Monday, May 2, 2011

A touch of Basque

We have Basque blood in our family veins--Funnily enough, literally so in my case as my blood group, O Negative, is more common among people of Basque ancestry than anyone else! It was my maternal grandmother's mother, Antonina Picabea Plana, who provides the link--born in Tolosa, northern Spain, in the heart of Spanish Basque country, to Valeriano Picabea and Amatchi Ugalde, she was of pure Basque origin. That's her in the photo with her son Marcel, my great-uncle who I never met.

Antonina came to live and work in the French Basque country around Biarritz when she was a young woman, and there met my Spanish great-grandfather, Cristobal Plana. He had emigrated from his hometown of Valencia to work in his profession as a patissier, or pastry-cook, a trade he continued with throughout his life. My mother says that some of the time he set up a pastry stall on the promenade at Biarrtiz, and sold delicious cakes and beignets to the elegant seaside crowds, while his wife Antonina occasionally also kept a fish stall. A flinty hardness and wariness is often attributed to the Basques, a feisty yet secretive and ancient people, whose survival over millenia is perhaps due to the fact they don't easily give up their customs,land or language. (The Basque language, Euskara, is a non-Indo-European language, indicating they were most likely original inhabitants of those areas before the Indo-European peoples such as the Celts moved into western Europe. )

And from my mother's stories it seems Antonina certainly had that hard quality--Maman says she certainly wasn't the 'grandmere gateau' or sweet grandmother beloved of books; but then Cristobal really was a 'grandpere gateau', both in terms of his profession and his very sweet nature, a nature he passed on to his only surviving daughter, Maman's mother, my grandmother Anna Plana.

The Basque country is spectacularly beautiful, spanning the frontier country of far south-west France and far north-west Spain, from the wild Atlantic coast to the glorious rolling green countryside and extraordinary Pyrenean villages and towns clustered high up in the sharp-peaked mountains. The Basques have a real eye for colour and style, and their traditional gabled houses in the colours of red and white, green and white and blue and white, can be seen in lots of places, especially in the beautifully preserved mountain villages. And their sense of colour and style is continued in their cuisine, based on the wonderful products of rich mountain pasture and fish-teeming ocean.

Like her mother, Maman herself was born and bred in the lovely Biarritz area of French Basque country, and her nine siblings and their families all still live there, so we often went there for wonderful, lively holidays as kids, and still frequently visit. The Basquerie in Maman's lineage also sometimes comes out in her cooking. She makes a legendary Gateau Basque, the luscious custard cake which is the crown jewel of Basque pastries; a succulent piperade, the signature hearty Basque omelette stuffed with red and green peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onions and jambon de Bayonne, the best air-dried ham in France; and fantastic fish and seafood dishes which the Basques also excel in, especially in the coastal areas(in the mountains lamb and poultry are more common, though freshwater fish from the rushing mountain streams and rivers is also a feature. )I've had a go at it too, and though I'm nowhere near as good as my mother, most people seem to enjoy that touch of Basque!

Basque cooking has several very characteristic ingredients. These are:

*Eggs--these are used copiously in Basque cooking: it's no accident that both the most famous sweet and savoury Basque dishes, piperade and Gateau Basque, are based on eggs.

*Red and green and yellow(but especially red) capsicums, or bell peppers: this is one of the most characteristic of Basque vegetables and are used in all kinds of way, roasted, grilled, baked, fried, to enhance allkinds of dishes, and in their own right. The Basques have many named varieties of 'piment' (the French for 'capsicum/bell pepper), which are protected by an 'appellation controlee' like wine and cheese etc. They can be the mild 'sweet' varieties, or hot. The most famous of the piments, which comes in both hot and mild varieties, is the long red piment grown around the beautiful mountain village of Espelette. The 'piment d'Espelette' is sold fresh, dried, or as a highly-prized powder which is like paprika, only, Basques will tell you, a whole lot nicer! The picture at the top of my post is of a typical Basque village house in Espelette, showing the way the piment is often dried, strung along the house fronts!

But there are many other varieties of piments, and on this link(if you read French) you can see some others.

Piments, in the old days, as this link tells you, were used instead of tomatoes, but tomatoes are often used these days, with the piments. Indeed a recipe with the suffix 'a la basquaise' means something which uses tomatoes and red piments/peppers!

*Fish--from ocean to freshwater fish, this is a huge part of Basque cuisine. It can be done 'a la basquaise' or simply grilled and served with salt and pepper and lemon. Seafood, from mussels to lobster, to squid and prawns, are also very very popular. We had the best sea-sourced meal ever last year in a simple little restaurant at the Port des Pecheurs(Fishermen's Port) at Biarritz with one of my aunts: perfect small mussels in white wine and a little piment d'espelette, and simple ultra-fresh sardines, grilled over hot coals. The lot washed down with a light cold white wine. Bliss! The salt cod or 'bacalau' beloved of the Spanish and Portuguese is also loved in the Basque country.

* Jambon de Bayonne--a fantastic air-dried ham similar to the Spanish Serrano ham but with its own flavour. It is from Bayonne(Baiona in Basque), an ancient and beautiful city in the French Basque region, not far from Biarritz.

*Cherries--cherry trees are a common sight in the region and there are several recipes using them, from a version of Gateau Basque with a rich dark cherry filling to a 'cherry soup' (which is actually a kind of dessert) using cherries poached in wine.

*Grilled and roast meats: the Basques love charcoal-grilled meats, often lamb, but also poultry and pork. Stewed meats, especially lamb stew, are very popular too. Carrots, potatoes and leeks are often served with these stews.

*Cheese and dairy: the mountain pastures produce gorgeous cow's, goat's and sheep's milk cheeses, as well as flavourful yoghurts and rich creams. I remember vividly going one time as a kid, with an uncle and several cousins, to an amazing dairy in the mountains where the taciturn old cheese-maker, complete with Basque beret firmly pushed down on his head, showed us in proud silence around his cool cellar full of wooden shelves which were lined with beautiful wheels of cheese of all sorts and lovely little handmade earthenware pots, simply covered with a lid of paper, filled with the best fresh yogurt ever.

*My greatgrandmother Antonina's birthplace, Tolosa, is famous for its local variety of beans which have found favour all over the region and much further afield. They are small oval-shaped beans, very dark purple, almost black, and with a smooth, buttery texture, and are cooked with pork(bacon or belly) and vegetables, especially leeks(which are commonly found in Basque cooking) to make a delicious and hearty stew.

As a taste of Basque cooking, here's a simple recipe for that great classic, piperade(ingredients for 2 people). Incidentally, in case you're wondering, the word 'piperade' is derived from the basque word for pepper, pipperautsa.


4 eggs.

1 small green capsicum/pepper, roast or grilled(brush with olive oil first) so skin bubbles and goes black and is easy to peel off;

1 good size red capsicum/pepper, ditto;

2 medium-size, ripe, tasty tomatoes or 1 large one;

Couple cloves garlic.

Two small onions, chopped.

Good slice of jambon de Bayonne style ham(prosciutto, but cut thick, not thin, will work). This needs to becut into dice.

Some chopped herbs--mixture of thyme and sage is good, or thyme and basil also nice.

Salt, pepper.

A little butter, a little olive oil.

Fry the diced ham in some olive oil(or if you can get it, duck fat is even better and very authentic.) Add the whole garlic cloves and one of the chopped onions. Gently brown over a low heat and add the herbs, then take off heat, drain and keep in a dish to add later. Take out the garlicaltogether(use it for something else, it has already added its flavour to the ham.)

Separately, fry the other onion, add roast/grilled peppers, peeled and cut into strips. Simmer gently. Chop tomatoes and deseed them, chop them and add to peppers and onion. Salt and pepper. Cook gently for about 3-4 minutes in a covered saucepan, then uncover the pan and let the sauce reduce right down, till it is nice and thick. Take off heat, mix in ham mixture.

In an omelette or frying pan, melt some butter or duck fat. Throw in the well-beaten eggs and straight after the pepper/tomato/ham mixture. Cook till nicely thickened then take off stove and serve at once. Goes well with good fresh bread and a salad.

Etorri mahaira! (Come to the table!)


  1. wow,merci Sophie.
    Elle est belle cette photo !

    Try also the axoa de veau,very popular with the relatives...

  2. merci, Camille!
    will also look for that axoa recette! do you have a good one?