These days, it's hip to be Basque. After all, these inhabitants of northern Spain and a slice of southern France, so long unremarked by the outside world, just built the stunning Guggenheim Museum in their port town of Bilbao. They're on the cutting edge of a borderless European Union. Not least, their famous sauce of salt cod, cooked in olive oil with hot pepper and garlic, is likely to be simmering at the finest French restaurants anywhere.
Mark Kurlansky's insightful history shows that although the Basques have been extraordinary inventors and discoverers, they have not always enjoyed such acclaim. In fact, if there were a medal for the most underappreciated people on the planet, the 2.4 million Basques would win hands down.
These adventurers have a little-remembered history of firsts. They were the first Europeans to cultivate tobacco; the first to admire hot peppers imported from the Americas; and the first to break the Dutch monopoly on chocolate. They sailed in the Spanish Armada and built ships with venture capital. And sorry all you Francophiles, it was the Basques who popularized the beret as a fashion statement.
The Basques are also the only Spaniards who visibly resisted the dictator Franco in the early 1970s, and much of this book is devoted to following the political intrigue that made some Basques such terrorists throughout the 1980s. Kurlansky offers a fine opportunity to catch up on Spain's postwar political trials. He also gives a powerful account of the 1937 attack on Guernica, where German and Italian bombers flew low over the town square, dumping splinter bombs at the busiest moment of the market day.
Kurlansky, who wrote Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, has again put his appetite to work. This book is peppered with recipes for traditional Basque dishes. A roasted sea bream swims in a touch of oil and garlic; red beans from the region of Tolosa are cooked in earthen crocks and garnished with pickled green peppers.
For all his Basque boosterism, Kurlansky remains a wry observer of these neglected and maligned tribes living in the shadows of the Pyrenees. The singular remarkable fact about the Basques, he marvels, is that they still exist. ¦
Jeff Byles is a reviewer in New York City.