19 facts about the world’s no. 1 foodie region – the Basque Country, Spain

The world is full of lists – I don’t know about you but I love my lists, they just seem to make life so much easier. Decisions are simpler; you know which fashion brands to wear, which hotels to go to before your friends do, which gadgets to choose to be super cool and, of course, which restaurants you may need to reserve months, or years, in advance.

Cod kokotxas with cockles and spring onions - Martin Berasategui

One of my favourite lists is “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants”, sponsored by S. Pellegrino & Aequa Panna, which not all that surprisingly names the top 50 restaurants in the world. However what it doesn’t do is analyse the world’s top foodie countries, regions, or cities, you need to do this for yourself – but the good news is that I’ve done it for you! If you want to read my methodology read the next two paragraphs, if not just ignore them and jump straight to the lovely list!!

List methodology

There are two countries with 7 restaurants on the list, which are Spain and America, but as America is really either a continent, or half a continent, this means that Spain is the winner. I am slightly biased, of course, as I live in Spain, but if you compare the population of the two, America comes in around 318.4 million and Spain at around 47.15 million – I believe it’s a fair win.

Spain has 7 out of the 50 restaurants on the list of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants”, out of these seven restaurants, five are in the region of the Basque Country. I have to admit that I struggled a little bit at this point, because El Cellar de Can Roca, is in position number two for 2014, and was in the top position in 2013, and is, of course in Girona, Catalonia. But in terms of having the highest number of restaurants on the list, the Basque Country is the winner.

Preserved Jerusalem artichoke, honey vinegar and toasted milk - Photo Jose Luis Lopez de Zubiria - Mugaritz

Check out these 19 facts which are divided into basic foodie facts, some of the Basque Country’s best restaurants, and a small handful of hotspots to consider in between culinary delights.

A few foodie basics about the Basque Country:

1. Most Michelin starred restaurants

If you judge the region on a per capita basis, then the Basque Country wins again, because it currently holds the honour of having the highest number of Michelin starred restaurants, per capita in the world.

2. Let’s do a day or two of “Txikiteo”

When in the Basque country, you must do as the Basques do. This means doing a day or more of “Txikiteo “. Not too sure about that? Don’t worry, once you understand what it is, I think you’ll want to do it. “Txikiteo “is a word that the Basques use to describe hanging out with friends, while tasting different pintxos (tapas) in different places, and drinking a number of small glasses of txakoli, which is Basque wine, at the same time.

3. The Basque belief about food

One of the possible reasons for the superb International success of Basque cuisine, can be attributed to the traditions of the people and their attitude towards food and social occasions. Inherent in the nature of the Basques, is the belief that good food can be perceived as a reflection of good character.

4. The 3 types of Basque cuisine

The cuisine of the Basque country has captured the imaginations, appetites and hearts of International foodies. Over the last few decades, it has honed its culinary offerings, to be what is known as Basque Nouvelle Cuisine. However there are also two other distinct types of Basque cuisine which are Pintxos, and Sagardotegi – which is basically food in cider houses.

5. Basques and cod

In the past, the Basques used to eat cod during times of famine, but these days it’s a delicacy, which you can enjoy in a wide range of delicious recipes.

Some of the best restaurants in the Basque country:

6. Mugaritz – #6 in the world

In position 6, is Mugaritz in the San Sebastian area. Chef owner, Andoni Luis Aduriz’s style of food is techno-emotional Spanish. Watch out for the scarlet shrimp perfume, with ice shreds. Aduriz wants your meal at his restaurant to provoke, surprise and shock.

Eucalyptus smoked loin of lamb with its cultivated fur - photo Jose Luis Lopez de Zubiria - Mugaritz

http://www.mugaritz.com

7. Arzak – #8 in the world

The father and daughter team at Arzak, in San Sebastian, seem to be able to walk the fine line between honouring the culinary heritage of Basque tradition, by re-working old favourites, but using cutting-edge techniques. Their style is modern Basque, and watch out for their special squid with onion and lemon sauce.

8. Azurmendi – #26 in the world

In a dramatic eco-friendly building, perched on a hillside near the city of Bilbao, you’ll find the game changing chef, Eneko Atxa, in Azurmendi, using ultrasound amongst his range of cooking methods. The food genre is cutting edge Basque, and the signature dish is egg, which has been cooked inside out and truffled.

9. Asador Etxebarri – #34 in the world

Asador Etxebarri moved up 10 positions since 2013, when it was in position number 44. This is a restaurant that you will smell, before you see it. The cuisine style is rustic wood-fired Spanish, and chef Victor Arguinzoniz, admits to being in love, or obsessed, with his superb home-made grill. This is a more rustic restaurant, about one hour away from San Sebastian, where the menu is created on a daily basis. Enjoy the humble approach during this eating sensation.

10. Martín Berasategui – #35 in the world

There has been an impressive list of superb chefs that have passed through the kitchen of Martín Berasategui, who was sent to France by his parents, when only in his teens to become a pastry chef. By the late 1980s he was back in the Basque country running his parents’ restaurant. Today you can enjoy his modern Spanish cuisine, in a small pretty town just outside the city of San Sebastien. Watch out for his rather gamy, delicious dish of – roast pigeon, onion, with Iberian pigs snout, ginger juice and capers.

Octopus in textures with a spider crab juice - Martin Berasategui

And for a few more Basque restaurants that didn’t make the “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list – please note, there are so many more that deserve to be here, that it would take a small book to feature them all:

11. Petritegi Sagardoa

This one falls into the cider house eating experience, of which this restaurant is a fantastic sample. Need I say more than the fact that they have been producing their own cider in their own farmhouse since the 16th century?

12. Altzueta Sagardotegia

The best time to come really, to the cider houses, including this one, is between January and April after the autumn harvest. Here you can enjoy a fine classical cider house menu, and this family have been producing their natural cider since around 1876.

13. Sidreria Zelaia

This is another fine cider house experience, where the family maintain old traditions, but with contemporary methods.

14. Antonio Bar

You’ll find gorgeous fresh pintxos at the Antonio Bar, because each order is prepared on the spot! Dishes are prepared in accordance with the season and the place has a great atmosphere.

15. A Fuego Negro

Contemporary would be the buzz word here – both for the dishes and the decor. At A Fuego Negro, you can choose from pintxos, a la carte or super tasting menus.

And for when you’re not having a foodie experience, but perhaps working up your appetite for the next one:

16. One of Europe’s top 10 beaches

The gorgeous city of San Sebastian is home to La Concha Beach, which has been voted in at position number 10 in Tripadvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Awards of the Top 25 Beaches in Europe.

La Concha Beach San Sebastian - Photo Keta

17. The Guggenheim Museum

In Bilbao you can visit the famous Guggenheim Museum.

18. The Sanctuary of Arantzazu

Visit the much loved, stunning Franciscan Sanctuary of Arantzazu in Oñati.

19. The San Sebastian Cathedral

Consecrated in 1897, the Gothic Revival Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in San Sebastian is really striking and definitely worth a visit.

San Sebastian Cathedral

These handful of attractions are such a tiny percentage of what the Basque Country has to offer. Although you may know of the Basque Country because of its culinary delights, it’s also home to some of Spain’s most beautiful cities, amazing landscapes and great traditions.

Jackie de Burca is Co-owner of Catalonia Valencia.

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Comments (9)

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  1. Patri says:

    Your comparison of the United States and Spain based on Michelin stars is rather misleading. Unlike Spain, which is covered in its entirety by the Michelin Guide, the US is not. That means you will only find Michelin starred restaurants in a select few cities that the guide covers, such as NYC, Chicago, Las Vegas, ect. The places in between are not even evaluated. In Spain for example, it is possible to have a restaurant with one michelin star, such as Etxebarri (which is misspelled btw), that is in the middle of nowhere. This is not the case in the US.

    In addition, Arzak is not a husband and wife team as you state. It is a father and daughter.

  2. Hi Patri, thanks for your comment. You make a valid point regarding the United States. However looking at the feature in your own guide, I think in essence we’re on the same page – at least in the Michelin star per capita in Spain.

    My apologies for my errors in both the spelling and relationship, I will get these corrected. Thank you for pointing them out.
    Thanks
    Jackie

  3. You had me firmly convinced by your arguments up until about point 5 and then, wham, point 6 certainly shocked and surprised me! A delicious looking steak drizzled in a tempting sauce with… I have no idea what that can be leaning against it. Please, do tell!

  4. anna parker says:

    This puts spain firmly on the foodie map – I would never have thought it would be so highly thought of, probably assuming somewhere like France to be a winner. But actually – whenever and wherever we’ve eaten in Spain, it is always good standard – so the best must be good!! I very much like your logic and assumptions, all perfectly valid!

  5. Thanks Kathryn, really glad to hear you’re convinced. Here’s a bit of a surprise, as visually point 6 does in fact look like a steak, but it isn’t. This dish translates into English, according to the restaurant this way – which may not sound so appetising – Eucalyptus smoked loin of lamb with its cultivated fur – however the Spanish is – cordero asado al incensio de eucalyptus y su pelizza seca. It is the word “pelizza” that is very specific, for the restaurant to translate it. Really pelizza means like a fur coat …but what it is in this instance is more like using the poetic license on this, I believe. So it should be some combination, maybe of skin, crackling, but we would need to restaurant to confirm this accurately.

  6. Many thanks Anna for your comment. I am not altogether surprised that you are a bit surprised :) as at one stage I would have felt much the same. But the proof is in the pudding ..and I am glad you liked the way I put my pudding together …I did write the methodology on purpose, really to give people the chance to agree, disagree, but at least to know how I formulated my results.

  7. Let’s start off by agreeing that in today’s modern society, we all love our lists! Especially those that provide a series of restaurants that are globally renowned and offer great cuisine options. I have to agree with others comments that Spain and in particular the Basque Country is not the first place I would consider to have so many leading spots but it is a pleasant surprise and definitely would be nice to sample some of these Spanish delicacies.

  8. Thanks Chris, yes I think most of us do love lists. I know many peoples’ perceptions are like yours and others who have commented, so naturally I hope I have helped changed them a little.

  9. San Sebastian’s food scene is incredible – we loved the pintxos bar experience the most! The fine dining scene is remarkable if you have time to enjoy a splurge or two during a trip, but we were too immersed with trying as many pintxos bars as possible to give an evening to a single restaurant. If we went back, Arzak and Mugarritz would definitely be on our list. :)

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