How an Alabama Native Wound Up Writing Our Favorite Basque Cookbook

At long last, a clear-eyed portrayal of how the Basques really eat

Benjamin Kemper

By Benjamin Kemper

Published on October 5, 2018

When you hear "Basque food," what comes to mind? Doily-lined platters of colorful pintxos spiked with toothpicks? Tweezed-and-foamed tasting menus at Michelin-starred restaurants like Martín Berasategui or Arzak? Sure, the Basque Country's lively pintxo scene and sexy nueva cocina restaurants get all the attention, but they're just one small slice of the proverbial empanada. To discover how the Basques eat at home, get yourself a copy of Basque Country, by Marti Buckley, published last month and our October pick for SAVEUR Cookbook Club.

As you leaf through the book's vibrant, glossy pages, try not to drool over simple comfort-food dishes like "Vitoria-style" fava beans, suspended in a light broth enriched with cured ham, or salt cod stew, turned brick-red by smoky choricero peppers. Science suggests meditating or petting a dog to calm one's frizzled nerves; I've found that a deep bowl of the Riojan potato-chorizo stew (p. 189)—hearty with disintegrating potatoes and garlicky sausage—produces a similar effect.

There are a handful of Basque cookbooks on the market, but none offers this deep a dive into the region's culinary history—who knew Basque whalers invented salt cod?— and centuries-old agricultural traditions (see "Cheese" on page 257 and "Cider Houses" on page 224).

What this book is not: a personality-driven, Americanized "reinterpretation" of Basque classics. From soup to nuts, the recipes stay defiantly faithful to their roots, maybe even to to a fault in some cases (good luck tracking down those fresh Gernika peppers). But Buckley's purist, anthropological approach ultimately pays off; indeed, as someone who's eaten my way through the region more times than I can count, I can vouch that these dishes taste like they were plucked straight from the dinner table of an octogenarian amona (grandmother).

Last week I had the chance to geek out with Buckley over all things Basque and hear about her journey from Alabama to San Sebastian, where she’s lived for eight years.

BK: How does a girl from Montgomery, Alabama, wind up putting down roots in San Sebastián?

MB: I fell in love with Spain in 2004 when I was studying abroad in Pamplona. It was eye-opening in every way. I remember going back to the States and listening to Spanish music and watching Spanish movies. I couldn't get enough. Even after college, when I was working at Southern Living and in restaurant kitchens, Spain was always in the back of my mind. So when a friend told me about an English teaching program that gave Spanish visas to Americans, I applied and asked to be placed in San Sebastián. That was in 2010 and the program was supposed to last a year, but I liked living here so much that I couldn't leave.

What was your impetus for writing this cookbook?

The realization that a solid cookbook on traditional Basque cuisine hadn’t been written yet. It was surprising—I was eating all these incredible dishes in bars, in small towns, in the gastronomic societies, and there wasn’t a reliable resource to turn to for recipes.

There are a few other Basque cookbooks on the market. How did you want yours to stand out?

My mission from day one was to not Americanize or “chefficize” the recipes. During testing, sometimes I thought a dish needed an extra squeeze of lemon, a sprinkling or parmesan, or some black pepper, but I resisted the temptation. I had to choose between doing things the tried-and-true traditional way or my own creative way—which nobody actually cares about.

How does Basque cooking differ from that of Spain’s other regions?

The farther south you go in Spain, the more the cuisine is influenced by Moorish traditions. You see longer ingredient lists and more spices like cumin and paprika. Here there’s basically none of that. People pride themselves on letting top-quality products take center stage through simple preparations. Pintxos are also different from most of the tapas you’ll find around Spain. They’re more sophisticated—not just a slice of cheese or chorizo on bread. And desserts are heavily influenced by the French tradition. There’s more butter and puff pastry up here.

What surprised you the most over the course of your research?

The scarcity of literature on traditional Basque cuisine, even in Spanish and in Basque. I’d find compendiums on, say, Bizkaia sauce or bacalao and next to nothing on the history of tons of other important everyday dishes. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much everybody here loves to talk about food—and the “right” way to prepare it. You go one town over and people have a different way of making the same recipe.

How did you go about collecting recipes?

MB: Mostly I peered over the shoulders of friends’ mothers and grandmothers and wrote down what I saw.

More From The SAVEUR Cookbook Club

What are your favorite dishes to cook from this book?

The garlic soup is very comforting to me—it's one of those dishes that is more than the sum of its parts. I also love the shrimp kebab, which may even taste better Stateside because American bacon is superior to the Spanish stuff. And I'm a big cheerleader for the txipirones en su tinta (squid in ink sauce) because I know people are put off by the jet-black sauce. For dessert, the walnut cream is a revelation and it happens to be one of the oldest recipes in Basque cuisine.

What should people know before cooking their way through this book?

Cultural context. Remember, the Basques have lived in this region for 3,000 to 150,000 years, depending on whom you ask. They have as rich a food culture as Tuscany or France, but because of geopolitical reasons, they haven’t been in the limelight.

Also, take pleasure the process. Enjoy your time at the market. Smell and touch your ingredients. Open a bottle of wine while you cook and split up the work with family or friends. Take your time while eating and don’t be afraid to sit around the table for more than an hour. That’s what people do here and that’s why food is everything to the Basques.

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