Basque-ing in Great Food
By Chef Stephanie Michalak, Turner Farm Culinary Manager
The Basque Country is an odd geographical region that encompasses the southern part of France and the northern part of Spain; spanning from the western Pyrenees and wrapping itself around the Bay of Biscay. The Basque culture is certainly not simply an intersection of French and Spanish lifestyles. It is its own entity and identity.
Basque happens to also be an isolated language, also known as Euskara/Euskera, that has been outlawed at times, most notably under the dictatorship of Gen Francisco Franco (1939-1975). While aspects of Basque culture are heavily contested in topics such as geography, linguistics, and even politics, it is more readily welcomed through food. Then again, food is usually the easiest way to see eye-to-eye, especially when it’s delicious.
Like Spanish tapas, the Basque culture touts pinxtos (pronounced like peen-chos), typically known as a variety of small dishes that accompany drinks when out. With either tapas or pinxtos, the complexity of these plates can sometimes progress as you order and stake out a location, but it is just as common for many individuals to meander from one bar to the next—trying a variety of dishes as they bounce around town with their friends. Personally, I like to think of it as a mildly safer bar hopping experience. Plus, it helps that the weather in the Basque region is typically warm and even if it rains, the ocean is still crashing against the edges of cities like San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque). Tasting the ocean air and marveling the imposing architecture in between bars is a great way to explore and feel alive.
(San Sebastian Feb, 2014)
Obviously, little snacks found at bars are not the only dishes the Basque region creates. However, as a traveler it is the least impactful (at least on the waistline) way to try as many vibrant dishes as possible. Pinxtos, whether a complex or simple bite, usually highlights local flavors and products. Luckily, this region produces a laundry list of hyper local ingredients given its diverse contact between seascapes to jutting mountains. Cider, espelette pepper, Bayonne ham (jambon de Bayonne), and Ossau-Iraty cheese are only a few highlights. Each product has its own story and lineage of artisans, makers, and families proudly attempting to retain the integrity of a long-standing tradition. The pride and honor are profound—even if you can’t personally walk through any production facilities or share a meal and drink over an intense conversation with even one producer: you can taste it.
(Producer Pierre Otezia’s Jambon de Bayonne, Feb 2014)
(Ewe cheese aging, Feb 2014)
Basque culture from an outsider’s perspective is proud, yet simultaneously humble. It’s about the care and attention to tradition, quality, and overall enjoyment of life. There’s an inherent mindfulness that perhaps many of us have been torn from with the obligations and pressures of our daily lives. If you haven’t noticed, I use food as a lens to understand other cultures and partially satiate my wanderlust. So, I do find it helpful to take a deep breath, walk into a clean kitchen, and cook different dishes from around the world to pull myself out of my daily grind and remind myself that it’s easy to open up and experience another way to jaunt through life, even if just for a meal.
If you would like to learn more about the delicious cuisine of the Basque region, check out Chef Stephanie’s “Taste of Basque” class in the Turner Farm Teaching Kitchen on July 17. Tickets and details are available on the Turner Farm Teaching Kitchen page.