Food is to the Basques what soccer is to the Brazilians or shopping to the Japanese—an obsession that borders on mania. Their rabid enthusiasm has carried over to French chefs, who are flocking to northern Spain's avant-garde kitchens to learn their secrets. American restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow (China Grill, Asia de Cuba) is also contemplating a designer Basque showpiece in New York. "We Basques have an almost mystical devotion to our land and our culinary culture," says Martin Berasategui, one of San Sebastián's preeminent chefs.
While husbands indulge at txocos, those uniquely Basque gastronomic societies where men gather to cook for one another, wives spend every penny at food markets on kokotxas (hake cheeks) and baby eels. If families aren't eating at home, they make pilgrimages to cordero (roast lamb) houses by old mill streams, to rambling grilled-pollo shacks on vine-covered hillsides, and to village seafood hideaways with Europe's best grilled turbot and rock lobster, and baby squid gently stewed in its own ink. Then away to cider houses for fizzy apple brew and thick, charred chuletas (steaks).
Between meals, everyone packs into pintxos (tapas) bars, comparing the merits of roasted piquillo peppers and gleaming anchovies from one place to the next. And while Basques do admire their Michelin redoubts—and there are a lot of them—their hearts really belong to countryside citadels of solid bourgeois cuisine. If you love haute home-cooking, Basque standbys may become your new steak frites.
WHERE TO EAT IT
AT HOME Marichu 342 E. 46th St., New York; 212/370-1866; dinner for two $76. The most authentic Basque restaurant in America, with lovingly prepared squid in its ink and red piquillo peppers stuffed with codfish in vizcaina sauce from Teresa Barrenechea, author of The Basque Table.
ABROAD Alberdi 5 Euskalduna, Bilbao; 34-94/443-6939; dinner for two $72. Bilbao's newest temple of traditional cooking, with delicious house-cured foie gras and salt cod done six ways. One of the classic preparations is with pil-pil, an emulsion of fruity olive oil and garlic.