Guess Who's Basque

Why Spain's Basque Country is the real food capital of Europe
Photo: T.T./Getty Images

“I just fell in love with it, really. I came over here with the intention to stay a year, and now it's been eight," Marti Buckley laughs.

The American expat is talking about her current home of Basque Country, Spain's northernmost region that sits just below the South of France. For travelers whose gut reactions are to book it to Madrid and Barcelona, Basque can seem like an enigma—until you take a closer look at everything that attracts visitors like Buckley to stay for far longer than they had anticipated. With a curiously high concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants and a cultural respect for everyday dining unlike anywhere else in Europe, Basque Country is the place to be if food is the driving force of your travels.

A course at the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Martin Berasategui in San Sebastian | Photo: Martin Berasategui

Of course, it's more than just fine dining that makes the region such a culinary force. Buckley, who helps demystify the area in her new cookbook, Basque Country (out later this fall), points to a high level of "culinary literacy" among the Basque people. A certain respect for both cooking and eating is passed on in families as if it were DNA—a societal value you'll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

Aran Goyoaga, a Basque-born food writer and photographer, is a prime example of this. "The cultural importance of food and quality is super ingrained," she explains, noting that to this day, her mother will take a half hour train to Bilbao just to buy fish from a specific vendor—a practice that isn't out of the ordinary for locals and exemplifies the Basque respect for good food. "At the core, every family has an appreciation for quality and simplicity, and it's not compromised," she says.

Photo: Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty Images

Whereas the rest of Spain might rely on heady saffron and smoky paprika, when Basque cooks prepare local bounties like comically large porcini mushrooms, white asparagus that floods the market's baskets and hyper-fresh fish, they simply turn to olive oil, salt and onions. It's a philosophy practiced everywhere, from the pintxos found in historic bars to the rustic home cooking seen in txokos (Basque culinary societies) to the upper echelons of Michelin-level dining.

Speaking of those stars: Basque Country is home to one of the highest number of Michelin stars per capita in the world; meanwhile, a number of the area's restaurants consistently land on The World's 50 Best List. (The awards, which were hosted in the Basque city of Bilbao this year, saw four regional restaurants make the top 50.) And even though the proximity to France ("Being so close cemented a really important culture of fine dining," Buckley notes) is one reason for the culinary success of this relatively quiet area, it's the Basque locals who are the toughest food critics of all.

"It has a lot to do with our culture," Eli Susperregui, a culinary guide based in San Sebastián, observes. "It's the appreciation Basque people have for their food that makes the restaurants always push to the limit in a way, because they always need to keep up to our standards."

Another role these citizens play? Keeping the city—and its food—as "Basque" as possible. "From the Basque Country point of view, they have nothing to do with Spain," Buckley confirms. "They see themselves as totally separate." So while many cities in Spain—and around the world—continue to see outside cuisines influence regional cooking, it's rare to find anything but Basque food in even the now-tourist-heavy San Sebastián.

"We are really trying to keep our traditions: the language, our kind of food. We want to preserve those kinds of things," Susperregui concludes. "Food in Basque Country is about taste, yes, but it's also about culture and patriotism."

Alameda del Boulevard in San Sebastian | Photo: Maremagnum/Getty Images

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