Ann Baldelli. New London’s second annual Basque Festival, an all-day event on lower State Street on Saturday, is intended to provide visitors with snippets of the culture, language, food, and entertainment of the Basque people. It is organized by the New England Basque Club, which is comprised of many former jai alai players who stayed in the United States when the sport ended its approximate 25-year run in Connecticut and Rhode Island and closed its frontons in the late 1990s and early 2000.
Ander Caballero, vice president of the club, said the former players believe it is important to share their heritage and customs so others learn about the Basque people.
The Basque hail from Spain and France from areas bordering the Bay of Biscay and encompassing the western foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains.
For many years, Caballero said the club hosted its annual festival on property owned by a member, but in 2018 came to New London and received such a warm reception that they are coming back this year, and hopefully again in the future.
Their festivities will begin at 11 a.m. near the Parade Plaza and, appropriately, said Caballero, near the city’s whale tail fountain. Dating to the 1400s, the Basque people were whalers who traveled to the North and South Atlantic, among the first peoples to hunt whales commercially. On those voyages, they carried a cider made from apples that helped to ward off scurvy. A modern version of that cider will be available at the festival.
There will also be native dancers, music, paellas, and pintxos. The latter is a small finger food similar to tapas, but Caballero said “they are very elaborate, not just bread and butter.”
Between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., there will be Basque cooking demonstrations and, throughout the day, authentic Basque music, spirits, Basque wine, and competitive axe chopping and weightlifting. The festival runs until 11 p.m., and the public will be able to participate in some of the activities.
Admission is free, and food tickets are available for $30 for adults and $15 for children under 14. Adult tickets include three pintxos and one serving of paella; children’s tickets include one pintxo and one serving of paella. Advance purchase of tickets is recommended, as food tickets sold out at last year’s festival.
The Basque is a culture rich in tradition, said Caballero, with a language that pre-dates the Romance languages. The Basque food, he said, is exceptional, with one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world located in their homeland.
At the festival, club members will perform traditional Basque sports — weightlifting, stone-lifting, wood-chucking, and a tug of war, and visitors will be invited to participate in some of the activities. As for the food component, Basque chefs, some of whom work in fine restaurants in New York City, will be helping with the preparation.
“We want people to come and to see and learn about the Basque heritage and traditions,” said Caballero.