We Did Not Have To Go To Europe To Savor Basque Culture

The Basque Center in Boise, Idaho

By Peter & Jean Richards

(This article was written in late 2009 following our trip around the USA in October and November of that year.)

We usually make at least one trip a year, and sometimes two, from our house in the Southwest of France to the Basque country. We like seeing the peppers hanging in front of the houses in Espelette in France and we enjoy the great restaurants in San Sebastian.

But this year we found we could visit a Basque area in our own country as part of a six-week, 10,000-mile drive around the United States.

We knew that many Basques had emigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to raise sheep in western states where there was a lot of land suitable for their  herds.

While we were in Wyoming at lustrous Yellowstone National Park we were told there was a good Basque restaurant in Winnemucca, Nevada, but we never got near there. We had also heard and read about a Basque community around Boise, the capital of Idaho, and we were going right through that city on our way to the West Coast.

Adding to the appeal of this visit was a reference to an outstanding Basque restaurant there in a national guide book.

We arrived in Boise early on a marvelously sunny Saturday afternoon in late October, the particular day turning out to be particularly fortuitous.

There is a Basque Block in Boise with a market, a Basque Center (built in 1949), a jai lai court and a bar named Gernika. The block is in an old warehouse district and some of the intact buildings were once Basque rooming houses. Red, green and white Basque flags flutter on the Victorian lampposts.

The Basque Market was a bit of a disappointment to us because it mainly had Spanish items which were not particularly Basque and did not have the great Basque Ossau-Iraty cheese we like. It is, however, an attractive place with lots of gourmet items not readily available in American outside of major metropolitan areas.

The tongue at Bar Gernika

While we were in the market, a woman working there there told us that since it was Saturday, Bar Gernika would be serving its famous Basque tongue (Mingaina) and they might still have some left. Little did she know that tongue is a great favorite of Peter. So we proceeded immediately to Bar Gernika, and they did have some tongue left because it had been a slow day. It was excellent and a real treat for an offal person in a nation where the mention of most offal dishes often elicits sniggers. On the Gernika website it says: “Gernika’s famous beef tongue is served each Saturday from 11:30 am until we run out. It is served in a sumptuous tomato & pepper sauce with onion and a touch of garlic – okay maybe a little more than a touch. We add plenty of Roasted Garlic Bread and a large napkin….$7.25.” It was a bargain; remember that is less that five euros!

Jeff May at his bar in Boise

We had a very amiable chat with Jeff May, the current owner of Gernika, who cooks the tongue himself. He said the bar has been in Boise for 20 years; he is the third owner.

He shared his tongue-cooking method: the beef tongue is boiled first, then sliced, dipped in egg and flour and then fried on the grill. The sauce is Basque paprika, garlic, crushed red peppers, tomato sauce and the bits left over from slicing the tongue. After the tongue is fried, it is layered, sauced and kept warm in the crock pot. It is quite tangy and very good.

Though not of Basque origin, May proved very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the community. He said there were about 1,300 people of Basque origin in the Boise area and that they no longer were as involved in in shepherding as in the past. In fact, he said, many of the shepherds are now Peruvian but the Basques still own a lot of land. He also showed us the jai lai court next door to his restaurant.

But our appetite was whetted for a meal at Epi’s, the Basque restaurant in suburban Meridian which has achieved almost legendary status. When we got to our hotel, we called for a reservation.

When we got to the restaurant, a charming, informal place, we were warmly greeted (having shamelessly used our 3,000-mile drive from the East Coast as a reason why we needed a reservation that night).

Again our timing was perfect. We were told by Christi Ansotegui, one of the granddaughters of the eponymous Epi Inchausti whose recipes are credited with the success of the restaurant, that they prepared lamb shanks one weekend a month and that this was that weekend. We love lamb shanks.

A great Basque meal starring lamb shank

We started with a perfectly balanced cream of mushroom soup with a hint of hot pepper and perhaps a dash of sherry. The garden salad was fresh, in a light, yet creamy dressing. The lamb shanks were superb, cooked in a rich tomato sauce and accompanied by boiled potatoes and rice (I would say Spanish rice, but the Basques would not like that). Then there was that side of long green peppers, sauteed in a little oil — superb. The Izadi white and reserve red wine we had were good companions. Although we normally cannot manage dessert, the quality of the rest of the meal and pure gluttony tempted us, and we succumbed to the bread pudding with green apple. It was akin to a sticky bun topped with caramel sauce and whipped cream. It, of course, had no calories, we were assured. The bill came to almost exactly $100 including tip.

Epi Inchausti came to the USA in 1929 to join her husband in Boise. She knew just one word of English (we do not know which one, but that is the family story). Her granddaughters opened the restaurant in 1999.

The Basque experience in Boise certainly will make us even more eager to bask in Basqueness when we return to France.

©2009 Peter & Jean Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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