The Food of El Pais Vasco

A Look at the Cuisine of Three Basque Country Provinces

Gambas al Ajillo: Spanish Garlic Shrimp Tapas

 The Spruce

The Basque Country—or el Pais Vasco in Spanish—is one of Spain’s 17 Comunidades Autónomas, or “autonomous communities.” It is located in northern Spain, bordering on France and the Cantabric Sea. To the south lies the region of La Rioja, to the west Cantabria and Castilla y Leon, and to the east Navarra. This mostly mountainous region includes the Basque Mountains, Cantabrian Mountains, and the Pyrenees Mountains.

The Basque people, the oldest surviving ethnic group in Europe, are an ancient culture, pre-dating the Roman Empire and yet historians still have many questions about their origins, as well as their language Euskera.

cuisines of three basque provinces
Illustration: Bailey Mariner. © The Spruce, 2019

History of the Cuisine

Contrary to the current international reputation that the Basque cuisine enjoys today, visitors to the Basque Country in the Middle Ages painted a different picture. The people were poor. Meat and wheat were scarce, so they ate millet, lentils, beans, and fruit. Although the Basques had always fished along the coast, it wasn't until the arrival of the Norse in the XI century, and Christianity's dietary rules, that more fish started to be consumed, and the fishing industry grew.

With the discovery of America, many Basques traveled to the new world, escaping a life of scarcities and taking their cuisine with them. With the transcontinental food exchange that took place, corn, peppers, beans, tomatoes, and potatoes were integrated into the Basque cuisine. In the XIX Century, the Industrial Revolution helped raise the standard of living in the Basque Country. The newly affluent Basque bourgeoisie hired French chefs, and in doing so brought more French touches into their cuisine.

During the Franco regime, Basque cuisine became what some have called "stale." However, after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, a new culinary movement was born—the Nueva Cocina Vasca (New Basque Cuisine). Using traditional ingredients, chefs created new and innovative dishes. Over the next 25 years, pioneering Spanish chefs began creating a new Spanish cuisine, experimenting with new techniques, and the term "molecular gastronomy" was born. Today the Basque Country and its' chefs continue to enjoy international acclaim for their cooking.

Txokos, Gastronomic Societies

Txokos are a kind of male gastronomic society in the Basque Country. According to Harald Kocker in the book Culinaria Spain, the first txoko was founded in 1843 in San Sebastian. Members of these clubs meet regularly to prepare meals together, eat, drink, relax and socialize. They usually have their own place with a kitchen, bar and dining room. Although these societies were exclusively for men, and women were only invited during certain celebrations, women have gradually been accepted into many, but not all societies.

Cuisines of the Three Basque Provinces

The three provinces of the Basque Country—Álava, Guipúzcoa, and Vizcaya have different cuisines. This is partly due to the geography of the Basque Country, where there are distinct differences between the coastal and mountain cuisines.

Álava is the southern-most province of Basque Country and has a cold climate. Mountain ranges, large valleys, and rivers run through Álava, but it does not have a coastline. Because it is "land-locked", the people eat more beef, veal, and game, such as partridge and quail. They also enjoy perretxikos (a type of mushroom), snails and various cheeses. Potatoes, beans, and mushrooms from the area are also well known for their quality.

Some specialties of Álava are stuffed artichokes, patatas viudas potatoes dipped in flour and fried, then served in sauce; Llodio black pudding, lightly seasoned blood sausages made with vegetables and a small amount of rice, Goxua, a liqueur-soaked cake with pastry cream and caramel sauce.

Álava is also a wine-producing region. the Rioja Alavesa is a sub-area of the famous Rioja wine region and accounts for about 21% of the area of the Rioja Qualified DO.

Vizcaya ("Bizcaia" in Basque) has a milder climate and over 80 km of coastline on the Cantabric Sea. It is called the "Capital of Bacalao" or salt cod, which is a traditional staple and Vizcayans have hundreds of recipes for bacalao. Plenty of fresh fish and seafood from the Cantabric Sea, such as baby squid, sardines, anchovies, hake (merluza), sea bream (besugo) and clams is enjoyed, as well as meats like veal and pork. Some of the outstanding dishes from Vizcaya are:

Guipúzcoa is the northern-most province of the Basque Country, with almost 90 km of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, bordering on France. It is very small and is a province of contrasts — mountains and coastline, large cities and villages, industry and agriculture. The climate is mild, with warm summers, and rainy winters. The cuisine of Guipúzcoa has become internationally recognized, and so too have its' chefs, like innovators Juan Mari Arzak, Martín Berasategui, and Pedro Subijana all from San Sebastián.

San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque) is the capital city and is known for its large number of high-quality tapas bars. In addition to having over 100 tapas bars in the city center, San Sebastián has more eating establishments with Michelin stars per square kilometer than any other city, except Paris.

Some of the specialties of Guipúzcoa are baby eels, broad beans with baby peas and spring onions, Txangurro a la Donostiarra—stuffed spider crab and Atun eguna—salmon from the Bidasoa River.