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Gastronomy: Seafood and Shellfish
by Tr: Diane E. Graves
English translation of "Gastronomia", one of the series of "El Pais Vasco, ven y cuentalo" 2nd edition, January 1993 Author: Patxi Anton Idroquilis Editorial: Gobierno Vasco, Departamento de Comercio, Consuma, y Turismo. Viceconsejeria de Turismo. Translated unofficially by Diane E. Graves
Chapter 5: Seafood and Shellfish
The major protagonist in the cuisine of the Basque people is seafood, since they are a seafaring people. Perhaps the most typical eaten fish are codfish and hakefish, which have given rise to the most famous recipes, such as "merluza en salsa verde" (hake in a green sauce) and the well-known "bacalao a la bizkaina" (Biscayan-style codfish).
The possibilities offered by a white fish as delicate and tasty such as hake are practically limitless: in green sauce, "a la vasca" (Basque-style), with cider, "a la ondarresa" (prepared Ondarroa-style)... sauces that seem to have been conceived in order to ennoble its flavor usually result in dishes that compete for exquisiteness. Or, it can simply be grilled, taking advantage of a hearty nape or some good tail cuts. The most delicate and gelatinous part of hakefish is known as "kokotxa". By themselves, in green sauce, "al pil-pil" (prepared by simmering), or prepared in any fashion, they always turn out to be an authentic delight.
Since the disappearance of whaling, salted codfish continues to be one of the most accomplished discoveries in Basque cuisine. It has even been said by some that the Basques are the only chefs capable of converting a dried parchment into a delicacy. The possible ways of preparing salt codfish are quite endless: crumbled into an egg omelette, baked with potatoes or with bread in a "zurrukutuna" (wood-oven), or along with any of the more typical sauces: "a la bizkaina" (an onion and tomato sauce), "al pil-pil" (with garlic and parsley), in green sauce, or with tomatoes and peppers.
Bonito fish (similar to tuna) is the primary ingredient of "marmitako", the ancient meal of the fishing boats which, before the introduction of potatoes in Euzkadi, was originally made with bread. Nowadays, "marmitako" is made up of bonito fish, potatoes, onions, peppers, and tomato. Another highly appreciated fish is "besugo" (red bream), which offers its full flavor simply braised. Braised sardines also turn out to be magnificent, especially in summertime.
The two seafood dishes that surprise visitors the most are, however, "txipirones en su tinta" (squid prepared in its own ink) and "angulas" (fried baby eels). The black sauce that accompanies the squid, made from the ink of these cephalopods, is unique.
Few are the villages in which baby eels are cooked and consumed, very simply prepared with olive oil, garlic, chili peppers, and salt in a quick "pil-pil" sauce, and unfortunately this dish is becoming a very costly one due to the increasing scarcity of baby eels.
As far as shellfish go, it cannot be said that they have played a decisive role in traditional Basque cuisine. However, there exist several dishes such as "centollo" or "txangurro" (spider crab) prepared "a la donostiarra" (San Sebastiaán style), which may share a table with "kiskillas" (prawns), "gambas" (shrimp), and "ne'coras" (small, boxlike crabs), or with mollusks such as "almejas" (clams) and "txirlas" (baby white clams).
Where to enjoy seafood and shellfish:
The coastal municipalities are the best reference point for eating just-caught seafood, not so much because of the quality or the expertise of the chefs, also widespread in inland areas, but rather because of the special atmosphere of the fishing ports a nd the nearby restaurants.
In order to sample a good "marmitako" it is recommended that one go to a Biscayan port. Bermeo, Lekeito, or Ondarroa can supply this opportunity. In these ports, as in the Gipuzkoan ports of Getaria, Hondarribia, Orio, Donostia-San Sebastiaán, Zumaia, or others, in summertime one may be tempted by barbecues which roast sardines in the streets.