**Initial disclaimer: The Basque produce no wine, a little bit of cider and their cuisine is virtually impossible to replicate outside of the region, but their story is so much fun. Please enjoy tonight’s dinner as Victor’s shares with us a couple more recipes before he returns to Barcelona, besides who doesn’t want to eat paella?!**
The Basques are defined by their language and not by national boundaries. They call into question what it is to be a nation, as the few hundred years of European nation-states is only a very small part of the Basque history. Their language is called Euskera and a Basque is called Euskaldun. They are believed to be the indigenous people of the mountainous region tucked in the hills between France and Spain. The Basque are often thought to be direct descendants of Cro-Magnons who lived in this area 40,000 years ago. The most useful way to understand how long they have been here is to look at their language. Even though the language has adopted some foreign words, its essential grammar has remained unchanged. Modern Euskera is much closer to its ancient form, than modern Greek is to it’s ancient form. It is also almost completely incomprehensible to Latin speakers. No one has ever found a linguistic relative of Euskera, which is important.
As the Indo-Europeans swept across Europe in the Bronze Age, there was no group, no matter how isolated that was left untouched. If Euskera predates the Bronze Age, then it is certainly Europe’s oldest living language, which would make them Europe’s oldest culture. One very popular 19th century history of the Basques has Adam and Eve speaking Euskera in the garden. The name Eve comes from ezbai, which means “yes-no” in Euskera. The wall of Jericho supposedly tumbled when the trumpets blasted a Basque Hymn. A 17th century historian claimed that Euskera was the world’s oldest language, having been devised by God as the language of paradise. They are an old people.
The Basques were the most brutal of fighters and prized around the Mediterranean as the most formidable of mercenaries. They allowed others to pass through their lands on their way to the fertile plains of modern day Spain, but if they tried to settle they would be massacred. The Romans finally subdued them in the 2nd century B.C. after nearly 40 years of near constant rebellions. The Romans understood that the Basques could only be pacified by special conditions of autonomy and they demanded no tributes, had no military occupation and were not ruled directly by the Roman code of law. For the next two thousand years they have lived under constant occupation without ever losing their culture, traditions or language, while continuing to pursue any economic advantage they could. If a new idea offered commercial opportunities they embraced it.
There are records of Basques selling whale oil in England in the 7th century. In the 9th
century when the Vikings arrived, they taught the Basques their ship building techniques. At this time no one had traveled farther than the Vikings and the Basques were always keen to learn from the interlopers. Basque ship builders began to use Viking hull construction, overlapping the edges of planks horizontally and then fastening them with iron rivets. Better built ships meant the possibility of longer voyages. But after the continental shelves dropped off and schools of fish disappeared, no food source spelled disaster for early voyages. The Vikings as also figured out how to dry cod in the frigid artic air and with this new creation they were able to go further than anyone else. Within 150 years the Basques were in the North Sea chasing the whales which they had hunted to extinction in their home waters.
With the new boats and salt cod for provisions they were able to make even longer voyages and some speculate the Basques were in Newfoundland by the end of the 10th century (which is fairly unlikely) but they were most certainly in the New World long before Columbus and Cabot. Here they set up shop and slowly became the richest people in Europe during the Middle Ages. The Basques left no records, like all good fisherman they kept these fishing grounds secret.
Once again, thank you all so much for your continued support and patronage on our adventure around the continent!