Remembering my Dad: Sheepherder’s Bread, the way the Sheepherder intended (sort of)

My dad would have turned 75 today. To celebrate his birthday, I thought I’d repost this blog about making bread the sheepherder’s way. Happy birthday dad! I miss you!

As I mentioned earlier, seemingly once I left home for school, my dad began making his own jamon and chorizo. Another tradition my dad has revived recently is making sheepherder’s bread.  Actually, the whole gang in Homedale has gotten back to their roots, so to speak, and they hold competitions for the best bread. It gets pretty intense, with guys speculating about whether this loaf will turn out or not. My dad is no exception. He treated us to the full experience over break.

Out in the hills, he would dig a pit in which to bake the bread.  At his home, however, he has a permanent pit, lined with a big concrete pipe. Most of the time, it’s covered with a board and it’s only rarely that the lid comes off and he makes a loaf, mostly because it does take some effort. He’s collected a large pile of sagebrush from the hills that he slowly is chipping away at.

I’ve had a recipe for sheepherder’s bread on my site for some time now, and from what I’ve been told and experienced from my wife’s own hand, it makes a very good loaf.  But dad’s (txitxi to my daughter) recipe is slightly different:

Txitxi Bread for a #10 Dutch Oven

1.5 packets active dry yeast
    (he uses Red Star)
1 quart + "a bit" lukewarm water
1 heaping Tbsp + 1/4 tsp sugar

Combine and let yeast proof.

Add 3/4 tsp salt and all
purpose flour until you reach
desired consistency.
Knead until smooth.

Let rise until doubled in bulk,
twice. Put in greased dutch oven
(preferably with bacon grease)
and let rise until lid is pushed up.

If baking in oven, 350 degrees
Fahrenheit for approximately 60 minutes.
Keep covered with lid or tented with foil.

However, if you want to be authentic, you’ve got to cook it in the pit.

First, we burned quite a bit of the sagebrush, just to get some ashes to use later.  These we dug out and let cool. We then burned another batch. These were for the hot ashes, the ones to cook the bread. Once the sagebrush had burned down such that we had maybe 5 inches of hot coals, we lowered the Dutch oven into the pit. This is where the cool ashes come in.  We covered the Dutch oven with cool ashes to act as an insulating blanket and to keep the heat in.  We further covered it with a little dirt. This seems to be the trickiest part: you want enough insulation to keep the heat in but not so much that you smother the fire. Dad said that you should be able to just barely feel the heat coming off when putting your hand near the top.

A critical step is to make sure the handle of the Dutch oven is up when you start burying it, as otherwise you won’t have anything to grab when you pull it out.

We left our bread in the pit for something on the order of 1 and a half hours. It was getting late and we needed to eat dinner, so we pulled it out, maybe a little early. The center wasn’t quite cooked.  Dad threw it in the conventional oven for a while longer to eat the next day. He claimed we had smothered the fire, put too much ash on top. In any case, the bread looked great and, the next day, the bread tasted great too.

While we were burning all of that sagebrush and the wind picked up some embers and blew them around, I asked dad if he ever had a fire get away from him in the hills. He said once, a fire started to get away, but he was able to put it out, so nothing really happened.  But he had a tale of another sheepherder who did have one get completely out of control. It burned quite a few acres, getting big enough that a fire crew had to be called in to put it out.  I don’t know how much it ended up burning or exactly where this was, but dad said that this sheepherder somehow became part of the fire crew, helped put it out, and got paid to do it!

This is a very simple recipe, with only 5 ingredients. I imagine it was important for a young sheepherder, cooking in a strange environment with limited ingredients while also trying to herd sheep, to keep things as simple as possible. I’m not sure how much these guys would have cooked back in the old country, but I imagine it was very little. I also imagine that the bread isn’t too sensitive to how it’s cooked as things aren’t precisely controlled in this process.  But, it sure does produce some very tasty bread!

Basque Fact of the Week: Euskadi is a “Strong Innovator”

Historically, the Basque Country’s economy has focused on agrarian and industrial activities, the later mostly centered on steel and shipbuilding. However, the government of Euskadi — or the Basque Autonomous Community comprised of Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba — has invested heavily on modernization, with significant expenditures on research and development, particularly by business — of all Autonomous Communities in Spain, Euskadi invests the greatest percentage of its gross domestic product into R&D. The Basque Country has the highest per capita income in Spain and is one of the regions of Europe with the highest numbers of tertiary, or post-high school, degrees. Its success is based on the decision to invest in industry, not tourism.

Image from the European Commission.
  • Euskadi is growing in scientific leadership. According to Ikerbasque, the Basque Foundation for Science, Euskadi published more than 6000 scientific papers in 2017, a 50% increase over the last 6 years. This is 6.5% of the total scientific productivity of Spain, when Euskadi has 4.7% of the population.
  • Science investment in Euskadi is driven by the so-called Plan de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Euskadi 2020. This plan emphasizes three strategic priorities — energy, advanced manufacturing, and bio-sciences and health — along with four areas of opportunity — agri-food industry; territorial planning and urban regeneration; leisure, entertainment, and culture; and ecosystems.
  • One feature of the Basque commitment to scientific R&D is their network of Cooperative Research Centers. Centers focused on Biomaterials, Biosciences, Energy, and Nanoscience are spread throughout Euskadi. These centers were created by the Basque Government to “create an effective framework of cooperation in strategic research areas, strengthen interdisciplinary basic and applied worldclass research in those areas and provide technology transfer to the industrial environment” (from the NanoGUNE website). 
  • Not everything is smelling like roses. Euskadi’s rankings have fallen over the last year. This is maybe reflected by the drop in R&D expenditures in recent years. Drops in government investment were at least partially offset by increases in private spending. And Euskadi is relatively weak in non-R&D innovation and patent applications.

Basque Fact of the Week: Basques and Chocolate

As in many places, chocolate is a big part of Basque life. On birthdays, instead of the birthday cake familiar in the United States, Basques often drink a cup of liquid chocolate. It wasn’t so long ago, in the early 1800s, that chocolate was a common part of breakfast in the Basque Country. It was often viewed, not as a treat, but as a health drink, inspired, in part, by the way the Mayans and Aztecs used it as, effectively, an energy drink. Indeed, Hernán Cortés noted how drinking cocoa could help one resist fatigue. But, the Basques were also a big part of the development and commercialization of chocolate.

Image from Cruise Europe.
  • Europeans first encountered cocoa during the conquests of the “New World.” The first reference to cocoa was in 1502, when Christopher Columbus encountered the Mayans. It wasn’t long, in 1520, before the Spanish brought cocoa back to the Iberian peninsula, where they made chocolate by adding sugar to the cocoa. The Spanish guarded their secrets carefully and it wasn’t until 1600 that first Italy and then France learned how to make chocolate.
  • Baiona became an important center for making chocolate when the Jews that were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Kings. By 1670, the city was giving chocolate as a gift to visitors. In 1761, the statutes of the chocolatiers of Baiona were passed, saying that one had to be a Master to open a chocolate shop in the town. At the same time, though, the Jews that had originally brought the art of making chocolate to the city were banned from selling it outside their own district. By the end of the 18th century, half of the chocolate consumed in France was produced in Iparralde, or the French Basque Country. There is an annual festival in Baiona celebrating chocolate!
  • On the Spanish side, in 1728, the Real Compañía Guipuzcoana de Caracas was created to encourage trade between Spain and the Indies, at least in part as a reaction against Dutch trade with the Spanish colonies and the inability of the Spanish crown to control that trade — they wanted to break the Dutch monopoly on cocoa. This company enjoyed two special privileges, given by royal decree: a monopoly on the commercialization of cacao and the ability to persecute illegal trade. It wasn’t until 1774, again due to royal decree, that trade opened up between other countries of Europe and cacao producers in South America. This led to the first chocolate factory, founded in 1776, in France. The company dissolved in 1785. The company had a large role in the politics of Venezuela, including border expeditions such as that led by a company man, José de Iturriaga y Aguirre.
  • The chocolate company Elgorriaga was founded in 1770. It arose from shepherds going to market in Irún, Gipuzkoa. Some of the shepherds opened a chocolate business. In the 19th century, the wife of one of the shepherds opened a shop, calling it Confitería Elgorriaga, after the family. Today, the company is now part of the larger Urbasa Global Brands. While not its own company any more, Elgorriaga chocolates can be found the world-over.

Primary Source: Aguirre Sorondo, Antxon. Chocolate. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at:

Basque Fact of the Week: Earliest Written Evidence of Euskara

Euskara, the language spoken by the Basque people, is now spoken by about 750,000 people. The language is perhaps the most singularly important feature identifying the Basque people. Indeed, the word for a Basque person in Euskara — euskaldun — means ‘one who has Euskara.’ Thus, the history of the language itself is of great interest and importance in understanding the history of the Basque people. Given that Basque has not had a strong written history, reconstructing the history of the language is challenging. The earliest known evidence for Euskara comes from a set of lead tablets from the Roman period. These tablets have the word “NESCAS” or “NISCAS” written on them, apparently referring to the modern Basque word neska, which means girl, used, in this context, to invoke the local nymphs.

The first phrases in Euskara. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
  • It is now accepted that Basque is related to the now-dead language Aquitanian, that Aquitanian is an ancestral form of Basque. There are inscriptions of Aquitanian names from the first centuries BC and AD that can be related to Basque words; examples include NESKATO (neskato=girl), ANDERE (andere=lady), CISSON (gizon=man), OSSO, OXSO (otso=wolf), and HERAUS (herauts=boar).
  • After the lead tablets, the earliest record of Euskara is from personal names, the earliest of which is Momus, a Latin version of the no-longer-used Basque name Mome. This name appears in the cemetery of Argiñeta in Elorrio, usually dated to 883.
  • The earliest known phrases in Euskara are from the so-called Emilian Glosses from the San Millán monastery in the Rioja. These phrases, from a manuscript dated to 950, are jzioqui dugu and guec ajutu-ezdugu. The meaning of these phrases isn’t completely clear.
  • The earliest known example of a text connecting more than a few words together comes from a magical charm or prayer, dated to the 14th century, that was found in the cathedral of Pamplona in 1957.
  • The longest preserved text we have from before the period before publication began comes from a letter written in 1537 by the first Bishop of Mexico, Joan Zumarraga, to Kattalin Ruiz Muntsaratz with the goal of arranging a marriage between his nephew and Kattalin’s daughter.
  • The first printed book in Euskara is a book of poems, Linguæ Vasconum Primitiæ (“First Fruits of the Basque Language”), published in 1545 and written by Beñat Etxepare. In one of his poems, Etxepare calls for “Heuscara ialgui adi cãpora.” or Euskara jalgi hadi kanpora=Basque, go outside. He wanted Basque to be a more important language.

Sources: Etymological Dictionary of Basque by R. L. Trask, edited for web publication by Max W. Wheeler; The History of Basque by R. L. Trask.

Basque Fact of the Week: Basque Stone Lifters

Anyone who has been to a Basque festival will recognize the rural theme of many Basque sports. Based on activities that would have occurred at the baserri, or farm house, Basque rural sports include wood chopping and sawing, bale lifting, and weight carrying. In fact, the Basque Government has identified 18 of these events in its Strategic Plan. Perhaps one of the most spectacular and popular of these events is harri jasotzea, or stone lifting. There are various variants of stone lifting, from lifting the biggest weight to lifting a smaller weight as many times as possible. In all cases, a successful lift consists of getting the stone to one’s shoulder.

Saralegi with his 329 kilogram lift. Photo from
  • The world record for the heaviest lift is held by Mieltxo Saralegi, with a lift of 329 kilograms, or 725 pounds, a feat which took place in 2001 in Lekunberri. That is, he lifted rectangular rock off the ground and up to his shoulder that weighed over 700 pounds!
  • Perhaps the most famous stone lifter is Iñaki Perurena, who held the previous record at 320 kilograms. He also held the record for the most lifts of a 100 kilogram stone: 1,700 times over the course of 9 hours. Iñaki has become a celebrity in the Basque Country, acting in the TV series Goenkale and writing bertsos.
  • There is a stone, the Albizuri-Handi de Amezketa, that has become almost mythic in the history of Basque stone lifting. Weighing “only” 166.5 kilograms (367 pounds), it is a natural stone with a very irregular shape. While stories swirl that it was lifted in 1875 by José María Zuriarrain Galarza, the first confirmed lift occurred in 1947, by Santos Iriarte (known as Errekartetxo), who barely got it to his shoulder within the ten minute time limit. Aimar Irigoien lifted this stone in 2002, when he was only 16 years old.
  • It wasn’t until stone lifter Bittor Zabala, who lifted between 1910 and 1945, came along that the stones were given standard dimensions and weights. Before that, stone lifters used whatever stones they wished, in whatever shape. Today, all of the stones (with the exception of special stones such as the Albizuru-Handi), are of specific size, weights, and dimensions.
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