What is special about the Basque Country?

You make pintxos badly.

You’ve probably heard of the Basque style of tapas served in the far north of Spain. You know those little bites, those yummy snacks you devour in a moving feast, as you stroll from bar to bar, washing down each pintxo with cheap drinks.

Except that’s not the way you’re supposed to. Or at least that’s not how the locals do it in places like San Sebastian and Bilbao. Basque pintxos are not meant to be eaten during nighttime crawls, but in small amounts before sitting down for a main meal.

“Pintxos for the locals are something you have with a drink before you go to eat,” says Bella Bowring, co-owner of Gerald’s Bar San Sebastian, speaking on this week’s Basque-themed episode of Flight of Fancy, the Traveler Podcast. “It’s now become a different thing with people walking around pintxo bars and having one thing in every bar, and that’s how they dine.

“For the locals, it’s a way to have a snack and a drink with your friends before you sit down for a real meal. But the good thing about pintxos is that it’s an open concept. It’s also a good way to eat, this new style, it’s quite a sociable and pleasant way to have a meal.”

And what a meal. The Basque Country in northern Spain might just be the best destination in the world for people who love to eat. The level of cuisine here is incredibly high, from the cheapest pintxo bars to the most expensive gourmet restaurants, from anonymous neighborhood restaurants to famous ones like Asador Etxebarri and Elkano.

Sydney-based chef Lennox Hastie, who runs wood-fired restaurant Firedoor and soon-to-open pintxo bar Gilda’s, spent his formative years in the Basque Country and says the secret to local cuisine success is easy .

“It’s the focus on a small palette of really high quality ingredients,” Hastie told Flight of Fancy. “And that ability to eat extremely well on every level. You rarely see that in any city, where what you eat in a Michelin-starred restaurant has the same passion and motivation as the food in bars.”

It’s fair to say that almost every restaurant in the world that suddenly cooks with fire has been influenced by Etxebarri, the Basque grill, or “asador”, which is currently ranked #6 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. . Hastie’s years working in the Etxebarri kitchen alongside chef and owner Bitor Arguinzoniz changed her life and her idea of ​​food forever.

“It was such a creative time and such a defining experience for me as a chef,” Hastie says. “The restaurant was in this period of transition between the traditional à la carte style and the stripping [tasting] menu. And we decided to find a way to grill everything. The grill has gone from this small kitchen to…we literally knocked down walls to bring the vision to life, to cook without gas or electricity.

“It’s a very fine line when it comes to cooking with fire, but the result when you do it right is incredible. Any fish, shellfish, meat, it just brings it to life.”

This region, clearly, is a special place, with special food. In fact, there’s only one place in the Basque Country where the food might not be quite up to par, and it’s not what you expect. This is one of the main tourist attractions in the region: the old town of San Sebastian.

“Locals tend not to go there anymore,” says Bowring. “There have been a lot of new places that cater specifically to tourists and don’t pay as much attention to the finer details of where their products come from, as some of the more traditional places do. Which, I guess, is just a natural progression. These traditional places won’t last forever. But it’s still a nice and fun way to have a meal.

To find out where you should eat in the Basque Country – as well as what else to see and do in this incredible destination – tune in to this week’s episode of Flight of Fancy.

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