A taste of the Basque Country with José Pizarro

Chef and restaurateur José Pizarro shares his love for the Spanish region’s vibrant cuisine.

 Rabbit with white beans and chorizo parum.

Photograph by Laura Edwards
By José Pizarro
Published 10 Dec 2021, 16:10 GMT

I love to visit San Sebastián, not just to eat in the city that has more three-Michelin-star restaurants than anywhere else in Europe, but to walk around the Old Town and visit street after street of glorious pintxos bars. Yes, the Basque Country has a reputation for culinary innovation and modern techniques, but its history and traditions go way back, and the celebration of these can be seen every day on the streets of San Sebastián and across the whole region.

With the Cantabrian Sea on the doorstep, fishing has always been a big part of the Basque economy, with fishermen bringing in the catch and women selling it at the fish markets. Fishing was, and still is, at the heart of the lives of many families in the region. Some of my favourite Basque fish recipes have literally come off the boats; these are dishes the fishermen would cook for sustenance while out at sea, such as marmitako (a type of fish stew). 

There’s so much to say about how fish fits into life in the Basque Country, from eating fresh, grilled sardines and drinking txakoli wine in the port of San Sebastián to salt cod, a staple of many dishes you’ll come across on the menus of the region’s bars and restaurants. The true name for salt cod in Spanish is bacalao salao, but it’s always shortened to just bacalao (cod) or bakailao in Basque. When we dry cod with salt, it doesn’t just preserve the fish but adds sweetness and saltiness at the same time.

While fish is a big part of the diet in this area, the cold weather of the autumn and winter means meat is a very important part of many dishes, too. The landscape of the Basque Country is perfect for rearing good-quality livestock. The green grass and rainy days in winter are the ideal combination — the terrain really does help to create meat that’s full of flavour. 

The Basques favour big hunks of meat that can be shared at the table, like a simple txuletón (T-bone) in the sidrerias (cider houses), for example, although meat is also used in pintxo dishes. Chicken wings in a bodegón (wine cellar) are heaven, and they’re supposed to be messy, trust me. 

This is an edited extract from Basque, by José Pizarro, published by Hardie Grant (£15).

Three restaurants to visit

1. Elkano
Elkano, in the fishing village of Getaria, might be the world’s best fish restaurant. Chef Aitor Arregui will take you on a journey to discover some of most incredible flavours and ingredients in the region. 

2. Arzak
Three-Michelin-star Arzak in San Sebastián has been run by Spanish gastronomic royalty for generations. Order the capa de bogavante, a lobster salad garnished with wild flowers and, if you can, grab a seat at the chef’s table downstairs.

3. Ganbara
A quarter of a century since opening, Ganbara remains one of the most celebrated restaurants in San Sebastián. A highlight are the meaty wild mushrooms with egg yolk and foie gras alongside fresh grilled prawns and Jabugo ham. 

Chef and restaurateur José PIZARRO is the author of Basque.

Chef and restaurateur José PIZARRO is the author of Basque.

Photograph by Laura Edwards

The ingredient
Don’t miss the delicious kokotxa (cod tongue) or the ceps, which are full of nutty, earthy flavour. 

Published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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