Wednesday, 2 September 2009

5. Life in the Gîte

The windows open wide in the gîte so in the morning fresh air breezes in and we can hear the sounds of Madame D conducting a conversation at Force 9 with a friend who’s stopped by. There’s a fenced garden so our cocker, Chibby, can run around to his heart’s content. The farm faces south and along the edge of the garden are three tall palm trees mixed in with a few Scots pines. The Pyrenees provide a misty blue backdrop.
The farm is about ¼mile outside the village and it lies in a dip at the bottom of a winding single track lane. When I take the dog out for a walk up the lane in the evening, all I can hear is the sound of a church bell, M’sieur D calling from the fields to the farm in Basque or his heavily accented French and Madame D calling back to him over the sound of a passing tractor.

Madame D stopped by one day and offered us an omelette that she’d made using home-grown sweet green chillies and at least 6 fresh eggs from her chickens. It was the most unbelievably delicious yellow omelette. A few days later she came by with 6 more eggs – still warm from the production line - and some more of her green chillies. This time Madame made an omelette from them… sublime.. mmm, the taste of an omelette cooked with fresh free range eggs.

Food does have a different taste here. Occasionally in England we'd buy tuna steaks but they must have been a few days old by the time they reached us because they usually tasted like cardboard. Madame prepared some the other evening that were chalk and cheese compared to what we could find in England. There, she found that it wasn't easy to cook à la française - finding the right ingredients and produce - the fruit and vegetables that she was accustomed to, not to mention the cuts of meat, poultry and game, fresh fish, the variety of cheese etc. And the wine.. Another difference I noticed between life here and in England is that when people are sat around the table here, they often talk about the meal they're currently enjoying, one they've had or perhaps one they're going to have - or, as is often the case, all three! In England, it's definitely non-U to appear to enjoy food too much. Or at all. As one dear colleague said to me once when I was describing what Madame had prepared over the weekend, "But it's only food.." And therein lies the difference..

The temperatures were just about perfect for the first 3 weeks. The skies were blue from horizon to horizon almost every day and the temperatures were stable at around 24C, although one Sunday it was up as high as 32C. We'd always heard that September was the best time to visit the Pays Basque and so it proved. The madness of July & August is no more as the vast majority of families have gone back and parking in Biarritz or St Jean de Luz isn’t much of a problem anymore.

The light in Biarritz is amazing – it must be something to do with its location right on the sea and the fine spray/mist that is lifted up by the surf. It’s dazzlingly bright and very sharp. Just by the indoor food market in Biarritz (Warning: a place to avoid if you feel peckish) we had lunch one day in a small café/bar – Bar Jean - that was very authentic, very Basque/Spanish and very busy.. Gypsy guitar music swirling through the buzz of conversation, tiled tables, bullfighting posters on the walls and lots of animation..

First we ordered some grilled sardines and, to fill the gap until they arrived, we had some tapas and a tortilla. An icy cold bottle of rosé kept us going while we waited. The sardines came with a baked potato which was one of those waxy yellow ones that they have here. This was the second time we’d been to Bar Jean and it appeals to us both very much. It’s rustic and simple and the seafood is as fresh as you like – it comes straight from the fish market which is just across the road.

We were in there one lunchtime and an elderly couple from Bordeaux shared a table with us. Within minutes we were chatting away - she told us she was 85 and her husband was slightly younger. They were both so much fun. (and when did you last say that about a brace of octagenarians..?) He ordered a dozen oysters (hoping, optimistically perhaps, that one might work!) and his wife had grilled tuna while talking dix-neuf to the douzaine... They both seemed so alive and vibrant.. and gave me renewed hope that being eighty need not necessarily mean the end of everything we enjoy.

Now where did I put my cardy..?

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