Basque Country, a trip to the (gastronomical) stars
Spanish gastronomy has long been famous the world over. Nowadays, many Spanish chefs are internationally recognised for their creative, innovative and revolutionary culinary creations. But if there is one thing that is common to Spain’s haute cuisine share, it is that its creations are built on the deepest foundations, on the diverse and versatile roots that characterise our country.
By: Jara Atienza
On the border that divides the Basque municipalities of Errenteria and Astigarra stands a mighty oak tree which, for 200 years, has stoically stood the test of time. In the same place, a little more than two decades ago, Andoni Luis Aduriz planted another seed: one which would lead to one of the best restaurants in the world, Mugaritz. Its name pays homage to its surroundings, to the border (muga, in Basque) and the oak (haritza). However, as with everything that happens – and is created – in this country house situated on the outskirts of San Sebastian, a deeper meaning is hidden behind the word.
‘The setting helped us to understand what we are: a project with deep roots in a territory, but with branches which grow outwards, to infinity’, explains Aduriz. And it is certainly true that the name Mugaritz has been around the world more than once. Awarded two Michelin stars (a distinction which the Michelin Guide gives to the best restaurants of Spain and Portugal), it has been among the top 15 in the prestigious ranking of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants for 15 years. As it happens, it occupies the place 14th on the list in the latest edition, published in 2021.
Aduriz: ‘The key to this success is in something that is as simple to understand as it is difficult to execute: shamelessness’
For Aduriz, the key to this success lies in something that is as simple to understand as it is difficult to execute: shamelessness. ‘If Mugaritz has grown, it is because it has shaken off its inhibitions. We have been brazen, we have challenged the logic of the culinary world and we have blown it up’, insists the chef. These attempts to push the boundaries of creativity where the metaphor of the border takes on meaning. ‘Our point of departure was understanding tradition and how people dine in the Basque Country, specifically in Guipúzcoa, where we noticed that there is a tendency towards blandness, to look for products such as cocochas (hake or cod cheeks), gulas (baby eels) and teardrop peas, where the texture stands out more than the flavour. We took these characteristics and put them in context, we turned them into concepts’, he elaborates.
These are exactly the concepts that best define the essence of Mugaritz. Or, rather, the stories. Aduriz explains his belief that the important thing is not that the food is good, but that the dishes have a meaning, an explanation and an intention. ‘The sixth flavour is that of the stories’, he says. Some stories are hidden behind the white ceramic masks covered with ribbons of flowers that the diner must lick (‘The first kiss’), stone lips (‘Sea’), elastic black chanterelles (‘Game’), and other daring dishes that purport to feed the mind more than the body.
The culinary treasures of the Cantabrian Sea (and beyond)
In addition to Mugaritz, Basque Country has other internationally recognized establishments such as Azurmendi by Eneko Atxa or the restaurant of the chef Martín Berasategui, which bears his name. In total, 24 restaurants in the region currently have at least one Michelin star, and four appear on the most recent list of the 50 best restaurants in the world. However, it is not the awards that have placed Basque cuisine amongst the international culinary elite.
‘Innovation, the quest for excellence and the universality of the concept offered by the local gastronomy are factors which have contributed to the international renown of our cuisine’, suggests Aduriz, which he qualifies by adding that the compilation of recipes, traditions, knowledge, customs and products that have been developed and preserved in the region is the differentiating factor.
In the Basque Country, 24 establishments have at least one Michelin star, and four are amongst the world’s 50 best restaurants
Tradition, indeed, is one of the main arteries of Arzak, the restaurant with three Michelin stars that has become one of the leading exponents of the fusion between the avant-garde and traditional Basque cuisine. Opened in 1897, it was in this San Sebastian establishment where more than 40 years ago Jose Mari Arzak, along with other iconic chefs such as Pedro Subijana – who now manages the kitchens of the Michelin-starred restaurant Akelarre – proposed to revive and review the lost dishes of the Basque culinary repertoire. This was the birth of the ‘New Basque Cuisine’, which is considered the first avant-garde gastronomy in Spain. Now his daughter, Elena Arzak, recognised as one of the best female chefs in the world, stands at the helm of the restaurant and Arzak’s laboratory, from where she seeks to enhance her creativity and discover new flavours and ingredients that represent the land – not to mention the sea…
For centuries, the Cantabrian Sea has been the great pantry of Basque cuisine and that of the other territories that border this sea full of authentic culinary treasures like hake, white tuna, sea bass, and seafood such as velvet crab, goose barnacles and spider crab. Among these relics is the Cantabrian anchovy, which Jesús Sánchez, chef of Cenador de Amós, calls ‘the crown jewel’. Moreover, it forms the backbone of many of his creations. According to the chef, who is Navarran by birth and Cantabrian by adoption, the relationship with the resources offered by the surroundings is essential in order to achieve excellence. ‘We want the client to be able to recognise the landscape, the tradition, and the local people in each dish’, explains the owner of the only Cantabrian establishment with a Michelin star. That is not all: from the restaurant they have proposed to have a positive influence on the area and involve local growers, farmers, fishermen, and artisans.
One of the common threads in Spanish cuisine is its versatility. The diversity and variety of its regions, each one with its own singular culture, is what makes the country a gastronomic destination unlike any other in the world. Or, as chef Luis Adoni Aduriz suggests, ‘it is what makes it deliciously irresistible’. It is true that few places in the world have so many cuisines with their own roots which, like those of the oak of Mugaritz, stand the test of time, even as they are continuously being reshaped by the creativity of the new chefs.
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