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The hearth

The concept of the hearth being at the centre of the life of the household is captured in this sentence from the end of the 16th century: Subako etxea, gorputz odol bagea (A house without a hearth is like a body without blood).

The hearth has been at the heart of home life right down to the present and was where the food was prepared. Yet this domestic heat source has evolved which has in turn affected the way of preparing and processing food.

The hearth of the home, sutondoa, supazterra, in the traditional Basque homestead was near to the entrance. It was reached, in general, from the hall or from the main door's covered lobby. It is usually just another feature of the home in the vast majority of the homesteads nowadays, but it is not difficult to imagine how it was the main one in the past. This can still be seen in farmsteads whose early structure remains intact. There are also central hearths in different regions of the Northern Basque Country (lying within France). In those cases, which seem to be the oldest ones, the hearth was in the very centre of the main room and the smoke escaped freely through the roof. A side window high up the wall would also be left open to provide ventilation.

This low stove, standing against one of the house’s load-bearing walls, was more common. In those cases, the smoke was funnelled through a range hood, which was also against the wall, up through a flue or chimney up through the roof.

Until the early 20th century, in the rural areas and even in towns, the meals were prepared on or next to the hearth or low stove: besu (Zeanuri-B), supazter (Iholdi-Ip), behekosu (Ezkio-G) or fuego de suelo [ground hearth] (Arráyoz-N).

An important element of this stove for preparing the food was the llar [fireplace hanger], lahatz (Ispoure-Ip), laratzu (Zeanuri-B), elatz (Elosua­Bergara-G), labatz (Ezkurra-N), consisting of a large chain ending in a hook hanging down from a cross bar inside the flue. The height over the fire was adjusted using the links of the chain and the hooks in the last section, which anchored the system in place. The cauldrons, galdailla, maskillu (Zeanuri-B), hertz haundia (Ispoure-Ip), were hung from the llar.

When the hearth was in the centre, without a chimney, the llar was hung from a roof beam or from a pole attached to a vertical and rotating post, placed next to the fire. That rotating fireplace hanger, gelatza (Elosua-Bergara-G), was also used in hearths against the wall.

A charcoal cooker, in different forms, was also used for kitchen duties in addition to the hearth. That cooks was called sutxiki in Bermeo (B). Its use was very widespread until cost-efficient stoves were introduced.

From the third decade of the 20th century, this ground hearth, bekosua, began to be replaced in most homes by the cost-efficient stoves, popularly known as the chapa or txapa [the metal sheet]. Fuelled by wood, charcoal, egur-ikatza, or coal, ((h)arri-ikatza), it meant fuel savings and was much easier to control the heat when cooking. They came with a small oven. Both systems were used side-by-side in many farmhouses for several decades.

From the 1960s onwards, cooking on those fireplace hearths began to fall into disuse with the spread of new fuels and energy systems, such as gas and electricity.

Wood or coal stoves began to be progressively replaced by gas, butanezko koziñe (Bermeo-B), or electric stoves, though both systems frequently coexisted in rural areas.

More sophisticated systems later came into use, such as electric ovens that automatically controlled the temperature and measured the heat inside.

Culinary culture

Even though some dishes particularly in the pastoral system have always been prepared by the shepherds themselves, women have traditionally been responsible for preparing the food at home and that culinary culture has usually been passed on down from mother to daughter. However, other sources of culinary knowledge have been added to those domestic skills down thought the last century. Before they married, many young women from rural areas worked as servants in the homes of middle-class families and learnt to cook new dishes there. The numerous cookery books have also been another source of knowledge. Nowadays, people use the many different recipe books available to discover how to make certain dishes, even popular recipes from Basque cuisine. In the past, diet was closer linked to the different traditional ways of life. Each of those lifestyles – shepherding, arable-livestock farming, fishing, urban - still have their own traits.

Food in rural areas has been more basic and the way of preparing the ingredients, according to the surveys, has barely changed over the last century, even though a greater variety of products has become available. It can also be seen that rural eating habits have to a great extent shaped food supplies in other settings, including the urban world.

Nowadays, thanks to the development of the food trade, to the proliferation of prepared and frozen food and to the widespread use of refrigerators and freezers at home, we are witnessing a shift towards a greater standardisation of eating habits regardless of the way of life.