Elena Arzak and Usune Etxeberria: Two Leaders of Basque Gastronomy and Cuisine

The Basque Country is well known for its cuisine. Building on a rich tradition of food — pintxos, txokos, fish, cheese, and more — Basques have also been leaders in pushing the boundaries of gastronomy. Two news stories popped up in my feed that exemplify both the importance of Basque cuisine and the leadership of the Basque Country in the world of food.

Elena Arzak is one of the two chefs — the other being her dad Juan Mari — that lead the restaurant Arzak, a three Michelin star restaurant and one of the top 50 in the world in 2018. In an article in GoodFood, she describes how important food is to the Basque culture. She highlights how the Basque Country’s distinct geography gives it the best of both the land and the sea and how that leads to a special relationship with food. The article highlights her own list of the best of the Basque Country, from avant-garde restaurants to craft brews.

Then there is Usune Etxeberria, a scientist who is pushing the frontier of so-called precision gastronomy, in which modern genetics are used to help develop very specific diets to help avoid disease while keeping the pleasure in the food. She and her colleagues have already shown how examining the gut microbe can be used to help develop diets that help prevent injuries in soccer players. They are also using artificial intelligence to complement these studies. The ultimate goal is to develop personalized menus that help combat disease specific to each of us.

Both women emphasize the life-long connection to food that being from the Basque Country brings. Whether it is developing world-class menus or specialized menus tailored to each of us, this connection is the foundation for revolutions in cuisine.

Basque Fact of the Week: The Sanctuary of Arantzazu

The Sanctuary of Arantzazu is nestled in the mountains just outside of the city of Oñati, famous itself for the University of Oñati, one of the oldest buildings in Iberia. Arantzazu is known for its uncharacteristic and distinctly modern look, “one of the most avant-garde religious buildings in the world“. The spires are covered in pointed stones evoking thorns while the entrance is overshadowed by abstract representations of the apostles. It was also the site of my uncle and aunt’s wedding.

Image from Oñati Tourism.
  • Arantzazu gets its name, and origin, from the supposed discovery, way back in 1469, of a statue of the Virgin Mary in a bush of thorns. The story goes that the shepherd who found the statue, one Rodrigo de Balanzategui, exclaimed “Arantzan zu?” (“You, in the thorns?”) However, there is also a town in Bizkaia called Arantzazu, suggesting it might be a toponymic name.
  • One of the original founders of the sanctuary was a serora, Juana de Arriaran, who was known as a famous healer, even consulting to queens. She made her home near the sanctuary so she could help heal passing pilgrims.
  • In the 1940s, the Franciscans who run the Sanctuary decide it is time for a new basilica and they hold a contest for the design, choosing Francisco Sáenz de Oiza and Luis Laorga’s avant-garde concept for the new basilica. The new project attracted some of the biggest names in the Basque architectural and art world, including Jorge Oteiza, Eduardo Chillida, and Nestor Basterretxea.
  • Oteiza was in charge of sculpture above the entrance. In the end, he settled on a scene of 14 apostles, 2 more than are in the Bible. A lot of stories surrounded where the extra came from, including that there is really only one apostle depicted, it is just various points of view of the same man. However, most likely, Oteiza chose 14 simply because it fit his space best.
  • During the actual sculpting of the apostles, the Church in Rome gets involved and decides that the style of art is too weird, too far away from acceptable religious art. For 15 years, a partially-carved set of apostles sits on the side of the road. After appeals by the Franciscans, Rome is still against the art, but allows the bishop in Donosti to decide. Eventually, he okays going forward.
  • However, Oteiza is having his own doubts and isn’t immediately interested in finishing the project. He had done everything he wanted to do in sculpture and had moved on to other art forms. Eventually, knowing the importance of this project to the Basque Country, he completes the sculpture.

Primary sources: Naiz (by Gara); Basque Country Magazine; Wikipedia; Mujika Aldasoro, Xabier. Santuario de Arantzazu. Oñati. Enciclopedia Auñamendi [online], 2019. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/santuario-de-arantzazu-onati/ar-143208/

Nor Naiz, Gu Gara: Marc Cormier

Nor Naiz, Gu Gara (Who I Am, We Are) is a series aiming to explore the meaning of Basque Identity around the world, both within Euskal Herria as well as in the diaspora. For an introduction to the series, look here, and for a list of the previous entries, look here. I started this series back in 2010 and am reviving it. If you are interested in contributing, let me know.

I am most grateful to Buber for giving me the opportunity to tell you why I am an Euskadunen Laguna. I was born in one of the few places in the world with an Ikurriña as part of its flag: the islands of St Pierre and Miquelon. 

When I was a small child, my first exposure to the Basque language and culture was our famous Zazpiak Bat fronton right across from my elementary school in St Pierre, which we affectionately called the “Zazpi”. This massive concrete wall, probably the oldest in the New World, was a permanent presence in our lives: it was right at the end of the school yard. Every recess, we’d play near it. After school, the local Basque club would play Pala Ancha or Pelote and every August the Basque festival would bring music, games and joy to our town. 

Although I am not of Basque extraction, save a great-grandmother named Detcheverry, many of my friends’ names were Basque: Daguerre, Delizarraga, Teletchea, Goicoetchea … Our islands have roots in Normandy, Brittany, Ireland and the Basque Country and everybody is a little of each. The Basque language disappeared in Saint-Pierre et Miquelon in the 1950s, yet nobody mourned its extinction; this was just how things were in a French Overseas Territory in the middle of the 20th century. 

After graduating from high school, university studies meant packing my bags for France, a year at a time, and I chose to settle in the southwest city of Bordeaux for four years. Since I chose to study in the capital of Aquitaine, I ended up quite close to the French Basque Country. It was therefore, at the Université de Bordeaux, that I befriended a large contingent of Basque students from Hendaye, Bayonne, Biarritz, Behobie and St Jean de Luz. I spend many holidays in that part of France, often crossing over into Irun and Behobia and learning about the language, complex politics and traditions of the region and its peoples. I am to this day indebted to the people of that region for their hospitality and kindness. Often my friends would joke about making me an honorary Basque: “the paperwork is almost done” they’d say laughingly to anyone who queried. 

Years later, when I moved to Toronto, Canada, I decided to pursue my interest in the history of the islands of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon only to discover the strong ties between my native islands and the French and Spanish Basque regions, from the 19th century fishing companies to the 16th century establishments that had been described by Martin de Hoyarçabal and Pierre Detcheverry Dorre. Through my research, I was able to demonstrate that the name of Miquelon had, in fact, been given to the great island by the Basques. One must understand that many place names in Newfoundland and the islands were also given by mariners from that country. From Placentia (Plentzia) to Port-aux-Choix (Portuchoa), Burin (Buru) to Barachois, and Lizardie, the Basque toponomy was inescapable. I also owe a great debt to Selma Barkham who introduced me to the works of Hoyarçabal. 

To better understand certain archives and primary sources, I decided to learn some Euskara, only to realize the vast variety of dialects one can encounter in archives and other primary sources. To this day, I remain convinced archives from the Basque Country will yield more information related to the history of my islands and of the great fishing expeditions to the New Found Land. Decades later, the love affair continues and I shall always be an Euskaldunen Laguna. 

Born abroad, with Irish, Scottish, Mi’kmaq and Acadian roots from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Marc Albert Cormier was raised in Saint-Pierre et Miquelon. After four years at Université de Bordeaux in France, he moved to Canada in 1992 and studied at the University of Toronto, obtaining a Bachelors in Education. For 10 years, Marc was a director of a nationwide education system for homework help working with a virtual office staff of 20 professionally trained teachers from across Canada which year-over-year increased usability stats for students desiring to get better grades in school. In September 2018, Marc moved to back to his teaching roots to inspire kids in math and science. For his work as a teacher, principal and project manager in education, Marc was awarded two knighthoods for his groundbreaking work in online education and his passion for maintaining one’s culture.

Basque Fact of the Week: Joaquin Murrieta, the Inspiration for Zorro

The US West is literally littered with Basque names. Basques came directly to herd sheep, but they also came earlier as part of the Spanish Conquest. One part of the conquistador legacy is the surnames that abound not only in the US but in other parts of the Americas. Murrieta, a name that possibly means “a place full of hazelnuts.” Though I doubt he knew where his name came from, Joaquin Murrieta terrorized California and was maybe the inspiration for the literary and movie character Zorro.

Image from Wikipedia.
  • There is a lot that is uncertain about Murrieta’s early life. Most likely, he was born/baptized sometime in the 1820s in Sonora, Mexico. In 1848 or 1849, he emigrated with his wife to California, only a year or two after the region had become part of the United States (it was, of course, part of Mexico before that). While Murrieta had some luck in the gold rush, he lost his claims in various encounters with Americans. The stories vary, from his stepbrother being hanged and him being whipped, to his wife being raped and killed (or maybe none of this happened…). Whatever the details, this seems to have driven Murrieta into the life of a bandit and outlaw.
  • Murrieta and his gang became notorious in California. They were horse traders but also murdered miners and settlers, particularly those involved in the gold mines. The Californian government hired a crew of 20 Rangers to hunt the gang down. The Rangers eventually killed a man they claimed was Murrieta. To prove it, they had taken his head, preserving it in alcohol, and were rewarded for their actions. However, years later, people started claiming that the head wasn’t Murrieta’s, that he had escaped…
  • Because his banditry grew out of the injustices he had experienced, some viewed him, even back then in the 1850s, as some sort of “rebel with a cause.” (Though, many saw him as simply greedy and depraved.) He seems to have encouraged this view, depicting himself as some kind of avenger against the unjust Americans. This romanticization of his life eventually seems to have inspired the story of Zorro. Indeed, Murrieta was known by several nicknames, including “The Headless Horseman,” “El Coyote,” “The Mountain Bandit,” “El Patrio,” and “El Zorro.”
  • In his 1919 novel, The Curse of Capistrano, Johnston McCulley (who had his own troubled past) introduced his character Zorro. Set in the Pueblo of Los Angeles, Zorro’s adventures pitted him against corrupt officials on behalf of the commoners and indigenous people of the village. Zorro was known for wearing a mask and having a dual identity, inspiring in some part the idea of the superhero to debut in comic books a few decades later. Zorro is said to have been based, in part, on the romantic view of Murrieta as a defender of locals against the aggression of the Americans (though another Californio bandit, Salomon Pico, is also thought to be an inspiration). Indeed, in the movie The Mask of Zorro, staring Antonio Banderas, (a second generation) Zorro is really Alejandro Murrieta, the brother of Joaquin who becomes Zorro to avenge his brother’s death.

Primary sources: Santurtzi Historian Zehar; Wikipedia; HistoryNet.com; Stephen Andes’ Zorro’s Ghost.

Basque Fact of the Week: Seroras, the Women Caretakers of the Church

It is often said that the Basque people came to Christianity relatively late as compared to their neighbors in the rest of Europe. When they did, however, they did so with fervor and Catholicism is the dominant religion of the region. While only fragments of the pre-Catholic religion remain, they find their way into the practice of Catholicism in sometimes surprising ways. The Basque seroras are one such example.

Image from Bazkazaneko Eliza.
  • Seroras were women who were entrusted with certain activities in the church. They were hired or elected by the local populace or the land owners, often a process involving clashes of power between different groups, and given a house (seroretxea) and some land on the property of the church (or, maybe, in older times, the religious site more generally). She was given some sort of stipend that allowed her to hire some helpers, also always women. She was a lay person, not taking any vows.
  • She had two primary duties: care-taking of the church itself and acting as the ‘priestess or mistress of ceremonies’ for the women in the church or parish. In this later role, she often led ritual acts for the dead, including the offering of bread and candles for the souls of the dead.
  • The seroras also had another key duty, acting as a keeper of financial accounts for the auzoa, or local community (collection of baserria). In this role, she and her helper harken back to myths of Mari. Myths of Mari often included the idea of ezagaz eta baiagaz, or “with the negation and with the affirmation.” In these stories, if a shepherd, for example, misspoke the number of sheep he had, either too high or too low, Mari and her helpers would take the difference. Roslyn Frank argues that these stories came from real activities of women in society and that the seroras grew out of this role.
  • There is also evidence that they were healers. Indeed, one word used for witch, belharguin, means herb-worker. Variants of this name were used for the seroras in some areas. This suggests that, originally, the seroras may have been the village healers and later evolved into the role they took with the churches when Christianity came into the region.
  • The seroras, and even the priests, were appointed/chosen by the local auzoa. They often had no formal training in Catholic liturgy. The seroras, in particular, became an issue for the Catholic Church. In his persecution of witches in Lapurdi, Pierre de Lancre was shocked by their presence and role in the churches, writing in 1612 that “Satan, who has always counted on some harpy to deceive the world… has found a way to introduce certain women… to the church.” Eventually, the Church banned these women, through a decree by the Pope that was upheld by King Philip IV in 1623. However, the local Basques often ignored the ban and kept the seroras, in some cases, into modern times.

Primary sources: “A Diachronic Analysis of the Religious Role of the Woman in Euskal Herria: The Serora and her Helpers” by Roslyn M. Frank; The Basque Seroras, by Amanda L. Scott (Scott has a book forthcoming on these women and their role in Basque society); Larrañaga Arregi, Mikel; Serora. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/serora/ar-153053/. Inspired by Invoking the Akelarre by Emma Wilby.


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