Exploring France’s Basque Country

Exploring France’s Basque Country

Max Kim-Bee
Max Kim-Bee
The Pays Basque may not have the name recognition of its Spanish neighbor, but the region’s hidden villages and strong culinary traditions are ripe for discovery.

In Carmel, California, where my parents live—5,800 miles from the Pays Basque in France—there’s a boutique specializing in traditional handwoven Basque table linens. Called Jan de Luz, it’s owned by a glamorous French couple (well, in this snoozy vacation/retirement community, famous as a home of the Newly-Wed and the Nearly-Dead, let’s just say they stand out). From the first time I unfolded one, I loved these linens: their texture roughly refined, their look at once austere (with an unvarying putty-colored background) and dramatic (shot through with canary yellow, navy, silver, or fuchsia stripes—always seven stripes, representing the seven Basque provinces). They spurred my ongoing interest in all things to do with the region, itself full of intriguing contrasts—both of geography and of attitude.

The Pays Basque is part of the south of France as the country is mapped, but not at all of the South of France, that acutely fetishized place of palm-lined boardwalks and Peter Mayle–copyrighted landscapes dotted with $2 million farmhouses. The Basque Country is less uniformly picturesque, for one thing, and doesn’t lend itself to easy characterization. Its often flat, placid coast lies flush against a mountainous interior, like fraternal twins who don’t much resemble each other though they share the same DNA. Its culture, especially its gastronomic one, bleeds inextricably into that of northeastern Spain, with its higher-profile names and destinations. (Arzak! Mugaritz! Bilbao!) Yet the people of the Pays Basque seem resolutely French, as happy to fly the tricolor as they are the Ikurriña, the Basque flag, and as committed to the daily consumption of boules and bâtards as are their countrymen in Paris or Dijon.

Although the region itself, particularly that cloistered interior, has remained curiously off the radar, in the past couple of years some unusual and newsy arrivals have been drawing the spotlight to this untrodden corner of a well-trodden country. A handful of notable French chefs—attracted to the region’s still largely agrarian lifestyle, gastronomic richness, and untapped potential—have forsaken marquee jobs in major cities to open exceptional restaurants and inns in the area. They’re putting the Pays Basque’s culinary and cultural traditions into a fresh new context.

Since the region is ideal for exploring by car—the landscape can change spectacularly in a matter of a few miles—my friend Sarah and I meet in Bordeaux and pick up a Fiat Punto. Over the next couple of days, we’ll hopscotch along the backroads, from inn to restaurant, through mild beach towns and tiny hilltop villages, sampling standout Pays Basque cuisine and falling increasingly under the spell of the countryside.

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.

Aïnhoa to Hasparren via St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port: 52 miles

We leave St.-Pée, following the pitted and silent Route D3, which meanders past fields and merges back onto Route D4. From there a detour onto the D20 leads into the village of Aïnhoa, essentially a single street lined with modest stone houses, magenta and orange geraniums spilling out of their window boxes. The scene is too irresistible not to enter, so we take a seat on a café terrace in the shadow of a 14th-century church tower. Stands of pines line the crests of the surrounding hills like the bristly manes on ponies; on the slopes, poplars grow between patches of tilled soil and emerald fields, where sheep graze; the gulches are lush with groves of elm and beech. In the morning heat, there’s a hint of the salty Atlantic; we’re still only about 10 miles from the ocean.

On our way to highway D918, we pass through Espelette, home to the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée–designated piment d’Espelette. But the entire town is shut down for siesta—including, to our disappointment, the tiny Chocolatier Antton, where the ganache is spiked with the russet-colored powder. Following the Nive River as it cuts dramatically into the interior, we speed southeast. Soon, monolithic shards of granite begin shearing up from the hills, jutting skyward above deep valleys where the river and its tributaries run narrow and ice-cold. We’re just five miles from the Spanish border, in pilgrimage country.

St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, for centuries the strategic capital of the Basse-Navarre, is traditionally the last French rest stop on one of the Santiago de Compostela routes, sitting as it does just north of the famously grueling Roncevaux Pass. The town is home to Restaurant Les Pyrénées, a Basque-cuisine stalwart; but on Béchade’s recommendation, we’re lunching instead at Etche-Ona (Good House, in Euskara, the Basque language), owned by Jean-Claude Ibargaray. The food is clean but sophisticated: a zingy gazpacho laced with dollops of basil sorbet; foie gras topped with carrot-size white asparagus and roasted a deep, caramelized brown; a tart of Ossau-Iraty cheese accompanied by tomato salad and huge grilled prawns. The restaurant sits in the central Place Floquet, between the fronton—a large pink wall where locals play Basque pelota, a lightning-fast (and treacherous) version of handball—and the Rue de la Citadelle, which is lined with rosy sandstone houses, some more than 500 years old.

Our destination for the evening is Hegia, a guesthouse just outside the town of Hasparren. In 2004, Arnaud Daguin—the chef at Biarritz’s famed (and now closed) Les Platanes, and progeny of a venerated Gascon food family—pulled up stakes and, with his wife, Véronique, moved into the mountains to open a five-room bed-and-breakfast. In 2006, Hegia opened for business; in 2007, it earned a Michelin star.

But like L’Auberge Basque, it isn’t the easiest place to find; so with Daguin dispensing real-time directions in slow, clear English over the phone, we spiral up and out of Hasparren, along the crest of a ragged peak, and onto a dirt trail, which terminates at a white farmhouse. Daguin, in cargo pants, a faded black T-shirt, and Tevas—looking like the actor Jean Reno cast as a river-rafting guide—lopes out to greet us.

If Hegia’s 18th-century timbered exterior is a monument to the traditional Pays Basque, the interior is a testament to its bold new wave. A double-height reception hall is riven by an asymmetrical oak staircase that leads up to the five guest rooms, each unique and firmly contemporary. At the foot of our low-slung Patricia Urquiola–designed bed is a poured-concrete bathtub; above us are the rafters that have supported the house for almost 300 years. Downstairs, Daguin is at work in his kitchen. Flanking the center island like the transepts of a cathedral are two long, high tables, from which diners watch the action. Véronique, ebullient and fluent in English, selects the wines (crisp white Rioja; a rich Madiran) while her husband plays DJ (Jill Scott; Philip Glass; Basque superstar Kepa Junkera). As we talk, Daguin serves up course after course. The meat is from a neighbor’s farm; the seafood and produce come from the nearby Bayonne market; the cheese is made just down the road. Daguin cooks everything at low temperatures for a long time, he explains, and uses only the barest of embellishments to express the ingredients’ full flavor—a scattering of sugar or salt, a dash of olive oil. Why, he asks, rely on artifice?Tender duck breast arrives over finely julienned carrots, pan-cooked to a sweetened softness; delicate fillets of steamed hake are served atop a sort of candied vegetable hash made of diced slow-roasted beets and turnips.

The next morning we’re up early; the Daguins are nowhere to be seen, but the farmhouse’s enormous double doors stand open to the back lawn. All around, oak and chestnut trees shimmer in sluices of light. Far to the southeast, we can see the snow-crowned Pyrenees. There’s no human noise; just the breeze bearing the tong-tong of cowbells from a field a half-mile away.

After breakfast, Sarah and I say our goodbyes. The road back to Hasparren takes us all the way into Bayonne, which the Daguins have praised enthusiastically. And the city is indeed lovely; the warm, palm-lined sandstone squares and pungent sea air place us firmly back in a familiar south of France. But as we sit with our Kirs in the hazy afternoon sun next to the Ste.-Marie Cathedral, we’re both lost in thought—trying hard to hang on to the purity of the hills.

Where to Stay

Hegia Quartier Zelai, Hasparren; 33-5/59-29-67-86; hegia.com; doubles from $829, including breakfast and dinner.

Great Value Hôtel Arraya Place du Village, Sare; 33-5/59-54-20-46; arraya.com; dinner for two $46; doubles from $114.

Great Value La Ferme Ostalapia 2621 Chemin d’Ostalapia, Ahetze; 33-5/59-54-73-79; ostalapia.fr; lunch for two $50; doubles from $83 (call 33-5/59-54-87-42 for the inn).

Great Value L’Auberge Basque D307 Vieille Route de St.-Jean-de-Luz, St.-Pée-sur-Nivelle; 33-5/59-51-70-00; aubergebasque.com; dinner for two $110; doubles from $141.

Where to Eat

Bar Jean This tiny bistro faces Biarritz’s famous food market. 5 Rue des Halles, Biarritz; 33-5/59-24-80-38; lunch for two $35.

Etche-Ona 15 Place Floquet, St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port; 33-5/ 59-37-01-14; lunch for two $56.

Where to Shop

Chocolatier Antton Place du Marché, Espelette; 33-5/59-93-88-72.

Helena Linge Basque For the linens described in this story, ask to see the Socoa models. 8 Rue Loquin, St.-Jean-de-Luz; 33-5/59-85-35-27; helena-saintjeandeluz.com.

Jean-Vier France’s premier designer and distributor of Basque linens. 25 Rue Mazagran, Biarritz; 48 Rue Gambetta, St.-Jean-de-Luz; 17 Place Floquet, St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port; 33-5/59-54-56-70; jean-vier.com.

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