Basque Country

by Don Harris | January 2010

Our family enjoys visiting the proud and gracious Basque people -- not only to enjoy their famous cuisine, but because we enjoy the flavor of their life as sea-going people. They are intimately tied to the sea in every imaginable way – from the many small fishing boats plying the Bay, to the great port of Bilbao and the elegant seaside city of San Sebastián.

Formerly only known as a bustling industrial port, in recent years Bilbao has been transformed by the dramatic new Guggenheim Museum. Along with tourists from the four corners of the world, we have enjoyed their collection of modern and contemporary art displayed in a fascinating architectural setting.

San Sebastián, the other famous Basque port, is the pinnacle of sophistication and leisure. We find there is nothing quite like the city’s pintxos, Basque-style tapas bars, with merry makers spilling into the narrow streets of the Gothic quarter with an elegantly fragile, clear glass of the local sidra hard cider. Opportunities for seafood dining are legendary, as are the grand hotels and luxury shopping.

Throughout the region there are literally one thousand txokos or gastronomic societies. Each one was founded by a group of friends who gather to cook amazing Basque dishes and enjoy them around a big fraternal table. These traditional societies are typically 100% Basque and male, though this has changed in recent years.

The Basque Country is a seafood oasis, and is most famous for its incredible silky anchovies preserved in olive oil, its delicately flavored bonito white tuna and its bacalao salt cod.

We find there is a certain purity in being served bonito which a fisherman caught by line, and brought into the port at the end of the day. Since our office is in Zarautz, it is not uncommon for us to dine at a café with the fishing boats tied up nearby.

The most famous catch of the Basques, bacalao salt cod, has been caught by fishermen for many centuries as they braved the North Atlantic sailing as far away as the Great Banks of Newfoundland. Cod was caught in such quantities that it was key to warding off famine during hard times. Today bacalao has risen from its humble origin to become a gourmet’s delight when served as the classic Bacalao al Pil Pil in its own juices.

For us the combination of straightforward mountain people along with salty fisherman, mixed with the sophistication of the people of its great cities, make this one of the most enjoyable places to linger – not just for the fabulous cuisine, but also for the warm interchange with the people.

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