Saturday, 27 March 2010

53. Hemingway & the Pays Basque

30th March 2010. The Hemingway persona/myth continues to fascinate as each succeeding generation discovers the man and his work anew. One of the preoccupations of youth has always been the conspicuous consumption of alcohol and in picking Hemingway as a role model, they're never in any danger of being disappointed on that score. That he carried on his youthful heavy drinking all through his adult life during which he drove ambulances on the Italian front in WW1, skied in the Alps, shot big game in Africa, fished the Gulf Stream, followed bullfights, served as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and WWII, became a serial husband and, to pay the bills, worked as a journalist and, in his novels, produced some of the greatest writing of the 20th century - only serves to lend credence to, and perhaps legitimise, his legendary love affair with the one mistress he stayed faithful to all his life - alcohol.

In the course of a colourful life lived to the full, he left an indelible imprint in several locations scattered around the fringes of the western world. It could be argued that he rode the first wave of global tourism. There must be as many blue plaques in bars around the world indicating that Ernest Hemingway ate or drank here (usually the latter) as there are inns in the UK claiming that Mary, Queen of Scots, slept there. I must admit I envy him for having been able to experience Italy, France, Spain, East Africa, Key West and Cuba before tourism marked them irreparably. Yes, he's a flawed figure and one who's easy to mock or parody - but there's no denying the fact that he wrote much beautiful prose and despite living a hunting, shooting, fishing, drinking, womanising life with a tendency to self-aggrandisement, he remains a fascinatingly charismatic figure. Paris continues to attract young Americans who go there hoping to write the great American novel. Hemingway put down markers that seem impossibly out of reach.

The Pays Basque and Spain frequently figured in EH's body of work as well as in his personal life. He left America in the early 1920s to take up residence in Paris, from where he travelled to Pamplona via the Pays Basque for the now-legendary running of the bulls during the feast of San Fermin. This must have been a fairly obscure event in a dusty corner of Europe at the time when Hemingway visited it.
Nowadays, the running of the bulls has morphed into an international rite of passage for thousands of young men from many nations and also for more than a few older ones who are seeking to re-capture their lost youth. For him though, this was a life-changing experience and he immortalised it in his first best-selling novel The Sun Also Rises. It describes how the relationships within a group of expat Americans and Brits change during the alcohol-fuelled week of the San Fermin festival against a background of bull fighting. Jake is the narrator and clearly speaks with Hemingway's voice. After a memorable week, Jake finishes up in Madrid having lunch with Lady Brett - where Hemingway has Jake polishing off 5 bottles of Rioja (as you do!).

Hemingway arrived in Bayonne by train from Paris to catch his first sight of the Pays Basque. Arriving in Bayonne on a summer's night after a long hot train journey from Paris, I would think his first priority after crossing the bridge over the Adour to find a hotel in the old centre of Bayonne would have been to find the nearest bar - of which there is no shortage - for a cold beer or two. Having grown up in the leafy suburbs of staid Oak Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago, he must have been excited at the thought of what lay ahead.
He travelled on through the Basque country to Pamplona but always returned to the coast - San Sebastian, Hendaye, St Jean de Luz or Biarritz. Much later in life (in 1959) he was commissioned to write one last time about a summer of bullfighting in Spain. He recruited a young American woman as his secretary and she wrote that:
"On the trips we took to France Hemingway carried the manuscript of the novel with him. In late August we went to Dax to see Antonio fight. We stayed at the Chantaco Hotel in St. Jean de Luz and ate at the Bar Basque."
The  Hotel Chantaco (just outside St Jean de Luz) remains the same fine & grand establishment that it surely was 50 years ago:
Hotel de Chantaco
I suspect that EH would have been far more at home in the unpretentious Bar Basque in the Boulevard Thiers, Saint-Jean-de Luz. Well situated in a leafy boulevard, the Bar Basque is a 'clean, well-lighted place' and somewhere that's very pleasant indeed to sit with a late drink (or 3) under the platanes on a summer's evening and watch the world go by.
Bar Basque
This week's freebie - Papa's grand-daughter Mariel playing opposite Woody Allen in the great closing scene of "Manhattan", with Gershwin pulling it all together. I like the moment when the penny drops for Woody at 02:23.. (we've all been there..)
Finally, still on the Hemingway theme of this week's post, here's Paolo Conte with his "Hemingway":
I cut and pasted the Italian lyrics into Babelfish and this popped out the other end! I'm none the wiser..

Beyond the dolcezze dell Harrys Bar
And the tendernesses of Zanzibar wax questra road
Beyond the illusions of Timbuctoo
And the long legs of Babal wax this road
Quetsa road zitta that it flies via like a butterfly,
Nostalgia, nostalgia to the taste of curaçao
Perhaps a day better me spiegher
Et alors, Monsieur Hemingway, to it goes?
Et alors, Monsieur Hemingway, to it goes mieux?

Well I hope that's answered any questions you may have had!

Wish I'd said this:  "Always carry a large flagon of whisky in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake."

One for the road:
"Don't you drink? I notice you speak slightingly of the bottle. I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure. When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky? When you are cold and wet what else can warm you?"                                                  
                                         Ernest Hemingway

52. Ramiro Arrue - his vision of the Pays Basque.

27th March 2010. Visitors to the Pays Basque with an eye for the graphic arts will soon become aware of the stylistic influence exerted on the self image of the region by the celebrated Basque artist Ramiro Arrue (right) of Spanish nationality.

More than anyone else that I'm aware of, his paintings define the region and capture the essence of the Basque identity. His work is deceptively simple and it portrays the rural Basque people at work and at play.

The Basques have an especially intense relationship with their houses, their farms and their land. This is perhaps best illustrated by a poem - My Father's House - by Gabriel Aresti, 1963 (translated from the original Basque):

I shall defend the house of my father.
Against wolves, against drought, against usury, against the Justice,
I shall defend the house of my father.
I shall lose cattle, orchards and pinewoods;
I shall lose interests, income and dividends,
But I shall defend the house of my father.
They will take away my weapons and with my hands
I shall defend the house of my father;
They will cut off my hands and with my arms
I shall defend the house of my father;
They will leave me without arms, without shoulders and without breasts,
And with my soul I shall defend the house of my father.
I shall die, my soul will be lost, my descendants will be lost,
But the house of my father will remain standing.

(Reading the above lines explains the passion the Basques feel for their houses and the fierce local resistance here to the southern extension of the special track for the TGV which is planned to pass through the Pays Basque - that will necessitate the demolition of ~140 Basque houses.)

Born May 20, 1892 in Bilbao, Ramiro Arrue studied in Paris and associated with Picasso, Modigliani and Cocteau. He settled in St Jean de Luz in 1917 where he remained for the rest of his adult life. Despite choosing to live in France, he retained his Spanish nationality and as a result was arrested together with other Spanish Basques in 1943 and imprisoned in the fortress at St Jean Pied de Port.

He resumed painting in 1945 and he found his main inspiration for landscapes, portraits, and everyday scenes. His style is figurative, featuring simple, even austere, lines with an almost monumental quality and muted colour harmonies. The academic Hélène Saule-Sorbé wrote: "The colours of Ramiro Arrue's brush are a trilogy: green, white, red. The permanence of heraldry, a sign of belonging, the palette of a country of green hills, of bright white houses whose roofs and woodwork is red".

He died alone in penury in St Jean de Luz on 1 April 1971.

A prolific artist, we see his work regularly surfacing at a gallery in St Jean de Luz but they command high prices.

Here's the real thing:

Thursday, 25 March 2010

51. Café Society

24th March 2010. This afternoon we went to Biarritz and while there we trolled down to the Cafe Patisserie Miremont to give Madame a special treat. The Miremont has been an institution in Biarritz since the late 19th century.

It's one of the very last of the cafés in the grand old manner. This is where the great and the good glittered and displayed in the Fin de Siècle and the Golden Age.. The whole swirling social scene of crowned heads, Grand Dukes, soon-to-be-extinct minor European royalty and all the carefully calibrated social distinctions and gradations of old families, assorted aristocracy, nouveau riche industrialists, Brits on the Grand Tour, White Russians, Jazz Age Americans, opportunists, gigolos, "Grandes Horizontales", wide-eyed hopefuls, courtesans, confidence tricksters et al have passed through its doors and into dusty oblivion. On the evidence of yesterday's visit, the clientele of the present day is drawn more from the ranks of the European mittel-bourgeoisie - discreet, well dressed, comfortable and perhaps more democratic.

There's a sense that the salon is set in aspic and that nothing has changed. It's a moot point how long it can continue. A glance at the menu shows that the old style carries on regardless. Their display of patisserie is faultless.. It has a picture window at the far end of the mirrored salon that provides a magnificent view of la Grande Plage:

Despite the mirrored walls starting to show signs of their age they still support their original purpose which was, and of course still is, people watching.
We ordered two ice creams which, when they arrived, appeared to be about a foot high.. and they were decorated in a lather of freshly whipped cream. Underneath lay chocolate ice cream of a richness I don't think I've ever tasted before, together with some sort of crunchy pistachio flavoured biscuit.. Needless to say, we didn't eat when we arrived home!
Like the café Florian in the Piazza San Marco, Venice, the Miremont is definitely a place to visit at least once in your life.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

50. San Sebastián

23rd March 2010. One of the benefits of living down in the extreme south west corner of France is that, apart from being a reassuringly long way from Calais(!), we are close to the border with Spain. Close enough so that we can set off for Spain at short notice (as in 5 minutes) without it becoming a major logistical exercise. Travelling abroad from Britain with a car was, and still is, a pain.. There was always that inescapable feeling that we were being exploited by the cross channel operators whether it was by the ferries, hovercraft or the tunnel - especially during school holidays. I once read somewhere that it's the world's most expensive sea crossing. No surprises there - as I've always suspected that the cross channel companies operate a cartel. The thing that always wound me up was that in spite of a 5 hour journey down to Dover, followed by a rip off channel crossing, we were still only at Calais! Anyway, breathe deeply and relax.. (again!)

Living down here provides us with another welcome string to our bow. If we feel like a good strong Spanish coffee, one of their wonderful hot chocolates or just some casual strolling about window shopping, then from leaving the house to arriving in Irun it's no more than a quick 25 minute zip down the road. Sometimes it's just nice to be able to go and access a different culture.. plus Madame speaks a little Spanish which comes in handy.

On the French side, almost without exception, houses are painted white with the woodwork picked out in Basque Rouge - blood red. However, once over the border, there's a subtle change in building styles. After the all-pervading 'whiteness' of the Pays Basque there's an indefinable sense of austereness in the style of their brown stone buildings that I find attractive. This aspect of their domestic architecture becomes more pronounced in towns like San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque).

This noble old town (pop: 180,000) is only 60km (37 miles) from Bayonne - 45 mins by car - and it's set on a magnificent circular bay known as La Concha. The development of rail travel in the mid-19th century enabled Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie to travel in comfort down to Biarritz to set up their summer residence. The Spanish monarchy followed suit and chose San Sebastian as their preferred seaside resort in order to escape the relentless heat of Madrid summers. Subsequently the Spanish nobility and the diplomatic corps opened up residences in the summer capital.
San Sebastian has a real style to it - it's a more formal, more businesslike town than its neighbours across the border in the French Basque country - even Biarritz - with its many offices and shops in addition to the numerous hotels. The arcades, streets and boulevards are lined with heavy brown stone apartment buildings in a rococo style, many with ornate curlicued balconies. Our first visit there was during one of our holidays in the Pays Basque and we were dressed in shorts and t-shirts. Very quickly we realised that the residents were dressed for work rather than the beach and after that, we always spruced ourselves up for a visit.

The river Urumea has been canalised to flow through the town and it is spanned by some beautiful bridges. After strolling around the sea front and looking in countless shop windows (!) we generally head for the Parte Vieja (Old Part) - a fascinating quarter characterised by its narrow streets and an astonishing number of bars and cafes, all of which serve pintxos (or tapas as they're known elsewhere in Spain).
Entering one such, you'll find that every square inch of the bar top will be covered in pintxos dishes.. of all kinds - fish, tortillas, crab, sausage, egg, various hams & salamis.. and the ceiling space is taken up with cured hams - a feast for the eyes. These pintxos are best eased down with a glass or two of Sangria.. followed by one of their trademark black coffees..

Overheard in an English pub (probably apocryphal!):

Customer to waitress – “That was inedible muck, and there wasn't enough of it."

And, coming in from the car park to complain again: "And frankly m’dear, once I've eaten a thing, I don't expect to see it again."

An old favourite of mine - Judi Collins singing "Send in the clowns".. This song could have been written for Madame and I..

I don't think I've ever liked a Sinatra song enough to want to buy a recording - but I think in this case perhaps I should have done. His interpretation of "Send in the clowns" is the definitive one and I'd like to have heard him sing this when he was in his prime. Unfortunately, his YouTube version is of low quality - but despite that, his virtuoso performance shines through.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

49. La Rhune

7th March 2010. In all this talk of the Pays Basque, I have somehow neglected to mention what is probably the most symbolic feature of all the French Basque country and that is - La Rhune.

La Rhune is the distinctively shaped mountain that seems to crouch at the western end of the Pyrenees and its brooding presence and sharp-edged silhouette dominates the Côte Basque. To me, there is something of a headless Sphinx about its form. To put its size into perspective, at 2969' (905m), it's just shy of the qualifying height for a 'Munro' by the length of a domestic ladder.
Access to its summit is from the Col de St. Ignace (169m), which is midway between Ascain and Sare. The road up to the lower station from Ascain is described on a cyclists web site as "a gentle snaking climb (my italics) up to a very popular funicular railway taking tourists to the top of La Rhune for a view of the ocean". Cyclists clearly have a very different view of the world to the one I see!
Once at the Col de St. Ignace station, there are two methods of reaching the summit of La Rhune - there's the Petit train de la Rhune, a rack & pinion metre gauge railway that slowly grinds its way up to the top or - you can walk up. A popular option is "Train up and walk down.." or, if that smacks of being too easy, try it the other way round - aka the Hero option! If you intend taking the train up on a fine summer's day, be advised that it is an incredibly popular attraction and parking will be an issue, as will the queues for a ticket. The trick is to make an early start, looking to be at the Col de St. Ignace station no later than 9am. If you leave arriving there till later in the day, you'll be treated to a Masterclass in the Noble Art of French Queueing - say no more! A return ticket is ~14€ and dogs are charged at 50%.. ouch! There's a vulture towards the end of this clip! And despair ye not.. the accordionist stops at around 4.25..!
Make sure to check the weather forecast before leaving as the conditions can change quite markedly up there. There is a small Spanish-run restaurant/snack bar at the summit as well as a number of shops selling tourist gizmos, alcoholic drinks and tobacco at Spanish prices. I'd recommend taking a picnic as the food in the cafe could best be described as average, plus why sit indoors when the views outside are so special?

Take a picnic, sit ouside and drink in the views which are really stunning. From the summit on a clear day, you can see waay up the coast north of Bayonne to the start of Les Landes. Saint-Jean-de-Luz lies before you and inland the Pyrenees march away to the south east in a blue haze.Right! Enough sight-seeing.. think it's time to refresh the inner man. Here's a recipe for Les Pommes de Terre Sarladaises (potatoes sauteed in goose fat, garlic & parsley) - the finest recipe for potatoes known to man: Ingredients:
750g (1½lbs) of waxy potatoes
3 tablespoonsful of goose fat (or, if serving with Confit de Canard, use the duck fat from the tin)
1 tablespoon of chopped parsley
2 finely chopped cloves of garlic
Some coarse sea salt, freshly ground black pepper.
Peel and slice the potatoes fairly thinly and dry them in a clean tea towel. Heat the goose fat in a heavy frying pan with a good-fitting lid, and when it starts to smoke, put in the potatoes to colour over a high heat. Keep turning them so that they don't stick and when they start to colour, cover the pan and moderate the heat. Allow them to cook for 30 minutes, turning them every 10 minutes or so to brown in the fat. Add more goose fat as required. Towards the end of the half hour, stir in the chopped parsley and garlic. Turn out on a dish covered in kitchen paper to soak up any excess fat, sprinkle with the salt and serve... Mmmmmm!.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

48. A Year in Warrington

4th March 2010. The Pays Basque is one of France's best kept secrets (in my opinion). After discovering its delights, I tried hard not to extol its virtues too much with friends and colleagues in the UK as I selfishly wished to keep it to myself! We’d suffered the occasional booming voices and braying laughter of my fellow countrymen in 'our' restaurant in ‘our’ village and we didn't want to increase the risk of any recurrence. For that same reason, I kept my distance from expat forums and blogs on the internet until recently.

I've always had a yen to write and once we'd re-located in the Pays Basque I started to keep a simple daily diary of our new life down here to 'get my hand in' again and start the juices flowing. I also started writing letters to my dear old Mum in England to give her more of a flavour of what we were up to than I ever could over the phone. After a while, this material started to accumulate and I thought about starting a blog to capture all these experiences in a more flexible, readable and joined-up format. In researching blogs, I discovered a whole new world of bloggers, blogs and forums for ex-pats (including many Brits) in France that I'd previously been unaware of. The more I looked, the more I found. There must be thousands of Brits widely dispersed around France whose only contact with each other is via electronic means. (Edited in 2017 to add: I've since withdrawn from all internet expat forums as they seem to attract aggressive "keyboard warriors" and, for me at least, life's too short to waste time engaging with them)

It occurred to me the other day that this largely invisible ex-pat community only exists here in France. It's all one way traffic. There doesn't appear to be a similar group of French ex-pats living the reciprocal life in the UK. While there is a large group of French working in the UK - estimated to be some 300,000 strong - I would doubt very much if there's an equivalent number of French living in the UK for what might be called lifestyle reasons - retirees and people who've taken early retirement and have set up small businesses to complement their pensions. It's my guess that those 300,000 French are mainly to be found working in and around London where there's easy access to the Eurostar for weekend commuting.

Peter Mayle definitely hit a nerve with his seminal "A Year in Provence" as it tapped into the aspirations of thousands of baby boomers (like me) who'd experienced foreign travel first hand - and liked it - in a way that wasn't possible for their parents' generation. I'm excluding, of course, our fathers' wartime experiences overseas as they all mainly came to a grinding halt in 1945. Our fathers returned home never to travel overseas again for the most part and they spoke about it rarely. It was a period that most of them wanted to forget.

We, the UK baby boomers, were the generation brought up on a diet of dull post-war food (although we didn't realise it at the time) - Camp coffee, Kia-Ora orange squash, sliced white bread, evaporated milk, salad cream, tinned fruit (peaches, pears or pineapple usually covered it), tinned veg, packet soups, Kraft Dairylea cheese, meat that was cooked to death and rice was only seen in rice puddings. Cooking oil - what's that? Spaghetti - as we'll find out in a few paragraphs - came in tins in tomato sauce. As my Mum said years later, "after the war, we were just grateful to be eating anything.." I think it's fair to say that our knowledge and experience of food and drink - as a nation - was pretty minimal in the fifties and well into the sixties, so we were all in the same boat. The problem arose when England met Europe, and more specifically - France.

Madame once asked me if we used to have lobster at Christmas when I was a kid.. (Lobster! I thought.. suppressing hysterical laughter!) No, we didn't! Or oysters. Or broccoli. Or a thousand and one other things we now take for granted. My Dad used to stock up with a case of a dozen bottles of sweet Spanish Sauternes in early November in good time for Christmas. By the end of November, that case had mysteriously evaporated and he'd have to go out for another. Sweet Spanish Sauternes put me off white wine for a loong time.

Here's a little story that will illustrate what a complete numpty I was in food matters when I was young. I lived in London for a couple of years in the mid sixties. My bed-sit was on the first floor of a large semi in trendy Willesden Green(!). My landlady was Italian and the tenants were a cosmopolitan bunch. Among others, there was Ferry, a wealthy young Persian man (they weren't Iranians yet) on my floor and a Polish girl called Marta in the basement flat.

It wasn't too long before my beady eye alighted on Marta. I found out that she had supper with the landlady one day per week so I asked her what Marta liked to eat. It turned out that spaghetti bolognaise was her favourite. I asked Marta if she'd like to come up one evening for a meal and, to my surprise and delight, she said that she would.

I went out that evening to buy all the supplies.. (and don't laugh!): 2 large tins of Heinz Spaghetti Bolognaise, a large white sliced loaf, some butter, a 2oz tin of Nescafe.. two plates and two coffee cups and saucers. Oh yes, and a packet of sausages. I was going to serve Marta tinned spag bol, on buttered toast, with a couple of sausages sticking jauntily out of the top in the manner of an indoor TV aerial.. Followed by real Nescafe.. I can't remember if wine was involved.. probably not. What a feast to set before my date! (ahem..)

Come the evening in question and Marta arrived on time.. The spag was bubbling away nicely in a saucepan on top of my Baby Belling.. the sausages were under the grill.. the toast was ready.. and I was talking to the lovely Marta... Suddenly, blue smoke started pouring out from under as the sausages caught fire.. Without pausing for breath, I quickly slid the grill pan out, blew the flames out and then held it out of the window to let the smoke disperse.. In my mind's eye I can still see this cloud of acrid blue smoke slowly drifting down the neighbouring gardens..

Right - the toast is on the plates, each with a steaming dollop of spag, two burnt sausages stuck in a 'vee' like a bullfighter's bandilleros.. et voila! From there on, the evening was only going one way and that was downhill..

I never did see her again. Strange that.. (I've often wondered if she's ever recounted the tale to groups of totally bemused Poles..)

Three or four years later, my French sister-in-law was staying at the family home and she offered to make the evening meal for my mother. She wanted to make a spag bol (the classic sixties dish) so she popped out to the shops to pick up all she needed. When she returned with all her ingredients, I noticed she had a long blue packet (~half a metre long) under her arm. I asked her what that was and she gave me a curious look and said, "It's the spaghetti..!" The penny finally dropped. D'oh!

Coming to France from the UK was a genuine revelation back then.. particularly in food terms. Steaks had red juice (ie, blood) still in them. (Meat was always killed twice in England.. once in the abattoir and then it would be murdered in the kitchen - just to make sure..) If there was any lingering sign of blood in a steak, my father would proclaim "A good vet would have that back on its feet in 5 minutes.." He was always a keen advocate of the blowlamp to cook a steak.. The big difference was that French food had taste. Salads with vinaigrette dressing. Crusty baguettes. All the different varieties of cheese. Red wine. Real coffee..

All of the above goes some way to explaining why thousands of French retirees aren't buying up abandoned properties the length and breadth of Britain, living the dream and writing best sellers called "A Year in Warrington" with a follow-up called "Toujours Warrington"*. Imagine the rumblings if they colonised such outposts as British West Hartlepools, Workington or Rochdale with settlements of trimly moustachioed French pensioners and their hennaed wives! Getting on to the committee of the local Working Mens Club, walking their whippets, fancying their pigeons and breeding budgies, writing witty columns for French newspapers.. The horror of the Bowling Club committee as the newly arrived Frenchman launches his 'wood' up in the air on the local bowling green in the parabola of a pétanque player..! There's a parody waiting to be written here. The simple truth is that they live to eat. We don't. We eat to live and as Madame found, it's very difficult outside of the major centres to find the ingredients for cooking à la française.
* With apologies to the good folk of Warrington naturally!

I doubt if there's a better interpretation of Debussy's Clair de Lune than this one by Presti Lagoya..