Nieves Barragán Mohacho's Basque Country

First winning a Michelin star with Barrafina, the Bilbao-born chef repeated the trick with her own, co-founded, restaurant Sabor. She shares her story, which begins in the most unusual of places

Nieves Barragán Mohacho's Basque Country Photo

‘I grew up with my hands in the pig…’ If ever a sentence summed up a chef’s Spanish ancestry, that would be it. In the case of Nieves Barragán Mohacho, founder of London’s Sabor, however, it’s only part of a story, of a life influenced from birth by two of Spain’s finest gastronomic regions.

‘I’m from Santurtzi, a small town near Bilbao,’ Nieves explains, ‘where we’re very famous for our sardines.’ She gestures to Sabor’s menu; sardines encircle the restaurant’s name. ‘The sardine is the logo for Sabor, and I have a tattoo of a sardine – they’ve very important to me,’ she laughs.

‘In Santurtzi, we have the best sardines in the world, and we really celebrate food. People call us brutos, because we eat a lot, we drink a lot and we hug a lot. We are very friendly, everyone gets together, the friends, the families. Everything we do is big!’

As for that other influence…

‘My parents were from Extremadura, where the most famous pigs are. They married when they were 20 years old and moved to the Basque Country, to Bilbao, for my dad’s work. I used to attend the matanza [the traditional slaughter] – I would watch my parents killing the pig, making the sausage, eating it. Essentially, I grew up with my hands in the pig, and that’s why blood pudding is so important to me now.

‘My mother cured both chorizo and blood pudding. You’d open that cupboard door and –’ she mimes inhaling, and smiles broadly. ‘When I was little, my mother would be cooking and my dad would come home from work, get a knife and cut us slices of both… It’s such a clear image, the meat arranged on bread. If I close my eyes, I can almost smell it.’

A Basque Country upbringing and the heritage of the Extremadura would be great inspirations for any chef. For Nieves, however, there was an even greater influence: her mother.

‘She would get up in the morning, put on an apron, make breakfast. Then lunch, then dinner. Anything you heard in my house was about food. She’s making breakfast and already talking about what we’re going to have for lunch, at lunch she’s talking about what we’ll have for dinner, and so on and so forth every day.

‘Apparently, my grandmother cooked better than my mother, but she was paralysed when I was five, so I don’t remember her food. But I did spend a lot of time in the kitchen with my mum – she’d get me to peel the broad beans, to shell the peas…

‘She used to cook with the door closed and the window open, because she didn’t want the house to smell. So when you opened the door, coming in from school, it hit you. Whatever she was cooking, the stew, the lentils, brains, kidneys, rabbit, chickpeas, it hit you.’ Nieves pauses. ‘I feel lucky for having grown up that way.

I always ate at home, I didn’t eat at school and I miss those moments I would come back from school, my mother smiling, every day a different smell. ‘I think that’s the heritage I’m trying to carry on [at Sabor]. When someone comes here – a delivery driver, a customer – and I hear them say that it smells nice, that makes me feel tall.’

It could all have turned out very differently, however. ‘I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a chef,’ Nieves admits and, in fact, she studied graphic design before trying restaurant work, where she was feeling a little frustrated because ‘the restaurant was doing things my mum was doing ten times better! She’s like a professional and I didn’t want to work – or even eat – in a restaurant that wasn’t as good as my house.’

A friend then suggested Nieves come to London for a year and join them at Simply Nico. ‘I told them I know nothing about French cuisine. I’d been cooking with my mum, I’d been making rabbit stew, and a Michelin-starred kitchen felt out of my depth. But they were looking for help. I was working there 18 hours a day, six days a week, washing up, and the chef would show me how to peel potatoes this way or clean the artichokes… I started slowly, but he started giving me small jobs.

I started getting to know chefs from different countries, getting familiar with different ingredients, to understand the way the kitchen works, and I loved it. I loved London, I was meeting people from all around the world, it was magical.’ Nieves laughs. That said, she often catches herself thinking, ‘Wow, my mum used to make something like this.’

Sabor, then, is the evolution of Nieves’ upbringing and experience. ‘I thought that London needed a restaurant that covers every region of Spain.’ Nieves lists regions and ingredients – ‘Galicia has some of the best seafood in the world, and I love Valencia for the rice, all the rice’ – but that bruto spirit of her Basque Country childhood is clearly at the heart of the venture.

‘My food is simple, that’s what I try to do. It is how I grew up. It is passion.

‘When I would go to the market with my mum, she taught me how to shop. She’d tell me, “Look at the fish, look at the eye.” At other stalls she showed me never to choose product at the very top; instead, she’d dig underneath and find the best one. And I tell my chefs the same thing. When the fish arrive, I say, “Look at the eye.” Don’t get me wrong – our fishmongers send me amazing fish, but sometimes there are mistakes. And I always say “Look at the eye!”.

‘If an ingredient is bad, you’re not going to cook with it. Good food doesn’t start on the plate, it doesn’t start in the pan, it starts with the ingredients. Sabor brings together everything I learned from working in a professional restaurant, it’s what I learned from my country, it’s what I learned from my mum and what she learned from her mum. Cooking is the heritage.’

With all things pandemic hopefully calming, Nieves is planning a rapid return home to Santurtzi and Bilbao. ‘It’s a beautiful region. There is amazing art, and beaches that have made Basque Country famous for surfing.There’s a metal bridge, and we say that it separates the rich people in Las Arenas and the poor people, where I grew up. All the best beaches, the white sand beaches are on the rich side. It’s the Basque, so you never know if it’ll rain or not, but that’s why it’s so green and beautiful.’

For Nieves, the scenery clearly plays second fiddle to the food. ‘I’ve not been there for seven or eight years, and I miss my sardines,’ she says. ‘Every July there is a big sardine festival. It’s the best time for sardines; they are very fatty. You grill them, let them rest on a piece of bread (the bread soaks up the oil) and eat it with your hands. That is the only way to eat a sardine.

‘And Bilbao is so beautiful too. Walk along the river, to the Siete Calles – the seven streets – and you’ll find bars, pintxos, and live music. And there’s chipirones en su tinta (squid in its own ink) which is just one of the best things in the world. I have this list,’ she adds, showing me her phone, with lists of Spanish cities and restaurant names. ‘People always ask me where they should eat in Valencia or Cadiz or Bilbao. I know where I go but I can never remember the names, so I have to keep them written down now.’

However strong the allure of the sardine or the squid, back home, for Nieves, this doesn’t come until after dinner. ‘My mum makes a bean stew or rabbit stew. That’s the first thing that happens and we’re not allowed to go anywhere beforehand.’

Those tastes of home are also what Nieves tends to seek when dining out. ‘Michelin is fine,’ she says, somewhat ironically a few feet from the plaque announcing Sabor’s recognition, ‘but I like to go to the places where the mum cooks. We need to make sure the next generation carries these things on.’ If that means more places like Sabor, then consider us convinced.

Nieves' Hotspots

Gran Domine, Bilbao
As well as being an exceptional hotel, Bilbao’s Gran Domine is located directly opposite the city’s stunning Guggenheim Museum – and the views aren’t kept to a select few rooms. Breakfast is served on the roof terrace with views over the Guggenheim and the River Nervion.

Rio-Oja, Bilbao

Rio-Oja is family-run and has been a Bilbao fixture since 1959. It’s the best for hot tapas and cazuelas (stews served in the dishes in which they’re cooked). If you only have one chipirones en sur tinta, it should undoubtedly be this one.

Txintxirri, Bilbao

It may be a highly contested category, but Txintxirri’s tortilla are the best in Bilbao – one glance at their Instagram feed and you’ll understand the hyperbole. This is a compact bar but it punches way above its square footage. 00 34 648 828215

Txakoli Simon, Bilbao
For many, the top Galician ingredient is the traditional Txuleta, the extremely marbled, aged-dairy steak. Txakoli Simon is my go-to for the views and the steaks. 00 34 944 457499

Café Iruña, Bilbao

Another must-try in Bilbao is pintxo moruno: simple skewers of grilled meat. The best place to head is the beautifully-tiled Café Iruna, part of the city’s culinary scene since 1903. It’s open all day, every day of the year.

Words by Neil Davey

This interview was taken from the August/September 2022 issue of Food and Travel Magazine. To subscribe today, click here.

Nieves Barragán Mohacho's Basque Country Photo

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