In Basque Country, the pandemic has served as a reminder of the extent to which food forms the fabric of local life. Eating well is a priority throughout Spain’s northern autonomous community, and seems, to some local chefs, even more so now.
The region is an endless feast. Culinary destinations beckon beyond the many Michelin-starred restaurants. You’ll find pintxo bars littered with waxy paper napkins, and people grazing on two-bite savory snacks, like croquetas or Spanish tortilla, atop a slice of bread and skewered with a toothpick; and sidrerías (cider bars) tucked in the lush green mountains, with patrons slicing into a fire-grilled steak the size of a forearm while sipping fizzy natural cider.
“Our culture is based on food,” said Álvaro Garrido, chef and owner of the Michelin-starred Mina, a restaurant in Bilbao’s La Vieja neighborhood. “Geographically, we’re very lucky,” he said, with access to fresh seafood from the Cantabrian Sea, high-quality produce from small, family-run farms, and meat and dairy from livestock raised on verdant pastures. The result is a strong culinary heritage that even the edgiest chefs hold sacred — and, of course, draws food worshippers from around the world.
Garrido and his partner, Lara Martín, who runs Mina’s front-of-house, earned their first Michelin star in 2013 and have since garnered a following. On rare days off, when Garrido is not in the kitchen with the Mina “warriors,” as he calls his staff, the native Bilbaino visits suppliers or enjoys a meal at a nearby restaurant prepared by one of his peers.
I first interviewed Garrido in December of 2019, to tap into his extensive restaurant knowledge and discover some of his favourite locales in Basque Country. (I worked as a kitchen intern at Mina for about six weeks in 2014.) Shortly after, the pandemic brought the hospitality industry to a sputtering standstill. Restaurants across Spain were forced to shutter by government mandate, some never reopened. But some of the places on Garrido’s list managed to quickly pivot their businesses. Zarate, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bilbao known for its pristine seafood, converted a street-facing slice of its dining room into a seafood counter with takeaway dishes. Others waited until outdoor dining was approved and doubled down on their terrace service. Because of the largely extroverted, deeply food-centered culture, local customers were eager to return.Then, there was that characteristically Basque spirit of resilience, which helped restaurants to navigate during some of the bleakest moments of the pandemic — the people of the region are no strangers to persevering in the face of adversity. Amaia Garcia de Albizu, the manager of Arrea! and sister of chef-owner Edorta Lamo, told me, “when the crisis arrived, it reminded us of our grandparents during the Spanish Civil War.” Mindful of the hardships of their ancestors, they did their best to soldier on and maintain a sense of gratitude.
Ultimately, all of the restaurants on Garrido’s list pulled through the pandemic. The national tourism industry association, Exceltur, predicted in a January report that Spain’s tourism gross domestic product could reach about 88 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels in 2022 (135 billion euros, or about $138 billion) — that’s about 47 billion euros above 2021, though that is still 19 billion euros lower than about 155 billion of 2019. With the return of tourism, the region has boomeranged back to life and the vibe among many restaurant owners is cautiously optimistic.