French Basque Country

The French Basque Country, also known as “The North Side” (Iparralde” in Basque), is situated within the western part of the French department of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and is equally part of the northeastern part of Basque country. Stretching from the border of Bilbao, Spain, French Basque country begins at the border with Spain until Bayonne and Biarritz, both chief towns. The latter is quite distinct from Basque country since it is a popular tourist and surfer destination and though unlike Spain, many French might not speak the Basque language, the food stays true to its tradition. 

Speaking of tradition, the Basques have been around their western corner of the Pyrenees since, apparently, the Stone Age. Their language apparently pre-dates the Indo-European influx (and, certainly, all this randoms Xs and Zs in their words give evidence). What you will notice in Basque country is that they are immensely consumed with farming, folk-dancing, and fishing. 

As I look back on the hundreds of photos taken during my stay in Basque country and my many visits to France, I feel nostalgic. So many villages visited (Aïnhoa, Espelette, Bayonne, Itxassou, Les Aldudes, Cap Breton, Sare…) but many that have been yet discovered (Guéthary, St Pée sur Nivelle, St Etienne de Baigorry…)

Bayonne

As the Adour and Nive rivers meet, lies the city of Bayonne. Probably France’s most Basque city, it was for 300 years a British colony. The city gave its name to the bayonet blade (from the French baïonnette), invented here in the 17th century, but today’s Bayonne is more famous for its ham (jambon de Bayonne

Bayonne Market

Famous for its charcuterie and pork…

Blood sausage

Don’t forget the chocolate. Interesting note:

Bayonne is where the secret of chocolate-making first came to France, brought by Sephardic Jews driven from Spain and Portugal by the Inquisition in the 15th century. Many families  began producing the chocolate drink, and soon acquired a reputation for the quality of the chocolate and the precision of their blends. Bayonne was thus the first town in France to successfully work the cocoa bean and the first to establish a chocolate factory in 1761.

Let’s just remain on the subject of pork for a little longer.

In Spring, I decided to pay a visit to pork/ham master himself, Pierre Oteiza in Les Aldudes. Half-timbered home and shop with whitewashed walls and bright red painted shutters, you find yourself in the home of 3 generations of family and livestock. 

One his many shops, here in Bayonne

Here, I tasted the award-winning Jambon de la Vallee des Aldudes, similar to Bayonne Ham, some 60km away however Bayonne ham are rubbed with salt from the Adour river basin and they are kept hanging for 9 months (minimum) on the plain of the Adour; an area with cool, humid winds from the Atlantic and dry wind from the mountains. Oteiza’s ham, however, is more salty and robust in flavor.

He also cures them for 12 months at a smaller and younger age which is reflected in the texture when you eat it: melts in your mouth and has great depth like Parma ham. 

“Jesus” ham

Ham degustation…

Ham on the go…includes chorizo, jesus ham, bayonne ham, ham with espelette pepper.

Fresh apple juice, so crisp and tasty.

If you drive towards Bordeaux from Bayonne, you find yourself along the coast of France, with beautiful rocky mountains alongside pristine beaches. A great pit stop on a bright spring day is Capbreton. Here, I was able to hold a small picnic with friends after buying goodies during my drive here.

Ham, Cheese, Fresh baguette, Ceviche (made in-house…Thank you Erica!), Foie gras, Watermelon and grapes, and some bottles of wine. Nothing better on a beautiful day by the beach.

One day, I ended up in Sare, a tiny town within the mountains furthermore inland, that apparently specializes in the Gâteau Basque.

This cake is a traditional dessert from the Basque region of France. Typically Gâteau Basque is constructed from layers of analmond flour based cake with a filling of either pastry cream or preserved cherries.

Yes, I went all the way here, 45 minutes through winding roads to get a piece of this cake. Boy, was it sure worth it. The town is quaint; all painted in white with old folks sitting on a bench, people (when there are people) watching and youngsters playing pelota balls. If you lived here, you’d do the same. 

Espelette

The town of Espelette, produces the Piment d’Espelette (or Espelette pepper), a variety of chili pepper. It is harvested in late summer and, in September, and peppers are hung on balconies and house walls throughout the communes to dry out. On 1 June 2000, it was classified as an AOC product (AOC meaning appellation d’origine contrôlée  which translates as “controlled designation of origin”, a the French certification granted to certain French geographical indications for wines,cheeses, butters, and other agricultural products, all under the auspices of the government bureau…in other words, so that the produce and its producers are protected). 

Another weekend, I bobbed up to Biarritz, a famous beach town where Parisians flock to catch some sun.

Filled with waves and glamour, you get a feel that you aren’t in Basque country. You’re on a beach and it’s hot and you want an ice-cream; well they have an artisanal ice-cream maker there everyday. Enjoy the sun, sit back and relax. That’s about it. 

Further south, getting closer to Spain, the coast grows powerful with cliffs and you pass by towns such as Guéthary and the Cap Breton before heading to St. Jean de Luz.  My favorite, which will always be on the list, no matter how many times I’ve been back… is St Jean de Luz.

Along the route…

Right at the border with Spain, St Jean de Luz lies on the Bay of the Atlantic coast. Home to local fisherman boats, it wouldn’t be complete without a stop here.
 
 
Famous for its market, especially on Tuesdays and Saturday mornings, stalls surround Les Halles market with passionate vendors selling fruits and vegetables, to artisanal bread and cheeses, ham, butter, honey and jams. 
 
 
Inside you will encounter stalls of similar producers giving you a wider range of products (meat, fish and cheese) to choose from. 
 
The best part was being able to buy a little bit of everything and sampling them, then and there! At a local coffee shop that looks like an old train wagon, right behind the fishmongers, where you can still see all the action.
 
 
 
Saucisson with thym
 
 
Chocolate covered-salted butter caramel…to die for. 
 
 
 This land, though wanting to be independent from France (and Spain), is full of vibrancy, historical tradition and profound culture; it would be a shame to miss this area when visiting southern France or northern Spain. I hope you get to enjoy the jewels of the Basque country as much as I did. 
 
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Comments
2 Responses to “French Basque Country”
  1. Chaitali says:

    Hey Jade! I’ve been surreptitiously reading your blog for over a year now. I just finished my course at Ferrandi (with Stephane as my chef) and started my stage a week ago.
    I would love to continue to live and work in either France/Spain/Italy but since I am not a EU citizen I’m told that it it hard to get a work visa.
    How hard is it to find employment or a visa after the stage?
    Thanks!

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