Exploring Basque Culture through Food

Who are the Basque people?

The Basques call themselves “Euskaldunak,” which means “those who have Euskara, the Basque language.” Their homeland is on the border of Spain and France where the Pyrenees Mountains meet the Bay of Biscay. The Basque people have a proud identity and cultural heritage. 

“The singular remarkable fact about the Basques is that they still exist,” author Mark Kurlansky remarks in Basque History of the World.

Of the 3 million people living in Basque Country today, about one-quarter of them still speak Euskara. 

About the Boise Basque

During the turbulent political and economic times in Europe during the late 1800s to early 1900s, many Europeans were looking for a better life in America. The gold rush created a desperate need for sheepherders in the American West and specifically Idaho. There were not enough Americans interested and willing to herd the sheep needed to sustain the growing population. An agreement between Spain and the U.S. was a quick route to citizenship for Basque immigrants. Working for two years as a sheepherder would earn you a green card. That is how the first Basque people came to Idaho. Most had no experience with sheep but seized the opportunity to earn a green card and then pursue the trade of their choice once the two years were up. They stayed in boarding houses around Boise during the offseason and enjoyed the opportunity to speak their native language and enjoy the fellowship of their countrymen. Many settled in this area to raise their families and keep their vibrant culture alive.

Basque Food 101

The first word to learn when exploring Basque food is pintxo. Pronounced peen-cho, it means skewered. Traditional pintxo is a small bite of bread topped with a variety of unique combinations including meat, fish, cheese and vegetables and skewered with a toothpick. These little bites or plates are the Basque version of tapas. The best part about pintxos is in the way that they are enjoyed. Pintxo is not takeout food. It is meant to be eaten with friends and acquaintances as a social experience. Sitting at a bar and having a drink and pintxos with friends is the authentic Basque tradition.  

Another common Basque meal is paella. More smokey with subtle flavor differences from its Spanish cousin, Basque paella is traditionally cooked outdoors for a large crowd and is a rice dish with meat and vegetables. Part of the fun is watching the chef prepare paella in a huge skillet. 

For dessert, try a traditional Basque cake, or Gâteau Basque. Filled with black cherry jam in the Northern Basque region, Gâteau Basque with cream is more typical in the Southern Basque region of Spain where most Boise Basques trace their heritage. The unifying characteristic of all Basque food is fine ingredients and fresh local produce.

All About the Basque Block

The Basque Block on Grove Street between 6th Street and Capitol is an important part of Boise culture and history and has been designed to feel as if you were in an outdoor plaza in the Old Country. Prominent are the lauburu symbols on the street and the “Laiak,” the public art sculptures. It is home to The Basque Museum and Cultural Center, the only museum preserving Basque history outside of Europe. Next door is the historic Cyrus Jacobs/Uberuaga House which was used as a boarding house for Basque immigrants and is now available for guided tours. The Basque Block is also home to three authentic Basque restaurants including The Basque Market, which is famous for its weekly giant paellas with chicken, chorizo and seafood; and a unique Pintxos Bar. The Market also offers cooking classes, wine tastings and specialty food items from the Iberian Peninsula.  

Epi’s in Meridian

You can also enjoy the Basque experience at Epi’s Basque Restaurant in old town Meridian. Many of the recipes are original from the owners’ maternal Grandmother Epifania Lamiquis Inchausti, who ran a boarding house with her husband, David, after immigrating to Idaho in 1929. Co-owner and manager Christine Ansotegui explains about the history and culture of Epi’s Basque Restaurant.

Tell us a little about the history of Epi’s and how it got started.

The idea of owning a restaurant had been a dream of mine for years. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my life’s path was preparing me to do just that. I had the honor of watching Grandma Epi cook and serve food in her home in Hailey, Idaho, from birth. Her good food and hospitality made a huge impact on how I believed life and meals should be valued—as much as the taste of the food, the sitting and sharing was just as important. A person can’t eat fast if they’re being served multiple courses. 

Epi’s Basque Restaurant was built in her honor, opening on Jan. 26, 1999. This small Basque dinner house opens at 5 p.m. just five nights a week so we can continue to pay attention to the smallest of details. Epi’s picture hangs in the dining room to remind us each day of what she stood for and unselfishly lived her life doing: cooking and serving. 

What defines Basque food? What are some favorite dishes, flavors or ingredients?

Alberto Bereziartua leads the kitchen daily with his preparations of inkfish, croquetas, lamb stew, beef tongue and his beloved red bean soup, to name a few. Alberto was born and lived in Euskadi [the Basque Country] until moving to Boise. He has cooked in other Basque restaurants before coming to Epi’s. Basque cooking concentrates on the use of very few main ingredients: olive oil, garlic, parsley, lemon, paprika, pimientos—simple yet elegant. If you were to go to the Basque Country to eat, you would mostly enjoy fresh fish being caught and brought in daily from the Bay of Biscay. Lamb, beef, chicken and pork were the foods the Basques had to adapt to cooking once they came inland. Epi’s prides itself in offering wonderful fish entrees as well as lamb, beef, chicken and pork. 

What are the key elements of Basque Culture?

The Basque culture goes hand-in-hand with joy. Our music is lively, our food is amazing, and there is nothing like a Basque celebration to bring a smile to your face—seems like you can’t help yourself living life with the Basques. It is always rather noisy—lots of laughter, wonderful food and great wines—seems like someone is always dancing. Why not? Life is too short not to. 

The Basque Museum & Cultural Center

611 Grove St., Boise, 208.343.2671, BasqueMuseum.com

The Basque Market

608 W. Grove St., Boise, 208.433.1208, TheBasqueMarket.com

Epi’s 

1115 N. Main St., Meridian, 208.884.00142, EpisABasqueRestaurant.com 

[Sidebar]

What does the lauburu symbol represent?

The lauburu (or Basque cross) is an ancient Basque symbol that is so old the original meaning can only be speculated about. In the Euskara, it literally translates to “four (Lau) heads (Buru)” and generally represents prosperity. Some say it represents the four elements, the four seasons, the four directions or the sun.

The lauburu symbol can be depicted in two forms. With the heads turned right, it is in a positive form that is representative of life, creation and good fortune and can be found as a decorative motif in Basque carpentry and construction. With the heads turned left, it assumes a negative form that symbolizes death, destruction and misfortune and is used on gravestones.

Today the lauburu universally represents Basque identity, culture and unity.