French gastronomy has long reigned supreme on the world’s culinary stage. Fine wines, fresh baguettes and strong cheeses are just some of the gastronomic delights for which France is famed. But, what about the lesser-known Basque Country cuisine?
This region, situated in the South of France and spilling over into Spain, has its own culinary offerings. Unique in many ways, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting dishes that can be found on the menus of the Basque Country.
The Espelette Pepper (Piment d’Espelette)
Have you ever visited a hot pepper field and drying facility? The Espelette pepper is not too spicy but has enough of a kick for you to know it’s there. It's one of the most famous ingredients in Basque Country cuisine, and is believed to have originated in Latin America. However, after centuries of cross-breeding with local species, it is now a completely unique pepper.
The best time to try this pepper is at the end of October, in the middle of the harvest. You could also time your trip to coincide with the annual Fête du Piment d’Espelette (Espelette Pepper Festival). The harvest season runs from mid-August until November.
Espelette Pepper Harvest
The town of Espelette, after which the pepper is named, is lovely. The rows and rows of peppers hanging to dry from the traditional houses is quite a sight. On our self-guided Basque Country tours, we'll also take you to other Basque villages that tourists don't tend to visit.
Pintxos (Basque Tapas)
A very typical type of Basque food, pintxos are a type of finger food served at bars and taverns throughout the Basque Country. They are what Spanish people refer to as “tapas”, but in smaller portions. They are quintessential to the region and a trip to the Basque country would be incomplete without at least tasting some pintxos in a tavern with a glass of Basque wine.
The name comes from the Spanish verb “pinchar” meaning to poke or stab.
It’s typical to go to a bar in the Basque Country to enjoy aperitif at around 6pm or for lunch on weekends. The entire counter is lined with plates of various pintxos. They range from traditional pintxos such as potato omelettes, seafood on bread to mini haute cuisine experiments such as a grilled foie gras with a white bean cream and a fruity sauce.
The bars and taverns battle it out in yearly competitions to win a trophy for the best pintxos in their respective village or city.
Pintxos time in the Basque Country
Basque-style RED TUNA (THON ROUGE À LA BASQUAISE)
This dish is made using the Northern Bluefin Tuna, the largest tuna in the world. The tuna is caught in the Atlantic and is a big hit with the Japanese who are prepared to pay top dollar for it. The fish is cooked with tomatoes, onions, herbs and a dash of white wine and served as a casserole.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz is the best place to try this dish in all its glory.
Basque Fish Stew (Ttoro Maison Croutons à l’Ail)
Given that the Basque Country is on the coast of France, it should come as little surprise that many of their famous dishes involve fish and seafood. This traditional stew is one of the region’s most famous dishes and includes mussels, prawns, eel, hake, monkfish and more. It is topped with garlic croutons and a few sprigs of parsley.
Every restaurant has its own version of the dish, each comprising different ingredients. Ask the waiter to know which fish have been used in that restaurant’s version.
Le Gâteau Basque
Once you’ve filled up on dinner, give yourself some time to digest and then tuck into one of the Basque Country’s delicious desserts. The Gâteau Basque is a double-crust pie filled with delicious hand-made pastry cream, custard or sometimes jam. Just the right level of sweet, this treat goes down perfectly after a gourmet meal in one of the Basque Country’s fine dining establishments.
If you like it, you can learn how to make it in the Basque Country with a professional Gâteau Basque chef.
Bayonne Ham is a sort of sweet, air-dried, cured ham. It is similar to the Italian prosciutto ham, but with thicker slices. It has a deep, rich flavor thanks to the gourmet diet of the Pie Noir pigs, which mostly graze on acorns, chestnuts, and corn. This breed of Basque pig is mottled black and pin. It is one of several traditional breeds of pig reared by the people of the Basque Country.
Bayonne ham, which is one of several types produced by the Basque region, is prepared in such a way that adds to its rich flavor. It is seasoned with salt, sugar, pepper, and herbs and then hung for up to a few weeks in a cold room. It is then left to dry for at least seven months. Sometimes it is also rubbed with ground Espelette pepper, before being lightly smoked to produce a dark red ham, ready to eat.
Bayonne ham is delicious served with traditional Basque Ossau-Iraty sheep's cheese, as the nutty notes in the cheese bring out the sweet, hazelnut flavors in the ham.
Itxassou black cherry Jam
In spring, the landscape of the French-Basque village of Itxassou explodes with the color and fragrance of cherry blossoms. The trees are scattered from the valley up to the foothills of the mountains and produce many varieties of cherry, including Peloa, Xapata and Belxa. This region has produced cherries for more than 800 years, with production peaking around the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. It was once an important income source for the local economy, with daily markets in the town square. Harvested by hand in early June, the cherries are sweet and tart. You can eat them fresh or make a delicious jam, which goes perfectly with the Gateau Basque and the Ossau-Iraty sheep's cheese. If you order duck from one of the local restaurants, it may also be accompanied by an Itxassou black cherry sauce.
Ossau-Iraty sheep's cheese
The traditional method for producing wheels of Ossau-Iraty sheep's milk cheese dates back 3,000 years. That makes it one of the oldest cheeses in the world and a treasured gem of Basque Country cuisine. It is produced in the Irati beech forest and in the nearby Ossau valley in Bearn, both located in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Ossau-Iraty cheese has been essential to the region's economy, so much so that by the 1500s, it had become a type of currency. It was not uncommon for shephards and farmers to pay their taxes with wheels of sheep's milk cheese!
Ossau-Iraty received European PDO ('protected designation of origin') status i1996. This 'farmer's dessert' has a creamy texture and a fruity flavor with floral notes. It goes wonderfully on a platter with Itxassou black cherry jam and bayonne ham.
Ossau-Iraty cheese wheels. Photo: Jean Michel Etchecolonea
Irouléguy wine is only produced in nine small villages in the Basque Country, and has AOC (protected designation of origin) status. The fruity, tannic red wines are predominant, making up around 70% of Irouléguy wine production. You may also like to try the less famous fruity rosés and the full-bodied, tangy white Basque wine. These wines are perfect when paired with other regional specialities mentioned above. There are tasty and complement without overwhelming the flavors of the food.
A vineyard in the region of Iroulégay
We hope you've found this brief introduction to Basque Country cuisine useful. If we've left you feeling inspired, we offer a range of self-guided itineraries of this fascinating region. Why not opt for a self-drive tour so that you can explore the Basque Country at your own pace? Get in touch and let us create your dream vacation, just for you!