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The Basque country is hardly short on talented chefs. After all, the region has around 40 Michelin stars, 14 more than all of Portugal, and its everyday, casual restaurants are so revered that people flock from all over the world for a taste of Basque pintxo culture. But of the many culinary minds in this fiercely individual northwestern corner of Spain, Josean Alija, head chef of Nerua in Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, stands out as one of the most gifted and intelligent. Having essentially reconstructed his understanding of food when he lost his sense of taste after a motorcycle crash and a coma at the turn of the millennium, Alija’s approach is extremely cerebral and research-led. His food is Bilbao through and through, but closer to the art in the Guggenheim than the snacks in the city’s pintxo bars.
His restaurant, perched upon the banks of the Nervión river, is every bit in tune with its legendary surroundings. Its minimalist, unpretentious decor ebbs and flows with the quirks of the Frank Gehry–designed building. The ceiling and walls dip and contort around the tables, creating a sense of motion that’s matched by the dynamism of Alija’s open-plan kitchen and brigade of waitstaff passing 18 courses along to diners. And then there’s the food. Alija is obsessed with capturing the soul and purity of his ingredients, and plating them in such a way that those flavours are completely unadulterated. Minimalist would be one way – perhaps a reductive way – of describing Nerua’s dishes.
Take, for example, his cherry tomato dish, in which different varieties are served at the height of ripeness, peeled, marinated in distillates of herbs and topped with tiny micro-versions of the herbs with which they have been flavoured. What would appear to be five artfully arranged cherry tomatoes on a plate is instead the result of endless research. Alija understands how these tomatoes are grown, when and how they ripen, what their natural sweetness is, what herbs pair best with them and how those herbs are best distilled. Alija spoke to Culture Trip about Bilbao and Basque cuisine, and how he has been able to deconstruct the flavours that make this region so cherished and celebrated in the world of food.
My name is Josean Alija, and I’m the head chef of Nerua, inside the world-famous Guggenheim in Bilbao. When I was young, I was certain that I wanted to be a chef, so at the age of 14, I started studying at the Leioa School of Restaurant Management. In late 1998, I worked in the kitchens of the Guggenheim, and 13 years later I was able to fulfil my dream of having my own space here: Nerua. Nature sets the pace of my cuisine. I adapt it to each season without censorship, and cook the food that I want to cook. My cuisine is local, and comes out of vegetable gardens, the sea and farms. I cook with ‘muina’ – a Basque word that has a lot of definitions: from ‘core’ to ‘heart’ to ‘essence’. To me, it’s a meeting of soul and substance, but also thought and knowledge, to create something truly beautiful.
I love to walk alongside the river Nervión, the backbone of the city, which cleaves Bilbao in half. From its banks, you can see the entire history of the city laid out in front of you. It’s a pleasant, quiet walk, and across it, you see every side of the city, from old Bilbao to the new, cosmopolitan city of today. You can see La Peña, the Itsasmuseum, Zorroza, Bilbao la Vieja, Casco Viejo, Ensanche, Abandoibarra… I could go on. It is all beautiful and Basque, [concepts which] sit peacefully alongside one another. That’s what Bilbao is to me: the old and the new, tradition and radicalism – home.
For me, when I’m away I miss the taste of Spanish omelette. The first thing I do whenever I come back is go to my favourite bar, have a glass of txakoli [sparkling white wine] and have a slice of tortilla. But for the city at large, you can define the flavours of Bilbao by our four fundamental sauces: bizkaina, pil-pil, black sauce and green sauce. They are sauces that come from our culture and our customs; to the people of Bilbao, their taste is pure magic. It takes us back to our childhood, when our mother would be waiting for us at home with something familiar, delicious and something you knew had taken care and love to make.
We like to share a plate or sit at a table or lean on a bar. We like to put on a casserole and enjoy the company of our friends or our visitors. We understand that food is a way to take pleasure in the simple things in life with the people around us – it’s our way of life (along with football culture, of course!). We hate sourpusses, boring people, prejudiced people and, above all, people who don’t like to eat and drink. Some say that we act like we’re superior to the rest of the world, but we are proud of what makes us unique. And, secretly, we do think we’re the capital of the world!
I’d say our white onion, cod and green pepper broth dish is the best representation of Bilbao on a plate. Cod has a very interesting place in the history of Bilbao. It serves as the basis of so many recipes that define our city’s personality. During Lent, we cook fish in olive oil that’s flavoured with garlic and chilli, to bring out its flavour. This way of cooking causes the cod to release gelatine from its skin, which, with the forward and backward motion of a shaken earthenware cooking dish, binds the water and oil, producing one of the four fundamental Basque sauces: pil-pil.
For this dish, I cut up and shape white onion to look like cod, and then place fried cod skin on top to reinforce the illusion, before making a pil-pil sauce flavoured with green pepper to evoke the flavour of yet another Basque side-dish: piperrada, which is usually made with pepper and onion. It is cod, it is piperrada, it is pil-pil all at once, and a strong reflection of Bilbao and our relationship to the sea.