Saturday, March 28, 2009

Basque Rustic Cuisine

This article was published at The Australian:

Basque in rustic glory

Christine McCabe

I WAS introduced to Basque cuisine a lifetime ago in, of all places, Reno, Nevada, at a small family-run restaurant where patrons crowded at long, communal tables tucking into steaming bowls of lamb stew.

In food-savvy San Francisco, Basque-born chef Gerald Hirigoyen has given his native cuisine a fresh, west coast twist at the acclaimed Piperade, one of this city's must-visit restaurants.

Set two blocks from the waterfront, wedged between the Embarcadero and the Financial District in a renovated warehouse, this charming eatery, opened seven years ago to rave reviews and a chef-of-the-year gong, is a long way from the humble shepherds' fare of northern Nevada or indeed the Basque country.

But Hirigoyen pays homage in the form of a large shepherd's table, anchor to the restaurant's rustic, but stylish, fittings that include an oversized clock face and a chandelier fashioned from used wine bottles.

Lunch starts late on a Friday here. Barely anyone tips up before 2pm, giving we famished tourists a substantial head start. Our French waitress is all smiles and clearly knows her way around the Spanish and California-centric wine list (where Basque wines are a feature), recommending a cava to start: d'Abbatis Brut Nature, Catalunya 2005 ($US10 ($14) a glass) made from 30-year-old parellada vines.

It's the perfect accompaniment to our entrees or tipiak (small plates): a sensational house-cured bacalao ($US12), salt cod topped with small, silken oysters and a drizzle of lemon creme fraiche, and a grande white bean salad served with boquerones (Spanish anchovies), fresh herbs and crumbled, hard-boiled eggs ($US11).

Our tipiak triumvirate is made replete with a wonderful, salty-licious terrine ($US12) of ham and sheep's-milk cheese finished with a crispy, caramelised crust and dressed with aged sherry. A perfect tapas dish designed to tickle the appetite and the thirst, never a bad thing when one is en vacance.

As the cava evaporates at an alarming rate, folk begin trickling into our warehouse bolthole, drawing up to linen-dressed tables lined with festive red, white and blue runners. You get the feeling this a favourite luncheon hideaway for city folk, set on a broad, leafystreet (there's even parking), with a relaxed, urbane atmosphere.

The mains, or handiak (big plates), are a slightly smaller, but just as tempting, selection of Basque-influenced dishes. The restaurant's namesake seems compulsory for first-timers: piperade ($US17), a traditional Basque concoction of sauteed peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic topped with serrano ham and a poached egg. It's simple but elegant, the Coco Chanel of stews. Just as light on the hips is another signature Hirigoyen dish, a braised seafood stew ($US20) of salmon, prawns, mussels, cockles and squid.

To wash down our mains we plunder the Spaniards again: a Vionta Albarino 2007 ($US10 a glass), a rather fashionable variety Stateside, and a Volver Tempranillo La Mancha (also $US10).

By mid-afternoon the small restaurant has filled with a cheerful local crowd giving it the cosy ambience of a corner cafe. There are zero tourists; one imagines they're loitering on the waterfront paying premium for Dungeness crab while missing this quintessential San Francisco dining experience.

Make a day of it by beginning at the nearby Embarcadero Ferry Plaza, exploring the wonderful food shops in this elegantly restored city landmark (artisan chocolates, cheeses and bread are specialities) before jumping a heritage trolley (or tram), reminiscent of Moscow, Milan, even Melbourne, along the waterfront. Then enjoy a stroll to Piperade if for no other reason than to order dessert. Hirigoyen's orange blossom beignets ($US8) are recommended in almost every food guide to the city, with good reason. They are divine.

Having lived in San Francisco for more than 25 years (and now operating two restaurants, including a casual tapas eatery in North Beach), Hirigoyen is firmly entrenched as one of city's leading food identities, his simple dishes a celebration of Basque tradition and Californian innovation.

He has said he doesn't want to be labelled a Spanish chef but enjoys integrating different flavours while drawing on his culinary roots.

And there's something very San Franciscan about his food: fresh ingredients prepared simply in relaxed surrounds where, with a little imagination, one can hear the jingle of a sheep's bell on a Nevada hillside.

From this blog we express our dream that one day those who write about the Basques will finally refrain from insulting our identity by calling us Spaniards.

And just so you know, there is an active Basque community in Australia.

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