Coloured by the flavours of nearby Spain and the traditional tastes of the Pyrenees, the food and wine of the Basque country boast a long and illustrious history.
Piment d’Espelette, pride of the Basque Country
The famed Espelette chilli pepper – red, lustrous, gently spiced and full of fruity flavour – forms the basis of many Basque recipes, including the famous piperade, an omelette of peppers and tomatoes. You’ll also find it adorning the walls of many houses, drying or as a decoration, in particular the Euzkadi restaurant in the village of Espelette, where you can sample a fine Bayonne ham piperade. You can also celebrate this inimitable Basque spice along with the villagers of Espelette at the festival held every year on the last weekend of October.
The ubiquitous jambon de Bayonne
Prepared throughout the Basque Country, this ham is served in every restaurant in the area, not least that run by Jean-Claude Tellechea, Bayonne ham ambassador and chef at the Auberge du Cheval Blanc. Should you happen to be in Bayonne during Holy Week, don’t miss the Ham Fair, an unmissable food festival held on the banks of the River Nive. And what better to bring out the full flavour of a wafer-thin slice of jambon de Bayonne than a glass of Irouléguy from the only AOC-certified vineyard in the Basque Country.
Sea and river fish
Vibrant and brightly coloured, sea fish takes pride of place in the cuisine of the Basque coast. Savour a plate of cod-stuffed piquillo peppers as you gaze out over the bay at Saint-Jean-de-Luz or tuck into a hake steak a la plancha at the Belarra restaurant on the beach at Socoa. And don’t miss the chance to sample a dish of marmitako, a stew of tuna fish cooked with olive oil and vegetables, a plate of chipirons, small cuttlefish served in their ink or with a serving of onion and pepper marmalade, or a cassolette of tuna washed down with a glass of sagarno, traditional Basque cider. Once you’ve sampled all the coast has to offer, head up into the mountains, home of the Banka trout which you can see being reared at Michel Goicoechea’s fish farm.
Something more substantial
Alongside the pork used for making ham and charcuterie, other meats also occupy an important place in Basque cuisine. Poulet Basquaise is a dish of chicken pieces sautéed with onions and peppers, then cooked slowly with a glass of white wine. Axoa de veau is a veal and sweet pepper stew with Espelette chillies, perhaps best sampled at the Ondoria restaurant in Itxassou, the little Basque village famed as the capital of the black cherry which is made into jam and eaten as an accompaniment to the local ewes’ milk cheese.
Time for dessert
Cocoa beans first entered France via Bayonne in the 1490s, since when the town has been a renowned centre of chocolate making. Take a look around the Musée du Chocolat, followed by a cup of hot chocolate at the Maison Cazenave. Another famed dessert, the gâteau basque, filled with custard or, more traditionally, Itxassou cherries, can be found on sale in every local pâtisserie.
Finding and sampling local Basque specialities
The Route Gourmande des Basques – Wherever you go on the Route Gourmande des Basques, from Bayonne to the hills of the Aldudes, you’ll always find local producers ready to show you their craft and a local delicacy to taste.
Pierre Oteiza – From the Aldudes valley to Paris, and via Bordeaux, Bayonne, Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Ainhoa in between, Pierre Oteiza’s shops offer a wide range of Basque produce including hams, charcuterie and hearty soups and stews.
La Maison Chailla – With a stall at Biarritz indoor food market, Chailla sells a range of some of the best products available in the Basque country and the Landes including piment d’Espelette, ewes’ milk cheese and gâteau basque.