The Basque Country, straddling the border between France and Spain, boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other region in the world. However, this cookbook focuses on its traditional recipes handed down through the generations.
American food writer Marti Buckley has lived in San Sebastián for eight years, after having worked in Frank Stitt’s Bottega in Alabama in the US for two years, working her way up to pasta chef de partie. Her outsiders’ insight into the region is comprehensive and evocative.
The book is as much an insight into the culture, history, language and geography of the region and how that has shaped Basque cuisine, from the country’s Catholicism contributing to the reliance on fish, to its proximity to France and the French influence on its food.
Basque Country is written for the home cook, rather than the professional chef, with recipes organised into pintxos (small bites), soups, fish and shellfish, vegetables and meat, sweets and drinks. However, there are plenty of traditional Basque techniques – pil-pil sauce or the sparing use of a guindilla chile – that any chef could use to bring a bit of El Bulli into their cooking.
As well as the classics – anchovies fried with garlic, salt cod croquettes, fish stews and goats’ cheese pintxos – more intriguing recipes include elvers (young eels with olive oil, garlic and dried guindilla), scorpion fish pâté and menestra, a medley of artichokes, white asparagus, peas and fava beans with a béchamel-like sauce served widely in Nafarroa.
Sweet treats are homely and rustic – sheep’s curd with honey and walnuts, roasted apples, rice pudding, yogurt cake and fritters. The most famous, the gâteau Basque, is simply an almond crust housing a rum-flavoured pastry cream.
Buckley describes Basque cuisine as “a refusal to hide the gifts of nature behind spices, heavy sauces, or overwrought cooking techniques”. But in a culinary landscape starting to embrace simplicity over style even at the highest echelons, a cookbook that looks back is as likely to be welcomed into the fold as one that looks forwards.
Basque Country by Marti Buckley (Artisan, £26.99)