When you consider its size and population, the city of San Sebastian, on the north coast of Spain, has a disproportionate amount of Michelin stars. Hailed as one of the greatest culinary destinations in the world, it has drawn on the tradition of Basque cuisine to create a gourmet destination – one that attracts growing numbers of international visitors every year. This year, it hosted the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s annual forum for the third time.
While tapas is a firmly established part of UK dining, more restaurants and consumers are experimenting with the Basque version, pintxos. In fact, two of the most acclaimed recent restaurant openings, Brat by Tomos Parry and Flor by James Lowe, claim to have drawn inspiration from the flavours and eating style.
It was in the context of this craving for pintxos that Mimo Cooking School decided to open its fourth location this year, expanding beyond Spain’s borders for the first time to land in London.
With the brand set to open its own dining space as part of the Borough Market Kitchen concept in November, we talk to executive chef Joseba Lasa about what is behind the cuisine’s rise and get some cooking tips for the most popular dishes.
What makes Basque cuisine unique?
I think that the main appeal of the Basque cuisine is the people behind it and the social aspect of it. We love to hang out around food, whether in pintxos bars, cider houses, gastronomic societies.
Also, although Basque food is very simple generally, it is worth noting that we take a lot of care in the way we handle the ingredients and the love we give to the preparations. I think that is what makes Basque cuisine special.
There seems to be a growing interest in Basque cuisine internationally in recent years. Would you agree?
I agree that the international curiosity for the Basque cuisine is growing, although I think that is a phenomenon connected with people taking a bigger interest in gastronomy in general. We have had top restaurants in the Basque country for decades, some of them holding three Michelin stars since the 80s, so I think is only natural that more people are noticing now how good the food in the Basque country really is.
It used to be a little secret, only known locally in Spain or by people visiting (we were never a massive international destination before). In the last few years with the ever-growing internet and social media communication, it was only bound to happen in my opinion.
What are the cornerstone ingredients and flavours of Basque cuisine?
It has to be connected to who we are, people connected to the land and to the sea. I would highlight our historical relationship with cod, for example, especially salted cod (something we have been doing in the Basque Country for over a thousand years).
Also, I couldn’t think of Basque food without mentioning squid, hake, turbot, our forerib steaks of old dairy cows known as ‘txuleta,’ and simple vegetables like tomatoes, lettuces, leeks or onions, to name just a few.
Name three Basque pintxos or dishes that everybody should try.
Hard question! I would say:
- Squid ‘pelayo’ style, a dish of braised squid with caramelised onions
- ‘Marmitako,’ a potato and tuna stew
- Pintxo of seared foie gras with apple compote. It’s a controversial ingredient, but I can’t resist ordering it every time I see it in a pintxo bar.
It’s been a few months since Mimo launched in London. What has the response been like? Has it been a fairly smooth transition of the concept out of Spain?
I’m over the moon with how things are going so far. The feedback from clients has been excellent, and the transition of our concept to London very smooth. I have been living in London for over eight and a half years and working with my head chef, Ander Macho, over seven years, so I think that it felt very natural for us to showcase our love of food and the Basque social way of eating in a way that Londoners would understand and enjoy.
I sometimes identify myself as a Basque boy from Hackney, so joining these two different cultures in a project has felt very natural from the beginning. Londoners love to eat and drink well, so a place where you can do both without any bullsh*t and pretentiousness and learn about it is proving to be a successful formula. We just hope to keep growing like this and to keep making Londoners happy and welcome in our house.
Which of Mimo’s cooking classes and recipes have proved most popular?
There are three classes that definitely receive more bookings than the rest:
- Pintxos of the Old Town
- Best of Borough Market
- Spanish classic tapas and secrets
Looking forward, do you have plans to add new classes or adapt the current format?
Absolutely, we are always adapting the content and recipes of our classes. We have seasonality at the forefront of our ethos; we like to cook what is in season, when the ingredients are at their most fresh and delicious. I also don’t like my food to travel a lot, so we use local ingredients – being in the middle of Borough Market definitely helps with that.
We’ll also keep adapting existing classes and coming up with new ones. Our goal being to help people to eat/cook better while always having fun - It’s all about that at the end of the day!