In terms of gastronomy, Basque geography can mainly be divided into four regions: the Rioja Alavesa Region, the Idiazabal Region, the Cider Region, and the Txakoli Region. Each of these areas, despite their diversity, has come to specialize in a single product, rising to international fame.
Rioja Alavesa lives and breathes vineyards. The link between wineries, tourism, gastronomy, architecture, and art is reinventing one of the most attractive regions on the international wine scene. The best way to enjoy wine tourism in the Rioja Alavesa Region is by following the Ruta del Vino (‘Wine Route’), which brings together unique experiences at vineyards and wineries and the region’s attractive landscape so that tourists can do a customized tour full of activities at any time of the year while enjoying cozy accommodation and savoring food true to its roots – blessed by remarkable ingredients such as legumes, fruits and vegetables, cold cuts, meats, and sweets.
The Idiazabal Region is one of the jewels of Basque cuisine. Idiazabal cheese takes its name from a municipality located in Goierri (the Basque Highlands of Gipuzkoa), between the Aralar and Aizkorri-Aratz Natural Parks (leading areas for the production of said product), and it is currently considered one of the best sheep cheeses in the world. Idiazabal cheese production also extends to the Gorbea Natural Park (between Biscay and Álava) and to the Llanada Alavesa region (‘Alavese Plains’). For cheese to be called Idiazabal, it must be produced through specific traditional methods that use raw milk from a local sheep breed (the Latxa sheep) and then curdled with lamb rennet and aged for a minimum of three months. This product is characterized by its intense, slightly spicy and balanced flavor and by the special touches that the sheep’s milk adds. Currently, traditional production of Idiazabal cheese –undertaken by the shepherds themselves in their cabins and country houses– coexists alongside industrial production, which must comply with the same stringent quality controls as the former.
Cider, obtained by fermenting apple juice, has been the traditional drink in many Basque homes for centuries. Today it continues to be produced naturally, and tastings in cider houses have become a complete enogastronomic experience. The Euskal Sagardoa (‘Basque Cider’) Designation of Origin has recently been created, a certification that guarantees the quality of natural cider made only with apples from the Basque Country. The cider season itself lasts from January to April, although today many cider houses open throughout all the year.
Until a few decades ago, txakoli –a fresh, sparkling white wine with slight acidity– was considered the poor man’s version of Basque wine; however, continuous processes to improve grape quality (‘hondarribi zuri’) and production have turned it into a sophisticated wine that has conquered even the most demanding of tables, ideal to be paired with fish and appetizers. This young, fruity wine is produced under three designations of origin: Txakolí de Getaria, Txakolí de Bizkaia, and Txakolí de Álava. The three benefit from the Atlantic climate, although only the first two are grown on coastal slopes. A visit to the main municipalities in which wine is produced (Getaria, Zarautz, Aia, Bakio, Amurrio, and Orduña) and to other neighboring areas (Hondarribia and Olaberria) offers beautiful itineraries in which you can enjoy the coastal landscape, the charm of the fishing villages, and the natural beauty and heritage of the interior valleys.
In addition to the numerous activities that are offered in relationship with food and eating in the different regions (such as participating in a workshop on traditional cooking and visiting an artisanal brewing company and leading wineries like Baigorri and Valdemar), there are also museums that combine a visit to their facilities with gastronomic tourist routes: Gastromuseums is the network of museums and enogastronomic centers in the Basque Country, which came to be out of the need to promote tourism options that combine culture and gastronomic heritage.
That is all topped off by visiting the traditional markets –where the best ingredients from local producers are sold– as well as the villages of the Basque coast, where fishermen unload the catch of the day, which is one of the pillars of local cuisine and the main ingredient for the many restaurants and roast houses that fill the ports with the aromas of the sea and grilled food. From Zierbena, on the western end of the Basque coast, to Hondarribia, on the border with France, there are fishing ports which guarantee an unparalleled culinary experience: Plentzia, Bermeo, Mundaka, Elantxobe, Lekeitio, Ondarroa, Mutriku, Zumaia, Getaria, Orio, and San Sebastián.
The excellence of the ingredients and expertise of the chefs are the identifying marks of Basque cuisine. To promote this way of understanding gastronomy, the Euskadi Gastronomika club has been created – a network made up of restaurants, bars, shops, and other establishments which meet a series of criteria in terms of their rigor and commitment; a guarantee for those who wish to enjoy the region’s tastiest dishes.