“My vision is for people to understand more about the Basque culture and people,” says Imanol Barcenilla, Founder and Director of ZooteeK. “Basque is the oldest language in Western Europe and our gastronomy is like no other.”
Born and bred in the Basque Country, Imanol moved to England several years ago from San Sebastián, his beloved foodie mecca near the Atlantic border of Spain and France, home to a host of three-Michelin-star restaurants.
“For Basque people, gastronomy is very important,” he explains. “Yet I soon realized that in London it was almost impossible to find these products; so I saw an opportunity to introduce Basque food and drink to the UK.” Some of these specialities include Bonito del Norte and Cantabrian anchovies; Idiazabal and Ossau Iraty cheeses; Txakoli and Rioja Alavesa wines; Gernika, Piquillo and Ezpeleta peppers; white asparagus and Tudela artichokes.
Imanol admits it was a challenge establishing relationships with the local Basque producers, whose small-scale business models were not designed for export. Yet the high-quality, artisanal nature of his produce speaks for itself, and Imanol now supplies some of the top restaurants in London who cannot get enough of his seasonal white asparagus or flavoursome artichokes.
“Many of the products we provide are quite specific,” he says. “Our Idiazabal cheese, for example, has a PDO (protected designation of origin) and can only be made from Latxa sheep’s milk. Yet there is demand from a number of niche high-end restaurants who want to offer something different and unusual to their customers.”
The same goes for Basque wines, such as Txakoli. “A light, fresh acidic white wine which is produced beside the sea and has a gentle fizz,” says Imanol. It should be drunk immediately upon serving, he says, and goes very well with fish – another Basque speciality.
“Fish are among our best products,” he says. “Delicious Cantabrian anchovies and Bonito del Norte, sourced from small docks in the west. Both are fished sustainably and lovingly prepared to preserve their full flavour and freshness. Little by little, I’m building trusted relationships with small producers that have exclusive products. That’s what it’s all about.”