When I was a kid, we used to take road trips to visit my dad’s family, driving from our home in Southern California north to the San Joaquin Valley in the state’s center, to the town of Fresno. I would curl up in the backseat with a stack of library books — for some reason, carsickness didn’t bother me back then — and watch the landscape out of the corner of my eye, the twisting path of the Grapevine giving way to startling green farmland parked against a flat, baked backdrop. Halfway through the journey, we always stopped for lunch in Bakersfield, at a restaurant called Château Basque. I still remember the pickled beets and pickled tongue (which I loved for its deep, meaty flavor), and fried chicken scattered with drifts of chopped garlic.
For most of my life, “Basque” meant Château Basque, those hearty meals in a dim, air-conditioned dining room clouded with cigarette smoke. And when I started to research my three-day trip to Pays Basque, this brilliant article on Bakersfield’s Basque cuisine was one of the first things I read on the internets.
But when I got to Biarritz on France’s Atlantic coast, instead of garlic fried chicken and pickled tongue, I found a fish soup called ttoro and small cakes filled with cherry jam. Instead of sheep ranchers, and boarding house-style meals, and skeins of raw wool, I found Belle Epoque-era mansions bordering a stormy sea.
It rained for 36 hours straight during my visit to Pays Basque, a steady pour that explained the green landscape. But from the shelter of my rental car, I managed to visit some of the sites I’d hoped to see, including the town of Espelette, home of the famous piment d’Espelette, brought back from the New World by Basque explorers and cultivated as an alternative to expensive pepper.
Strands of dried peppers decorate the buildings, just so no one forgets that this village is the home of the famed, gently spicy, round-flavored chili. By the way, during my visit to a piment d’Espelette producer, I learned that the powdered form should only be sprinkled at the end of cooking as its flavor quickly disappears.
The traditional sweet of the region is the gateau Basque, a buttery cake split and stuffed with black cherry jam or crème pâtissière.
They’d always seemed too dry and sweet, but at Maison Pereuil in the town of Saint-Pée, I found the best version, the cake soft, and yielding, and crumbly, the center a jammy burst of fruit. Mark Kurlansky wrote about this bakery in his book The Basque History of the World. I bet the recipe is still a secret, but I thought I detected a little crunch of cornmeal in the cake, another product brought back from the New World by Basque explorers.
The pottok (plural: pottoka) is a special Basque breed of semi-feral pony and what with the rain and wind, I’d despaired of seeing any of them. But just as we crossed the border into Spain, a movement caught my eye and suddenly a small herd of them appeared!
There was even a small, frisky colt who bolted to and from his mother’s side, a sign of spring, or better weather ahead, or, perhaps, simply proof that Basque culture is alive and well.
Coming soon: I visit San Sebastian and eat my weight in tapas.