Random Notes on Basque Cuisine

My old Basque roommate didn’t like to talk very much, but when he was in the mood to speak he talked about two things: politics (most often) and food. Until I met him I’d never known a person who’d prefer to go hungry than eat food that didn’t meet his standards. I remember one evening he came in late from a study session having missed the evening meal. I suggested he go down to the dorm kitchen, grab a few slices of sandwich bread and a hunk off a big block of cheese that was in the refrigerator (I cooked there a few days a week). He paused, then turned and looked at me gravely. “That is not food, those are war rations,” he said, then turned away and went to bed.

Granted we were living in a university dormitory at the time. We were also living in Great Britain in the 1980’s, which made it a double whammy. Still, I’d have eaten it.

But on to the purpose of this post. Reader Kelly writes to say she’s heard that Basque Country has a “rich culinary history” and wants to know if I know what exactly that means. Kelly, I’m sure a few of my new Basque readers can answer that a lot better than I can. However there are a few features of Basque cuisine that I think I can speak to confidently (though maybe not correctly…we’ll see).

I mentioned earlier that Basque Country is on the Atlantic coast. As you might expect, they do quite a bit of fishing. At one time the Basques were well known both as ship builders and seafarers, and indeed they ranged well northward into the Atlantic in search of cod and other cold water fish. To this day both fresh and preserved, salted fish are fixtures of Basque cuisine. However I also mentioned that Basque country is mountainous, so you also get a fair amount of fresh and cured meats and dairy products in the mix.

All of which isn’t to say that the Basques haven’t readily adopted non-native (i.e. New World) produce over the centuries. Potatoes, tomatoes and sweet and hot peppers factor prominently in Basque cooking. Indeed a basquaise is a sauce that features both tomatoes and peppers, and can, depending on how it’s prepared, be rather how shall I say it…piquant.

There are at least two features of the eating scene in Basque Country that have always interested me. Cider houses are the first. They’re called sagardotegi. You find them of course at higher elevations where apples grow. So I’m told they’re sort of seasonal January-through-April drinking establishments/grills that cater to lovers of both steak and hard cider.

Male-only gastronomic societies where men do all the cooking —and the eating — are another facet of Basque life that piques my interest. These private clubs aren’t open to just anyone, only the members, so the odds of my ever gaining entry are remote to say the least. But again, so it’s said, some of the best eating in Basque Country happens in those places.

That’s pretty much the long and short of my Basque culinary knowledge, Kelly. Hope this helped a little! Basques, chime in if you feel like it!

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