Friday, 29 January 2010

41. Basque specialities

29th January 2010. I was walking through St Jean de Luz the other day listening to snatches of conversations from passersby (as you do) when it struck me that the English language was probably outside the medals in a distant fourth place when it came to which language was most likely to be overheard there. The first three contenders are French, Spanish and Basque (in no particular order). The rowing club has started a regular exchange with its counterpart in San Sebastian over the border. Prior to the saga of my knees, we drove over there a couple of times for outings in their very distinctive "trainieres" (right). I was quite surprised at how many of the French element could speak Spanish and there were even a few who could speak Basque as well. I've deliberately kept away from speaking "Angliche" with them there unless I've been absolutely forced to but I don't think many speak it at all. I noticed in Paris over Christmas that quite a few people kindly switched into English when my French wasn't up to it. However, down here in the extreme south west, English is a long way from being a second language.

After my Basque cheese market research episode, I was weighing up the pros & cons of the unique gastronomic specialities of the Pays Basque. In my view, while Basque cheeses don't stand comparison with the great cheeses of France, they're worth trying once or twice. Given the choice between a Basque cheese or a ripe Brie de Meaux, or even better, a (Vacherin) Mont d'Or, it would be no contest.. the Brie or the Mont d'Or (the king of cheese in my book) would win every time. Mont d'Or can only be found in the winter months which is why it's such a great Christmas treat here at 'Piperade Towers'. The Basque cheese has to be tried but only, in my view, out of a sense of duty that one is eating a regional product. (Edited to add: Re-reading this comment several years after I wrote it, I think I was being unduly harsh with Basque cheese. After all, an Ossau-Iraty cheese from Fromagerie Agour was voted the best cheese in the world a few years ago. Cheese is a very subjective subject - so take my comments with a pinch of salt - after all, Kraft Dairylea was the mainstay of my youth.)
This next comment might be seen as heresy here but I think the same is true of Gâteau basque which is widely found on local menus. I find it a fairly bland, stodgy cake that's pretty heavy going (you know you've eaten one) and devoid of any great taste. (I'll burn at the stake for this!) Yes, by all means give it a try when down here but don't expect too much from it. I'd better say no more on the subject! (Again, since writing the above one-eyed comment, my tastes have moved on and I've come to appreciate and, yes, enjoy gâteau basque.)

Just back from a VO (version originale - ie, in English) showing of George Clooney's latest - Up in the Air - at the flicks in Biarritz. The cinema experience was like going back 40-50 years.. No advertising, no relentless chomping of popcorn in bucket-sized containers, no half gallon Cokes being slurped, no rustle of sweet papers - just people out enjoying a film. How was the film? Not a feel-good movie at all - in fact, quite negative and depressing. If your Winter Fuel Allowance is burning a hole in your pocket, sit on your hands - because this isn't worth blowing a week's warmth on. Think George needs to speak to his agent.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

40. Cheesed off..

28th January 2010. Here in France, cheese is a serious subject - as you might expect from a country that has n cheeses (where n is a number between 400 & 500) although this French web site suggests that there are now well over 1,200. 

I had an encounter outside the Grand Hotel in the centre of Bayonne the other day with a market research lady with a clipboard. After I confessed to being a Brit, she quickly established that I'd heard of cheese and then she asked if I'd like to participate in a cheese tasting survey inside the hotel. (quiet in the cheap seats!)

She sat me down at a table in the bar and I had to tell her which cheeses I was familiar with from a list. She then invited me to eat a dry cracker while she went off to fetch the first cheese.

She put a healthy wedge of an un-named Basque cheese in front of me. It was sat in a plastic tray container similar to the ones that St Agur or Roquefort is sold in. Then the questioning started. Did I like cheese presented in plastic? (all answers were on a scale from 1 to 5) Or did I prefer paper? Did I like the look of the cheese and was the cheese sticking to the plastic and did this bother me? Did I like the look of the crust, the feel of it, did it make my fingers sticky, did I like the smell of it on my fingers, did I think the crust looked real or man-made, did I think the crust was too thin or too thick, did I like the colour of the cheese, did I like its smell and a few more questions I can no longer remember before she finally said, now cut a piece off and taste it. More questions followed concerning what were my positive reactions to the cheese followed by my negative reactions.. What did I think of its ease of cutting, body, taste, smell, after-taste, texture, granularity, creaminess and saltiness?

She then invited me to have another bite which triggered another endless stream of questions - apart from the only one I was ready for (the Major Bloodnok question), but which, alas, never came: "Is it like Cheddar..?" Gawd knows what she'd have made of the cheese of my youth - Kraft Dairylea..

She disappeared off to fetch another one and by now, I was starting to lose the will to live. When she returned she went through exactly the same procedure with the new cheese with the addition of a few comparative questions relative to the first cheese..

She wouldn't tell me what the cheeses were but I think the cheeses I tasted were both varieties of Etorki. This is a cheese made in the French Basque country, at Mauléon-Licharre in the interior of the Pays basque.

In the interests of balance, I google'd the British Cheese Board and it appears that there are over 700 named British cheeses produced in the UK, with "a cheese available for every occasion". I wonder if any of the occasions imagined by the BCB included tiling the bathroom floor, wedging open the garage door.. or stopping that annoying wobble of the dining table.. we'll never know.

Here's what the great and the good have to say on the subject of French cheese:

"A country producing almost 360 different types of cheese cannot die."
Winston Churchill in June 1940

"Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?"
("How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?")
Charles de Gaulle (Le grand fromage himself!)
(I've never quite seen the link between the number of cheeses produced by a country and its ability to govern itself..)

"Un repas sans fromage est une belle à qui il manque un œil."
("A meal without cheese is a beautiful woman with an eye missing.")
Brillat-Savarin (from La Physiologie du goût)
(a bit OTT this one - dare I say it: it's only cheese!)

Nostalgia Dept: Next time it's a Sunday lunchtime, close your eyes and play this one.. and let it conjure up the smells of a Sunday roast at home in days gone by.
Time for a late New Year's resolution: in the interest of preserving what remains of my reputation, this year I don't intend to enter any more hotels with strange ladies bearing clipboards to "discuss cheese". Unless, of course, they're offering a glass or two of red wine with it..

Saturday, 16 January 2010

39. Back at the ranch

16th January 2010. That sound you can hear is the last of the dust settling following Christmas and New Year.. We’re now back to our old routine.. no more champagne to drink, no more foie gras or galettes to eat. The trouble was that we stayed with 4 sets of friends in 9 days in and around Paris and each time we arrived at a new temporary 'home', the fatted calf would be killed anew and more bottles would be opened, with the result that when we finally returned home on New Years Day we were both feeling just that little bit jaded and desperately wanting to eat lightly for a few days.

That resolution lasted only 5 minutes once we got home.. because it was 5 minutes after opening the front door that I thought to check our mail box. The facteur (postman) has a master key to it and this explains how a fully formed Christmas Pudding (a kind thought from a friend in England) was found to be lurking in there.. along with all the other mail. Yes, a Christmas pudding - the one thing I hadn’t eaten over Christmas! So it was on the following Sunday that we nobly sacrificed ourselves to appease Ye Olde English Christmas Pudding Gods. The pudding was heated, hot brandy poured over it (“we have ignition..!”) and all conversation ceased for a few glorious minutes.. As always, the French have an apt expression for this moment: "Un ange passe". All was well with the world again. We retired early with snoring high on the agenda..

I could have done with this diagram on Christmas Eve - not having worn a tie for months!

Looking back over the holidays, I remember feeling 'hard done by' on Christmas Day.. With it being France, we had our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve with O - Madame's brother - and F - his wife - and their family.. and it was excellent indeed. O knows his wine too and he offered us a wonderful Bordeaux.. The following day at 3pm, we sat down to a light lunch as we were going to be eating for Queen & Country later in the evening. This is where the mind can play terrible tricks.. I remember thinking that, at that very moment, upwards of 10 million sizzling golden brown roast turkeys were sliding out of ovens all over Britain. The fact that we’d dined like kings the night before was temporarily forgotten. As I said, it was just a passing thought born out of years of conditioning. What was it that Hemingway said about Christmas? - that "you don't know what Christmas is until you lose it in some foreign land". There is some truth in that. Although we'd eaten royally (or should that be republicanly if there is such a word?) on Christmas Eve, I did feel a sense of seasonal deprivation on Christmas Day in the Vittles Department, if only for a few moments.

Earlier on Christmas Day, we'd gone with F to the outdoor market in nearby St Germain-en-Laye which to my complete surprise was open and busy. Quite a few shops were open as well. This is a manicured little town (now effectively an outer suburb of Paris) that is clearly a very desirable place to hang one's chapeau.

On Boxing Day, we’d been invited to F's sister in the afternoon. They live in the 9th arrondissement in Paris in one of those old apartment blocks that always look so inviting. Entering Paris from the north (Porte de la Chapelle) and driving through an ‘ethnic’ part of Paris, you could have been forgiven for thinking that we were in downtown Baghdad. We fought our way through the traffic and arrived at the address (just north of Pigalle). It was such a stylish flat with its polished parquet floors with decorative moulding on the walls and ceilings. Following hard on the heels of another outbreak of handshakes and cheek kissing all round on arrival, there was the unmistakeable sound of champagne corks being popped.. (again!)

More delights followed in the form of those little multi-coloured ‘macarons’ and other chocolatey nibbles. We had to leave fairly soon afterwards as we were expected at A’s, our second ‘home’ for the next couple of days in St-Maur, on the south east edge of Paris on the banks of the River Marne. I thought I’d trust the GPS to guide us through Paris – big mistake! We ended up stuck in heavy traffic before emerging to graze Boulevard Haussmann just at the point where the major department stores Galeries Lafayette and Printemps (left) are located. Fortunately, the chosen route led us away around La Madeleine (right) and then from there, an unexpected bonus, along the expressway along the banks of the Seine with its stunning views across to the Left Bank. It lifted our spirits to see again the city we love, the city that's full of memories for us. And, in the slanting late afternoon light, it really did look like what it is - the most beautiful city in the world. (OK, who's the comedian who said "After Birkenhead.."?)

With A, we walked along the banks of the Marne, lined with trophy houses, including the one where Charles Trénet’s mother lived. If you don’t know Charles Trénet (shame on you!), he wrote & recorded “La Mer” in 1946 - well before Bobby Darin’s English version came out in 1960. (Wait for it... "Who's Bobby Darin..?")
We walked down to A’s local market and I must say that I’ve not seen a better one. Food markets in the Pays Basque are very regional & very Basque with few, if any, outside influences. In genteel St-Maur, with it being Paris, all tastes and regions of France were catered for and the meat, poultry, cheese and fish stands were a real treat for the eyes. A’s 2 sons were visiting – the elder being Madame’s godson – and we enjoyed catching up with them.

After a couple of days with A, we moved back into central Paris to stay with N – Madame’s copine of old – and A, who live in the 11th in a chic top floor flat with a terrace, not far from the Place Bastille. This is a lively area, full of arty workshops and designers who’ve been allowed by the Ville de Paris to establish themselves in the curved spaces beneath a long viaduct. We walked along this fascinating row of avant-garde ateliers (workshops), studios and galleries heading for the Place Bastille and then to the Place des Vosges (above & right) in the Marais. We walked around the square in the cover of the galleries before stopping for a hot wine to keep the cold at bay. We sat outside a café under a heater and gradually warmed up. This is one of our favourite places in Paris for many reasons and we always find ourselves homing in on this particular spot. Chekhov said it best: "The golden moments pass, and leave no trace."

I make no apologies for this next one - one of the greatest songs ever written.
The next day, we had a tasty lunch at a local Chinese restaurant in the 11th before leaving Chibby (our golden cocker spaniel) with N & A (as dogs aren’t allowed in the Métro) while we went off for a walk up the Champs Elysées. Privately we were already starting to miss the sea air of the Pays Basque and the sea side. When I first walked down the Champs Elysées in the sixties, it was undeniably the style capital of the world and the ne plus ultra of luxury shopping in western Europe. The broad pavements were also the territory of some spectacularly beautiful nanas, either cruising or stepping hither and thither from one luxury shop to the next..

Over the years, the general malaise in the standards of western society saw a decline in the fortunes of these emporia for the excessively wealthy as street fashion now largely dominates the pavements. When we were there, it seemed that every man and his dog was out there walking up and down – and most of them were in baggy jeans and back-to-front (ooh trendy!) caps. And to crown it all, white painted Christmas market stalls selling imported tat had been set up lower down the grand Avenue. I never thought I'd live to see it. I'd've thought anywhere but here. We walked past the Drugstore (above left) at the top of the Champs Elysées. This is the Drugstore in its current incarnation (right) – OK for the fairground at Southend perhaps but at the top end of the Champs Elysées..? I'd call it council-sponsored vandalism - in Paris, the lunatics are now officially running the asylum. We decided we'd escape the madding crowd and so we circumnavigated the Arc de Triomphe and it was with a great sense of relief we headed off down into the tranquillity of the Avenue Victor Hugo in the 16th.
At one point I spotted a stylish restaurant across the road and I realised I was looking at Prunierthe classic seafood restaurant of Paris that dates waay back. I think it’s fair to say that its heyday was probably in the Golden Age but I’d still give my right arm to have lunch there.

I found myself standing outside a shop for gents like wot I am and, looking in the window, I saw quite a few things I liked. Stepping inside, Madame said I was looking for a jacket. After a single practised look at me, the owner selected one and held it open for me to try. It fitted as though made for me. I don’t think we spent more than 10 minutes inside the shop. My kind of shopping!

We went into a few shops looking for things for Madame but without much luck.

This area of Paris is almost like a village – only a few minutes walk from the Arc de Triomphe but a haven of peace and calm. I shudder to think what an apartment would cost.. As the old saying has it: if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. And with that, with night fast approaching, we headed back to N & A’s.

You’ll have to look elsewhere to find out how Johnny (Halliday) is doing.. he’s been headline news for weeks now in France with a near-death experience in Los Angeles due to medical complications arising from an 'op' he'd had in Paris. And then there was the Euro-tunnel fiasco with trains marooned for hours. I didn’t see an English newspaper but I’m sure that more than one of the tabloids would have been unable to resist that old headline: “Tunnel shut-down; Continent isolated..”

To round off our stay in Paris, here’s the incomparable Yves Montand singing Les Feuilles Mortes.. (Autumn leaves in the English version). Enjoy..
Places to go? An ideal day would start with an 'apero' (aka attitude adjuster, bracer, snifter, heart starter..) at Au Franc Pinot on the Ile St-Louis before walking to the Taverne Henri IV (13 Place du Pont Neuf) for a light lunch. Try their rilletes de canard (right) with some crusty bread and a glass (or two) of Madiran.. In the afternoon, head across to the Place des Vosges area for a mooch around the galleries, cafes and shops various before dinner at Bofinger, just off Place Bastille. This is the oldest brasserie in Paris and you may need to book. Tip: ask (demand!) to be seated downstairs under the dome. Try their excellent fixed price 3 course menu - which includes wine. (It was the equivalent of £18 for years - it might be 25€ now.) After that, stroll down to the Latin Quarter for a rhum or two at the Rhumerie. There's always the Slow Club to finish off with..
Aide memoire!
Start: Au Franc Pinot. 1, Quai de Bourbon. (A while since I was last here - heard it had closed - now believed to have re-opened. Might be worth one visit)
Lunch (or a long afternoon!): Taverne Henri IV.
Dinner: Bofinger.
Drinks after: Rhumerie.
Finish: Slow Club. You're on your own now..!

It occurred to me the other day that Woody Allen nailed the essence of New York with the opening credits of his film "Manhattan" - the marriage of images and music (courtesy of George Gershwin) has never been bettered. Has something similar ever been done for Paris? And if not, why not? Here's a reminder:

3 down, 1 to go..! Our final stop before returning home was at Tours but we thought we’d go via the cemetery at Chartres – to pay our respects to Madame’s father & mother. The family grave is well situated in a beautifully maintained cemetery with a splendid view of the great cathedral which soars up to dominate the landscape for many miles around. It’s not a sad place - it’s not overgrown with moss or ivy – and as a final resting place it’s hard to think of one better.

We had a problem when it came to leave Chartres in that it seemed to be in a ‘black hole’ as far as the GPS was concerned! Unable to get a signal, we battled our way around the tangled inner parts of the town which were already starting to clog up with the early evening traffic. I think it took us a good 30 minutes to leave Chartres behind and get established on the road for Tours where fortunately the GPS kicked in once again. The temperature was just above freezing and as we approached Tours I could see a classic “line squall” developing fast out to the west. One half of the sky was black as pitch while the other was a benign early evening blue. Suddenly, there was a deluge of rain and gusts of wind - the noise in the car was deafening and all road markings disappeared. The sheer volume of water that came down was astonishing but gradually it tailed off and we breathed a sigh of relief.

At Tours, we stayed with our good friends J-M and M. Two years earlier we’d broken our journey with them overnight on the way south when we moved down from England. It was lovely to see them again and on New Year’s Eve, we took a walk along the Loire on a bright but bitterly cold afternoon. He’d bought his boys a Wii thing, a Beatles program with a couple of ‘modded’ guitars but he was suspiciously well practised at playing along with the Beatles..!! All too soon it was New Year’s day and time to leave again and head south.

The wintry weather we’d had in Paris extended as far south as Tours and we were both feeling the cold. As we drove south towards the Pays Basque though, we saw the first breaks in the cloud and before long we were under a cloudless sky and the temperatures started to rise.

And when we finally turned off the autoroute at Bayonne and crossed the familiar bridge over the Adour, it seemed like we hadn’t been away. Beautiful, grand and invigorating though Paris is, we were glad to be back home in the south west, in the Pays Basque.

It struck me in the wee small hours this morning that I haven’t really said much about the ‘gastronomique’ specialities of the Pays Basque. In my view, it’s a significant part of what makes this corner of France so special.

Speaking of which: