Driving into the past
Part 1 of a 2009 Basque travelogue
by Thor Iverson
Hamming it down
How is it possible for bacon to be undersalted?
Whatever the process…science, witchcraft, or (more likely) bankruptcy-derived cost-slashing…British Airways has achieved it. The rest of what they’re calling breakfast is par for the steerage-class airplane food course – tasteless sausage, eggs with the lingering consistency of powdered detergent, a tomato that’s radiating every last kilojoule it absorbed in the microwave and appears to be trying to melt its way through the tray when it’s not burning my tongue – but this bacon is as fascinating as it is repellent. The ingredient that makes everything taste better, now unable to make even itself taste good. It needs something. It needs bacon.
I’ve been thinking a lot about food these past months, the crispy slab of unpork in front of me aside. What it is. What it isn’t. And what it is if it isn’t what it is.
Contradiction. Confusion. Clarity. I’m in search of all three, and expect to find them where I’m headed. Yet another disputed region in which conflict catalyzes creativity, and where traditions elsewhere preserved in amber and writ are not yet done being made. Where one’s geographical location depends on who one asks, where language is who one is rather than what one speaks, and where home is what one is called rather than where one lives. Where the streets have neither no nor one name, but two. And where the beef on one’s plate might actually be watermelon.
But first, I have to survive the culinary degradations of this flight. Post-nap, I’m treated to the sequel: starch-wrapped ham (at least there’s salt this time) and a thread salad dressed with leftover pickling spices. Mmmm.
An incompatible edible
New car smell? How about new hotel smell? It fills the air here at the sparkly new Sofitel right at – as opposed to a shuttle ride away from – Heathrow. I’m afraid to touch anything, lest I leave the first mark. The rooms are pristine, and I’m getting one for a song, thanks to a special “just opened” promotional rate. Normally, my choice for bed-and-shower between international flights is Heathrow’s Yotel, but this is a lot more comfortable and less submarine-like. And there’s even a trio of dining options…
Now, it’s true that I don’t expect much from hotel restaurants. Sure, there are delicious exceptions, but an attitude of healthy suspicion is rarely unwarranted. It is perhaps jetlag, or maybe the aftereffects of flavorless bacon with a side of yarn, that causes me to forget one of the cardinal rules of hotel dining: do not order with a sense of whimsy or adventure. And so, buoyed by the fairly lively space at Vivre (which, I guess, lives up to its name), I temporarily lose my mind and order a Thai pizza.
What I have in mind is an array of Thai comestibles atop crisped dough. What Vivre has in mind is a regular pizza with poorly-understood Thai ingredients randomly thrown into the mix. And so, what I get is a very standard cheese and tomato-sauced pizza to which have been added shrimp and lemongrass, and then topped with a giant and incongruous mound of sprouts. Yes, I typed that right: cheese and lemongrass, together in one dish. Delicate sprouts and slightly sweet tomato sauce is no brilliant pairing either. The “Indian pizza” is marginally more successful, but despite my enthusiasm for culinary adventure, a Heathrow hotel restaurant is not the venue.
There’s a wine list, and since I’ve nothing to do tonight but sleep, I brave the always-fearsome dollar/pound exchange rate to close the book on my last trip and clear the slate for this one.
Saam Mountain 2008 Chenin Blanc Middelburg (Paarl) – Full of the bright, round, yellow fruit that I’ve found is (happily) almost unavoidable in bargain chenins from South Africa. It’s clean, with a bit of spice and barely-fair acidity, though more of the latter would be welcome. Drinkable enough.
How is it possible that we’re flying such a rickety dust bucket to Toulouse? I mean, they make planes there, don’t they? Maybe this plane is a trade-in, and those on the return flight will be in a shiny new Airbus. For their sake, I hope.
Well, anyway, we land without collapsing into an inertia-propelled cloud of parts, and pretty soon the discomfort of an airplane seat has been exchanged for the discomfort of a French rental car seat. Not for long, though…there’s an uncomfortable restaurant seat in my near future. A reclined trifecta!
The restaurant at Hôtel du Commerce in Saint-Gaudens is decorated both in the knick-knacky, marché aux puces style so common to rural French restaurants and in the more elegant, restrained, but characterless style so common to hotel restaurants. It’s a little odd, to be honest, though I suppose the combination is a form of character in itself. The food is highly regional, and despite a rather pathetic wine list, I’m looking forward to a hearty, satisfying meal.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way. Overcooked salmon is followed by overcooked duck breast, and the latter is not saved by its accompaniment of fine in-season girolles. A gésier salad is much better, however, and a regional, duck-laden take on cassoulet is as satisfying as it is outsized, but this is still only a 50% hit rate. Given that all of the dishes are presented in their most canonized, ossified, Laroussean form, there’s little excuse for such indifferent execution.
Bézios “Domaine la Croix des Marchands” 2007 Gaillac (Southwest France) – A goofy bottle, a goofy wine. Crisp doesn’t really hit the mark here…sharp is closer…with biting fruit full of black skins, seeds, and stems. Pretty insipid, to be honest.
Larrau less traveled
Why am I once again denied this view? I’ve skirted the northern foothills of the Pyrénées before, and it was raining then, too. The mountains are mist-shrouded at their bases and invisible at their heights, and so there’s nothing to do but stare grimly at the foggy road ahead.
The still-theoretical mountains get higher and tighter as the rain increases in intensity, and soon the road starts to wind, tilt, and bend along routes described by streams and ancient paths. Roads like this feel less like a way to get to somewhere remote than they feel like a journey into the past. It’s not that civilization disappears, or even completely recedes, but that its overt trappings are replaced by a sense of duration. Commerce is replaced by the pastoral tangle of husbandry, railings give way to haphazard fences, steel turns to stone, and man – as he must inevitably do – succumbs to nature.
Larrau, awkwardly perched on a hillside curve, exists at a crossroads. North – the road I’ve traveled – is France. West is a tangled web of mountains roads through the Pays-Basque. And south are the steep switchbacks that creep over the Pyrénées and then descend into Navarra. That last route has long been here, and known, and thus the town is here as well, existing pretty much as it always has…as a waypoint for travelers, but also, of late, hosting those for whom undamaged nature is a destination rather than an impediment to continuance. Larrau itself inhabits two worlds, for depending on who one asks, it is either a part of modern France or of historical Euskadi. There’s not much to the town, aside from the usual trappings of a Basque village – fronton and church, farm and home – and so the Hotel Etchemaïté operates not just as the hotel (and restaurant) for travelers and nature-lovers alike, but also as a sort of social center for the village.
As Larrau exists between countries, the hotel exists in the space between cultures. Outside, the locals call to each other in the chewy punctuation of Euskara. Inside, the language often switches to a slightly guttural French, as if the hotel’s portal is some sort of linguistic border. There’s an exception to this rule, though, and it arrives in the guise of groups of swarming children, who throng into the hotel’s from-another-era bar each afternoon, giddy with chatter, and every bit of it in Euskara.
As for the hotel itself, it is decidedly rustic despite the beautiful red-and-white typicity of the exterior. But the welcome is warm, the rooms are comfortable, and as essentially the only lodging and dining game in the area, the quality and value it offers are far beyond what one can reasonably expect for what could otherwise be a hostage situation. My experience with such hotels elsewhere is that they do the bare minimum, but no more, and at a premium. No, it’s not likely that Etchemaïté will be offering high-speed wireless or whirlpool tubs anytime soon, but as a high-value and high-satisfaction retreat it is very difficult to criticize.
And a retreat it is. From room 23, at the peak of the hotel and with a tiny balcony gazing across the mist-shrouded hills, the only sounds are the distant clank of unseen cowbells (attached to equally unseen cows) and the soft whisper of waving leaves. The quiet has a presence, one that can almost be termed a sound in itself.
But it is at table that the establishment’s pride is most strongly asserted. This really is the only place to eat for many kilometers – the Michelin Guide, for example, can come up with nothing closer than Ochagavía on the Spanish side of the mountains, and that drive is an impossible consideration at night. So hotel guests eat at the restaurant because they must…and yet, despite what is a sparsely-occupied off-season establishment, the restaurant is full, each every night. The locals are here, too. That’s a good sign.
Etchemaïté (the restaurant) has a locally-focused menu free of dalliances with delicacy and modernity, instead offering the hearty, grandmotheresque cuisine one expects and wants from such an establishment. Hotel guests are also offered, as part of their half-board package, a set meal each evening. Tonight there’s a choice between a supremely comforting soupe paysanne and a rich terrine of foraged mushrooms, followed by slow-cooked veal loin with artichokes. The veal is overcooked, which I’ve found to be fairly commonplace in France, but the dish is still quite tasty. The final course tonight (and every night) is a choice between dessert and a local brebis with its standard accompaniment of vibrant cherry preserves, both of the latter sourced from Larrau’s farmers. The cheese/cerise combination is irresistibly fresh and so very present; it – with the soup and the mushrooms – brackets this meal in a tangible, living expression of terroir.
Mostly yet broadly local, the wine list shows some sophistication in its choices and options; someone here is a bit of a wine enthusiast rather than just a wine stenographer. Though tonight, with this food, the thought of drinking anything other than regional wine is anathema, unfortunately I choose a little more adventurously than is warranted, forgetting the essential lesson that country wines – even those with AOCs – are almost always best in their least-adorned form.
Riouspeyrous “Domaine Arretxea” 2001 Irouléguy “Cuvée Haitza” (Southwest France) – Past it, and I wonder if the oak treatment hasn’t accelerated its decline. Quite tannic, with the remnants of overworked fruit and a dry finish. Dark and coal-hearted, but already with all four limbs and most of its torso in the grave.
The wine lingers like an unwelcome guest, but there’s an opportunity to recover with a selection of locally-focused digestifs, and I choose something that will become a better and better friend as this vacation proceeds. My first encounter, though, is diffused through a filter of mild bewilderment.
Brana Eau-de-Vie de Prune “Vieille” (Southwest France) – A sharp and fruity nose, razor-like in its violence, somewhat belies the richness and generosity of the spirit within. It’s flavorful and ferric, with a sandpapery finish. I’m compelled and repelled in equal measure, and can’t figure out quite what I think. I will eventually come to adore this remarkable distillate, but tonight it is mostly a source of confusion.
Contradiction. Confusion. Clarity. I’m in search of all three.
Copyright © Thor Iverson