It is no coincidence that, in the 30 years since Franco’s death, Spanish creativity in the arts, architecture, business, and gastronomy has blossomed. It is also no coincidence that it has been, predominantly, though not exclusively, Spain’s sub-national and regional groups — who were repressed most viciously by the Fascist dictator — that have led this rebirth. Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, designer of some of the most stunning buildings of all time, and Catalonian Ferran Adría, who runs what is, almost undisputedly, the world’s best restaurant, are but two whose genius has prospered in the post-Franco era. One could also point to more general trends of economic prosperity (prior to the recent global meltdown) in formerly moribund provincial cities like Bilbao and the resurgence of regional languages as evidence of this Spanish renaissance in recent times.
The Basque Country (País Vasco) has always been somewhat removed from mainstream Spanish affairs, even prior to the 20th century. Linguistically, ethnically and culturally unique, and surrounded on all sides by Indo-European speakers, the Basques have survived millennia of both active and passive discrimination, keeping their traditions alive with stubborn tenacity. One might be forgiven then, for assuming that these remarkable and unique people are a population of stolid conventionalists, unable or unwilling to change their habits. One would be wrong.
Historians trace the epicenter of today’s wave of Spanish gastronomic innovation to a small kitchen in San Sebastian (Donostía) in the mid-1970s. At his eponymous restaurant, Arzak, Juan Mari Arzak pioneered New Basque Cuisine (nueva cocina vasca) virtually single-handedly. Taking inspiration from the French nouvelle cuisine revolution of the late 60s — especially from Michel Guérard, whose spa-restaurant at Eugenie-les-Bains between Bordeaux and Biarritz was a particularly fine ‘local’ example — he began creating lighter and less rustic dishes from the finest traditional Basque ingredients and time-honored Basque techniques. Arzak has been so extraordinarily successful in this that not only do world-famous chefs Ferran Adría and Karlos Arguiñano credit him with heavily influencing their cooking, but his restaurant has retained the 3 Michelin star-rating it achieved in 1989, and only last year it was named the 8th best restaurant in the world.
Anyone who has eaten Basque food knows that it is characterized by simple, unadorned dishes with a weighting towards the maritime, like Marmitako (a tuna and tomato stew), Bacalao al Pil-Pil (salt cod in a spicy garlic sauce), and Txangurro (stuffed crabs), and Juan Mari Arzak’s signature dish — his hake in green sauce with clams — is of this same ilk, featuring very basic ingredients and unfussy technique.
Two things make Juan Mari Arzak such a revolutionary and this dish so seminal: (1) when he first made it, the dish demonstrated exquisitely, and for perhaps the first time by a Spanish chef, that Iberian dishes, Iberian ingredients and Iberian traditions could constitute haute cuisine — an idea that, today, resonates globally; (2) he showed in this dish that the cooking of the future would be as much, if not more, about what you didn’t do to the food as what you did do to it — a truly revolutionary notion at a time when the elaborate and time-intensive dishes of classic French gastronomy were still considered the pinnacle of the culinary arts.
Hake (merluza) is a staple of Spanish seafood cooking, and indeed, so influential has Arzak been that versions of this dish are still, 35 years later, pretty commonplace in Spain. I first ate it at a hole-in-the-wall tasca behind the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca years ago and I can still see its beautiful green color and feel the silkiness of the fish in my mind. Sadly, and for no good reason I can fathom, hake is difficult to get hold of on this side of the Atlantic and obtaining other white fish with similar properties is also problematic for the ethical consumer due to issues of over-fishing and scarcity. Nonetheless, sustainably managed Pacific cod is fairly readily-available, and most mild-flavored white fish, if left skin-on to keep it intact, will make a perfect substitute.
Juan Mari Arzak’s revelation of allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves is taken to its logical extreme here as he hardly applies his hands or any heat to create what is a fully cooked dish. Understanding that white fish can dry out and quickly fall apart if not dealt with delicately, all he does is gently caress it around a barely warm pan with garlic, olive oil, parsley, clam juice and wine. The emulsion created by this careful preparation is as sweet and elegant as you would expect from a three Michelin star chef, but with a flavor as robust as the ancestral Basque fare from which it comes, and as spirited as the revolution it began. Vivá la Revolucíon!
Hake in Green Sauce “Arzak” (serves 2)
Adapted from José Andres’ Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America
- 1/2lb hake, cod, halibut or other flaky white fish
- Dozen New Zealand clams or 6 manila clams
- 2 tbsp (2oz) best extra virgin olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- pinch of flour
- 2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp dry white wine
- salt and black pepper
- Immerse clams in boiling water for no more than 30 seconds.
- Remove clams from water and place in a bowl to catch juices as they open.
- In a 9-inch frying pan, warm olive oil gently and add garlic.
- Season fish with salt and pepper while garlic cooks.
- Do not allow garlic to color, and after a minute or two, stir in pinch of flour.
- Place fish skin side down in pan and add parsley.
- Gently shake the pan, or use a wooden spoon, so that fish moves around the pan in a circular motion.
- Make sure all clams opened and drain them of their juices.
- After three or four minutes (depending on fish thickness) carefully turn the fish over.
- Add shelled clams, clam juice and wine and continue to cook fish, moving it around in a circular fashion.
- Your sauce should look green and slightly shiny after about three more minutes.
- Serve immediately with some simple boiled or fried potatoes or really good bread.
- Enjoy a glass of dry white wine and toast the gastronomic revolution you’ve just taken part in.