A quick journey to Basque-land: The Basque people have existed for thousands of years. Many were intermingled into the Roman Empire but most of the Basque maintained their identity, yet their homeland was constantly attacked and pushed around. The Basque region today is nestled into the Pyrenees Mountains that border Spain and France. There are approximately 3 million Basque, still seeking autonomy, but they have to deal with two different countries and it’s been an ongoing battle for hundreds of years.
The Basque people are mostly farmers who raise sheep, cattle and crops. A main part of Basque culture is the cuisine. The families would gather and cook the fresh veggies along with the beef, chickens, lamb and fresh ocean fish. The men did most of the cooking and served everything in large bowls, commonly referred to as family style. When the Basque immigrated to America they settled mostly on the West Coast with communities in Boise Idaho, Reno and Elko Nevada, and the largest contingent in the San Joaquin Valley of Central California. The valley was a perfect place to graze sheep. Bakersfield, California has the largest assortment of Basque restaurants in the USA. So let’s go dining.
The Set Up: That’s what it’s called and most of our 7, listed-as Basque places serve the same basic set-up. We have at least another 8 or 10 restaurant that serve the set-up, or a form of it, because it’s so popular and some people like to order the Set-Up only. The set-up is always served family style.
The set-up starts with a hearty cabbage soup, red or pink beans, French/sourdough bread, salsa, relish tray, French fries, and Spaghetti. Many places also include thinly sliced beef tongue and crumbled blu-cheese. Diners like to add the beans and salsa to the soup. Some also put beans and salsa on the sourdough bread…yummy.
Save room, the entrees are fabulous and always cooked with ample amounts of garlic and can be ordered with extra garlic. The old (1893) Noriega Hotel, where I had my first Basque dining experience, has a two-item entrée for each night of the week. The regulars know that Wednesday is Lamb Stew and Prime Rib or Saturday is Oxtail Stew and Fried Chicken. The other Basque restaurants have a full menu of entrees to order. The entrees can be steak (all cuts), pork, chicken (baked or fried), lamb chops or stew, and a few different fish options. Veggies are included with the entrée along with the house wine or beverage of your choice. Dessert is usually ice cream; like it matters after you’ve just stuffed yourself with incredible tasting delights.
One other Basque delight, Picon Punch, has become the official American/Basque drink. The main ingredient, Amer Picon, is a bitter French aperitif that becomes smooth when mixed correctly. Here is the recipe…enjoy!
Picon Punch Cocktail Recipe
2 oz Amer Picon (Torani Amer)
1/2 oz Grenadine
1/2 oz brandy
Lemon peel (1/2 oz Lemon juice)
Directions. Shake the amer picon, lemon juice and grenadine well with ice and strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Top with soda, garnish with fruit, and serve in a highball glass.