Boise’s Basque Culture: An Old World Treasure Thriving in the New World

Boise’s Basque Culture: An Old World Treasure Thriving in the New World

Basque Oinkari Gorulari

Posted June 28, 2024

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The air was sharp with an early fall chill as we sat out on the patio of Bar Gernika sipping Spanish wines. The little tree-lined street in downtown Boise, Idaho, exuded an old-world style feel to it, a different flavor than the rest of the city.

The scents of cinnamon, paprika and coriander floated on the breeze. Along the sidewalks, unique swirling drawings provide the hint of a proud European culture that has found a home in Idaho’s rugged terrain.

Boise's Basque culture

Basque Designs Photo by Heide Brandes

Boise’s Basque Block

The Basque Block in Boise, Idaho, stands as a vibrant testament to the rich cultural heritage of one of the state’s most distinctive ethnic communities. This historic stretch of Grove Street, once home to some of Boise’s earliest and most prominent families, now serves as a thriving center of Basque culture and cuisine.

“We’re pretty lucky. It’s technically, as far as we know, the only Basque district or block in the U.S., and likely the only one outside of the Basque Country,” said Annie Gavica, executive director of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center. “So, we’re a bit of a phenomenon, if you would.”

History of the Basque

The Basques are an ancient ethnic group native to the Pyrenees mountains between Spain and France. Their unique language and culture distinguish them from their Spanish and French neighbors. In the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, many Basque immigrants came to the American West to find work, particularly as sheepherders and ranchers. Boise became a hub, with its train station and plethora of Basque boarding houses.

These boarding houses played a vital role in preserving Basque culture far from the homeland. When off work, the sheepherders would gather to speak Euskara (the Basque language), eat traditional foods, play music and perform dances from the old country. Annual “sheepherders balls” became a winter tradition.

“Those who ran boarding houses were often the translator and the advisor. The boarding houses served as the unemployment office, the funeral parlor, and the wedding venue for the Basques who immigrated,” said Gavica. “They fed them, and they kept them connected to their family. It was basically their home away from home.”

A New Home for the Basque Immigrants

The influx of Basque immigrants who made this area their home brought with them a rich cultural tapestry that has become an integral part of Boise’s identity.

“The first Basques came into Idaho in 1891,” said Teresa Franzoia, a Basque descendant who manages the gift store at the Basque Museum & Cultural Center. “From the early 1900s into the 1970s, the sheep industry was large enough that it brought a lot of Basques to the area.”

Over a century later, that original tide of Basque immigrants has blossomed into one of the most vibrant Old World cultural enclaves in the United States. At its beating heart is the Basque Block – a compact, distinctly European-flavored neighborhood lined with restaurants, cultural centers and even a classic fronton court for the traditional hand-ball-like sport of pelota.

For travelers, the best introduction to Boise’s Basque heritage begins at the Basque Museum. Opened in 1985 after a hard-fought grassroots effort to preserve a historic boarding house, the museum offers fascinating exhibits on the history and customs of this distinct ethnic group from the Pyrenees region of Spain and France.

“We’re really fortunate that there was enough foresight to create the Basque Museum,” said Franzoia. “It’s what allows so many non-Basques to be aware of our culture – and they love coming to experience it.”

Boise's Basque Culture Oinkari Ikurrina

Oinkari Ikurrina Photo Courtesy of Basque Museum

Boise’s Basque Culture Keeps Traditions Alive

One of the most alluring aspects of the Basque community is how ardently its language, food, dance and traditions have been upheld, even amid the assimilative forces of America. As Franzoia explained, Basque is the only spoken pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe. It predates Spanish and French and even Latin.

The commitment to sustaining the Basque language and identity is palpable. Franzoia herself spent a year attending public school in the Basque Country as a child in order to thoroughly learn the language’s notoriously challenging grammar and dialects. A Basque-language pre-school is also offered to locals.

“My mom spoke to us in Basque, my dad spoke to us in English,” she said. “She wanted us to be able to have a relationship with our family that is still in the Basque Country.”

The Roles of Festivals and Celebrations in Maintaining the Culture

Throughout the summer, Boise’s Basque community kicks its cultural exuberance into an even higher gear with festivals and celebrations. The biggest is the annual Basque Festival held each July, a multi-day extravaganza of folk dancing, music, sports exhibitions and copious amounts of succulent lamb dishes.

“You get to watch the Basque dancers perform. There’s usually Basque music, a street dance with a Basque American band and sometimes we get visitors from the Basque Country,” said Franzoia.

The Basque Center social club started in 1949 and regularly celebrates Basque heritage through food, dance, music, sports and more.

“I would recommend coming to a festival to fully immerse yourself,” said Gavica. “You’ll have options to try the food on the actual block out at the festival, watch the dancers, hear the music and take part in different things.”

The community’s biggest event, the Jaialdi International Basque Festival occurs every five years, which Gavica said drew 30,000-40,000 people over five days in 2015. Groups come from the Basque Country itself to perform at this epic celebration, scheduled next in 2025.

Boise's Basque Culture

Basque Cuisine Photo Courtesy of Visit Idaho

Taste the Olde Country

Any time of year, the lively Basque restaurants offer the chance to experience the culture through its renowned cuisine and hospitality. On the Basque Block, standout restaurants like Leku Ona, Ansots and the Basque Market channel the distinctive flavors of the Pyrenees into delectable dishes like trout cooked a la Navarra with olive oil, garlic and lamb.
“Food plays such a huge part in the culture. It’s just a part of life,” said Gavica.

Basque cuisine offers a fascinating window into the Basque people’s way of life. Dan Ansotegui of the James Beard-honored Ansots, a self-taught chef and restaurateur, spent decades immersing himself in Basque culinary traditions. His journey began with learning Basque cooking from his grandmother and mother. The journey continued through his experiences in Spain and his own restaurants in Boise.

His expertise is evident in his multiple James Beard nominations and his deep understanding of both traditional Basque cuisine and its American adaptations.

“Spanish food throughout is a little bit like Italian in the sense that, if you go to Italy, the food in Rome is different from the food in Southern Italy and so on,” he said. “And Spain is very much like that.”

Keeping Culinary Traditions Alive Through Creativity

While the diverse climates in Spain influence the cuisine, in the Basque Country, the focus is on local and fresh ingredients. Now trendy in the United States, this principle has long been a way of life in the Basque region.

“We went over to the old country one time, and it just happened to be the end of the anchovy season. On the grill at my cousin’s house are all these fresh anchovies,” Ansotegui said. “We all must eat the last of the anchovies at the beginning of tuna season. This cyclical approach to cooking and eating is deeply ingrained in Basque culinary culture.”

The adaptation of Basque cuisine in the United States presents an interesting twist. The Idaho boarding houses served hungry sheep herders, and Basque immigrants, like Ansotegui’s grandmother. They had to be creative with their cooking methods and ingredient choices when original ingredients weren’t available.

“Here you’ll see beef all the time. Over there, you hardly ever see beef. Here you see lamb on the Basque table a lot. And over there you don’t see lamb very often,” Ansotegui noted, highlighting the differences between Basque cuisine in its homeland and its American interpretation.

The concept of the Basque boarding house played a crucial role in shaping Basque-American cuisine. While the boarding houses initially catered to Basque immigrants working as shepherds, they evolved into public restaurants.

“Depending on the restaurant, you may sit with people you don’t know, and the menu usually is very limited,” he said. “You get soup and salad and your main dish, and then three or four sides served family style.”

This communal dining experience, rooted in the boarding house tradition, is unique to Basque-American restaurants and isn’t found in the Basque Country itself.

Boise's Basque Culture Boiseko Gazteak

Boiseko Gazteak Photo Courtesy of Basque Museum

Boise’s Basque Food Scene Provides a Cultural Experience

For culinary enthusiasts and cultural explorers alike, the Basque food scene in Boise offers a unique opportunity to experience a cuisine that bridges two worlds. It tells the story of immigration, adaptation and the preservation of cultural identity through food. As Ansotegui’s passion and expertise demonstrate, Basque cuisine is not just about nourishment; it’s a living testament to the resilience and creativity of a proud and distinctive culture.

From its historic boarding houses to its vibrant present-day hospitality, music and dance troupes, Boise’s Basque Block offers a fascinating glimpse into an Old World culture that has against all odds, established a unique foothold in an unlikely corner of the American West.

“We’re super lucky that’s the case, that just so many passionate people were interested in continuing this culture,” Gavica said.

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