In the 1955 the redoubtable Orson Welles had his own travel series for the BBC, Around The World With Orson Welles where he trotted the globe learning about and understanding different cultures. One of the best episodes is about the Basque region. He interviews many Basque people in the region that straddles France and Spain and none of them profess to be French or Spanish just simply Basque. My visit to Basque country was just over the border in France to a lovely seaside town called Saint Jean de Luz. It could have been 60 years ago as all the people I posed the same question to had the same answer, “I am not French or Spanish, I am Basque”
Although not unique this phenomenon is unusual. I decided to get to bottom of it and see what I could find out this beautiful part of the world that is so fervently independent of national borders, language and even prefers its own food. There are 80,000 Basque speakers yes they have their own language too.
Stain Jean de Luz is a pretty seaside town with a wide, safe sandy beach that could have been designed for families. It’s calm, has plenty of attractions and children’s clubs and is popular with British tourists. The small harbour is the centre of the sustainable fishing practiced in these parts. It is the Basque way.
The town is old, old enough to have the church that Louis XIV was married in. The centre is car free which gives it a free and easy feel there are plenty of boutique shops and many individual food specialists. Also it becomes apparent that there is such a thing as a Basque house. Shutters and external beams similar to Tudor buildings painted in the Basque colour (yes they even have their own colour) a deep russet red.
The food here is fantastic, I dined at La Reserve hotel where the Urura restaurant is run by chef Fabrice Idiat. A Basque (naturally) Fabrice concentrates on bringing out the best possible flavour from local ingredients.
The view from this hotel across the infinity pool is of the Atlantic, relaxing and beguiling in equal measure it seemed to constantly change. My duck foie gras with black garlic and oyster herbs was a real treat. The beef from the ‘Basque’ country with beer, smoked potatoes and tangy onions was superb, soft and buttery. I finished off the evening with a selection of local cheeses, a very good start to my first day in Basque country.
To get to the bottom of what makes the food from this region so special I visited a local farm, Ferme Salaberry. Open to the public in the summer months for tours it is one of only ten villages that grow the famous espelette pepper. Harvested by hand they are rich red pointed pepper is kiln dried then ground down to a powder. Used extensively in Basque dishes it gained Appellation d’origine controlee status in 2002. Traditionally the peppers were threaded on string and left outside often on the front of a house to dry. This method can still be seen in some villages.
Lunch was at the fabulous Michelin starred Hotel Ithurria restaurant. Sited in the small village of Ainhoa that boasts only 670 inhabitants but five hotels, five restaurants, two campsites and a number of private houses for rent. The food was superb, outstanding presentation and full of local flavour. The hotel is a family run business with father front of house and son in the kitchen. The village has won the ‘Most Beautiful Village” in France award which gives you an idea of what a perfect place it is to visit (and eat in)!
Food was still on my mind (although my lunch prevented me from being hungry) as I wandered up the rolling countryside at Sare where there is an experiment taking place. The local farmers are reintroducing the Basque pig, Euskal Txerri a piebald variety that nearly became extinct in 1980’s. Their ‘home’ is the side of the hill with a wooden hut for shelter. They roam a vast tract of land much as they would do in the wild and are fed and watered once a day. On my visit this seemed to produce healthy looking pigs but also very lazy and content pigs! They lounged around not really bothered by anything.
The farmers operate as a collective and only sell to individuals. The transactions are all done on line and this reduction in overheads has enabled the business to be viable once again. The pork that comes from these pigs is of the highest quality, allowing them lead a normal outdoor life certainly improves the flavour.
Another feature of this elevated beauty spot (apart from the view, which is spectacular) is the wild horses that roam the land. There are about 400 of these and 11,000 sheep. The Pottok are an ancient breed of horse that are legally protected and although you can ‘own’ one you are not allowed to remove it from the land. They are curiously small and almost tame, brown and black in colour. My visit coincided with foals everywhere so the mothers were a little more protective but you can still get quite close to these lovely animals.
I tried my hand at making a traditional (is there any other?) cake at the workshop Musée du Gâteau Basque. It was a fun lesson, which involved making our own crème patisserie and mixing and adding the characteristic Basque cross to the top of the pastry before baking. All turned out well with the guidance of the very competent and entertaining chef Alex.
A visit to any part of the Basque region would not be complete without seeing a game of Pelota the collective name for a range of ball sports that are played in just about every village where there is a wall. With two teams of two players who hit the ball with their hand, bat or a scooped basket against the wall or walls (sometimes there are two walls) it is a fast game not dissimilar to squash. The court by its very nature is open and usually has steps for seating around the edge. Inevitably there is a bar nearby and locals will gather after work or at the weekends to watch the local team play a game or practice. It’s a great game to watch but be careful as it moves very quickly and you can easily become part of the ‘play’ if you don’t move out of the way in time. It is yet another unique aspect of this compulsive breed of people. I have found myself drawn to their simplicity of food, music, countryside and style.
I mused over my day at Brouillarta restaurant in Saint Jean de Luz with some very tasty food including a fish dish that had a subtle hint of Thai to it. I wasn’t expecting this type of cooking here but it illustrates that although there is clearly a dedication to all things Basque they are also open to external ideas. The cheese course saw them back on form though as it offered local Basque fare!
On a clear day it is possible to see for miles along the coast and to the Pyrenees from the Bordagain Tower. Restored a number of years ago this 11th century building has 130 steps to climb to get to the viewing tower. It’s worth the 360-degree view even if it did make me a little out of breath!
Emanuel Poirmeur is a man of vision. Having spent many years in Europe and South America perfecting wine making methods including a stint for the distinguished Château Margot he decided to go a bit left field. Well, very left field more under water really. Owning a small vineyard growing Chardonnay in clay and flint soil he decided that traditional viniculture needed a change of approach.
So while the wine maturing process is still carried out in stainless steel containers a small amount is matured 15m under the sea at Saint Jean de Luz in plastic tanks that expand and contract. This part of the process (that can be up to three months under water) keeps the wine ‘excited’ and adds another dimension of flavour. Emanuel has more plans for aqua maturity and has patented the process. A highly passionate and interesting man I’m sure we will be hearing more from him, the wines by the way taste fantastic. He supplies over 50 Michelin starred restaurants worldwide with his ‘innovation in a traditional world’ approach to wine making. He currently makes 50,000 bottles a year but this is set to rise.
Emanuel’s cellars are on the harbour side in Cibourne, where I decided to take lunch at the Ispeguy restaurant. Renown for its seafood I started with squid, chillies and garlic. Fresh and vibrant and tasting nice and spicy I followed it with a brute of a fish (whole with the head on) and roast potatoes. The dessert was a triumph, strawberry gazpacho a simple dish of blitzed fruit, syrup and a bit of mint – truly delicious on a hot day.
I spent the afternoon visiting an engaging folly. Abbadia Castle was built by Violett-Le-Duc for Antoine d’Abbadia a Victorian explorer and scientist. And boy did he explore, covering a large part of the globe he spoke over 40 languages and spent much of his time writing books on his discoveries in his library and observing the stars from the observatory in his neo gothic pile. The interior is a jubilant celebration of his travels and eclectic tastes. Now owned by Academy of Science it is a protected building and really worth a visit.
Nearby you can visit Hendaye, the town where the 1659 treaty was signed on an island to end the war between France and Spain. A quirk of Conference Island is that it flips its nationality, six months of the year it belongs to Spain the rest of the time it is French.
The evening brought a Basque fiesta. I wasn’t sure what to expect but what I did know was to fully take part you had to wear the town’s colours, red and black. Suitably attired in a black t-shirt and a red neckerchief (these are available everywhere for the sole purpose of being worn for the fiesta) I headed into town.
It started slowly but grew and grew. Bands playing live on many street corners, restaurants offering food and drinks with Basque influences (and colours) dancing in the streets. The bars stayed open all night offering smaller bands and discos. The atmosphere was incredible – think New Years’ Eve in London but on a warm evening. I partied until late and had a wonderful time, the whole town, all ages came out to celebrate and talk to each other (and strangers like me).
My last day and I checked out of Hotel Bel-Air in Saint Jean de Luz my comfortable home for the last few days and headed up into the mountains. It was not as drastic as it sounds – I took a train. A rather special train that has been pulling itself up the 905m of de la Rhune. This rack and pinion or cog train has a rickety way about it but the scenery on the journey (about half an hour) is lovely. You get to see wildlife and great views. When you arrive at the summit you are actually in Spain! Pre euro days this was a great place for the duty free shopper to grab a bargain.
The clouds moved around the mountain at times affording us a glimpse of the sea and some blue. It is very changeable up there and you can stay as long as you like. Some braver and let’s face it fitter visitors walked up (I actually saw somebody run up)! But I would recommend the train.
My final meal in this beautiful part of the world that has yielded not only fabulous food also delightful people was to be at Txopinondo, a cider house like no other. Brewed on the premises the large vats of cider are there to sample – regularly. Let me explain. You sit down at long benches and order your food. In my case a fantastic slab of beef cooked on an open BBQ. When the patron feels like it (quite often) he shouts ‘Txotx’ which is pronounced ‘church’ this is your call to the giant barrels in the next room. One by one you take your turn as he removes the txotx (bung) from the barrel and the cider comes out like small waterfall. There is no stopping it so you have to be quick. You return to your table eat a little more and then all too soon ‘Txotx’. You probably get the idea by now. It is possible to drink a vast amount of this cider without realising it. So beware and you don’t have to go every time (as I didn’t due to my late night)!
This part of the world that will only ever be defined as Basque by the people who live here is unique, beguiling and frankly almost addictive. They have thought of everything from superb food and drink, to-die-for scenery, friendly people, their own ball games and above all an identity that sits comfortably with all who claim it. I loved this region and can highly recommend it I feel I only scratched the surface. I am looking forward to my next visit already.