Modernizing to Preserve the Past

June 2010

Both Juan and Elena Yurrita are in their mid-thirties, from the generation that grew up in the heady years when Spain was emerging as a young democracy after the rule of Francisco Franco. The vision of these young people looks outward to new possibilities, after so many years of national isolation that was typical of Spanish life in the aftermath of the bloody Civil War of 1936-1939. 

They are a happily married couple from the Basque Country who are blessed with two daughters, Nora, 8, and Irena, 5 (almost the same age as two of our grandchildren). The Yurrita family has been involved in preparing the famous bonito del norte tuna and delicate anchovies of the Cantabrian Sea for five generations. 

Juan works with his father, Alfonso, and his Uncle Jorge who direct the family’s artisan company today; in turn, their fathers were in charge and so on – stretching back to 1867. Originally, the men of the family were fishermen who went to sea on small boats to fish in the Cantabrian Bay that borders San Sebastian and Zarautz. 

Juan’s wife Elena comes from a similar background. She also is from a family that has been fishing for many generations. Although her grandfather operated his own fishing boat, her dad broke from the mold by becoming a professional football (soccer) player. From early childhood, she loved to cook – often watching her mother and grandmother making her favorite food: delicious croquetas made of thick béchamel sauce and jamón, bacalao and other fillings. 

The parents of both Juan and Elena taught them from an early age that in the food business there is no substitute for quality ingredients, and careful attention to detail. For example, Elena’s grandmother always made their croquetas with very fresh local milk, which added an elusive richness to the final product. Juan’s family business has never cut corners: they have always used only costly extra virgin olive oil when packing their anchovies and bonito tuna. Juan explained to me that they prefer oil from the tiny Arbequina olives, whose sweet fragrant flavor provides a perfect balance for the saltiness of the anchovies. 

For centuries, even back to Biblical times, being a fisherman was a time-honored vocation, which brought a certain elemental satisfaction, even though going to sea requires long hours and sometimes dangerous work. You will know what I mean if you have ever spent some time in a fishing port, with the briny air, the hovering sea gulls and the fishermen at work maintaining their gear and repairing their boats. 

The Yurrita family is a partner to these men, receiving their fresh catch and processing it with care. They support anchovy fishermen, both young and old, who go out in their small boats from the shores of San Sebastian and Zarautz to gather their catch in a responsible manner. They make sure that the anchovies harvested are mature, and release the “small fry” back into the sea, so that these baby fish can grow to maturity, to be caught another day. For centuries, this was the wisdom of their trade, passed from father to son. For this reason the local breeding stock remained replenished. 

But in recent times fishermen with no sense of stewardship entered the long-established fishing grounds and almost ruined the traditional way of life of the local citizenry by harvesting even the little ones – highly prized by some food fanciers. Soon the famous anchovies from the Cantabrian Sea virtually disappeared, largely because these boats from outside the region used advanced sighting devices and trolling nets. 

Through technology they easily located schools of anchovies and indiscriminately harvested them, along with other creatures of the sea caught in their nets. The traditional grounds were quickly fished out. It is a familiar story – much as what has happened elsewhere with blue fin tuna in the Mediterranean, codfish from the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, and even oysters from the great Chesapeake Bay, near where I live. Juan told me that for the last four years, there were virtually no local fish. It is only this current season that they are regenerating, due to a total ban imposed over the last few years on the fishing of anchovies. 

As Juan grew up within his family business, he learned the standards of ethical fishing and careful preparation. But he noted well that the recent crisis concerning the availability of anchovies from the Cantabrian Sea could happen again, and he desired to protect his family’s well being by making them less dependent on the vagaries of fishing.

As a young man, even before the shortage of anchovies occurred, Juan heard of a unique program addressing food marketing at St Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Specialized marketing of food was a concept that was unheard of in traditional Spain. With his father’s blessing, he headed off to an educational adventure in a new land with a new language. He returned with his head full of ideas of how the family’s business could prosper and expand beyond its traditional means of supporting their extended families. 

Typical of the new Spanish vigor, Elena, his wife to be, also left her household to earn a degree in industrial engineering. Even with their added tools of higher education, Juan and Elena had no thought of striking out on their own and leaving their families for broader horizons – something their American counterparts might consider doing. Both came from traditional backgrounds, and naturally wanted to remain close to their roots; yet they prepared to meet the new demands of the 21st century, and the preservation of their family business. 

One change they recognized was the advent of quality frozen food with the entire infrastructure needed to maintain it. Related to that was the increasing pace of the mercantile culture together with the mounting number of women who entered the work force. They had the foresight to realize that there would be increased demand for quality meals for the busy professional to bring home and enjoy with minimal preparation. 

In an earlier Flavors of Spain essay, I told you of Lola León and her friends who got up early in the morning to prepare traditional sauces and soups for their fellow mothers who had to work outside the home. They created a virtual pantry, Despensa la Nuestra (Our Pantry), of handmade products so that their neighbors could still maintain the tradition of sharing a mid-day dinner with their husbands and children. Now Juan and Elena were carrying this concept one step further. They decided to bring quality prepared dishes to food lovers everywhere. 

When he studied in Philadelphia, Juan had noticed this trend among Americans. Now, with Elena, they could anticipate the demand at home. They remembered croquetas as an all time favorite of theirs and of the tapas bars throughout Spain. I remember reading an article by a Spanish food critic who said that you could judge a good restaurant by the quality of croquetas they serve. 

Therefore, four years ago the Yurrita family purchased a small building in the neighboring village of Zumaia and developed a gourmet recipe for croquetas with the help of a local Basque chef named Andoni Eduren. Next, they set to work nine local women to make all kinds of croquetas by hand, including jamón ibérico, bacalao, Cabrales cheese, mushroom, tuna, and piquillo pepper. Their most remarkable creation is made from chopped mussel mixed into béchamel sauce, and returned to its shell. Then it is sprinkled with fine crumbs before deep fat frying. It is extraordinarily good when served piping hot.

Juan explained to me that there is no deep dark secret to the making of great croquetas. As with any fine cooking, however humble the item, you do not compromise with any of the ingredients and you make them with patience and care. Each morning absolutely fresh milk is delivered from a friend’s dairy farm who has a herd of 80 cows. The chef mixes the milk with fresh fine flour and extra virgin olive oil from Toledo. The fish and seafood added are fresh from the ocean; the Cabrales cheese comes from neighboring Asturias -- freshness is the watchword. The ladies form the croquetas with care, just as they would in their own homes and fry them at the proper heat. Next they are chilled, frozen and are on their way to tables in Spain and America! It is as simple as that. 

One of the wonderful things about the world in which we live is that through technology and commercial infrastructure we actually can have on our plates in America the same piping hot croquetas enjoyed in the homes of the Basque Country. By doing so we support families who choose not to blindly industrialize, but rather to use modern technology to preserve their time-honored cuisine.