Basque ethnography at a glance


Leire Ibarrola. Izoria (Álava), 2023-04-03. Photo credit: Fernando Hualde.

Talking about traditional cheesemaking from an ethnographic standpoint subliminally brings to mind the picture of a shepherd in his hut pressing the curd into a wooden mould to extract as much whey as possible; that was at least the typical image mentioned in Gorbea, Aralar, Urbasa, Irati… and with good reason.

However, it should be noted that that was not the same everywhere. If our land is noted for something – and which makes us clearly stand out from other regions and other geographical areas – is that when it comes to analysing the methods and tools that our forebears used to make cheese, we discover that we here boasted a variety and wealth ethnographically speaking that was not found to such a diverse extent elsewhere. We just have to look at the moulds for draining the curd that were used in the past; they were made from wood (with and without a bottom, with a fixed or adjustable rim, made out of chestnut, beech, birch, etc.), ceramic, tin, wicker… (more…)

Source: Pedra stone design projects.

Time was marked by the sun in the rural world. Country folk had no need for a clock and hardly ever used one. Religious festivities marked the work calendar on the land, in the fields.  The festivities were related to the harvests, the end of tasks such as threshing, harvesting grapes and other produce…

Some festivities celebrated the universal saints (John, Peter, Michael, Mark) and the origin of others dated back to specific points in time (St. Anthony the Abbot, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Ignatius of Loyola); there were also the major festivities celebrated by everyone (Easter Sunday, Assumption of Mary, St. Joseph’s Day, All Saints) or local saint’s days (Bartholomew, Blaise, Marina). Some of them set the rhythm of the agriculture work.


Painting by José Arrue. Photo: Juantxo Egaña.

There are times when the smallest detail has much to tell. That is the case of a frieze that José Arrue painted for Bilbao Yacht Club in 1919, which was on the first floor of the Arriaga Theatre at that time. It is now owned by Iberdrola and is kept, along with other works of art, in its iconic Tower.

Well, one of the five fragments of the frieze shows a young girl preparing a lemonade frappe – a typical alcoholic beverage in Basque festivities of the past – to be served to visiting dignitaries. The young girl is depicted with her shirt sleeves rolled up and that is what is remarkable in this particular case.


Zahagi dantza in Zestoa. Photo: Zestoa archive photo.

Wine and the skins used to transport it are a common feature of the country’s festivities. The wineskin gave its name of dances and routes (edate dantza), and is a feature of sung dances or at the centre of the festive celebrations of young people (zaragi mutilek, mutil ardoak, eskotekoak, etc.) where the wineskins are passed around and are the usual way to invite the revellers to drink wine. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to think of the skin inflated with air and drained of wine as a symbol to tell the community that the festive revelry has come to an end and it is time to return to the daily chore.