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buber.net > Basque > Food > Recipes > Marmita
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by Jose A. Zorrilla

It's autumm allright. Pumpkins have began to show up and you dye your porrus with that unmistakable colour of purple leaves, an old custom of your house. At the fish biz, Antonia, from Bermeo, points at the very last tunas of the season, already to small to be anything serious, and offers them to you "para embotar", that is, "for preserve". Antonia speaks euskocastilian and both euskalduns and spanish speaking have to make efforts to understand what she says. But the tunas are the final sign. When they get smaller that means the season is about to end. Perhaps you would like to go to Bermeo and get some from his husband at the lonja?-suggests Antonia. He'd love to see you...and you could embotar some for the winter.

Yeap, we know each other since i was a kid. And i could make some preserve for the family. Everybody loves bonito.

So you grab a superb mackerel, for this is the time of the year to tackle this beauty of the sea and ponder carefully whether to hit Bermeo following Antonia's advice-or not.

Cooking the mackerel gives you a truce. All you have to do is put the animal in the oven, set everything at 380 and wait 45 minutes. After that, you open the blue streak into two halves, pour some warm extravirgin olive oil on top plus the couple of garlic heads you fried into it and then some lemon juice or balsamic vinegar finishes the deed.

You'll go. You'll go to Bermeo, the village where you spent more than one summer, where you knew and still know Antonia's family. It's final now. You'll hit the road.

You will not drive through Derio and Munguia but rather will cross Amorebieta and Gernika. Your family lived there many years ago, the nuns embroidered some of your best table cloth, not only those of your parents but your own too. Superb works of art, cherrys and fruits on a creamy, fil d'Ecosse cloth. The nicest thing you ever saw, irreplaceable pieces of time past.

But as you leave Gernika and begin to climb the hill, fear chokes your throat. For beyond land and landscape, hidden in the curves of the winding road, stalk the most cruel and unexpected of the weapons: Memories. Memories never present but never forgotten, pieces of life and death, as heavy as stone and lead, as the untold stories of years past. All you left behind when you thought you left for good.

Here it is Chacharramendi, the tiny island in the middle of the mouth river, the place where you caught kiskillas and mussels. And...

in this moment the first flashback wounds you like a well sharpened knife would do. In the beach below, a little kid dashes to the water, the distant sea. Behind him his mother runs screaming warnings, lest him jump to the waves and disappear in the tide. But the kid knows better, there is no tide worth that name, this is why he was able to ford the shallow stream of fresh water and reach for the sea.

Then you turn your attention to the front and move the wheel a bit. A lorry was coming, better not to gamble.

Uphill again you decide to make a stop in your favorite sea spotting place, the one you discovered many years ago by sheer luck. It's not simple if you do not know your way, but you know it already. Oh yes, you know it very well. Looks like the entrance to a private house or something similar, a tiny, narrow path that begins almost as an entrance to a secret oriental garden. You have to be careful when turning to the left for you are almost at the top of the hill and somebody might come from the other side. But nobody's coming and as you turn the wheel 90 degrees you feel sorry for these poor fellas down there watching the sea from the official balconies. Not a bad view, no sir, but it does not compare. You have your own.

Finally you are where you wanted to be. Used to be a baserri here. Then it fell into little bits and that's all. A patch of grass. Now you reach for the final fifty yards and it is there, the little cemetery, Mundaka's probably. Not an imposing one. It is not like Sete, where Valery wrote that monument to life and death that is "Le cimetiere marin". Nothing of that slanted perspective and that clear, almost sharp light of the French midi. No big spaces either. But it's the place that better conveys for you the spirit of that primeval beast, that whirlwind of battles and fights, the sea. This is not "ce ciel tranquille ou picorent des colombes". This makes you think of humble people, and hard wills. Of anonymous fishermen and lifes consumed in the impossible toil of taming currents and winds.

The sea is the measure of the basques. This unending and rough wrath of the gods, this ever unattainable horizon, this most elementary of the homelands where only the course and the wind do matter, is our place of choice. And this is the spot from where i like to watch it. The Gernika mouthriver, the final farewell to the land of that tiny river, tamed waters on their way to become the harsh blue blood of God.

The sea is always like a balm and there is no sea like your sea. Reluctantly you turn your back to that plain of foam and roar and continue your way to Bermeo.

But in Mundaka is waiting for you an old debt, that story you should have written many years ago, yea, Kepa's. Let's hope one day you'll make it, sure, it'll come to you just like that, an epiphany. Or so you would like to believe. And it's a true story too.

Then Kepa pops up as you always imagined he would do. At the quay's end. He steps out of the car and looks everywhere as if he did not see the port or the boats. Altered, disheveled, pale like a corpse and with his hands still covered with his brother's blood. Someone has killed him and for sure it was ETA, his buddies. Only it was himself, Kepa, to have snitched him to the organization. But his brother was not a grass, only a happy go lucky, a bai chap, that was his only sin, not to care, to give a damm for everything, an irreverent, a Don Juan, all Kepa wanted so hard to be and did not know how to achieve.

So Kepa dashes to the stairs and begins fighting with the regatta boat, the trainera. He's trying to launch it to the water. Patxi sees him and runs along the quay to prevent it. The trainera no, what the hell are you doing, he screams, are you crazy, stop, Kepa, are you drunk? Stop, hostia! But Kepa has already launched the trainera to the water and makes for the sea, this sea you know so well, where you have fished so many times. And Patxi screams and screams but we cannot hear him, for all we see now is Kepa, rowing with all his might, with all the despair of somebody who has killed the most beloved of all his loves for no reason, for no real reason but envy and meanness and ignorance.

The trainera knows her ways on the water and cuts the waves like a razor. But Kepa is crumpled, he cant stand it any more, he is roaming alone and he should be doing it with the whole team of twelve or thirteen. The effort is exhausting, sweat pours from his face, soaks his shirt, beams in his tense skin. Till he cant stand it any more and stops. The trainera continues her course and while the boat's still moving Kepa tries to sweep his face clean. He throws himself to the water as if the sea could wash his guilt. But when his broken hands, smeared with blood and covered with open and wet blisters hit the water, the pain is unbearable and the character bends backwards in an impossible gesture of pain and liberation. And then explodes the shriek, the shriek of death and pain and confession and the brittle, unending cry hits the water and the land like the last shrill of a cornered animal.

So much for the fiction. Now you are in Bermeo, the place where you spent some summers back in chilhood.

You make for the lonja, well, for the place where you know you have to go nearby and the pungent smell of fish and oil and stale sea water hits you like it always did. There follows a homeric fight with Pello for he wants you to take three tunas and pay for one. Unbelievable! Of course he wins. He is an arrantzale after all and you are but a little master. Be it so. He helps you with the load and as you pass by the ice pit the memory is almost to vivid to be bearable. A youngster fell into it and died and you were nearby and heard his mother's cry. A scream like you never heard one before. You were ten or eleven at the time. And the piercing wail awoke you many nights when you were a kid. The scream of death.

When you reach the car you cant help smiling. That was the place where you discovered euskera was a language. Your aunt called you, "etorri, txikitxu". And a couple of street kids laughed at you "look the cute little one. mom calls him txiki"

That was it. I charged like a bull ready to start the Mother of All the Brawls. Two of four enemies, who cared? I would have killed a whole army. Or die. Die probably. Looked like scary, those guys, the tough type. Aunt was on watch, she better be, permanent alarm, elementary precaution. A mischievous kid I was, sure. So she stopped it right in time and things did not go too far.

I wondered. So there are people for whom txikitxu has a meaning. Hmmm! Now back in the safe of the big kitchen I feel secure. The tunas are mine and so are the rest of the ingredients. Who can step in? Nobody. Here we are.


Four potatoes
Four or five tomatoes
One big Bell green Pepper
One big onion
Two pounds tuna
Four pieces of garlic

Not to add more memories than necessary i skipped the old arrantzale at Bermeo's quay from which i learned how to cook marmita. But i learned it from his wrinkled hands and his old wisdom. I learnt how he made it for himself and his mates while at sea. So this is for real and i'm not kidding. The arrantzale's marmita. This is how it was finally cooked at home (i ended up by imposing my views) and i consider it modestly unsurpassable provided you do it the right way.

Marmita is no fancy stuff. It is working class stuff and that's all there is to it, period. So, please, do not do beautify it in any way.

Well,to the point!

Grab the onion and cut it coarsely. That is, cut is as if you were standing on the deck of a 150 MT little ship by force, say three, which's the minimum you can expect if you are a pro. So it moves. It moves like hell. For the patron this is piece of cake. For you is perhaps crap, crap, crap and you have by now your bowels in your eyes. Calm down.

So cut the onion, the garlic and the pepper coarsely and throw it to the pan where the oil is waiting at medium to high heat. Has to be. This is the gas oven of a little ship.Right? Good. Once everything is half done throw the tuna in chunks. Nothing fancy again, please, no wimpy approach, no perfect balls or squares, please. Turn till the fish and all the rest is brown (obviously not the green pepper). And then goes the tomato. Again in chunks.

The tomato will produce a lot of water. Let simmer everything for a while, ten minutes or so, stir, keep stirring (you are not on board, on board it stirs by itself by more than you would like) and then add the potatoes. Some water will be indispensable. But dont overdo it. This is kinda stew. Thick and short of broth. We are fishermen, soupy things are not a good idea, just potatoes half mashed, chunks of fish and, of course...the minimum of greasy liquid for following Murphy's law it tends to spill on the deck and make a mess of the whole thing. You follow me?

Here you are, the marmita of Aldecoa's arrantzales. BTW, read please, "Gran Sol". In Spanish or not this is as Basque as you can go. So, do yourself a favour and read the book of one of the most sensitive of our sensitive writers. Thank you.

Marmita is like a theme by Bach. You'll find it in all the possible variations. In fancy restaurants there is a lot of tuna and little potato. In fishermen's villages they tend to consider it soup and serve it with a big ladle, as if it were boullabaise. More often than not, like good abertzales, they'll tell you that tomato is an abomination because sun dried red pepper is the way to go. After all the old ships did not have freezers to keep the tomatoes. True. But they had patrons and crews who loved to eat like hell and that picked as much tomatoes as possible in summer when they fished near port, that is, the more often the better. Anyway, try. Feedback welcome. If you use basque august tomatoes, basque green medium peppers and basque onion, be ready for the treat of your life. And if you are an inveterate sissy, use fish broth instead of just water (Oh mamma!)

Well, embotar the tuna is the next step. Many of my friends use procedures that turn the house into a fishing factory. I'll offer you the simplest alternative.

Spare the ijada for the oven or the barbecue unless you have a big shot to impress.If that be the case you can embotar the ijada too. May be a good idea if you want to land a great favour or simply lick the big shot's ass. If you prefer to keep it for yourself grill it the way i told you to do. Or preserve it, as you like. So, read me again if you need to know what ijada or ventreska is, cut the rest in decent pieces and get green peppers (if you like the taste. I love it. It's more than i can stand)

You'll need olive oil, a lot, jars with a band of rubber to close the lid (the normal ones to make preserves) and a pressure cooker (pck)

Put a lot of olive oil in a pan and a green pepper. Warm just a bit. Do not fry it under any circumstance. Just warm so that the taste of the pepper goes to the oil. This is the oil that will end inside the jar. In another pan fry at medium-medium heat the chunks of tuna after having salted them, of course. This frying oil shall go down the tube. When the chunks are done and white in colour, no charred or even brown, they are ready. They have to sort of boil in oil not fry. Boil, not fry.

Once you see them done, time has come to put them in the jars. That requires a double step process. First you boil the empty jar ten minutes in the pck. That sterilizes the container. Once the container is sterilized you pour the oil, the green pepper (remember, if you like it to be the taste of the preserve) and the tuna. And now...you boil again the jar, this time as filled as possible, another 10 minutes.

If you want to be really sure of weatherproof situation, airproof situation rather, seal again the lid with melted wax, tough it is not indispensable. And that's all for today.

OOPS! The dessert. Dessert? What's all that about? Yea, one brat dared to ask you not to forget the desserts. Now, who the hell she thinks she is? She'll eat what she is told to eat, period. A cook is like a skipper. Cook after God.

Well, you think over, after all she is a woman and women are life bearers. So it is only natural that her desserts end up gracing a table full of kids, or gratifying a lover or a husband or simply helping her to seduce somebody, or as a company to a gathering. It will never be a lonely fancy or a selfish timewaster. It will go with celebration and warmth, it shall be part of life, the life women breath and carry.

Your flare abates and you invite her to watch the proceedings with the words your aunt used to address you "etorri amante"

So we are going for the simplest and the basquest of the desserts. It is the latest fashion in the BC and nobody knows how it has become such a hit. They call it "rice cake"( nothing to do with rice pudding) and every decent housewife deals with it in minutes.

Real rice cakes though are a different thing altogether. If you ever hit the BC, Bilbao, that is, at the intersection of Gran Via and Astarloa there is a confectionery called Arrese. Best rice cakes in the world. Best canutillos (we'll deal with it too), best milhojas,and best best best apple cakes. Jesus, I'm salivating like a dog.


Get a food processor and pour inside four eggs, one big cup of sugar (corn flake's size, around half a liter, sorry for the conversion) one cup (same size) of flour and one ounce of butter. To all this you add two cups(same size) of milk and brrrrrrr you let the processor mix it all. The end is kinda liquid. Dont despair, this is what is has to be, a liquid.

Get a round, almost flat mould and pour the liquid dough. It has to reach something like one inch and half height, around three fingers. Of course you rub butter in the mould to prevent the usual catastrophes. Oven at 300 Farenheit (150 C) for about one hour something, say one fifteen. Dont be impatient but keep an eye on it because every oven is different and of course every breakfast cup is different. The bigger the cup the longer the cooking. It can go from as little as 20 minutes to as long as one hour fifteen. I tend to use big bowl for corn flakes(one hour something) but my sisters tend to use smaller ones. But 300 F is the key. At 300 F you cant fail .Keep and eye on it and when the top is slightly brown, just a bit, it's done.

Kids love it. Me too. Everybody does.

So, you see, your dessert. It will take a lot of time till you do it like a Granny. And a lot of love too.

Probably both.

I wish you plenty of that.

It is sunset and the sun is just in your eyes when the brakes of a car are heard in the distance. Then it happens again. A little child pops up in front of your blinded eyes. He is in Laga running towards the dazzling sea, the shining shield of the horizon and your mom behind, scared to death, believing that you're gonna drown and screaming, screaming at you, for you are the little child that thrust towards the freedom of the bitter wind, an impossible race, the sea that you had not seen in ages, that metaphor of freedom, that wild, too distant welcome where no jesuits or dim college corridors are allowed...but suddenly mom's entreats become the shriek of death of that mother running uphill in Bermeo, her son just dead and the piercing howl has awakened you and keeps you calling, you cant stand so much hurt, what's death?

Then the itxili, the soft itxili descends upon you like a soothing blessing. Your aunt is besides you, itxili, itxili txikitxu, itxili kau, says she while she caresses your hair, ssssst. And as she smiles at you from the threshold, before swichting the light off, you feel redeemed, and fall.



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Jose A. Zorrilla
Fax 416-925-4949

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