Basque cuisine, the cuisine of the Basque people, includes meats and fish grilled over hot coals, marmitako and lamb stews, cod, Tolosa bean dishes, paprikas from Lekeitio, pintxos (Basque tapas), Idiazabal sheep’s cheese, txakoli sparkling wine, and Basque cider.
A basquaise is a type of dish prepared in the style of Basque cuisine that often includes tomatoes and sweet or hot red peppers.
Basque cuisine is influenced by the abundance of produce from the sea on one side and the fertile Ebro valley on the other. The mountainous nature of the Basque Country has led to a difference between coastal cuisine dominated by fish and seafood, and inland cuisine with fresh and cured meats, many vegetables and legumes, and freshwater fish and salt cod. The French and Spanish influence is strong also, with a noted difference between the cuisine of either side of the modern border; even iconic Basque dishes and products, such as txakoli from the South, or Gâteau Basque (Biskotx) and Jambon de Bayonne from the North, are rarely seen on the other side.
Basques have also been quick to absorb new ingredients and techniques from new settlers and from their own trade and exploration links. Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal created a chocolate and confectionery industry in Bayonne still well-known today, and part of a wider confectionery and pastry tradition across the Basque Country. Basques embraced the potato and the capsicum, used in hams, sausages and recipes, with pepper festivals around the area, notably Ezpeleta and Puente la Reina.
Cuisine and the kitchen are at the heart of Basque culture, and there is a Museum of Gastronomy in Llodio.
Dish of marmitako in bonito variety.
In addition to the dishes and products of the Basque Country, there are features of the way of preparing and sharing food unique to the area.
Cider houses (sagardotegiak) are a feature of the hills around Donostia, especially near Astigarraga. These are usually large country restaurants with enormous barrels of cider. Cider is poured from a height straight into the glass for visitors, with a rustic menu invariably of salt cod omelette, grilled T-bone steak and ewes’ milk cheese with walnuts and quince paste. The cider houses are only open for a few months of the year.
The txikiteo is the tapas crawl from bar to bar seen across Spain, but it reaches its pinnacle in Donostia, with hundreds of people on the streets of the old town wandering from bar to bar, each known for its speciality, whether it be croquettes, tortilla, toasts or seafood. The txikiteo is also popular in cities such as Pamplona and Bilbao.
Gerezi beltza arno gorriakin is a cherry soup served warm or cold. The cherries are poached in wine, often with enough sugar added to make a light syrup. A cherry with a free pit is preferred for this dish. To release their flavor, the cherries are carefully pitted or cut in half. Usually the soup is prepared on the day it will be served, because 24 hours is enough time for the cherries to blanch noticeably in the liquid. The soup is often is served with a dollop of sour cream, crème fraîche, or icecream.
Gastronomic societies are organisations, almost always of men, who cook and eat together in a communal txoko. In large cities, the society’s premises can be large and formally organised, but the txoko is frequently a small space owned by a group of friends in smaller towns and suburbs, where food and costs are shared. The first txoko was noted in Donostia in 1870. This unique feature of the Spanish Basque Country enables men to participate in the cooking process and spend time together away from the traditionally formidable matriarchs (etxekoandreak). In recent years, women have been allowed into some clubs.
New Basque Cuisine
In the 1970s and 1980s Basque chefs were influenced by the nouvelle cuisine of France and created the nouvelle cuisine basque, radically original in its form but solidly Basque in substance, with lighter and less rustic versions of traditional dishes and flavours. Juan Mari Arzak in Donostia became the most famous exponent and one of first three-star Michelin Guide restaurants in Spain. In a few years the movement swept across Spain, becoming the state’s default haute cuisine. Many tapas bars, especially in San Sebastián, serve modern-style pintxos employing novel techniques and ingredients. In more recent years, young chefs such as Martin Berasategui,have given new impetus to Basque cuisine.
International Basque cuisine
Basque cuisine has continued to have an influence on international cuisine, particularly in Spain and France where it is highly regarded. Catalan chef Ferran Adrià has taken the techniques pioneered by Arzak and other Basque chefs to new heights. Karlos Arguiñano has popularised Basque cuisine in Spain through TV and books. In America, Basque chef Teresa Barrenechea owned and ran a Basque restaurant named Marichu and was among the first to bring traditional Basque cuisine to America. Apart from owning this restaurant, Teresa Barrenechea has written two books, The Basque Table and The Cuisines of Spain. At the other end of the scale, Basque-style tapas bars are common in Barcelona and Madrid. In cities where large numbers of Basque people emigrated, such as Buenos Aires, Argentina; São Paulo, Brazil, Boise, Idaho; and Bakersfield, California, there are several Basque restaurants and a noted Basque influence on the local cuisine.
Bacalao al Pil-Pil.
Pintxos (Basque tapas)
Bacalao (salt cod) al Pil-Pil or a la Vizcaína
Piperade (or ‘Piperrada’)
Kokotxas (cheeks of hake)
Txangurro (spider crab)
Percebes (Gooseneck barnacles)
Grilled and roast meats
Txipirones (baby squid) in their ink
Roncal, Ossau-Iraty and Idiazabal cheeses
Jambon de Bayonne (cured ham)
Chistorra and Chorizo de Pamplona (spicy sausage)
Sausages from Viana
Peppers from Ezpeleta, Gernika and Lodosa
Tripotx (lamb blood sausage from Biriatou)
Beans from Tolosa
Asparagus from Mendavia
Artichokes from Tudela
Cherries from Itxassou
Irouléguy AOC wine
Pili (mandrake-root liqueur)
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A cuisine of tradition, a cuisine of change: whether a reflection of the past or a departure from it, Basque cuisine is based on the sea and the mountains. Inspired by the peasants as well as the bourgeoisie, it has recently become a dynamic, constantly evolving cuisine. Never losing its unique identity, it is deeply revered by the Basques. The cuisine within the provinces of the Spanish state, as within the provinces of the French state, shows slight variations. Historically, the most notable difference between each country has been that the former, although incorporating inland fare, is most characterized by its creation of seafood dishes. The latter is mainly an inland cuisine, relying on produce and meat dishes.
Traditional Basque cuisine is mainly home and family cooking, passed on from one generation of women to another. Men, however, tend to do the majority of cooking outside the home, professionally or in gastronomic societies.
Today, Basque food preparation is in a state of transition. Automation, a decrease in domestic help, the ready availability of prepared and precooked foods–these and similar factors create a tendency toward simplicity and less time spent in food preparation. However, many epicureans stress the need for patience and reliance on traditional methods.
Fish and Seafood
Squid in its own ink sauce is very popular. The ink is toxic when fresh but becomes harmless when cooked. Shrimp, langostino, and crab are welcome additions to fish soups. Basques enjoy tuna, salmon, trout, cod, spider crab and eels. A savory dish, bacalao, features dried salted cod. Marmitako is a classic stew made with tuna. The most common methods of preparation for fish are cooking on the stove with sauces or baking in the oven. Roasting over wood coals is also a possibility.
Meats and Poultry
Favorites include beef (preferably of young animals), sheep and lamb, pork, and fowl (chicken, quail, partridge, woodcock). A common Basque sausage, chorizo, is made from meat and pork fat, seasoned with paprika, salt, and garlic. It is then stuffed into casings and dried. It can later be fried or cooked. Hams are cured, care being taken to avoid too much salt. French Basques take pride in their confit d’oie, or goose fried in its own fat.
Vegetables and Fruits
The Basque Country’s significant diversity in climate and terrain has resulted in a great variety of available vegetables and fruits. Peppers are very popular and are widely grown. Used green, ripe, and dried, they are a key ingredient in the well known Basque egg dish piperrada. Garlic is another favorite, prized in cooking not only for its taste, but for its ability to trap oils in meats and gravies, thus enhancing the flavor.
The most popular methods of vegetable preparation are 1) stews, such as leek stew (porrusalda) or bean stew (cocido) and 2) soups, such as vegetable soup (menestra)–a springtime delicacy–or garlic soup.
Sweet desserts do not appeal to the Basque palate as they do to many other cultures. Fruit and cheese are popular endings to a meal. Vitoria, however, excels in pastry making, and the Basque Country has a large chocolate industry.
Our discussion is not complete without mention of the “new Basque cuisine,” a creative movement begun in 1976 by Basque chefs. By combining traditional elements with the more modern, universal culinary and dietetic principles, new Basque cuisine better satisfies today’s needs and tastes. In Europe it is more expensive than the traditional Basque fare and places more emphasis on visual appeal.
Marcelino “Marc” Ugalde does not see a current trend in the western United States toward this type of Basque cooking. However, he cites New York and other East Coast cities and Chicago as areas in which the most authentic new Basque cuisine may be sampled, but adds that it can certainly be found elsewhere.
Last spring I enrolled in the Basque cooking class taught by staff member Ugalde. What began as a desire for one night a week out to do something enjoyable and informative culminated in ten weeks of camaraderie and palate-pleasing cuisine.
Beginning with tapas, those wondrous appetizers for which the Basques are noted, to soups, entrees, and desserts–garnering recipes from Basque cookbooks and enjoying demonstrations from Basque cooks–we ate, drank and made merry–never mind the calories picked up along the way!
One of the unique characteristics of Basque cooking seems to be a heavy dependency on olive oil. Regarding this as undesirable to both taste and diet, some class members decided to reduce the amount of oil when cooking these recipes at home.
One woman described the dishes we prepared as “bland.” She is Basque but said she had never eaten any of these dishes before. Others enjoyed the tastes imparted to the dishes by vegetables (especially garlic), but said they would prefer a bit more spices. It seems that our “Americanized” palates demand more spices than are used in Basque cuisine.
Ask anyone about the imported canned red peppers we pureéd for our sauces. After conjuring up a mental picture of the dish and smiling broadly, they said the discovery of this wondrous food was one of the highlights of the class. Not only do these peppers impart a heavenly flavor to the sauce, but they are already peeled and seeded! And this is important, because roasting the peppers and then attempting to peel them is a deplorable chore, but a necessary one since the skin and seeds impart a strong, bitter taste.
We experienced diverse methods of food preparation. Lengthy simmering for soups and stews brought out their flavor. Stovetop preparation before baking, as with the lamb chops, decreased cooking time. Shaking the pan (rather than stirring its contents) on top of the stove is often desirable. For example, when making garlic soup, shaking mixes the olive oil and water but does not cause the thin slices of bread to break apart. Many dishes could be prepared ahead and later reheated, a definite plus in our often hectic lifestyles. We found that advance preparation often increased the flavors, especially in the vegetable soup. And we learned that recipes are adaptable to the times: the sheepherder’s bread, traditionally made in a dutch oven over hot coals, can be baked in the kitchen oven.
One woman noted that although familiar foods are used, they impart different flavors to each dish. So, too, do the great variety of sauces, which, according to Mr. Ugalde, “turn ordinary cooking into Basque cuisine.” One unexpected feature of some sauces was that even those used over meat may contain other meats–such as the sauce for the lamb chops which contained sliced ham and chorizos. I mentioned the thin slices of bread used to thicken the garlic soup. This method, as well as the use of bread crumbs, is also used to thicken sauces.
Everyone felt the class offered a fine representation of the diversity of Basque cuisine. We all left with something new: a better knowledge of the Basque people, a recipe collection, new friends, and perhaps a few extra pounds that snuck up on us on “dessert night,” when we ate flan and the luscious gateau Basque!
300 grams flour
2 egg yolks
1 whole egg
200 grams sugar
200 grams butter
a pinch of salt
grated peel of 1 lemon
rum or almond extract to taste
1/4 liter milk
2 egg yolks
60 grams sugar
25 grams flour
rum or almond extract to taste
Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and beat. Add lemon peel and flavoring. Stir in flour and salt. (Although it’s possible to use the dough right away, it’s more manageable if chilled.)
Combine flour and sugar. In a saucepan, combine egg yolks with flour-sugar mixture. Add flavoring and mix well with eggs, flour, and sugar. Add milk and stir well until lumps are gone. Stir constantly over medium heat until thick.
Roll 1/2 the dough out and place it into bottom of mold. Spoon filling in. Roll out other half and place on top. Seal edges. Brush with egg white.
Bake at 350° until golden brown on top.
From Artizarra in Donibane Garazi; instructions and translation by Lisa Corcostegui.
6 eggs, beaten
2 lbs. tomatoes (peeled, seeded, sliced)
2 lbs. green peppers (anaheim or bell)
6 slices Bayonne ham (like boiled ham) or similar
12 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves
salt to flavor
Bake peppers in hot oven until they can be peeled easily, seeded and sliced. Set aside.
Place chopped onions and garlic in heated frying pan with olive oil. When the onions are tanslucent, add green peppers, which have been salted already, and thyme and cook until water given out by the peppers is evaporated.
While the onions and garlic are frying, in a separate fry pan sauté the ham slices in small amount of olive oil. Remove the ham for later use and slowly cook the tomatoes. Add tomatoes to the peppers. The mixture should be left to cook until it has thickened.
Lastly, add the well beaten eggs to the mixture, stirring gently and slowly heating them. Serve the piperrada on a hot platter over ham slices. Serves 5.
From: Juan D. Echevarria, Gastronomia vasconum (Bilbao, 1979).