Attack of the Mortzillas 

Volunteers make thousands of Basque blood sausages for annual dinner

Every November the smell of beef blood, onions and leeks wafts out from the Basque Center, covering a several-block radius. It seeps into the clothes and clings to the skin of the dozens of volunteers who spend days making thousands of mortzillas, or Basque blood sausages, in the center's basement on Grove Street.

"It's the one event when you go home and can smell it on your pillow," former Euzkaldunak board member Ysabel Bilbao said.

Making mortzillas (pronounced mor-cee-ahs) is typically a special occasion. In some Basque villages, farmers recruit neighbors to help slaughter a pig. They collect the blood and spend the day making sausages and eating various parts of the pig.

"We would walk around and take it to neighbors," said Benedicto Goitiandia, who has grown vegetables for the dinner for decades.

Volunteers started collecting the ingredients for the annual mortzilla dinner at the Basque Center on Oct. 30 at Goitiandia's farm. They picked thousands of leeks, pulled up even more onions, collected parsley and readied the entire haul to be brought downtown.

On Oct. 31, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., they cooked down the onions and leeks in huge stock pots until they were tender. Beef blood was added to the mixture along with parsley, oregano, garlic, black pepper and other spices and herbs--it's the same recipe Goitiandia's family used when he was growing up in the Basque country.

The mixture was then stuffed in sausage casings and boiled two days before the event. Cooks checked the sausages by sticking a toothpick in them: If there was blood on the toothpick when it came out, the sausages needed to cook more. The thick, black links were then hung from wooden racks suspended from tables in the basement. Little pools of fat collected below.

By Nov. 2, volunteers were ready to vacuum package the mortzillas.

The sausages were stark black against the white plate on which they were served, Nov. 3 at Euzkaldunak's annual event.

For newcomers, a plate like this can be intimidating. Pleas and entreaties from friends and family coaxing unwilling eaters to take a bite echoed around the room.

Some longtime residents and fervent mortzilla eaters have to make separate arrangements for family members who don't partake. For a few kids this includes a pre-dinner stop at McDonald's.

Other families require an almost quarantine-like approach; showers before coming home and separate hampers to keep the tainted clothing from contaminating anything else. But for many it just takes getting used to.

"My kids all used to look at it and say, 'Yucky!'" said Simon Achabal, who has been an integral part of the dinner since the 1960s. "I have three daughters, and now they all taste it."

Mortzillas don't win over a lot first-timers, but the blood sausages draw visitors from hundreds of miles away.

All told, volunteers made nearly 3,000 mortzillas--some of which were sold after the dinner that served at least 300 people.

The rest of the menu changes annually and is created by whomever is in charge that particular year. This time, offerings included meatballs, cod in piperade sauce, garbanzo beans and chorizo, and pumpkin pie.

The dinner--which is followed by a massive game of bingo--is steeped in tradition. It's been going on at the Basque Center for decades and is tied to historic events in Basque villages throughout Spain.

Fermin Bilbao remembers a three-day festival for Saint Martin in his home village of Arrieta in the province of Biscay. Friends and family would travel to the small village to revel in food and drink, including mortzillas. People would start their day with mass, then head out to drink and dance in the streets. In the afternoon everyone would go home to eat a big meal before heading out for more drinking and dancing, he said.

The money raised from the mortzilla dinner is used to pay for grants and scholarships administered by Euzkaldunak's members.

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