Basque country in northern Spain is renowned the world over for its rich and innovative gastronomic culture. Nestled between the sea (the Gulf of Biscay) and the mountains (Igueldo and Urgull), and home to the city with the most Michelin stars per square meter in the world (San Sebastián, where I live), food is the focus of life in this beautiful region.
Basque cuisine is naturally seafood-heavy, using ingredients like txipirones (baby squid), txangurro (spider crab), kokotxas (hake cheeks), bacalao (salt cod), elvers (young eel), and percebes (gooseneck barnacles); while fresh vegetables and legumes play a large part, too, along with fresh-cured meats like chistorra (spicy sausage), grilled and roast beef, and jambon de bayonne (cured ham). The refined nature of much Basque cuisine is tied directly to our excellent raw ingredients.
What makes San Sebastián, mecca of culinary avant-garde, so special is that even while pushing the boundaries of our cuisine forward, we still take the past into account. Our maxim is that there is no modernity without good tradition, a concept that informs many of the best restaurants here.
I recently visited the kitchen at La Madame, a restaurant in the center of San Sebastián, to see chef Kevin Patricio at work. The restaurant isn't strictly Basque, per se, but its driving theme — mixing traditions from all over the world to create an original and striking cuisine — is squarely in line with the local way of thinking.
Patricio and his wife moved from New York, where they both worked in fine dining, to San Sebastián to open the restaurant. "What inspires me are ingredients and seeing people enjoy them," he told me. "San Sebastián is one of the world's greatest food towns, with deeply-held traditions." Although the menu is a kind of personal expression, Patricio says "Basque cuisine has definitely influenced the menu—we try to use local items as the principal ingredients."
About the Author: Aiala Hernando is a San Sebastián-based food stylist and photographer whose clients include Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, and Vogue. See more of her work here.