Remnants of the past: Sheepherders’ ovens part of rich Basque history

Wheeler Sheep Camp Basque oven at Kyburz Flat Interpretive Site. | Priya Hutner

Tucked away off the beaten path are the remnants of a Basque sheepherders’ camp. One early evening just before sunset, I set out to find a Basque oven with Nicole Dreon, a local photographer and writer.

Dreon’s friend, Kimmie Bennett, met us in Russell Valley to show us where the oven was located. We drove down Dog Valley Road, turned off a dirt road and parked. I gazed out on a beautiful meadow where the remains of an old sheepherders’ cabin, sheep pen and a large oven stood. The dome-structured oven made from brick and stone was quite large — big enough in which to cook an entire sheep. I peered into the opening of the oven and wondered what it would be like to cook in this type of oven.

As I looked out across the valley, I pondered what it must have been like to live here 150 years ago. Even to this day, Russell Valley reminds me of a bygone era. I realized this was an entirely different oven than the one I thought I was going to. Dreon and I returned to the car and drove to Kyburz Flat Interpretive Site. We stopped at the restroom directly across from the petroglyphs and looked at the map. We turned left and drove along a bumpy dirt road for about 1 mile when we arrived at the Wheeler Sheep Camp. The oven was built in the late 1920s. It was bigger than the one in Russell Valley and sat in the middle of the forest on the meadow’s edge.

The dome-structured oven made from brick and stone was quite large — definitely big enough in which to cook an entire sheep.

The camp, established around 1927, was managed by John Martin Gullies, a Basque immigrant. The ovens were used for baking bread and preparing stews. There are several picnic tables in the area and the oven can be reserved through the U.S. Forest Service. I want to reserve the oven and return to prepare a Basque feast.

The Basque are from a region between France and Spain, near the Pyrenees Mountains and the Bay of Biscay. In the late 19th Century, many Basque sheepherders migrated to the West. They built ovens to prepare meals while tending to their flock. They mostly ate lamb and prepared bread cooked in a Dutch oven.

It turns out that there are several Basque ovens located in the region. The Whiskey Creek Basque sheep camp is located 4 miles from the Five Lakes trailhead in Alpine Meadows. There is another Basque oven at Page Meadows on the West Shore and the Alpine County Museum in Markleeville features a Basque oven.

Intrigued by Basque cuisine, I started exploring recipes. Some traditional Basque dishes include Bacalao al pil pil, cod fried with garlic, olive oil and chili; Bacalao a la Vizcaina, cod prepared with red onion, garlic and choricero pepper purée; Chicken Basquaise, prepared with peppers, and Zikiro, barbecued lamb served with flageolet beans. Pork and veal are also used in Basque cooking as well as eel, mussels and squid.

Desserts include Gâteau Basque, a buttery almond-flavored cake with pastry cream for a beautiful contrast of crumbly and creamy layers. Goxua is a dessert that begins with a base of whipped cream, followed by a layer of airy sponge cake topped off with a dollop of caramelized custard. The hard-to-pronounce, Intxaursaltsa, a traditional dessert made from nuts and milk, is similar to custard.

Read Mark McLaughlin’s story on the Kyburz Flat Interpretive Site

There are several Basque restaurants located in Nevada in Reno, Carson City and Gardnerville that prepare traditional Basque food. I plan to venture out to a Basque restaurant to enjoy a traditional Basque meal. Then I’ll attempt to recreate a recipe in a Basque oven. I’ll share my experience in a future story.

If you have a traditional Basque family recipe to share with me or are open to cooking it with me, email me at

While exploring the local trails, keep an eye out for arborglphys, or cavings, on aspen trees made by Basque sheepherders. Read Tim Hauserman’s story on local arborglphys at