Saturday, November 16, 2013

Les 7 Provinces Basques

The provinces of Euskal Herria, the Basque Country, are sometimes referred to as the "4+3" for the four areas in Spain and the three in France that make up the region: Bizkaia (Biscaye), Araba (Alava), Gipuzkoa (Guipuscoa), Nafarroa (Navarre), Nafarroa Beherea (Basse Navarre), Lapurdi (Labourd), and Zuberoa (Soule). No one's quite sure exactly where the people here came from originally; perhaps they migrated over from the east, or down from the north, or perhaps they were always there, a tough weathered people born from the harsh and fertile mountains, nourished on the riches of the valleys and the ocean. The Basque language itself seems to date back to the Stone Age, having nothing in common with any modern European dialect, words spelled with K and X and S and Z interspersed with soft vowels, the sound of rocks tumbling down a hillside whose tall grasses are rustling in the wind off the sea. It's a land of bullfights and berets, of harsh red wine and strong cider, a vast expanse of high lonely pastures in the Pyrénées dotted with ancient rough stone sheepherders' huts bordered by the modern expensive tourist ports of Biarritz and San Sebastián and Bilbao. The main pilgrim's roads to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia run through the heart of Basque Country, and Florence and her cousin Mikaela and I drove along some of them a few weeks ago, taking advantage of a Sunday where there wasn't too much extra work we would have to feel guilty about not doing, and the fact that it wasn't pouring down rain.

Our first stop was in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a town that Florence told me was never less than full of tourists, mostly because of the Compostela connection, I believe. There are a lot of hostels catering to the hiker/pilgrim trade, and we stopped in briefly at the main church in the center of town to listen to part of a mass in Euskara. Well, I stopped in anyway, and the other two politely followed me. The symbol for the pilgrim's route is a scallop shell, which appears in markers on walls and on streets, and which I first saw far to the north near Amiens when visiting a friend back in 2007.

It's a pretty little town, built on the banks of the Nive with steep cobblestoned streets that spiral up to the citadel overlooking the valley where the 21st-century community has spread out beyond the original 15th-century walls. We walked up to the citadel, which is now a school, going through the Porte du Roi ("King's Gate"), and then picked our way back down the steeper side of the hill, splashing along a stream of water running over leaf-covered wooden steps pegged into the muddy slope, and thank goodness there was a handrail. I'm sure it's a lovely hike through the woods on that side, when it hasn't been raining off and on for several weeks.

Since it's now a school, the fortress and its grounds aren't open to the public, but there's a lookout point in front of the gates that give a nice view of the mountains, and of the vineyards terracing the foothills. The local wine-growing region, the Irouléguy AOC, is one of the smallest in France, with fewer than 50 producers currently. The history of winemaking in the area goes back (as do most of the wine traditions in France) to the Middle Ages, when the monks of the 13th century poured it out to fortify the pilgrims heading south, some of whom were probably still carrying the cheese they were given from monasteries further north that expanded their own dairy operations to answer the needs of those same pilgrims, as I discovered when doing my research paper on the history of monastic cheesemaking earlier this year.

The cheese made in this region is a pâte pressée (pressed-curd) cheese made out of sheep's milk, generally classified under the name Ossau-Iraty, although you can't actually use that name unless you're part of the AOC collective. The Béarn area where I'm living also has producers; the zone under the AOC classification is almost all in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques area. The milk has to come from sheep of the Basco-béarnaise breed, or the older Manech breed that has shorter wool and smaller horns. The sheep have to spend at least 240 days out of the year grazing in pastures, and much of that is in the higher meadows where they eat the plants and flowers that give the cheese its herby, nutty flavor.

There are other traditions of the region, such as berets (which we didn't buy) and chocolate (which we did), though technically the chocolate came from Bayonne, where we planned to end up. But after the hike up to the citadel and back down again, a sweet mouthful was welcome, and I enjoyed my dark-chocolate mendiant with dried fruits and nuts, a candy that is named after the wandering pilgrim orders of monks like the Franciscans, and so was entirely appropriate to our location (and not incidentally also one of the few in the shop that I could eat).

We left Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and drove off towards Espelette, passing toll booth entrances to the freeways heading towards Spain, where according to the electronic traffic displays we would arrive in less than 10 minutes. But we stayed on the French side of the border and parked not far from the center of town at Espelette, where the brief appearance of the sun made the ropes of peppers drying on the sides of houses blaze even redder. Almost all of the houses in and around Espelette are white with red trim. It's the center for the production of the mildly hot Espelette peppers, and if Florence hadn't already made a commitment to be at the "day at the dairy" event that weekend we would have been at the annual Fête du piment instead. Maybe next year.

As it's a tourist town, shops were open even on Sunday, and I bought a jar of black cherry jam and another of dried hot pepper flakes. Looking at all of the food made us hungry, and since it was nearing 1pm and the chocolate had worn off, we looked at the menus displayed at each of the restaurants on the main square, and ended up at one that we could all agree on.

I ordered the salmis de palombe, a rich wine-sauced piece of roasted wood dove. I'd heard so much about the local traditions of hunting these doves from many people over the past month that I really wanted to try it before the season was over, and I'm glad I did. It's a very dark meat with only a slightly gamey flavor, and it was served with boiled potatoes, and with grilled bread topped with slices of roasted pork belly. The pork belly wasn't as good as the Bergeras version, naturally ... I've read that a traditional accompaniment to a salmis of wild birds is to take the heart and liver and other inside bits out of the roasted bird and mash them on the grilled bread to have as an appetizer while you're reheating the rest of the bird in the wine sauce, but that's probably only available either in really fancy restaurants or if you're part of the hunt. I got a half-bottle of Irouléguy wine, a Gorri d'Ansa that was nicer than I'd expected, after Florence had characterized the regional wines as "vinegar" (of course, she does prefer the supersweet Jurançon whites, so I think there was a bit of bias there). By the time I'd finished nibbling the last of the meat off the teeny-tiny drumsticks and there was nothing left of the others' prawns in curry-butter sauce but a pile of heads and shells, the rain had started up again. But we headed towards the coast anyway, because after all, as I pointed out, there should be light at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, right?

And there was! Now and then, anyway, though mostly just a lighter covering of clouds and a hazy warm shine on the water. Remnants of the influence of the Sun King, perhaps, and the day that Louis XIV of France married Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain, in a seaside church ceremony in June of 1660 that briefly united the two countries. The waterfront runs beside nearly half of the large sheltered port, with the pink "House of the Infanta" on the south end and a hilltop chapel at the north, looking down on the breakwaters in the bay and up along the striped cliffs of the coastline.

The tide was high, and there had been storms the day before, so there was no one down on what was left of the beach except for a few wetsuit-clad intrepid surfers, but Florence told me that in the summer, especially when the tide is out, there's a lot of beach available - provided you get there before the thousands of other would-be sunbathers and swimmers. A few men were fishing along the rocky edge of the bay, for dorade (sea bream) I was informed when I asked, but they didn't look as if they were catching anything. The waves were splashing up over the wall along the promenade, but since I couldn't go down to the waterfront and dip my hand in (my habit when visiting the ocean, just to say "hi") I decided to walk along the wall and enjoy the spray. As I walked the water fountained up before and behind me, but only a few drops landed on my face, and I reached the end of the wall to face a disbelieving row of pedestrians who were amazed that I hadn't gotten wet, plus Florence who had waited to snap the picture of me being drenched by the waves. We have an understanding, the ocean and I, I explained. We're friends.

"Do we walk around this town for a while, or head to Biarritz?" Florence asked, and I quickly said "Biarritz!" because oh my gosh, Biarritz! The place where queens and presidents and movie stars used to go to play, and all of the rich and titled men I used to dream about (okay, so I still dream about them sometimes) who stayed at the exclusive hotels and gambled away their inheritances, surrounded by lean elegant women draped in ropes of pearls. The reality of the town was a bit more prosaic on this grey afternoon, especially after we ended up parking in an underground garage. Nothing like a bit of concrete to shatter your dreams of crystal.

The wind had picked up and the waves were really splashing up here, though it was mostly foam. I missed a shot of three girls almost getting a faceful of seafoam from a wave that splashed up higher than their heads, but it's an image I'll remember for a while. We walked down to the gate at the entrance to the Hôtel du Palais, which was originally known as the Villa Eugénie, built by Napoleon III in the 1850s and the place where he and his empress often spent the summer. I'm not sure how many high-society women stay there these days, as the habit now is to just go ahead and built a second (or third or fourth) home for the holidays instead of renting a hotel room, but I'd need to sell my only rope of pearls to be able to afford a night there. I checked the hotel's website on a whim when I was thinking about where I might go for Christmas, and it would have been an extremely expensive gift to myself, as only one night would run me well over 350 euro, even without the gambling.

I'm sure the baccarat tables inside the hotel are much fancier than the ones at the dark little boardwalk casino we went to, and there were no elegant men or jewel-draped women there, only the usual blank-eyed token-cup-holding gamblers you'd see in any casino from the Oregon coast to the Jersey shore, and we didn't stay long. Florence came out 1 euro ahead, but I didn't get anything back from the 5 20-centime tokens she gave me. But I won anyway - I can now say that (flicks ash off the end of the long cigarette holder, throws fox-fur stole back across shoulders, gives worldly sigh) yes, of course I have gambled at Biarritz, hasn't everyone, darling?

It was getting dark by then, so we didn't stop in Bayonne, but I would like to go back there as it looked to be an interesting town, and I still haven't visited my friend and former fellow student in the cheese program Marie-Morgane, who lives near there. A road trip, a pilgrimage, a gamble for the future.

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