Marti Buckley is a chef and writer from Alabama, who has spent the past eight years living and working in San Sebastian in the Basque Country of Spain.
Buckley’s “Basque Country: A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise” (Artisan, $35), includes 100 recipes that were gleaned from her immersion in the culture and foodways of the region, and the regions within the region.
Starting off with the internationally recognized culinary scene and its unprecedented number of Michelin starred restaurants, and exploring dishes from bars, private dining clubs and home cooks, Buckley’s “Basque Country” is both a guidebook and a cookbook.
Richly illustrated with photographs of the people and places, it provides a surprisingly thorough introduction to Basque history, language and food values, which in turn illuminate the wheres and whys of the traditional recipes she shares, sometimes for the first time anywhere.
In September, Buckley will be in Atlanta for a demo and talk at the AJC Decatur Book Festival, and a ticketed event at Cooks & Soldiers, a restaurant inspired by the pintxo bars of San Sebastian.
Recently, she called from San Sebastian to talk about “Basque Country,” and her unlikely journey from the southeastern U.S. to the northwest corner of Spain.
“I more or less grew up in the South in Louisiana and Alabama, but I guess you could say I’m from Birmingham, really,” Buckley says. “I went to LSU for college and I got placed in Spain to study abroad, so that was really the beginning of my discovery of the Basque Country.”
After that first visit to Spain, Buckley finished her degree in English literature, returned to Birmingham, and took a job at Southern Living. Later, she went to work for Frank Stitt, one of the South’s most celebrated chefs.
“I wanted to see what it was like to cook in a professional kitchen,” Buckley remembers. “A friend got me a stage at Bottega Cafe. I thought I was horrible. But they asked me to come back, and then they hired me. So that was where I began cooking, and that, along with my time in Spain, drove me towards San Sebastian.
“In 2010, that was a destination that was getting more and more famous for food, and I had always wanted to go back to Spain at some point, so it seemed like an obvious choice. When I made the move to San Sebastian, I wondered why there wasn’t more being written about it in English. Once I discovered how rich and deep the food culture is, I wanted to write about it.”
Asked about her love for the country and the culture, Buckley is immediately enthused.
“First of all there’s this stunning natural beauty,” she says. “The sea, the mountains, the rolling green hills, and it’s cloudy, so there’s this moody, magical quality that’s easy to fall in love with. And for me, it’s the food, and because of the geographic location, the foodways are still intact. Like no other culture I know, they’re just obsessed with what they eat.
“It becomes a thing they do in their free time. There are the famous dining societies, and they cook together, and there’s this enthusiasm around the table that is exciting to watch and exciting to partake in. One of the hallmarks of Basque cuisine is how plain it is, and how simple it is. But they get away with it, because it is so product-focused, and the products are so good.”
Among the things Buckley points out for readers of “Basque Country” is that most traditional preparations are meant to coax the flavor from the main ingredients — be it seafood, meat or vegetables — and not mask them with sauce or spice. Also, dishes tend to stand alone, in a way that’s the opposite of the Southern meat-and-three.
“I don’t think you can emphasize enough how this country is a total culinary gem,” Buckley says. “And the richness goes so far beyond what the typical tourist might see. The Basque language is like no other language in the world. Nobody even really knows where it came from.
“So it’s a hard culture to crack. It’s hard to get under the surface. And not to toot my own horn, but I think this is one of the first books to really to get to the bottom of many different recipes, and the story and culture behind the recipes. That’s pretty exciting.”
These recipes with introductions from Marti Buckley’s “Basque Country: A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise” (Artisan, $35), cover the breadth, simplicity and richness of traditional Basque cooking. And though the Basque people might not present them this way, taken together they make a great three-course meal for four.
Shrimp Kebabs With Pepper Vinaigrette (Ganba Brotxeta)
The bar that made the ganba brotxeta famous, Goiz Argi, is on San Sebastian’s crowded Fermín Calbetón Street, where two of every three storefronts is a restaurant or bar. The flow of people begins around 11 a.m. and continues into the wee hours.
Bar Goiz Argi’s specialty is this bacon-and-shrimp kebab, simply charred and topped with pepper and onion vinaigrette. To make these kebabs at home, you’ll need a griddle or large, flat skillet. They also taste fantastic grilled.
Riojan Potato-Chorizo Stew (Patatak Errioxar Erara)
A peasant dish, patatak errioxar erara (patatas a la riojana in Spanish) was created to fill the bellies of the very laborers responsible for the production of its components. It is not often found outside of the Rioja region, which is surprising, as it is both easy to make and composed of staple pantry ingredients: potatoes, onions, wine, and chorizo. Potatoes are the pride of the province of Araba, and one freshly dug from its soil is truly a revelation.
Just like any other vegetable, potatoes have a shelf life, so the fresher you can find, the better. However, this dish is a forgiving one; the fat from the chorizo, the starch from the potatoes, and the rich broth come together in a crowd-pleasing stew.
La Vina Cheesecake (Gazta Tarta)
The walls at La Viña, a bar at the end of San Sebastián’s Calle 31 de Agosto, are lined with stack upon stack of cheesecakes, still in their springform pans. They come down gradually as the day goes on: A steady stream of the most famous cheesecake in all of Europe. Cheesecake is an ancient baked good, and this Basque adaptation conquers the hearts and stomachs of foreigners from everywhere, even visiting Manhattanites schooled in the art of cheesecake eating.
Somewhere between a New York cheesecake and a flan, La Viña cheesecake sets the gold standard in Basque Country. Part of this dessert’s joy is its abundance. Tall, creamy, and downright sinful, the combination of five simple ingredients is ethereal. This cake needs no crust — the parts of the cake in contact with the pan brown faster, forming a natural crust that transitions gradually into the creamiest of cheese custards. Serve with a glass of sherry.