I’ve always been fascinated (and often exasperated) by a certain tendency among Basques to not making a big song and dance of, well, anything really, with the possible exception of song and dance–and excepting anyone from Bilbao, of course, where making a fuss of anything to do with Bilbao is standard operating procedure (on this, see Joseba Zulaika’s discussion of Bilbao jokes in That Old Bilbao Moon).
But with the notable exception of the good folk of Bilbao, there is in my opinion something inherently Basque about not making a big deal of things, which may explain, for example, the contentious and so far unsubstantiated claim that Basques had already explored the coast of North America prior to 1492, but that this was never made to too public so as to avoid letting on where good fishing and whaling was to be found. So OK, this may be a myth but it’s quite revealing in its own way as an epithet for Basque culture. And this idea, that Basques have been perfectly happy to remain aloof about their own achievements, may also go some way to explaining the reasoning behind the title of the marvelous exhibit Hidden in Plain Sight: The Basques at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise – an exhibit, it should be noted, which seeks to redress this Basque reluctance to toot one’s own horn.
Which leads me in a roundabout kind of way to the important topic of chocolate. We all know that chocolate is a quintessentially “American” (as in Mesoamerican) product but if we think about European chocolate, what first springs to mind? Switzerland maybe? Yes, we’ve probably all seen Swiss chocolate adorning the retail outlets of airports across the world. Or perhaps Belgium, the inventor of the praline? That’s it. Anyone who’s ever been to Brussels or read one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries will surely be familiar with this fine product.
But wait, did you know that the Baiona has a long and proud history of making chocolate? And that it is actually rather good? Indeed, for journalist Taras Grescoe, Baiona “is Europe’s unsung capital of cacao” (see the report “Dark Secret” here). The Baiona chocolate industry, which survives and thrives to this day, was founded by Sephardi Jews fleeing the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula. “As early as 1609,” continues Grescoe, “Jewish merchants would roast the cacao in a small oven, and, after cooling the beans in a canvas bag, crush them into a paste on a heated, concave stone platform mounted on a tripod. The platform had to be schlepped from house to house, with the chocolatiers kneeling in front of the platforms for up to an hour to coax the beans into a form that could be whipped into a proper cup of hot chocolate” — presumably the forerunner of what Ceil Miller-Bouchet describes as “the most luscious hot chocolate to ever cross my lips” (see “Drinking Chocolate in Bayonne” here).
Today, Baiona chocolate can be enjoyed in all sorts of forms and flavors, my own favorite being anything infused with another import from the Americas, the famous chili peppers of Ezpeleta. There’s a guide to some of the chocolatiers of Baiona here, and you can even visit a chocolate workshop/museum in the city (see here for more information).
And if you’re interested in reading about, as well as eating, chocolate, check out these two short articles: “France’s first chocolate-makers” and “Bayonne, France & Chocolate Making.” So let’s celebrate this fine product, and honor it with its rightful place in the wonderful world of chocolate. Baiona chocolate, go forth into the world!