Food Through the Eyes of the Basques

The epitome of the Basque culture has long revolved around food and dining . Groups of friends and families have long gathered around tables to break bread and enjoy life. Starting back in Viking times, Basques have used the seas and the mountains to provide food for their citizens in a way that is so much more than just nutritional. Eating is a social event, especially here in San Sebastián where the concept of pintxos has created an environment rich in community ties. As you take a walk down the streets of Parte Vieja, you will find nothing but one bar after another providing customers with a pintxo and drink experience they won’t forget. With amazingly fresh ingredients, the food is some of the best in the world with multiple Michelin-star restaurants in the city.

In her book Basque Country: A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise, Marti Buckley perfectly encapsulates the history of the Basque culture along with some of the most traditional, delicious, and inspired dishes of the region. After taking a kayaking trip out to Santa Klara island and stopping for lunch in some pintxo bars ourselves, we got the opportunity to meet Marti and discuss the culture of food in San Sebastián.

As a student at LSU, Marti had the opportunity that has now presented itself to all of us here and participated in a six-month study abroad in the Basque Country. While in the city of Pamplona and living with three French girls, her eyes were opened to the life that many parts of the world enjoy where cooking is taken as a beautiful art form and people take pride in using fresh-from-the-earth ingredients to make delicious dishes worth the time and effort. As it goes for many others that find their way to this part of the world, the culture of food left a lasting impression on her that led to an inevitable move back followed by the writing and assembling of her cookbook which has earned awards by the Basques themselves.

As a country fighting to hold their independence through the reign and fall of empires, the Basque people have been known to be very wary of outsiders, spotted easily by their inability to speak the language. Luckily for us, Marti was able to use her love of food and aspirations to bring good light to the people and culture of the Basques to forge bonds with those who know first hand what being Basque is all about. Before this book, not much had been written about the history, culture, and recipes of the Basque people, at least not all int he same book. Through her ties with the community, Marti was able to create, as an American, a rare commodity that was kept authentically Basque.

Although once a tourist herself, Marti has now become a permanent member of the San Sebastián community and has experienced all of the trials and tribulations that come with living in a tourist town. As tourists ourselves, we have been participating in all of the activities a typical out-of-towner might. With a constant stream of outsiders coming in, the real estate market, as well as the traditions of the area have taken a hit.

While hiking to the top of Mount Urgull, kayaking to Santa Klara island, day trips to the vineyard, and pintxos in Parte Vieja or Gros are thrilling and breathtaking experiences for us, they are providing a close to unlivable environment for those whose roots stem from here. With the cost of rent leveling with and sometimes exceeding the average monthly income and residents being evicted so landlords can cater to the tourism industry, the traditional way of the Basques in San Sebastián has been compromised. In our discussion with Marti, she made it very clear how she hopes to help bring awareness to the Basque culture through her book.

Every society has its own way of expressing itself. For the Basque Country, this is food and language. Although it had only been 9 days that we have been here, I have already been submerged into this culture in ways that I never thought I would. From pintxo tastings in Parte Vieja to our Basque Language class with Stuart, my eyes have been opened to this whole new world that I never would have known existed. While acknowledging and adapting to the changing world around them, the Basque people have maintained the roots of their culture, which is something that very few societies have been able to do over the course of their lifespan. Our talk with Marti today only proved that further, and I am forever grateful to be able to experience life in San Sebastián.