Primal Flavours

Asador Etxebarri
This is Bittor Arguinzoniz’s "smoke and miracles" restaurant, Asador Etxebarri, located in an eighteenth-century stone house in the small town of Axpe (~1,700 people) in northern Spain

“Mom, when you die I’m not going through all those file cabinets of travel articles in your garage,” Lynn (an “only”) told me one day years ago when we were sorting through stuff before moving.

Fair enough.

But consider two articles, “The Grilling Genius of Spain” and “Smoke and Miracles.”

Without them, how would Magellan and I have tasted the fire-smoked food, delicious and unique, at Bittor Arguinzoniz’s restaurant, Asador Etxebarri? (Isn’t that a mouthful to pronounce?)

Bittor (Victor in English) grew up in in the Basque mountain village of Axpe (pronounced Ath-pay) in a farmhouse suffused with the primordial fragrance of wood smoke. The family had no electricity or gas—his mother cooked everything over a hearth fire. When he finished school, Bittor worked as an electrician and in a paper mill. Then in 1989, he bought an abandoned three-storey limestone building dating back to the eighteenth century on the town’s main plaza. Like many Spanish guys, he enjoyed grilling—but he also wanted to create a restaurant, a social hub to keep the village alive. In 1990 at the age of 30, he opened Asador Etxebarri—it means new grill house in Spanish—and began serving grilled food, charred and delicious.

Curious, Bittor wondered what it would take to grill fragile foods like anchovies. He began experimenting and inventing, designing contrivances like stainless-steel grills with grates that move up and down with the turn of a wheel to control the food’s distance from the heat, as well as sieve-like baskets and laser-perforated saucepans. (We asked for a kitchen tour and got to see some of these ingenious tools.) Self taught, Bittor realized, as Colman Andrews wrote in the article stored in our garage, that “if he had the right equipment and could control the temperature accurately enough, there was almost no food that he couldn’t cook over coals and embers.”

Where there’s smoke there’s flavour. Bittor also began experimenting with burning different woods to enhance the flavours of individual ingredients. Oak for seafood and mushrooms. Grape-vine trunks, because they burn very hot, for beef. Colman explains the process:

Before every service, wood is burned inside the tightly sealed ovens, in an oxygen-deprived environment, so that it smolders slowly and doesn’t produce volatile impurities that might lend a charred flavor (and carcinogens) to foods. The results aren’t extinguished and then reignited like barbecue briquettes. They’re used directly from the oven, white-hot and burning at more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit, for foods like angulas and veal chops. Or, to cook more delicately textured foods like salt cod and oysters, the coals are allowed to cool to glowing embers.

Bittor even creates smoked ice cream and butter by reducing the cream in special containers on top of a coal-burning stove!

In the other article in our garage about Asador Etxebarri, Anya von Bremzen quotes the description of Bittor’s grilling from the Catalan daily newspaper, La Vanguardia: “Imagine he’s gone back to the cave: meat and fire! This philosophy of humility before nature is revolutionary.”

The rural landscape around Axpe is intensely lush; like giant tubes of green paint were freshly squeezed over every field of thick grass. On those verdant fields as we went for a walk before our 1:00 lunch reservation, cattle and chickens free-ranged on their lunch, barely raising a glance. Cocina de producto for Bittor’s ingredient-driven cuisine.

Food critics have stoked up their praise for Extebarri—and it’s hotter than ever before.

In 2013, when we celebrated our 44th anniversary there, Etxebarri ranked, coincidentally, 44th on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. This year, it’s moved up to 13th place! Magellan and I can see why. More than any restaurant we’ve been to, Etxebarri still fires up our taste buds and amygdalae every time we think about it. Which is quite often… My wish? One more taste of Bittor’s genius before those files in our garage go up in smoke.

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UPDATE: September 26, 2021. From Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever’s book World Travel (2021), Anthony is quoted: “It is no exaggeration to say when you’re eating at Etxebarri, no one else in the world at that precise hour is eating better than you. It is, in every way, extraordinary.”

Andrews, Colman. “Smoke and Miracles.” Gourmet: June 2009, p 98-101. Good luck finding this now that Gourmet magazine has gone up in smoke.

Asador Extebarri has a great website. Bittor’s wife Patricia runs the dining room, and when we were there, the servers were all local women. The main floor bar is still the heart of the Axpe community.

We booked a room for the night in the town’s charming Mendi Goika Hotel with its tagline, “Donde el silencio se oye”—Where silence is heard. (Long silences gently paused by the tinkling of cowbells.) “No hay problema,” the hotel replied to my email when we asked to check in early. Nestled in the Atxonda foothills of Mt. Anboto, the area is popular with hard-core cyclists who look like they’re training for the Tour de France.

von Bremzen, Anya. “The Grilling Genius of Spain.” Food & Wine: June 2008, p 34-39.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants

10 Responses

  1. Simplicity. And cooking over fire. I love this post about real deal food – you have made me want to search this place out (as you have) and eat there.

    1. Extebarri’s website is well done so that’s a good place to start. It’s such a unique concept and the rural setting about 2 1/2 hours from San Sebastián enhances the experience.

    1. On Thanksgiving, our 18# bbq turkey turned out very well, but I’m still struggling with bbq butter and ice-cream. Bittor hasn’t given away all of his secrets yet.

  2. Mmmm…my mouth waters just looking at the pictures. That grill system is quite unique. I keep trying to think of ways to grill smaller items on the barbecue. Bittor has gone way beyond that. Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Amazing isn’t he? It’s passion in action—his restaurant wasn’t well known until 14 years after it opened when there was a small mention in the New York Times. A turkey is rotating inside our barbecue for tonight’s feast, which will include your stuffing recipe. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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