“Make sure to buy good fish and wine because Christmas only happens once a year. And Christmas is for people to enjoy. At least for those who can … Have a good Christmas. I’m planning on spending it with the sheep.”
Part of a letter from a Basque sheepherder back home to the Old Country, quoted in John Bieter and Mark Bieter, An Enduring Legacy: The Story of Basques in Idaho, p. 43.
This poignant letter is, I think, a reminder to all of us about the connection between special times of the year or celebrations and certain food rituals: A Fourth of July barbecue or a Thanksgiving meal including turkey and pumpkin pie, for example. So how do Basques celebrate the holiday season when it comes to food? What’s on the menu in Basque homes? I don’t think there’s any straightforward answer to this question, and I’m even more certain that I’ll miss something somewhere along the line in my attempt to answer it (so apologies beforehand!). First of all, the main meal at which families sit down together to celebrate is dinner on Christmas Eve, rather than a Christmas-day lunch. But from there, the food ritual can go in a number of directions (including even pizza nowadays I guess).
In former times, and maybe still even today, prior to sitting down to the meal, a loaf of bread would be blessed by making the sign of the cross over it with a knife prior to cutting it and sharing slices out among those gathered at the table. Sometimes the first piece, the kurrusko, of this ogi salutadorea (health-giving bread) would be offered to those who had departed, especially any recently deceased family members. Any leftover bread would be kept for a whole year and burned right before the same celebration the following year. In the meantime, this bread was highly regarded for its curative powers and should anyone in the household fall sick, they would be given a piece. “Christmas (Eve) bread” could even be used to ward off the harsh effects of extreme weather conditions.
A traditional Basque song includes what was probably once a typical menu for this dinner: Aza-olioak pil-pil / Bisigua zirt-zart / Gaztaiña erriak pin-pan! / Aia goxo-goxo, epel-epel (in other words, sauteed cabbage (with garlic), sea bream, roasted chestnuts, and a porridge-like desert made from wheat flour). And there would of course have been variations on this: cauliflower instead of cabbage, perhaps, to start; followed by cod, for example, instead of sea bream or, especially in coastal areas, txitxarro (horse-mackerel); and perhaps for dessert intxaursaltsa (a milky walnut-based pudding) or konpota (stewed fruits, especially apples and/or pears) or just roasted apples.
In Navarre, meanwhile, instead of cabbage families could have opted for braised cardoon stalks, still a great Navarrese delicacy today; while in areas farther away from the coast, fish may well have been replaced by a meat dish such as roast mutton, goat, lamb, chicken, or capon; and for dessert kapoi-salda (capon soup … yes, capon soup … the cooking juices from the capon sweetened with sugar and almonds).
Greater urbanization in the 19th century led to increased production of additional sweet favorites such as chocolates and cakes, as well as the omnipresent turrón, which was soon added to the prolonged dessert courses that would invariably extend into post-prandial family conversation. With time, too (and greater affluence) more appetizer courses were added that included braised snails, elvers or baby eels (a delicacy that only the very well-off can afford nowadays), and more seafood in general, such as shrimp, crab, oysters, lobster, and so on.
So what do Basque families sit down to today? As I said at the beginning, I don’t think there’s any one answer. In my experience, appetizers nowadays typically include cold meats plus a selection of Navarrese produce such as asparagus, red piquillo peppers, artichokes, and so on, followed by seafood like jumbo shrimp, and then the big choice–fish or meat, meaning sea bream or txitxarro on the one hand, for example, or lamb or capon on the other–and all this followed by a combination of multiple desserts from the options mentioned above.
Whatever the actual menu, though, the really important thing is sitting down together and talking … mostly about the food itself.
For some further reading, see “Historia de la gastronomía navideña en el País Vasco,” Euskonews no. 514 (Dec. 25, 2009-Jan. 8, 2010) and Ander Manterola, “Christmas bread. ‘Ogi salutadorea’,” at the excellent Basque Ethnography at a Glance website.
For a recipe for baked sea bream Basque-style, take a look at Javier de la Hormaza’s webpage here.