Foto di Rafael Tonon

Why This Iconic Basque Restaurant Wants You to Treat Fish Like Meat

“We usually think of the fish as a whole thing, and don’t pay attention to the different flavors of the meat closer to the the spine or the tails, for example, or how jelly-like and sticky its head can be.”

Jun 11 2017, 5:00pm

Foto di Rafael Tonon

Getaria, a small coastal town located in Spanish Basque Country, is the kind of village you can drive right past if you get distracted by the sweeping views of idyllic, hilly landscapes. If anything about this town of less than 3,000 people is likely to catch your eye, it's the dozens of colorful little fishing boats floating in the bay. Where there are fishermen, there's good fish, and Getaria is known for having some of the best on the Urola Coast.

Every day, fishermen go out to sea and come back with kilos of turbots, merluzas, and mackerel to supply restaurants in the city and surrounding area. One of those establishments is Elkano, arguably the most acclaimed restaurant in Getaria.

""Seasonal," "head-to-tail," and "sustainable" have become recent buzzwords in the American culinary scene, but at Elkano, these words just describe the way things have been done since Pedro Arregui opened the restaurant in 1964. Arregui was inspired by Getarian fishermen who would grill fish on charcoal parrillas set up inside their boats to cook the fish fresh from the water.

All photos by author.

Arregui's restaurant—which gets its name from Getaria's most famous son: Juan Sebastián Elkano, the first sailor in the world to circumnavigate the earth—has been serving the whole fish for more than 50 years: the cheeks, the head, and even the tails are served as local delicacies.

The cheeks—the soft and tender flesh around the throat area, called kokotxas in Basque—are a favorite among the locals. Elkano, serves them three ways: grilled, confit, and al pil pil, the most traditional method of preparation, served with pil pil sauce made of olive oil, garlic, and guindillas (small local chilies).

Getarian restaurants like Elkano still keep their parrillas outside, which is quite a site for drivers who pass by the city streets lined with cooks shrouded in smoke clouds. The local bars have even started to set up grills in the streets to allow fishermen to roast their own fish in an attempt to keep them drinking at the bar for longer.

The fish at Elkano is so fresh that even the gonads are served alone as delicious starters. The mackerel head is also among the most popular items on the menu, served separate from the rest of the fish, the centerpiece of its own dish meant to be eaten by hand.

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But the highlight of the menu is a whole turbot, cooked on the charcoal grill and served on the bone. As owner Aitor Arregi, son of the founder, serves the fish, he explains the different textures of each part of the fish:

"We usually think of the fish as a whole thing, and don't pay attention to the different flavors of the meat closer to the the spine or the tails, for example, or how jelly-like and sticky its head can be."

Aitor's father was a local gastronomic legend who first put the grill on an altar and showed his diners what fishermen always knew: that every part of the fish has value.

Aitor explains that for beef or pork, we consider the cuts and distinctive parts of the animal, but for fish, we rarely differentiate. However, we should be treating fish similar to the way we treat meat in this respect.

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"The turbot, for example, has two colors of skin, and the color pigments may affect in the taste and the texture," he explains. "The darker skin is thicker and therefore can get crispier if well grilled."

When pulling the fins off the fish, he indicates we should eat with our hands to taste the flesh that gets stuck to it. "It's the turbot's chicken wings", he jokes.

According to Aitor, there are three things he has to consider to make outstanding food: product, terroir, and seasonality. For seafood, product is a synonym of freshness. "My only choice is to cook what I have really near to me, right?" he says. "My luck is that I have great fish around."

The terroir indicates not only what's usually available in the sea, but how local fish looks and tastes. "It's our quality control," he says. "Elkano's terroir is the Bay of Biscay and its three basic principles of the outstanding product are the closeness of the catch (freshness), where the animal has eaten, and temporality."

In order to serve seasonal fish, you need to know your product. Since mackerel eats a particular kind of tiny shrimp, for example, the best season for this shrimp dictates the best season for mackerel.

"If I didn't know that, I could fish and grill a fish not in its best moment", he points out. "I have to consider where the animal has eaten and its seasonality (before or after spawning).

"For us, this knowledge regarding our environment is more important than any cooking skill we could learn in a cooking school," Aitor says. "It's something we inherited from local fishermen, who we always had a close connection with since my father's time. We can't make good food by grilling a bad fish, but we can make an outstanding meal if we have the best catch on our grill."

Elkano's grill is still available for the fishermen and neighbors who want to cook their own fish there. It's a neighborhood policy that has only one stipulation, according to Aitor: That the fish is good.