Thursday, 29 April 2010

60. Bidarray

29th April 2010. Somehow I don't think that the old English proverb 'Ne'er cast a clout till May be out' can apply here - even though the French have a similar proverb - 'En avril, ne te découvre pas d'un fil; en mai, fais ce qui te plaît'. This translates as 'In April, do not shed a single thread; in May, do as you please'. Yesterday the thermometer (in the shade) on the terrace here showed that it was still 28C at 7pm..

We've been in shorts and t-shirts for a week now. And a couple of days ago we drove out to Bidarray which is a typical rural Basque settlement.

Like nearby Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry, it consists largely of a scattering of farmsteads and hamlets. Entry to the village is via the old Pont Noblia, built in the 14th century to allow pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostella access to the old 12th century priory in Bidarray.

The centre of Bidarray sits on a plateau west of the main road along the valley of the Nive with Spain lying on the other side of the nearest hills 3 or 4 km to the west. The hills were sprinkled with a number of stunningly bright white Basque houses. 
The Church of Notre Dame has perhaps the best situated and best kept terraced churchyard I think either of us had ever seen.. If a graveyard can ever be called a happy place then this was a happy graveyard, with its grandstand view of the magnificent jagged green hills. Not a sad, damp, unkempt and gloomy place at all - but it had the feel of an auditorium in a very grand theatre - with the ancient 12th century church (some of the graves we saw dated back to the 17th century) at the focus of the surrounding green hills and mountains that were dotted with white farmhouses. Resting in peace here takes on a whole new meaning. The sky was a burning blue and the dog found a welcome drink from the churchyard tap. The tables and chairs of a small restaurant beckoned and after looking at the simple menu we decided to have lunch there in the remaining shade.

Our restaurant was under the trees just visible to the left of the church.
We could see many interesting looking paths on the surrounding hills and I think it won't be long before we return to explore some more.

Monday, 26 April 2010

59. Haunting memories

25th April 2010. On my way into town to buy a baguette just before 11 o'clock this morning I noticed some activity around the Monument aux Morts (War Memorial) in the centre of Bayonne. This is a massive stone edifice that was built into the old ramparts at the conclusion of the "War to end all Wars". A large slice of a generation of Bayonne's male population was wiped out during the Great War of 1914-18 and the names of all 771 of the fallen (Bayonne's population at that time was 28,000) were incised into the pale stone. A realist somewhere in the Town Hall had thoughtfully specified that the design of the monument should have space to spare and this has gradually filled up over the years with names from other conflicts - WWII, Indo-China, Algeria and the first Gulf War. There were some tricolours fluttering in the cool breeze and a number of elderly ex-servicemen chatting in their regimental berets and be-medalled blazers, holding their revered standards proudly.

I asked the person who was setting up the sound system what the ceremony was about and he told me it was the 65th anniversary of the end of the Nazi concentration camps and also La Journée Nationale de la Déportation. The deportations of French Jews, résistants, gypsies and political prisoners conducted under the auspices of the infamous Hitlerian Nacht und Nebel decree during the Occupation is still a tragic and sensitive chapter in French history.

As the time approached 11am, various military personnel arrived as did the energetic mayor and a few civic dignatories. The cathedral bells tolled the hour, a small band made a fanfare and everyone took their positions. A lady made a speech that I was able to follow and after the "Marseillaise" was played, the VIPs stepped forward to lay their wreaths and shake the hands of the old soldiers. Everybody stood still while the "Marseillaise" was played again apart from one or two unthinking members of the public who just walked by unconcernedly. And that was it.

This next clip is guaranteed to bring you out in goose pimples - regardless of your nationality!
27th April 2010. I was out on the terrace earlier this afternoon enjoying the sun (25°) and I was musing on the randomness of life. Madame's father had been a bomber pilot and flew for the Free French in North Africa after the fall of France in June 1940.

His squadron re-formed there and was re-equipped with the Martin Marauder B-26. Here's a rare image of Marauders in Free French markings.

And, luckily for him, Madame et moi, he was one of the very few on his squadron to survive the war.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

58. Practising for Summer

Friday, 23rd April 2010. Here's another one of those songs that are so familiar - yet until this evening I didn't know what the song was called or who the singer was.. This is a song that is redolent of a certain era in France.. it's called "L'été indien" and it was recorded in 1975 by Joe Dassin.. Whenever I hear it, it reminds me of those golden days of summer when we'd finally be heading south west on our way down to the Pays Basque after another long English winter.. It's one of those "dabba dabba dab" songs (like the themes from "A Man and a Woman" and "Vivre pour vivre") that you'll be singing for the rest of the day!

Earlier this week we visited our friends M & P up in Lacanau-Océan. It's on the sandy Atlantic coast midway between the Pointe de Grave (the tip of land at the end of the Gironde estuary) and Arcachon to the south.. On the map (right) it's where the red road hits the sea. The access road to it from the autoroute was arrow straight through the endless pine forests that make up much of the south westerly coast. M & P have a maison secondaire set in pine woods from which a constant cloud of yellow pollen was drifting. We'd struck lucky with the weather.. the temp was up around 25 and it may even have crawled up another couple of degrees by the mid afternoon.. Lacanau-Océan is probably the closest resort to Bordeaux and it was clear that tourism here is a huge industry. There was everything for the complete family holiday and the summer traffic during the peak season must be unimaginable. P fired up his plancha and he prepared a delicious lunch of salmon steaks.. After this, we looked at a couple of  neighbouring golf courses which were beautifully maintained before heading down the the bustle of the sea front. Before long it was time to return south as we were getting Pays Basque withdrawal symptoms!

Saturday, 17 April 2010

57. It's plancha time again! Ouch!

15th April 2010. It's at this time of the year that I start thinking about lugging the plancha out of the garage, heaving it up the steps of the terrace and rolling it to its resting place for the next 6 months. In 2000 years time, ambitious archeologists will be falling over themselves to publish papers that explain exactly how the Plancha God was moved 20 metres horizontally and then up 5 steps using no artificial aids.. I don't intend to leave any vellum scrolls in the garage with the secret!

Something we discovered only within the last year or so is Sakari Sauce Basque (Forte). It's an intriguingly hot spicy sauce that is very addictive.. Madame sautés vegetables with it and it goes very well with grilled meats, poultry and pasta. If you decide to try some (it's available on the internet), I'd recommend going for the 'Forte' one. It's not cripplingly hot like some Indian curries but it just adds a welcome piquancy to dishes. Here's a clip that shows how it's made:
Watching the above clip, I've just realised that this is the very shop in Saint Etienne de Baïgorry that we used to visit year after year to stock up with tins of Confit de Canard, rillettes, cassoulet, beans in goose fat and all the other good things from the Pays Basque to keep our spirits up during the long dark days of winter. There may be other suppliers as good but I'd be surprised if there are any better.

If you ever find yourself in Saint Etienne de Baïgorry around lunch-time, make your way to the church and then stand on the bridge over the Nive and, after watching the trout holding their position in its crystal clear swiftly flowing waters, look upstream and, if you're anything like us, you'll be tempted by the idyllic setting of the Hôtel Arcé to wander down and, at the very least, study its menu! If it's a hot day, what could be better than lunch on their terrace under the welcome shade of the platanes with the swirling river within touching distance? (Answer: Nothing!) The menu featured Truite au Bleu when we were there. (Needless to say, we have no connection with, or commercial interest in, either the hotel or the shop mentioned here.)
17th April 2010. Since writing the above, the plancha is now in position on the terrace - we cleaned it off yesterday evening so we're all set for summer now.. once I've figured out how to pop that bulging vein in my forehead back into position from shifting the blessed thing!

By the way, I do welcome comments or questions so if you have any, please feel free to use the comment form. Also if there's a topic you'd like to see explored here just ask.. Thanks.  

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

56. Re cycling

13th April 2010. I took my bike out for a ride yesterday for a couple of hours along the banks of the river Nive.. With it being a river, there are no hills - which suited me fine! I went as far as Ustaritz - which, looking at the map, is 14kms by road from home and so taking all the river bends into account, I think I must have done upwards of 30km. There weren't many people out - just a few dog walkers and other cyclists. The Pyrenees were a misty blue mass against the horizon. I think I'll start doing this regularly.. it's a stress-free ride - no traffic or hills.
This next is a song I've liked for a long while but without really knowing what it was called.. only hearing snatches of it in the background. I don't listen to pop music stations much so when I finally found out today what the song was, I was surprised to find that it had been released as long ago as 1994! Called "Seven Seconds Away", it was recorded by Youssou N'Dour and Neneh Cherry and it's sung in Senegalese, French and English.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

55. Shorts weather..!

8th April 2010. A big 'plus' for this region compared to many others in France is the almost complete absence of the mosquito or, worse, the dreaded horse fly. In the summer months we generally sleep with the bedroom window open and I'm seldom woken by that annoying musical whirring hum of mosquito wings around my ears. I remember a holiday in the Ardèche region a good few years ago that was ruined for me by biting horse flies during the day and pesky humming mosquitoes by night. These large horse flies (some the size of a B-17!) would settle on me while I'd be drying off after a river swim and the first indication that one was on me would be the bite. The bite area would discolour over the following few hours to the size of a dinner plate and would be hot to the touch. Aaagghh! I must be an insect magnet as they ignore Madame and focus all their attentions on me. Here, though, in the Pays Basque it's a rare event for me to attract even one bite (touch wood!). I'm not complaining..

Saturday, 10th April 2010. Eric spent yesterday fitting the new garage doors and we're very pleased with the result. Another job ticked off. Only a few left to do now.

Today the skies were a cloudless blue, the temps were up around 21 and after finishing painting the new garage doors, I set up the table on the terrace ready for our first al fresco lunch of the year - sangria to start with then smoked duck breast salad with a few drops of balsamic vinegar, then cheese. I found the last of my Christmas cigars and I enjoyed it (feelthy habit!) over a Turkish coffee.. (for any smoking nazis out there I smoke about 3 a year!) (Yes I know - that's 3 too many..) There was hardly any traffic noise, just some bird song and the sound of a light aircraft somewhere.. Summer's coming. At last. When the heat of the afternoon faded, I cut the grass and then gave the dog a medicated shower - he's picked up a few fleas - and then I lay in the sun while he dried off. We're thinking about a trip inland for tomorrow - maybe up in the mountains.. have to see what the weather's doing.

Thought for the day: I once read of a British motorcyclist who was riding up the length of Norway to visit Europe's most northerly point - North Cape. On his way up there he met up with a fellow motorcyclist coming the other way so they stopped for a chat to compare notes. The other rider was an old American guy who'd taken 12 months off to explore Europe. The Brit asked him, "How can you afford to do it?" to which the old guy replied, "How can I afford not to..?"

Monday, 5 April 2010

54. Basque Mafia & Confréries

3rd April 2010. Eric - our friendly carpenter from the Basque Mafia - brought the new doors around for the garage the other day. Altogether there are 5 door panels that need painting. One is the new entrance door from the garden that he made from scratch and fitted on Friday. He's really made an excellent job of it - the old one was rotten & starting to sag on its hinges so much so that Madame could hardly open it even if she managed to unlock it. Now? The lock now snicks opens with a well-oiled click and the door fits snugly in the recessed doorway. However, the new garage doors will require a touch of Eric magique™ as they are concertina doors and he'll need to fit the track.

In case you were wondering, my part in all of this is to paint everything. I counted up this afternoon how many coats of paint I'll have to apply on the doors - it went like this - Entrance door: 6 coats (1 undercoat plus 2 top coats x 2 sides); 4 concertina doors: 24 coats (3 coats as before x 8 sides) - total 30 sides.. I went to Castorama the other day to buy some large tins of undercoat and top coat - which, by the way, has to be Basque Rouge. For a 2 litre tin, the prices ranged from 40-60€.. (that's $53-$80 for just over ½ gallon US). Ouch! While I'm in a frenzy of converting prices, here's one to ponder for any readers in the US.. Diesel here is $6.20 per US gallon..!
Meanwhile - the last few days have seen La Foire au Jambon in Bayonne - the annual event that's been taking place since 1426 (yes, 1426 - before Columbus discovered America!) that celebrates the famous Bayonne ham. I've been too busy painting to wander down there to see what's going on but we went last year and yes, it was as you'd expect - there was a large marquee set up by the covered market that was full of some very Basque faces tucking in to Jambon de Bayonne and other regional products in all of its guises.

5th April 2010. With yesterday being Easter Sunday, we decided to attend the Sunday morning service at the cathedral in Bayonne - and I wore a tie. As we neared it, we could hear the unmistakeable sounds of Basque bands. There was one drawn up in ranks outside the main entrance beating their drums in an ominously slow roll as another one approached. Luckily we arrived at the entrance just in time to squeeze in before a long, colourful procession of Confréries of all kinds.

The Confréries (think the word means a brotherhood) exist in support of various foods and wines (and probably many other things too). They preserve the traditions and customs associated with their selected product and they celebrate it. They are often seen in attendance at religious services and processions and they offer mutual help and charity. They dress in colourful medieval robes and hats and they carry banners that attest to the glory of their chosen food item. This is a most French tradition and it's definitely something that you just cannot imagine in England. The Brotherhood of the Black Pudding.. The Brotherhood of the Meat & Potato Pie.. The Brotherhood of the Pork Scratchings.. It just doesn't work does it?

We took our seats inside and shortly afterwards the entry of the Confréries started. Of the ones I can remember, there were the Confréries of the Gateau Basque, Confit de Canard, Madiran, Foie Gras, Jambon de Bayonne and Piment d'Espelette - but there were more.. It's moments like these that bring home the deep-rooted links between the produce of the local terroir and the people.

The morning service was accompanied by Errobi Kanta, a Basque choir and their voices filled the cathedral with their distinctive harmonies.
This was the timetable for the Confréries yesterday:

8h: Rassemblement et accueil des confréries à la Maison des associations in Bayonne.

9h15: Intronisation des nouveaux membres de la Confrérie du Jambon de Bayonne à la Maison des associations.

10h15: Défilé des confréries vers la cathédrale.

Circuit: quai Chaho, pont Pannecau, quai Roquebert, rue Port-de-Castets, rue Argenterie, cathédrale Sainte-Marie.

11h: Messe traditionnelle de Pâques en la cathédrale en présence des confréries et animée par la chorale Errobi Kanta.

12h30: Défilé des confréries de la cathédrale à la Maison des associations en passant par le carreau des Halles.

Circuit: rue du Pilori, rue du Port-de-Suzeye, carreau des Halles.

17h30: Bal des confréries à la Maison des associations et clôture de la Foire 2010. This last event would have been worth attending!

As I've said before, the French have a far more complex relationship with their food than is the case elsewhere. In the UK, food is what you eat when you're hungry. End of. Here - particularly here - it's about pride in one's region. In France, you are expected to be able to discuss food & wine (French food & wine)(what else!) in all of its regional varieties intelligently, knowledgeably and passionately. Food & wine are both subjects for discussion around the table - and while people are eating one meal, they'll often be waxing lyrical about one they've had or one they're going to have.

After lunch, we decided to take a drive up to the Pas de Roland.. which is one of the oldest routes across and over the Pyrenees and which lies at the foot of a mountain known as Artzamendi. We noticed quite a few fields had small numbers of contented looking donkeys in them. Why the Basques keep them I'm not sure but often you'll see local cars with a donkey sticker on the back. We also saw some wild shaggy coated mountain goats. There was a large male with two smaller females and the male had a spread of gnarled horns a couple of feet long that erupted up and out away from his head like the handlebars on a 'Chopper' bicycle..

The road out of Ixtassou (famous for its black cherries) is essentially single track but of course, local drivers treat this as a challenge and it wasn't long before we had our first meeting with someone coming the other way who didn't see the need to pull over when it was possible for him to. No, instead he simply advanced.. Where he thought I was going to go is a mystery. This was yet another "I'm gonna reach for the 'pump action' moment!" There's always one.

This is a duet I've always liked - it captures the dialogue that exists between couples beautifully. Who is there now who can put over lyrics like these two..? The late great Maurice Chevalier with Hermione Gingold (and yes, you're right, there is something of Madame and I in this!):
There's usually an outdoor competition to judge the best Omelette au jambon and all the usual suspects are there offering dégustations (tastings) of various products - patés, saucisses, cheeses, wines etc etc.