The explosion of tourism worldwide makes it increasingly difficult to find places that retain their authenticity and do not show off their folklore and traditions for the sole benefit of visitors. Even France Is not immune to this phenomenon but many "off-the-beaten-path" areas manage to accommodate tourists without sacrificing their spirit. The Pays Basque is among them.
Mysterious origins. The Pays Basque is composed of four provinces in Spain and three more in France: Labourd along the Atlantic coast, Basse-Navarre in the center and Soule close to the High Pyrenees. Scholars are still quite puzzled by the origins of the Basque people and its language. The Basques may have immigrated from Caucasia between 3000 and 2000 BC to settle in the western Pyrenees. The language itself is even more mysterious: it does not seem to relate to other known languages and predates those that derived from the Indo European group (such as Germanic, Slavic and Italic which eventually led to English or French for example). The language has been a key factor of unity for the Basques: 20% of them speak Basque and more than half of the population in Basse-Navarre and Soule uses the language regularly. Basque is taught in primary and secondary schools; university students can follow their classes in Basque. Even road signs are posted in French and in Basque, which at times almost makes you feel like you ventured into a foreign country.
A land of traditions.One of the most striking sights in the Pays Basque is how well people keep up their homes. Dark red shutters and wood studs show off the whitewashed walls that are often repainted every year. A house built three hundred years ago may look twenty years young! A Basque house proudly displays the name of its original owner and the year it was built on a carved slab of stone set above the front door. The house has always been the foundation of the Basque society. During the French monarchy, many rights were inherently linked to the Basque house and established where its owners would sit in church, where they would be buried and what they could do on the community land of the parish. Even today, the importance of the house and its perennial quality is evidenced by the fact that a Basque father will choose which of his children (boy or girl, elder or younger) will solely inherit the property.
Close by, the fronton is the rendez-vous point for villagers of all ages: the brightly painted wall sets the stage for many different games where players hit the ball bare-handed, with a gloved hand, with a solid wood paddle or with a chistera, the curved willow basket that players of pelote basque use to catch and throw the ball at blinding speeds. During the summer, many villages will host a "fête" that showcases traditional dances and crowd-pleasing tests of Basque strength where teams of villagers challenge each others in a series of athletic trials inspired by farming and rural life: carrying two 100 lb milk cans as far as possible; hoisting a 90 lb bale of hay to a height of 7 meters as many times as possible in two minutes; lifting a 700 lb cart and making it turn on its shaft as long as possible without any of the wheels touching the ground; and rope pulling, the supreme event. No doubt that some of these activities are scheduled for the benefit of the tourists but everyone seems to have a good time…
Shepherds and fishermen. Thanks to an exceptional geographic location, the Pays Basque, its inhabitants and their lifestyle have been equally influenced by the mountains and the ocean. Those who had some land would be farmers and shepherds, those who did not would become fishermen. While some took their sheep to the Pyrenees pastures, raised their pigs to transform them into succulent hams or grew peppers to spice up just about any dish, others took to the sea. The Basques were already whaling during the Middle Ages, traveling as far north as Newfounland for whales and cod; then they focused on sardines and tuna. The 16th and 17th centuries were an especially prosperous period: rich ship owners in Saint Jean de Luz built rows of stunning mansions, though most of them were destroyed in terrible storms in 1749 and 1779. Saint Jean de Luz probably reached its apogee in 1660 when King Louis XIV married Maria-Teresa, the Spanish Infanta, in the Church of Saint John the Baptist (this was part of the peace treaty between France and Spain); the door where the royal couple exited was walled off right after the ceremony. The largest and most famous Basque church, Saint John the Baptist counts three stories of oak galleries on both sides, five stories on the back side, and… a model whaling ship hanging from its very tall ceiling. In the mid 19th century, Biarritz stole the spotlight. In a few short years, the small fishermen village became the place to be and to be seen for the rich, the famous and the aristocrats: it just took a few visits from Eugenie and Napoléon III (another Franco-Spanish alliance). The Emperor decided to have a residence built on the oceanfront and, soon after, hotels, casinos and splendid villas sprouted all over Biarritz. Away from all the hustle and bustle, the inland villages pretty much remained unchanged.
The ubiquitous pepper. It is easy to understand why the Basque cuisine is held in high esteem: the bounties from the sea and from the farm, all at peak freshness, certainly provide a sound foundation for some excellent meals. The Basque cuisine is not necessarily "showy" but it is seeped in tradition and feels completely satisfying: it is a happy and colorful cuisine. Although not as fiery as Mexican (or Thai) preparations, Basque dishes use an abundance of various types of peppers which can be considered the unifying element in Basque cuisine. The most famous one is the Espelette chile pepper which can be seen drying on all the town's balconies, hanging like Christmas garlands. Bell peppers, piquillos and mild Anglet peppers are widely used. The well-known jambon de Bayonne, a ham cured for at least nine months with salt from the Adour valley, is rubbed with Espelette pepper. The axoa, a veal casserole, and the tchilindron, a lamb stew, are also flavored with Espelette pepper. So is the ttoro, which can be described as a Basque bouillabaisse. So is the marmitako, a chunky, brothy ragout of tuna, ham and potatoes. The wonderful piquillos are often stuffed wiith a cod brandade and surrounded with a luscious pepper coulis. The piperade is a dish of scrambled eggs, peppers and tomatoes served with a slice of Bayonne ham. And let's not forget the chipirons à l'encre, small stuffed calamari cooked in a fish stock flavored with their own ink.Of course, since they raise pigs, the Basques also offer a wide array of charcuterie items such as boudins, sausages (like the loukinkas, small garlic sausages) and ventrèche. A traditional breed of pigs raised in the Aldudes Valley is especially sought after: they spend two winters in the forests feeding on acorns, chestnuts and beechnuts, which gives their meat an incomparable flavor. Most of all, sheep are omnipresent. In the foothills, it is the red-headed Manech, a small size ewe without horns. In the mountains, it is the black-headed Manech, a rustic breed with long horns. Sheep are raised both for meat and for milk. The Basques have their own version of the "méchoui": to make a zikiro, a lamb is cut in four and grilled on a wood fire, while being basted with a mixture of water, vinegar, garlic and pimientos. Ewe milk is used to make cheese, the Ossau-Iraty being the most famous. Usually served with black cherry jam from Itxassou, this cheese has a subtle uncooked, pressed pâte and is aged three months. A nice glass of Irouléguy, the fruity and tannic local wine, is a perfect accompaniment. How about a gâteau basque for dessert? The original recipe called for a layer of black cherry jam in the middle of the cake but most of the current versions are stuffed with pastry cream instead. Both are equally delicious. Amateurs of sweets and confections will not want to miss the cinnamon-flavored chocolates from Bayonne, the legendary macaroons from pâtisserie Adam in Saint Jean de Luz or the tourons, a marzipan/nougat type of confection often paired with candied fruits, walnuts or prunes. You will also find a chocolate-génoise aptly called the béret basque because its shape is a reminder of the everpresent hat worn by men of the area. In addition to the previously mentioned Irouléguy wines, the Basque country also produces apple cider, an herbal liqueur called Izarra in green or yellow versions and the Patxaran, another liqueur made with wild sloe (prunelle) and anise. Many Basques specialties can be tasted in the USA, especially in California where the Basque community is very active and runs a lot of festivals and restaurants: many Basques who did not inherit from their parents left their country and immigrated to make a living somewhere else. 45,000 of them were living in the Western United States in 1980. To fully enjoy the Basque experience, though, nothing comes close to a trip to the Pyrenees
Our recipes from the Pays Basque: