Basking in tradition
Basque Norte will have you saying bi, bi, bi
“We live in age of vanishing cultures, perhaps even vanishing nations … To be a Frenchman, to be an American, is a limited notion … Educated people do not practice local customs or eat local food … We are losing diversity but gaining harmony.”
While Henri bristles at Kurlanski’s outrageously misguided impression that to be a Frenchman is a “limited notion,” he agrees wholeheartedly with the well-known historian and food writer’s larger idea: that globalization is blurring some of the cultural lines that once defined humanity. Example: In the larger cities of Spain, particularly Barcelona and Madrid, the traditional 2 to 5 p.m. siesta—when businesses shut down and nearly everyone heads home for a large family lunch, usually with both red wine and espresso and perhaps a nap—could soon become a thing of the past. In order to compete in the European Union economy, businesses such as banks and brokerage firms must remain open during those hours. Smaller businesses are following suit.
Fortunately, this is far less true in smaller cities and towns, particularly in the more remote regions of Spain, many of which have long resisted not only being part of the larger European community but even part of the larger Spanish community.
Such as the seven provinces of the Basque Country, four in northeastern Spain and three across the border in southern France, which have historically—geographically, ethnically and linguistically—remained separate. Indeed, the Basques have survived invasions, occupations and assaults by Romans, Visigoths, Vikings, North African Muslims, the Dutch and British navies, Hitler, and Spain itself—during Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975). In fact during the Franco regime, Basques could be arrested for speaking their native tongue, the oldest living language in Europe, predating even the earliest Indo-European migrations.
A hardy and stubborn people, the Basques have traditionally prided themselves on their distinct culture, including their cooking.
Typically, a Basque meal is simple and robust—fresh vegetables served with seafood (cod and squid, especially), beef, lamb, or poultry, traditionally cooked over an open fire. Beans, peppers, and eggs dishes are very common, and garlic seems ubiquitous.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, Basques immigrated to California in large numbers to work as sheepherders and brought their cuisine with them. Today Basque restaurants throughout the state, particularly on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, specialize in Basque cooking and the traditional “family-style” serving.
As is the case at Chico’s Basque Norte, which Henri discovered recently, and which has impressed him twice now with its quality food and friendly ambience. One is barely seated before being presented with a small antipasto plate—pickled carrots, pepperoncinis, baby onions and olives—followed by a creamy, and wonderfully garlicky tomato soup. Next comes green salad, a large plate of spaghetti served with a simple oil, garlic and basil dressing, then a plate of “Basque-style beans” (green beans, with sausage, the only weak part of the meal—I assume that in season they use fresh instead of canned beans).
The first night I was so full I barely touched my pollo asado—lemon-and-garlic-infused chicken (15.95)—served with red potatoes cooked in butter, and I actually passed on the ice cream, but I brought it home and it made for a delightful lunch the next day. I returned a couple of evenings later and went a little easier on the side dishes and actually finished my prawns Bilbao—six large shrimp (grilled or sautéed) served over rice ($21.95).
Entrees come with the antipasto plate, French bread, soup, salad, beans, spaghetti and ice cream and run $16 to $28. The children’s menu, which includes chicken strips and quail (one whole quail, deep-fried!) is $9. Large tables in the main dining room can be pushed together to accommodate groups of 20 or more.