Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bayonne I

23 August 

Our first morning in Bayonne was slow, checking email and booking hotels for Bordeaux and La Rochelle.  After three and a half weeks with no computer, it was wonderful to have a laptop with me again!  Luckily we had our great view out the hotel window over the Adour to keep us company as we did our planning:

Check out the crazy currents coming off of the bridge pillars!
Finally around 11 we headed out to explore Bayonne.  It's a beautiful town.  First on the list were an ATM and a post office, but we got a chance to admire the city as we ran our errands:

Rue Port Neuf, AKA Chocolate Street - not to be missed!
Finally it was really time to eat.  We stopped in a Monoprix and a boulangerie to grab some brunch:

Check out the caption in Euskara on the cheese.
Note also the red "four-leaf clover" under the word Basques - very regional!
An unusual baguette, covered in corn meal, along with a stinky sheep's milk cheese, fruit, and what we thought was a sheep yogurt but what was actually "lait empressé" - "compressed milk," whatever that means.  The texture was more crumbly than yogurt, and the flavor was very dairy with just a little sheepiness, but sweetened and with vanilla.  A strange item.

Why all the sheep dairy products?  I'm so glad you asked.  The Basque region is in the Pyrenees, straddling the Spanish border.  Unlike the Swiss Alps, which are home to some of the most famous cows on earth, there aren't so many cattle in the Pyrenees - they tend to favor raising sheep here, so the most famous cheeses of the region tend to be sheep's milk cheeses.  It's pretty common to see wheels at the market labeled "Pur brébis" - pure ewe's milk.

After our brunch, we spent some time exploring.  The Cathedral has a beautiful cloister attached to the side of it:



How many people have walked through those halls in thought in the last several hundred years???

All over France, I found strong regional pride - but maybe more so in Basque country than anywhere else.  Perhaps in part it's related to the fact that the ancestors of today's Basques managed to hold onto their language in the face of invading parties from other parts of Europe - the Basque language (called "Euskara" in the native tongue) is unrelated to any other language on Earth - which is unique amongst Indo-European languages.  Though Bayonne is a part of France today, it has its own flavor and character, very much distinct from the rest of the country - and that distinction is on display all over the city.

Basque colors are red and green.  I suppose that sounds a little strange, like the region is united around a single sports team - but it's so much richer than that.  In the markets, in the shop windows, on the postcards you see bunches of vibrant piments d'espelette (Basque mild hot peppers, that lend their flavor to many of the dishes), hung to dry.  Many of the narrow streets are lined, even blanketed with little red and green flags:



Signs here tend to come in at least four languages: French, Euskara, Spanish, and English.  Though it seems so esoteric, Euskara is a standard language still in use here today.


The streets are lined with homes that seem to pull from the half-timbered architecture I saw in Alsace and Bourgogne, but they have their own distinct, colorful, Southern twist on the theme:


In the culinary world, Bayonne is known for two things: ham and chocolate.  We'll come back to the ham in a couple of days, but after walking for a few hours, we were in need of some chocolate.  We stopped in Lionel Raux, a pâtissière with a "bar au chocolat" - literally, chocolate bar, not like Hershey's bar, but drink-serving bar - where I ordered a chocolat chaud à l'ancien:


I got a big mug of rich, slightly bitter hot chocolate - good, but it was no Angelina, which is still the best hot chocolate on the planet, hands down.

After the chocolate, we stopped in another small pâtisserie to pick up a macaron:


Now I know what you're thinking: "That's a macaron?  What happened to your picture-perfect Pierre Hermé ideal?"  To which I reply, this is a Basque macaron.  There is much contention in France about who invented the first macaron, but Maison Adam in Saint-Jean-de-Luz (on which, more coming soon) throws their hat in the ring with a story about creating the first macaron - a light cookie made from almond flour, egg whites, and sugar - on the occasion of the marriage between King Louis XIV of France and Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain, in 1660.  This was a simpler cookie than the fancy flavored concoctions popular in Paris today, and this is still the macaron seen most commonly in Basque country today.  This macaron is very true to its almond base with a strong almond flour flavor, just sweet enough.  It's also much chewier than its more fashionable cousin.

We headed to the tourist office to get information on the best way to get to St.-Jean-de-Luz for the next day, and passed the botanical garden on our way.  I'm not used to thinking of palm trees in France, but what do you know, there they are amid the walls and church spires and everything that I expect to be French.


Another important aspect of Basque culture is better known across the border in Spain: bullfighting.  Now not to worry, I didn't go to a bullfight there - but the motifs are all around.


After a day of wandering, I headed back along the rivers to the hotel for a brief repose before dinner.


Coming soon: cod omelet, Spanish style hake, steak, arda gasni - one of the best meals I've ever, ever eaten.

A bientôt,

1 comment:

I need orange said...

I bet one reason for so much "national pride" in Basque country is the centuries of persecution. I don't know for sure that Basque people have been persecuted in France, but for sure, in Spain.....

Can't wait to see dinner....... :-)