife prior to cutting it and sharing slices out among those gathered at the table. Sometimes the first piece, the kurrusko, of this ogi salutadorea (health-giving bread) would be offered to those who had departed, especially any recently deceased family members. Any leftover bread would be kept for a whole year and burned right before the same celebration the following year. In the meantime, this bread was highly regarded for its curative powers and should anyone in the household fall sick, they would be given a piece. “Christmas (Eve) bread” could even be used to ward off the harsh effects of extreme weather conditions.

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Basque baked sea bream. Image at Javier de la Hoz’s website Basco.

A traditional Basque song includes what was probably once a typical menu for this dinner:  Aza-olioak pil-pil / Bisigua zirt-zart / Gaztaiña erriak pin-pan! / Aia goxo-goxo, epel-epel (in other words, sauteed cabbage (with garlic), sea bream, roasted chestnuts, and a porridge-like desert made from wheat flour). And there would of course have been variations on this: cauliflower instead of cabbage, perhaps, to start; followed by cod, for example, instead of sea bream or, especially in coastal areas, txitxarro (horse-mackerel); and perhaps for dessert intxaursaltsa (a milky walnut-based pudding) or konpota (stewed fruits, especially apples and/or pears) or just roasted apples.

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Intxaursaltsa, a typical Basque dessert of nuts, milk, cinnamon and sugar. Photo by Valdavia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Navarre, meanwhile, instead of cabbage families could have opted for braised cardoon stalks, still a great Navarrese delicacy today; while in areas farther away from the coast, fish may well have been replaced by a meat dish such as roast mutton, goat, lamb, chicken, or capon; and for dessert kapoi-salda (capon soup … yes, capon soup … the cooking juices from the capon sweetened with sugar and almonds).

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Elvers or baby eels with garlic, parsley, and a little chili pepper. A classic dish that is beyond the budget of most normal homes nowadays. Photo by demi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Greater urbanization in the 19th century led to increased production of additional sweet favorites such as chocolates and cakes, as well as the omnipresent turrón, which was soon added to the prolonged dessert courses that would invariably extend into post-prandial family conversation.  With time, too (and greater affluence) more appetizer courses were added that included braised snails, elvers or baby eels (a delicacy that only the very well-off can afford nowadays), and more seafood in general, such as shrimp, crab, oysters, lobster, and so on.

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Piquillo peppers stuffed with bonito. Photo by Tamorian, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So what do Basque families sit down to today? As I said at the beginning, I don’t think there’s any one answer. In my experience, appetizers nowadays typically include cold meats plus a selection of Navarrese produce such as asparagus, red piquillo peppers, artichokes, and so on, followed by seafood like jumbo shrimp, and then the big choice–fish or meat, meaning sea bream or txitxarro on the one hand, for example, or lamb or capon on the other–and all this followed by a combination of multiple desserts from the options mentioned above.

Whatever the actual menu, though, the really important thing is sitting down together and talking … mostly about the food itself.

For some further reading, see “Historia de la gastronomía navideña en el País Vasco,” Euskonews no. 514 (Dec. 25, 2009-Jan. 8, 2010) and Ander Manterola, “Christmas bread. ‘Ogi salutadorea’,” at the excellent Basque Ethnography at a Glance website.

For a recipe for baked sea bream Basque-style, take a look at Javier de la Hormaza’s webpage here.

And if you like food, be sure to check out Hasier Etxeberria’s On Basque Cuisine, published by the Etxepare Basque Institute and available free to download here.

 

Say Cheese!

The prestigious International Cheese Festival starts tomorrow, November 16,  in Donostia-San Sebastián and runs until November 18. The Artzai Gazta association, an organization comprised of 110 local small-scale craft producers, played a central role in bringing the festival to the Basque Country. The festival is seen as both a platform to showcase Basque products and a forum to exchange knowledge with other small-scale cheese producers from all over the world. Moreover, at the festival the World Cheese Awards organization will be awarding prizes to its 2016 winners. You can even follow the prize-giving via live online steaming. Check out the details here.

Check out the full program for the festival here.

Eat with Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway (seated left) in 1925 with the persons depicted in the novel The Sun Also Rises. The individuals depicted include Hemingway, Harold Loeb, Lady Duff Twysden; and Hadley Richardson, Ogden Stewart and Pat Guthrie. Original caption is “Ernest Hemingway with Lady Duff Twysden, Hadley Hemingway, Lonnie Schutte and three unidentified people at a cafe in Pamplona, Spain, during the Fiesta of San Fermin in July 1925.” Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, Boston, MA. In Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway’s classic The Sun Also Rises, a work infused with references to the Basque Country and Basque culture, was first published on October 22, 1926. To celebrate this 90th anniversary, a new book has just been presented that celebrates Hemingway’s well-known love of all things gastronomic. The trilingual Comer con/Eat with/Manger avec Hemingway, by Javier Muñoz, traces Hemingway’s steps as portrayed in the autobiographical The Sun Also Rises. It serves as a tourist guide to the places Hemingway visited and includes 128 recipes of the local cuisine he tasted by 52 chefs from the Basque Country, Aragón, and La Rioja. Check out a brief report on the book presentation (in Spanish) below:

To find out more about the book click here:  http://eatwithhemingway.com/

Basque terroir: The green chili peppers of Gernika and Ibarra

Continuing with our occasional series on terroir–a concept explaining the connection between a particular food or drink product and a particular location–in the Basque Country, today we’re going to look at the green chili peppers of Gernika (Bizkaia) and Ibarra (Gipuzkoa).

As noted in our previous post on the red chili peppers of Ezpeleta (Lapurdi), the chili pepper itself is a great example of the Columbian exchange. Whereas the red chili peppers of Ezpeleta retain much of their original heat, those of Gernika do not, although the Ibarra variety can be somewhat spicy.

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Gernikako piperrak, from the Eusko Label website.

The green chili peppers of Gernika are about 2-3 inches long and an inch in breadth, wider than those of Ibarra. Derived from the Capsicum annuum species, these chili peppers are characterized by an intense green color. Production takes place between May and October and is not limited to the area of Gernika alone; in fact, any part of the Basque Country in which evapotranspiration levels reach 585 millimeters (23 inches), indicating a temperate Atlantic climate, are potentially suitable for cultivating the pepper.

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Ibarrako piperrak. Photo by Josu Goñi Etxabe, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Like the aforementioned Ezpeleta peppers, these chilies were originally left to mature until they turned red, and indeed this is still done today, although in this latter case it is more typical in Bizkaia to dry them for later use in soups and garnishes. The green variety, however, is prepared freshly, with the classic preparation being to fry them and add a little salt at the end. They can be served separately, as an appetizer, or as an accompaniment to a main dish such as steak.

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Gildas in Donostia. Photo by Biskuit, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The green chilies of Ibarra–piperrak or piperminak in Basque, guindillas in Spanish–are slightly longer (2-5 inches) and thinner than those of Gernika, and are popularly referred to as the “king prawns of Ibarra.” They are typically planted in April or May and harvested any time between July and November, whenever they are judged to be at their optimum level. As with the Gernika peppers a typical dish involves frying the Ibarra peppers and adding a little salt at the end, serving them as an aperitif or appetizer. In contrast to their Bizkaian counterparts, however, Ibarra peppers are also pickled in wine vinegar and sold commercially in jars. Pickled Ibarra peppers can also be served as an appetizer, adding a little extra virgin olive oil, and they also form an integral part of one of the classic Basque pintxos: the Gilda – a combination of olives, salty anchovies, and peppers.

Be sure to check out Hasier Etxeberria’s On Basque Cuisine, a publication of the Etxepare Basque Institute. You can download a free copy here.

Prominent Basque presence among latest list of world’s top restaurants

Restaurant Magazine has just published its influential annual listing of the world’s best restaurants, among which the Basque presence is as strong as ever.

Two Basque restaurants feature in the Top 10 list:

At #7 is Mugaritz, in Errenteria, Gipuzkoa, run by Andoni Aduriz, “the natural heir,” in the opinion of Restaurant Magazine, “to the title of Spain’s most pioneering chef after Ferran Adrià.” See the magazine’s full description here.

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Entrance to Mugaritz. Photo by Krista, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And coming in at #10 is Asador Etxebarri, in Atxondo, Bizkaia, run by Victor Arguinzoniz, who “taught himself to cook and built his own kitchen full of manual grilling contraptions using multiple types of wood. Known for his devotion to the barbecue, he is rarely seen out of the kitchen.” See the magazine’s full description here.

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Steak at Etxebarri. Photo by Krista, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At #16 is Azurmendi in Larrabetzu, Bizkaia, run by Eneko Atxa, followed by Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak’s emblematic Arzak in Donostia at #21, Nerua, in Bilbao, run by Josean Alija, at #59, and Martin Berasategui’s eponymous restaurant in Lasarte-Oria, Gipuzkoa., at #59. 

If that were not enough to demonstrate just how much Basques punch above their weight when it comes to world-class cuisine, two other Basque-run restaurants outside the Basque Country also made the top 100 list: Biko, in Mexico City, run by Mikel Alonso and Bruno Oteiza, at #43; and  Le Chateubriand, in Paris, run by Iñaki Azpitarte, at #74.

Check out the full list here.

For a general introduction to Basque food, check out Hasier Etxeberria’s On Basque Cuisine, available free to download, courtesy of the Etxepare Basque Institute, here.

Basque terroir: The red chili peppers of Ezpeleta

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Red chili peppers dying on the facades of buildings in Ezpeleta. Photo by Harrieta171. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Continuing with our occasional series on Basque terroir, today we’re celebrating Ezpeletako biperra, the red chili pepper of Ezpeleta, Lapurdi. Chili peppers, native of course to the Americas, were introduced into France in the 16th century, and chili pepper cultivation in and around Ezpeleta began in the mid-17th century. Although originally used for medicinal purposes, it was later embraced as a means of conserving meats, and later still as an ingredient in many different recipes. Today it enjoys both controlled designation and protection of origin status.

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Chili peppers being cultivated in Ezpeleta. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

These chili peppers are not just cultivated in Ezpeleta, but in nine other towns in the same area: Ainhoa, Haltsu, Itsasu, Jatsu, Kanbo, Larresoro, Senpere, Uztaritze, and Zuraide. They are harvested in late summer and hung outside, typically on the facades or balconies of buildings, to dry in the early fall. The annual Ezpeleta chili pepper festival, held during the last weekend of October, is a major event in Iparralde, attracting thousands of visitors every year.

Their protected status means that certain protocols must be followed in the cultivation process: there must be between 10-20,000 plants per hectare in the plots where the chili pepper is cultivated; watering is forbidden, except during the months immediately after planting (May-June) or in the event of a drought; the plants must be harvested by hand, and harvesting season runs from August until the first frost of the year.

According to Wikipedia, the Ezpeleta chili pepper attains only a maximum grade of 4,000 on the Scoville scale and is therefore considered only mildly hot. It can be purchased as festoons of fresh or dried peppers, as ground pepper, or pureed or pickled in jars.

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Sign to an “official” village on the Ezpeleta chili pepper route. Photo by Harrieta171. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nowadays, it is a key ingredient in the cuisine of Iparralde. Specifically, it is used to cure the famed Baiona ham, and is also the key ingredient in piperrada sauce, a blend of mild green chili peppers, the red Ezpeleta peppers, white onion, and tomatoes (forming the green, red, and white of the Basque flag). This base sauce can then be added to, for example, with minced beef (to make the dish known as axoa) or grilled or roast chicken; or it can be served separately as a starter or main dish with the addition of eggs, scrambled into the sauce, and/or slices of Baiona ham. And if all that were not enough, you can always finish up a meal with some Baiona chocolate infused with Ezpeleta chili pepper, as noted in a previous post here.

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Axoa, one of the classic dishes of Iparralde. Photo by Tangopaso, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For a great introduction to Basque food, check out Hasier Etxeberria’s On Basque Cuisine, a publication of the Etxepare Basque Institute. You can download a free copy here.

Basque terroir: The red onions of Zalla

This time around in our series on Basque terroir, I’d like to thank María José Cortés Lamas for her article, “What Makes the Basque Violet Onion so Awesome?” which serves as the inspiration behind this latest post. I was aware of the fact that Zalla, a town in the Enkarterri/Encartaciones region of Bizkaia some fifteen miles west of Bilbao, is a producer of Bizkaiko txakolina wine, but I knew nothing of its renowned red onions.

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Sliced red onion, one of nature’s great joys. Photo by Agon S. Buchholz, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Onions, of course, are one of the most ubiquitous vegetables in the world, coming in all sizes, shapes, and colors. The onion is most frequently a biennial or a perennial plant, but is usually treated as an annual and harvested in its first growing season. Red onions in particular are high in flavonoids.

The red (or purple or violet, depending on your point of view) onions of Zalla are especially mild and sweet. As noted in the abovementioned article, for star Basque chef Eneko Atxa, of Azurmendi restaurant fame, they can be the key element to producing the classic red Bizkaian sauce (bizkaitar saltsa/salsa vizcaína). And, of course, as is only right and fitting, the Enkarterri Fest food festival, held each fall, gives pride of place to the red onions of Zalla.

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Cod Bizkaian Style in the characteristic red sauce. Photo by Tamorlan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A quick note on Bizkaian sauce: According to Hasier Etxeberria, author of On Basque Cooking (free to download here), “This particular kind of sauce is equally suitable for meat or fish. In ancient times, this was our most exported recipe: the vizcaína or Bizkaian.” He goes on to discuss this sauce and offers a detailed recipe (pp. 63-65).

 

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