Tuesday, 9 August 2011

161. Tough job

9th August 2011. I've been mulling over a question posed by S & B from Australia in a recent comment - they're going to be visiting the Pays Basque in Sept/Oct for 5 weeks - and they "would be interested to read about your experiences wine shopping in the PB -- where to find reasonable quality and a good range."
Unfortunately, there's no easy answer to that. The first question is: what kind of wines do you like? Bordeaux/Burgundy/Rhone/Loire.. Light reds? Meaty reds? White? Rosé? Putting all that to one side for a moment, in terms of where to buy your wine there are several options - supermarkets, coopératives and shops/markets.

Probably the best place to buy in terms of price and variety would be a grande surface (such as Carrefour - heresy!) but it would also be the least rewarding in terms of the overall experience as there'll be no-one there to ask questions of and certainly no-one will step forward and offer you a number of glasses of wine to taste - as they will in a coopérative..

In a specialist wine shop you're likely to come up against someone whose reason for getting into the business is love of the product. That has to be better than standing blankly in the aisle of a supermarket looking at literally thousands of bottles - plus you might learn something about a number of wines..

So if you have the time and the inclination, perhaps the best way to do it would be to visit a shop or two for some background knowledge of the wines of the region, followed by the coopératives to find out what you like by tasting, then compare the price there with the price in a large supermarket. You'll be surprised to find that the supermarket price is often less than that of the coopérative. 

A good starting point to get you in the mood would be the area in and around Les Halles de Biarritz (the indoor market). Dotted around the fringe are a number of specialist wine shops. But, but.. before visiting them, take a look inside the market just to whet the appetite and sharpen the senses. I've mentioned this before in earlier posts but the smell inside the indoor market is indescribable - a rich, buttery, cheesy, chickeny smell with foie gras and jambon highlights.. that is extremely hazardous to your wallet if you make the mistake of stepping inside when you're hungry.. Looking around Les Halles is as pleasurable an experience as shopping ever gets..!
And then after shopping, there's the perennial question of where to have lunch.. Fortunately, in Biarritz, that's not a problem.

There's this - the Bar du Marché - at one end of the spectrum - which we haven't tried yet but which looks promising:
And then there's this - the Hôtel du Palais.. the jewel in the crown of the Pays Basque. We haven't been here either and I'm not sure we ever will (be able to afford to). Here's one of their menus.

Don't forget, there's an indoor market at Bayonne and another at St Jean de Luz where you can repeat the experience all over again!

So - back to earth again - the question remains - what kind of wine do you like..?

Wines from the South West that you're likely to see on menus in the Pays Basque include the following:
Jurançon - available in both Doux & Sec (Sweet & Dry). The Doux is excellent with foie gras and desserts. The Sec is good with fish and seafood.
Txakoli - worth trying. (Wouldn't put it in the same category as Jurançon though)
Reds - the 2 main ones found in the Pays Basque are Irouléguy and Madiran. To taste the Irouléguy (try the Gorri d'Ansa) before buying, drive out to the Cave at St Etienne de Baïgorry (taking the opportunity to have lunch at the Hôtel Arcé there at the same time!) We've talked about Madiran many times here - ones to search out would be Château Peyros and our old friend Château Bouscassé.

Don't forget to keep an eye on the alcohol content of wines you're trying.. Once wine gets over 13.5%, lunches can often be the prelude to an afternoon spent sleeping it off! (I believe..) I'd avoid wines like Rhone wines like Gigondas which - although extremely more-ish - often come in at 14.5% - otherwise you'll be having lots of unexplained blanks in your holiday diary!  

To S & B - make sure you have a "Waiter's friend" in your pocket when you come over.. ideal for opening a bottle out in the countryside..

10th August 2011. I occasionally visit an online forum for expats in France - last night I was reading a thread there about the riots in the inner cities and someone posted a telling comment: "What has happened to our once beautiful country? Yes, I know, I left it 4 years ago because I would rather be a stranger in someone else's country than my own, but it still hurts."   

That pretty much sums up my view of England and why I could leave without regret - it was no longer the country I grew up in.

After watching the lunchtime news which featured the ongoing riots in several English cities, I switched off and stepped out onto the terrace.. What a contrast..! It looked like a Kodachrome image under a burning blue sky and blazing sunshine. For a few moments I felt guilty.. then I thought - we both worked hard for over 40 years, paid our taxes and this - living here in Bayonne - is our reward. Life wasn't easy for either of us but we stuck at it. We didn't expect a handout from anyone and we weren't disappointed!

I read somewhere the other day that the life you find yourself leading today is the cumulative result of all the decisions you ever made in your life. Not the decisions that other people around you made - but the ones you consciously made. I'd suggest that the disruption and riots in the UK (edited to change this to England!) are the result of all the poor decisions taken by society during my lifetime. 

12th August 2011.The next time someone tells you France is expensive, just point them at the following words..

We were in Sare at lunchtime today (home of the Hôtel Arraya - one of the hidden treasures of the Pays Basque - more following) and we happened upon a menu board outside a Salon de Thé (aka Snack Olamendy).. The sign outside reads Salon de thé and Patisserie.. There was a screech of rubber from my shoes as I stopped dead in my tracks.. steak & frites 5€, confit of duck & frites 7€ and so it went on.. Another board gave the drinks prices.. a farmhouse cider was 1.60€ while a bottle of red wine was all of 6€.. (US$8.50 / £5.25)

There were a few tables set out under the platanes and, as luck would have it, there was one free. Madame had the Salade du Pays which included jambon de Bayonne and Basque cheese - fromage de brebis - while I had a delicious confit & frites.. Including a drink each, the bill came to 16.50€.. Definitely one to remember and gets my tick! Sare is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France so if you're in the area it should be on your list of 'must visits' in any case..

While you're in Sare, try and squeeze in a visit to the very Basque Hôtel Arraya.. It's smack bang in the centre and you can't miss it. A former hospice, it was the last stop in France for pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. 
Dining under the platanes

Take a step inside - it's furnished in the traditional manner with antique Basque furniture - and very comfortable it is too.


S and B said...

Many thanks Piperade for tackling that task (Tough Job). Now you have us interested in chasing down some Madirans. The good news is that the Madiran wines are high in procyandadins (stay awake pls) which improve the elasticity of the blood vessels and
protect against atherosclerosis, the thickening of the artery wall. Apparently, the Gers region has twice the French national average of men aged 90 or more. An analysis of the wines of the Gers (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/choose-the-right-red-wine-for-a-healthy-heart-443165.html) looked at why some parts of France seem to fare better than others in terms of health benefits from drinking red wine and found it was partly thanks to the area's grapes and partly to the region's old-fashioned production methods that involve a long fermentation and maceration process .
Thanks again,
S and B (with waiter’s friend packed)

Pipérade said...

If you check earlier posts I made about Madiran, I included a few links that discuss the 'health' benefits. As always, I suspect a number of other factors combine to produce the apparent longevity of folk in the SW - I'm sure that the local gene pool plays a part also (perhaps it's filled with Madiran!☺) Be that as it may, there's no escaping the fact that Madiran is one of France's great wines - as I'm sure you'll discover. The 'black' wine of Cahors is another personal favourite - one to add to your list perhaps.

John said...

Greetings from Dublin.

Enjoying your blog - I'm looking forward to heading down to the Pays Basque again in September so this has set the scene very well. Clearly, Basque life is agreeing with you, you lucky (you know the rest)...

I hope to to catch an Bayonne game with some friends during the Top 14 season - just need to brush up my 'La Pena Baiona'. I'm quite happy that I wasn't there to see them beat Ulster 40 - 3 last week.

I realise that we both did the Comet trail last September - I came across your recollections of the weekend some months later which brought back good memories (it's easy to remember the enjoyable parts of the trek at that stage !)

Anyway, I'm off to see if I can find a Chateau Bouscassé Madiran over here.

All the best


Pipérade said...

Hi John,
Glad you're enjoying the blog.. As the current saying has it: "What's not to like about the Pays Basque".. You're right, we both love it here - it's more than lived up to all our dreams. And we realise we're lucky to live here - in fact, hardly a day goes by that we don't say that!
I've watched Bayonne a couple of times but I've honestly never felt sufficiently inspired to want to go and watch them on a more regular basis.
Are you doing the Comet Trail again?
If you do find a Chateau Bouscassé.. how about adding your opinion of it?

John said...


Yes, I'm doing the Comet trail again this year.

I'm not sure my wine notes would be very insightful but I'll let you know !


Pipérade said...

Hi John,
I signed up for it too just this afternoon.. but I regret that I won't be able to do the walk this year.
Look forward to meeting you..