Community June 9, 2010

Idaho’s Basque Tables

A distinct Old World culture brought culinary treasures to the Gem State.

Sixty-two delicate coffee cups hang in neat rows from small metal hooks above the beer taps at a small bar in downtown Boise. There are no television sets, and yet it’s difficult to hear over the merry chatter. In many respects, this is a typical pub in a small American city. But a closer look reveals something distinct and even rare. This humble corner pub is rich with ethnic culture and tradition.

The menu reveals some of the story. There is lamb, pork and pimientos, then solomo, chorizo, paella and Spanish-style egg tortillas. The back of the menu announces “Beef Tongue Saturdays.” You have arrived. This is Bar Gernika.

“Eating is the second, if not the first, religion of Basques.”
-Alberto Santana Ezkerra, Professor of Basque Studies, Boise State University

There is a Basque saying, “Jan, edan euskalduna Izan.” Translated, it means, “Eat, drink, be Basque.” Anyone who has been to a Basque restaurant, attended a Basque festival or enjoyed a glass of wine in a Basque pub knows there is truth in those four simple words. Ask any Basque and they will likely tell you that preparing and sharing a good meal is at the heart of Basqueness.

“In the Basque Country a meal is more than a twenty- or thirty-minute event, and it’s about more than just fueling the body,” said Dan Ansotegui, the founding owner of Bar Gernika. “It’s an occasion to sit down with friends, and it takes some time, both to prepare and to eat. The social aspect of the meal is as important as the meal itself.”

A Second Religion

Nestled at foot of the Pyrenees and straddling the French and Spanish borders on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, the Basque Country measures just 100 miles from end to end. The fertile geography supports tens of thousands of working farms and an unlimited ocean harvest. This real estate, paired with a passion for good food, leads many to hail the San Sebastian area of northern Spain as the “culinary capital of Europe.”

“Eating is the second, if not the first, religion of Basques,” said Alberto Santana Ezkerra, professor of Basque Studies at Boise State University.

The first Basques immigrated to the American West to work as sheep herders in the late 1800s. Today, southern Idaho and northern Nevada’s Basque communities are some of the largest outside of Europe, and in and around Boise, the influence of Idaho’s estimated 15,000 Basques is strikingly apparent.

If the museum is the Basque peoples’ Idaho office, restaurants and pubs are its dining and living rooms, places where tradition and heritage are lived, not remembered.

The Basque block on downtown’s Grove Street is the epicenter of this heritage. The pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and streets are home to the only Basque museum in the United States, Basque cultural and community centers, a specialty food market and the always-lively Bar Gernika. The city also boasts the nationally-touring Oinkari Dancers, the Ikastola Basque-language preschool and a Basque choir.

The downtown museum and cultural center are strong preservationist forces on the Basque block, but food and drink are the culture’s most enduring elements. If the museum is the Basque peoples’ Idaho office, restaurants and pubs are its dining and living rooms, the places where tradition and heritage are lived, not remembered.

Basques are familiar with the story of how their homeland’s cuisine made it to America, flourishing and evolving with every recipe passed down from generation to generation. Food and its preparation are as much a part of the Basque identity as music, dance and pala, a uniquely Basque paddle sport.

Chris Ansotegui, Dan Ansotegui’s sister, is owner of Epi’s Basque Restaurant in Meridian. She said that growing up in Boise, food was at the center of family life. “Basques love to eat,” she said. “At all our gatherings we cooked and ate, and then we’d talk about what we were going to cook and eat at our next meal.”

The early Basque immigrants were mostly young, single men with no cooking experience. According to Ezkerra, they developed skills as they tended sheep in the desolate Idaho mountains. The result was Basque cooking with a twist of the American West.

“What Americans know about Basque cuisine today is not necessarily traditional in the Basque Country,” Ezkerra said through a thick Basque accent. “It is a new form of Basque cooking, one that was adapted out of necessity and evolved in America after the Basques arrived.”

Because most Idaho immigrants came from the Spanish coastal province of Biscay (Bizkaia in the Basque language), they were accustomed to a diet of fresh fish and vegetables. Since codfish and many traditional Basque ingredients were not readily available in the mountains of Idaho, the men adapted and developed recipes that relied instead on lamb and potatoes.

“Dutch-oven cooking was popular with the pioneers, so that is how the Basque herders learned to cook,” Ezkerra said. “They learned to modify the ingredients that were available, and a whole new technique of cooking was adapted from American traditions.”

As more young men settled the West, Basque-only boardinghouses sprung up to accommodate them during winter when sheepherding work was sparse. With cozy sleeping quarters and big dining tables, the boardinghouses were homes away from home for the men with common heritage. Their native language—dating to 7000 B.C. and one of the planet’s oldest documented languages—was spoken freely, and familiar fare was served.

Basque women cooked the boarding meals with as many traditional ingredients as they could gather. Lentils, garbanzo beans and pinto beans figured prominently. They often killed their pigs for chorizos and sheep for blood sausage—ram’s blood and a mixture of onions, leeks or grains boiled down and stuffed into casings—and dried their own peppers. “This cooking was closer to the Old Country,” Ezkerra said. “They tried to replicate the traditional Basque cooking from home.”

Because boardinghouse meals were prepared for large numbers, it was easier to serve them “family style” around large tables. “This group dining style came to be considered a Basque tradition,” Ezkerra said. “It really evolved in response to American conditions and is not customary in Europe.”





 LEFT Epi and David Inchausti with children Dorothy (on lap), Rose (standing) and Epi’s brother, Jose Lamiquis (standing in rear). ABOVE Epi and David Inchausti, taken around the time of their wedding, in 1925, in Ybarenguela, in the Spanish Basque Country. The couple honeymooned in Barcelona.

It’s a Family Affair

A black-and-white photograph hanging on a red brick wall in the back of Bar Gernika shows an elderly man tending a busy bar in Hailey, Idaho. The man is David Inchausti, Dan and Chris Ansotegui’s grandfather. The man’s wife, Epifania Inchausti, is rightly considered the matriarch of Basque cooking in Idaho.

Epifania and David Inchausti opened the Gem Bar and Boarding House in Hailey in 1936, the same year that Sun Valley Resort opened. The establishment was housed downtown in a former Chinese laundry on Bullion Street, and it came to be one of the best known Basque boardinghouses in Idaho.

Epi, as Epifania Inchausti was known, at first served mainly Basque lodgers, but her cooking skills soon earned a reputation. She opened her dining room, and busloads of diners flocked to the little Hailey house. Early patrons included Sun Valley’s golden-era celebrities like Janet Leigh, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Bing Crosby.

Epi’s legacy in the Wood River Valley continues today through an annual lamb dinner and fundraiser for Hailey’s St. Charles Catholic Church, an event that Epi and other Basque women helped originally organize in the 1940s. In the Boise area, her spirit lives even larger at her granddaughter’s popular restaurant in Meridian, Epi’s Basque Restaurant.

The culinary passion that Epifania Inchausti brought to Hailey has flourished with her progeny. Chris Ansotegui and her mother still laugh about the day Chris needed an emergency appendectomy, at the expense of what was cooking on the stove.

“Mom took me to the hospital but didn’t realize I would need an operation,” Chris recalled. “She told me, ‘I gotta go home and cook dinner for your dad. I’ll call you later.’ And, I’m a seventh grader, and I’m crying and the hospital staff later got my mom on the phone and she said to me, ‘Honey, I’m making pork chops with pimiento (red peppers) for the family. I’ll be there later.’”

In 1999, Chris opened Epi’s in a small bungalow-style house in Meridian. Epi’s menu is filled with traditional Basque delicacies—inkfish in sauce, beef tongue, lamb stew, halibut and red bean soup. The cooking is simple but precise. “Basque cooking uses very few seasonings,” she said. “Garlic, salt, parsley, paprika, saffron, pimiento. We take good food and make it taste better. We see things that we can incorporate and still stay authentic. We try to stay true to our ancestors and the taste of the Basque region.” >>>





A Basque community picnic at the Boise Municipal Park, Boise, 1950.

Ansotegui imports choricero, or red pepper seeds, from the Basque Country and has them locally planted and grown. Her chief cook, Alberto Bereziartua, frequently returns to the Basque Country to collect important ingredients like the ink sauce used in preparing squid.

Dan Ansotegui, Chri’s brother, opened Bar Gernika in 1991 and patterned it after the Basque pubs he had “fallen in love with” during his travels to the Basque Country. “Basque pubs are all about family and friends, where people just go to meet with others. They bring their kids, and food is very important. I wanted Bar Gernika to be about that.”

Gernika serves casual meals of lamb sandwiches, chorizo, solomo (pork), and its famous croquetas, a deep-fried-bread-crumb-coated ball of butter, onion and chicken that first crunches, then melts in a hungry mouth. Another Gernika specialty is beef tongue in red sauce, which is only served on Saturdays and usually runs out in less than two hours.

In addition to the menu, those delicate coffee cups that hang above the bar are indication of the pub’s cultural focus. “Basque coffee was always in the bars,” he said. “Lots of the bars had their logos on the coffee cups.” Ansotegui said he brought the first cups back from the Old Country, and patrons have continued to bring them back from their travels and contribute to the collection. Ansotegui sold Gernika in 2008 to Jeff May, a former employee who has kept the original menu, atmosphere and vision.

“What Americans know about Basque cuisine today is not necessarily traditional in the Basque Country. It is a new form of Basque cooking, one that was adapted out of necessity and evolved in America after the Basques arrived.”
-Alberto Santana Ezkerra, Professor of Basque Studies, Boise State University

The newcomer in Boise is Leku Ona Basque Restaurant and Hotel, founded in 2005 by Jose Artiach, a Basque immigrant who arrived in Boise in 1967 to herd sheep. Leku Ona, Basque for “good place,” occupies a historic brick building—formerly a boardinghouse—on the Basque block. The menu offers native-language tongue twisters—Txangurro Kroketak, Makailao Bilbainera, Txarri Txuletak—and authentic recipes passed through the Artiach family and prepared by a chef whose family operated a restaurant in the Basque Country.

“The Basques here have a strong will to preserve our culture,” Artiach said. “This is especially true for many people who came from oppression in the Basque Country.” He said that both his grandmothers had been jailed by Spain for speaking their native Basque language during Francisco Franco’s regime in Spain.

Celebrate Life

From the Bay of Biscay to the Idaho mountains, the Basque culture has continued to evolve and adapt, but one thing it has never lost is its traditional meaning.

“What I think of with the Basque culture is the old-fashioned, sitting-down sharing what happened to you that day—visiting and not hurrying,” said Chris Ansotegui at Epi’s in Meridian. “It’s about the friendship and love that centers around meals. It’s not a time to talk business. It’s a precious time to set aside. What we eat and the way we eat is part of the Basque identity.

Ezkerra put it this way: “We have a saying, ‘It’s not a real meal if you can see each other’s legs,’ meaning there must be a table in between us, and we must be sitting and enjoying the meal together.” He continued, “The Basque culture has survived well in Idaho, really, through our leisure activities. Food, drink, dance, sport. It’s not a political identity. It is about the joys of life.”

If the vitality of Basque culture in Idaho is any indication, those joys are alive and well.




This article appears in the Summer 2010 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.