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Basque (1) - the book that started this

"If you have a bottle of olive oil, a head of garlic, and a tin of tuna, you can make Basque food." Alexandra Raij

"It's an ingredient-driven cuisine and they don't do much to it. Cooking techniques revolve around fire, preserving food and stews." Frank Dilernia

Simple then - and easy too. Well no, not if you read my latest cookbook acquisition - The Basque Book by New York chefs - and married couple, Alexandra Raij and Eder Montero.

I can't quite remember now why I bought the book. It was something to do with one of the posts I was writing and during the course of which I saw several glowing references to it. It was the middle of lockdown and so I thought I would treat myself and so I ordered it online, along with a couple of novels I wanted to read. But it took so long to get to me that the lockdown was just days away from being over, when it finally arrived. Plus, of course there is the transport cost. No I am not a fan of online shopping.

However, the book did arrive and a very handsome volume it is. There are illustrations of some of the dishes, but not all, not as many as I would like really, and yet one dish, I can't remember which now, got two photographs for some reason. But that's OK. In spite of how much I go on about beautiful food photography I don't really buy cookbooks for the pictures. I buy them for the words and for the recipes.

I have always been intrigued by the Basques, because of that unique language. There are a few theories about why it should be so different from everything else. The most common is that it is very, very, old - pre Indo-European that is. Attempts have been made to link it to Armenian and Georgian, but I have to say to an untutored eye such as mine it looks vaguely Aztec, or Incan - those languages that have a lot of 'x's in them anyway. And 'z' too. And a link to those is obviously impossible. I think the general opinion now seems to be that it is just a very localised language that has remained because of the isolated terrain in which the Basques live. Which is on the Atlantic coast of north east Spain and south west France. The Basques have also maintained that they are ethnically different as well, although now that theory seems to have gone by the board because of the ability of DNA testing to clarify these things. I believe that nowadays the opinion seems to be that they are a variety of Celtic people. Well I imagine that these days they are, like most Europeans and British, hybrids of peoples from just about everywhere. So really it is the language - Euskara that defines their separateness. A separateness that now and again becomes a pretty strident call for independence. Which is sad I think. Why can't people keep their own cultural identity, celebrating their old customs, eating their traditional food, even speaking their own language - at least at home - without wanting their own nation? Although I suppose that depends on the larger culture allowing them to go their own way. And in Franco's time (and other times in the past) this has not happened and persecution has been the norm. Push someone into a corner and eventually they will strike out it seems to me.

But back to the food. This book is really presenting restaurant food, and her restaurant - Txikito in New York - in particular - a restaurant version of traditional food. and Alexandra Raij says as much in her introduction:

"Some very good cookbooks on classical Basque cuisine are already out there, and I had no interest in writing another one. Instead, I wanted to create a book that would demonstrate how Eder and I as chefs interpret a cuisine and keep it current. All of the recipes are prepared as they are at the restaurant, because Txikito is based on home cooking and the kitchen uses traditional methods to produce complex flavours." Alexandra Raij

So when I turned to the recipes I was a little disappointed. Frankly there were not many recipes that I felt I would like to make - now, next week or when we are allowed to entertain again, or indeed could make. For some it was because the whole idea did not tempt me and perhaps the best example of this is baby squid in its own ink - a very traditional Basque dish:

Alexandra Raij explains this dish thus - her version is the first one on display here.

"txipirones en su tinta, or squid in its own ink, a dish whose rather unglamorous appearance belies its sensuous, complex flavours. It's created by gently cooking the creature with little more than a few vegetables, olive oil, and a couple of packets of squid ink. It's earthy yet sublime, homely but astoundingly beautiful in its deceptive simplicity."

The last photograph is Claudia Roden's version and the other is from the net somewhere. Now I am not a fan of squid, although I will eat the battered and salted calamari that we get here in Italian restaurants. It wouldn't be my preference though. But cooking baby squid - a somewhat repulsive concept anyway, in its own ink is really, really not tempting. Admittedly this is just me, I suppose there is a kind of gruesome beauty in the above pictures, but no I am not tempted. And here's another thing. In her glossary where she talks about squid ink she says its best to buy cuttlefish ink! Go figure.

Secondly lots of the recipes have ingredients that are just too difficult to get hold of without scouring Melbourne for specialist shops. Particular peppers, white asparagus - you can't even get it in cans - a specific kind of onion, a pepper paste, particular beans - although Claudia Roden suggests these are turtle beans and you can get them ... She gives instructions for the pepper paste but it needs particular ingredients and long, long cooking.

The recipes may be sort of simple in that there might not be many kind of ingredients but often the techniques are difficult and the cooking extremely laborious. Sofrito, for example, - a sort of jam of onions and peppers is cooked slowly for two or three hours. I can imagine I may have burnt these to a cinder by then.

"Basque cooking is at its heart a cuisine of simplicity made exquisite. In an era where garnishes and condiments are often a substitute for substance, Basque cooking stand out as a cuisine of subtraction where fancy embellishment is stripped away until you are left with the essence of an ingredient, be it a single, luscious piece of cod served with an oil emulsified with its own juices or flash-fried pimientos de Gernika whose only adornment is a healthy sprinkling of sea salt." Alexandra Raij

"it celebrates single ingredients and tastes and constantly reminds the cook that 'simple' doesn't necessarily mean 'easy'. Basque food makes you a better cook. It teaches you to respect ingredients, embracing and amplifying their natural flavours. I'd argue that many professional cooks would get better if they practiced Basque cooking, as it forces you to unlearn bad habits and pay attention to details. The Basque cook responds to la material prima, or main ingredients, a tiny bit differently each time. Intuitively understanding how to make these minor adjustments is a sign of the cook's experience and skill." Alexandra Raij

Some of the recipes are very long. There is at least one that covers three pages. One is generally disinclined to read them. But perhaps I am being unfair. After all Mastering the Art of French Cooking does the same and when you get over that initial reluctance because of the length of the recipe you actually find that it is long because they explain all the whys and wherefore as they go along and the end result is delicious.

There is no doubt that Alexandra Raij is passionate about Basque food, her restaurant and her family:

"Cooking is a perfect vocation for people who like to find and make connections. To me, food is a way to tell a story, and even though I don't want to tell the same stories over and over again, I do want a common thread to connect the stories that I do tell." Alexandra Raij

Although her husband Eder is Basque, she herself is of Argentinian heritage, although she grew up in America. And also let me say that there are all sorts of little things that show that the book is primarily written for an American audience. Which might explain this curious statement:

"Basque food meant that I could return to living my life in Spanish". Alexandra Raij

And yet as I explained earlier in this piece being Basque these days is really all about the language not the ethnicity. And Spanish is not their language. Or French. It's Euskara.


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