Get to know the local lore. Basque history is rich and proud; the region was never conquered by the Moors or the Romans, which was partially due to the region’s geography and partly due to the Basques’ ability to make a deal. Instead of fighting the Romans, they made trade and transportation deals with them. The Basques were experts in shipbuilding, fishing, and navigation. Cod and whaling were the main industries until the industrial revolution when manufacturing took off; to this day, Basques have a reputation in Spain as being very industrious.
Appreciate the calm. In the not so distant past, the Basque region was a dangerous place due to an armed separatist movement in the region. It wasn’t a total war zone, but there were certainly unsafe areas, especially if you were a prominent figure in business or politics. It’s hard to imagine the streets of San Sebastian’s Parte Vieja, now bustling with buzzed locals and drunk tourists, heaving with police in riot gear and an energized insurgency just a few decades ago.
Make friends. The Basque community today is very tight-knit, one of the main reasons I moved here in 2011. Walk into almost any pintxos bar and you’ll encounter people from all walks of life—a butcher, the mayor, a doctor, and a construction worker—buying each other drinks and gesticulating wildly with a lot of close talking. You can often break the ice with just a loud kaixo (hello) and a handshake. What happens next usually involves a few glasses of sidra. Despite being a deeply traditional society, they are very open to outsiders, whether they are transplants to the Basque Country or just passing through.
Photo by: Michael Magers
Listen for the local language. It’s called euskera, and it’s as hard to learn as any language on earth. It’s its own root language with no clear connection to any other language. Here are a couple key phrases to get by. Kaixo: Hello. Bai: Yes. Ez: No. Barkatu: Excuse me. Garagardoa bat mesedez: One beer, please. Eskerrik asko: Thank you. Beste bat: Another one. Agur: Bye.
Know your pintxos. No visit to the Basque Country is complete without a pintxos tour, going from bar to bar snacking on small culinary creations. But not all pintxos are created equal. Some guides make it seem as though there’s genius on every corner. There are as many mediocre pintxos bars as there are great ones. Look out for places that rely too heavily on mayonnaise or resort to microwaving your food. Instead, opt for freshly made rations, like the fare offered at Bar Ganbara in San Sebastian, a favorite of locals and tourists alike. Grab a gilda to start (anchovy, pickled guindilla peppers, and olives), a warm croissant with jamón iberico, and ask for a crab tartlet. For hot raciones, order a plate of hongos (porcinis) with an egg yolk. The fried anchovies, bonito neck, and txipirones—squid—are also especially good.
Photo by: Michael Magers
Try the cider. You can’t get more Basque than going to the sidrería. Some stay open year-round, but the best are only open from late January to the end of April, the sidrería season. About ten minutes from San Sebastian are the towns of Astigarraga and Hernani, where you’ll find the real deal: sidrerías that press their apples in October and release their 5-6 percent ABV sidra in January for drinking straight from the kupelas, or huge barriques. What they don’t serve during the season they bottle for consumption throughout the rest of the year. The best time for sidra is in April, when the sidra has been aged just long enough. Two places to try are Zapiain, for the great cider and familial ambiance, or Zelaia, for their excellent txuleta, or dry-aged steak. The cider house experience goes like this: eat a pintxo of chorizo cooked in cider. Then follow the crowd to a big barrel where the txotx—pronounced choach—master pulls a pin and cider comes flying at you. You catch what you want to drink, one gulp or two. Get back in line. Eat. Txotx. Eat. Repeat.
Embrace the anchovy. The king of fish here isn’t a big, beautiful fish like turbot or sea bream. The king around these parts is the tiny, meaty, umami-rich anchovy. During late spring and early summer, the anchovies run (as they are being chased by bonito). It’s the perfect moment to have fresh anchovies from the market or served fried in olive oil with a shit-ton of garlic and a dried spicy pepper. Anchovies cured in vinegar, called boquerones, pack an acidic punch. The anchoas en salazon (salt-cured and then packed in olive oil) are what make the Basque Country’s pintxos and salads so damn good. It is this little and often underappreciated fish that gives a much needed umami kick to the Basque larder.