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August 28, 2003

Kontua mesedez

So Slate has June Thomas writing dispatches from her trip to the Basqueland. First of all, what is it with Slate and copying my ideas? At least I scooped them on this one, posting my journey through the Euskara-speaking world on FANS back in May. But still, I get the feeling that Michael Kinsley is bugging my cell phone and using my ideas for stories. It's unnerving, and it needs to stop.

I do have more of a point to make, however, than to grouse about Slate's lack of ability to come up with their own damn story ideas (or lack of paying me for the ones they seem to steal from me). I want to take issue with a statement Ms. Thomas made in her first "dispatch" (yeah, they didn't even bother to use a different term than I did in mine). On Monday's post, she said, "The Basque Country smells like Spain—a mixture of wine, sweat, eau de cologne, olive oil, and "black" tobacco. And the locals' food fixation is quite French."

You see, she's right about the smell. Which was fine. Good human smell, really. Although I'd kind of add lavender to that as well. And salt air. But the idea that a food fixation is French, now that I have an issue with. All over Spain, food was extremely important, though nowhere near as much as I found it to be in the Basqueland, that's true. But I have to say that, although, yeah, the French are kind of food obsessed, they go about it very differently than the Basques.

For one thing, I could live on Basque food if I had to. It rivals Italian food for good, homey, lovely, innovative, and interesting morsels. I could never live on French food. I mean, sure, it's good. But would you really want to live on it? All that butter and cream and aspic? The thing about classical French cuisine, which distinguishes it from most of the other ethnic cuisines I love (Italian, Basque, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Oaxacan, and Japanese in that order) is that French cooking is not about appreciating local abundance and living well off what the nearby land and sea have to offer, but about making something rich and oppulent to impress nobility (and using those rich combinations of flavors and textures to hide the less-than-entirely-fresh meats and fish that were raised or caught far from the castles which house the dinner tables those ingredients were destined to grace.)

Now admittedly, there are Basque dishes that are based on using non-local ingredients, most notable salt-cod, but the salting process was never about fancifying anything for the sake of impressing anyone, but for preserving the fish for the long ride home as overfishing near the European contintent made it increasingly more difficult for medieval fisherman to find cod. Salt cod is peasant food. It keeps. It's not about gooping stuff all over something spoiled to pretend it's not, but, like salting and curing hams and bacon and olives, etc. to preserve them for use during less abundant times of year. In fact, the official dish of Viscaya is bacalao al pil-pil, a dish that was invented while the city of Bilboa was under siege during the first Carlist wars and they were running out of food, nearly everything, as a matter of fact, except olive oil and salted cod. The Carlists lost, in the end, and never overran the city, which they expected to take when the food ran low. The good people of Bilboa, for their part, invented one of the most artistic and simple dishes ever created.

The most famous dishes of classical French cuisine, on the other hand, were invented by chefs in the employ of kings and nobles who were tasked with always outdoing the grandiosity of previous dinners or others' dinner parties. Sure, this resulted in plenty of tasty and inventive dishes, many of which are still part of the lexicon of French cookery (and many of which were just too unnerving, too extravagant, or too unpleasant to have survived), but they lack soul, in my opinion. They were created to impress, not nourish. And that, as I see it, is still the essential difference between French and Basque food, and why I have an issue with equating the French conception of food as an object of art and the Basque conception of food as an object of worship.

Posted by paulette at August 28, 2003 06:13 PM | TrackBack
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