The Blue Beast Twenty-seven

Christmas 2002


That’s Basque for Merry Christmas and it’s the nearest you’re going to get to a card from me this year. Christmas here in the ‘Switzerland of Navarra’, as my valley is referred to, (don’t laugh! Some people call Detroit ‘The Paris of the North Eastern tip of the State of Michigan’) is celebrated in the usual arse-about-face manner that Basques adopt against the world. Shops shut at midday on Christmas Eve and the family sits down to a celebration supper of roast lamb or suckling pig before attending Midnight Mass. On returning home, gifts are exchanged, then off to bed. Back to normal on Boxing Day. 
Father Christmas, or San Nicholas as he’s known here, doesn’t arrive till 6 January, Reyes or The Feast of Kings, which would probably have your children slashing and burning the Christmas tree with impatience by then. 

I want a goose this year and when I approached one of the seven, yeah! seven, butchers in the village to ask about ordering one, I was met with a look of puzzlement bordering on horror. 
“A goose? To eat?” asked Perurena, our local hero. “You mean turkey, don’t you?” 
I might as well have enquired about a cat or a parrot. Perurena looks like Pavarotti and is famous for being the Harri Altxatzea or Basque Olympics’ champion. 


Harri Altxatzea literally means ‘stone-lifting’ and that’s what he does. In one event, contestants see how many times they can lift a 250-kilo boulder in 5 minutes. In another, they roll those huge round stones you see on the top of gateposts around their shoulders. Twenty times. Then they see how fast they can run carrying a 50-kilo rock. In each hand. Try asking him for a ‘half of mince, please, no fat’ and see how you feel. 


Anyhow, I have had to go north, across the frontier into Bayonne, to order my goose from one of the dozen stallholders in the covered market there.  I could have had guinea fowl or partridge, capon, wild duck, pigeon, squab, quail, woodcock, dove or turkey, all fresh and ready to be plucked and drawn while you wait. Waiting is no problem as the little café in the corner serves a good Armagnac with the coffee. 

The huge variety of produce on northern (French) Basque market stalls is in stark contrast to their southern (Spanish) Basque neighbours. In Bayonne I could have bought air-flown Kenyan beans and Guadeloupe bananas. In my nearest market, Leitza, this morning it was artichokes from Navarra or leeks. Unless it’s grown locally it’s not available, which means everything is seasonal and fresh. The lettuces are still bleeding their white milk, the spinach dripping with morning dew (or rain, more likely) so the stallholder has to shake it off before weighing. 

Most people round here grow their own anyway, every house having a neat plot with lines of beanpoles and potatoes. There’s no greengrocer in the village alongside the seven butchers, which gives you an idea of the Basque attitude to your five daily portions of fruit and veg. Where both sides of the border do agree is on the amazing variety and quality of the fish and seafood. Elaborate displays of glistening fresh fish lie on beds of ice next to baskets of prawns and crayfish, oysters and clams all caught last night. The fishwives bellow and shout coarse insults at their customers, laughing uproariously at their jokes whilst gutting and filleting the fish. The enormous cleavers they wave make a butcher’s chopper look like a pocketknife. 

The most disgusting-looking items on display are ‘percebes ‘or goose barnacles, sometimes called ‘devil’s toenails’. They are gathered from the wave-lashed rocks of Galicia where the highly oxygenated water makes for very sweet shellfish. They are eaten lightly steamed with the leathery skin peeled back to expose a delicate mouthful of meat. Beware as you bite as they have a nasty habit of squirting hot sea water but the delicious flavour and texture is worth the exorbitant price, €90 a kilo, Basques pay for them. 

As Christmas is coming, I bought myself a new cooker for €400 which is about £280. It has 4 gas burners and an electric turbo oven that is so powerful the lights dim when I turn it on. I had shopped around all the mega marts in Pamplona and San Sebastian, where spotty faced shop-assistants, rusting away under the weight of their body-piercings, displayed a lack of interest in my questions matched only by their ignorance of the answers. 

I went, instead, to the nearby town and met the Kitchen Man. We chatted for an hour or so about his wife’s thyroid, his son’s exam results, the number of salmon caught this year from the river outside his shop door, the likelihood of snow this winter until he showed me a catalogue of cookers. He explained that the same company owned all the different brands and all the spares came from the same depot. 
He could get me my chosen cooker by the end of the week. No, he didn’t need a deposit; yes, he would deliver it on Tuesday. 
Sure enough, he didn’t turn up on Tuesday. 

Several phone calls later he arrived on Friday, connected the cooker, collected the scrap-metal-apology-for-a-stove that was rotting in the corner and was about to leave when I pointed out that I couldn’t open the new oven door. 
“Ah, that’s because the wood-burning Aga is in the way.” 
“Yes, I can see that, but I can’t move the Aga.”
“Mmmh… what you need is a new kitchen cabinet.” 
Up till now I had been making do with a piece of kitchen furniture fashioned out of oak trunks and pine logs hammered together by my landlord, Bautista the Bodger. His only tools are a chainsaw and an axe. He spent 20 years as a lumberjack in the mountains of the Savoie, descending once a week for a hot meal and a bath before returning to the forest. My kitchen cabinet would have held pride of place in his logging camp. 
Mr Kitchen Man was not impressed. 
“I have some ex-display units in my warehouse. I could fit them in here to allow the oven door to open and give you a new worktop. Come and have a look next week.” 
I popped in and after an hour or so chatting about his wife’s thyroid, his son’s exam results, the number of salmon caught this year from the river outside his shop door and the likelihood of snow this winter, he showed me some kitchen units. 
“Fine,” I said, “Whatever.” 
Trying to match minimalist Italian designed kitchen drawers and worktops with Bautista’s ‘rustic’ attempts was a waste of time. Anything was better! 
He turned up, as promised, at 11 o’clock the next Saturday, a national holiday, with his son, Jesus, the exam disaster, and spent 5 hours fitting the 3 cabinets and worktops with a precision and attention to detail that was spellbinding. 
“How much?” I asked. 
“Oh, I don’t know, come and see me next week and I’ll work it out,” he said. 
I went back to his shop a week later, met she of the thyroid problem and paid her 400 quid for my dream kitchen. 

I’ll collect my goose on Christmas Eve, probably after a decent lunch in one of the many restaurants that crowd along the banks of the river Nive opposite Les Halles. The good citizens of Bayonne have offered free parking near the market all Christmas Eve in an effort to buck up trade and sell more cheeses, foie gras, game, scallops, onion tarts, Basque custard pies, nougat, suckling pig and peaches poached in white wine, from their little covered market. 
No plastic trees. 
No fake snow. 
No carol singers with taped musical accompaniment. 
Not a Santa or a jingle in sight. 

Merry Christmas!

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