ASADOR ETXEBARRI - ESSENTIAL PERFECTION IN BASQUE COUNTRY
Basque Country, a place of which I only knew that it was the home of the dreaded ETA (at least in the '80-s I didn't know much more). A land of continuous bomb attacks. The country- or let's call it a region-, had such a bad PR or image at that time. This changed dramatically around the turn of the millennium, as they seriously and successfully attempted at redefining themselves through gastronomy both towards the outside world and inside. This - coupled with certain advantageous geographical traits - resulted in a scenery as if we injected Slovenia into Spain. Imagine similar winding mountain paths, large green patches of land, forests, grazing cattle... but then we soon get to the seaside and there awaits everything the sea can yield: the best clams, crabs, octopus, all kinds of fish. Supposedly this is why everything here has a super-special taste whether we talk about pig (cerdo iberico) or cattle (the famous chuleta steak), goose liver, octopus, Palamos prawns, mussels or anything else ...here nothing is ordinary.
Thus the Basque people decided to push catering forward, so they organised as many symposiums, fairs, post graduate trainings as possible, and now they simply abound with excellent chefs. Although I cannot refer to very precise statistics, it is a well known fact that Donostia has the most number of Michelin three star restaurants in Europe per capita - especially near San Sebastian. I had wanted to visit this area for so long, but alas, no low cost airlines and no other legacy airlines have direct connections from Budapest with this place. So we had no other choice, but to drive through Madrid up to Bilbao (only a 3,5 hours drive:) and found accommodation in Durango, a charming little town very close to Bilbao. This area is a kind of industrial hub of Basque Country mainly because of the many manufacturing plants. The real reason for our trip was only 5 km-s from Durango, a place called Asador Etxebarri .
Whether it owns a Michelin star or not (actually it has 1) is almost irrelevant, or whether it is included in the San Pellegrino top 50 list or not (it is included, ranking as the 13th) isn't so important either. What really counts is that all the marvellous raw materials that Basque Country abounds in appear here in most puritan of forms.
Etxebarri for me, counts as purist, minimalist cuisine. There are the raw materials and there is a large row of wood-burning grills. The chef -Victor Arguinzoniz- uses different types of wood for every piece of ingredient and then slowly smokes or burns these ingredients over the flames. He even smokes butter or milk besides meat. I was deeply attracted by this minimalism I saw here...as the trend slowly starts to leave the complex world of molecular cuisine behind, with all the multi-type ingredients, strange textures and weird forms.
We couldn't have asked for anything other than the degustation menu at a friendly price of 125 euros per person consisting of 15 courses.
First some home made bread and butter arrived. As a matter of fact, I had never seen so many bakeries in a small town before this. Basque country reminded me of France and the French obsession with bakery products and specialities. They are good at it. The butters were smoked of course: one type of butter is from goat's milk, sprinkled with black salt (quite an intensive goat-cheese flavour). This one was the winner for me...I spread it on a piece of crispy bread. The other one was a sweeter type, from buffalo's milk: beaten, foamy, and sprinkled with almonds and honey. Both were special, wonderful.
Toast again, a snack with the most characteristic export item of Basque country- the anchovy. The intensely salty, smoky, oily anchovy is the best in this genre I have ever eaten. It is not easy to describe how deep, how strong, how much taste can such a small fish represent -all characterised by the sea. I must admit, I grew to like anchovies not so long ago and now I usually take tins home from the best types. It is difficult to store them in any other way than in jars or tin cans.
We were supposed to peel the two prawns, separate the head, then suck out the dense sea flavour.
Even the mere operation of tearing these prawns apart is a basic and prime task. It was extraordinary how fresh they were- half smoked, half raw. Flesh sweet, bright, cracking, vibrating, shaking.
The smoky, rough, funky, earthy taste of the mushroom, the depth of the flavour of grilled aubergine, with all its full-bodied flavour.
Our next dish was slightly forgettable. A red mullet sashimi arrived with only some onion toppings. This was the whole dinner's most mediocre course, as we felt the fish did not get enough flame, smoke, taste and there was nothing to boost it's delights. We found it rather flat.
White tuna with pisto. This course divided our company. I loved it. The chef strived for the perfect harmony of taste with a not too fatty tuna fish piece only whitened a bit by the heat on the outer layers of flesh. Yet inside it remained rosy. As a kind of a contrast came a roasted tomato and a reduced pisto (sort of like a spanish ratatouille). For me the fish was too delicate, too tender to be accompanied by a hot tomato and onion sauce, but I could not fault the preparation of the fish.
An interesting and recurrent thought here was that by using only a few, but characteristic ingredients, how you can entice that umami taste. This type of zen-like, minimalistic cuisine is amazingly delicate - perhaps Japan can showcase something similar.
Now for the main attraction of the evening: the chuleta. What a pity that it was left last. By then, unfortunately we were almost full. Ohh what a perfectly crusted and roasted example of its type. Outside almost burnt black, inside rosy, soft and moist. Amazingly deep and rich fat on the side, rare meat, a heavily charred crust, properly salted ... chewing around the bone for the best pieces. Yes. It was worth travelling so much for this meal.
As a special treat, I got this really beautiful cake for my birthday, filled with cream. It was fabulous. It was a caramelized pastry shell, and underneath vanilla cream and very thin layers of pastry. It took four of us just about 5 minutes to make it disappear.
Their classical dessert is burned milk ice cream with beetroot cream. This is essentially a vanilla ice-cream with strawberries but executed Etxebarri style. Similarly to the butter, the condensed milk is burnt and gets a kind of smoked taste. Around it the earthy, sweet beetroot proved to be a perfect partner. It was a nice play with tastes and smells: earthy, creamy, sweet, smoky.
There are only a few places in the world, where having left them behind, even after a few weeks I was capable of recalling the taste of the courses consumed there. With Etxebarri I could do it easily. The perfect ingredients - handled with care as they deserve ...toasted, smoked, grilled, just to the extent they really need it. And those unbelievable sauces, garnishes: small accessories that are put on the plate only as subtle signals, but not to distract you from the main attraction... the actual product, the hero. It could be a mushroom, a tomato, a prawn or a steak. The simpler they are, the more striking the depth of their taste when grilled, their amazing complexity. I think this is what perfect cuisine is.
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