• Basque cuisine has many specialties – such as marmitako, a tuna stew. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The Basque region of northern Spain boasts its own language and culture. It also has a rich cuisine worth savouring.
Renata Gortan

3 Jul 2020 - 10:19 AM  UPDATED 6 Jul 2020 - 8:47 AM

San Sebastian in northern Spain is renowned for its Michelin-starred restaurants and pintxos bars, but there's more to Basque cuisine than the seaside town's delicious snacks.

If you move away from the coastline, you'll discover this northern region of Spain is its own beast.

Basque country, which straddles the border between France and Spain and is wedged between the Pyrenees mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, is technically part of Spain yet is considered its own entity. Its remoteness means its people have developed their own culture, language, history – and their own cuisine.

When Frank Dilernia, 52, opened Balcón by Tapavino in Sydney he wanted to differentiate it from his other Spanish-focused Tapavino restaurants by showcasing food from the north. His family is from Galicia in northern Spain, so he chose to reflect that in his menu – but he also incorporated Basque cuisine because he thinks it isn't very well represented outside of Spain.  

"It's an ingredient-driven cuisine and they don't do much to it," he says. "Cooking techniques revolve around fire, preserving food and stews."

The cuisine is dependent on the region. Along the coast near San Sebastian, it's all about seafood – while the land-locked Pyrenees region is known for meat and stews. What both areas have in common: locals cook their chosen protein over fire.

"It's all about slow cooking, controlling the heat and using different woods to get different flavours into their food. It's very technical, each type of wood gives off a different aroma so there's a wood to match every kind of produce," he says.

"It's an ingredient-driven cuisine and they don't do much to it."

Closer to home, you can see this in action at Sydney restaurant Firedoor where chef Lennox Hastie, 41, cooks everything over fire.

The English-born chef fell in love with Basque country – "I'm definitely a Basque-et case if you will"- while working in the area.

"The Michelin guide came out and apart from Japan, San Sebastian had the largest concentration per square metre of starred restaurants, so I joined a friend working in Mugaritz to find out what it was all about," he says.

The plan was to go for a year and he ended up staying for five.

He's best known for his time at Etxebarri in the Basque mountains, where he applied his Michelin-starred training to the traditional technique of cooking over a woodfire, but what he took away from the experience was the Basque celebration of produce.

"The north of Spain has a lot more depth because of its very strong traditions," he says.

"There are cider houses where they’ll open their doors to celebrate that particular season of drinking the local cider and eating traditional dishes. Along the coast, fishing boats come in with some of the best seafood in the world: the coastline of very cold water and rough seas means fish are fattier and richer. They grill everything from whole turbot to a really amazing variety of shellfish."

"It's all about slow cooking, controlling the heat and using different woods to get different flavours into their food. It's very technical, each type of wood gives off a different aroma so there's a wood to match every kind of produce."

"There are huertas – houses with gardens – which grow Basque staples such as tomatoes, peppers, beans and onions so sweet you can eat them like an apple," he adds. "On the meat side of it, the retired dairy cows are all pasture-raised. All the cheese, milk and cream is really great."

The isolation of the Basque region means that preserved foods are as important as fresh produce.

"If you look at the history of Spain and the Basque region, [the population] was really poor. A lot of the time they couldn’t get their hands on stuff so, going back centuries, they had to preserve food," Dilernia says. "Whether salting, curing or canning, they had to make sure the food lasted during leaner times. It's why they're one of the biggest consumers of salt cod (bacalao)." The region is known for its cod-based dishes as well as pil-pil sauce, which is an emulsion of cod broth, garlic and olive oil.

While the majority of diners at Balcón by Tapavino expect big, bold Spanish flavours, Dilernia enjoys teaching them about the simplicity of Basque cuisine.

"It's about using three of four very good ingredients and not doing too much to them," he says.
"It's earthy, rustic and minimally spiced. They use paprika, but not as much spice as you would see in the south of Spain. Why overcomplicate a dish when you can get fresh sardines from the ocean, quickly throw them over the fire, control the heat and serve them?

"Sauces are used sparingly and they're more of a puree rather than wet or runny. The classic Basque sauce is pil-pil, piperrada is a combination of onions, capsicums and tomatoes and ajo blanco (white garlic) has a lot of nuts mixed with bread, pepper, garlic and olive oil," he says. The cuisine is also known for its stews, which range from beef to seafood. The most famous is the marmitako tuna stew, cooked "with tomatoes, piquillo peppers and potatoes".

Even with restrictions, Firedoor has reopened its doors and people can still get a chance to try Balcón by Tapavino's Basque-inspired menu.

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