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Gastronomy: The Tradition of Basque Cuisine
by Tr: Diane E. Graves
English translation of "Gastronomia", one of the series of "El Pais Vasco, ven y cuentalo" 2nd edition, January 1993 Author: Patxi Anton Idroquilis Editorial: Gobierno Vasco, Departamento de Comercio, Consuma, y Turismo. Viceconsejeria de Turismo. Translated unofficially by Diane E. Graves
Chapter 1: The Tradition of Basque Cuisine
The Basque cuisine is considered as one of the best international cuisines. It can be established, without going to excessive lengths, that it shares an honoured place next to the French or Chinese cuisines. The traditional Basque cuisine, however, is not an elite, complex or elaborate cuisine, but rather it is a relatively simple cuisine that enjoys a surprisingly strong root among the common people, and it can reach similar heights of exquisiteness in the finest restaurants, in gastronomic societies, or in the most humble of hearths, always finding its strength in the quality of produce that does not require sophisticated disguising. Its strength also lies in the inseparable concept of cooking: "el punto", that is to say, the point of preparation when the food is "just right".
The sea has traditionally been more generous than the earth in Euzkadi, except for the river valleys of Araba and some valleys of Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia that enjoy an agricultural richness that the more mountainous areas have not known. Seafood is therefore the star ingredient in traditional cuisine and the basis of the most internationally famed recipes. A near perfectly done fish can be simply roasted or superbly accompanied by one of many sauces that embody the most original elements of traditional Basque cuisine. Livestock in the Basque Country has always had to search hard for pasture, and as a result, this has given us leaner, tastier meats, more ample in quality than in quantity. The tastiest cuts of Pyrenean cattle, such as cutlets or sirloin, the lambs that have fed upon harsh alpine grasses, or the robust farmhouse poultry raised on corn are all a good example. Pork livestock equally play an important and often surprising part in traditional Basque cuisine.
In mentioning bovine livestock, one is led directly towards another of the elements that typify the traditional Basque gastronomy, that is, cheese and other lacteal products such as cuajada, basic desserts, together with traditional confectionery, in a country that until very recently centred its fruit cultivation primarily around the apple, of which dozens of native species can be found. Not to be left out are other harvests such as chestnuts and walnuts, legumes such as white haricot beans or broadbeans, grains such as corn, which have been the foundation of Basque nutrition for centuries, becoming part of the recipe collection in combinations that often are surprising to visitors.
However, we cannot describe traditional Basque gastronomy without mentioning a unique phenomenon, the gastronomic societies, which can be found throughout the entire country and which keep alive the Basque culinary orthodoxy and without which it would be difficult to understand the widespread social embracement of the present-day Basque cooking. By tradition exclusively male, in these masculine clubs men who at home would never come near the cooking hearth come together to cook for friends and for each other, making gastronomy the foundation for their relationships while they keep alive the most traditional recipes.
How to experience traditional Basque cuisine:
In most cities, the old quarter is the hiding place for traditional cuisine. There, the overwhelming majority of gastronomic societies and brotherhoods are centred, and it is not difficult to find dozens of restaurants whose menus offer the classic dishes of traditional cuisine. The Basque custom of "txikiteo", the brisk group migration from bar to bar consuming at each stop small amounts of wine, has given rise to a peculiar genre of "fast food" in the form of "pinchos" and "caxuelitas". Without needing an entire menu, one can sample small portions or servings of some of the most traditional dishes such as codfish, squid, tripe, etc...
The visitor who is interested in getting to know the traditional Basque cuisine will be genuinely lucky if he or she manages to strike up a friendship with a member of some gastronomic society who will lead him or her to one of such gastronomic sanctuaries. It is, however, easier to let oneself be led by the smell of local barbecue restaurants in coastal vicinities and the exposed temptations on the counters in restaurants, or likewise to explore the cuisine in local farmhouses and inns, in restaurants, in "jatetxeak", and in small villages where, for a reasonable price, one can encounter and sample the Basque cuisine in its most authentic and traditional form.