I set out this clear Saturday morning to enjoy another spectacular day in San Sebastián, Spain, determined to enjoy myself— and to be on the lookout for Basques that might possibly be related to me. Not sure of what traits might have been passed to me through DNA from 15,000 years ago, so I knew it would take some serious sleuthing.
Over cafe con leche I spotted these twin boys with their mother. My father was an identical twin (Claude and his brother Clyde Hamilton) – could they be the spawn of the same recessive gene? Ha ha! Better keep looking ….
My day went nothing like I had planned yesterday. A midnight email response from Basque CoolTour and I ditched the first of today’s city tours and signed with them to have an authentic Basque experience on a sheep farm, with specially-bred Border Collies from Scotland herding specially-bred sheep, which are the only kind that can be used to produce their variety of cheese.
Sepa, one of the owners, met me by the Maria Cristina Hotel and we drove 15km to the Adarrazpi sheep farm where they make Idiazabal Cheese, award-winning cheeses throughout Europe for the past 15 years.
We drove up and down narrow country roads through beautiful rolling hills with small farms, simple houses, and sheep dotting every pasture.
Sweet, fragrant hay smells and bleeting of sheep greeted our small group of Eco-tourists as we entered the barn. Hay forks were stuck here and there in bales, a multi-colored grain mixture was piled in a wheelbarrow, and a hundred or so wooly sheep stared up at us. The farmer told us about our day on his farm and what we would see and experience.
This lamb was born just four hours earlier.
The owner and a helper opened the barn doors and released the sheep, and with the dog following the sheep we fell in line behind and headed for the field.
The Collie was completely focused and oh so fast, moving the sheep to and fro as the farmer barked commands, that it was impossible for me to get a good photo. The little black dog, part Chihuahua and part Dachshund, is a sheep dog wanna-be, following along but not getting too close to the sheep.
My mother was a fraternal triplet (Charline and her sister, Charlotte, and brother, Charles Murray). These darling fraternal twin sisters were also taking the tour. Their mother is English and father is German – the same genes of my parents! See any family resemblance here? Hmm… Should I let that line of inquiry go?
After the shepherding demonstration, the farmer showed us the milking parlor and explained how the sheep are calmed down before milking and are actually asleep when their milk is taken. Otherwise production is cut in half. Milk goes from teats (using a Delavol system like my father used) to a large stainless steel cooling vat in an adjacent room. There the farmer’s wife showed us how she makes cheese from the sheep’s milk. The entire process takes four hours and then the cheese ages in a separate cool room for more than two months. Here are sequential photos of the process.
We washed our hands and put on protective gear before entering the cheese making room: plastic apron, hair net, and booties over the shoes. Here I am with the farmer’s wife.
The milk is cooled, a small amount of rennet (curdling component made from the inside of a lamb’s stomach) is added, and all is stirred to produce curds and whey, which are then separated with strainers. We help punch the whey down into the molds. Three cheeses are produced during the process: a soft, fresh cheese, sterilized medium and hard cheeses. Whey is used to make yogurt. Leftover bits of curds and whey are fed to the cats, dogs, and pigs.
Afterwards we all enjoyed cheeses served with cider, another Basque specialty product, and quince membrana (similar to jelly). The cheese tasted very similar to Parmesan but milder and softer. Delicious! By the end of the meal, Suzanna, the twins’ mother, and I had become best friends. She and her husband live here and love it – their children are learning four languages: English, German, Spanish, and Euskera.
The second half of the tour was a traditional lamb dinner with other traditional Basque dishes: fried potatoes, Carmelized onions on baguette, lettuce salad, and yogurt with local honey for dessert.
A new group came for a traditional Basque dinner, which I had signed up for as well. I learned that the Basque language and culture are a mystery. No one knows where the language originated and it is the most difficult language to learn. It’s not Latin-based but has elements of Eastern European languages. Other Spanish dialects are all similar to Castillian and can be understood but Basque is so different no words are familiar to other Spainiards. After dinner they invited me to join them to watch a traditional Basque Jai Alai game at an arena in a nearby town. The name is Basque and jai means festival + alai means merry. So, I blew off the second city walking tour and went with this robust group of Basque men to complete my day’s saturation in Basque Country. The jai alai game was a playoff between two young men—and there was a lot of betting going on in the gallery. Our boys bet 20 Euro and won 100 Euros! Oh, wait, I had try one more DNA thing during dinner. Everyone had a big laugh at my joke – I had explained to them my DNA Journey and how I was reconnecting with my most ancient roots – and that we may very well be related. About half had heard about DNA testing and were intrigued by my quest and thought it was great of me to be here with them as a result.
I know for sure that physical traits are passed down. Do our hands look alike???
Oh, well, I loved making sport of seemingly trying to find some physical evidence to supplement the DNA evidence. I definitely connect with the spirit of Basque Country in its simple beauty and love of life. I’m having an incredible adventure here.
I strolled around the plaza before retiring and spotted these lovely desserts in one of the busy stores. I was too full and didn’t try them – but, hey! I’m here three more days!