The annual San Inazio Festival brings together Idaho’s Basque community for traditional dishes, dancing, and a good old-fashioned trailing of the sheep.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola likely never expected to be revered in Boise, Idaho, of all places, more than 6,000 miles from his birthplace in Spain’s Basque province of Gipuzkoa. Then again, most would not expect the largest Basque community outside of the Basque Country (Euskadi), which straddles France and Spain, to call Idaho’s capital city home.
Each summer at the end of July, thousands of people flood downtown Boise’s famous Basque Block during the San Inazio Festival to honor Saint Ignatius and fête the rich Basque history and culture embedded in the city. The celebration has been hosted in Boise for nearly 70 years and is a manifestation of the heart of Basque culture: music, dancing, and food.
Accordion tunes pervade the streets, fostering a jolly atmosphere that is heightened by Boise’s own Oinkari troupe (Basque for “dancers”), who have dazzled audiences with traditional Basque dances since the 1960s. With each dance, the clapping and chanting of onlookers amplify despite the sweltering late summer heat of southern Idaho’s high desert.
Their enthusiasm, in part, is thanks to dozens of vendors serving traditional Basque beverages, such as kalimotxo, a blend of red wine and cola served on the rocks. It packs a sweet, tongue-tickling punch with a complementary lingering tartness from the red wine. The beverage is especially popular among festival-goers trying to beat the heat during the day, along with a slushy white wine sangria that is supplemented with mixed berries.
Still, the show is stolen by the many traditional Basque foods dished out during the festival, including croquetas, made by Jesús Alcelay, head chef at the Basque Center. The bite-sized treat melts in your mouth with a rich, creamy flavor and crispy deep-fried breading. A thick béchamel white sauce mixed with chicken, pork, ham, fish, cheese, or vegetables gives the French-inspired favorite a variety of distinct Basque flavors depending on the filling. The dish is influenced by the prominence of cured meats, fresh fish from the Bay of Biscayne, and the agriculture of Euskadi.
Thousands of Basque chorizos filled with minced pork, paprika, garlic, salt, and other spices are also sold during the festival. After hanging them to dry, Alcelay deep-fries the chorizos before stuffing them in a submarine roll, their spicy flavor serving as a natural pairing with creamy croquetas.
Down the street, just outside the Basque Market, owner Tony Eiguren prepares paella (see recipe here) on the store’s patio, luring diners with an irresistible aroma before captivating them with the colorful explosion of ingredients in the massive 5-foot-wide pan. Each batch yields about 200 servings of paella, a rice dish consisting of Valencia rice, mussels, shrimp, chorizo, vegetables, chicken, garlic, and a host of other ingredients. Like many dishes, paella was adapted from Spanish culture before being molded into a Basque favorite through regional customs and personal preferences.
“It’s beautiful, and it makes the meal an event,” Eiguren says. Within 20 minutes, the heaping pan of paella is reduced to scraps, and Eiguren begins prepping to repeat the process.
Over the course of a normal three-day festival, Eiguren makes about 800 servings of paella while Alcelay fries about 25,000 croquetas and thousands of chorizos — only a drop in the bucket compared to the 110,000 croquetas and 6,000 servings of paella they will make for the official Jaialdi in 2020. Quinquennial festivals, called jaialdi (Basque for “festival”), are larger celebrations that occur every five years and attract upward of 35,000 visitors from all over the world to Boise.
“Every five years the festival changes names and takes steroids,” says Eiguren, who has participated in the festival in some capacity all 47 years of his life, including a stint as a member of Oinkari.
Alcelay and Eiguren spend months preparing for the festival — even in non-jaialdi years — to ensure there are enough Basque treats for everyone. That could be due to Boise’s large Basque population of about 18,000, but Alcelay believes it’s much simpler.
“We became the best cooks in the world, and I can say that because the Basque people have the most Michelin stars,” he says, referring to the popular award given to outstanding restaurants around the world. The Basque Country boasts 28 Michelin stars, including 16 in San Sebastián, the most per square meter of any city in the world. Alcelay has firsthand knowledge of this. He began his career in the culinary hotbed after growing up in the nearby town of Oñati.
To Eiguren, Alcelay, and thousands of other Basques living in Boise, the San Inazio Festival offers a slice of home that can’t be found anywhere else outside the seven Basque provinces.
“It’s very important to me because that is one way that the diaspora of the Basque people in America can get all together in one place, which is Boise,” says Alcelay, who has spent the last 42 years in Boise after being raised in Saint Ignatius’ home province of Gipuzkoa.
“The festival allows people to learn, meet, and share friendships. The culture unites people here in the States and throughout the world,” Eiguren adds. “Come ready to eat, drink, and be Basque!”
Photography: Drew Dodson, Shutterstock
From the May/June 2019 issue.