Tuesday, 23 February 2010

46. Basque cuisine (& no tin opener jokes please!)

20th February 2010. In previous posts I've mentioned a few Basque dishes, notably the Gâteau basque, but I think I should apologise in advance to the Confrérie du Gâteau basque for what I'm about to say about their revered cake..

At the 2009 Fete du Gâteau basque in Cambo (below), the judges were photographed filling out Next Of Kin forms before trying to speed-eat eight Gâteaux basques* against the clock (although I could be wrong here..) No, they were really suggesting alternative uses for the cake in the middle.. (I heard later that the winning suggestion was "Boat Anchor.." with "Base for garden umbrella" coming a close second)
(Note from Management: 1 Gâteau basque, but 2 Gâteaux basques)

There's even a museum dedicated to the Gâteau basque.. Try as I might, I just can't imagine a museum for Dairy Cream Sponges or Custard Slices in the UK - but that's part of the magic of France.. Gâteaux basques come in two main varieties (and an HGV licence is needed for both!) with either a black cherry or a crème pâtissière filling. Madame usually buys the cakes (I'm only allowed to buy them when there's a 'k' in the month) and I've never really been that enamoured with the black cherry variety of Gâteau basque.. finding them a bit heavy going, rather like a flywheel in cake form. Last Sunday, I was off out to buy a couple of baguettes from the baker in the centre of town when I had a sudden hankering to try a Gâteau basque with a crème pâtissière filling. I found one at a pâtisserie (I've been "hedumacated" not to buy cakes at bakers) and brought that home. It was chalk & cheese compared to the black cherry variety. Of course, Madame wasn't too keen but, as far as I'm concerned, it's the one I prefer.

So, back to Basque specialities. A feature of Basque cooking is that the colours of the Basque flag - red and green - often feature in the dishes (usually red & green peppers). I think my first lip-smacking experience was at La Buvette des Halles, a small café that had just opened in the centre of St Jean de Luz adjacent to the covered market (that sells meat, poultry, fish & all types of sea food, fruit & veg and cheese). After the market had finished for the day and while all the detritus was being swept up, we saw a chap quickly setting up tables and chairs. His kitchen was inside the market building and his fish-orientated menu featured much that had come straight from the market - so without further ado we sat down at a table in the shade of the platanes.

I still remember what we had that first time - Madame had a tomato and mozzarella salad and I had 9 oysters, then we both had grilled sardines (we didn't know then that they'd been cooked on a plancha) accompanied by a pichet of cold rosé. Everything was fresh and full of taste. Coffee, a Café Creme cigarillo and the bill followed - 105 francs - which at the time was only ~£11. If we could have pressed the rewind button and had it all again we would have! Delicious - and in such a simple setting - and as a bonus, it was ideal for people watching. It was his first year in business and we've been back every year (bar a couple) since then.

His menu is a véritable (as they like to say here) catalogue of Basque cuisine - he serves all of the following staples of the Basque kitchen: Ttoro, Pipérade, Omelette au piment doux, Axoa d'espelette & Poulet basquaise and probably a few more that I've forgotten. Plus a few standards like sardines, grilled tuna, dressed crab, oysters, moules, entrecôte steak or confit de canard.

For freshness of taste (and price) I don't think he can be beaten. It's one of our favourite places when it gets a bit warmer. Recommended: Light lunch? Go for the sardines. Feeling brave? Tuna with pipérade will slow you down a bit..

I remember after our first holiday down in the Pays Basque we were keen to try sardines on our barbecue when we returned home. After they all fell through the grill and smoked out the neighbourhood we realised that frozen ones just won't do! And you need a plancha..

Here's the late Keith Floyd attempting to make a Pipérade in a Basque lady's kitchen in St Jean de Luz and  getting it all so wrong. Imagine the reaction if a Frenchman was ensconced in a Yorkshire kitchen attempting to demonstrate for the viewers - and the lady of the house - 'ow ze famoos pudding de York-sheer was made.. I think he escaped very lightly! (Don't misunderstand me.. I had a lot of time for Keith Floyd.. it took some nerve to do what he did here. Can't imagine the saintly Delia trying that!) 
22nd February 2010. 15C this morning. I went to Dancharia in Spain to fill the car up with diesel.. It's crept up to a tad over 1€/litre (~88p) - presumably in the light of the Total refinery dispute in N France which threatens to disrupt the supply of petrol to the country. While I was there, I picked up a few odds and ends and had an extra virgin cold pressed hot chocolate.. (as you do).

23rd February 2010
. A few months ago, we were asked by A - an old friend of J-M in Tours - if we’d like to go for a flight with him one day from the Basque Aero Club at Biarritz airport.. A is a semi-retired fighter pilot (French Air Force) and he's a flying instructor at the Aero Club. Biarritz Airport is not that busy and the main operators who use it are Air France, RyanAir or EasyJet. Occasionally a biz jet flies in. We were there once waiting to board a RyanAir flight to the UK when I sensed that there was something going on. I noticed a posse of gendarmerie motorcyclists discreetly standing by with a few heavy-looking characters talking into their cuffs. An Airbus landed and, as it taxied in, a small tricolour could be seen fluttering from the flight deck window. It taxied up to the terminal and shut down in quick time while a stairway was hurriedly wheeled into place. There were a few impressive looking 'suits' nervously waiting below.. A minute later the door opened and there was El Presidente Sarkozy himself.. with MAM* two steps behind him.

Anyway, on the day we flew with A, all was blissfully peaceful and quiet. We opened the hangar doors and pushed out the (very) small aircraft (a Robin DR 400 120) that we were going to commit aviation in and, after a few external checks, we strapped ourselves in, quickly ran through a short checklist, called the tower to ask for start clearance and then started up. All very simple and minimalist! Once the engine and oil temperatures were showing the correct values, we called for taxy clearance and then we were off taxying around (above) to the threshold of the active runway. Then, following a quick look around, A released the brakes and opened the throttle and we were off down the runway - all 7,382ft of it.
We climbed out over Biarritz before turning north over the sea to follow the coastline. At around this point, A turned to me and said "You have control.." (at that point I could sense Madame watching me like a hawk from the rear seat!) and we continued flying north along the beaches at Anglet before he told me to turn onto an easterly heading to fly up the northern banks of the Adour. I'm reminded of the classic comment written on a student pilot's report. It went: "Once Bloggs climbs into an aircraft, he starts a chain of events over which he has no further control.." Ouch!

Biarritz
It was a day when I would normally have been rowing and down below I could see a couple of 'yolettes' (fours) outlined against the silvery Adour like pond skimmers.

Bayonne
The rowing club lies just above the second bridge up on the pic above on the left hand bank. At this point we turned right hand down a bit (technical aviation term) towards the Pyrenees and suddenly my mind map of how the Pays Basque fitted together suddenly took on an extra dimension as the landscape unfolded before us.

St Jean de Luz
After St Jean de Luz we landed back at Biarritz, refuelled the aircraft and then taxied around to the hangar and locked it all away again. Great fun.. and I wish I could afford to do it more often. Many thanks to A for his kind gesture.. the Pays Basque looks just as good from the air.

To wind up with, here's the pooch enjoying himself on our local beach a day or two ago. The clip won't win any awards I know - I was really just testing out my new camera.
video
And a clip of the sea rolling in at Biarritz..
Some Mark Knopfler playing 'Local Hero' to finish up with:
* MAM = Michele Alliot Marie

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