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Basques Try Recipe for Peace

As ETA ends its battle with Spain, hope brews in a land winning fame for a unique cuisine.

July 30, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — Chef Martin Berasategui inhales the aroma from a stewing pot of squab and beef marrow. Around him, his kitchen is in a whir. One assistant dips a ladle into large tubs of creme fraiche. Another uses a tiny ruler to cut pieces of melon just so. Still another is stirring 40 gallons of monkfish.

The telephone is ringing constantly, coffee machines are grinding, steam is rising from a dozen cooktops.

These are promising moments here in the Basque Country, a hot, Michelin-starred epicurean frontier where palates are as adventuresome as politics are contentious. After nearly four decades of armed conflict between Basque separatists and the Spanish government, the region is closer to lasting peace than at any time in its history.

Western Europe's last war is, it seems, over.

And that is good news for Berasategui and others who crave normality, not to mention a renewed influx of intrepid Spanish tourists and foreign visitors to this region of northern Spain, where they might sample the dishes, such as caramelized smoked eel or squid in pepper foam, that make Basque cooking legendary.

The Basque Country was always an incongruous place for revolution. Its gently rolling hills, quaint fishing villages and spectacular sea views belie deep-seated political and ethnic anger. It is one of Spain's most prosperous areas, a place of unique gourmet cuisine, but one where the intelligentsia need bodyguards, where bombs go off at universities, and where outlawed rebel partisans give news conferences in fashionable hotels.

These days, however, people have started giving their bodyguards days off. Checking under the car for explosives is no longer a necessary habit.

Most important, the separatist group ETA has not killed anyone in three years. ETA, whose decades-long campaign of bombings, assassinations and terrorism claimed more than 800 lives, declared a permanent cease-fire nearly six months ago, and the government in Madrid is now willing to talk with it.

Berasategui, a stocky man dressed in chef's whites, yearns for a peace that is not as ephemeral as his red cabbage gelatin with liquefied chard.

"Let's hope there is no turning back," he said at the three-star restaurant that bears his name, tucked into the green hills outside San Sebastian. "This is like a tasting menu, and everyone has to do his share of the cooking."

Berasategui's reservations come from bitter experience. He and three other of the Basque region's world-renowned chefs were dragged through one of the more unsavory chapters of the conflict: the extortion of thousands of local businesspeople, allegedly by ETA members.

Law enforcement authorities contend that long after the killing ceased, demands for and payments of protection money continued. A new criminal inquiry recently led to the arrests of major Basque politicians and entrepreneurs.

Berasategui and the other chefs were questioned in late 2004 by judicial officials in Madrid about whether they had paid ETA to leave their restaurants alone. Spanish authorities maintain that extortion was ETA's most lucrative source of income, along with kidnappings. Up to a billion dollars may have been collected over the years, used to finance attacks, support fugitives and aid prisoners.

Berasategui vehemently denies the charge, saying he never paid protection money, nor did anyone ever demand it of him.

The Madrid authorities "simply went after famous people from the Basque Country," Berasategui said dismissively. "They questioned me because I was born here. It was very unjust." No charges were filed against the chefs, and the whole episode might have been put aside if the new case had not reopened old wounds.

Berasategui says the authorities are making a mistake by dredging up such cases. "We are a land that has suffered a lot," he said. "There were victims on both sides. No one is free of sin."

His unease goes straight to the kinds of questions that vex a postwar society -- what should be forgotten, what should be exposed? Where does justice end and revenge begin? What is the best way to ensure peace and promote reconciliation?

Many Basques are far more forgiving than the authorities in Madrid, saying outsiders cannot understand the things people here had to do to survive through the decades of conflict.

Negotiations between ETA and the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will focus initially on disarming the guerrillas and on the conditions of ETA prisoners in Spanish jails. ETA, which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna in the Basque language, or Basque Homeland and Freedom, has long complained bitterly about the Spanish government's policy of dispersing prisoners to jails around the country, far from their hometowns and families.

Next, the parties will have to decide whether, and how, to dig into a full plate of fundamental issues, any one of which could scupper the entire process. These include determining the political role of ETA sympathizers and overcoming mistrust.

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