by Maya Parson
When I came back to the States from six months as an exchange student in the Basque country, my own mother didn’t recognize me. It wasn’t because I looked so European. The truth was far less glamorous: I’d gained 20 pounds.
Between my host family’s perfectly fried croquettes (oh, my, those croquettes!), snacks of yeasty rolls slathered with sugared butter, and plates of pintxos—Basque tapas, wedges of olive-oil-drenched egg and potato tortilla or skewers of salty green olives, pickled peppers and anchovies—I was not the same 17-year-old who’d set out for Spain earlier that year.
But the Basque country expanded more than just my waistline. It was the first time I was deeply immersed in a food culture radically different than my own, and I fell intensely in love with the food, the people and the place.
To a California kid, the staples of the Basque diet—potatoes, onions, beans, peppers, eggs and fish—were familiar and simply prepared but also, I found, extraordinarily good. Faced with hilly, rugged terrain and poor soil, the Basque people had learned to make humble ingredients refined, creating, for example, richly flavorful sauces based on onions or luxurious stews made of beans. “Basque cooking,” says Chef Alexandra Raij, author with her husband, Eder Montero, of The Basque Book (Ten Speed Press, 2016), “is at its heart a cuisine of simplicity made exquisite.” (In other words, those 20 pounds were worth every ounce.)
It was more than just the care taken in its preparation that was revelatory, however. Basque food was my first exposure to a cuisine—a deeply rooted tradition of cooking and eating in which food played a powerful social role.
Weekend lunches meant multiple, leisurely courses and lively conversations around the family’s wooden dining set. After-school snacks were excursions with friends to local bars for wine and pintxos, always eaten standing up, wedged at the counter between old men in traditional black berets. Food was a reason for gathering and, in its repetition of local ingredients, a constant reminder of place.
I learned that this intersection of food and social life had a deeper, political significance as well. The Basque country, today recognized as an autonomous region of Spain, suffered decades of oppression under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1936–75), including the banning of the Basque language. The region’s famed txokos, male gastronomic societies, were some of the few places that Basques could publicly gather and speak their native language. Because the txokos prohibited political discussions, they were, ironically, spaces for keeping Basque culture alive.
Looking back more than 25 years later, I can see that my time in Euskadi (as the region is known in Basque) set the stage for my subsequent interests and passions. I went on to study the history and cultures of Spain and Latin America, including culinary traditions, and later earned a graduate degree in cultural anthropology. Eventually, I became a food writer because I realized that, for me—as for the Basque people—food is at the heart of culture.
In 2013 and again last year, my husband and children accompanied me on pilgrimages back to the Basque country. In the years that had passed since my high school days, many things had changed. San Sebastián—as stunning as ever—had become a mecca of fine dining, home to 16 Michelin-starred restaurants, many renowned for their modernist cuisine. “My” city, Bilbao, was no longer a gritty industrial port but shimmered like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, an architectural revelation that greets visitors like a shoal of cubist sardines swirling up from the riverside. Even my host family’s small coastal town north of the city was transformed by smooth new roads and a “new” Basque name on city signs. (Basque was now the region’s official first language.) It was disorienting and wonderful at the same time.
But some things had not changed. My Basque family welcomed me back as if I’d never left. Decades later, they knew exactly who I was and why I’d come “home.” We lingered over informal suppers together, devouring raciones (shared platters) of croquettes and octopus and roast chicken. In Bermeo, a Basque fishing village founded in the 13th century, my husband and children and I devoured rounds of pintxos at a bustling dockside bar. In Bilbao, we sat in the historic Café Iruña, famed for its lamb pintxos (“the world’s best”), and made up stories about the couples sipping café con leche under the ornate Moorish ceiling.
And then there was the day that my family drove into the mountains of Guipuzkoa to the Sanctuary of Arantzazu, a place I’d longed to return to since my first visit in 1990. A mid-century modern basilica perched on the limestone peaks of the Aizkorri massif, Arantzazu was built by renowned Spanish architects and artists, including the Basque sculptors Eduardo Chillida and Jorge Orteiza. Like the surrounding landscape, it is stark—almost severe—and utterly beautiful.
The gates of the basilica are guarded by three rectangular towers decorated with geometric spines like the bristles of massive concrete pinecones, a reference, perhaps, to the Sanctuary’s history and the origins of its name. According to local legend, the Virgin Mary appeared in a hawthorn bush at the site in 1468. The startled Basque shepherd who encountered her exclaimed, “Arantzan zu!?” “You, here!? Among the thorns?”
Our journey was not without its challenges. It was too hot. And I’d forgotten to plan for lunch, which may sound odd given my near obsession with Basque food, but the trays of pintxos that crowd the counters at even the most unassuming bars usually made such planning unnecessary. As it turned out, the cafeteria was closed and the restaurant at the Arantzazu hotel was far too fancy to attempt with overheated, cranky children in tow. But there in the shade of the basilica was our salvation: an old Basque farmer with a card table of bread and rounds of idiazabal, the nutty, salty cheese that the Basques have made for centuries. You, here…!?
He cut thick slabs of the cheese, which he’d made from the milk of his own sheep, and cradled them between slices of his crusty homemade bread. Our lunch was simple but exquisite, rich with tradition but thoroughly modern.
I was home. Sanctuary indeed.
Maya Parson is a food writer, anthropologist and the former editor of Edible Michiana. You can find her online at CulturedGrub.com.
Story originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Edible Chicago. Photo credits to shutterstock.com and Global Gourmands
ON THE SIDE
Food + Travel = Love
TRAVEL WITH US THIS FALL TO THE BASQUE REGION!
There are two kinds of travelers: those who plan their travel around food and everyone else. If you travel to eat, here’s a dream trip to add to your bucket list: Global Gourmands’ 9-day tour of Spain’s Basque country, a region with a reputation for one of the world’s most innovative and exquisite cuisines.
Edible Chicago is partnering with Global Gourmands, a company specializing in custom culinary adventures, on this unique travel experience. Highlights include: private Basque cooking classes; pintxos (Basque tapas) tours of San Sebastian, the 2016 European City of Culture and home to 16 Michelin-starred restaurants; vineyard tours with wine tastings in the Basque “Napa Valley”; fine dining and more.
Global Gourmands founders Claudia Royston and Susan Gillato have 30 years experience organizing small group travel in Europe and around the world for travelers who are passionate about finding authentic local food. They also work closely with on-the-ground partners in the countries they visit to ensure memorable and delicious experiences for their clients.
Join Global Gourmands and Edible Chicago on this fabulous once-in-a-lifetime trip! For more information: