Thursday, January 17, 2008

Life in Spain - Understanding Basque Country - The People, The Life and The Food - A Land Apart

Perusing Jenni's old food magazines, what caught my eye in Saveur was a little front cover caption: A Basque Country Feast. After reading the piece, I am drawn to quote the majority of the article in hopes to give my Lylah Blog readers some in site into what I am learning the heart of Basque Country is about.

Sophia Perez writes:

A Land Apart ~ for centuries, the language and culture of Spain's Basque region have distinguished its people - and food has bound them together.

Borroka da bide bakarra. The words, spray-painted in bright red on a white wall near the docks in Bermeo, a fishing village in northern Spain, are indecipherable tome, so I turn to my friend Mikel Zeberio, in whose car I am riding, for the translation. Mikel, a 54-year old food journalist, former restaurant owner and cook, and general polymath, decodes the message: "The struggle is the only path." We are in Basque Country, where the graffiti are written in Euskera, the Basque language, and are hardly ever of the "Joe was here" variety.

Technically, this part of the world is in Spain, but it's definitely not of Spain. In some towns, you could pick a fight in under a minute simply by referring to the locals as Spaniards. Until the debut, ten years ago, of Frank Gehyr's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the architectural marvel that initiated the transformation of that city from industrial center to tourist destination, it was rare to see an international news report covering the Basque Country that wasn't about Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty) - the Basque separatists group commonly known by its acronym ETA - and its violent battles with Spanish authorities.

But Euskadi (the Basque people's name for their homeland), a place that the locals often refer to in Spanish as their pequeno pais (little country), has much more to offer than troubles, not least of all its food. I could not have asked for a better guide to the region and its cuisine than Mikel, whom I met a few years ago through a mutual friend who is a chef in San Sebastian.

Although the three Basque provinces of Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and Araba (as Vizcaya, Guipu'zcoa, and A'lva are rendered locally) have been part of the Spanish state for more than five hundred years, people who consider themselves Basque have been living in the mountainous, northeastern corner of the Ibe Peninsula for more than two thousand years. The Basque homeland - an area not much larger than Delaware, with a population of roughly 2 million people - had one of the earliest democratic law codes, known as fueros, and people here pay all their taxes to the provincial government, which forwards a portion of the revenue to Madrid. Further distinguishing the Basque Country is the fact that the Euskera language bears no resemblance to any of the Romance tongues spoken in neighboring countries; philologists are still arguing about its origins. "Our langugage is the connective thread that has helped this little country survive," says Mikel.

When it comes to conversation, whether it's in Euskera or in Spanish (in which all Basques are fluent), people here address a holy trinity of topics: politics, soccer, and food, though not necessarily in that order. The region is home to a plethora of Michelin-starred restaurants specializing in haute, ultramodern cuisnes, but the most common debates center on how to prepare traditional Basque dishes. Seemingly everyone has an opinon because just about everyone here cooks, including-and especially men, in sharp contrast with the rest of Spain. Basque women still rule the home, but the men have established their own enclaves, places where they are the ones in charge of the flames.

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