Encuentro de los mares



Aitor Arregi: “If all ports were like Getaria, the sea would be different”

David Salvador


The leading light of grilling tradition in Getaria is at this year’s 3rd Meeting of the Seas. 

At the pluridisciplinary event on the sea, Aitor Arregi will be talking about getting the best use out of ingredients (Elkano, for example, was the first restaurant, to upgrade hake heads), about grilling, “the important of latitude in animals”, but most especially about the status of his beloved sea, “from which we never stop learning”. Ahead of the congress, in this interview he talks of intentions and status, along with anecdotes: “When my father saw a fish that looked a bit dodgy, he would say to me: ‘Watch out, that one’s from the River Manzanares in Madrid”.

He talks with the vision gleaned from his continuation of the homestead in Gipuzkoa (Elkano, one Michelin star and #30 on the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants) and, since 2016, Cataria in Chiclana de la Frontera. “Specifically, we opened in July 2016. 7 July is a fetish date for us. That was the day I got married, and that was the day we opened Elkano Txiki. So when we decided to open Cataria and realised it would be in July, we wanted it to be 7 July”. And wasn’t it? “No. I don’t know if it was 6 or 8 July. See?” Unpredictable Arregi. “Like the sea”.

How are you doing? How are your restaurants doing?

We’re alive and kicking, which is no little feat. And pleasantly surprised at the local response, which allows us to go on working. And happy to see that the circle is up and running, and that everything’s coming back. And also the emotional contacts, maybe the ones we missed most, the most important.

A difficult patch, last year …

Very. In terms of numbers, tough; on a more intangible level, much more so.

Better in Getaria now with more local customers than in Sancti Petri, which maybe depends more on tourists?

Well, I should tell you that we’ve just opened again in Cataria, and we’re doing very well. It’s incredible, really splendid, a gift. Even the hotel (the restaurant is in the Iberostar Selection Andalucía Playa in Sancti Petri) is surprised.

Does it work without tourists?

What’s a tourist? In Getaria, we call people from Zarautz tourists … 

No … For the moment, the customers are people we don’t have to speak to in English. So we’re very pleased.

How’s the sea for you this year? Have you noticed any changes?

One of the best phrases I’ve heard is: Always learning from the sea. And it’s true. Every time we predict something, we mess up. After the Prestige disaster, they were saying there’d be no baby squid, and they fished out loads of them. This year, it’s true, since there wasn’t so much demand for flat fish because of restaurant closures, there was more of a focus on white fish, and so in the near future we may see much more turbot, for example. But it remains to be seen. Even without any extraordinary events it’s difficult to predict how it will go, so after what’s happened, I’m keeping quiet about it.

But this interlude can’t have been so bad for it …

Obviously if you give it a bit of a breather, it gets better. In simple terms, we owe it some respect. We’re an insignificant part of its understanding, but we’re probably a huge factor in the damage caused to it.

What’s someone from Getaria doing in Chiclana de la Frontera?

We’re at 43.2 (latitude of the Bay of Biscay), with a fish-grilling technique the way our fishermen used to. They gave us knowledge we thought we could take to other latitudes at some point. Iberostar gave us the chance to gain an insight into latitude 36.6, Cádiz. We fell in love with it, and it fitted in with our idea of bringing in grills.

When we arrived, we were fascinated by the huge masses of fish going through the Strait, which acts as the Atlantic’s funnel and filter. It’s incredible. The Strait is like the bouncer at the door of a disco, deciding who gets in and who doesn’t. It has some incredible fish, and we contribute our way of doing things, but we’re always learning. We’ve talked non-stop to the local producers for a better insight into the product, to get the best out of the fish on the grill. The bay of Cádiz is so incredibly rich, there’s no place like it. Unbeatable, even the bread. I love the bread by Paco in Arcos de la Frontera. I even use it in Getaria ...

With businesses operating in both the north and the south, what differences do you notice in the fish in each place? Are any two the same?

No. They depend on the environment. Even the same animal behaves differently in the two latitudes. Sardines down there are much fattier than ours. I prefer them that way. But I also prefer other things from here. It’s very different. I’ll explain it in another way: when I go to Cádiz, I drink much more beer than when I’m up here; I even wear a T-shirt. But here in Euskadi, on the other hand, I drink more wine and I wear a jersey. And I’m the same person. Any animal changes, depending on the latitude it’s in. Not for better or worse. It’s different. At the end of the day, we’re talking about nature.

Meeting of the Seas came about to discuss and elaborate on the defence of maritime culture, and seek out sustainable ways of bringing about an optimum recovery of the health of oceans. With your experience, how do you view the sea?

I don’t believe in macro-revolutions or micro-revolutions. What we do is take care of our sea, and I can tell you that if all the ports in the world were like Getaria port, the sea would be different. Getaria, for example, is selective fishing only. 

Making full use of species is another of the ideas for the congress as a solution and a workaround, and this is where Elkano holds a master’s degree (Pedro Arregi changed the rules for cooking fish. Among others, he was the first to grill neck of hake, or even use the skin of turbots). Is this the way forward for haute cuisine?

The hake thing wasn’t just a culinary revolution, it was also an economic revolution: fishermen earned more money from the animal. Making full use of the item became one of the major social movements which arose from cooking. When we went to Cádiz, by the way, we did the same thing with another fish, the rubberlip grunt. All these are good processes for diners, for fishermen and for the environment. If only what is now a trend could cease to be a trend and become a fact, an established process.

On Tuesday 6 July you have a dinner in Cataria as part of the congress. What are you going to make?

Well, I don’t know. Whatever nature gives us that day. But whatever it is, it’ll be grilled pure and simple. What I would like to see, that night and every night, is, if someone from Cádiz sits down to eat, for them to feel that everything squares with their roots, with their homeland, for them to feel at home. If that happens, it’ll have been a success. If not, we still have work to do.

The Basque’s Andalusian immersion is going like a charm. He has the ear of the people, which can also be achieved by making a “morena” eel pil-pil sauce, or speaking in a southern accent when he imitates expressions. “It’s wonderful to see the richness of other latitudes, and soak it all up. With all this toing and froing, I’ll end up in a sanatorium in Madrid…”, he laughs. Well, why not set up a restaurant in the capital? “Don’t start – when my father saw a one-eyed fish, or a fish that looked a bit dodgy, he would always say to me: ‘Watch out, that’s from the River Manzanares’. Basque love for the capital. The love of the Arregi surname for the sea.