On the 24th, my mom and I took a train to Saint-Jean-de-Luz for the day. This touristy town on the Atlantic coast had been host to a sardine festival a week before on the 14th - I would have loved to see that, but I was otherwise occupied in Gruyères staring down cows and eating fondue that day, so coming on the 24th was the next best thing. Saint-Jean-de-Luz is just a couple of miles from the Spanish border - had I had another day in the region, I would have loved to make the trip down to Spanish Basque country... but that will have to wait for my next visit to the region.
First order of business when we arrived after our 20-minute train ride was to head to Les Halles and check out the fresh produce.
Piments d'espelette are ubiquitous in Basque country, but usually I saw them hanging to dry or powdered in jars - not still growing! If it weren't so difficult (read: illegal) to bring plants back to the US, I would have loved to buy these.
Check it out - jambons de Bayonne!:
Bayonne is known for ham and chocolates. The hams, which are stamped to authenticate their origin, have been rubbed with dried piments during the curing for a little added kick. You can see the red powder better on the hams below:
|Check out the bundles of piments!|
I had thought I would get ham for dinner in Bayonne and fish (specifically, tuna or sardines) in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, but after having excellent fish the night before, I ended up choosing the axoa de boeuf, avec pommes fondantes:
Axoa (pronounced ah-shwah) is a traditional Basque dish of ground beef in a rich sauce flavored with, you guessed it, piment d'espelette, as well as fresh herbs. This one also had piparra peppers (those long, thin, light yellowish-green peppers) and huge hunks of potato. This was a simple dish with a slightly spicy flavor from the piments, and a freshness particularly from the parsley. It seemed to me kind of like the Basque version of a chili-stuffed baked potato. Super tasty.
My mom ordered a fish soup.
It was eaten like bouillabaisse, with croutons and rouille, and had a deep fishy flavor.
For dessert, I went with the koka:
Koka is Basque flan. Unlike a slice of flan you might get in paris, these slices had no crust and they were much more delicate - very light and airy. The flavor and texture were both kind of like a guimauve - a fresh French marshmallow. Custardy, smooth and yet a little crumbly. Sweet vanilla goodness.
After lunch, we headed to the beach. But on the way, we stopped in the church where Louis XIV married the Infanta of Spain:
Though the exterior has just a drab stone facade, the interior was spectacularly ornate - fitting for the wedding ceremony of The Sun King. The wedding took place here due to its position on the border of France and Spain, and the town is very proud of this historical event.
And finally, our raison d'être for Saint-Jean-de-Luz, la plage:
There were lots of families and kids at the beach, so I was surprised to also see a few women sunbathing topless. I suppose it oughtn't to have been a surprise - after all, this is France. That evening on TV, there was some talk show with Kanye as a guest star, and they had a quote of him saying all he wanted during his visit to France was "a nice French girl - one he could cruise down the Champs Elysees with" - and next thing you know, a bevy of beautiful, topless women walked into the room for him. There's just such a different relationship with nudity - kind of like how there's a totally different relationship with alcohol. On the one hand, we Americans feel so scandalous as we constantly push the envelope with sexuality/vulgarity in advertisements and media... but on the other hand, it feels like we never really abandoned our puritan roots. But I digress.
Sadly, the ocean was polluted enough here that they weren't letting anyone swim. Not that I wanted to swim - we only dipped our toes in - but what a pity that it's not safe to swim if one so desires!
By about 4 pm, my mom was getting a little tired and was ready to head back to Bayonne for the evening... but first, I needed to do a little shopping. The first stop was at a tarte shop we had passed on the way to the beach that sold dozens of varieties of tartes, both savory and sweet. I bought a slice of the one that most caught my fancy: the "Primeur," with carrot, goat cheese, and cumin:
Sounds a little crazy, right? But it was pretty tasty stuff. It was boxed up for me after a couple of additional slices of goat cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, and some herbs were added. The flavor was overwhelmingly cumin, with a little tang from the goat cheese, and a little sweetness from the carrots in the finish. The carrots had been pureed, so the texture was super smooth. I'm not sure it's traditional Basque fare, but what a great inspiration for cooking (cumin carrot soup, anyone?)
I stopped in another pâtisserie for a crème Basque mini:
|Basque clover at 12:00!|
And in the interest of visiting as many pastry shops as possible, when we passed Maison Adam, I had to step in and sample what is purported to be the original macaron:
Like the macaron I had tasted in Bayonne, this was a simple single wafer that tasted strongly of the almond flour and almond milk used to make it. It had a chewy texture without being sticky. It was only mildly sweet, with the almond flavor being the real focus. A very nice cookie, if rather plain in comparison to its Parisian cousins.
We brought the tarte, desserts, and a loaf of baguette back with us to the hotel in Bayonne for dinner, along with the pain de seigle avec figues we had gotten at the market that morning:
This small, dense loaf of rye bread with figs had a tangy bite from the rye flour and a little sweet from the dried figs. It was tasty, but super filling - it took us days to work our way through this loaf.
Once back at the hotel, we had a quiet evening of noshing and tv watching and, for me, journal writing. It was also time to start packing, since we were leaving for Carcassonne the next morning!
Coming soon: our last morning in Bayonne, wherein ham and chocolate success is achieved and all were happy.