Much of what most people know about the Basque Country and people have associations with the sea: as fisherman and great fish cooks, whalers, and explorers (one of Columbus’ captains on his first voyage was a Basque). We might think of elegant seaside San Sebastian snuggled up around the white sandy La Concha beach. Or maybe we think of Bilbao, which though not directly on the sea, rests near the mouth of Nervion river only a few miles distant from the Mar Cantabria. Perhaps even the pretty little city of Baiona (Bayonne) on the French side of the border comes to mind.
Maritime the Basques surely are, but a fat wedge of the Basque Country has as little to do with the sea as Kansas (well, maybe not quite). The provinces of Alava (part of the autonomous, three province state within Spain called Euskadi) and Navarra (part of the historic Basque lands, but not in Euskadi) also in Spain, and Basse Navarre and Soule in France are in fact completely landlocked. But though oceanlessness is common to these various regions, they are hardly identical. Alava and southern Navarra possesses a red and ochre yellow craggy and dusty landscape reminiscent of New Mexico, and northern Navarra, Basse Navarre, and Soule is a wild and verdant Pyreneean mountain land split by cold, rushing streams.
So while coastal Basqueland table is all about finned fish, crustaceans, and molluscs, Basques from inland get their proteins from lamb and sheeps’ milk cheeses, pork, and chicken. And because these areas are warmer and less rainy, a broader range of veggies are in heavier rotation as well…
To start, I served two pintxos (as tapas are known in Basque): a minced baked ham, hard-boiled eggs, and shredded lettuce number, and the other derived from the last piece of the previous night’s fish that I re-worked with scallions and pickled green guindillas . The main course was stuffed (jamon serrano and porcini) and breaded chicken breast with a truffled cream sauce, and a real Basque classic called pochas a la navarra – navy beans cooked with a vegetable puree` as a side dish. The wine was an Irouleguy – the French Basque country’s only AOC wine. Similar to the not too distant Madiran region, Irouleguy features the muscular and rustic Tannat grape, usually blended with one or both of the Cabernets (this particular blend is 60% Tannat 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 20% Cabernet Franc). The wine was not optimal with the pintxos – had I had a Txakoli I would have popped THAT with this, but alas…but to be fair, the stuff topping the bread rounds were bold enough that the wine didn’t smother them…BUUUUT, with the earthy, peppery beans, and the fairly unctuous chicken preparation, this wine’s stiff structure and woodsy fruit was aces. The pics and the notes:
Domaine Brana Irouleguy “Ohitza” 2005
Crimson-rimmed blackish garnet color. Aromas of charcoal, berries, leather, and Graham Crackers. The palate is intense with fine and silky but still prominent tannins, and flavors of expansive sloe and currant fruit, cracked black pepper, and Chowards violet candies. This place-evoking red is drinking well now, but well stored, it should continue to do so for at least a few more years, and give its final performances with an austere grace.