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Essay: Blood Relations

On love and Basque sausage

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In the first photograph I ever saw of the woman who would become my wife, she was grinning ear to ear with her arm elbow-deep in a bowl of blood.

She was making mortzilla—a traditional Basque sausage that takes advantage of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate part of every animal that more squeamish cultures simply allow to run down the drain at the slaughterhouse. Not to get too graphic, but as blood cools, it tends to clot. The traditional way to prevent this is to stir it with your hands in a bowl of ice water.

As I stood in my now-wife's North End apartment looking at this photo stuck to her fridge, I was intrigued. And for pretty much every year since, I have been at her side at the deceptively beautifully named matanza her family and a few others have held in central California for four generations. (Matanza, according to the dry and straightforward Google Translate, simply means "slaughter.")

At this matanza, multiple pigs are slaughtered with the help of an old-school traveling butcher. Afterward, the family salt-cures its own bacon and ham, freezes the lomo (tenderloin) and saves pretty much everything else. There's a traditional Basque stew, for example, consisting of pig's feet and tripe.

But my favorite is the chorizo.

First and foremost, it's delicious. Kept loose, chorizo is great with eggs and potatoes, makes a mean chile relleno, spices up hamburgers and translates surprisingly well across cultures into things like lasagna or spicy Thai pork and green beans.

Stuffed and hanged (just for a couple of cold days, enough to pull the flavors together and brighten the color), Basque chorizo is amazing sliced, browned and simmered with red wine. It's also outstanding in an old-school stew of garbanzos and pretty darn good grilled and slapped in a bun.

But it may be even more fun to make than to eat—and that's the reason we have shared the experience for two years now in a workshop hosted by The Atlanta School. The experience is communal. You have a drink, peel some garlic. You cube some meat, have a drink. Grind the meat, have a drink. In the process, you learn about new boyfriends and girlfriends, how the orchards are doing, who is aging well and who isn't.

Basque chorizo seasonings are largely a matter of history and taste. Some families like it with a lot of extra cayenne. Most don't, though the younger generations are leaning toward more kick. I like a little more vinegar and garlic. Everyone has their own ideas about salt, paprika and black pepper (itself a sometimes controversial ingredient).

The signature flavor, though, in this kind of chorizo is the chorizero pepper (which you may see spelled choricero, txorisero or txorizero). Ripened to dark red, dried, rehydrated and pulsed into a paste (or, lately, pulverized into a powder), the chorizero pepper gives Basque chorizo its rich color and flavor, and it is grown in backyards and hoarded across the West.

If you don't have a Basque connection, you can use store-bought dried guajillo chili peppers. We've tried them—you won't be disappointed. But for families like my wife's, there is no substitute.

Sadly for future budding romances, however, my wife's family discovered a few years after I came around that adding rock salt to the cooling blood is just as effective in preventing clots as stirring, so my wife's younger cousins never have to bury their arms in blood. Despite this obvious handicap, they seem to be finding boyfriends just fine.

Greg Hahn is a former Idaho Public Television host-turned communications director at Boise State University.

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