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Saturday, August 8, 2015

Basque Cuisine. The Basque Cuisine of the Pays Basque. Ordering Basque Dishes.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman

A night photograph of the River Nive
flowing through the City of Bayonne.
Bayonne is the capital of the French Basque country, the Pays Basque.
À la Basquaise - In the manner of the Basque.
À la Basquaise will be on your menu for many dishes that originate in the Pays Basque. The Pays Basque is in Aquitaine in the department of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques and reaches through the Pyrenees until it meets the Basque country of Spain. The Spanish Basque country is called the País Vasco.
The  AOC/AOP products of the Pays Basque.
There will be many traditional Basque dishes on restaurant menus. The menu listings will include their famous Piment de Espelette AOP dried red peppers; their Jambon de Bayonne, the Bayonne cured ham AOP, (by far the most popular cured ham in restaurants throughout France); and their Ardi-Gasna AOP sheep’s milk cheese. During the hunting season palombe, wild wood pigeon may also be on local menus. The unique Basque cider will be offered along with their red and white wines from their appellation of Irouléguy, pronounced irulegi. Irouléguy is the smallest wine appellation in France with just 1000 acres for vines; that is four square kilometers (1.5 sq miles). 

Basque cuisine is far from being limited to traditional and regional dishes. There are many Basque restaurants with excellent chefs at work in the kitchen creating new dishes with cutting edge techniques. Some of the chefs are considered among the leaders in innovative European Cuisine. However, this short introduction only has space for the most popular traditional Basque dishes. There is much to enjoy in the Pays Basque, in both modern and traditional Basque restaurants. There are cider routes and gourmet dining routes. The Tourist Information Office in every town will give direction to the routes nearby.  The English language website for the Tourist Information Office in Bayonne, the capital city of the Pays Basque is:
On many menus in the Pays Basque:

Artichauts et Crème d'Ardi-Gasna – This is a dish of whole artichokes, with the chokes removed served with a sauce made from the Ardi-Gasna sheep’s milk cheese. The crème sauce will often be made with the lightly sparkling Txakoli wine, pronounced Chacolí.  Txakoli is a Spanish Basque country, dry, white wine. To that will be added and milk or cream. The French and Spanish Basque countries share their specialties.
Ardi Gasna AOP 
The Pay’s Basque famous sheep’s milk cheese.

Ardi-Gasna cheese aging.
    The Ardi-Gasna, cheese, which rather unsurprisingly, means "sheep's cheese" in Basque, is made with unpasteurized milk. This is a pressed, hard cheese that is aged for at least four months before being sold. Ardi-Gasna cheese paired with jam or berries is a traditional Basque dessert; I have also seen Ardi-Gasna and berries on breakfast menus.
Cabillaud Basquaise – Fresh cod prepared in the Basque manner. The cod is fried and served with peppers, tomatoes, and tomato sauce flavored with garlic. N.B.: The Basque and cod, the fish, have a long interconnected history. That long connection, according to an excellent book entitled Cod by Mark Kurlansky, clearly shows that Basque fishermen reached North America before Columbus discovered South America.
Chipirons Basquaise  -  A particular small calamari,  encornet in French,  prepared in the Basque manner. It is cooked with tomatoes, onions and the Piment d’Espelette, the spicy Basque peppers.  

A dish of chipirons
The Piment d'Espelette AOP.
The dried red pepper from the town of Esplette.

The red pepper of Espelette drying on a house.
   The Piment d'Espelette AOP is a dried red chili pepper called the ezpeletakob bipera in Basque, go on, pronounce it!  The pepper may have come from Central or South America but after five hundred years of cross-breeding, it is unique. Espelette is a small town in the Basque country; practically on the Spanish border; just 30 km (19 miles) from Biarritz on the coast. Espelette is famous not only for its peppers but also for its houses which are decorated with the dried or drying red peppers.  If this pepper is one of your culinary delights, then visit their annual Fête du Piment à Espelette. The fair is held on the last Saturday and Sunday in October; then you may sample their peppers and Basque cuisine. If you cannot be there for the big festival, all is not lost as every Wednesday morning is market day. There you may buy these AOP peppers to take home. Esplette’s Tourist Information office English language website is:
The Planxa, a Plancha in the rest of France.
Chorizos frying/grilling on a planxa.
Magret de Canard à la planxa - Duck breast cooked on the planxa. Here the duck breast is cooked on a  planxa or plancha which is a very thick iron sheet.  It is at least two centimeters (6/8”) thick and claimed as their own by the Basques, the French and the Spanish.  This traditional and very even method of cooking is done with very little oil and results in a taste somewhere between frying and grilling. N.B.  In France when ordering duck, you will usually not be asked how you would like it cooked. The French and Basque preference it slightly rosé, pink, and that is how I have learned to enjoy it.  However, if you want your duck well done tell the waiter “bien cuit,” pronounced bien kwee.
Jambon de Bayonne AOP, the Bayonne cured ham.

A plate of Bayonne ham with pickled wild mushrooms.
Melon au Jambon de Bayonne – This is an entrée, the French first course, of melon and Bayonne Ham AOP.  Bayonne ham is the most popular cured ham in France.
   Thon Rouge à la Basquaise - The Northern Bluefin Tuna prepared in the Basque manner. This is a Basque tuna casserole with the fresh tuna cooked with tomatoes, onions, white wine and herbs. The Northern Bluefin Tuna is the largest and fattest tuna; they are caught in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The principal buyers are the Japanese; they are willing to pay the highest prices. The fishing town of Saint Jean de Luz has an annual Tuna Festival on the second Saturday in July.  When visiting at any other time, try the excellent seafood and fish restaurants around the fishing port. Saint Jean de Luz also has fantastic beaches just outside the town. The English language website for Saint Jean de Luz is:

Pavé de Merlu de Ligne Grillé au Chorizo et Piperade Basquaise – A large cut of whiting, the fish, caught on a fishing line, grilled with sliced chorizo sausage and the Basque Piperade.
Basque Chorizos 
   Chorizos are cured, smoked sausages, but there are some that use fresh pork and are cooked before being served. The prized Basque chorizo has a red color from the dried smoked, Espelette peppers. Chorizos are often added as a flavoring ingredient in other dishes.

                                           Sauce Piperade.
   Piperade or Sauce Pipérade began in the Pays Basque as a simple sauce made with olive oil, lightly fried onions, tomatoes, sweet peppers and the red peppers of Espelette. Then it was added or served by the side of the main dish. Now piperades are made all over France with changes for the local tastes.
Piperade d'Escargots à l'AilSnails cooked and served in a garlic flavored piperade.   

Calamari with a piperade sauce.
Ttoro Maison Croutons à l’Ail – Ttoro, pronounced tioro,  is the Pay Basques’ most famous fish stew.  In this menu listing the stew is prepared to the restaurant’s special recipe and served with garlic flavored croutons.   There are endless variations on the original ttoro. The fish in the original recipe comprise Merlu, hake; lotte, monkfish; congre, the European conger eel; and grondin, gunard (a member of the very tasty sea-robin family). The seafood will include moules, mussels; crevettes, shrimp; and langoustine, the Dublin Bay Prawn.  Each of these ingredients is supposed to be cooked separately before being added to the stew. The base of the stew is fish stock with tomatoes, the season’s vegetables, potatoes, lots of parsley and other herbs.  The origin of this stew is the fishing villages and towns along the Pay Basque’s Atlantic coast. Despite the many recipe variations, the fish are rarely changed.  When ordering ttoro ask about the fish and seafood in your restaurant's version of this dish.

 Traditional Basque cuisine has many more dishes, old and new.  When visiting the area, you will find enough of the Basque heritage and traditions alongside the new creations to keep you busy and interested in the region and its products.  Add to that the Basque’s unique language which is unrelated to other European languages. Their language is called Euskara in Basque, and its origins are a real mystery.  The linguists among you may chew over that conundrum while dining.

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Bryan G. Newman
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For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman


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