The Basque region straddles two countries—France and Spain—and its inhabitants have had a long and turbulent history, often caught between warring factions. As a result, the shepherds, fishermen and farmers in the area’s Pyrenees Mountains, seacoast and fields have developed a language all their own and a fierce spirit of independence—some of which infuses their culinary traditions.
Local, fresh and simple describes the indigenous ingredients and the way they are prepared by Basque cooks. Lamb, sheep’s milk cheeses, bacalao (salted, dried codfish), angulas (baby eels), anchovies, hake, squid, ham, wild mushrooms and chili peppers are prevalent. Piperade, a thick saucy blend of tomatoes and sweet green peppers, shows up as either a side or in combination with onions, garlic, ham and eggs for a light entree.
As tapas are to the rest of Spain, pinxtos (pronounced “pinchos”) are to the Basques. Typical are marinated anchovies, escabeche of tuna, paper-thin slices of cured ham and roasted peppers stuffed with pureed cod. Local wines, such as the citrusy, fizzy Basque txakoli or a red Rioja, wash them down.
While a straightforward, robust cooking style dominates the Basque region, it is also a hotbed of innovation. Juan Mari Arzak, known as the father of modern Basque cooking (“la nueva cocina Vasca”) was mentor to Ferrán Adriá, Spain’s king of molecular gastronomy. At his Restaurante Arzak in San Sebastian, Basque ingredients are recast using foams, vapors and other hi-tech magic.
While Americans are not too familiar with Basque restaurant food, there is a long tradition of Basque home cooking—especially in western states like California, Idaho and Nevada. Many Basques immigrated here in 1849 in search of gold. When that proved elusive, they turned to what they knew best—sheep ranching. Both in the old country and the new, lamb is integral to the cuisine—a focus still apparent in Basque-American restaurants.
Restaurante Orozko, inside John Ascuaga’s Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks, Nevada, was named after the Basque village where Mr. Ascuaga’s mother was born. The original menu has since become more Mediterranean to widen its appeal to casino customers, but several Basque classics remain. These include Basque Creamy Garlic Soup and Basque Garlic Chicken—the latter an Ascuaga family recipe with red and green peppers, tomatoes, ham, garlic and white wine.
Other menu items carry a Basque theme through their sauces, marinades and techniques, explains Dave Brody, executive VP of food and beverage. He cites Iron Skillet Seared Sea Bass (“iron skillets are used all over Basque country”) and the herbs, seasonings and Spanish wine featured in Braised Colorado Lamb Shank. Tapas such as Charred Marinated Baby Octopus also reflect the Basque influence. Although wines from the mountainous Basque region “are a little rough,” Brody claims, an extensive list of Spanish wines from other regions complements the food.
The restaurant’s broadliner, Sysco, is able to supply most Spanish ingredients, but Brody and Orozko’s executive chef, Jimmy Chan, fill in with purchases from a smaller San Francisco distributor and selected specialized wholesalers. “For the baby octopus, we sought out a supplier, gave them our specs and tried the product. They then became a steady supplier,” says Chan.
At San Francisco’s Iluna Basque, chef-owner Mattin Noblia, who was born in the French Basque region, strives for authenticity in both sourcing and preparation. His menu is a mix of French and Spanish Basque influences, using imported ingredients such as olive oil, cheeses, pickled chili peppers and other condiments. Signatures include Piperade with Sauteed Serrano Ham and Poached Egg, Stuffed Calamari in Ink Sauce and Seared Tuna with Bleu de Basque Sauce. “I also incorporate lots of fresh California foods into my cooking, buying produce, seafood and other items from local purveyors,” Noblia says. He notes that it’s not a problem to adapt similar Pacific shellfish and fish to Basque dishes.
On its wine list, Iluna Basque features many French and Spanish selections, including a couple from the Basque region. Irelejuy, available in both red and white, and txakoli, the bubbly native white, are the most accessible. Plus, Noblia has created a cocktail list that incorporates typical Basque flavors. One is a drink made with membrillo (Spanish quince paste) and another uses the mild guindilla Vasca chili.
Last August, Charlie Socher, chef-owner of Café Matou in Chicago, introduced “Le Pays Basque” for one of his “Sip and Savor Summer Sundays.” “The ingredients from this region are a good fit for summer…with peppers, tomatoes and other produce widely available,” he says. “Plus, of all the French cuisine, Basque is the least familiar.”
Socher checked with his supplier to make sure he could get ingredients like espelette peppers and Basque chorizo. Café Matou relies on a general wholesaler for French and Italian products and Solex, a Spanish importer. But “respecting the spirit of the cuisine” is Socher’s goal, and he subs similar American items when necessary.
The resulting Le Pays Basque menu included a creamy garlic soup with manchego cheese and parsley; Marmitako, seared tuna in an espelette broth with lemon basil; Torto, a squid dish; and a mixed grill of Basque chorizo, spare ribs and braised white beans. Since Basque wines are limited and expensive, he paired the food with Spanish wines in the same assertive style.
“Ten years ago, most Americans didn’t even know there was a Basque region in France,” Socher says. “Now that there’s more money there, the cuisine is gaining greater exposure.”
Piperade, San Francisco
Appetizers, $8-$16; entrees, $18-$30
Warm Sheep’s Milk Cheese and Ham Terrine with aged sherry
Lamb Basquaise Chop: Shoulder and loin with gigante beans and “zikiro” vinaigrette
Euzkadi, New York City
El Niño Rebelde: Chorizo with chile-laced chocolate; $7.95
Setas Con Jammon: Mushrooms with serrano ham and aïoli; $7.95
Leku Ona, Boise, Idaho
Makailao Pil-Pilean: Filet of salted cod simmered with olive oil, garlic and spices, topped with pil-pil (garlic, olive oil and fish stock); $16.95
Legatza Saltsa Berdean: Pacific Hake simmered slowly in white wine and garlic sauce, garnished with white asparagus; $17.25