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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The "crisis" reflected the decline of the region's farmsteads, or caseríos, the result, in turn, of a slow but steady shift to the towns and the low profitability of small-scale farming. One mid-1970s study reckoned that families working in their own caseríos put in an average working day of fourteen hours and that they could triple their production by using modern farming methods. Other factors were at play. Many apple orchards had been replaced by pines during the dictatorship. Fishing catches were falling as legislation closed access to far-distant old grounds and those closer to home showed the first signs of being fished out.

One mid-1970s study reckoned that families working in their own caseríos put in an average working day of fourteen hours per person....

For all these reasons nueva cocina had another relevance. In a cuisine guided by the search for produce, it was a creative way of absorbing a much wider range of ingredients, from locally produced cream to imported Latin American roots and from Galician kiwis to tropical pineapples.  In Busca Isusi's terms, the radius of reach was stretching again towards distant horizons. In business terms the Basque kitchen, now in male hands, hitched the regional wagon, was taking on globalization.


Today, thirty years later, the crisis de producto is still high on the agenda. Local fishing catches providing the produce central to dishes continue to decline. Responses have been many and varied. Fake elvers, a kind of Japanese-Basque reply to crab sticks, have replaced Aguinaga’s legendary fresh ones. More significant as a model for the future is the four year ban on anchovy fishing that helped to renew breeding stocks. The fishermen’s sacrifice and public doubts ended after the ban was extended for a fifth year: the stocks’ downwards spiral had stabilised.

At an institutional level there has also been a major effort to identify and nurture the pick of regional produce: beans from Tolosa, raw honey, natural cider, even those farmhouse lechugas, lettuces, all now share the right to be sold with the so-called Eusko Label. Many chefs from the Michelin-starred restaurant cluster - Arzak, Subijana, Berasategui, Aduriz, Atxe, for example - also have their own restaurant kitchen gardens.

Meanwhile the range of ingredients continues to grow: foie from southern France has become a standard ingredient of pintxos (tapas) and spices and flavourings from around the world have been absorbed into new versions of old dishes.

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