It was not until relatively recently that umami was recognised (by western scientists) as the fifth taste, after salt, sweet, sour and bitter. The diner who has supped at a table in Victor Arguinzoniz’s obsessive universe may well become convinced of smoke as a contender for the sixth, that surely the mouth contains taste receptors for smoke, a flavour homo sapiens have evolved to crave since the discovery of fire.
While plotting a trip to the Spanish Basque Country, before I secured flights, before accommodations were booked, my foremost concern was meal reservations. The first confirmation I made sure to tie down is tucked far away from the madding crowd in the bucolic setting of the Atxondo Hills, an hour’s drive from San Sebastián in Axpe. Here resides a very special place, where one very special man gives true meaning to locavore, farm-to-table and made-from-scratch, descriptions today woefully co-opted by trite marketeering speak and so oft-bandied as to be nothing more than jabberwocky.
If San Sebastián is Spain’s food Mecca, then to eat at Asador Etxebarri is the equivalent of a pilgrimage to the Hajj. Here, Arguinzoniz has created a microcosm of all that is good and great about Basque food while quietly redefining what it means to cook with fire in the 21st century. Besides merely churning his own goat butter, pulling his own buffalo mozzarella, baking his own sourdough, and curing his own chorizo, the high priest of the wood grill insists on crafting every other conceivable object in-house, from cooking his own coals from a variety of locally sourced woods such as oak, apple and olive (selected based on the ingredient he believes the wood best suits) to constructing his own machinist fantasy grill replete with pulley-controlled platforms (for precise control of distance from heat source) and custom-designed utensils (for minute calibration of type and level of smoke permeation).
The most striking aspect of a meal at Etxebarri is not how pervasively smoky everything tastes, but the exact opposite, such is the deftness with which smoke is used. Smoke, or the fragrance of wood (as Arguinzoniz prefers to call it), is applied with reverential circumspection as befits the ingredient at hand, enhancing every ingredient it caresses the same way judicious salting would — by amplifying inherent flavours without a declaration of existence.
Nothing within Arguinzoniz’s control is left to chance, not even the kind of ember for the type of wood species, both tailored to the particularity of a single ingredient or dish. An oyster, for instance, would be waved for moments over a dying ember of orange wood, just long enough for its briny juices to concentrate into a kind of au naturel mollusc jus. Served with spinach to underscore its minerality, the result is an oyster that tastes more like an oyster than any other oyster. On the other hand, beef demands grapevines that burn infernally hot and fragrant. The chuleta de vaca of Fred Flintstonian proportions, hewn from a 14-year-old dairy cow and dry-aged for beefy savour of haunting depth, thus acquires the ideal burnt ends-to-tender scarlet gradation, with every bite fascinatingly different, marbled and seamed with just the right amount of complex tasty fat.
A meal at Etxebarri is living, fire-exhaling proof that the culinary artistry that prevails in the dramatically beautiful Euskadi landscape is still, by and large, of a naturalist bent. This steadfast traditionalism — take the best possible ingredients and do the minimal to maximally heighten their deliciousness — comes as no surprise. The Basques are the oldest indigenous ethnic group in Europe. They have lived uninterrupted in the region since the beginning of recorded history. They speak a language with no linguistic relation to any other Indo-European tongue, one dating back to before the Roman conquest. The Basques are fiercely and famously independent, and nowhere is this more apparent than in their food.
A taste of purist Basque cooking, of home-style cooking, can be found behind the most appropriately inscrutable of shop fronts within the city of San Sebastián. If visceral satisfaction outranks all else in your idea of a great meal, it is highly likely a meal in this soporific no-frills basement will hit the spot more than at most of the much-vaunted, multi-starred, list-listed establishments that abound in the area. There is no mention in the guide rouge. It is cash only. No English is spoken, although if you look pitiably ravenous enough, a crib sheet might be slipped to you. A menu does not exist, as it all depends on what’s best from the market that day. Open only at lunch, it also chooses to be closed throughout the weekend. Still undeterred? Good. Ibai may take your reservation. And if you speak neither Spanish nor Euskera, your best bet is to nicely ask your hotel concierge to call.
Jump through the hoops, respect the protocol, and one is rewarded with the kind of soul-salving comfort food you imagine the amama you never had might have lovingly cooked for you.
If you are there in early spring, a bowl of the season’s first vegetal treasures may await — baby artichokes, guisantes de lágrima, white asparagus and borrajas (borage), bathed in a light vegetable broth slicked with a generous slug of grassy olive oil. Fleetingly available from mid March to early June, guisantes de lágrima are picked early and painstakingly laborious to shell. These tear-shaped peas encapsulate the essence of spring, popping in the mouth and flooding the palate with fresh, herbaceous sweetness, heightened by a unique savouriness thanks to the Basque growing region’s proximity to the sea. It’s no wonder they are locally known as the caviar of vegetables.
If available, angulas (elvers or baby eels) are a must. They are revered in this region, where they are also known as txitxardin. Notoriously elusive, they not only demand Basque fortitude to capture, but, more importantly, an almost ascetic restraint in the kitchen so as not to ruin their subtle flavour and delicate texture. The supple meatiness, with the barely perceptible toothsomeness of the tiny spines, is best enhanced by olive oil infused with a couple of caramelised garlic slices and a dried red chili pepper, warmed just enough to firm up the flesh a touch.
Percebes (goose barnacles, or gooseneck barnacles), timorous beasties of unreal tastiness, are available sporadically throughout the year, for the tide and luck determine the haul of the intrepid percebeiros who harvest them by hand. It’s wise not to judge a book by its cover — dig past their bizarre scaly appearance to discover an elixir distilled from tempestuous sea spray, treacherous currents and the craggy granite rocks of a storm-bashed coastline.