In Etxebarri, a restaurant-“asador” in the idyllic valley of Atxondo in the Basque Country, the grilling revolution has been underway for years. The ingenuity of Bittor Arguinzoniz –its owner and promoter– with his premium raw ingredients knows no bounds.
The reinvention of fire, the raw material par excellence. The empire of the "asador" (the traditional Spanish roast-meat restaurant) strikes back with its own particular “home-based research”, and the star players are ingenuity and good sense, as applied by the brilliant Bittor Arguinzoniz in the unique science of suspending the most delicious delicacies over the embers.
Avant-garde grilling has been part of the repertoire at the wonderful Etxebarri for a long time now, and has deservedly been rewarded with some outstanding prizes, such as being named one of the 15 best restaurants in the “50 Best Restaurants” ranking.
Etxebarri: The beautiful sound of silence
But before starting the fire, let's locate the landscape, the person and his basic work. I suggest that readers should close their eyes, take a deep breath and conjure up in their mind's eye the scenery of the Basque Country; an interior landscape where the silence can be heard, where soaring enigmatic gray peaks stand watch like sentinels over a calm and peaceful valley with rolling green pastures crisscrossed by streams and rivulets and dotted with charming farmsteads.
Here in the depths of this relaxing scene lies a peaceful village with harmonious forms, and a picturesque square that is guaranteed to deplete your camera or mobile phone battery. If you still believe in dream landscapes, far removed from that odious word "saturation", all you need to do is travel to the valley of Atxondo in Vizcaya and begin your pleasant visual odyssey anywhere you like, but particularly to this restaurant that for many years has been at the forefront of transforming this cooking technique into a unique art.
This restaurant derives from the Basque caseríos, or farmsteads, which since time immemorial have been built separated from each other to make the most of the fertile farmlands and the geographic features that offer protection from the winds and the chance to enjoy a broad view, and from where you could also see the position of the cattle and the approach of strangers. Stone, wood, mortar, brick, cement, lime, curved roof tiles and slate are the dominant materials used in these dwellings, where the structure of floors and spaces is key.
Clean woody aromas
The manager of Etxebarri lives far from the madding crowd, and it's hard to tempt him out to events, parties and culinary congresses. Above all he loves his surroundings, the nearby forest where he walks and meditates while enjoying his day off, and the aroma of a blazing fire: “There's no better smell in the world than wood; these are aromas that take me back to my childhood, and bring me memories and sensations”. It’s no coincidence that wood has been the element that has fueled Arguinzoniz's legend among gourmets as the supreme maestro in matters of fires and embers. His first major undertaking was precisely to replace charcoal with less aggressive woods that did not mask the flavors.
Maybe gourmet travelers will recall those memorable char-grilled anchovies with which Bittor began his repertoire of inspired creations. The force or gentleness of the heat is vital for maintaining the tasty fish at its absolute best, quite apart from the intelligent way of presenting the fish, fillet against fillet with the skin on the outside and a very brief exposure to the smoke and heat. So the woodpile at Etxebarri was gradually supplemented with offcuts and logs of local holm oak –hard, powerful and heat-giving–, vine shoots and stumps, and olive wood to achieve clean, natural and healthy aromas.
And man mastered fire
Other of Arguinzoniz's great contributions to the ancestral universe of grilling was to separate the embers into independent spaces, and the coveted collection of cooking utensils he has designed to meet his particular needs. There is clear justification for separating the fires: we must control the embers rather than the embers controlling us. This is why they're left in the oven until they burn up, and when they're red hot, the exact amount of embers needed are removed and placed in the roasting ovens. It sounds easy, but it's a complex task.
And as for the kitchen equipment that astonishes any diners who visit the kitchens at the end of their meal, it's worth mentioning some of the instruments: tiny flat grills, heat propellants to maintain the right temperature on the side of the chops not exposed to the embers, mesh frying pans, or perforated with a laser for roasting baby eels, rice and even for impregnating the highly delicate egg yolks from his own hens with aromas, and pans in the form of a volcano for cooking barnacles.
The exaltation of the product
If we take the basics of the infrastructure and the above-mentioned elements, namely the wood and the utensils, and combine them with the cook's obsession for selecting his raw materials and his painstaking care in cooking the ingredients, it is hardly surprising that Etxebarri has become a place of pilgrimage for lovers of unadulterated produce. The logistics of the global world mean that the very best produce can be brought to this secluded refuge on the same day; clams, sea cucumbers, red shrimps, wild mushrooms, eggs, truffle, caviar, turbot or any other exceptional and succulent product to be prepared in suggestive flights of fancy. Etxebarri is always a guarantee of maximum exquisiteness. The wizard has also spent some time experimenting with combinations, sauces, the effect produced by the design of the food on the tableware, and the slightest hint of smoke aroma, with spectacular results.
Some examples of an unforgettable meal: cockles like tennis balls with lemon, grapefruit and blood orange emulsion in each shell; miniature octopus on caramelized onion with traces of squid ink; premium salted anchovy on grilled “pan tumaca”. Supreme mouthfuls that enrich the list of dishes along with some unforgettable mussels over wood steam with carrot juice and sprinkled with crushed red pepper dust, snails on straw, or smoked oysters on a bed of seaweed and foam of their jus. Not to mention that chunk of grilled chorizo or the pork sausage prepared by Arguinzoniz
Butter and caviar –grilled?
After having grilled almost all the greatest delicacies over the embers, at Etxebarri you can still be surprised. This happened to me on a visit when I sampled a fantastic smoked butter with slivers of black truffle and floral notes, a dish of outstanding beauty which is further proof that this genius of the grill knows no bounds. After that, we could ask ourselves: is someone who grills butter a fool? Rarely before has the unparalleled smoothness of the butter, its extraordinary aroma, its impeccable texture and the cabinet-maker's veneer produced by the grilling been presented in society with such style and elegance.
Another of the great and surprising gastronomic firsts offered by the restaurant for some years now is grilled baby eels and caviar. The formula for the eels is more or less the following: kill the elvers with an infusion of tobacco, clean off the scum and conserve them raw before placing them on a special pan with minute perforations made with a laser. The baby eels are sauteed very briefly in this pan for about 30 seconds, until they change color. Fresh natural Iranian caviar, supplied unsalted, is placed in a special double grill with wakame seaweed underneath and the sturgeon's roe on top, and placed beside the fire until the roe begins to fall apart.
Warm and slightly smoked caviar, an outstanding dish that the wizard of wines Agustí Peris –by now almost another local resident after so much time spent sharing experiences and lunacy with Arguinzoniz at Etxebarri as the master of Bacchian ceremonies– is highly skilled at pairing. This is the bearable lightness of the pleasures in the valley of Axpe-Atxondo.
Artículo originalmente publicado en Club de Gourmets Magazine