Written by Ricardo Colina / Photo by Spainonafork.com
Our foreign correspondent Ricardo Colina takes us on a culinary and political journey through the regions of Spain. Part one of our series takes us up to the Basque Country, where we go on a stroll around town, taking in the landscapes, pintxos, and politics.
MARMITAKO BASQUE FISH STEW
Serves 4 people
750 g of diced bonito
2 fish heads (monkfish and bonito) or fish broth
1 spring onion
1 green pepper
1 choricero pepper
2 sundried tomatoes
3 garlic cloves
extra virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf
salt and black pepper
The Basque Country is a region in northern Spain, perhaps known internationally for their annual running of the bulls. However, if you’re not a young, drunk English-speaking tourist or going through a midlife crisis, you’ll discover that there’s much more to the region than that.
Basque culture is rich and unique, partly thanks to its language, which is unrelated to any other in the whole of Europe – kept alive by its deep-rooted traditions proudly passed down from generation to generation. One of its main pillars is undoubtedly its gastronomy. Basque cuisine is the true epitome of surf and turf, combining the seafood recipes from the northern shores of the Cantabrian Sea, and fresh meat and vegetables from the foothills of the Basque Mountains in the south.
The two main cities in the Basque Country are Bilbao, a flourishing and thriving industrial city located on the estuary of three rivers; and San Sebastián, also known as Donostia in Basque, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, and home to the famous San Sebastián International Film Festival. The two main attractions in Bilbao and Donostia are the Guggenheim Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, and La Concha Beach, respectively. Despite the rivalry that comes from being two big cities just 100 kilometres apart, the one thing they have in common is that their gastronomic scenes are both booming. Be sure that when you walk down these roads to notice the Ikurriña flag hanging from the balconies in many Basque cities and towns. A few years back, Eurovision, the singing contest best resembling a vomit of sparklers and wigs, banned the Basque national flag as they deemed it to be “conflictive”, much to the delight of Spanish nationalists. Rightfully, Basque nationalists and non-nationalists alike were outraged, and the organisation reverted its decision. But there was no escaping the fact that, despite it being a constitutional flag, it has a much deeper meaning in the eyes of many Basque people.
Basque cuisine is by far the best and most famous in Spain, with 99% of the country’s famous chefs originating from Basque Country. Its recognition goes beyond Spanish borders, as demonstrated by the 24 Michelin-star restaurants in the region. Nevertheless, the best way to fully enjoy traditional Basque cuisine is to go bar-hopping in the old town of either city (or anywhere else in the region, for that matter) and try the endless variations of pintxos. Pintxo, which means ‘spike’ in Spanish, is a slice of French bread with a food topping, held together by a toothpick. Ideally, it would be followed by endless top-ups of the local dry white wine, txakolí, making it an excellent experience for foodies. Aside from pintxos, in these bars you’ll also find a selection of small tapas, and one of the local favourites, the fish stew known as marmitako – which means “from the cauldron”, the recipient in which it was traditionally cooked.
The fish used in traditional marmitako is tuna, but swapping it for bonito takes the flavour of the dish to the next level. To start off, begin by making the fish broth. Put the heads of a monkfish and a bonito in a pot and top it up with salted water. Add the parsley, chopped onion, meat from the choricero pepper and sliced leek, and let it boil for 15 minutes before straining it. If the thought of two fish heads isn’t really your idea of fun in the kitchen, use pre-made fish broth (but it won’t be as good, as you can probably guess).
After putting the broth aside, chop up the garlic cloves and fry them in a deep pan with a dash of olive oil. Chop up the green pepper and spring onion and add them to the pan along with the bay leaf. When sautéed, peel the tomato, chop it up, and add it to the pan together with the chopped sundried tomatoes. Sprinkle some salt and freshly grounded black pepper and cook until golden.
Then, peel the potatoes, cut them into medium-sized chunks and add them to the pan before covering it all up with the broth. Leave the potatoes to cook for 20 minutes on a low heat. When they’re done, sprinkle some salt and pepper on the diced bonito chunks and add them to the pan. Straight after, take it off the fire, and cover the pan with a lid for a few minutes until the fish is cooked through. The bonito will cook with the heat of the broth. Cooking it this way, instead of in the boiling broth, is what gives it that extra juicy texture. Serve it in a deep dish with a sprig of parsley.
Whether you have a stone cauldron at hand or not, this recipe will give you a true taste of what Basque cuisine is all about – simple recipes made with simple ingredients that are full of flavour in ways you wouldn’t expect.