The history of the Basque Country is inextricably linked to the sea. Centuries ago, Basque arrantzales (fishermen) put out to sea to fish for a living. Whale hunting forced many a Basque fisherman to search for new fishing ground, and on their voyages they found huge schools of cod.

Codfish is one of the quintessential Basque foods. Unlike whales, cod has a low fat content, which means it lasts longer when salted before drying. The Basques discovered this method of preserving catch back in medieval times. Cod made a nutritious food supply that would not spoil. It was also inexpensive. Back then, it was mainly the food of the poor; nowadays, however, its delicate taste and fine texture turn it into a star ingredient in the best of restaurants.

Canned and jarred fish is an important part of Basque gastronomy. Bermeo stands out for its preserved fish, especially tuna and anchovies. In Ondarroa, fish processing and preservation in cans and bottles, as well as the preparation of dried and salted cod, play an important role in the town’s economy.

Typical seafood recipes

Bacalao al pil-pil. When you think of Basque cuisine, the first recipe that comes to mind is bacalao al pil-pil (cod in garlicky sauce). This delicacy from the sea is made by baking the cod in olive oil and garlic, while the natural gelatine from the fish thickens the oil, emulsifying the sauce (pil-pil). The ingredients for the sauce are olive oil, garlic and chilli. There are different versions of bacalao al pil-pil, such as à la Club Ranero, a typical recipe from Bilbao that includes roast vegetables.

Bacalao a la vizcaina. Bizkaia-style cod is one of the most traditional recipes from Bizkaia, especially from its coastal strip. Long ago, the only ingredient in the sauce was pimiento choricero (air-dried red peppers) but today they add tomato too. Excellent cod, a glass of txakoli wine and, of course, lots of bread to dip in the sauce… What else could you need to feel good?

Pimientos rellenos de bacalao. A classic you will see on most restaurant or bar menus in Bizkaia, cod-stuffed peppers combine one of the most popular locally grown vegetables and a quintessential ingredient in Basque culture. Some recipes include prawns or leek as well.

Marmitako. This recipe, which originated on fishing boats, derives its name from the marmita (a cooking pot with lid and handles) used by fishermen to cook. The main ingredients in this tasty, slightly spicy, easy-to-prepare tuna fish stew are tuna and potatoes.

Chipirones. Chipis, as we call baby squid, are a classic in Basque cuisine. There are multiple preparations: with onion, in ink, grilled… Do not go back home without having a bite.

Anchoas. Anchovies are exquisite tiny delicacies. This blue fish is easy to cook in a variety of ways: deep-fried, roasted or battered, in a stew with olive oil and chilli, or en papillote. They are finger lickin’ good!

Sardinas asadas. To make perfect charcoal-grilled sardines, you only need fish fresh from the ocean and coarse salt. No other dish is as easy to make and as tasty as grilled sardines. And they taste even better in a grill house overlooking the Cantabrian Sea!

Merluza ondarresa. Paquita Salazar, the cook at the Penalty restaurant in Ondarroa, once ran out of charcoal. So she had to think of a new way of cooking hake. This was the origin of Ondarroa-style hake. Are you a fan of fish that tastes like fish? If so, this is your dish of choice. When cooked, the hake should be firm-fleshed and flaky.

Food festivals by the sea

In the fishing villages along the coast of Bizkaia, cooking contests, food and drink fairs, and tastings are held throughout the year. They are true seafood festivals where visitors can also meet kind local people.

Foods festivals by the sea are the best chance to taste local seafood and to meet kind local people

In July, Aixerrota, in Algorta (Getxo), hosts a paella competition. The first day of the feast of Our Lady of El Carmen, the Patroness of Seafarers, is Sardine Day as well in Santurtzi, where they host a huge sardine cookout.

At the other end of the coast of Bizkaia, in Ondarroa, they celebrate Antxoa Eguna (Anchovy Day) in May. Lekeitio has numerous festivals, such as the Jornadas Gastronómicas del Chipirón (Baby Squid Day), which celebrate the village's ties to the sea, to fishing and fishermen.

Arrain Azoka (Fish Fair) is held in late May in Bermeo. It was the first ever fish fair in Euskadi and is the leading event of its kind in the area. During the fair, seafood processing plants open their doors to visitors, who can see how fish is processed and have some savouries.

  • The fish species available vary with the season. Anyhow, all of them are equally tasty and cooked in a lot of different ways: in sauce, charcoal-grilled, deep-fried, in egg batter, and so forth. There is a recipe for every palate!

  • There are lots of recipes to try. This is why we suggest that you should do some research before hitting the road and pick the towns you want to visit according to their tourist attractions and local specialties. Follow your nose: no restaurant or bar will disappoint you.

    Pintxos. The love of bite-size food and the ritual of bar-hopping with friends have given rise to numerous pintxo tours in Sopela, Gernika-Lumo, Portugalete, Santurtzi and Bilbao. They all offer delectable tiny bites skewered on a stick!

    Txakoli from Bizkaia. Txakoli is the perfect wine to wash down our great fish dishes. Fruity and young, this mostly white wine is a symbol of Basque winemaking. The grapevines grow on steep hillsides close to the sea, which lends a special character to the wine. Try and enjoy our smooth, fresh wine at any of the wineries you will find in Bizkaia. Cheers!