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Who are the Basques?

In 'The Basque History of the World,' Mark Kurlansky blends human stories and economic, political, cultural history into a rich and heroic tale.

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Not so long ago, me and my one-year old were invited to spend some days at a Basque family’s house in Pamplona, the capital of Navarra, a northern province in Spain. 

When lunch time arrived, the host asked me: “does your kid like Gulas?” I was shocked. Gulas is a Spanish product that dates back to 1991, when a Basque company called Angulas Aguinaga created it by using surimi (processed fish paste) as an imitation of angulas (baby eels). 

Although I didn't want to be impolite, my answer was, of course, “I don’t think so.” My kid, like any ordinary kid, likes to eat tomato pasta and chicken nuggets and would boldly refuse to eat a plate of sautéed fake eels with garlic. But the other Basque children at the table seemed delighted with the menu: sautéed fake eels with garlic as a starter, followed by roast lamb and the leftovers of  a tasty tuna and peppers stew. 

If there is something for which the Basques are famous in Spain, it is for their gastronomic tradition and their passion for good food. 

But the Basques are much more than the owners of one of the best cuisines of the word. They are a millenary culture, unique in Europe, starting with their exceptional language: the 'Euskera.' 

“In the Basque language, which is called Euskera, there is no word for Basque. The only word to identify a member of their group is Euskaldun — Esukera speaker. Their land is called Euskal Herria — the land of Euskera speakers. It is language that defines the Basques,” wrote author and journalist Mark Kurlansky in The Basque History of the World (published by Penguin Random House in 1999). 

Although published more than 20 years ago, The Basque History of the World is a wonderful book to better understand this unique people straddling a small corner of Spain and France, with incredible cities to visit like Bilbao, San Sebastian and Zarauz. 

From historical facts and human stories, including the passion of the Basques for elvers and the invention of the now popular false elvers (Gulas), Kurlansky explains how they are, and why — the inhabitants of this nation divided between Spain and France.

“This is a people who have stubbornly fought for their unique concept of a nation without ever having a country of their own. To observe the Basques is to ask the question: What is a nation," wrote Kurlansky. 

“An anomaly in Europe, the Basques remain deeply religious and unabashedly nationalistic. But they are ready to join this united Europe," he added. 

The book is full of curious and little-known anecdotes about the Basques' greatest accomplishments, like their spirit of exploration: the first man to circumnavigate the globe, Juan Sebastian de Elcano, was a Basque and they were the second Europeans, after the Vikings, in North America

Their ancestral passion for food and agriculture led them to be the first Europeans to eat corn and chili peppers, cultivate tobacco, and were among the first to use chocolate. 

Also surprising is the Basque's religiosity — Ignatius Loyola, a Basque, founded the Jesuit religious order. 

Altough being originally from the mountains, the Basques developed an elaborate sense for business and politics — they introduced capitalism and modern commercial banking to southern Europe. "By the 15th century, Basques were producing and supplying one third of Europe's iron from Vizcaya's huge deposits," the author observed.

They are a small people who number no more than 2.4 million, fewer than half of whom speak the official Basque language, but managed to maintain an independent existence in the face of France and Spain, and survived to Franco's dictatorship. 

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