Sit down at a restaurant in the Basque Country, and you’ll see a menu full of dishes that won’t be found elsewhere in Spain. This region in the northern corner of Spain, home to over 2 million people, has its own unique identity, language, and culinary traditions. But to order a meal, you must become familiar with a few basics of the Basque vocabulary (the Basque language, Euskara, doesn’t resemble Spanish in the slightest).
First, to drink. Considering the menu with a glass of txakoli in hand is a great start to a meal. Txakoli is a lightly sparkling, dry white wine that is produced in the Basque Country. It flows freely throughout this region of northern Spain, and local vineyards often welcome visitors to taste at the source.
For snacks instead of a full meal, bars in the Basque Country serve excellent bites, or pintxos. These small bites, often eaten standing up at the bar, are a great way to surround yourself with locals. When in San Sebastian, seek out a Gilda, a skewer of pickled peppers, salt-cured anchovies and plump olives (the name comes from a Rita Hayworth character in the 1946 film, “Gilda”).
Personally, I’ll order anything with idiazabal, a nutty sheeps milk cheese made in the Basque Country. It can be smoked or plain, eaten on its own or as part of a dish. If you like spice, keep an eye out for piparra, a narrow, bright green, slightly spicy pepper. Fish lovers will want to try marmitako, tuna stew and kokotxa, the fleshy part of the jaw of a fish, often hake. The Basque language is full of fun letter combinations, with lots of x’s thrown in. After a glass of txakoli, you could order txipirones (squid, often served in its own ink) or txangurro (crab).
One final word to be aware of is sagardotegiak, or cider houses. Cider can be sampled straight from the barrel and the menu is often full of classic Basque dishes. When you raise your glass, say: topa (cheers)!