New Mexico’s colonial and post-colonial history is one long line of conquistadors, craftsmen and clergy from Spain.
But Spain ain’t that plain.
Depending on the depth of one’s socio-political interest, Spain can be viewed as a loose amalgam of between half a dozen and more than 100 different distinct ethnicities and cultures. It’s remarkable that the geographic area called “Spain” on the map is able to operate with anything approaching cohesion.
New Mexico is less a product of Spain than a mash up between indigenous peoples and widespread, itinerant Iberian influence. Among the most storied settlers to New Mexico are the Basque (or Euskal) people. Many of us are Ulibarris or Uriostes or Tapias. Everyone knows some Abeytas or Barreras or Jaramillos or Montoyas or Salazars. These are just a few of the common New Mexico surnames that are generically “Spanish” but are distinctly Basque by heritage.
Like most Iberian ethnic groups, the Basques predate Spain by thousands of years. Traditionally, they have lived in the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain and France, but they always have been an adventuresome people, braving high mountains in search of good grazing land and mastering the sea for purposes of fishing and trade.
The New World was another adventure that attracted many Basques including, famously for New Mexico, the parents of Don Juan de Oñate. New Mexico’s long and fascinating Basque history is kept alive by the Basque Club of New Mexico. Each year, the Basque Club organizes a fundraiser for cultural education efforts and ongoing heritage projects. Like many distinct cultures, the Basque remain unified through language, traditional garb, music, dance and—most importantly—food. On June 19, in Santa Fe’s cavernous but cozy Elks Lodge, the assembly hall was filled with wild accordion, manic violin, the constant shimmy of a tambourine, and a couple hundred happy-go-lucky Basques with family, friends and a private treasure of wine, tapas and other treats. Chefs Isaac Rivera, James Campbell Caruso, Diane Perkins and Adrian Perez were aided by several cooks in their (successful) efforts to keep the food flowing. Basque Club Secretary Karen Squires prepared several capable dishes, including a refreshing white gazpacho. La Boca’s Campbell Caruso whipped up lusty seafood empanadas. Rivera and Perkins produced surprising and refreshing dessert tapas, and Rivera—bless his merciful soul— dished up chorizo lollipops. A kitchen hero named Robert Fettig assembled one of my favorites: a country-style terrine with Piment d’Espelette (a French pepper) over crackers with a yellow cherry preserve. The creamy texture with just a hint of spice was melody to the preserve’s slightly tart, acidic rhythm. It put one in a mood for wine. That was handy, because wine and tapas go together like Basques and history. Most people believe that tapas originated in Andalusian Spain, where bread or chorizo was used to cover sweet wines and sherries as a defense against fruit flies. Tapas-style “finger foods” may have been a Basque practice since long before then, however, and remain a constant presence in Basque Country bars where they are called “pintxos.” When Basque people settled in New Mexico—as 16 th century settlers and explorers and, later, as miners and shepherds—they brought their culinary habits along. Unfortunately, pintxos and tapas have remained hidden by Mexican and New Mexican specialties in the same way the Basque have been hidden by the broader notion of Spain.
But the last several years have seen tapas and pintxos in New Mexico go from pinche to profound, as culinary tradition and innovation have heated up and operations like The Spanish Table and La Boca have demonstrated just how big little plates can be.
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