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.
46 thoughts on “Hake “Juan Mari Arzak”: The Dish That Inspired a Revolution”
Simple, yet beautiful…how fresh fish should be!
Viva la Revolucion!
Oh boy… I adore Basque Food! And you are right, Juan Mari Arzak and now his daughter Elena run one of the best restaurants in the world. I still have to visit it; waiting lists are loooooong.
This merluza en salsa verde could perfectly be a clone of the one they serve in the restaurant :D. Fresh Hake is one of the keys to success! Bravo chicos.
I was wondering how you would tie-up this article from Franco to fish! This dish speaks to me, you know my love of clean flavours for seafood and I’m “all in” on this one. Gracias Gringo!
What a fabulous post… I loved the history and the dish sounds spectacular. Basque food is just on my radar… now I want to do more exploring… thanks so much!!!
This is one brilliant post…
OK guys you know I love fish–so this is on the menu when you get here—YAY_ Beats fish and chips!
Your fish look so tempting and delicious! Love the green sauce to go with it.
This looks heavenly. I love the simple and honest flavors in Basque cuisine ALMOST as much as I love your writing. I learn something new with every visit!
Tina/Deana/Miriam – Thank you! Thank you! It means a lot that you’re enjoying the writing. It’s a labor of love.
such a gorgeous dish, presentation and story! love it all.
Wonderful post, writing and wonderful dish, what a lovely combination of ingredients. I need to dig out an Elizabeth David recipe for salt cod that (if I remember correctly) is rather like this to compare notes.
Do you think this would work with salt cod, well soaked of course?
We are planning a trip to Spain and the basque country (hopefully Vincenzo will play concerts there) so this is lovely and inspiring stuff for our planning.
Rach – i’m absolutely sure you could use baccala/bacalao in this providing it was properly reconstituted. You might have to be even gentler with it than with a fresh fish, but I’m sure it’d be delicious.
Amy and I love the Basque Country, and like the rest of green Spain it’s beautiful, lush and charmingly untrammeled by lager-swilling Brits!
I spent some time in San Sebastian in 2007 and loved it there, especially after I stumbled upon a neighborhood that tourists don’t frequent. It’s where I had the best food.
This dish looks so delicious it moved me to write my first comment on your blog-though I’ve been reading it for a while. I will have to try this recipe this weekend. Great writing, too! Cheers!
If people have the cook techniques , a delicious dish can also be made from simple materials .
A little gastronomic history lesson on a plate – love it! Also love the fact that I can (at least sometimes) get some good wild hake here, so I should try creating my own little piece of history sometime…
I love this post! The photos are beautiful.The commentary and historical perspective,not to mention the recipe, make this a great read.
Very beautiful photographs and food. I will make this dish soon.
I like my food with a side of history. Nice background! This looks super simple but I can see how it would have started a revolution. Is hake anything like Chilean “sea bass”?
Marc-Thanks for the comment and question. I deliberately steered clear of naming “chilean sea bass” among the possible alternatives for hake in this dish because, although I’m sure it would work absolutely perfectly, the Patagonian toothfish (aka the marketing man’s Chilean sea bass) is a highly unsustainably-sourced fish (with a comparatively long breeding cycle) and we try to make ingredient recommendations that aren’t environmentally-damaging. Visit Oceana.org for more information about choosing sustainable fish.
Great post! I love the Basque culture and food- when I lived in Toulouse, we would make frequent sojourns to both the French and Spanish Basque country.
I read the book “Cod” by Mark Kurlansky a few months ago, and he made the cod situation seem pretty dire. I’m curious as to the “responsibly maintained” Pacific stocks you mention; I’d love to eat more cod but have avoided it because of the sustainability issues.
Thanks Noelle – the situation with cod is indeed pretty dire, in general, but from what I understand, it is the Atlantic cod fisheries that are nearly terminally depleted. By contrast (and this information comes via Oceana.org’s handily-downloadable fish-buying guide) Pacific Cod is “Faring much better than their Atlantic counterparts, Pacific Cod populations are healthy and abundant. Managers limit catches and account for bycatch.” Other sustainably-managed Pacific fish like sablefish (black cod) and Pacific halibut would also be good for this dish.
This is a nice looking sauce for your fish.
Brilliant photos and plating, a very interesting history with good research, and the recipe wasn’t at all bad either. Do you think mahi mahi will work? I can get that and, according to oceana, it is ok.
Yep, aware of the issues with “sea bass”, but was just curious if it was as oil laden or if it was something dryer, because I usually the less commonly known sablefish as a sustainable substitute for CSB.
We have a good source for hake, but if subbing I think I’d use halibut instead of sablefish for this, since it’s less oily. I made marmitako with swordfish a few days ago, and it turned out pretty well. Nice work with the history- I just did a ton of research on Basque food for a writing gig and now I’m trying to come up with a way to get my as over there to do some eating.
Claudia / Marc – i’m not sure about mahi. As Peter points out, the “dryer” types of white fish are best here as the sauce is an emulsion that can break quite easily with too much liquid. That said, I think if you were careful with the clam juice and wine, a slightly oilier or “moister” white fish like mahi or sablefish could work nicely.
Peter – I have made this with both halibut and swordfish too. I didn’t recommend the latter because sustainably sourced swordfish isn’t easy to find, but both worked brilliantly. The former because moisture levels were easy to control and the latter because even with a more aggressive pan-shaking technique, the fish stays together marvelously. Good work on the marmitako. It’s a big fave of ours – rustic, powerful and filling – and you must get yourself over there. Bourdain interviewed Juan Mari and Elena Arzak on his show a while back and they were saying that the bounty of delicious food and great cooking is a Basque birth-right. I guess junk food, over-work, stress, obesity and expensive healthcare are American birth-rights. Doesn’t seem fair somehow.
Beautiful, looks just perfectly delicious, and I really loved the whole post and it’s many thoughtful comments. (Sadly, my comment is not so thoughtful, but it’s complimentary and that’s something, right?)
oh – how this is the way i love to cook……….
simple, elegant and beautiful- the dish, as well as the writing! a really interesting write-up, i love to know more about the place the food came from, its people, its history. it makes the food all that more incredible. have you tried Txacoli? my preferred tipple from Basque. best wishes, shayma
I love the great writing and historic perspectives. Sablefish is one of my favorite, so I’m glad to see you recommending it for this dish. And it looks like I’m just getting started on the rest of your blog, so many lovely Spanish recipes I don’t have familiarity with and can’t wait to try.
Thanks for the lesson in Spanish cuisine! Just recently (last few years) started to exploring Spain and love, love, love it!
I was lucky to have a friend introduce me to Basque cuisine a few years back — and it’s such a wonderful illustration of how a few well-chosen quality ingredients can be combined with good technique to create seriously swoon-worthy dishes. This looks like one of those!
What kind of olive oil did you use for this dish? I’m imagining something on the fruitier side of the Spanish oils…?
Lo – it was núñez de prado – andalucian olive oil from Baena. expensive but fruity and nutty and about the best I’ve ever tasted.
I’m a little late to the party here but I saved this post to read when I could do so without distraction. I was fascinated with your reference to the Franco regime because he was the cause of my maternal grandparents leaving Spain and settling in the U.S. While I’ve been to Spain quite a few times, I’ve never been to the Basque country. I know…what a bad foodie am I! This is a lovely dish and I’m fascinated that it’s only 2 tbs of olive oil and 2 of parsley. It looks so silky and green. Muy bien hecho, muchachos!
Great post indeed!! There is something that I’d like to say. Spain is now one of the most important reference in European cooking, but our food is more than “tortilla española” or “paella” which are known worldwide. There are 17 self-governing regions where you can have really fabulous dishes. Where I live, for example, in Galicia (northwestern part of Spain) we have the best fish and seafood of all the country, but have you ever heard about it?
Pilar – we absolutely agree with you, and the point I was trying to make is that regional cooking – in this case Basque – has not only contributed to turning Spanish cuisine into one of the most advanced, but has also helped to popularize it internationally. As you say, unfortunately, paella and tortilla española have, as has “tapas”, been used and abused by charlatans trying to cash-in on this popularity, which has done much to erode the increased understanding of Spain’s regional cuisine. It’s a shame because “national” dishes of this kind should be a gateway to the more unique foods of Spain, indeed, for my part, a friendship with the Castillian owner of a tapas bar in London that I used to eat at twice a month, introduced me to Spanish food, but it was only when he told me that if i wanted to eat real Spanish food instead of the popularized stuff on his menu, I would have to visit the hinterlands of Iberia, that I started to get it. I then had one of my most important culinary “revelations” in Galicia – eating seafood in Vigo, Santiago and A Coruña – as well as working my way across ‘green Spain’ eating amazing cheeses, bean dishes and fantastic cakes in Asturias and Cantabria.
You probably don’t know his name since compared to the real greats he studied under he is comparatively little know in Spain, or if you do, you won’t have seen his show, but I should credit Jose Andres with making a serious attempt to shed light on regional Spanish food in his show on US public TV “Made in Spain”. He visits most regions of the country and focuses on the best local foods and dishes. I sympathize with you though, as being English, it always saddens me that the reputation of English food is such that nobody gets past the five pub grub dishes they are used to, fixating on the terrifying “kidney pie”, which for some reason is always thought of minus its steak component. Nonetheless, important regional foods, cheeses, beers, ciders, pies, cakes and some first-class seafood and meats are entirely overlooked either because of ignorance or because few people care to look beyond the familiar few things they know. Perhaps, we need a US equivalent of Jose Andres for British food?
Thank you for your response. I do know José Andrés, in fact he had a TV show in Spain some years ago. I also have one of his cookbooks. I know he is really working to make spanish food more popular in some other countries.
I have seen some of Jamie Oliver’s shows and I think that he also has done good for British food overseas.
Forgive my english but I don’t practise very often, but I think you will understand my point of view.
@Pilar – entiendo su punto de vista perfectamente y su ingles esta muy bien – mucho mejor que mi castillano! Es interessante que Jose Andres tenia una programa en Espana – yo no sabia eso! Convengo con usted a cerca de el trabajo de Jamie Oliver por la cucina inglesa. Pienso que el unico problemo con el (Oliver) esta que su personalidad ha llegado desmasiado grande – mas grande que el punto de su trabajo – una vergüenza.
Gracias por su visita a nuestra blog! Hasta pronto.
This is one of my favorite dish ever. Thank you for paying such a great homage. Beautiful! Arzak was my dad’s favorite restaurant when i was growing up in the Basque region. Unfortunately i was a bit too young so he would rather go eat there with his business buddies. Damn it! I had some great versions of this dish, though. And yours looks just as good. I think it’s time i make it for myself.
Well I’m almost caught up to your real-time blogs–but I’m loving these old ones–all new to me, of course!! This is a great book re: Basque folks and history of COD—just finished reading it and have loaned it to several people—who knew?? COD freaks are out there!! Thanks so much for your inspired writing–
@Deb: Thanks so much for your kind comments. We’re delighted that you’re reading our blog (and even better that you’re up to date). Thanks for the link to the cod book. I have read a book about the “cod wars” previously about the fights between Britain, Iceland and Norway over the North Atlantic fisheries, which was fascinating insight into the way that European populations fed themselves and how important those fisheries were to them. i’ll definitely check out this book though.
This a nice recipe, but having tried it my advice is to make the sauce separately, using wine, clams, parsley and garlic and butter. That way you can cook the fish perfectly and avoid getting it too wet.
@Russell: that’s an interesting option. You’d have to be careful not to overcook//dry the fish out, and make sure to add some flour to the sauce, otherwise it won’t thicken, which is necessary to emulsify the oil/butter, wine and clam juice.