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Basques Add Distinct Flavor to Spanish Cuisine

May 20, 1990|S. IRENE VIRBILA | Virbila lives in Berkeley, Calif., and writes frequently about food and wine

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — When three-star chef Juan Mari Arzak pays his daily visit to La Brecha market in the heart of San Sebastian, he's as a much a hero as a soccer star. Everybody knows him and calls out greetings.

Food is an important part of the ancient Basque culture, and this city is the gastronomic capital of Spanish Basque country. Stall after stall in the turn-of-the century La Brecha market is filled with eye-catching displays, everything from wild pigeons and fat, grain-fed hens to smoky Idiazabel cheese from the mountains, musky wild mushrooms and golden honey.

Before Queen Isabel II and her entourage turned it into one of the belle epoque's fashionable seaside resorts, San Sebastian was a small fishing port.

It still is, but a small and very cosmopolitan city has grown up around it. Women still sell shrimp and stone crabs in paper cones at the port, and San Sebastian's fish market has its own imposing stone building at La Brecha market.

Fishmongers start setting up their stalls in the early morning, and by 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. the stalls are artfully arranged cascades of live seafood and fish so fresh that it's still wriggling. Bay leaves and lemon halves are tucked around whole fish, as are tangles of milky squid, silvery anchovies and feisty lobsters with their claws taped shut.

"The best fish in Spain--the best fish in Europe!" Arzak said, as he stopped to pick up some merluza (hake) and live crayfish. "Basque cooking lets the quality of the ingredients shine through undisguised, and what we have available to us is remarkable.

"In a radius of 100 miles we have fish from the Cantabrian sea, mushrooms and game from the Pyrenees, vegetables from the Navarra Valley and wines from Rioja, plus foie gras and Armagnac from southwest France."

At his restaurant on the old road to France, people wander in with their Michelin guides and settle in to the serious business of eating well. The sober dining rooms are furnished with antiques, amber lamps and hand-woven linens.

To start, he served a gutsy pate of rascasse, the rockfish that gives bouillabaisse so much of its intense flavor, followed by a warm lobster salad with chives and julienned leeks on a bed of tangled wild greens.

His take on the classic squid in ink sauce was a large tender squid, scored and grilled, and served in an ink and red wine sauce scented with rosemary. Instead of presenting stuffed spider crab in the shell, he bundles the savory stuffing into fine crepes and crisps them in the oven, a signature dish.

The taste of prunes is a brilliant foil to langoustine with the sweet red and green peppers used so much in Basque cooking.

As a young man, Arzak worked with such chefs as Boyer, Troisgros and Senderens, and made friends with his generation of French chefs, so when nouvelle cuisine arrived in France the winds of change wafted right over the border.

Arzak rounded up his Basque chef friends and started the cucina nueva movement. This "renewal" of Basque cooking has changed and refined the presentation, and lightened some dishes, but the roots are still very much Basque.

Just across from the market is Casa Nicolasa. At the turn of the century, when the Spanish aristocracy summered here, this was the fanciest place to eat in town. It's still very well known for classic Basque cuisine.

The new owner and young chef is Jose Juan Castillo. He might serve txistorra, tiny pimiento-stained chorizo that are a specialty of San Sebastian, as an appetizer. Castillo thinks nouvelle cuisine is getting to taste the same all over the world.

"It's like a disco. Close your eyes, where are you?" So he's committed to preserving classic Basque dishes such as chipperones (thumb-size stuffed squid in black ink sauce) and txangurro (stuffed spider crab), or hake cheeks in a fragrant green parsley sauce, and little roasted wild birds wrapped in bacon.

He does have a few new dishes up his sleeve, too, such as a brik (North African pastry) of langoustines. And watch out for the orgia di postres, an "orgy" of half a dozen traditional desserts, including a superlative rice pudding.

"In the Basque country we live to eat. After a big wedding or reception and everybody is full, they are discussing where to go and eat," he says, laughing. "But we never eat in movie theaters like you Americans. Absolute quiet reigns."

A winding drive up Monte Igueldo, one of the three mountains that shelter San Sebastian and its curving sweep of beach, takes you to Akelare, a spectacularly situated restaurant with a view of rolling green hills and the sea beyond.

Here, lunch might start with miniature crepe filled with wild mushrooms, and a warm salad of seared scallops with their coral on a bed of mixed greens.

Mustachioed chef Pedro Subijana plays on the classic red beans and blood sausage combination by wrapping a blood sausage in cabbage and serving it with a distinguished pureed red bean sauce.

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