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Cornerstone of Culture

Basque cuisine is no exception

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As Boise is home to one of the world's largest Basque populations outside of the Basque country, every Boisean likely has at least one friend of Basque origin who at one time has shown pictures of a family gathering. In these pictures, folks are usually smiling and gay, they drink red wine, dance and perhaps drain a skinned pig hanging by its hind legs for later edible use of the blood.

Thanks to my friend Julie, this is what I thought Basque cuisine was. Thus its food, like the Basque country itself, has always been shrouded with mystery and uniqueness.

"Blood gravy? That sounds off the wall to me," says Chris Ansotegui, co-owner with her sister Gina Urquidi of Epi's Basque restaurant in Meridian. "That must just be a tradition in that family." With the restaurant, named after their grandma Epi and designed to look like Epi's house, Ansotegui aims to share with everyone sides of Basque culture-specifically food.

"Our culture is full of life, it's full of joy, full of the love for life," she says. "All four of my grandparents were born in the Basque country and brought with them the traditions that began there. I grew up with it ... it all centered around food and music and talking and all stuff like that. I would really say food is the center of the culture. I would say that in any gathering, food, besides the camaraderie, is really important in our background."

So let's get this straight. If Basque food is a cornerstone of the culture and Jaialdi is in full swing, it's high time to expose the grub with which we'll be stuffing our faces.

Fortunately, most of it is tasty, if not healthful, too. Thanks to their fertile land's propitious location between the Pyrenees Mountains and the Bay of Biscay, Basque grocers can easily hawk varieties of fresh fish and shellfish, lamb, chicken, game and cheeses. And the cuisine is rooted with fresh vegetables, rice, potatoes and olive oil from neighboring Spain.

Delicacies such as beef tongue, foie gras and ink fish (squid), are not exclusive to Basque cooking, the techniques used to prepare them make the cuisine wholly Basque. "The style, the way we season it makes it Basque-garlic, lemon, parsley, salt, red pimentos," says Ansotegui. "Nothing really spicy, just a wonderful array of spices makes it very flavorful."

Basque cuisine shares at least two of the most obvious characteristics of Spanish cooking: large portions and simple recipes. As evidence of their cultural enjoyment of good food and the appreciation of the traditions of good cooking, the country is flanked with gastronomical societies, traditional meeting places at which members convene and compete to make delicious meals. Once male-only groups, they are now open to all as a way to preserve and recover old recipes and soup up new ones using traditional methods.

During Jaialdi, skip the chorizo and solomo, because those are available from vendors any night when the bars close in downtown Boise. Keep an eye out instead for favorites such as cod, a countrywide staple that, according to legitimate legends, was discovered in Newfoundland in the Middle Ages. Basques developed a method of drying and salting the fish that's still used today. If you see a fisherman peddling pil-pil, that's cod in garlic sauce. But summer is Basque tuna season, and a traditional number is Marmitako, a stew with tuna, potatoes, peppers and tomatoes. Another summer seafood option is Chipirones en su tinta, little squid cooked in its own ink. What, that doesn't appeal to you? If that's the case, hook up with some pinchos, the Basque version of tapas.

Ne'er is a Basque meal complete without something to wash it down. The par Basque wine is txakoli, a yellow wine made from tart green grapes that's not terribly alcoholic but sometimes a bit rough. Serious diners, however, usually choose wines from the La Rioja region and go for dry reds to get them dizzy.

If wine isn't your thing, you could just as easily reach dizzy by picking up the moves to some traditional Basque dances. From what I've seen, there can be a good deal of spinning with that, too.

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