• Agerre vineyard

Food

The x factor

The Journal visits the restaurateurs and producers that inspired Lurra and Donostia

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Joseph Fox

“And now we eat and talk,” smiles Elizabeth Salegi, gesturing toward a table laden with a hearty spread of homemade tortilla, gleaming tins of anchovies, fresh bread and pale, hard points of sheep’s cheese. Not for the first time in a land whose language is an alphabet soup of x’s and z’s, we are literally lost for words. We’ve lunch booked already—at a Michelin starred fish restaurant, no less—and we’re already late, but when, eventually, we manage to convey this, Elizabeth proceeds undaunted.

“You can go later,” she says, glugging wine into our glasses. “I know Aitor, the owner. I’ll ring him now.” We try again, rubbing our stomachs, pointing to watches, Google-translating ‘appetite’, ‘spoiled’ and ‘meeting’—but to no avail. In a display which we soon learn to be symptomatic of the Basque country, Elizabeth is adamant we shall not leave her home at Agerre without breaking bread with her: homemade bread, and a bottle of her family’s txakoli wine.

It’s the reason we’re here: on this vineyard, in the Basque country, standing in the cool shade of a barn filled with cases, wine bottles and fermenting tanks. Txakoli Agerre is the headline drink at Marylebone’s first and only Basque restaurants, Lurra and Donostia. In both, it is served just as it has been for centuries here in their homeland: from a slight height into the glass, the pale, slightly cloudy stream colliding with the glass with a light tinkle, aggravating the wine’s natural spritz.

Around the fermenting tanks, a group of local friends are gathered, spraying wine into large glasses—and at each other—between loud, excited volleys of z’s and x’s; outside the weathered grape vines roll and tumble all around and down the surrounding hills, battling with the breeze.

The Bay of Biscay
“There is too much wind,” says Elizabeth worriedly. While the salt blowing in from the Bay of Biscay, blinking blue in the distance, is good for the vines (indeed, it’s part of the terroir behind txakoli, a designated product of the Basque country), the relentless force inflicted on their still-small buds is concerning—though there’s not much she can do about it. Agerre will survive.

Though tiny in size compared to other txakoli vineyards in the region, Elizabeth’s family has made wine here for the past goodness-knows-how-many years. “Decades? Centuries?” I ask Elizabeth. “Always,” she shrugs, and will continue to do so, supplying both locals, who pair their txakoli with fish almost religiously, and visionary importers and restaurants like Lurra and Donostia.

“The txakoli is up in the hills, the fish is in the sea,” says Nemanja Borjanovic, the co-owner and founder of these two Marylebone restaurants. “Putting them together is what has always been done.” In Elkano, the Michelin-starred fish restaurant we eventually head to after Agerre, this marriage is taken one step further, with the fish—turbot, traditionally—cooked in the wine.

“They have this dressing and they spray it on when the fish is grilling,” says Nemanja. “Our chef at Lurra, our grill restaurant, went out there to learn how to make it”—using, of course, Elizabeth’s txakoli. The Lurra dish the visit inspired is slightly different (Lurra serves the dressing on the side of the turbot, which has been grilled whole in its skin over white hot charcoal) but the result every bit as exceptional as that which, when we finally devoured it at Elkano, had us nibbling the crisp skin, sucking out the cheek and gnawing away at the bones. 

Elizabeth Salegi

Sons of fishermen
“It is turbot. It is a well-known fish” says Nemanja, “and yet they’ve added this dressing and they’ve made it amazing.” In fact, they’ve made it famous. Though they are “the sons of fishermen, not chefs” as Aitor tells us repeatedly throughout our meal at Elkano, people travel from all over the world to eat their turbot dish, and their less glamorous claim to fame, the grilled head of a hake.

That’s Basque cooking for you, Nemanja continues. Simple and genuinely ingredient-led. It’s what attracted him and his partner Melody Adams when in 2010 they stopped over in San Sebastián while on a buying trip for Nemanja’s wine importing business—a sideline from his day job in a bank.

“We were just normal people with jobs in the City. We weren’t thinking about opening a restaurant. We just thought the food—the fish, the pintxos—was so amazing we went back again.” And again and again, until their long running joke about how someone should bring this to London became their reality.

Nemanja and Melody began with Donostia, a pintxos (that’s tapas, Basque-style) bar drawing upon the sights and sensations of the seaside city of San Sebastián (Donostia, in Basque) and recreating them in the quiet London oasis that is Seymour Street. “For the first few months of Donostia I still kept my job in banking and was moonlighting as a waiter. Once I saw a guy from the bank where I worked in the restaurant,” Nemanja grins, “so I had to duck down behind the bar until he’d sat down.”

Queue-inducing success
He quit not long after, and, as the queue-inducing success of Donostia became glaringly apparent, looked into opening a second restaurant across the road. “The site came up, and had a nice courtyard. We were turning people away from Donostia, and we thought we could do something Basque there too, but different.”

It was then, he explains, that he and Melody returned to the Basque country, ventured beyond San Sebastián, found Elkano’s turbot and stumbled upon the phenomenon known as ‘old cow’.

“We were staying in this guy’s apartment, and he said, ‘do you like steak?’” Answering in the affirmative, they were led to a restaurant which served three foods, and three foods only: “steak, tomatoes, and tortilla. On one table. That’s it.”

There is a lot of hype these days about ingredient-led cooking: about authenticity, simplicity, the ‘three -on-a-plate’ rule—but this was no marketing ploy. This was no ‘concept’, Nemanja says with slight cynicism, “it’s just what they do. They always have done. And if you try this beef,” he says, his voice dropping in reverence, “you think, fuck me. That’s the best thing I have ever tasted in my life.”

Uncompromisingly meaty
Its taste is rich, lengthy and uncompromisingly meaty. The texture is marbled and tender, deceptively firm and then, beneath the dark surface, lusciously smooth. It is, according to the Observer’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who tried old cow in a Basque country restaurant, “the best steak I had eaten, either before or since.”

Even properly aged beef, that is beef that’s been hung for 30 or so days in a drying room, cannot hold a flame to this flavour. Why? “Because the cows themselves are old—14 to 17 years—when they are slaughtered,” explains Nemanja, “The beef cows we have in the UK are all young.”

By young, he means under 30 months, the average age of slaughter over here, as in many parts of the world. In rearing cows (either bulls of the Galician blond breed, or else retired dairy cows brought over from Europe) to such a ripe old age, the Basque country is pretty much alone. The extra ageing time means more feeding, more fat and more flavour in the same way that older men have better stories to tell and—broadly speaking—more sizeable waistlines.

High in the forested hills frowning down upon the sunlit San Sebastián, we get a sense of what this beef means to the Basque people when we visit Petritegi, the cider house from which Nemanja imports his cider, and where he learnt the secret of cooking old cow to perfection before bringing the steaks to London and sending up a small storm.

A rosy, raucous crowd
The house that’s home to Petritegi is ancient: over 500 years and counting. The clientele, a rosy, raucous crowd packed onto long wooden tables and jostling around the burly oak barrels, are of the type you’d see on a Friday night at a popular local pub: there are large family gatherings; bantering bands of young men, and women having a ‘night out with the girls’.

The cider is bottomless, poured at a height from the big barrels adjacent to the dining room, while for a set price, a menu of cod omelette, hake, steak, and idiazabal cheese is served on the rustic table by one of the Otaño family, now in its sixth generation.

Outside, the cider for next season’s parties ferments slowly according to a recipe passed down five generations, using apples grown in the now-blossoming orchard surrounding the stone-flagged house. “We use only apples from the area, and only those which have fallen to the floor. We never pick them,” explains Urko Torre, who showed us round.

As well as utterly delicious, the menu here is significant, as it is in all cider houses in the Basque country. It was to the cider houses—sagardotegi, as they are known—that for centuries fishermen and beef farmers came to sell their wares. 

Petritegi cider house

Froth of excitement
Over time, this became a bit of a knees up—“they drank the cider, cooked the food they’d brought”—and the inclusion in cider houses of a large grill became as much of an institution as the ‘txotx’, the toast called at 10-minute intervals upon which everyone seizes their glass and dashes to the barrels for a top up in a froth of excitement and spilled drink.

“We lost two or three chefs when we were there,” grins Nemanja, who every year takes his entire staff to the region for a jolly. “It is hard cider, unfiltered, like scrumpy—not the soft, sweet cider we’re more used to seeing in the UK.” In the cider houses, guests stand up to eat to enable speedier access to barrels; dining at Lurra or Donostia, needless to say, is a more civilised affair.

There are chairs, for a start, and the Petritegi cider is served from bottles by waiters who don’t think it’s hilarious to soak your shirt, though they still pour it from a height to aerate it. Not for nothing did Nemanja and Melody go to a Basque cider house to find Daniel Seifi, Lurra’s formidably talented head chef.

“We have tried to borrow everything we can from them,” Nemanja says of the Basque country, unashamedly. “Even the old Navarra vines you can see by the fridge, which we throw on the erretegia grill just before serving.” This lends the beef a slight sense of sweet smoke. “When we first tried this meat out in Donostia before opening Lurra, people went crazy,” he whistles. “They were pre-booking it, handing me their cards, asking me to let them know next time we had some.”

Stuff of legend
He sold some of the imported meat to Chiltern Firehouse, Goodman and Kitty Fisher’s, where it became the stuff of legend. “We thought, we should do something ourselves with this. Get some credit.” It was then, with the empty site beckoning across the street, that the idea distilled of installing an erretegia and bringing Aitor’s fish, the old cow steaks and cider house cooking to London in a glorious triptych of Basqueness.

Back in Elkano, Aitor’s enthusiasm remains as invigorating as the Biscay breeze. “We are not chefs,” he repeats again, marching us outside the restaurant and down to the harbour in long, bouncing strides broken only by appearance of a friend or neighbour, of which there are many. “This is the Juano, one of the fisherman; he gets the seafood… this is Manuella, wife of Eneki; the wives here still help fix the nets… this is an old friend; it is their 50th wedding anniversary and they’re coming to Elkano this afternoon.”

“This is my father’s house.” He pulls up short outside a tiny, pine-panelled bar: the original site of Elkano, now a pintxos bar tucked within sight and smell of the sea. Aitor’s mother still lives upstairs. Outside, an old iron grate lies cold and ashen. “This is the grill. This is where my father’s fisherman friends came and said, ‘Here, Pedro, take this head of the hake and this whole turbot’ and he put them on the grill, skin and all.” Aitor beams broadly.

Though grilling every part of the fish was something fishermen had done for centuries while out at sea, the gamey taste of hake head and turbot liver was not something landlubbers had ever really experienced until that day.

It has been over 50 years since then, yet Aitor’s attitude is unchanged. “We work with what we have. I know all of the fishermen. I know the tomato farmer. If I need milk, I ring my friend up the road,” he shrugs. “This is our life. This is all we think about. I’m glad it is coming to your country.” He seizes a plate of delicately-charred, grilled octopus, perching in sweet piquillo peppers, and hands it to us. “Now, would you like something to eat?”

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