SAN SEBASTIÁN, May 2017—Basque Country, San Sebastián in particular, is a place I make television as much as possible. Possibly, my reasons are selfish: San Sebastián and the surrounding region has more outrageously good restaurants per square mile than just about anywhere in Europe. Even the bad restaurants are good.
One afternoon, hungry and at loose ends, I stumbled lazily into one of those tourist-friendly restaurants with all the warning signs: an overwhelmingly non-local clientele, menus in English and Spanish, large color photos of the menu items posted outside, and proximity to a popular tourist site.
I ended up eating a delicious order of morcilla sausage, followed by some braised beef cheeks. And I was happy.
You almost can’t lose in San Sebastián. The Basque can’t seem to help but make good food from great ingredients.
Though we revisit some of my old favorites on this episode, we take a deeper, more specific dive into who the Basque are—where they might have come from—and why their food is so damned delicious.
Basque Country extends over and beyond the French border, so we cast our net a little wider this time around.
For pure, unadulterated food porn, this is one of our more high-test offerings. Jamon, wild mushrooms, perfectly grilled turbot, the last squid of the season—everyday eating feels like one long bounce from one great little place to another.
And, as I must in every episode, I shoot in San Sebastián. I reconnect with two chefs who feel, by now, like family to me: Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, who have been keeping the generations-long tradition of excellence at their eponymous restaurant alive while moving gastronomy forward—always—in exciting new ways.
Juan Mari and Elena were among the first people in Spain to take me under their wing. They have been steadfast friends and supporters since, opening their hearts and their kitchen to me at every opportunity.
Now and again, wherever I am in the world, Juan Mari calls me, and we somehow manage to have a warm conversation in a tortured mix of French, Spanish, and Pidgin English. They will always be my guides and mentors and my friends. Since the death of my father, I found myself looking to Juan Mari to fill that hole. Though I am sure he would prefer to see himself as an older brother!
The Basque have a history of obstinate resistance that has—for one long, ugly period of history—veered towards terrorism. That period has fortunately passed. Denied their own language, even the use of their given names under Franco, they refused to give up. This has left them with a reputation elsewhere in Spain that can manifest itself in uncomfortable ways.
I was having dinner in an excellent restaurant near Madrid a few years ago. The food was superb. After dinner, the two very nice chefs came by the table and asked if I had enjoyed my meal. (I had, very much, and said so.)
Then, however, things took a strange turn. Lowering his voice, one of the chefs asked if he could sit down with me for a moment. There was something he wanted to talk to me about.
“Señor Bourdain,” he said, fixing me directly with his eyes and taking a very serious tone, “we read your book, and we like you very much in Spain. But people talk. They say things. ……about you.”
“Really?” I asked, having no idea what this could be about. “Yes,” said the chef. “They say you are too close to the Basque.”
These were deep waters. Too deep for me. But I could hardly deny it.
My love for the Basque, for Basque culture, for my Basque friends, is absolute. I hope I will be forgiven for this. But if not, I can live with it.