107. If you're serious about chocolate, then Bayonne is for you..
16th January 2011. More on chocolate and how it's made in Bayonne. First though, there was an article in the New York Times which, somewhat ambitiously, set out to discover which are the World's Best Candy Bars - American or British. Without wishing to raise a sceptical eyebrow at the narrowness of the scope of the column, from the get-go this has all the hallmarks of two bald men fighting over a comb. As the old Irishman in the joke explained when asked for directions to Dublin, "If oi was wantin' to go to Dublin, oi wouldn't be goin' from here.."
If there was a Chocolate World Cup (or World Series for US readers) and if I were to be judging it, then a bar from either of these ranges (left and right) would have a 'bye' straight through to the final. The other finalist would probably be Belgian. End of. I remember that during my first visit to the US I was curious to finally sample a Hershey bar first hand, having been brought up on the notion, via books and the cinema, that nothing else comes close. I bought one and was mightily disappointed. I found it sickly sweet and tasting of many things - except chocolate. I know the Hershey bar is, in many ways, an American cultural icon but the sad truth is that the taste simply doesn't live up to its reputation. To be fair, I'd probably disagree violently if I'd been raised on them! I also have to say that the UK's Cadbury Dairy Milk bar is second only to the Hershey bar when it comes to overpowering sweetness. A bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk contains just 20% chocolate and over a quarter of its weight is fat.
Here, chocolat is an entirely different beast. In the narrow streets of Bayonne, there is an old arcaded street - the rue du Port Neuf - that is home to four master chocolatiers. They make their own chocolate from scratch. This is serious stuff (code for expensive!).You owe it to yourself to try a piece of real chocolate once (at least) in your life. The rich smell of chocolate wafts gently and seductively from the chocolate shops as you stroll by (if you are able!). L'Atelier du Chocolat, Cazenave and Daranatz are to be found within a few metres of each other tucked under the old stone arched colonnades on one side of the street - with Pariès on the opposite side nearer the river. A couple of streets away will be found Puyodebat. There's also Chocolat Pascal (32 Quai Galuperie), Leonidas (28 Rue Lormand) and Jeff de Bruges (19 Rue de la Salie) but I'm not familiar with these. Warning! You're going to hate me for telling you this but you can buy online from Cazenave, Pariès, L'Atelier du Chocolat and Puyodebat..
Dark chocolate appears to outsell the milk variety and I often see little old ladies in supermarkets reading the list of ingredients on the label to see the percentage of chocolate. Readers in the UK will be familiar with Cadbury's Bournville - a popular dark chocolate; however, it contains only 36% of cocoa solids.. I would say that the standard here for dark chocolate is 70%. There is even a Lindt 99% bar. We invited our neighbour in for tea and cakes one afternoon and she arrived with a couple of bars of Casenave chocolate for us.. one milk, one plain. The plain chocolate was stunning - I'd guess an 8.1 on the Richter scale of chocolate taste.
You can actually buy chocolate flavoured with Piment d'Espelette. It's made by Espelette's very own chocolaterie: Antton. Antton offers a guided tour of their small factory (or atelier de fabrication as they call it - it sounds better) followed by tastings.. highly recommended. And they do mail order...
Espelette (with La Rhune in the distance)
I mentioned Piment d'Espelette in the previous post and I realise that not mentioning it before now has been a mammoth oversight on my behalf. Piment d'Espelette literally means “hot pepper of Espelette” in French. It's produced around the village of Espelette in the Pays Basque. This pepper is so famous that it has been given a protected designation by the European Union, ensuring that only peppers grown in the Espelette region may be labeled as “Piment d'Espelette.” This is designed to protect the heritage and integrity of this unique pepper, which is a commonly-used ingredient in Basque food.
Peppers were one of the earliest imports from the New World, and they attracted immediate attention in southern Europe. Cooks realized that peppers could be easily cultivated in kitchen gardens, and that they made a convenient replacement for the much more costly black pepper. The earliest documented instances of pepper cultivation near Espelette date to the 16th century, and by the 18th century, the region was famous for its peppers. On the principle that a picture is worth a thousand words, scroll down this link and you'll gain an idea as to the many and varied uses of Piment d'Espelette..
Piment d'Espelette hanging outside the Hotel Euzkadi in Espelette
The piment d'Espelette is red when mature, and relatively small and mild. Heat-wise, it is usually compared to paprika, another European pepper product. Piments d'Espelette also have a dark, slightly smoky flavour which can be intensified with roasting or pan-searing, and a robust peppery flavour which can be useful in a wide variety of dishes. These peppers are traditionally used to rub jambon de Bayonne (Bayonne ham), a famous export of the region, and they also appear in many other Basque dishes.
Red and green - there's no escaping these two colours in the Pays Basque - they are everywhere!
Fresh peppers are sometimes available at markets and grocers, and strings of dried peppers are usually readily available in south western France as well as being exported abroad. Piments d'Espelette are also sold in dried and powdered form, and in the form of pastes, which may be in jars, cans, or tubes. They are also sometimes blended into spice mixes which are meant to evoke the cooking of south western France. I'm guessing but I'm willing to bet that piment d'Espelette is a key ingredient in Sauce Basque (Forte) made by Sakari - and available online.
Espelette takes its famous export so seriously that it has an annual Celebration of Peppers every October, at which the piment d'Espelette takes centre stage. Peppers bedeck the streets while citizens compete with their favourite recipes and restaurants feature pepper dishes on their specials menus. Other regional foods are also feted during the annual Celebration, and for visitors to the region, it can be a great way to get a taste of Basque cooking. This clip shows Espelette during this time.. (Health Warning: If you're allergic to accordion music, now would be a good time to fit your Factor 30 max strength ear plugs!)
17th January 2011. Scooters are a constant and often intrusive part of the daily scene down here - buzzing (illegally) down bus lanes sounding like angry wasps in a coffee can, looking "cool" being ridden one-handed by their riders (in their dreams), or with helmet unstrapped, using a mobile, or squeezing unannounced between lanes of traffic at a speed that makes no allowances for other people and overtaking on whichever side happens to suit. (starting to sound like Mr Grumpy!) The one thing they do that really gets my knuckles gleaming is when I'm at the head of a queue at traffic lights, it can be guaranteed that some eejit on a scooter will ride up the outside and then stop at an angle across the front of my car so as to be ready to be first away from the traffic light Grand Prix.. With these last, I'm often tempted to let my darker side take over..!
If I asked a group of readers of a certain age to name as many scooter manufacturers as possible, I think it would be a pretty safe bet that the first and only names they would come up with would be either Vespa (left) or Lambretta (right). Nowadays, scooters are being churned out in their thousands by a huge number of manufacturers and they come in all shapes and sizes - from short stubby ones with buzzy little 50cc 2 stroke engines to much larger ones - with longer wheelbases that encourage a relaxed feet-forward riding style. Engine sizes? 50cc up to - yes - 850cc!
Gilera used to make wonderful 4 cylinder Grand Prix racing motorcycles in the '50s that made this spine-tingling sound (that scarred me for life when I was a kid) - but today, Gilera is busy with their interpretation of what a modern fast scooter should be - the Gilera GP800. The Gilera GP800 has a stonking great 8-valve, fuel injected, 90-degree, 840cc V-twin engine that will whisk you up to an astonishing 125mph (200kph). I don't care what you say but that is serious tackle to put in a scooter. Harley Davidson - eat your heart out!
This clip will give you a clue as to its performance.. here it is outdragging a Lamborghini (for a while):
Three wheeled scooters have made an appearance too.. and the civilised Piaggio MP3 is very popular with office workers here for beating the traffic and having that little bit extra stability and security on greasy road surfaces.
The Japanese have a major presence in this market as you might have expected.. Here's Yamaha's class-leading offering - the TMax 500: