By: Ian Murray


The Basque Country, situated in the lush countryside straddling both sides of the Spanish and French border, has an internationally acclaimed gastronomic tradition that has further flourished in recent years. The Basques, with their mysterious origins, history, and pre-Indo-European language, also have a distinctive cuisine.
The cuisine of the Basque people is characterized by a great respect for the bountiful ingredients available in the Basque Country due to its unique geographical location. Fresh fish and shellfish are abundant in Basque cooking due to the prime location on the Bay of Biscay, while the fertile Ebro Valley allows for a wide variety of lush produce, and provides favorable grazing grounds for cows and sheep, which play a central role in many traditional Basque dishes. Basque cuisine reflects an influence from the culinary traditions of both the French to the north, and the Spanish to the south, although it is a markedly different cuisine as a whole, worthy of acclaim in its own right. The Basque region has the highest concentration of prestigious Michelin stars of any region in Spain due to innovative chefs such as Juan Mari Arzak, Pedro Subijana, Andoni Aduriz, and Martin Berasategui, to name just a few. That said, the love of food in the Basque country stretches far beyond haute cuisine; it is a love shared by all Basques, regardless of social class. Food plays a large part in the Basque lifestyle; breaking bread and sharing a meal among friends and family is an integral component of daily social life. Two humble traditions which have deep historical roots, yet remain mainstays in Basque culture are gastronomic societies, and cider houses.

Unique Basque Gastronomic Traditions

Gastronomic Societies

Unique to the Basque Country is the gastronomic society, or txoko. Traditionally, these clubs were a place for men to unwind after a stressful workweek, and share some laughs while drinking and preparing traditional, or innovative Basque specialties. Under Franco's repressive regime, txokos grew in popularity as they were one of the very few locales where Basques could converse in their own language. While women are now allowed in many txokos, they are still prohibited from partaking in both the preparation of the meal, and the clean-up. Societies are usually set up by a group of friends or coworkers, who rent out or buy a small building with a dining room and a kitchen in which to operate. Members take turns with the cooking duties, while the ingredients are paid for collectively in the form of a monthly membership fee. Along with a tremendous focus on high quality food, members play cards, and sing traditional Basque songs. Txakoli, a refreshing, slightly effervescent white wine typically produced in the hills near San Sebastian, is a popular accompaniment to the meal, as are the famed red wines of the Rioja Alavesa region in the southern portion of the Basque Country. To cap off the meal, members may enjoy a coffee as is the case in much of Spain, or the more traditional Basque digestif made from sloe berries, patxaran. Txokos exemplify the Basque love for food.

Traditional Cider Houses

Another unique feature of the Basque gastronomic landscape are the traditional cider houses, known in Basque as sagardotegi (pl. sagardotegiak), which are found throughout the Basque Country, but are concentrated in the province of Gipuzkoa. The term sagardotegi refers to the building where the cider (sagardo) is made. Basque cider is an unfiltered, unrefined hard cider made from abundant local apples, which by law must have an alcohol content of at least 4.5%. Because of the lack of refinement, or filtration, there is great variety from barrel to barrel. Meals in sagardotegis are communal affairs, where patrons are invited to commingle among friends and initial strangers alike, to taste the refreshing ciders straight from the barrel, while sharing a traditional meal that resembles that of an old fashioned steakhouse. Traditionally, a meal at a sagardotegi consists of a salt cod (bacalao) omelet as a first course, followed by more salt cod, this time stewed with deeply caramelized onions and vibrant green peppers. Next come thick-cut, bone-in steaks (txuletas/chuletas),cooked over an open fire, served lusciously rare with piquillo peppers and garlic as an accompaniment. To finish off the meal, dessert is an assortment local cheeses (usually Idiazabal, which is made from the raw milk of the local sheep breeds, Latxa, and Carranzana), quince paste (membrillo), and nuts. Periodically throughout the meal, a txotx (pronounced tchotch) is called, which signals diners to line up at the various tapped barrels and splash a few fingers full of cider while keeping the cup as low to the ground as possible in order to aerate the cider, before returning to their tables. The sagardotegi season spans from late January to the end of April, whereupon the cider houses close their doors for the year, and ciders are available only in bottled form.

Further Reading
To learn about the Basque presence in Idaho, click here.
For information concerning a cutting-edge gastronomic research and training institute, the Basque Culinary Center, click here.


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