Basque Cooking: If Ours Were the Worst of All Lives

Journal of the International Wine & Food Society  London, 1988 (1,900 words; extracts)
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In rural areas the search for produce still remains fairly self-contained, limited to closer horizons. That nurtures diversity and ingenuity. Everyday dishes along the Spanish Basque coast, in the mountains, in the tierras medias - good farmland within reach of the sea - and in the fertile market gardens of southern Navarre are quite distinct while French Basque home cooking is remarkably separate given that the national border was settled only two centuries ago.…

The towns’ txokos, all-male gastronomic societies, worked like two-way filters for dishes moving between popular and restaurant culture. One example is kokotxas al pilpil....

In the last thirty years it has been the Basque Country’s bold restaurant cuisine that has attracted most attention. Its strength of character lies in the value placed on originality and in a collective independence of spirit. For while many professional kitchens in Europe, including most of those in Barcelona and Madrid, took on a French slant between the 1920s and the 1970s, Basque cooking stuck firmly to its own repertoire. That brought with it distinctive values, techniques, sauces.


There was little divide between home and restaurant cooking and in many cases women - famously, for example, the three Azcaray sisters of El Amparo - ran the restaurant kitchens where local dishes began to appear on the menu. A few emblematic cooks, such as Nicolasa, took Basque cooking further afield, even to Madrid. At a time when the Basque language and flag were forbidden cultural identity played an important part. Within that process food took on many meanings.

So, while tourism was taking its toll on Mediterranean dishes Basque cuisine evolved to absorb new local dishes. The towns’ txokos, all-male gastronomic societies, worked like two-way filters between popular and restaurant culture. One example is kokotxas al pil pil, that ingenious dish of hake’s cheeks in an opaque sauce of cooking juices bound with the fish’s own gelatine. Now it’s a pricy restaurant dish, but it was born on the fishing boats and made its way into the general repertoire via the gastronomic societies of San Sebastian (Donostia) fifty years ago.


In the 1970s things tilted in a different direction. The Basque response to nouvelle cuisine got going. Originally inspired by meetings between Paul Bocuse and a group of Basque chefs who visited him, the nueva cocina was taken up by "the magnificent eleven", as Catalan food writer Luis Bettonica, a sharp-eyed onlooker, nicknamed the chefs involved. When Juan Mari Arzak, the chef who became the movement’s figurehead, explained why they were taking the experimental step, he said they felt "they must contribute to the cultural changes the Basque people are experiencing at the moment." Food needed to move with the times.

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