Basque Cooking: If Ours Were the Worst of All Lives

Journal of the International Wine & Food Society  London, 1988 (1,900 words; extracts)
Versión en español | Version de langue française | Japanese version  

In the late 1980s I used to visit San Sebastian (Donostia) with a Basque friend whose family had a restaurant. The food culture astonished me, not just for the quality, but for the way it was nurtured. Today, I still see Basque cooking as a model for what can be achieved at every level of a food culture if there is collective commitment.

Also see: All At The Same Table / Away From It All

In the Spanish Basque country there is a passion for cooking and eating well. Ask why that may be and you may receive different replies. Casually, people put it down to the cool mountain climate and sea air or, more seriously, they mention cultural identity and the sensual enjoyment of eating in a deeply religious society that frowned on other earthly pleasures.

Food writers talk of the influence of nearby France, the region's industrial wealth and the role of private cooks who worked for wealthy families summering here in the 19th century. There is also the idea, first put forward by José María Busca Isusi, the great food-writer, that Basque cooking's quality comes from its privileged position or, as he put it, its gastronomic "radius of reach". You can interpret that in its physical meaning: the Basque Country is a diverse terroir embedded among others of equal diversity when it comes to food and wine. Or you can interpret it abstractly: this border region is also a cultural crossroads. One thing is for sure, Basque gastronomy’s radius of reach goes hand-in-hand with a buzzing food culture that has been going over a hundred years.

There is also the idea, first put forward byf José María Busca Isusi, the great food-writer, that Basque cooking's quality comes from its privileged position or, as he put it, its gastronomic "radius of reach".

For all the debate everybody agrees on one guiding principle of Basque cuisine: respect for produce searched out with persistence, care and, often, these days, expense.

PRODUCE AND PLACE

Such is the emphasis on produce in the Basque Country that it seems to go hand-in-hand with place, as in classical Roman food culture: alubias, black beans, from Tolosa; angulas, elvers, from Aguinaga; chuletas de buey, ox chops, from the Baztan valley… and so on till you reach tomates and lechugas, farm-grown, best of all from your own kitchen-garden. So varied is Basque geography that just as Euskera Batua, the standardised form of Basque language, is the sum of many local dialects, so the region’s cooking may be an amalgamation of smaller scale local cuisines. Even today the "regional" repertoire, as the outside world thinks of it, really only exists in the large towns and, especially, in their restaurants.

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