Exploring the French Basque country21-06-2018
Summer in the “Pays Basque” is a magical fusion of exceptional quality produce, breath-taking panoramic views and festive, flavourful cuisine.
With its agriculture historically sculpted into small plots, exceptional climate and geography, the French Basque country boasts an extensive variety of regional produce, ranging from lamb, ham and fish, to cheeses, red peppers and cakes. The local chocolate most definitely stands out as worth a detour. Introduced into Europe by the Spanish after the Spanish Conquest of America, locals enjoy it melted in milk, and it is in Bayonne, the capital of Basque chocolate, that the finest examples are found. Chocolatier Cazenave, which also doubles as a tea shop, is one of Bayonne’s most coveted addresses. Another shining star on the food landscape would have to be red peppers from the village of Espelette in the Pyrenees, the intensity of heat and flavour of which vary substantially depending on ripeness levels. There are 12 varieties of espelette pepper grown in the region.
The Basque region has garnered an excellent reputation for its delicious, sophisticated and flavoursome cuisine. Local pork and lamb have a starring role and top the region’s rankings for most consumed meat. In the south of the region, lamb is typically served with piperade, a local speciality made with peppers, onion and tomatoes, and espelette peppers. Axoa is another typical local dish: a delicious spicy lamb and veal stew, again delicately spiced with local espelette piment. Pork is sourced from the locally bred Basque pig, the cochon-pie, which roams semi-freely and feeds on acorns. Chicken is prepared “Basque-style”, with vibrant piperade. For something sweeter, impossible to miss the famous gateau Basque, or Basque cake. Whether filled with cherry jam or pastry cream, Moulin de Bassilour serves the ultimate gateau Basque. Its origins can be traced back to Cambo-les-Bains, where pastry chef, Marianne Irigoyen sold the cake, or bixkotxak, to bathers seeking the spa town’s soothing waters, before it went on to become the favourite dessert among Basque locals.
And for that added Basque touch: l’Ossau-iraty
Basque cheese is typically made from raw sheep’s milk, and three have been awarded coveted AOC status: Ossau-iraty, Roncal and Idiazabal. The former is perhaps the most well-known, and finds its origins at the top of the Midi d’Ossau mountain in the Ossau valley and the forest of Iraty. It gained AOC status in 1980 and Protection Designation of Origin (PDO) in 2003. Locals like to eat it with black cherry jam, but it can also be served in cubes as an appetiser, as part of a cheese platter, in a salad, or even grated in sauce-based dishes. Ossau-Iraty goes particularly well with red wine from the Jura or demi-sec Champagne. But by far the best way to savour its delights would be to take a wander down the Ossau-Iraty cheese route covering areas of the Basque country and also neighbouring Bearn, where the cheese can also be produced. This is a place where unforgettable memories are made, taking in a rich gastro-treasure trove and a wide variety of tourist attractions, in the valleys and on the slopes and mountains within the zone of production. The PDO Ossau-Iraty cheese route comprises 110 stop-offs on the slopes and high valleys which are home to the local sheep. Here you can live and breathe the region’s bounty on this breath-taking route to the heart of the many splendours of the PDO Ossau-Iraty area.
When in Basque country, party like the Basques!
The most famous celebrations in the Basque country take place in Bayonne; the fifth largest festival gathering in the world. From Wednesday to Sunday, towards the end of August, the entire town dress in white, complete with red scarf, all fully intent on spreading the festival spirit. The aim is to wander throughout the streets, holding the red scarf to avoid getting lost, enjoying party after party and enjoying the food and wine in bars along the way. The revellers, or “festayres” pass through the streets from bar to bar, injecting the contagious party atmosphere at this popular, traditional, and musical celebration. And with activities including running the bulls, dancing, singing, bands, parades, concerts, tastings of local produce and children’s entertainment, there is something for everyone.