Chef Martin Berasategui inhales the aroma from a stewing pot of squab and beef marrow. Around him, his kitchen is in a whir. One assistant dips a ladle into large tubs of creme fraiche. Another uses a tiny ruler to cut pieces of melon just so. Still another is stirring 40 gallons of monkfish.
The telephone is ringing constantly, coffee machines are grinding, steam is rising from a dozen cooktops.
These are promising moments here in the Basque Country, a hot, Michelin-starred epicurean frontier where palates are as adventuresome as politics are contentious. After nearly four decades of armed conflict between Basque separatists and the Spanish government, the region is closer to lasting peace than at any time in its history.
Western Europe's last war is, it seems, over.
And that is good news for Berasategui and others who crave normality, not to mention a renewed influx of intrepid Spanish tourists and foreign visitors to this region of northern Spain, where they might sample the dishes, such as caramelized smoked eel or squid in pepper foam, that make Basque cooking legendary.
The Basque Country was always an incongruous place for revolution. Its gently rolling hills, quaint fishing villages and spectacular sea views belie deep-seated political and ethnic anger. It is one of Spain's most prosperous areas, a place of unique gourmet cuisine, but one where the intelligentsia need bodyguards, where bombs go off at universities, and where outlawed rebel partisans give news conferences in fashionable hotels.
These days, however, people have started giving their bodyguards days off. Checking under the car for explosives is no longer a necessary habit.
Most important, the separatist group ETA has not killed anyone in three years. ETA, whose decades-long campaign of bombings, assassinations and terrorism claimed more than 800 lives, declared a permanent cease-fire nearly six months ago, and the government in Madrid is now willing to talk with it.
Berasategui, a stocky man dressed in chef's whites, yearns for a peace that is not as ephemeral as his red cabbage gelatin with liquefied chard.
"Let's hope there is no turning back," he said at the three-star restaurant that bears his name, tucked into the green hills outside San Sebastian. "This is like a tasting menu, and everyone has to do his share of the cooking."
Berasategui's reservations come from bitter experience. He and three other of the Basque region's world-renowned chefs were dragged through one of the more unsavory chapters of the conflict: the extortion of thousands of local businesspeople, allegedly by ETA members.
Law enforcement authorities contend that long after the killing ceased, demands for and payments of protection money continued. A new criminal inquiry recently led to the arrests of major Basque politicians and entrepreneurs.
Berasategui and the other chefs were questioned in late 2004 by judicial officials in Madrid about whether they had paid ETA to leave their restaurants alone. Spanish authorities maintain that extortion was ETA's most lucrative source of income, along with kidnappings. Up to a billion dollars may have been collected over the years, used to finance attacks, support fugitives and aid prisoners.
Berasategui vehemently denies the charge, saying he never paid protection money, nor did anyone ever demand it of him.
The Madrid authorities "simply went after famous people from the Basque Country," Berasategui said dismissively. "They questioned me because I was born here. It was very unjust." No charges were filed against the chefs, and the whole episode might have been put aside if the new case had not reopened old wounds.
Berasategui says the authorities are making a mistake by dredging up such cases. "We are a land that has suffered a lot," he said. "There were victims on both sides. No one is free of sin."
His unease goes straight to the kinds of questions that vex a postwar society -- what should be forgotten, what should be exposed? Where does justice end and revenge begin? What is the best way to ensure peace and promote reconciliation?
Many Basques are far more forgiving than the authorities in Madrid, saying outsiders cannot understand the things people here had to do to survive through the decades of conflict.
Negotiations between ETA and the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will focus initially on disarming the guerrillas and on the conditions of ETA prisoners in Spanish jails. ETA, which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna in the Basque language, or Basque Homeland and Freedom, has long complained bitterly about the Spanish government's policy of dispersing prisoners to jails around the country, far from their hometowns and families.
Next, the parties will have to decide whether, and how, to dig into a full plate of fundamental issues, any one of which could scupper the entire process. These include determining the political role of ETA sympathizers and overcoming mistrust.
A bigger task will be envisioning the structure of a Basque state. How much self-determination should be granted? How much loyalty to Madrid should be demanded?
There are numerous reasons for ETA's decision to quit armed conflict now. The separatist movement, launched during the harsh years of the Franco dictatorship, when regional and ethnic differences were brutally repressed, now faces a modern, vibrant Spain that is a full member of international organizations such as NATO and the European Union, and allows considerable regional autonomy.
People were exhausted by the warfare, ETA was not making political gains and the new government in Madrid was flexible enough to negotiate. Furthermore, the guerrillas were seriously weakened by police crackdowns under the previous conservative government that had the cooperation of France, a traditional refuge of ETA forces.
And perhaps most important, on March 11, 2004, deadly attacks on Madrid's train system by Islamic militants left 191 people dead, ending much tolerance for armed struggle.
The attacks "put them in front of a mirror and showed them what violence can provoke," said Paul Rios, general coordinator of Lokarri, a civil rights organization active in the Basque region. "It made them open their eyes."
The Basques are considered the oldest community in Europe, a people of somewhat mysterious origin who fiercely guard their traditions, and, among some, a kind of ethnic purity. Verdant hills are dotted with remote stone farmhouses. In the cities, insular neighborhoods fly the red-and-green Basque flag, and the cluckety sound of the unique Basque language, Euskera, drifts from homes and cafes.
But after decades of conflict, the Basque Country is divided, with viewpoints including pro- and anti-nationalism and total pacifism. Some of its 2.5 million residents identify themselves as Basque first, Spanish second -- or vice versa. Or one wholly and not the other.
Increasingly, however, a hard-edged pragmatism is taking hold. Basques enjoy a good amount of autonomy; they have their own police force, teach Euskera in schools and are allowed to levy taxes.
"We identify ourselves as Basques," said Txema Montero, a nationalist attorney in Bilbao who once served as an advisor to ETA but broke with the group over its insistence on violence. "But we also want to be part of Europe."
On the March afternoon that ETA declared its truce, Ignacio Latierro, a writer and book dealer, asked the authorities whether he could finally shed his bodyguards. "They told me, not yet -- just in case," he recalled.
A veteran activist, Latierro runs the popular Lagun Bookstore here in San Sebastian and has long fought what he describes as the tyrannies of the Franco dictatorship and ETA terrorism. The former landed him in prison in the 1960s and 70s. And he blames the latter for repeated vandalism of his bookstore, an attack on his business partner's husband and the slaying of a longtime associate, Jose Luis Lopez de Lacalle, an outspoken newspaper columnist.
And that's why two armed men accompany Latierro on his way to and from work and as he makes his rounds in this city on the Bay of Biscay. For all the trouble, however, Latierro, 63, with wavy silver hair, is hopeful that the war may finally be over.
"Objectively speaking, we are living in a different season," he said at his bookstore, under the shadow of San Sebastian's Good Shepherd Cathedral. "But I still do not dare to be categorical. Even among those most convinced that we are at a historic moment, there is a reservoir of bitterness."
And among youths who grew up on revolution and on the dream of achieving an independent homeland through armed struggle, integration into a peaceful society will be especially problematic. Older generations of fighters underwent political and military training, but younger ones have learned only how to use guns and bombs, accentuating their potential to become even more radical, analysts say.
"It is one thing to paralyze the violence and another thing to change the mentality and the culture," said Jose Manuel Mata, dean of social sciences at the University of the Basque Country near Bilbao, a school that has lost a dozen or so professors fleeing violence in recent years. Near Mata's office is an elevator where a bomb failed to detonate a few years ago, one of a number of incidents that led to police protection for the dean.
Pro-ETA youths "are used to acting as though pressure on the street counts above all institutions," Mata said. "This is a serious problem of socialization that cannot change overnight."
Few Basques are holding out much hope for reconciliation among opponents, the differences too great and the proximity too intimate. In this relatively small corner of the world, people know one another, and they remember the slights and injustices. They remember who was killed where and when.
That intimacy served as a kind of social control and helped prevent all-out civil war, Montero, the Bilbao attorney, said. But deep memories also impede reconciliation.
Still, changes are brewing.
The tough bars in San Sebastian's Old Quarter, where money is being openly raised for ETA, still display pictures of prisoners. But they are friendlier places, on a recent evening full of families and crowds who shared drinks and watched a World Cup soccer semifinals match.
At his restaurant, Berasategui and his staff are preparing for a bumper year. Authorities say tourism is up substantially since the truce was announced, and there are plans to expand San Sebastian's tiny airport.
Berasategui is placing a couple of new items on his menu: a grilled foie gras and a dessert of coffee ice cream with whiskey ice.
"In the Basque Country, before we learn to walk, we learn to cook," he said, with a rare smile.
"We are a country with spark, living historic moments. If all sides would just leave us alone."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A long war
After a nearly 40-year battle with the Spanish government that took the lives of more than 800 people, the Basque separatist group ETA has declared a permanent cease-fire.
Who are the Basques?
* Basques are an ancient ethnic group in Spain and France.
* The majority, about 2.5 million, live in Spain.
* Most are Roman Catholic.
* Basques were traditionally fishermen, farmers and shepherds, but industrialization has altered their way of life.
* A referendum in 1979 established the Basque autonomous region, with its own police force and education and healthcare systems.
1959: ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, meaning Basque homeland and freedom) is founded.
1973: Car bomb kills Prime Minister Admiral Luis Blanco in Madrid, thought to be a retaliation for execution of ETA members.
1980: ETA killings claim 118 lives in bloodiest year.
1997: ETA kills a Basque councilor in July; 6 million Spaniards protest the slaying.
1998-99: A peace effort and cease-fire end in November 1999; ETA blames Spanish government for a lack of progress.
2001: Car bombings and assassinations continue; European Union declares ETA a terrorist organiazation.
2006: ETA declares a 'permanent cease-fire.'
Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, BBC, CBC