The Basque Country, Spain: ‘I had not thought Spain could look like this’

"Всякая человеческая голова подобна желудку: одна переваривает входящую в оную пищу, а другая от нее засоряется." Козьма Прутков ©
Время на прочтение: 11 минут(ы)

The Basques are Europe’s inscrutables. Centuries of scientists and scholars have been unable to unravel them. Some say they are Berbers, others that they descend from a small tribe in the Caucasus, but in truth no one has any idea. Their language bears no relation to any other in the world. The 19th-century abbot and scholar Pierre Diharce de Bidassouet declared it ‘the original language spoken by the Creator’. Instead of football pitches, villages have frontons, where they play pelota and the violently quick jai alai with a hook-shaped basket worn on the hand that can hurl a ball faster than 180 miles per hour. The Catholicism in areas surrounding the Basque region is replete with blinding gold-leaf altar pieces and rose-strewn virgins while here, according to literary critic VS Pritchett, it is so unadorned as to be almost Protestant. The Basques have no direct word for God, nor did they create kings, the early tribes having had juantxos, or landowners, instead. It is likely that they have been in their wooded corner of the Pyrenees since the Cro-Magnons displaced the Neanderthals, never finally subjugated by Romans, Moors, Charlemagne, Franco or anyone else. If occupied, they have never been assimilated.

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Above: A river in the Basque Country

    I lived for 10 years in Valencia, sweltering, dusty, baroque, noisily hedonistic Valencia, with its fireworks and fiestas. A drive north in the springtime of 2000 took me up to San Sebastián and the Basque villages around it. All was verdant, simple, and with fresh Atlantic breezes, musical streams and rivers rich in trout. The villages were immaculate and flowers spilled from the balconies of their pitch-roofed, timber-fronted houses. I had not thought Spain could look like this. Or that it could prize so highly three principal virtues – loyalty, rectitude and dignity. ‘There’s no disgrace worse for Basques than breaking their word,’ a trader in the market in Ordizia told me. ‘If you keep your word in Valencia you’re considered a fool,’ I said. ‘At least if you’re a politician.’ The Basque Country, or Euskadi, as it is known locally, felt like a draught of cool spring water.

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Above: The bay at San Sebastián

    You cannot help but notice the food. There are more Michelin stars per square metre here than almost anywhere else in the world. Travellers make pilgrimages to the old quarter in San Sebastián for pintxos as they do to Florence for art. Even a boiled egg tastes better in this town. There’s a pervasive deep knowledge of food. I remember a beaming waiter with a beaked nose over his thin upper lip and an apron tied around his girth behind the bar at Gandarias, pouring out a glass of txakoli from a green bottle and waving a hand over the plates of smoked cod and lamb brochettes stacked before him. He looked like he’d farmed, fished and marinated it all himself.

    I finally got back a decade and a half later, just as the summer was ending, when the hay was being stacked and the orchards and vineyards were preparing for harvest.

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Above: Boats in the town

    I began the trip in Ondarroa, a fishing port between San Sebastián and Bilbao that dates back to the 11th century when whales were its gold. Now fishermen trawl the Atlantic for lesser riches such as mackerel, tuna and anchovies, while others venture to Ireland and Scandinavia for hake, sole, monkfish and cod. This is a place characterised by sirens announcing the arrival of boats, long-absent fathers and caprices of fortune that can bring low periods of penury and emigration, such outbreaks of festivities as once brought a cava executive from Codorníu who wondered how a small town could account for such large sales of his wine. The sirens alert the women to what they will have to buy and sell – one blast for tuna, two for mackerel, three for small anchovies, four for a catastrophe on the boat and several more if the village rowing team is victorious. There is a cofradía, or brotherhood, of fishermen based in the port here, which sets fish prices and looks after the welfare of those who labour at sea. On the top floor of the cofradía in the neighbouring village of Mutriku is a txoko, or gastronomical society. Txokos came into being when itinerant men – carpenters, cider producers, musicians, shepherds – formed clubs to cook for one another, and evolved as English guilds have into social organisations. They sit in an interzone between home and the outside world. Here, the txoko is a large room with wooden tables, a view of the harbour and a blackboard where members can reserve the times when they will cook for their friends and colleagues. I met Santi Urrutia, chef and son of a deep-sea fisherman, who made a salad of his own homegrown Tres Cantos tomatoes and freshly caught tuna followed by arroz con txipirones en su tinta (rice with squid in its own ink, the ink in this case as thick as the custard in a crème brûlée), then sat down to eat it with me.

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Above: A Rioja bodega

    ‘I remember the ravaged face of my father when he came home, his beard, his exhausted eyes,’ Urrutia said. ‘He was so happy to see us. They could put in 23-hour days at sea. A neurologist once told him that those few seconds when he’d nod off sewing nets is what kept him alive. They’d get wounded, develop back pain, miss their children growing up and then, when they’d come in with a good catch, it could all be for nothing if the bottom had fallen out of the market. So they’d head to the txoko to share experiences with other men who suffered the same problems. Food embraces everything – friendship, health, family, love of land, the simple virtues of appreciation and gratitude. The pleasure from the taste is just something extra. But if I could write a book it would be about what it takes to bring the food to us, the sacrifices that were made.’

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Above: Santa Catalina bridge in San Sebastián

    The story tells itself as you speak to those who are behind the food. It’s in the winemaker’s anxiety about late storms, the isolation of shepherds during seasons in the mountains, pestilential insects, injuries, floods, the sense that most people take food for granted and are aggrieved to pay a fair price for it.

    I meant to go back on the coast road towards San Sebastián but took a wrong turn through remote, mountainous terrain. It’s good to get a little lost in the Basque hinterlands of pine and oak and river, homesteads set on vertiginous slopes miles from other human beings. You sense the grandeur and beauty and also the radical self-reliance of people capable of living in such isolation. San Sebastián, by contrast, was teeming, with Scandinavians, French, English, huge numbers of Americans. After decades of staying away out of fear of violence from the Basque separatist group ETA, travellers were now straining hotel capacity.

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Above: Peppers at Mimo cookery school, San Sebastián

    I crossed the border the next morning into the French Basque Country to see how the Espelette pepper is grown. The villages here seem a little lighter, the houses white with green and red shutters. Thousands of slender, crimson peppers hang on the façades to dry. Just outside the town is Ramuntxo Pochelu’s l’Atelier du Piment, a pepper farm and production and exhibition centre.


    ‘I can’t say how I got into it,’ Pochelu told me. ‘I went away to study the fishing industry, but I am from here and I wanted to be part of it. The pepper comes from the Mexican jalapeño, but there is nowhere in the world other than Espelette that produces this strain.’

    We walked among the tall plants, each grown from seed, replanted, replanted again, 150,000 of them by hand. Then each pepper is picked, cleaned, dried, opened and put into an oven at 50ºC for three days before becoming the powder sought by Basque chefs for sauces and mayonnaises, the whole process as controlled as wine-making with appellation d’origine contrôlée status. He demonstrated the famous after-burn in a chocolate he produces with a cocoa farmer in Peru. First comes the sweet taste and then, as if from a furnace, a sensation of heat rising in a column up the throat and into the skull.

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Above: The native forests

    The colour of the Basque Country is as green as Ireland, it’s as wooded in parts as Finland and has slopes like the Haute-Savoie, so it was a shock to drop down from the Cantabrian mountains into its southernmost precinct, Rioja Alavesa, a sun-blasted land of long vistas and scarce trees. Here the grapes are tended as if they were children. There is a legend that the first vines were brought by a nephew of Noah, who planted them by the banks of the River Oja, but the wine was mainly for home consumption until aphids devastated the vines in Bordeaux in the mid-19th century and Rioja stepped into the breach. A pioneer was the Marqués de Riscal, a diplomat, journalist and free-thinker living in France who brought Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and a winemaker back to his home of Elciego. Now a startlingly beautiful Frank Gehry-designed hotel rises from these vineyards, its curved titanium sheets of pink, gold and silver evoking both the colours of a wine bottle and the swirls of a flamenco dancer’s dress, and the vines produce five million bottles of Marqués de Riscal wine per year.

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Above: Pintxos in San Sebastián

    East along the line of the Ebro River just over the border in La Rioja, among a collection of 19th-century brick buildings called the Barrio de la Estación in Haro, is a very different kind of enterprise. Big names such as Cune and Muga are here, but so are smaller traditional bodegas, including Gómez Cruzado, which aims to produce wines reflecting the specific conditions of its vineyards: different slopes, different soils, different flavours on the winds. Winemaker Juan Antonio Leza poured out five reds. I whirled the garnet liquids in the glasses and tasted. The first was a classic Rioja Reserva, oaky, elegant, silky. The others varied according to their terroir – big and spicy, fruity, fresh. He gave me a choice of a bottle to take home and I picked one called Honorable. He then drove me out to the vineyards at sunset. ‘The plants in corridors with Atlantic breezes give you a taste in which you can detect the sea,’ he said.

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Above: The Basque countryside

    I went back north to Goierri, the Basque Highlands, known as the heart of Euskadi, a place of cider and sheep and surprising industrial wealth. I passed the night in medieval Segura, its beautiful, dignified stone houses bearing sunflowers on the doors to ward off witches. Then I went to visit Eneko Gioburu Murua at Ondarre, a farm, an Idiazabal cheese-making enterprise and guesthouse in a 500-year-old building that goes back through generations of his family. He limped on a clingfilm-wrapped ankle he’d twisted the day before and his eyes danced as he took me around and showed me old staffs and shears and photographs of the shepherd’s life pursued by his father and grandfather. His eyes danced because, having gone off and worked for years in an office as an occupational therapist, he was now doing exactly what he wanted to, close to family and immersed in a tradition.

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Above: Cheese at Ordizia market

    We met again in Ordizia. It was the Wednesday market. Cauliflower and fresh garlic in winter, broad beans in spring, chilli and aubergine in summer, mushrooms and nuts in autumn. This was a special Wednesday, the market spilling through the town, cattle being judged and the annual Idiazabal cheese competition taking place. Eneko was in a special booth for previous winners with his parents. Just beyond was the fronton, where the judging was taking place. The 14 shortlisted cylindrical cheeses were set out on a table like sculptures at a Paris auction, bereted men in black smocks from the Brotherhood of Cheese affixed labels, and food writers, specialists and globally renowned chefs sniffed and bent and tasted and made notes. Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana were among the chefs who had come from San Sebastián, each of them with three Michelin stars. Martín Berasategui, who – with multiple restaurants – has a total of 10, mopped his brow. All were humble before the cheese.

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Above: Boquerones and olives at a pintxos bar in the city

    Just before I left, a file of men and women carrying signs appealing for the repatriation to Euskadi of political prisoners took up a silent protest. ‘Do the judges mind?’ I asked a man beside me. ‘Many of them probably have family members in jail themselves,’ he replied.

    How have the Basques remained so emphatically themselves in the face of the homogenising forces of the ages? Why are the young content to stay in villages while countrysides all over the world have been emptying into cities? I heard clues along the way. ‘The family transcends everything.’ ‘We’re very private, but also very loyal.’ ‘We’re inordinately competitive.’ It’s true they compete at what they do every day – chopping trees, throwing stones, rowing, even singing (an example being the extraordinary bertsolaritza, a sung version of a poetry slam). I had a few passes with a professional player of jai alai named Urkiri in Ondarroa and saw the commitment in the force of his throws. ‘We had no kings, so our business model is not the corporation but the cooperative,’ one of the cheese-makers told me. ‘We’re natural egalitarians.’ ‘Dry and not too sweet, like ourselves,’ said a Basque woman, biting into a cake in Mutriku. Perhaps it is from such simple ingredients as these that their tenacity is made.

    Scroll down for more photos of the Basque Country…

    Like this? Now read:

    Elena Arzak on the best restaurants in San Sebastián

    Elena Arzak on the best restaurants in San Sebastián

2019’s new Michelin-star restaurants

2020’s new Michelin-star restaurants revealed

The ultimate day-long road trip along the French Riviera

The ultimate day-long road trip along the French Riviera

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    A river in the Basque Country

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    A dish of chicken with its skin and parsnip puree at Amelia

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    The native forests

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Typically ornate buildings in San Sebastián

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Framed utensils and crockery at Mimo

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Cheesecake and coffee at La Viña in San Sebastián

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    The Kursaal auditorium in San Sebastián, designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    A couple beside the beach

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Kañabikaña beer shop

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    The menu at Kañabikaña

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    Street life and boats in the town

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    A surfer on the beach

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    A dish of sardine and spring onions at Amelia, San Sebastián

  • The Basque Country, Spain: I had not thought Spain could look like this

    A surfer on the beach