Biarritz

Biarritz

By
Luke Nguyen
Contains
9 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742707181
Photographer
Alan Benson

Home of the biarritz surf festival, only 35 kilometres from the Spanish border and variously famous for whaling, piracy and luxury spas, elegant biarritz is a Basque town. I’m fascinated by the Basques, a fiercely independent people who have a unique culture, complete with their own language and culinary style.

Even the architecture here is distinct from other parts of France: quaint, red-roofed white houses are splashed with coloured wood detailing in green, red and rich chocolate hues. The countryside is sparkling and lush, and the overall effect is beyond picturesque. Even Napoleon ranked the villages here as the prettiest in all of France.

The Basques are the oldest surviving ethnic group in Europe, and this enclave in the south-western corner of France has a definite Spanish feel. So does the food. Just a few dishes this area is renowned for are piperrada — eggs scrambled with tomatoes, green capsicums and onions — rich fish stews, squid cooked with its ink, and the wonderful gâteau basque, in which rum-scented pastry cream is baked between layers of buttery shortcrust.

Capsicums, chilli and garlic are essential to Basque cooking, and down here they even boast their own chilli pepper, the espelette. I love chilli and anything peppery, so I slot right in.

They’re a generous bunch, the Basques. Everywhere I turn I’m invited to share food, wine and cooking secrets. A highlight is meeting Éric Ospital, France’s acclaimed king of jamón, or cured ham, whose hams are a famous regional product.

I walk around Éric’s curing room, admiring the hundreds of hanging legs of jamón, each one wrapped lovingly in muslin and left to age for 18 months. I notice each one has a piece of paper attached, on which the name of a particular chef or restaurant is written by hand; Éric explains that the chef to the President of France, as well as high-profile chefs like Heston Blumenthal, buy his jamón. Many come to taste their individual hams in person, to make sure they are happy with them — which, of course, they always are — and their particular leg of jamón is tagged and left to cure until it is ready to be despatched.

The hospitality down here is so warm, it is with great reluctance that I tear myself away.

It is the irresistible lure of oysters that finally draws me further north.

Recipes in this Chapter

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