I recently travelled to the Basque Country (a region straddling Northern Spain and Southern France). The region is fascinating both culturally and gastronomically. Although it has the highest concentration of Michelin star restaurants per capita in the world, you needn't break the bank there to eat incredible food and soak up the culture. In fact you can do so at a fraction of the price of a meal out in Ireland.
While in the Basque Country I cooked, ate and learned about some of the finest food the region has to offer. For anyone thinking of taking a trip to the region, here were the gastronomical highlights for me:
MIMO Cookery School
I took the 'Basque Cooking Class: France, Navarra & La Rioja'. I highly recommend these courses. I've taken a few one-day cookery courses and they're always great fun and a great way to really understand good food but this was the best so far. The instruction space is stunning, well equipped and a pleasure to be in but the real magic lay in the content and how it was presented. The course was taught by head-chef, Patricio Fuentes and his assistant Chiara Bottacin. I can't praise them highly enough.
Their approach and knowledge made it a truly unforgettable experience. Along with picking up a couple of great techniques and recipes, the course reinforced my appreciation of the importance of fresh, high-quality ingredients prepared simply. I would suggest taking a course like this as early as possible in a trip as our teacher, Patricio, was a mine of information about the best restaurants in the region, at every price range.
A lot of people worry a cookery class is going to be like sitting in school and toiling through making dinner all rolled into one unpleasant experience, but I've never met someone who didn't enjoy the experience having taken the leap. For me, being involved in the preparation of a meal and then sitting down to taste what you have just prepared under expert tutelage makes for the most delicious meal possible.
The climate in the Basque Country isn't particularly different to our own. As a result, the raw gastronomic building blocks they have to work with are also quite similar. Fresh fish from the Atlantic like hake and cod, lamb and beef, cow's and sheep's milk, and potatoes and other fresh vegetables are all staples.
The depth and breadth of their applications of these ingredients, however, leave our own culinary heritage looking somewhat insignificant. This rich food heritage is something they are very proud of but also very eager to share with the world. To that end, a number of gastronomic museums have been established in the region to help them share their gift with the world. I visited one such museum in Ordizia and was not disappointed.
On arrival, the place was abuzz with cheesemakers from all over Spain having come together for their annual conference. Three floors of fascinating information and multilingual, multimedia exhibits later I came away with a greater appreciation of the world famous Idiazabal cheese and Ordizias centuries old market, still running every Wednesday in the town square. If you're heading to the region, this is a great way to get an insight into their culinary history.
We've all heard of tapas, small dishes of food made to be shared, but I knew very little of pintxos ('peensho') before visiting the Basque Country. Walk down any street in any town in the region, however, and you'll soon find out what they are. Similar to tapas, these are small morsels of food, served at the bar. The difference is that they're kept on the bar, or at least most of them are. The pintxo culture is amazing.
I doubt it could be replicated in places like Ireland as it would contravene all kinds of health and food safety laws but in the Basque Country it works and it's a beautiful thing to see. You walk up to a bar, ask for which ever tasty morsel takes your fancy (or if you're like me, you do a lot of pointing and muddle through with broken Spanish) and it's put on a plate and handed to you, ideally with a caña of cerveza or a glass of vino. You can eat a whole dinner's worth in the same bar or wander from bar to bar tasting, comparing (imbibing) and absorbing this amazing phenomenon.
At first, I'll be honest, I was a little intimidated by the whole thing, but you quickly learn that the juice is worth the squeeze when you try these delicious little bites. Tortilla, Morcilla (Black Pudding), Jamón Iberico, Foie, Queso Idiazabal; all of these delicious local foods served on slices of freshly baked bread. Delicious!
With all of this rich culinary landscape to traverse, the Basque Country is a must for anyone with an interest in food. ¡Que aproveche!
P.S. Try and eat some fresh fruit and vegetables during the day, as the meat, cheese and generally deep-fried everything can get a little heavy after a couple of days.