When traveling, my family prefers to take things easy. Neighborhood strolls and café breaks tend to be as important as, and sometimes even taking precedence over monuments and museums. Even when we only had a day to tour the French Basque country together, the pace was leisurely, with much time to smell the flowers and eat, eat, eat.
9 am: We fueled up at Biarritz’s marketplace, 2 indoor structures in the middle of town packed with vendors, shoppers and tourists alike in the early morning. Like most French markets, there was an admirable array of goods: fresh garden greens, local cheeses, seafood, sausages, foie gras etc for sale. Since we had no intention to cook in Biarritz, all we bought were a kilo of sweet cherries now in season and a gorgeous gateau basque chez Maquirriain.
Gateau Basque (Basque cake) is a traditional local dessert, more tart than cake. Filled either with thick cream or local cherry preserves, the highlight for me is the sinfully butter-loaded crust whose texture resembles a less crumbly scottish shortbread. Good the day of, and still good the morning after with a cup of hot black coffee.
1030 am: We reach Bayonne, the capital of French Basque country. Only 15 minutes away from Biarritz, the cities’ vibes are decidedly different: Biarritz glitzy, luxurious and trendy, Bayonne traditional and charming. We followed the sound of music through crooked medieval lanes to end up in the midst of choristers joined in song, belting out traditional tunes in their native Basque tongue.
Our promenade through the city yielded other finds: finest Bayonne ham, rich foie gras and oily sausages fragrant with pepper at Pierre Ibaialde, where the saleslady let us loose in the ham-filled demonstration room with a platter of charcuterie samples.
Then we strolled the row of artisanal chocolate shops housed under the arcades of rue Pont Neuf. Bayonne is the first chocolate-making city in France after exiled Jews who fled the inquisition from Spain and then Portugal migrated there, bringing with them the chocolate making tradition. We stopped by Daranatz, its quaint, proper decor reminding us of old-fashioned apothecaries.
Inside, the chocolate bars are cloaked in psychedelic covers, the dark chocolate inside intensely flavored and smooth.
1:30 pm: Despite all that snacking, we were famished by the end of the 45 minutes trip from Bayonne to La Ferme Gourmande, perched high up on the hilltops near Ossès. What I had assumed to be a working farmhouse turns out to be an excellent restaurant in a standalone old stone house complete with the typical red roof and window shutters. Gorgeous amidst the verdant slopes.
Inside, the restaurant is classy and comfortable, oozing a modern farmhouse chic style with plenty of space between tables, a luxury we miss in Paris.
The modern menu (29e for 4 courses) is short on choices (3 entrées, 4 plats and no cheese or dessert choices) but long on looks and flavor. A white plate and equally pale mimosa of chopped eggs and shrimp are clean backdrops to the bright green peas displayed in 5 different forms.
A plate of veal headcheese was presented in little aspic nuggets wrapped in bright red peppers, accented by green avocado guacamole and tan peanut cream. Beautiful and delicious with fresh, subtle flavors, though the proportions of the peanut and avocado cream would have been more appropriate smaller.
Mains were simple and generous. The women loved their seafood, while the men quickly gobbled down a hearty plate of sausages and sesame-crusted foie gras.
After a platter of 2 local cheeses we plowed onwards to desserts, or a trio of fruit based desserts: a bowl of crust-free apple tart, a scoop of rum-spiked ice-cream and a square of strawberry shortbread. Full as we were, we gamely finished it all.
4 courses and 2 hours later, all we wanted was to lie down on the green grass surrounding the house and take an afternoon nap alongside the chef’s adorable dogs. Alas, we still had a few more stops to make, so we drove slowly down the windy roads towards Irouléguy, Basque country’s wine producing region and the smallest appellation.
4:00pm: We spent a half-hour at La Cave d’Irouléguy, the wine cooperative that makes wine for about 40 producers in the region. Incidentally, the cooperative was hosting a festival the day we visited, so besides tasting wine and peeping into the wine-making facilities, we also got a glimpse of how oak barrels are made, but skipped taking the jeeps up the mountainous vineyards and the horse-drawn carriage ride through town.
5:00 pm: A stop by Espelette was in the cards. For what?
Why, the famed Espelette peppers of course! They definitely make impressionable wall hangings, strung on the facade of every shopfront in the 2-street town, including the post office.
We would be remiss to leave without a momento, and proceeded to one of the many specialty shops for a piment d’espelette tasting. On its own, the dried pepper powder is not overtly fiery, with a fragrance akin to szechuan peppercorns but without its stinging numbness.
8:30 pm: After Espelette, we sped through Ainhoa, an even smaller hamlet reputed to be one of the most beautiful villages in France, and headed back to Biarritz through the seaside town of St Jean de Luz. We washed down a pintxos dinner at Cafe Jean with local cider (Sagarnoa in Basque), which is nothing at all like its Breton counterpart. For one, there are no bubbles and the golden drink is also less sweet but more apple-y in flavor. With 6% alcoholic content, this was also a potent nightcap to round up our 12 hours in the French Basque country! To be sure, 12 hours were barely enough to scratch the cultural and culinary surface of the region, and those with the luxury of time could potentially attempt one or several of the culinary routes proposed by Pay Basque’s route gourmande.
Maison Maquirriain (Gateau Basque): Les Halles de Biarritz, 12 Rue Broquedis 64200 Biarritz, France
Pierre Ibaialde (Bayonne Ham): 41, rue des Cordeliers 64100 Bayonne, France
Daranatz Chocolatier (Chocolate): 15 Rue Port Neuf 64100 Bayonne, France
La Ferme Gourmande: Le Bourg, Maison Landaburia 64780 Ossès, France
La Cave d’Irouléguy (Irouléguy wine): Route de St Jean Pied de Port 64430 St Etienne de Baïgorry, France
Espelette: 64250 Espelette, France