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Exploring France’s Basque Country

Dining alfresco in Espelette.

Photo: Max Kim-Bee

Bordeaux to St.-Pée-sur-Nivelle: 154 miles

From Bordeaux, the A63’s four lanes of well-maintained asphalt cut through flat pine plains as we speed down to Biarritz under leaden skies. After about an hour, the viridescent slopes of the Labourd Mountains become visible on the horizon, swept by swaths of fast-moving light as the clouds dissipate.

We exit onto the N10, the main coastal road, and a seemingly interminable series of roundabouts takes us past Biarritz centre ville. In the 19th century, the fashion for sea bathing lured European Society to its wide, tawny beaches; in the 20th century, the surfing community discovered its fine offshore breaks. Today, Biarritz’s Beaux-Arts hauteur is punctuated by slightly surreal O.C. moments—for every matron in low Ferragamo pumps, there’s a tanned 20-year-old slapping along the quai in Reefs, short board tucked under muscled arm.

An acquaintance in Paris has counseled lunch at La Ferme Ostalapia, in Ahetze, just a few miles south of Biarritz. “Old farm, splendid view, good typical cooking,” he wrote. At 2 p.m. on a Tuesday we find suited professionals, grandmothers, and farmers in clay-caked boots crowding together under the slate-gray beams. The waiters emerge from the kitchen bearing white asparagus in a sauce of Abbaye de Belloc, a sharpish sheep’s-milk cheese, followed by crisp pan-fried sea bass scattered with coarse sea salt and fried garlic. Like the surroundings, the food is rustic, barely embellished—and completely satisfying.

We continue along the coast to St.-Jean-de-Luz, a small resort town set around a deep horseshoe bay. From here, the road inland ascends into the mountains. On slim, windy Route D4, which crisscrosses the foothills below the summit of La Rhune mountain, we pass the lovely village of Sare, where the homey Hôtel Arraya harbors a restaurant and sells fresh gâteaux basques—dense, mealy cakes filled with cherry preserves. But the skies are threatening again, and we’re en route to what’s been touted as one of the best new dining experiences in southern France, so we make haste through narrow wooded valleys to St.-Pée-sur-Nivelle.

In a quirk of regional nomenclature, it turns out there are several towns bearing this name, so by the time we locate L’Auberge Basque, the rain is coming down in sheets. But the apparition that greets us—six foot two, dark eyes—more than compensates for our inauspicious arrival. He’s Cédric Béchade, 32, onetime protégé of Alain Ducasse and chef commis at the Hôtel de Crillon, now proprietor of this nine-room inn and restaurant. When he moved to the Pays Basque, Béchade brought with him Samuel Ingelaere, who logged five years as head sommelier at Marc Veyrat’s restaurants in Megève and Annecy. He also brought a refined design sensibility, having commissioned the Belgian furniture-and-textiles house Flamant to create bespoke interiors for every room of the 337-year-old building.

Béchade started his career 14 years ago at the Hôtel du Palais, in Biarritz, and, despite his enormous success in Paris, the region lured him back. “The French Basque culinary tradition is adventurous, naturally elegant, simple, and generous. So are the people,” he says. “It’s why I love it here. That, and the fact that the resources—produce, meat, and seafood—are some of the best you’ll find in France.” Béchade credits the geography—that fortuitous head-on encounter of fertile, mountainous farmland and Atlantic coastal plain—for providing the raw materials. (The credit for L’Auberge Basque’s new Michelin star, awarded in March, goes entirely to Béchade himself.)

In the restaurant, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors give onto a view of La Rhune; the skies clear dramatically as we’re seated, thunderheads glowing as they roll back to reveal the sunset. “C’est Cinémascope, non?” asks Ingelaere as he delivers two glasses of champagne. The kitchen is open to the dining room, allowing us to observe the workings of Béchade and his sous-chefs. “Every menu is built around the idea: Take what’s best, right now, then take something traditional, something of this place, and then figure out how to make them modern together,” Béchade tells us. Our dinner mixes the flavors of the region with a host of global references. There’s a custard of creamy brebis (sheep’s milk) and foie gras topped with a velouté of spring peas and tiny honey-cider croutons. Atlantic salmon arrives parcooked in a consommé of Granny Smith apples, then again in sashimi form, atop nutty quinoa cakes with a healthy dusting of the regional Espelette pepper. By the meal’s end—local cheeses with creamed honey and black-cherry confit—the stars are visible in an indigo sky, and we’re primed to sleep like the dead.

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