A very Basque Thanksgiving in Petaluma
One of the things we are most thankful for is the travel we have been able to enjoy over the past several years. We have met incredible people, basked in inviting cultures and have discovered some of the most delicious cuisine on the planet (always a prime driver when picking travel destinations).
Since the travel lockdown, we have been revisiting some of our favorite food cultures through our own home cooking, with the help of a vast array of available cookbooks. So, as we approached Thanksgiving, with no immediately travel plans on the horizon, we decided to forgo the American tradition and instead, visited some traditions from one of our favorite food-centric cultures: the Basque.
Considered the oldest European culture and one filled with mystery in its origin, the Basque people seem to have unique traditions at every bend in the road and on every plate that comes from the kitchen. Straddling the western border of Spain and France, the Basque Country is known as the birthplace of modern gastronomy, is it was no surprise to learn that its culinary capital, San Sebastian (also known as Donostia) has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other city in the world. Rightly so, Basque cookbooks take up a good portion of our kitchen shelf.
“Life and Food in the Basque Country” by Maria Jose Sevilla is a classic, and “The Basque Kitchen” by Gerald Hirigoyen, owner/chef of San Francisco’s Fringale and Pastis American, represents the French Basque well, it is the tome from expat Marti Buckley that is our current favorite.
“Basque Country – A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise” has vibrant photos and accurate and easy to follow recipes, but gives a respectable nod to Maria Jose Sevilla by including stories of Basque culture and culinary history. It is not unusual for us to spend a great deal of time flipping through the pages before deciding which recipe to try, based on the associated story.
Partially due to our lack of love for turkey and partially due to our love of the classic Basque cider house meal, and we were clamoring to find all the proper ingredients prior to our Thanksgiving day endeavor. Due to the differing climate, many of the ingredients we find available locally, such as peppers, have a very different flavor than the same exact pepper grown in the Basque Country. For this reason, we planned ahead and tried to source as many authentic Basque ingredients as possible.
One item which is hard to come by in the US due to import restrictions is Spanish-style chorizo. Just as the “New World” was the Wild West, so to speak, the chorizo of the Americas is a much spicier cured meat than its more-refined, paprika-heavy, less-spicy Spanish cousin. Thankfully, Thistle Meats makes a respectable Spanish chorizo. Available in such limited quantities because it’s handmade in-house, we usually buy at least two of these heavy hitters whenever we see them in the deli case as they seem to only get better with age.
The Basque sidreria (also known as a sagardotegi) experience is rustic in appearance yet refined to perfection thanks to its tradition being developed and passed down through the generations. Operating since Medieval times, this drinking and dining marvel celebrates neighbors, food, cider and local agriculture. And even though held during the later winter and early spring, the camaraderie among neighbors and hospitality shown to visitors makes a visit to Basque cider house one of the warmest experiences in which we have been lucky enough to participate.
Traditionally, when the apple harvest was abundant and cider production exceeds a family needs, each farmstead (caserìo) opened the bounty and offered surplus cider to friends and neighbors. These tastings (probateko) drew townspeople to sample the apple flavors mid-fermentation, directly from the cider vat (kupela). This was the ultimate potluck; neighbors brought fish, meat, eggs and vegetable side dishes from their own farms to share while tasting the cider house’s abundance.
These days, cider houses in the Basque country continue to highlight the neighborly nature of these samplings in their tasting rooms, giving visitors a taste of traditional fare like salt cod omelets (bakailao tortilla), grilled fish with roasted peppers (Bacalao con pimientos), dry-aged ribeye steak grilled over open coals (txuleta), sardines smoked on embers, and finishing out with a dessert of smoked sheep cheese (idiazabal – often available at Petaluma Market) with quince jelly and roasted walnuts.
Customers alternate between standing to visit and share stories, and sitting at long wooden communal benches to eat as each dish makes its way to the table. Whenever a tumbler glass is empty, patrons hear the call of the cider keeper “Mojón!” – as the txiri, a small wooden stick that seals the cider vat, is removed and the cider flows. Tasters line up to intercept the thin stream of semi-fermented cider. Holding their glass at the proper angle to catch the straw gold liquid, they hope not to get the evil eye if even a drop of cider is wasted on the cement floors of the sidrerìa. Sagardo (cider) is best enjoyed fresh from the cask, when the apple flavors shine, and the beverage retains its natural, light-catching effervescence.