A long, long way from the kitchen of her Chelsea restaurant, Txikito, chef Alexandra Raij stands on the cliffs of the tiny town of Zumaia, looking out over the vast and deep, resonant indigo blue of the Bay of Biscay. It moves in slow, bulging swells as if it were merely a big, azure blanket covering an enormous giant who just rolled over in his sleep, gently pushing the few fishing boats left at this point in the day to and fro. It’s the itsaskiak—Basque for “things from the sea”—that has brought her here, to the edge of a cliff, to a string of little fishing vil- lages to which Raij has become inextricably, fundamentally tethered.
Raij, 43, is the co-chef and co-owner of what is, inarguably, the best and most authentic spot in New York for Basque cuisine, Txikito (chi-KEY-toe, in case your Basque pronunciation is rusty), which she opened in 2009 with her husband, chef Eder Montero, a native of Bilbao at the heart of north Spain’s Basque Country. Rimming the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees mountains, and sweeping up and across the border into southwestern France, the centuries-old culture of the Basque people is tied to, among other things, their own utterly unique language full of cropped up con- sonants with lots of x’s and k’s, and lauded by Ferran Adria as hav- ing the best food in the world—much of it hauled from the sea.
It’s home to a little over two million inhabitants, and has become a Slow Food hot-spot tourist destination for the culinary cogno- scenti, thanks in large part to its snacking culture of pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, named for the trademark toothpick that pierces each one, making the trays full of them in all the bars from Bilbao to San Sebastion look like little parades on plates. Eder moved to the States in 1999 to work at Nobu, and later opened Meigas—the now-shuttered, forward-thinking Spanish spot on Hudson Street—where he and Raij met in the heat of the kitchen. Today they have a doe-eyed daughter named Maayan, and take annual trips to Bilbao to see Eder’s family. But Raij fell for this place and its flavors long before she met Eder.
Raij grew up in Minneapolis in an intellectual home brim- ming with a rotating global sampling of cuisines on the stovetop. “Food was celebrated and important and delicious,” she says. “I ate better than anyone I knew.” The family’s broad diet—Jewish, Spanish, Italian, South American and from myriad other points on an edible compass in between—built a broad food vocabulary, sparked her interest in a life in the kitchen and laid the foundation of who she is today: an endless page-turner hungry for information about ingredients, preparations, history and myriad food- centric factoids that boggle the mind.
One cuisine that struck her early was that of her father’s best friend, Nester, a Basque chef who lived nearby and was a constant presence. Coincidentally, her family also wound up with a Basque exchange student for a year when she was in high school.
In 1997 Raij enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America up in Hyde Park, and she divided her time between school and working kitchen shifts at Quilty’s in SoHo. Post-grad, she landed at Mei- gas with Eder, then moved on to East Village darlings the Tasting Room and Prune. But it was her first trip to Basque Country with Eder in 2001 that would forever change her culinary world.
“The tapas and pintxos tradition had a tremendous impact on me, as did the home cooking,” she recalls. “So unique and earthy. And they do the most amazing things with just a few ingredients—cod, anchovies, parsley, fresh peppers, and olive oil. I was blown away by how compelling those ingredients are, and how elastic.” It was a life-changing trip; then the day after she returned to New York, the Twin Towers fell, and the back-to-back experiences set her on a new path.
She and Eder began to take serious steps toward dreaming up and plotting out their idea for a tapas-centric spot, the likes of which New York had never seen.
At around the same time, as luck would have it, Alex’s four future partners were working on the concept for Tia Pol and the space for it; what they needed was a great chef to bring it to life as a restaurant. The tiny spot opened on 10th Avenue and 22nd Street in 2004 and wowed Manhattan’s jaded palates with Alex and Eder’s Spanish sea-centric sensations, like rice and tender squid swathed in its moonless-night black ink, and addictive innovations like the savory-spicy-sweet kick of slippery-thin slices of chorizo with a sprinkling of chile peppers swathed in a melted dark chocolate ganache on toast. In 2007 Alex and her partners opened El Quinto Pino, a spot just about standing-room only in true tapas style—all the better to nibble croquetas de jamon and slices of potato-and-egg tortillas. Eventually, Alex would sell her interest in Tia, she and Eder would take on El Quinto Pino outright, and then came the project they’d been hankering to do. In December 2009, Alex and Eder opened Tkikito, where together they explored the traditional foods of Eder’s homeland in full-on tribute to cocina Vasca; it’s a menu that is nothing less than a love letter to the Basque Country.
Raij is a full-on pintxos pusher. There’s the Boquerón, marinated white anchovy, eggplant, piquillo peppers; the Marijuli, sweet pepper, tomato, jamón, and anchovy; the cold Cogellos, a salad of butter lettuce, anchovies, and Bonito del Norte (Spanish tuna); and Raij’s favorite, the famous Basque pintxo, Gilda—an olive, an anchovy and a piquillo pepper—named for the role played by the curvaceous Rita Hayworth in 1946, because its shape reminded its creator of Hayworth’s hourglass figure.
“To cook how a Spaniard would cook, that’s very intuitive,” says Raij. “And that’s who I think I am. I find an ingredient and I want to cook around it.”
The ingredient she cooks around most often is the anchovy, the petite, strong-flavored, silvery fish beloved in Mediterranean cultures, but which many Americans are familiar with only as an over- salted pizza-topping option. But while ingredient-driven chefs insist on the freshest foods possible—and for fish that typically means pulled from the Long Island Sound that morning—the years- cured, olive-oil marinated foundation of her cooking comes in a can. Specifically, cans whose label bears the name Conservas Ortiz.
“Ortiz is not just any anchovy,” explains Raij. “They have a perfect balance of salinity and fattiness. It’s a clean flavor, but it’s also the texture, too—they’re pliable, meaty, tender. They’re not over-cured or over-salty or over-anything.” Except for the white, all the anchovies on her menu are oil-cured from Ortiz. Their depth of flavor and texture—impossibly savory, just mildly salty and silky-rich—can make an anchovy devotee out of the most dubious.
“They’re a really, really outstanding product,” she says matter-of- factly.” Other people are always trying to get us to try other brands, but nothing comes close. For us, it’s a point of pride to have the best anchovy—and a Basque one. They’re more expensive but well worth it. There’s nothing quite like them.” Raij’s reverence for the brand lured her friend Andrew Feinberg of Franny’s in Brooklyn, to put them in permanent ingredient rotation on his menu, too.
So for Raij, a visit to the century-old Ortiz factory is something of a pilgrimage.
“There’s an entitlement about food by the Basque,” she says on the first night back in Basque Country, over a meal at a seaside eatery not far from Ortiz’s anchovy and tuna factories with Jon Zearreta, marketing manager for the company and Riaj’s key to a behind- the-scenes look at the anchovies during this visit. What Raij means is that these dishes—seemingly simple in components and execution—are a delicate balance between great ingredients, a talented hand to prepare them, and a strong sense of Basque culinary history.
Raij’s table is window-side, overlooking the Bay of Biscay just across the street, where tiny fishing boats, tied up for the night, bob against gentle waves. Before the sun comes up, their owners will untie them and motor out into deeper waters, returning in the af- ternoon with the catch of the day—to be served that evening. To- night’s dinner is a Basque hit-parade of dishes: Whole turbot pre- pared in a traditional mix of water, flour, garlic and parsley; a plate of precious kokotxas—the delicate waddle beneath the mouth of a hake or cod poached in olive oil and prized for its gelatinous texture (“It’s like an oyster,” she says, “but more silky.”); pil pil—salt cod poached in olive oil and named for the onomatopoeic sound the oil makes as the fish cooks; tiny, sweet, tender clams that are unlike any other in the world; sweet, rich Dungeness crab cooked with onions and Cognac; and, of course, the thing Raij prizes most, the antxoa.
“You are expected to have an opinion,” says Raij of the attitude about food here. As a chef, that’s not generally a problem, and it helped her fit right in on visits to her husband’s family in Bilbao and with his guadrilla (Basque for BFFs). There is also a tremen- dous amount of pride in the quality of the ingredients here; less desire for kitchen hocus-pocus and the abracadabra of other famed Spanish chefs like Ferran Adria than there is to let the flavors on the plate shine in all their glory. “If it’s cheesecake, it tastes like cheese,” she says simply. “If it’s fish, it tastes like fish.”
But as connected as Raij is to the cuisine, she was amazed to learn how hands-on the work in Ortiz’s factories would be.
The fifth-generation family-owned fish-preserving business began in 1891. Founded by Bernando Ortiz de Zárate, the original factory remains in the town of Ondarroa, where 120 years later, another of their mainstay products, tuna, is still packed into cans and jars by hand. The highly prized bonita makes up a good chunk of the business, along with yellowfin, mussels, mackerel, sardines and anchovies, the last of which represents 35 percent of the Ortiz’s production and exports around the globe.
Ortiz insists on sustainable sources, wanting nothing to do with large, commercial fishing operations that trawl and generate wasteful by-catch. Instead Ortiz buys only from tuna fishermen who pole- catch their fish with live bait, and from anchovy fishermen who use broad, close-to-the-surface purse seine nets for the anchovies. This is good for global stocks, but Zearreta points out it also yields a better product: “Tuna that is line-caught is carefully and in- dividually handled and put on ice in order to maintain its freshness. The problem with the big nets is that the boats spend hours with the nets on the sea and the fish suffer a lot when dying, and can be injured by other fish in the same net. The most traditional method is the one that assures the highest quality of the fish: pole and line.”
(Anchovies are staggeringly abundant, the kind of low-on-the- food-chain species that marine biologists urge you to eat more of, but even with this über-eco choice, Ortiz insists on best practices, namely surface nets that only catch one anchovy school at a time and avoid by-catch of any kind.) On her second morning in Zumaia, Zearetta drives Raij up, up, up a long, pretzel-twisty, foggy road lined with pine trees on the way to the small town of Lekeitio, to the last remaining an- chovy factory in northern Spain.
“There used to be seven or eight anchovy factories here,” says Zearreta as he drives. The cure-and-can boom began in the late 19th century when, explains Zearreta, Italians, who had long worked with Mediterranean anchovies, came to realize that the ones swimming to the north of Spain were of a higher quality. They founded a few processing plants and sent them, salted and cured in the barrels, to their awaiting fans in Italy.
Zearetta grew up curing anchovies with his family for the home kitchen. “My mother, aunts and uncles still do it.” Fish remain central to the culture here, even if tourism has eclipsed it economically. Each season, Basque festivals celebrate and pray for a good haul: San Anton for sea bream; San Pedro for tuna; and the good St. Carmen, patron saint of fishermen.
At the factory, Zearreta introduces Raij to the foreman—tall, blue-eyed in blue coveralls, a blue fisherman’s cap and tall Wellies. He asks her to don a white coat and cover her shoes with protec- tive booty-covers, and begins her tour in a room filled with plastic barrels big enough to hold a human or two and perhaps take a ride over Niagara Falls. He lifts the lid of one, and Raij peers inside at a rosy-brownish salty liquid curing pounds upon pounds of ancho- vies, rendering the fish flesh firmer, and thus making it easier to remove the head and tiny spine. The fish remain in this brine for many months, sometimes years, depending upon their size (Ortiz works with seven different sizes, each aged for different durations and destined for slightly different uses—the longer-cured versions being the most tender and spending the most time marinating in high-quality piqual olive oil.)
The foreman sticks in his hand and breaks off a crystalized chunk, separating out the tangle of anchovies for Raij to see—glistening and solid, with salt clinging to their skin. “Amazing,” she says, “it doesn’t smell fishy; it smells savory.”
When ready, they’ll be plunged into cold water three times, parceled out into one-kilogram trays, and run through a centrifuge to remove all water before they’re packed in olive oil in jars or cans. That packing is all done by hand, in a room where 12 women clad in white coats sit at long, stainless-steel tables. American pop music plays softly in the background as their heads—hair tucked neatly into hygienic caps—are studiously bent over long, slim cut- ting boards. Each woman holds a small, sharp paring knife; today they’re processing 30-gram cans filled with 10 anchovy fillets each. Their movements are precise and as fast as lightning—zip, zip, zip—slicing, scraping, splitting each tiny fish. “See how they leave the skin on?” says Zearreta. “That’s desirable, how a grandmother would do it.” The foreman gestures to one of the tables and nods in approval, signaling Raij to step closer to see how it’s done.
First, a few flicks of the knife remove any wayward scales; a quick, gentle slide of a finger opens the belly. The head is cut off, the body cut in two. Deft, swift fingers flip the fillets so the skin is fac- ing up, and scrape, scrape with the sharp edge of the knife, the edges are neatly trimmed, and into the tin they go, flesh-side down. When a can is full, it’s topped off with good, Spanish olive oil, sprinkled with fresh parsley and set aside for the cannery to seal. These pros fill a can in no more than a minute. The woman Raij observes looks up, smiles and stands, smoothing her gloved hands on her white apron splotched with the brownish-pink of her medium. In Basque, she tells Raij to sit and give it a try, which the chef eagerly does.
She picks up the knife with the assuredness of a surgeon—she’s been handling this ingredient every day for years, albeit at the other end of the chain—but she soon realizes how much skill is required to fillet such a delicate little fish. She falls into deep concentration, and works ever so cautiously, not wanting to mar the melty flesh with an imperfect slice.
It takes her a full five minutes to get through the 10 fillets for a can. The workers, Raij is told, kick out 40 tins each per hour, for a total of 320 per woman per day during anchovy season, April to June. The packed cans glide down conveyer belts on their way to be sealed. As they ride along, you can see beneath their glistening, golden sheen of olive oil how neatly, perfectly the fish are arranged, as if by machine. Raij notes the pattern their arrangement makes. “They look like tweed,” she marvels.
Anchovies explored, Raij turns to tuna—an entirely different kettle of fish. Everything about anchovies seems delicate, precious, diminutive. But tuna? It’s the sumo wrestler of the sea—hulking, backbreaking to haul in and process (some tip the scales at over 1,000 pounds), and in need of many more hands at the canneries. Zearreta takes her to the original factory that packs the giant fish in Ondarroa. Unlike the serene scenes of the anchovy factory, the tuna processing plant is large and loud, echoing with the sounds of the old metal machinery, of men and women hauling large trays of cleaned fish in and out of cook steamers, of the sheer voices of the staggering staff it takes to process the beasts from just-hauled-in to boxed and ready-to-ship.
As with the anchovies, Ortiz makes several different packed versions of the tuna. Among them there’s the migas, or flaked pieces that are canned and sold at a lesser price for everyday home use, and the El Velero, which are drossos (“chunks”) of yellowfin in olive oil; the escabeche, boiled and packed in a mild vinegar; and multiple versions of the most desirable of them all, the bo- nito—from the firm, mildly salty version in cans to the gorgeous, solid, cigar-thick chunks of the Family Reserve packed just-so in high-quality olive oil in glass jars, prized for holidays and special occasions when you break out the good china.
Raij takes in the multi-floor processes, fascinated and un- flinching at the noise and chaos. To Raij, it’s a beautifully orches- trated dance. The factory forewoman details the processes and the quality checks; what happens to a can that doesn’t seal (the entire canning belt is stopped and everything from the offending can it- self to the machinery is thoroughly examined until the problem is solved); and the unique qualities of each product. Eventually, the conversation turns to the forewoman’s favorites—she prefers, she says, the El Velero drosso, because she likes the variation of texture.
Later Raij shakes her head in wonder that the forewoman still enjoys eating something she’s worked with every day—a sentiment Raij shares. “It’s an attitude about food,” she muses. “It matters.”
“I’m so impressed by how manual the processes were,” she says at day’s end, of the factories’ hands-on, human touch. “How amazing were those women, how efficient. How much love they retained for the product.”
Zearreta drives Raij into town to grab a bite at a little pintxos spot on the water. Before they go in, a small fishing boat pulls up to the dock in front of the bar, and a group of people gather round as the fisherman unloads his catch. Raij walks over and peers at the still- flopping creatures and the scene of locals bargaining for tonight’s dinner—hake, squid, mackerel, turbot. A woman in the crowd steps forward and points; the fisherman picks up a glistening, bulbous squid and the woman smiles, as her ancestors have for generations.
“Yes,” her smile says. “That’s the one.”
BASKING IN THE BASQUE COUNTRY
Chef Raij makes annual trips to see extended family but also to feast on pintxos—the anchovy-kissed Basque answer to tapas are found in abundance from big cities to tiny port towns. In the very walkable city of Bilbao, some of Raij’s favorites pintxos places are in Plaza Nueva in the Old City:
Another of her favorites, a stone’s throw from the main shopping stretch, is Café Iruña, on Calle Colón de Larreategui near Albia Park. Go for their specialty, murunos, tender, addictive lamb kebabs.
Conservas Ortiz products are easily found in specialty shops, but their main shop, located at their factory in Zumaia (15 Ba- susta Bidea), offers the best selection, and is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and again from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
For an outstanding traditional seafood-centric meal that you won’t soon forget, head to Astillero (1 Kaia) in the town of Getaria.