Monday, June 16, 2008

A Culinary Tour of Iparralde

This article comes to us via The Sidney Morning Herald:

Basque in gastro glory

June 15, 2008

Tricia Welsh goes hunting for European delicacies

It's the hunting season in the French Pyrenees and the surrounding, lush, oak-covered mountains are studded with cepe and girolle mushrooms just waiting to be plucked.

The days are becoming shorter - it's not light until about 8am and the mountain air cools right down early in the evening. The signature Basque beret is not worn merely through tradition. It really is needed in this delightful but coolish autumnal weather.

We're on a gourmet tour of the region and we are in the capable hands of Patrick and Robyn Arrieula from Bowral, NSW. They have been leading food and walking tours of the area for the past 12 years.

Patrick has a wealth of knowledge and knows the Basque region well - he grew up here. His parents live in Abos, where his father is deputy mayor. Patrick makes twice-yearly forays back from Australia to share his passion with like-minded travellers.

Passion is a word that sits well with the Basque folk. It's passion for their own unique traditions that has kept alive the extraordinarily complex Basque language and that has maintained their own Basque-speaking schools, Basque flag and rich traditions dating back many centuries.

From our hotel base in the village of Hasparren it is an easy drive in any direction to explore this primarily agricultural region. Its picturesque landscape changes dramatically with every bend in the road, from impossibly green fields where thick-coated sheep graze, to the steep mountains that form the perilous border with Spain - for many years the latter provided a popular smugglers' route.

The hotel runs the village's best restaurant kitchen. Breakfasts comprise perfect croissants and crispy baguettes that prove a wonderful foil for the locally produced ewe's milk Ossau-Iraty cheese - considered one of the five best cheeses in the world. It is traditionally eaten with a black-cherry conserve from the nearby cherry capital, Itxassou. But it goes down equally well with local ham.

The region produces some of the country's finest gourmet produce, such as Bayonne ham, foie gras, duck confit, wild boar and squab. Farmers and artisans sell it all over Europe.

Our first day is typical of the next nine. We start with a visit to one of the many trout farms at Banca that hold succulent fingerlings in pens in the chilly waters of the Nive des Aldudes, which cascades down from the Pyrenees. These rainbow trout are fed on prawns and hake pellets and smoked over beechwood.

Smoked trout pate{aac} is passed around. It gets the nod of approval as manager Francois Juanicotena says he gets into trouble for telling the truth about the artificial colouring that goes into 80 per cent of cheap smoked salmon. His product has won gold medals at the International Agricultural Show in Paris.

Nearby is the celebrated charcuterie of Pierre Oteiza. Formerly a butcher, Oteiza has revived the rare porc Basque breed of pig that has found appreciative markets around France for its unique and rich flavour, very similar to the acorn-fed jamon iberico of Spain. Here, in the lush valley around Les Aldudes, he has built traditional hay-stacked sties with a chestnut tree in each enclosure - the pink- and black-spotted pigs graze on the windfall.

Oteiza tells of how he discovered his home region's rare breed of pig when he went to the Easter Show in Paris in 1988. Instead of returning with a diamond ring for his fiancee, he turned up with two pigs under his arms. From that breeding pair there are now 3000 pigs in the area.

Oteiza has also opened 10 smallgoods shops that sell everything from Basque ham to foie gras and confit. He, too, has won many awards for produce.

Next stop is the charming village of Saint-Etienne-de-Baigorry, where a long lunch table has been set up in the Arce Hotel's conservatory-style restaurant, which overlooks a little stream. Glasses are filled with good local wines as we tuck into grilled trout with house-made pasta, and fresh fruit tarts.

Another day we visit a small village metres from the Spanish border in the Labourd province. Ainhoa is a gem of a town with historic old farmhouses in the main street featuring the traditional bastide architecture - many dating from the mid-17th century. In 1629 they were nearly all destroyed by the Spanish.

We wander through the village and happen upon a shop selling traditional Basque berets. A dozen sales later and the shopkeeper's face has brightened up somewhat.

One morning we are given a demonstration of how to cook the traditional gateau Basque. The specialist Basque patisserie chef, Bixente Marishvlar, is po-faced and has us in hysterics as he demonstrates the cooking steps. Once made from cornflour, pork fat and honey, this sophisticated cake resembles a shortbread pie filled with either a rum-and-vanilla cream or bitter cherries. Either way, it is delicious and we enjoy generous samplings.

We head for a lovely nearby farmhouse that has been converted in recent years into splendid country accommodation with a restaurant. The family cooks, waits on the table and offers outstanding country hospitality, producing one of the highlights of the tour: pan-fried foie frais. This is not canned or packaged foie gras; it is fresh, lightly fried and served with roast vegetables and pear. It oozes flavour and melts in the mouth.

Also on the itinerary are visits to a duck farm; to the fortified village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on market day; to a cheese farm; to Espelette, the capital of the red chilli; to the magnificent house and garden of Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano De Bergerac; a terrific tapas lunch in Bayonne; and a day at the beach in Biarritz.

Tricia Welsh was a guest of Singapore Airlines, Rail Plus and In The French Pyrenees Tours.

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