Wednesday, 2 September 2009

6. The house

Every summer for years, we'd base ourselves in the same small village that we'd found in the foothills of the Pyrenees. For us it was an oasis of calm and tranquillity in the evenings after the hustle and bustle of the coast during the peak holiday season. We’d stay at a small family hotel/restaurant that had 3-4 rooms upstairs and some of the best French country cooking I’d ever had. Demi-pension (half board) stayed the same price for years: 235frs each. (or ~£23) Later it became ~35€. For B&B and a four course dinner. And this was in the high season in the Pays Basque! Over the years, we became very friendly with Bernadette & Philippe, the owners, and were treated like family. The first day we arrived each year, the staff would rush out into the car park and insist on carrying all our bags in.
The style of their restaurant hit exactly the right note for us. Forget about Rubik Cubes of Freedom Fries and clichéd towers of designer food with some poor beknighted chef's signature black pudding, with 2 slices of carrot or whatever the latest fad is (on an oversize white plate, natch) arranged by an interior designer with an artistic 'swirl of jus' around it. No, here it was all brought to the table in serving dishes and it was left up to us how much or how little we took. Portion control was a concept that they didn’t understand. They selected what we were to have each evening for the starter and the main course and so over the course of a two week holiday we would work our way through their menus. Never the same dish twice. When it came to the cheese, they would just bring a 2 tiered cakestand-like affair laden with around a dozen cheeses to our table - only taking it away when we’d finished.

They kept the same staff year on year too and we got to know them all.. Each year, half way through the holiday, I’d go through to the kitchen and give Jean-Marie (their solidly built rugby-playing chef) a bottle of whisky and he, in turn, looked after us. One final evening he offered us a new dish of his to try - Magret de Canard in a reduced Irouleguy sauce. We still talk about that..

One of the waitresses, Sandrine, had a droll sense of humour. They served a home-made pistachio ice cream that I always found hard to resist. Each evening, I'd invariably order pistache et chocolat, or pistache et cafe, or pistache et vanille in preference to all of the other choices on the menu. One evening, when Sandrine came to our table, after taking Madame's order she looked at me with a dead pan expression and said, "Pistache et quoi..?" before bursting into laughter!

Each day, we'd wonder what we were going to have that evening. For the final dinner of our stay there, Bernadette would give us la carte and tell us to order whatever we liked from her extensive menu..

We once had a memorable final lunch there. As we were driving to Biarritz airport in the afternoon for the return flight home to England we'd only ordered a half bottle of Madiran (a great red from the SW). The starter was an Assiette Gourmande which, when it arrived, we saw would have been more than enough but that was only the first course. Madame had ordered a poulet basquaise as a main course and when it arrived, it turned out that she'd been given half a chicken..! After eating solidly for a while Madame started shimmying her upper body like a limbo dancer. She explained she was making space! Of course, by the time Bernadette arrived with the cheese, the Madiran had inexplicably evaporated. She stood there.. looking at our empty bottle before observing with a laugh, "But you can't enjoy cheese without wine..!" We said yes but we're driving in a minute. At that, a charming couple at the next table turned around and offered us their bottle of wine saying that they'd ordered too much and we were welcome to finish the remaining half of their bottle.. It turned out that they were a couple of teachers from near Bordeaux and we chatted with them for a while. It was a pity we met them on the very last day of our stay.

When we started going there, they used to charge £3.50 for a bottle of their own Bordeaux.. (I know - “and then the Korean War came along to spoil everything!”) There was even a signed photograph of Charlotte Rampling on the wall in the dining room.. Another satisfied customer.

Bernadette would always offer us either an apéritif or a digestif. There is a superb Marc d'Irouleguy produced from the local Irouleguy* wine which comes out at ~44° BV.. and it was this that she offered me once as a digestifMarc is a pomace brandy that's made from the pressed grape pulp, skins, and stems that remain after the grapes have been crushed and pressed to extract most of the juice for wine. In short, Marc d'Irouleguy is a little-known brandy made from a little-known wine variety. Marc can be fairly rough and is often described politely as an 'acquired' taste but this Marc d'Irouleguy was anything but. She'd filled a brandy glass up the the point where the sides of the glass slope in again.. Ouf! After I'd finished it (churlish not to, m'lud), we thought it best to take a precautionary walk around the village before heading off home. Strangely, I had no trouble falling asleep that night. Another example of their kindness was when we would come to leave after our annual visit.. We would have paid the bill, I'd have a suitcase in each hand and we'd be saying goodbye when Philippe would produce a bottle of Irouléguy red wine, from behind his back and he would tuck it under my arm with the words, "Think of us when you drink that..".
* available from the Wine Society in the UK - see here  (wish I'd known this when we were still in England!)
If this next clip doesn't set your feet tapping, there's no hope for you! Take a break with some hot gypsy jazz guitar starring Dorado Schmitt (guitar centre left) from the 2004 Django Reinhardt Festival in New York:
Time for another quote – and this is an oh-so-true one from the pen of P G Wodehouse:

“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”

Meanwhile, back at the house search.. As I said before, we’d gone around all the agents in St Jean de Luz and Biarritz, left our requirements and contact details and not heard from any of them. We soon realised that there was no way that we’d find what we wanted in either of these places as the prices were waay beyond our means so we decided to look at Bayonne (only a 10 minute drive from Biarritz) and there we went into the first likely looking estate agents that we saw.

We gave the lady in the agency our list of what we wanted and to our surprise she said that she had just the place for us and, what’s more, that it was in the most sought after area in Bayonne as well.. The thought “Yers, a likely tale..” did come to mind - but we gave her the benefit of the doubt. She quickly locked up and took us there in her car. When we pulled up outside, we saw that she hadn’t exaggerated at all. The stone built house is in what's known as a 30s neo-Basque style - with the added bonus of a forty foot palm tree in the front garden. It fitted all of our requirements exactly. What’s more, it was only a 2 minute walk to a row of shops on the edge of the town centre.

On entering, there was a tiled hall with a polished wooden staircase on the left. The sitting room was square in shape with a raised fireplace in the corner. There was an arched walk-through to the good-sized dining room which had French windows that opened out onto a terrace. The kitchen - which needed modernising - was large enough for a table. There was also a small balcony upstairs at the front. There were 3 bedrooms. The house had belonged to an elderly lady and it needed re-decorating from top to bottom. There was a downstairs bathroom that could easily be turned into a utility room, and the upstairs bathroom needed replacing as the suite and the fittings were all very dated. There was a good sized garden at the rear and a garage. And a cellar.

Having found somewhere that met all our essential criteria so soon, we found ourselves in the position of having to move very quickly and in doing so, commit ourselves to spending more money than either of us had ever done in our lives. No pressure then! We questioned ourselves - was this the house that we really wanted..? There was no doubt that after that first viewing we both had felt that indefinable sense of being comfortable with the house - so much so that we decided to arrange another viewing for the following day.

There was something of a "Marie Celeste" feel about it.. It had belonged to a lady in her eighties who'd died a couple of months earlier and as her children had moved away there had been no-one on the spot to clear the house - even a little. She had clearly only been living in the downstairs section as there was still a made-up single bed in the dining room with a small bag of sweets on a bedside table, there was food still in the fridge, clothes in wardrobes and wine in the cellar.. and walking through the house we felt as if we were intruding on someone's privacy.

After this second viewing, we both knew it was the house for us.. Madame had inherited a fine English mahogany bookcase (over 2m tall by 2m wide) from her parents and it was crucial that there would be space for it. There was. We mentally blocked in all our pieces of furniture and amazingly there was a place for everything. We decided "Yes" there and then.

The kitchen had obviously last been re-fitted around the early days of the Fifth Republic and was in dire need of replacement. The key theme of the house was pink.. (think Barbara Cartland meets Liberace!) There was pink wallpaper everywhere, there were pink curtains and we found later that every shrub or flower in the garden had pink blossom.. The bathroom was a symphony in pink - with its pink bath, a pink lavatory, a pink bidet and a pink shower curtain with - yes, you've guessed it - a pink shower rail. And pink tiles. Aaaargghhh!

We asked the estate agent lady if she could recommend anyone for kitchen work or for bathrooms. The estate agent lady said she knew a Basque craftsman who had contacts with other 'artisans' who might be able to help us. More about this later.

Meanwhile, I started going to a language centre in Bayonne as they provide French lessons for foreigners. I had to have my French evaluated by a woman there and she said that it was very good! All those years of studying have finally paid off.. (ahem) I went back a few days later to take a 2hr written test (well, it was actually a 10 minute test but it took me – hey, you’re ahead of me!) so they could find out exactly where my French needs improving. I could have saved them the time and trouble!

Right, having adopted a suitably hangdog, furtive and shifty expression I'm off into Bayonne to negotiate the purchase of a fresh baguette...

In the immortal words of Captain Oates, "I'm just going outside and I may be some time.."

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