BASQUE IN GLORY

The Chopping Block’s Basque Friday review: “A thoughtful menu in an intimate setting”

On the last Friday of every month, The Chopping Block, a restaurant owned by Melton’s proprietor Michael Hjort, serves a set menu based around a specific regional cuisine. Coinciding with the York Food Festival, The Chopping Block served their Basque meal on Friday 27th, above the Walmgate Ale House downstairs.

Basque people have unique customs, their own language, cuisine, culture, and beliefs: despite this, the region is relatively unknown. Basque Country straddles the French–Spanish border, and is part Autonomous Community, part Spanish, and part French: recent memory has seen violent separatist terrorism in the region carried out by ETA, who are a group roughly akin to the IRA in terms of formation and tactics. Recently, after years of broken ceasefires, ETA very kindly agreed to bugger off once and for all, leaving Basque people in peace, but more importantly, one piece. Basque cuisine is, speaking in general enough terms to fit into one line, simple, traditional, and unfussy, with a focus on good quality produce, particularly seafood and grilled meats.

The menu was a four course set meal, all for the extremely reasonable (given the standard of cooking) price of £27.50. Maybe that might make your eyes water a bit if you’re of a more thrifty disposition, but if you only go once, or even once a month, it’s well worth it: experiencing less known cuisines is a real joy. The first course was pintxos, the northern Spanish equivalent of tapas: this consisted of some delicate bacalao (salt cod), with sweet red peppers, tomatoes, and jamón serrano (Spanish ham). The dish was a modern and well-balanced take on pintxos: bread was served on the side, though, so it was something of a deconstructed pintxo–not a single skewer in sight. Towards the end of the 20th Century, the rise of nouvelle cuisine in France (undoubtedly the greatest culture war of all time, move over Gamergate) spilled over into Basque cuisine, and pintxos became increasingly subject to modernisation: Hjort’s first course was modern enough to be comfortable in one of San Sebastián’s trendy eateries– regrettably, when I opened my eyes, I was still in York.

The second course was, as is tradition, seafood: the Basque speciality txipirones consists of baby squid coated in a thick sauce of their own ink, and topped with some lightly fried onions. Whilst I am ambivalent about squid, this was a highly traditional and properly executed staple of Basque cuisine: personally though, squid served in their own business is not my favourite preparation of calamari. Having said that, the squid was tender, and the sauce, though thick and deepest black, was very mild, and as you would expect, a real hit of the sea. The squid in txipirones are usually seared and then poached in a sauce of white wine, vegetables, and ink. In terms of authenticity, you can’t beat it: it’s like licking a Basque fisherman’s face. Take from that whatever you will. The Chopping Block’s intention is clearly to present traditional cuisines and to pay respect to the unique culinary culture and ingredients.

The main course was a Lazcano-style (Lazkao/Lazcano is a town in Basque Country) chicken ballotine, stuffed with apple, chestnut, and bacon, in a deliciously rich gravy, with potatoes and seasonal vegetables. I was surprised that the chef didn’t go for chicken Basquaise, the famed and traditional one-pot Basque dish, but the omnipresent ballotine is undeniably a more upmarket way to serve chicken, and I understand Hjort’s desire to shy away from predictability. Sweet apple, salty pancetta, and earthy chestnut makes for a lovely stuffing, and again, the cooking was very thoughtful. We asked for a brief break before pudding–one of the downsides of set menus is that food tends to get rushed out somewhat–which was Gâteau Basque, the traditional cake from the French side of Basque Country. The cake’s filling was almond and cherry, and came with two very light whipped creams–one sweet, one cherry. Almond cake can often be overpowering, giving one the sense that you are a step away from nibbling at a block of marzipan, but the Gâteau Basque was very light, with a lovely hint of sweetness from the cherries.

“…but the Gâteau Basque was very light, with a lovely hint of sweetness from the cherries.”

Service was fairly rapid, but friendly, and the rooms upstairs in The Chopping Block are pleasant. We did, however, notice some water sprinkling onto us from above between the main course and pudding: one can only imagine that the steam from the open kitchen creates small clouds, and that the occasional rain shower must therefore be expected.

The Last Friday Club’s Basque night was a thoughtful menu in an intimate setting, cooked by a team who evidently care about the ingredients they are using, and the culinary culture they are working within. I feel confident that both The Chopping Block’s à la carte menu, their events, and other Last Friday Club meals are all equally well-executed, thoughtful, and respectful, and look forward to visiting again. After four courses of Basque food, I went on to meet a friend for a couple of drinks for his birthday, then went further on to meet some pals in a church (who had just finished a Ceilidh), where I was offered (and graciously accepted) a delicious steak and ale pie prepared by the York Butcher’s Guild, and indulged in a few more glasses of vino until evening gave way to the early hours. What an unusual and pleasant night.