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From Basque to Bordeaux

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 11.50.17 AMBy Monica Parpal

Tucked into the southwest corner of France, bordered by the Pyrenees mountains and the Atlantic coastline, lies the French region of Aquitaine. About the size of Belgium, Aquitaine (French for “land of water”) encapsulates diverse geographical, historical, and cultural characteristics. The terrain climbs skyward with imposing peaks to the south, descends into vinecovered landscape to the north, and dissolves into a stunning, beach-covered coastline to the west. The people of Southwest France are just as diverse, with French-Basque fisherman, pepper farmers, Bordelais winemakers, entrepreneurs, and young students calling Aquitaine home.

Connecting the diverse landscape and people is a deep-seated pride, hard-working ethic, and a passion for good food and wine. Aquitaine has a culinary identity all its own, a compass by which to explore all the region has to offer. If you choose to journey to this dramatic corner of France, begin in the Pays Basque—the French Basque Country. Getting to the far southwestern tip of Aquitaine is as simple as a flight into Paris or Bordeaux, followed by a high-speed train through the countryside to the rugged base of the Pyrenees. As an old Basque saying goes, “Before God was God, before boulders were boulders, the Basques were Basques.” Though the Basques have occupied this area for thousands of years, both their origins and their language remain shrouded in mystery. Today, fishers, farmers, ranchers, and bakers do things the way their grandparents did, and their grandparents before them. The result? Satisfying food worth rejoicing over.

Along the coasts of the Basque Country, tapas are served at all hours of the day. Near the luxurious seaside tourist destination of Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 11.49.38 AMBiarritz, a two-year-old restaurant called Crampotte 30 {30 Port des Pêcheurs, 64200 Biarritz;} serves tapas out of a former fisherman’s quarters. Owner Sophie Rolland has converted the tiny room into a restaurant kitchen, where tapas—known by the Basque term, “pintxos”—are made fresh to order and served on a simple terrace overlooking the expansive ocean. Jovial guests, tourists, and fisherman sit on wooden benches around picnic tables, ordering off the one-page menu.

Basque tapas are simple and hearty: slices of baguette topped with Iberico de Bellote (local ham); freshly-caught tuna spread with bright pesto; thinly sliced ewe cheese with spoonfuls of black cherry jam; and pungent Ossau-Iraty sheep’s cheese from the nearby mountains. Tiny glass verrines of carrot and cumin mousse come equipped with miniature spoons. A regional dish called pipérade—a blend of tomatoes, green peppers, and onion sautéed with piment d’Espelette (a locally-grown chile pepper)—is eaten on bread or by the spoonful, sometimes served with egg or ham. All the ingredients come from within a few miles, served atop repurposed wooden pelote paddles used in the much admired local sport known in the U.S. as jai alai. To complement the food, Rolland pours sparkling white Txakoli (or Chacolí) wine with a theatrical flourish.

“My passion is cooking,” says Rolland, who creates new menus each week. “To have a small restaurant in Biarritz is an amazing opportunity.”

For many Basques, this brand of culinary passion runs deep. People live in traditional white and red cottages, raising sheep, tending vineyards, milling grain, and growing Espelette peppers they way their ancestors did. Espelettes—the earthy, mild, slightly sweet red chile peppers that have grown here for 400 years—are found primarily in the Basque country. In the old days, residents would dry the peppers by hanging them in festoons from their walls and balconies. It’s a practice that lives on today, delighting droves of tourists at the annual Espelette Pepper Festival.

Just outside the town of Espelette—a short, scenic drive from Biarritz—visitors engage firsthand in the traditions surrounding the humble chile at Atelier du Piment D’Espelette {Elizaldeko Bidea, 64250 Espelette;; atelier-dupiment-espelette.fr}, where Owner Ramuntxo Pochelu—a native Basque Frenchman—oversees this pepper workshop and farm. He plants fields of knee-high pepper plants by hand each spring, harvests them in the fall, then dries, crushes, and packages them for sale all over the world.

“Everything is done by hand the same way it’s been done for 400 years,” Pochelu says in French. “We want to share the Espelette with as many people as we can.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 11.50.04 AMCulinary traditions like this are just a taste of all that Aquitaine has to offer. Make your way north, and the hilly countryside gives way to vineyards and river valleys—the landscape of Bordeaux wine country. Surrounded by bucolic green countryside and nearly 300 acres of vineyards, the city of Bordeaux is a buzzing metropolis. Often called the “Pearl of Aquitaine,” the capital city is known for its striking 19th century architecture, sophisticated culture, and strictly-controlled, world-renowned wine. Age-old vineyards and wine châteaux decorate the landscape along the banks of the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers—the historic thoroughfares of the wine trade. Bordeaux wines span a range of ages and price points, but they have one thing in common: they’re all made by blending different grapes to achieve maximum balance and finesse. Primary red grapes include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, while Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle round out the dominant local white varieties. The best of the best are classified as Grand Cru Classé. Near the Dordogne River and the hilly medieval city of Saint-Emilion, Château La Dominique {33330 Saint-Emilion;; chateau-ladominique.com} treats guests to a 17th century wine cellar, recently renovated and redesigned by famed French architect Jean Nouvel. Floor-to-ceiling cellar windows, modern winemaking equipment, and an artistic aesthetic enliven the historic architecture, while brilliant wine-colored exterior walls hearken to regional roots.

On the rooftop, La Terrasse Rouge {1 La Dominique, 33330 SaintEmilion;; laterrasserouge.com}—one of the only wine châteaux with an onsite restaurant—serves a vibrant wine country lunch overlooking sweeping vineyard views in every direction. The menu tempts with hors-d’oeuvre of Duck Foie Gras, Charcuterie à la Bordelaise, Caviar, and Oysters from the nearby seaside village of Arcachon. Entrées include local Leg of Lamb, spit-fired Roast Chicken, and fine cuts of beef served with creampoached potatoes and roasted local vegetables. Cap the experience with a glass of fine Château La Dominique Grand Cru Classé, which boasts a ripe and spicy nose, notes of truffle and licorice on the palate, and a full, silky finish. For dessert, soft, chewy macaron cookies are a Saint-Emilion favorite.

And no visit to Bordeaux is complete without canelés—tiny cakes traditionally baked with rum and vanilla that can be found in restaurants and cake shops all over the capital city. Baked in distinctive copper molds traditionally greased in bees’ wax, canelés are caramelized to a crisp golden-brown crust with a soft, honey-vanilla-flavored crumb—a true regional delight.

All this is only a taste of the culinary opportunities in Aquitaine. Traveling from the southern Pays Basque to the illustrious wine-producing region surrounding Bordeaux introduces a side of France that, to many, is still undiscovered. If you choose to visit, let the cultural traditions of food and fine wine be your compass. From the bright red Espelette peppers to the indulgent canelés de Bordeaux, culinary discoveries abound. Relish steak frites in an airy Bordeaux brasserie. Linger over tapas on a seaside terrace. Swirl and sip a crimson red Grand Cru from within a luxurious château. From the mountain tops to the cresting waves, the southwest of France is ripe for discovery. For more information on how to plan your culinary experience in Aquitaine, visit us.rendezvousenfrance.com or tourisme-aquitaine.fr/en.

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