Of all the culinary experiences to be had in France today, the one to go for is in the Basque region. Why? Because values have changed. Aggressively contemporary cooking mired in astronomical bills now seems passé. With the economic crisis tightening the pores of France’s gastronomie, it’s fascinating to discover how the country’s culinary geography has been reshaped. Never have chefs spent so little time gazing at their own navels. Lately they’ve been looking up and—big surprise!—it’s as if they have just come upon intruders: clients. That’s an event. And the clients have changed. They want less showing off and more authenticity, more serenity, and more vegetables on their plates. Which is why the Basque region is ahead of the game. Nestled along the border with Spain, this under-the-radar area—as beautiful as it is gastronomically rich—has been wise enough to grow with tortoiselike deliberation. By always being late, the Basques now find themselves at the center of the latest trend.
Traveling from Paris, you’ll need to choose between two types of cooking to get to Biarritz, the cosmopolitan seaside capital of France’s Pays Basque. If you like microwaves, take the plane (an hour and a half, plus waiting time in airports). Or if you’re among those who like stewing slowly, the train (five hours) is the way to go. The unfolding landscape is splendid. It’s a geography lesson, beginning with the quiet region around Tours, through the vineyards of Bordeaux, to the long breath of the pine forests in the Landes. Finally, you arrive in Biarritz, with its divine milky light coming off the ocean. The city itself has a lot of character and has long been a prized vacation destination. Witness the splendid Hôtel du Palais, a former summer retreat for Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie, now with a spa and modern luxuries.
Such is the Basque region: Perfumed by a curtain of pines, it is thrillingly fronted by a gothic ocean, with irresistibly photogenic small harbors and waves worshipped by the surfing faithful. Beyond that comes a wall—the Pyrénées—and, behind it, the Basque area of Spain. The entire Basque region, properly known as Euskal Herria, is made up of seven provinces. In France, from east to west, there’s the Soule, the Basse-Navarre, and the Labourd; on the Spanish side, the Alava, Vizcaya, the Gipuzkoa, and Navarra, an autonomous community. The Basque language, Euskara, is subdivided into different dialects. Isn’t it all deliciously complicated? It’s perfect.
To understand the Pays Basque, it’s best to take to the roads. From Biarritz, drive south to Saint-Jean-de-Luz and then head east on the D918, which runs more or less parallel to the Spanish border, no more than 20 miles away. As the D918 begins to unfold in the suburbs of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, its ungraciousness is beguiling. The road doesn’t want to give itself up. It is furious. About everything: supermarkets, traffic, billboards. Might as well say it—this road doesn’t play fair. Certainly there are a few ravishing bushes, a few bursts of greenery, but, between us, it is disheartening. After a few miles, however, the D918 clears its throat, looks over its shoulder, and begins its soliloquy. It winds around, races down, and doubles back like lacing on a corset. Villages begin taking their little solos. Just as you would say that it’s sunny or it’s nighttime, you say to yourself: This is the Pays Basque.
The region is without a doubt among the most successful of French landscapes. There is a good humor, a vivacious gaiety that menacing skies often come to disturb. There is tremendous punch in the region’s abrupt vales, as if the geography mimics the Basque character. How are the people? At the outset, they’re a bit like this road—rough. “They will say ‘no’ right away,” says one of the region’s aficionados. “Their shoulders slump, they scrutinize you with a laser. Then things loosen up. And you discover a character that’s very loyal, honest as stones, prudent, simple, elegant.” We’ll take it.
The landscape is cut of the same stone. And if you venture off the D918, the surroundings become even more affable. Upon reaching Espelette, maybe half an hour after leaving Saint-Jean-de-Luz, the road grows wilder and makes your GPS go crazy to the point where the system spews out nasty words such as “Road Without Name.” We’ll take that, too.
Open your windows to the silence and the smells of grass, mint, hay. Now and then, you’ll come across hikers and no doubt envy them, as they have figured out the ideal way to experience the Basque landscape: slowly, with determined steps, as close to nature as possible. You’ll want to reverse your car, greet them, applaud them wholeheartedly. In this landscape you will discover a sort of happy fraternity.
Villages in the Basque region tend to give intense impressions. When they’re as beautiful as Sare or Aïnhoa, near the Spanish border, or Hasparren, just to the north, they literally explode in front of your eyes, in your mouth, like sun-gorged fruit. Within minutes, you get what they’re about, their essence, their colors—oxblood reds, fir-tree greens—and the interplay of church and town hall.
Then the road starts again and the countryside panoramas fill the car windshield, until another village charmingly imposes itself. In Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, some 30 minutes from Espelette (assuming no diversions, of course), the D918 stops abruptly at the D933. Here there are too many visitors in the summer, resulting in virtual pedestrian traffic jams. But this human density hints at the existence of other, more solitary roads. Such is the road heading south to Estérençuby, to which I have always been partial. Better yet, just outside the village, heading farther south toward the Nive River springs, the landscape starts doing cartwheels. It plays and laughs and jumps for joy. “One shouldn’t express what one feels,” the French writer Joseph Joubert once said, “but what one remembers.” This road is an ideal place to stretch your memories.
Now let’s move to the table. Cooking in the Pays Basque is as simple as hello, a deceptive poor man’s cuisine constantly playing on two ideas: the sea, with its fish, and the earth, with its tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers, red peppers, potatoes. In truth, it’s got everything, enough to fill a Noah’s Ark with black grouse, hare, wood pigeon, swallow, partridge, boar, pig. In Basque Country the food is always joyful, always generous.
Then there are the amazing people, who have traveled a lot, as the poor do out of necessity. Which is why if you happen to attend a big family meal in the Pays Basque, you’re likely to find a cousin who was born in Argentina. He’ll be the one digging the fire pit and pitching three-pronged forks. And there might also be cousins who spent time in Japan. All of which adds to the richness of the region’s food. Then there is the stimulating presence of neighboring Spain. Its gastronomy is explosive and its influence extends across the globe. Let’s just say that this part of France has retained Spanish cuisine’s exuberance and volatile character (tempered by nostalgia) but not much of the molecular accelerations and deconstructions of salami and olives that have gotten so much international attention in the past decade.
Here, people let those going at breakneck speed pass them by, watching with irony. As Arnaud Daguin of the Hégia inn, near Hasparren, so aptly puts it, in the Basque region “there are roots we worship. And curse.” This is the stuff the cuisine is made of: tradition and, especially, a sincerity that produces proud, resolute farmers. “We let the animals breathe and try to keep them alive a little longer,” says Daguin. Such is the essence of a sustainable cuisine’s paradoxical modernity, illustrated by a handful of irresistible addresses, which are now yours to discover.
During a stay at Biarritz’s grand Hôtel du Palais (rooms, $600–$5,690; 1 Av. de l’Impératrice; 33-5/59-41-64-00; hotel-du-palais.com), you may wish for an evening of pared-down authenticity and gourmand good humor. In that case Chez Mattin, in Ciboure, about 20 minutes south of Biarritz, is the address to know (dinner, $50; 63 Rue Evariste Baignol; 33-5/59-47-19-52). The low-key clientele includes red-faced sailors, porcelain-skinned retirees, families, and groups of friends. You must try an exquisite dish called ttoro. A celebrated soup made with fish, shrimp, and mussels, it’s silky in its broth and spicy in its seasonings. There are surprises to be had off the menu, including special fish dishes such as hake grilled with garlic and deglazed with vinegar.
In Biarritz, don’t miss Maison Adam (27 Place Clémenceau; 33-5/59-24-21-68; macarons-adam.com), a superb pâtisserie selling irresistible macarons, especially the chocolate. And Cazaux Biarritz, which has been making pottery since 1750 and is run by seventh-generation ceramist Joël Cazaux, produces distinctive vessels decorated with colorful, often iridescent glazes. In addition to the boutique (10 Rue Broquedis; 33-5/59-22-36-03; cazauxbiarritz.com), the Cazaux atelier is open by appointment (15 Rue de Larreguy; 33-5/59-23-15-01).
L’Auberge Basque is the perfect example of an innovative property whose lesson in modernity neither exhausts nor tries too hard to convince. Opened just a couple of years ago, this inn is an authentic success, simple and sentimental, not driven by competition or guidebook ratings. The rooms—be sure to request one that looks onto the landscape—display a quiet sophistication. Owner Cédric Béchade, who trained with Alain Ducasse, also helms L’Auberge’s charming eatery. The recipient of a Michelin star, Béchade’s cuisine offers unadulterated flavors in a constant balancing act between innovation and tradition.
Witness his piperade, which is handled with extreme delicacy, served with fingers of bread in onion jus, poached egg, and shavings of Ibaïona ham; or his maigre (a local bass) done au gratin with fine breadcrumbs and spider crab on a bed of baby spinach, accompanied by young carrots cooked with their greens in a bouillon of livèche, the Basque region’s celery. Supported by a cunning sommelier, Samuel Ingelaere (try asking him for off-the-list wines, but don’t say this came from me), a meal here is true bliss. Breakfasts of gâteau Basque, housemade marmalade, goat’s-milk yogurt, and fresh juices are similarly exquisite (rooms, $130–$360; dinner, $85; $35-per-person lunch is served on Wednesday and Thursday, September–June; D307 Old Rd. of St.-Jean-de-Luz; 33-5/59-51-70-00; aubergebasque.com).
Elsewhere in Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle, Boulangerie Darrigues (Place du Château; 33-5/59-54-52-37) may not be the prettiest bakery you’ll find, but it is indeed the best, notably for its gâteau Basque—velvety, light-crusted, and not too brisé—as well as for excellent breads and brioches with quince paste and nuts. It’s the perfect place to put the finishing touches on a picnic to enjoy in the nearby Chipataya forest or next to Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle’s lake, where tables are set under centuries-old oak trees.
Plus, a short drive from the town, along a narrow road flanked by enchanting panoramas, there is a small country restaurant, Chez Saint-Pierre (dinner, $70; Maison Soldaten-Borda, Itxassou; 33-5/59-29-70-61), with a shady terrace that overlooks the river, 1,500 feet below. The carefully prepared dishes here are served family style. Don’t miss the mamias—curdled milk pots, made by grandma.
Located in beautiful Sare, Hôtel Arraya became an instant favorite. Not that the cuisine will have you swinging in ecstasy from the superb Basque linen drapes, but this house has an atmosphere, a feeling, that will win you over right away. The handsome 16th-century mansion has been passed down through generations to brothers Sébastien and Jean-Baptiste Fagagoa, the welcoming owners who offer a rather surprising wine list at near-retail prices (a 2002 Sociando Mallet is $72). They also serve an unbeatable prix fixe menu with pleasing dishes such as a salad of broad beans and duck gizzards, followed by honey rabbit and a crème brûlée of curdled goat’s milk.
The rooms, with their artisanal linens and cozy wood paneling, are delightful—ask for one in the back, where it’s quiet. And the breakfasts are exquisite. This is the sentimental side of the Basque region (rooms, $95–$195; dinner, $58; Place du Village; 33-5/59-54-20-46; arraya.com).
During your stay, be sure to pop into Hôtel Arraya’s boutique. It sells a remarkable selection of Basque linens, among them the renowned table linens woven by artisans at the Ona Tiss atelier. Located about an hour away, in the eastern Basque town of Saint-Palais, the workshop (23 Rue de la Bidouze; 33-5/59-65-71-84) is open to visitors.
If it’s a gastronomic excursion and pure happiness you’re after, then you must reserve a stay—with breakfast and dinner included, please!—at Véronique and Arnaud Daguin’s tiny five-room inn, Hégia, just outside Hasparren (room, dinner, and breakfast, $925, discounted to $850 for two nights or more; Chemin de Curutcheta, Quartier Celhai; 33-5/59-29-67-86; hegia.com). The landscape is sublime, the rooms (designed by architect Xavier Leibar with Véronique and local craftsmen) are breathtaking, and the atmosphere is unique, bathed in music by Arvo Pärt and Erik Truffaz. Evening meals are taken in the kitchen, among the small group of guests, with Arnaud preparing inspired, seasonal market cuisine (barely seared fish, abundant vegetables, sautéed handfuls of spinach, poached foie gras), while from the cellar Véronique extracts wines that are as pitch-perfect as they are improbable. Sumptuous nights in a gorgeous natural setting.
Be sure to check out renowned shoemaker Duhart’s shop in Hasparren (46 Rue du Docteur Jean Lissar; 33-5/59-29-63-08). Look for the terrific old-fashioned leather slippers ($100).
After experiencing a few down years, the Hôtel Les Pyrénées in the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is enjoying recognition once again, thanks to the coveted two stars awarded to its restaurant by Michelin. It’s a traditional property where provincial, ceremonial pomp (Relais & Châteaux-style) alternates with the youthful spirit of a new generation, as embodied in Philippe Arrambide, who returned home full of ideas and drive and began working with his parents, Anne Marie and Firmin, the hotel’s longtime owners.
In the restaurant, plates are put together with rare energy, and the $55 tasting menu—asparagus soup and hake followed by a coffee parfait, for example—is exceptional. The remodeled guest rooms (ask for one with a view out back) are evidence that this former coach house has entered the 21st century with great ambition. Take note, however: During high season, in July and August, the place can be a bit too bustling (rooms, $145–$360; dinner, $58; 19 Place Charles de Gaulle; 33-5/59-37-01-01; hotel-les-pyrenees.com).
Just a stone’s throw from the hotel, the shop Jean-Vier (17 Place Floquet; 31-5/59-37-09-05; jean-vier.com) sells thick, rustic, boldly striped Basque linens, the kind that were once used to protect cows from horseflies and the sun. Proudly steeped in tradition, yet perfectly, simply contemporary, these linens are actually a decent metaphor for the colorful, captivating, authentic Pays Basque.