Sunday, February 22, 2009

Europe: Our Halcyon stay in Pays Basque, France (Days 1 and 2)

NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of articles concerning my Europe trip. See below for links to the previous articles:



More Barcelona

Zaragoza: Part 1

Zaragoza: Part 2 (Tapas!)

Zaragoza: Videos

San Sebastian (Pinxtos)

I was sorry to see Spain dwindling in the back window of the car as Jean Michelle (Sylvie's dapper and kind husband) whisked us on the motorway out of Spain to the Pays Basque region of France, to stay in their country house in the rural village of Urrugne. However, I realized I wouldn't miss Spain that much. From the back porch of their house, one could clearly see a lighthouse which, I was told, was on Spanish soil. In fact later on in our stay with them we would take a 5 minute ferry ride to get accross the harbor into Spain.

That night, we settled our weary bones into the house. As dinner approached, Jean-Michelle (JM) invited us into the living room for some saucisson and scotch. I wasn't going to argue.


Above, Kyle and JM chat amiably. My conversations with JM were always extremely enjoyable; he speaks a little English and a little Spanish. I speak a little Spanish, so we could chat well enough, but more often than not Sylvie served as a translator.


The saucisson, of course, was delicious. I should mention, before I get any further in this narrative, that Sylvie is one of the most amazing cooks and gourmands I have ever met. She is an effortless host and chef, and I did not have a meal with them that was anything less than amazing. Most of them, in fact were well abnove the level of amazing: they were awe inspiring.


For dinner, she just "whipped up something simple"- one of the most delectable quiche lorraine I have ever had. Rich with egg, ham and cheese, in a delicate flaky crust, it made me realize that this trip was going to be an immense pleasure. I went to bed that night profoundly happy, and slept the deep sleep of the dead- or at least sedated by food.

The next morning I woke up early, with the sun- a habit of mine since early childhood. I walked out of the house with the dog Hugo to go for a walk. I met their donkey, Pepieu (peh-PEW) in the yard. He couldn't join us.


Their house, as you can tell, is gorgeous.


Hugo was kind enough to blaze the trail for me; running ahead and looking back periodically. He was a splendid travel guide as he led me through the sheep fields, up to the top of the hill on which Sylvie and JM have the great fortune to live.


The view from the top was simply amazing. The house on the far right was where I stayed. On the far left, you can see the Spanish shoreline. Pays Basque was an amazingly beautiful place, and my morning walk with Hugo (and in later days with Kyle and Tyrone) would have been the highlight of my day, if Sylvie and JM did not also do all possible to show us even more wonders of their corner of France.


I arrived back to see Tyrone and Kyle digging in to toast and coffee. the bread here was amazing, and the toast, with that rich, creamy French butter, was a revelation of simplicity. Their kitchen, with its big window, let in those sun beams which seemed to warm the body and the soul.

Over breakfast, we discussed our itinerary for the day, In the morning, we would go to the seaside resort town of St Jean de Luz, and then return to the house for lunch. After lunch, Sylvie and JM would take us to Biarrtiz, and then we would return for dinner. It sounded like a plan!


Kyle piloted us expertly along the French roads to St Jean de Luz. He had, it must be said, a lot of fun driving. We stopped in the outskirts at a a bakery. Sylvie would later joke that I visited every bakery in France.

Bakeries are some of my favorite places- I love the smell, the warmth, the atmosphere. The beautiful round boules, the crusy baguettes and most of all, the pastries.


This is a mini apricot croissant.


An amazingly good chocolate and almond croissant.


One of the most amazing things about Europe-I mean, besides the foreign language signs that look silly- are the pedestrian only shopping roads. This is an amazing thing, that makes shopping so much more pleasant. Over our trip, we strolled along more of these wonderful trails than I can remember. Every major city had one.


We walked to the seaside, where we got a crepe with nutella. I am obsessed with crepes, and nutella.


The city was filled with beautiful views of the sea, through the gorgeous condos.

We arrived back at the house in time for lunch. I should mention here that after every meal, we brought out the cheese plate. One of my favorite parts of my days in France was acquiring new cheeses to try. At the front we have some emmental. Working clockwise, the orange one is a fermier, then a basque shepherds cheese, then a goat brie.

The cheese was served on some of the delicious local baguettes, which had great crust and good chew.


For lunch, Sylvie whipper us up another "simple" meal of chicken a la roquefort (chicken with a roquefort sauce) and some tagliatelli noodles. Of course, it was delectable.


The cheesy roquefort sauce coated the tagliatelli perfectly, and the creaminess of the sauce was great with the chicken, which she first sauteed and then stewed in its own juices with the cheese.

After lunch, we all piled into the car to go to the coastal town of Biarrtiz.


Biarritz is a resort town, full of fancy hotels, casinos and beautiful architecture. As you can see, they even had a carousel!


We spent a pleasant 3 or 4 hours walking around the windswept town, looking at the nautical facets of the town, as well as its gorgeous cathedral and grand houses.


Many of those houses commanded noble views, from which the lucky owner could examine the whole sweep of the French coastline. The coastline in the far background of the above picture is actually Spain. As pleasant as it was walking around though, we decided to take a respite in a tea shop.


We stopped at the beautiful Miremont patisserie, where we got some hot chocolate and a pastry.


The pastry was like, almond and pistachio. It was REALLY amazing though.


For dinner, Sylvie made is a traditional Basque dinner, often done by families. Essentially, she whipped up a batch of batter, somewhere between pancakes and crepes. Jean Michelle ladled these out onto an electric hotplate with 6 indentations, where the crepes cooked. Each person then flipped over the crepe, and then added toppings.


As you can see, the indentations formed little pancakes with a radius of about 3 inches.

My favorite way to make them was to flip them over, and then crack a quail egg onto the hotly flipped edge. The heat cooks the egg slightly, and then one adds some ham and cheese. The egg only slightly coagulates.


That was far from the only way to make them though. Sylvie had prepared a huge assortment of toppings. Another favorite of mine was salmon and creme fraiche.


I also tried some with egg and morcilla sausage, which we fried up on the burners.


As you can see, the cheese plate was gradually getting larger, larger and larger. Some additions included membrillo (quince paste), robuchon and a goats milk brie- another type.

And thus ended our first full day at the Lambert's residence in Pays Basque. I will be uploading the rest of the stuff sometime this week- stay tuned!


OnigiriFB said...

What is in the little pot in the middle of the cheese platter for the first shot?

Gordon Taylor said...

Dear Food Tourist:

Beautiful shots: much drooling and envy from this quarter of the universe.

FYI from pedantic reader: the word 'halcyonic' does not exist and never will. Halcyon is already an adjective: adding an adjectival ending like 'ic' is redundant.



Ben Gordon said...

Thanks Gordon! I am glad you enjoyed the post.

I changed the title as well, and took the opportunity to look up Halcyon in the OED, as I was curious to its origins.

From the OED:

"A bird of which the ancients fabled that it bred about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea, and that it charmed the wind and waves so that the sea was specially calm during the period: usually identified with a species of kingfisher, hence a poetic name of this bird."

You learn a new thing everyday!

Kyle said...

Another great post Ben!

And I must say for those who weren't there - the food was just as delicious as Ben's photos and text describe.