In a serendipitous turn of events, I got to end my summer with two weeks in Europe at the end of August. This included a short stint in Bilbao, Spain, for one of the Basque Country’s biggest annual fiestas: Aste Nagusia (literally, “The Principal Week”). I was there at the invitation of my friends Margaret and Javi, the power couple behind Travel Basque Country, an online resource for information and custom tours to the Basque region in Northern Spain.
A 9-day celebration of all things Basque, this event is the perfect introduction to the various facets of Basque culture, its cuisine and its people if you’re ready to jump in. There is always something to see and do, from art, dance and circus performances to culinary competitions and sports demonstrations (stone-lifting, anyone?), as well as a 15-minute fireworks display at 10:45pm, Every. Single. Night. This is followed by all-night partying where the city turns into one big nightclub until about 6 or 7 in the morning, at which time the streets are cleaned, garbage cleared and the program starts all over again. After three short days, I left fully convinced that the Basque do not undertake any endeavor in half-measure, be it wood-chopping, cooking or partying.
A mainstay of the Aste Nagusia calendar, the culinary competition was first organized by two friends, Kepa Freire (pictured above, right) and Pedro Pieto over 28 years ago. Still going strong, this daily cook-off brings together about 16-18 of Bilbao’s top chefs and celebrities who evaluate a different Basque dish for its presentation, texture and flavor. The competiton is open to the public, and locals make a party out of it, setting up outdoor kitchens at the ‘Arenal’, a big park in the city center that runs along the river. Contestants start preparing their entries as early as 9am each day (depending on the dish), entries are due at 1pm for judging and results are announced at 2:30pm. Each entry is returned after judging to be feasted on, turning this part of the program into an excuse for locals to get together for a day-long picnic.
My education of traditional Basque cuisine began within an hour of arriving in the city as I witnessed the judges tasting and critiquing 427 entries of Tortilla de Patata (potato omelette) in between sips of Txakoli, the local white wine. While the dish has three primary ingredients: eggs, onions and potatoes, it was eye-opening to see how every single entry had its own story to tell. Some were garnished with green peppers or a small Basque flag. Others were unadorned. Some were darker/lighter, more yellow/pale or more watery/firm than the rest. Taking me under his wing, Kepa handed me sample after sample of tortillas, all of which tasted delicious to my novice Basque palate. Clearly, it would not do to give tastes of ‘mediocre’ entries to the foreigner!
By the numbers, this cook-off featured: 4,800 eggs, 1,800 kg of potatoes (almost 4,000 lbs), 700 kg of onions (1,543 lbs), and 253 liters of olive oil (66 gallons). But what really fascinated me was listening to the way the judges spoke about each dish. As a testament to the nuances of their palate, they could tell the sort of diet that the chickens were fed by looking at the color of the tortilla. An almost orange-hued dish meant eggs from corn-fed hens; a pale yellow tortilla probably meant factory-farmed hens; a mustard yellow tortilla meant pasture-raised hens. In addition, you could detect differences in quality between the eggs used by paying attention to the texture of each bite.
This was a whole new level of experiencing and talking about food and I was hooked.
I had the opportunity to judge the competition for Txipirones en su Tinta (squid cooked in its own ink) and document the preparation for Bacalao a la vizcaina (Basque-style salted codfish stew) over the next two days but I’ll save those for another post (or two). Stay tuned.