San Sebastián, Spain. During the month that my husband and I recently spent in Basque Country, several sets of American friends rendezvoused with us. All had been on the road for an interval and arrived craving vegetables.
Though the markets were heaped with fresh produce, it didn’t find its way into most tourist fare, especially not at the famous pintxo bars, their counters laden with mayonnaise-saturated snacks and fried croquettes. Even at the constellation of Michelin-starred restaurants, where food is an art form, it’s hard to get a healthy helping of veggies.
In my home-away-from-home, I cooked for our visitors, using ingredients bought at local markets. For those with the time and interest, I proposed a trip to my favorite ones.
Those markets are one of the things that keep us coming back to Basque Country, where we’ve spent a total of almost three months during the past five years. At first, knowing little about the cuisine, I used regional and seasonal ingredients to prepare foods the way I would back home. Bit by bit, I became a Brooklyn girl who cooks like a Basque.
This region is divided into seven provinces – three in southwest France and four in northeast Spain – and we’ve rented houses or apartments on both sides of the border. The ingredients are as diverse as the topography. From the mountains came lamb, beef and free-range chickens. Mushrooms grew in fields, woodlands and even along the road. From the sea there are many kinds of fish, including some for which neither my French nor my Spanish dictionary provides a translation. But no importa (it doesn’t matter), as they say in Spain. I am here to eat in their language.
On my Kindle I have a small library of Basque cookbooks. The one I recommend to travelers who want a broad overview of the cuisine is Marti Buckley’s 2018 book, Basque Country: A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise. Arranged mostly by province, it includes plenty of well-researched narrative that can help visitors identify what they see in the market or on restaurant menus. And for those not inclined to spring for a costly grilled turbo meal at a local establishment, her step-by-step instructions for cooking it in the oven are absolutely fail-safe.
That said, one of the great joys of spending time here is talking about food in the markets. Basque food was traditionally produced at home or on fishing boats, and people are delighted to help foreigners who want to try their hand at it.
Each market has a distinctive vibe. Because the produce varies each week, depending on the weather and the harvest, so does the shopping experience. Prices for almost everything are noticeably lower in the Spanish provinces than on the French side. For the best selection and to avoid the crowds, get there by 9:30; things start to wind down at about noon. On-street parking near the market is nearly impossible, so I include parking hacks here. All of the following morning markets are also accessible by public transportation.
Parking hack. Set your GPS to San Bartolome Kalea, 7. That’s the address for the Eroski supermarket behind the train station. Adjacent to it is a municipal parking lot where you can leave the car. From there it’s a five-minute walk to the market: Facing the church in the distance, head toward the tracks, pass through a small tunnel underneath them, turn right and ascend the stairs that twist uphill. At the top of the stairs, in front of the Goiagi panadería (bread shop), turn left on Etxezarreta Kalea, which leads into the market square. Or, step into the shop first for a loaf of whatever bread just came out of the oven, and a package of their buttery sugar cookies.
Each Wednesday morning for centuries, almost without interruption, there has been a farmer’s market in Ordizia at Plaza Nagusia. And but for the clothing styles, one gets the impression that it hasn’t changed much over the years. Front and center, on a recent October morning, was a table spread with seasonal delicacies: many varieties of mushrooms, walnuts, hazelnuts and chestnuts. Elsewhere, between the pavilion’s Corinthian columns, were abundant displays of apples, pears and long flat green beans known as vainas. My market “find” that day was two pounds of freshly roasted, hand-peeled piquillo peppers, which I had been unable to procure elsewhere in a small quantity.
Opposite the plaza, men in long green robes and wearing boinas, the Basque beret, were preparing to judge wheels of Idiazabal. It’s a hard, rough-textured, pressed Basque sheep’s milk cheese. Though named for a village, and now regulated by PDO (protected designation of origin) guidelines, Idiazabal has been produced for centuries all over Basque Country. The smoky version, distinguishable by its orangey rind, is said to have its origins in the days when farmers hung the wheels of cheese in the smokehouse.
Because so many varieties of Idiazabal are for sale at the Ordizia market, it’s a great place to, in effect, conduct your own cheese contest. At the slightest expression of interest, vendors hold out samples. The challenge is to exercise enough restraint not to buy the first good one you taste.
Parking hack: Set your GPS to Paseo de Belate, 1. It’s actually the address of the Yoseba Barriola butcher shop that we patronized. As you cruise by his store, you will see a blue sign directing you to the nearest underground parking lot. From there it’s a five-minute walk to the market.
The Basques are experts at capturing freshness at its peak and preserving seasonal foods until the next harvest. This was very much in evidence on my first two visits to the Saturday morning market in Tolosa. It takes place on three historic plazas in this city on the bank of the Oria River: Plaza de la Verdura, with flowers and plants; Euskal Herria Plaza, where clothing and textile stands mingle with those selling produce; and Puerta de Castilla, an open-air pavilion filled with small tables at which individual farmers sell whatever they have just picked.
On the last weekend of September, all the excitement was about guindillas – small, green hot peppers. The Basques bottle them in vinegar for at least three months before using them. Among other things, the pickled guindillas are a key ingredient in the famous pintxo called the Gilda: a stack of guindillas threaded through a toothpick with an anchovy and an olive. Meant to resemble a shapely woman, it is named for Charles Vidor’s 1946 film noir, starring Rita Hayworth as a seductress and Glenn Ford as the love of her life.
I hadn’t asked for guindillas when I stopped by the farm stand of Maria Teresa Jauregi, who comes from the town of Anoeta, about 20 miles northwest of Tolosa. But after I paid for my purchases, the man who waited on me filled a small paper bag with guindillas and threw it into my market bag. “Fry them in olive oil and sprinkle on a little salt,” he said.
My mission had been to gather everything I needed to cook alubias, the purplish beans for which Tolosa is famous. These, too, had just been harvested, and were on display, already shelled, in burlap bags around the market. Passersby didn’t hesitate to scoop up a handful of beans, run them through their fingers, and move on.
Those buying beans that day intended to dry them for future use – the dark beans should not be cooked fresh, patrons told me again and again. And before cooking dried alubias, like last year’s crop, which was also for sale, one must soak them overnight.
That was where the consensus ended about how to prepare this dish. As with other beans, you cover them with water and simmer them until they are tender; with these beans that took about 90 minutes. Some people sauté vegetables before adding the beans, as I was inclined to do during the harvest. The vendor whom I consulted loaded me up with leeks, onions, carrots and Gernika peppers, all of which were in season. Serve sliced cabbage on the side, he advised, cutting half a Savoy cabbage for me when I insisted that a whole one was more than I could use.
Alubias are often served with an assortment of meats – pork belly, sausages and pigs’ feet or ears if they strike your fancy. I bought mine from the stand operated by Mahala, a farmhouse that is situated in the town of Leaburu. The vendor and clients at that stand were adamant that they should be boiled separately – not cooked with the beans – but others disagreed.
No matter what their advice, locals basically told me that even a gringa couldn’t screw up. And having prepared this classic dish twice during my latest visit to Basque Country, I’m convinced that they were right.
Parking hack: Set your GPS to the Tour de Sault, park in the lot under the tower, which is at the edge of the old city. From there it is a five-minute walk to the market, first on a winding path that leads to the Ardour, and then down a dark alley of the old city that lets out on the Quai de la Nive.
Before I discovered the market in Tolosa, Bayonne was my Saturday morning heartthrob. Of all the markets I have been to in the world, the setting of this one is among the most beautiful. And when I returned there this year, on a warm, sunny October day, it was even more gorgeous than I remembered.
Built at the confluence of the Ardour and Nive rivers, Bayonne was for several centuries a major commercial center. Today artisans’ studios line the cobblestone streets of the old market area. On Saturday mornings, vendors put up their stands along the Nive, creating an explosion of colors, the predominant ones in autumn being the green, red and orange of the squash and pepper harvests. While waiting to be served, shoppers have a view not only of the produce but also of the river and half-timbered four- and five-story Basque city houses on the opposite bank, trimmed in red, green or blue.
Market day makes this city feel like a small town, with fashionably dressed citizens of all generations air-kissing as they greet one another and catch up on the latest gossip. Like other shoppers, we look for our favorite stands. Year after year we feel comforted to find them in the same place, or saddened when a familiar character disappears from the lineup.
At the intersection of Quai de la Nive and Pont Marengo, on my most recent visit, I was delighted to see the cheese vendor, whose schtick never grows old. To each client who will listen, she describes the fresh mountain air that makes the sheep’s milk cheese, or brebis, that she sells taste unique. She represents the farmers of Iodki, but you would think that she had made the cheese herself. After cutting into a wheel this time, she held it up to her nose and approvingly inhaled the aroma.
Next stop: the Pont Marengo, which crosses the Nive in front of the three-story riverfront house that holds the Musée Basque. This ethnographic museum, with rooms devoted to various themes, including domestic life, sports and religion, is worth a visit. But on market days we’re more interested in what vendors are selling – and it varies. One of our favorites is a merchant with nothing else but young kiwis from the South of France, but, of course, only when they are in season.
My autumn market splurge is a single, perfect cèpe – a woody-tasting mushroom from the Irati Forest. One of the largest beech forests in Europe, comprising more than 42,000 acres in the Pyrenees, it straddles France and Spain. The fall crop of cèpes, with their reddish-brown caps and dense stems, are prized items at the market. Fetching €28 per kilo (about $14 per pound), they are out of reach for many shoppers, but attract their share of enthusiasts who fork over euros in big denominations.
No visit to Bayonne is complete without ducking inside the adjacent covered market (Les Halles), which is also open weekdays until 2:00 (Fridays until 3:00). My favorite vendor there is the butcher Olivier Halty, with his long line of loyal customers. It’s my go-to source for Bayonne sausage, ham and any other meats I’m in the mood to cook. For those who don’t want to fuss on weekends, there’s Pâté du Dimanche (Sunday paté), as it’s called on Saturdays. On subsequent days of the week (except for Mondays, when the counter is closed), they simply change the name of this item; the customer behind me confirmed my hunch: It’s all the same stuff.
Parking hack: Set your GPS to the Indigo Parking lot, at 31 Boulevard Victor Hugo, which is half a block from the market.
You can smell the ocean from the outdoor market in this ultra-scenic former whaling village. Rain or shine, it’s held on Tuesday and Friday mornings, around the perimeter of the covered market (Les Halles). I was a regular during the month that we rented a house in St. Jean-de-Luz, and on a different trip when we lived for six weeks in Sare – a one-street mountain village ten miles away.
When I returned this year, from my base in Spanish Basque Country, my focus was on items that were unique to this market. I passed up most fruits and vegetables, which were less expensive on the other side of the border. But I stocked up on shallots, which are almost impossible to find in this part of Spain; they’re prevalent in French cooking, but not in Basque cuisine.
I never leave the St. Jean-de-Luz market without patronizing the cheese vendor at the north-facing entrance to Les Halles, whose stand usually has a very long queue. Among other things, he sells Ossau-Iraty, a sheep’s milk cheese with a nutty flavor, which is softer and creamier than the Idiazabal that’s so prevalent in Spanish markets.
Missing French bread – in Spain the staff of life does not compare – we stopped by our favorite village purveyor: La Grange à Pains, the boulangerie opposite the south side of Les Halles. The ubiquitous Basque cake also tends to be better in France, where it is called gâteau Basque, than in Spain, where one asks for pastel vasco. It comes in several sizes (including an individual portion), looks like a small covered pie and has the consistency of shortbread. The typical filling is cherry preserves or cream, often laced with rum. In St. Jean-de-Luz we buy it either at this boulangerie or at Arraya, which has a stand in Les Halles.
Our favorite stops at Les Halles are not dependent on it being a market day. The poissonnerie, or fish store, remains my preferred source for scallops when they are in season – another item that’s more readily available in France. And I swoon for the brandade at Maison Lacabe. This hearty winter specialty is an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil. Maison Lacabe prepares theirs with potatoes, making it more creamy than chunky. I love it with bread as a picnic food, and have also used it to stuff the sweet piquillo peppers. This year those peppers came from the Ordizia market. I served them to our American visitors and called them pintxos.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, chronicling her adventures in Basque Country. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.