The Basque Country
– País Vasco –
Straddling part of the border between France and Spain, the Basque Country (País Vasco) has an incredibly diverse landscape that extends far beyond the renowned foodie capitals of larger cities such as San Sebastian and Bilbao. While the region is small, it has the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world per capita.
Zones of the Basque Country
The Basque Country is divided into two distinct zones: the north which harbors many famous coastal cities that lie along the Bay of Biscay, and the mountainous regions of the Pyrenees.
Venture inland and you’ll find the fertile Ebro valley that provides excellent farming and agriculture, as well as ample fishing for freshwater trout and rainbow trout varieties.
One thing that stands out no matter where you visit is the kindness and generosity of the Basque people and the pride they have in their food. Many traditional Basque recipes are carried from one generation to the next, and just about all can be found combining the riches of the sea and countryside.
The Basque Country – Regional Zones
The regional countryside of the Basque country offers more hearty meat-based dishes, cooked à l’ancienne (stewed) usually made with pork, lamb, or veal. During hunting season, game animals also feature in many traditional Basque recipes, and one of the more notable is the wood pigeon salami.
Surrounding the rivers that run through the Ebro Valley, freshwater trout and rainbow trout are caught in abundance and are pan-fried with a little butter, garlic and some Espelette pepper.
The Basque Country – Coastal Regions
Visit the coastal regions and you’ll discover cities that thrive with a rich and incredibly diverse culinary culture and host a melting pot of dishes from all regions of Spain. One most noteworthy cuisine is Pintxos, a typical Basque tapas, that line the counters of the many bars and restaurants and feature unique and mouthwatering creations that must be tried at any opportunity!
It would be hard to miss the abundance of seafood dishes found in coastal regions and notable dishes include Marmitako and Kokotxas (traditional fish stews) and the more unusual delicacies such as Txangurro (Spider crab).
Pintxos of the Basque Country
No matter where you venture throughout the Basque Country, one thing you’ll find in every corner is pintxos. Pintxos are small tapas-sized servings of various local and national dishes. Pintxos has become world-renowned for its diverse flavors and experimentation, attracting many foodies and chefs from all over.
Perhaps no greater is this experienced is than in the culinary capital, San Sebastian. A trip to San Sebastian is always accompanied by a tour of the local Pintxos bars and restaurants all over town, where sampling a few pintxos reveals the best of Spanish cooking.
Culinary Cities of the Basque Country
There are two cities that are worth significant praise for tapas and pintxos in the Basque Country. Bilbao and San Ssebastian.
They are perhaps the golden stars of Spain’s tapas and Pintxos scene and attract millions of visitors each year for one thing and one thing only. Exceptional food!
Let’s take a deep dive into two of the most impressive foodie cities and offer a few tips on where to go and what to order!
Bilbao Pintxos bars
The city of Bilbao is far more than a harbor city that offers an entry point to Spain for overseas visitors. It is also a thriving cultural capital and offers some of the most exciting food experiences in Spain.
Wait for the sun to go down and wander the cobbled streets and you’ll discover vast plazas dotted with unique restaurants and tapas bars. Follow your nose down narrow lanes to discover the aroma of many of Spain’s most popular pintxos dishes wafting from ancient wooden doorways and rustic countertops.
Basque cuisine is considered a way of life and nothing illustrates this better than rubbing shoulders with locals as you enjoy a tipple and some local delicacies.
We’ve compiled the list below from local knowledge for what is perhaps the best of Bilbao’s Pintxos and tapas bars.
Pl. Nueva, 12, 48005 Bilbao, Biscay
Contemporary Tapas and pinxtos bar in an industrial setting. Serving traditional Basque dishes including pulpo (octopus), Tataki, Txistorra, and croquettas.
Diputazio Kalea, 8, 48008 Bilbo, Bizkaia
El Globo is a cozy bar and restaurant serving a range of classic tapas dishes from the Basque and other regions of Spain. Specialties include crab au gratin, Cod gratin, and Grilled red tuna with spring onion from Tudela.
La Viña del Ensanche
Diputazio Kalea, 10, 48008 Bilbo, Bizkaia
‘La Vina’ is a traditional Basque tapas bar with a fantastic rustic interior and an incredible selection of classic tapas dishes. As you’d expect, there’s also a great selection of wines and a tasting menu is available too! Specialties include acorn-fed Iberian ham, Duck and foie gras salad, and Mushroom stuffed peppers.
Restairante Lurrina/Lurrina jatetxea
Barrenkale Barrena, 16, 48005 Bilbo, Bizkaia
Lurrina is A relaxed pinxtos and tapas bar with a great selection of seasonal dishes. The cuisine offers a great insight into classic Basque dishes as well as attention to detail applied to modern Basque cuisine. Specialties include Natural artichokes with ham and pumpkin, Ventresca salad with peppers and lettuce hearts, and Old-style stewed beef tail.
Andra Maria Kalea, 13, 48005 Bilbo, Bizkaia
Txiriboga is a modern Basque restaurant and pintxos bar offering exceptional quality Spanish dishes alongside internationally inspired cuisine. Specialties include Rollitos de Txorizo con Marianito Rojo as well as the famous croquetas.
Víctor Montes jatetxea
Pl. Nueva, 8, 48005 Bilbao, Biscay
Victor Montes is a long-established pintxos bar and restaurant built within an ornately painted former market space. Inside, visitors are offered an elaborate range of classic and modern pintxos dishes displayed under shining glass domes. Specialties include Anchoas de mariposa del Cantabrico, Pulpo de roca, and Solomillo de ganado mayor.
Andra Maria Kalea, 10, BJ 1, 48005 Bilbao, Biscay
Established in 1994, Gatz has a loyal local following, and for good reason. The bar and restaurant excel in offering a wide variety of pintxos for all tastes, including a dedicated selection for vegetarians and vegans. House specialties include Bacalao al pil pil, Steak tartare, and black pudding tortilla.
San Frantzisko Kalea, 21, 48003 Bilbo, Bizkaia
Arias is an unassuming local taverna-style bar serving exceptional tapas and pintxos with dishes from all over Spain. The restaurant is well-known for its exceptional Pulpo dishes and “Champis” (grilled Portabella mushrooms).
San Sebastian has long been regarded as the culinary superstar of the Basque Country and as soon as you visit it’s not hard to see why. San Sebastian boasts the largest number of Michelin Star restaurants (per ccapita) in the world, and there are literally hundreds of excellent (and very affordable) tapas and pintxos bars to explore within the city.
A majority of pintxos bars are located within the old town area of San Sebastian and it’s easy to lose an afternoon and evening there scooting from one bar to the next all the while sampling some of the best food you’re likely to encounter in Spain!
Pintxos bars in San Sebastian are often lively and crowded with visitors so it’s wise to choose carefully and find the best times to visit (avoid the July-August summer season if you can!). We’ve compiled a small list of pintxos bars that stood out from the crowd, with many offering excellent affordable morsels for just a few Euros.
Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 20, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa
Casa Urola is run by award-winning chef Pablo Loureiro Rodil and offers a refreshing range of tasty tapas and exquisite meals. Dishes range from seasonal dishes, seafood, meat dishes, and of course, more than a few of Spain’s most classic tapas dishes. Specialties include the Grilled “Potera” baby squid, rice with clams, and grilled octopus with broken potatoes.
La Cuchara de San Telmo
Santa Korda Kalea, 4, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa
Tucked away in the northern side of the old town is this long-standing pintxos bar and restaurant with plenty of appeal. While the place is often heaving with people most times, it’s definitely worth squeezing your way to the front to check out what pintxos are on offer. Specialties include the veal cheeks, suckling pig, and pulpo dishes.
31 de Agosto Kalea, 23, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa
Literally, a stone’s throw from La Cuchara is Gandarias, a delightful restaurant that oozes homely charm and comfort. Grab a table and sit back and enjoy some of the best food you’ll ever have at this cozy local favorite! Offering an extensive menu including specialty basque dishes and world-class pintxos, you really can’t go wrong with ordering anything from the menu! House specialties include clams, Solomillo, and lobster salad.
Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 4, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa
Goiz-Argi is small pintxos and tapas bar that serves plenty of Spanish tapas favorites as well as a good range of Basque specialties too. House specialties worth trying and the grilled sepia in a garlic sauce, and the ‘brochete de gambas’.
Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 38, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa
Enter Bartolo House and you’ll be welcomed with an enormous range of Pintxos to choose from adorning a modern bar with rustic decor. Popular pintxos dishes include pulpo skewers, veal cheek with potatoes, and plenty of great seafood options.
No 1. Mayor, 6, 20003 Donostia-San Sebastian, Gipuzkoa
Paco Bueno is an understated pintxos bar and restaurant with a decent spread of world-class pintxos dishes and a lively atmosphere. No matter what time of day you visit, the fried gambas are very popular, as are the mini-sandwiches (bocadillos) that are served later in the afternoon. The large wedges of the freshly made tortilla are also highly recommended!
Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa
Borda Berri is a fantastic (and very lively) tapas and pintxos bar that offers some excellent Basque specialties. Dishes such as the pig’s ear and pork ribs are perhaps the most popular, however, there is a seasonal menu that offers some excellent main and pinxtos dishes such as the Ravioli with bacalao (cod fish), and the Sopa de Ajo (garlic soup).
Famous regional dishes of the Basque Country include:
- Bacalao (salt cod) al Pil-Pil or a la Vizcaína
- Cuajada (Mamia)
- Elvers (young eel)
- Kokotxas (cheeks of hake)
- Grilled and roast meats
- Piperade (or Piperrada): A mix of tomatoes, onions, and green or red peppers spiced with Espelette pepper.
- Bayonne Ham
- Porrusalda (sukaldaritza)
- Txangurro (spider crab)
- Txipirones (baby squid) in their ink
- Marmitako and Tolosa bean dishes
- Axoa – A lamb or beef stew
- Chicken Basquaise
Wines of the Basque Country
There is one thing that always accompanies every meal with pride in the Basque Country, and that’s wine! There are four main Denominaciones de Origen (DO) within the Basque Country: Rioja Alavesa, Txakoli de Getaria, Txakolí de Álava, and Txakoli de Bizkaia. The wine regions grow grape varieties such as Tempranillo, Graciano, Hondarribi Zuri, Ondarribi Zuri, and Ondarribi Beltza.
The Rioja Alavesa (DO) region spans a little over 300 square kilometers and is the origin of many of Spain’s largest wine exporters. The region is also most notable for blending Tempranillo and Viura grape varieties, creating bold and flavorsome reds that are exported internationally and are highly acclaimed.
Another wine that is highly regarded is Txakoli, a light, clean-tasting, sparkling white wine that is prominently produced in the Getariako, Bizkaiko, and Alava wine regions of the Baque Country.
Cheese of the Basque Country
The mountainous regions of the Basque Country offer ample opportunity for cheese production, with one notable example being made from sheep milk.
Idiazabal (also known as Idiazababal gazta) is a local Basque pressed cheese made from unpasteurized sheep milk, usually sourced from Latxa and Carranzana sheep (Basco-Béarnaise or Vasca Carranzana) in the Basque Country and Navarre. The Denomination of Origin (D.O.) for Idiazabal cheese was created in 1987 and permits the use of milk from Carranzana breed.
The cheese is handmade and covered in a hard, dark brown rind, and the cheese itself has a slightly smokey flavor, although smoking the cheese is an optional process. If the cheese is to be smoked, wood from the beech tree, birch tree, cherry tree, or white pine is used. Smoking of the cheese takes place at the end of aging the cheese.
Idiazabal sheep’s cheese is aged for a few months (at least 8 weeks) and develops a nutty and mild buttery flavor. If the cheese is allowed to age longer than 6 months, it will harden and become more dry and firm, suitable for grating on top of meals or into recipes.
Desserts from the Basque Country
Perhaps the most famous dessert of the Basque Country is the Pastel Vasco (also known as Etxeko Biskotxoa in Basque), a delicate pastry crust that’s filled with a vanilla custard-like cream. It’s found all over the region and must be tried at any opportunity!
Another famous Basque dessert (although technically it’s from the Galician region) is the soft gooey cheesecake that’s served around the culinary capital of San Sebastian. This dessert has become something of a trademark for some restaurants and bars of the San Sebastian region, and you’ll often find a well-trodden trail of sweet tooths sampling their way from one to the next.
Other well-sampled Basque desserts include:
- Idiazabal cheese & quince jam
- Canutillos de Bilbao
- Gâteau Basque
Our Favorite Spanish Dessert Recipes
The sweet-tooth hall-of-fame! These traditional Spanish desserts are easy to make and will bring the flavors of Spanish cooking into your home! Enjoy our top picks of Spanish main meal recipes we’ve made recently! Come back anytime, and don’t forget, we’ll add a new recipe to this list every week!
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