The first time you step off the plane (or train or bus) into the cool, humid air, you could be forgiven for thinking you've arrived in the wrong country by mistake. The landscape is the first clue, particularly if you've traveled here from other parts of Spain. Parched, arid plains have given way to close-knit, brooding mountains, cool and temperamentally presided over by rain clouds. The cities are tucked in between them, dark and close as well, huge apartment blocks challenged in height only by the aging black spires of the industrial infrastructure. There is no endless sun, no evening bullfights here. The people you encounter are quieter, more reserved; friendly yet enigmatic. Signs on streets and doorways mock your grasp of Spanish with their incomprehensible strings of letters containing multiple 'k's and 'x's, and words like kaixo and eskerrik asko filter their way into the conversation of those around you. And if all that weren't enough, when you start talking to people they all ask you how you enjoyed your time in Spain. But, you stammer, I haven't left Spain! Yes, they reassure you, you have. You haven't just crossed into another province of Spain, you've entered a place that is emotionally, intellectually, and linguistically its own country - Euzkadi, the Basque Country.
I was sixteen the first time I got on a plane and flew alone across the Atlantic to Spain. Waiting for me was a contingent of strange faces ready to begin my orientation to this new place, and a few days later I would meet the second contingent of strange faces that would provide me a home for the next year. I was about to fulfill a long-held dream of mine to live abroad and learn another language by becoming a high-school exchange student. The problem was that up until the day I left I didn't have any idea where I was going. Although I had been registered with the exchange organization for nearly a year, up until my departure no one had been able to tell me anything about my future host family. They hemmed and hawed and stammered every time I asked for an update, but their message was always firmly the same: "don't worry, we've got everything under control". The day I arrived in Madrid they were, for the first time, smiling, with audible relief in their voices. "We've found you a family. You'll be going to the Basque Country."
The Basque Country? Did that mean that my fantasies of learning to dance flamenco, eating paella and drinking Sangria in ancient Moorish courtyards had just been squashed? I suspected so. I had read about the Basque Country once in an issue of National Geographic. It occupied about a paragraph in an article on Spain and mentioned that this 'dark and industrial corner of northern Spain' was best known for its 'mountains, fervent separatism and magnificent cuisine'. It briefly hinted at how the Basques did everything they could to distance themselves from the symbols of the rest of Spain. As I mulled over this shortly before my arrival I didn't really know what to think about the prospect of industrialism or separatism or the absence of flamenco, but at least the cuisine part had me intrigued.
As a matter of fact, as I later found out, it was cuisine that indirectly facilitated my placement in this very place. At the time I went to Spain I was halfway through my decade as a strict vegetarian, and the fact that I had indicated this on my exchange application had caused the organisation no small amount of trouble to find me a host family. 'What are we going to do with a vegetarian?' I still imagine all those Spanish families saying, quickly pushing my application to the bottom of the pile. Vegetarianism was, and still is I suspect, a rare occurrence in Spain, and identification as such tended to provoke anything from slight confusion ('You only eat vegetables?') to downright horror ('But if you don't eat meat you'll die!'). Luckily, I had the culinary wisdom and flexibility of the Basques to thank for finally finding a home, as a certain family, upon being told of my plight (and my planned arrival in two days), immediately agreed to take me on for a year, vegetarianism and all. Later on, when I asked them if they'd been apprehensive of feeding a vegetarian for a year, they laughed. "We figured you would eat the same things we eat, just without the meat. It's no sacrifice - everything here is good."
There are whole volumes I could write on the people, the landscape, the language, and the way of life in this fascinating place, and hopefully I'll find ways of working in elements of these in future posts. Today, however, I'll restrict myself to telling you a little about the food. I wondered for a long time what kind of recipes I could share from this place renowned for its cuisine. I actually did very little cooking there - that was the domain of Clari, my somewhat imposing host mother, and I dared not interfere where she so powerfully ruled. And, to be honest, the one time I did cook for them - some Ameri-Mex enchiladas I had been craving for months - it was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. I probably should have expected it - Clari's meals engendered passionate loyalty in the family - though I always wondered why such a skilled cook as she never felt tempted to step outside the boundaries of the familiar palate of Basque flavors (about as exotic as it got was an occasional bowl of spaghetti.) Obviously, Basques prefer their own food, and with good reason.
Our everyday fare was simple and rustic, but whatever it was, it always had extraordinary flavor. Never fewer than three courses, it encompassed a standard rotation of vegetables, fish and meat, most of it impeccably fresh and cooked with nothing other than olive oil and garlic. Sauces were limited to tomate frito (a sweet, oniony tomato puree) and mayonnaise, if they hadn't been doused with garlic and that fragrant oil (or even if they had). Lentils and beans, simply cooked with a few aromatics, were a staple for me, as were bowls of garlic-soaked vegetable stews, vinegary salads, and melt-in-your-mouth fried potatoes, eggplant and zucchini. Second courses, which I simply bypassed in favor of more vegetables, were fish, fried or baked, or meat - cured pork loin and simply cooked beef being the most common. Dessert was expected after every meal, though it usually took the form of a yogurt or some fabulously pungent Pyrenean cheese and fruit, and for special occasions Clari would make her wildly-loved natillas, silky pots of eggy, vanilla-flecked custard. Tortilla española (Spain's ubiquitous potato omelet) was the dish where Clari particularly shined (she was famous in town for her version), and everyone in the family looked forward to savoring the creamy, oniony just-set centers oozing out of their crisp potato-edged confines. This was one dish I did learn to make at Clari's side, and the one hint I will give you to the secret of a great tortilla is to not skimp on the frying oil - I mean it, and you'd probably swoon if I actually quantified it. (I know I did.)
But I realized that in terms of recipes, Basque food is very difficult to pin down. What makes it great isn't the complexity of preparation or the sophistication of flavors, but simply the quality of everything you can get there. Fish and seafood come in about a trillion different varieties and are so fresh they practically jump off your plate. Meat is so full of flavor it seems to come from a pre-industrial age*. Vegetables - the cornerstone of the cuisine - taste like they're supposed to. With a little bit of garlic and oil, lemon or tomato, or the smokiness imparted from a piece of chorizo or roasted pimiento del piquillo, these things are transformed into one of the world's great cuisines. It's neither complicated nor intricate, but just like this now world-famous Basque cake, it's fabulous - and certainly worth passing on the Ameri-Mex enchiladas any day.
*In case you're wondering how I know this, I've been back twice since becoming a carnivore and tried to redeem myself by trying every meat/fish preparation I could get my hands on.
This cake, as a matter of fact, is something I never ate in the Spanish Basque Country, though many confections I tried had strong similarities. This is an invention of the French Basques from the town of Cambo-les-Bains, but with the Basque passion for pastry-cream filled confections, it reflects tastes on both sides of the border (I actually found this cake listed on several Spanish websites, so it is known there too). One thing to keep in mind is that this is a cake with a wide variety of interpretations. While always distinguished by the presence of a filling, a Gâteau Basque can have a spongy cake or a crisp pastry exterior, and the filling can consist of pastry cream (plain or almond-flavored), fruit preserves (cherry is common, but other fruits can be used), or as you'll find in this version, both. This particular recipe, flavored with almonds and rum or orange flower water, has been adapted from François Payard's beautiful book, Simply Sensational Desserts.
Yield: 1 cake, enough to feed 10-12 people (the original recipe actually has you make 2 smaller cakes from the same ingredients; I combined them into one)
3/4 cup (90 grams) slivered almonds
1 1/3 cups (200 grams) all-purpose flour
1 tsp (5 grams) baking powder
1 scant teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
14 Tbsp (1 3/4 sticks) (200 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 Tbsp dark rum or orange flower water
1 1/3 cups (340 ml) pastry cream (recipe follows), at room temp
10 oz (275 grams) low-sugar cherry preserves, or the same weight of fresh pitted cherries
For pastry cream:
2 cups (500ml) whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split, or 1 teaspoon extract
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
1/4 cup (30 grams) cornstarch, sifted
6 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp (30 grams) unsalted butter
Place the almonds in the bowl of a food processor and process until finely ground, about 45 seconds. Transfer to a medium bowl. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt over the almonds. Gently whisk until combined and set aside. Place 3 eggs and the sugar in a large bowl. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the bowl (reserve the pod for another use) and whisk the eggs until thickened and pale. Whisk in the melted butter. Whisk in the dry ingredients and rum. Let the batter stand for 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400° F. Butter a 9" springform pan. Dust the pan with flour, tapping out the excess. Put the pastry cream into a medium bowl and whisk it until smooth. Scrape half the cake batter into the pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Spread the cherry preserves over the batter. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2" plain tip with 1 1/3 cups of the pastry cream (reserve the rest for some other use). Pipe the pastry cream over the preserves, beginning 1/4" from the edge of the pan and piping a spiral toward the center in tight coils. Scrape the remaining cake batter over the pastry cream and smooth it into an even layer, covering the cream as much as possible. Lightly beat the remaining egg and lightly brush the tops of the cakes with the egg wash.
Bake the cake for 45 to 50 minutes, until golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes before unmolding and cooling completely. Dust the top decoratively with icing sugar, if desired.
For Pastry Cream:
Line a shallow baking pan (such as a 9" square pan) with plastic wrap. Put the milk in a medium saucepan, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pan, and add the bean. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Whisk together the sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Place the yolks in a medium bowl; whisk in the sugar mixture and whisk until the mixture turns pale yellow and is thick and smooth. Gradually pour half of the hot milk into the yolk mixture and whisk to combine. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and comes to a boil. Boil for several seconds, then remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter until completely melted. Scrape the pastry cream into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly with a rubber spatula. Cover the pastry cream with plastic wrap, placing it directly against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until needed, or up to 3 days. Remove the vanilla bean before using the pastry cream.
Makes about 2 1/3 cups