Arguably the most iconic dish in Spain is the tortilla, the Spanish or potato omelet, a staple of households across the country and almost always an option–whether in pintxo or tapa form–in any bar, cafe, or restaurant you may step into. But did this humble, tasty dish actually originate in the Basque Country? While some have suggested the idea that an “egg omelet” of sorts was known during Spain’s imperial expansion in the 16th century, still others point to more concrete evidence dating from the 19th century.
The first documented mention of the tortilla dates from 1817 in a message to the Parliament of Navarre–part of a system whereby people could leave messages for the parliament to discuss–detailing the sparse living conditions of the inhabitants of the more remote mountainous areas north of the capital of Iruñea-Pamplona; specifically, the message stated that typically 2-3 eggs (and even less) were used with whatever was to hand to thicken the mixture, including potatoes or breadcrumbs, to feed between 5 and 6 people.
Still another legend states that, in 1835, during the Carlist siege of Bilbao led by Tomás Zumalacarregui, the Basque general demanded a meal at a farmhouse one day and all that was available–with most of the local food sources reduced to a bare minimum–was a few eggs, a potato, and an onion. The extekoandre or woman of the house combined the scant provisions and the resulting dish so pleased the Carlist leader that he adopted it as a quick nutritious meal for his troops.
Check out the fascinating story of Zumalacarregui in The Most Striking Events of a Twelvemonth’s Campaign with Zumalacarregui in Navarre and the Basque Provinces, by C.F. Henningsen.
*Tortilla image by LLuisa Nunez courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Zumalacarregui image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
On July 25, 1593, Henry IV of France (and Henry III of Navarre) definitively converted to Roman Catholicism thereby paving the way to assume the French throne.
Born in Pau to Jeanne d’Albret, the Queen of Navarre (about whom see a previous post here), he was baptized as a Catholic but raised a Protestant and was crowned Henry III of Navarre on the death of his mother in 1572. During the sixteenth-century French Wars of Religion he was a prominent leader of the Protestant forces. On the death of his brother-in-law and distant cousin Henry III of France, he was called to the French succession and crowned Henry IV of France in 1589. He initially tried to maintain his Protestant faith but in the face of much popular opposition to he converted to Roman Catholicism after four years on the throne. His major achievement thereafter was to promulgate the Edict of Nantes (1598), which guaranteed religious freedom for Protestants and effectively ended the Wars of Religion. He was assassinated in 1610.
The other day, while looking for information on Basques in Northern California, I came across Piment d’Ville “a sweet, spicy Basque red chile.” Apparently, a group of Mendocino locals has begun growing and harvesting espelette peppers, and as they put it:
The spice has gradually replaced black pepper in everyday Basque cooking. We find ourselves using piment d’ville on everything from popcorn to simple roast chicken or in a red chile cream sauce. It also works well with chocolate or on a cocktail glass.
The company sells the peppers ground into different spices, from a sea salt mix to smoky or spicy jars of the chile. Their website even includes delicious sounding recipes, can’t wait to try them out for myself!
For those of you who have been to the Basque Country, I’m sure you’ve seen espelette peppers everywhere, in markets but also hung outside homes to dry. They are fundamental to Basque cuisine and it’s great to see it spread to another corner of the globe. Try the spice out in your next recipe, it won’t disappoint!
If you haven’t already read it, check out a report by the BBC Travel website on Euskara, the Basque language. One of the interviewees in the piece, Karmele Errekatxo, offers a profound perspective on Euskara: “Language is the identity of a place … If you take language from a place, it dies.” Also interviewed is a good friend of the Center, Pello Salaburu, author of Writing Words: The Unique Case of the Standardization of Basque, and coeditor (with Xabier Alberdi) of The Challenge of a Bilingual Society in the Basque Country.
Check out the full BBC article here.
The Center has published a number of books on the topic of the Basque language.
Basque Sociolinguistics: Language, Society, and Culture, by Estibaliz Amorrortu, is a great introduction to the social dimension of Basque. This book is available free to download here. See, too, Koldo Zuazo’s fascinating study The Dialects of Basque.
And these works are complimented by the handy and instructive CBS-Morris English-Basque/Basque-English Dictionary-Hiztegia.
* Image: Inkscape 0.91 screenshot in Basque (Fedora 22) by Assar, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Too Many Kisses is a 1925 movie directed by Paul Sloane and based on John Monk Saunders’s story, “A Maker of Gestures.” It is notable for being the earliest surviving film to feature Harpo Marx, but also for its setting: Iparralde or the Basque Country in France. The plot concerns a father who sends his Lothario son to Iparralde in the belief that he will not be able to leave a trail of broken hearts behind him there because Basques only marry among themselves (!) Harpo Marx plays a minor role as the Village Peter Pan. See a full description of the film, for a long time thought to have been lost, here.
As the above clip demonstrates, the movie makers were fairly liberal in their interpretation of Basque culture but it’s an interesting testament, nonetheless, to showing that the Basque Country was known in the US in the 1920s as somewhere singular and different. What do you think? Does Harpo make a convincing Basque?
Francisco Ignacio Añoa y Busto (1684-1764)
On July 15, 1738, the bishop of Pamplona-Iruñea, Francisco Añoa (from Viana) decreed that no receiver who did not speak Basque should be allowed to work in Navarre. Receivers were functionaries who received and collated all kinds of information about legal disputes and judicial business. The decree was made following a long dispute between the receiver Juan José Huarte, a non-Basque speaker, and several Basque-speaking locals in Izaba, which ultimately resulted in Huarte being removed because he could not communicate with the local people with whom he was obliged to work. In this general dispute, non-Basque-speaking receptors suggested hiring interpreters, but this idea was rejected by the Civil Courts of Navarre because of the “difficulty of understanding the scope of the words” and because there were perfectly qualified Basque-speaking receptors to do the work. Interestingly, Gipuzkoa did hire interpreters because legally it belonged to the Chancellery of Valladolid in Castile.
Information sourced from Iñaki Egaña, Mil noticias insólitas del país de los vascos(Tafalla: Txalaparta, 2001), pp. 139-40.
News comes our way of a rather unique business idea: marketing Bilbao rainwater! Why not? This is, after all, Bilbao! A city not renowned for its modesty but definitely known for its bilbainadas. As Joseba Zulaika observes in That Old Bilbao Moon (p. 180):
The bilbainada is a too-muchness that, except in Bilbao, is unaffordable. It is the city’s alter-ego behavior, the extravagant antidote to the frustrations of an understated, modest lifestyle. Going for the Guggenheim Museum was for many a typical bilbainada. What for an outsider seems a braggard’s exhibitionism is for Bilbainos ritual consumption.
As the saying goes, “The only virtue that is lacking for Bilbainos to be perfect is modesty.” It goes with such grandiosity that there can be nothing greater in life than being from Bilbao.
Just by way of clarification, if the initiative takes off, the intention is to make the product in centers for people with mental disabilities and donate part of the profits to worthy local causes. If you’d like to get your own particular bottle of Bilbao rainwater, click here.
Check out a short but interesting interview with star Basque chef Eneko Atxa, who not only runs Azurmendi just outside Bilbao, but also has a more informal London restaurant, Eneko.
We picked up on a couple of things he mentions and think they’re pretty important when it comes to understanding Basque culture. For Atxa, “Basque people are born around the dinner table. We are unique in that when we are eating we are also speaking about our dinner; we are just crazy about our food and it dominates our conversations every day.” So true! It’s one of the first things those of us not born into Basque culture notice when hanging out with Basques on their own terrain … they not only love preparing and eating food, they love taking about it as well, while they are actually eating it! And just a heads up for anyone who didn’t know, if you ever get invited into someone’s home in the Basque Country for a meal, be sure to compliment the chef early on into the meal (“Zer goxoa!” “How tasty!”)…
Atxa continues: “my mother and grandmother always showed me the importance of the kitchen and healthy eating, and giving pleasure through food. I understood that it could be one language that could translate and transport people to a space and a culture.” Food as a language! What a great idea! Of course, we as humans communicate through food. It’s one way we transmit our tradition, culture, and love… in fact, what better way to do that than by sitting round a table enjoying great food, great conversation, and great company? Isn’t this the very basis of society, sitting down and sharing common sustenance? We think so!
See the full interview here.
If you haven’t already done so, be sure to take a look at Hasier Etxeberria’s On Basque Cuisine, a publication of the Etxpeare Basque Institute free to download here.
It was announced today, July 18, that Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa of the Restaurante Leo has won this year’s Basque Culinary World Prize. The prize is awarded by the Basque Culinary Center and the Basque Government and is intended to celebrate, in its own words, Basque “values such as hard work and compromise, the capacity to excel, a vocation for transformation and the creation of equal opportunities for men and women.” In the words of the jury:
We believe that through awarding the prize to Leonor we recognize all those people ho are working hard today so that the city and rural communities can come together through gastronomy. Leonor’s work shows the possibilities that come when chefs acknowledge that biodiversity, ecology, culture, ad the traditions of local communities matter. Her work gives voice to the silence and anonymity of indigenous and Afroamerican cultures. We found this inspiring and powerful.
From the Basque Culinary World Prize website:
Leonor Espinosa is known for taking great pride in the cuisine of her country, as well as nurturing and promoting the value of its biodiversity. Through the Funleo foundation, Espinosa revives the ancestral knowledge and know-how of mainly indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples. She supports rural development based on food sovereignty, and promotes routes to market for small producers as well as spaces for education, nutrition, enterprise and tourism in ethnic locations. In addition to gathering support for opening a Comprehensive Gastronomy Centre in Chocó as an alternative framework to drug trafficking, she urges Colombia to raise awareness of its culinary richness, and wants its communities to take responsibility for transforming their biological, cultural and intangible heritage into tools for socio-economic development.