Spanish cuisine basks in new popularity

Spain's Basque region, renowned for its seafood, is displacing France as the center of the culinary universe.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Spain is the new France. Or so food writers the world over have been saying for the past few years. Yet one part of the country in particular seems to be gaining attention. Last September, New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni declared that Spain's Basque coast is where he'd "go right now if [his] sole agenda were to eat." Earlier, in Vogue, Jeffrey Steingarten, that magazine's food critic, wrote a detailed account of eating his way through Basque Country. And a spate of new Spanish cookbooks borrow generously from Basque traditions.

In the 1970s, French nouvelle cuisine - a fresher, lighter approach - revolutionized cooking. Today, Spain, known for some unusual methods such as packing and cooking foods with a vacuum - called sous vide - is considered the center of innovation. As critical appreciation for Spain's gastronomy continues to grow, so an awareness of the country's diverse offerings is trickling down.

There's Andalusia in the south, known for gazpacho and the original tapas - simple things like slices of ham, cheese, or olives; and Catalonia in the northeast, another seat of the nueva cocina. Then, of course, there's the Basque region.

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Situated in Spain's northwest and spilling into France, Basque Country (called Euskal Herria in Euskara, the local language of inscrutable origins) is the birthplace of Spanish nouvelle. Its deep culinary traditions, captivating history (including a longtime separatist movement that this week declared a cease-fire) and enduring population in the US have raised the region's profile.

Traditional Basque food is hearty, rustic, and simple. Bacalao al pil-pil, the famous salt-cured cod, is painstakingly prepared in a clay dish with garlic and olive oil. The region's steep hillsides produce lamb dishes and rich sheep's-milk cheeses. Angulas, or baby eels, are a delicacy, sautéed in garlic, olive oil, and red peppers. And a more elaborate style of tapas, called pintxos, come from the coastal town of San Sebastián. In her latest cookbook, "The New Spanish Table," Anya von Bremzen includes a recipe for a variety made of skewered guindilla peppers, olives, and anchovies.

Back in 2000, the James Beard Foundation, a culinary institute in New York, held a dinner featuring the food of Teresa Barrenechea and Gerald Hirigoyen, two of this country's best-known Basque chefs. After describing the many mysteries of the Basque people, the Beard Foundation declared that "the greatest enigma surrounding the Basques is why their wonderful, lusty cuisine has not yet been discovered by American epicures."

Now, it seems, those epicures are paying attention. And though Basque cuisine has also existed in the US for centuries, "it's being discovered just now," says Mr. Hirigoyen, whose San Francisco restaurant, Piperade, is named for a Basque dish that uses tomatoes, onions, olive oil, and peppers.

As Hirigoyen suggests, the Basque people are not new to this country. They first emigrated to the western US in the 1800s to work as shepherds and prospectors. Today they are scattered throughout the country, with a strong presence in California, Idaho, and Nevada.

In these areas, Basque restaurants have existed for centuries, serving their immigrant communities robust meals at long family-style tables. It's only in the past decade or so that food meccas such as San Francisco and New York have tried more upscale versions. Last year, Bar Carrera, a Basque-style tapas bar, opened in New York to positive reviews.

Still, the best bet for Basque food may be the dozens of restaurants that dot the northwest. In the "Basque Block" of Boise, Idaho, you can find Gernika, where owner Dan Ansotegui serves up tapas including croquetas stuffed with chicken, vegetables, or ham, and chorizo bocadillos - small sandwiches made of spicy sausage.

The origins of the Basque people remain shrouded in mystery. Yet, whether because of increased travel or simply through reading food stories, Mr. Ansotegui says: "I notice more and more that people come [into Gernika] with a better understanding of what we're doing."

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