Basque Cooking: If Ours Were the Worst of All Lives

Journal of the International Wine & Food Society  London, 1988 (1,900 words; extracts)
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The chefs, who came from San Sebastian province - Guipuzkoa - met to experiment once a month. Some results became dubious in the long term. Stuffed nouvelle pimientos de piquillos in a creamy sauce, for example, became such a cliché of 1980s menus around Spain that occasionally, after picking at a lukewarm pepper in the Canaries or Andalusia, one cursed the day they were invented.  Too few old or forgotten dishes were successfully revived, as the chefs had hoped, with the odd happy exception like intxaursalsa, the delicious creamy walnut pudding.

In the 1970s things tilted in a different direction. The Basque response to nouvelle cuisine, originally inspired by meetings between Paul Bocuse and Basque chefs, got going....

But looking back now one can see the extraordinary impact of that experiment.  Today the same spirit keeps producing an amazing richness and diversity of new work. Ripples of change, like circles around a stone dropped into calm water, keep spreading outwards into every area of food culture: not only the famous cluster of Michelin-starred restaurants, but also farmers' markets, bars and R&D projects. One thinks of the best known Basque cooks - Andoni Aduriz, Hilario Arbelaitz, Eneko Atxa, Martín Berasategui, Josean Martínez and Pedro Subijana, as well as the Arzak family -  and each can be seen going down a personal path. Yet all contribute to a shared culinary conversation.


Two other developments, less widely commented by the media outside the Basque Country, came in the 1970s. One was the scarcity of women running top professional kitchens, something still true today with starry exceptions like those of Elena Arzak.

The other was the so-called "crisis de producto", the produce crisis.

"Every day," José Marian Urupel, chef-proprietor of Urupel in San Sebastian, explained to me in 1988, "we were becoming more aware that it was increasingly difficult to find the produce we needed for our natural, simple, if you like unsophisticated cuisine. We began to have slogans like 'huevos huevos’ and 'pollo pollo', to describe foods like fresh eggs and chicken that hadn’t been tampered with, that were the real thing. It’s the result of a society increasingly looking for profit at the expense of quality."

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