St Jean de Luz is a coastal town in SW France not far from Biarritz or St Jean Pied de Port, two additional towns we drove to during our quick trip. Widely known for its beach with golden sands and populated by swarms of people during the summer, it also has a great old town with narrow streets, a pedestrian walkway lined with shops, restaurants and old buildings.
The covered market is treasure trove of not only cheeses of all sorts but also spices, local delicacies such as Gateaux Basque, all kinds of jams , fresh fish from the day’s early morning catch and meats from every persuasion of animal. A sensory journey into the delicacies of the region.
This is Basque country – a stretch of land that encompasses three provinces in northern Spain and three provinces in southwest France and is home to some three million people. They speak Euskara, also known as Basque, one of the oldest languages in Europe and with no known link to any other language in the world. The Basque have their own culture, folklore, cuisine in addition to their unique language and while separatist movements have subsided there is no doubt that the Basque can call themselves a stateless nation. Basque communities can be found all over the world, some 170 organizations in 24 different countries. While not the only culture to celebrate their traditions, the Basque are fierce in their determination to maintain and promote their rich history.
Getting back to Louis XIV, he married Maria Therese, Infanta of Spain and Portugal, daughter of Phillip IV of Spain and Elisabeth of France, in June of 1660 in order to bring together the warring kingdoms of France and Spain. It was quite the event in St Jean de Luz and it did succeed in halting the infighting for a while. Double first cousins, the couple had seven children, six of whom died early in their lives.
After the ceremony they walked down the aisle and out the south door which was then sealed to commemorate peace between the two nations after 24 years of fighting.
St Jean Pied de Port is a quick jaunt by car from St Jean de Luz and serves as the last stop on the Camino de Santiago before crossing the Pyrenees. “The Way of St James” is made up of a host of trails that all lead to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain, where the remains of the of the Apostle St James the Great are buried. James, and his brother John, were among the first disciples of Jesus, and was with him during much of the highlights of his life on earth. Executed by Herod most likely for his temperament, James eventually was venerated as St James and became the patron saint of Spain. Every year the pilgrimages make their way to Santiago mostly through France and St Jean Pied de Port. From there the pilgrims hike over the Roncevaux pass into the town of Roncevaux and its famous hospital, one of many that sprang up along the various caminos. From there it is another 750 kilometers to Compostela where the remains of the apostle were found by a shepherd in the 9th century. The camino is now a World Heritage site for its contributions to cultural experiences shared by people from all over the world.
One of several historical stories has the body of James being shipped to Spain by sea. The ship encountered a fierce storm off the northwestern coast of Spain and sank. After the storm subsided the body was washed ashore covered in scallop shells , the image of which now mark the way to follow along the various trails that lead to Santiago de Compostela.
Besides being the gateway to the Pyrenees for the Camino de Santiago, St Jean Pied de Port also has this beuatiful Gothic 13th century church which serves many purposes to pilgrims embarking on the journey over the Roncevaux pass to Compostela.
There is an enormous library of delicious Basque recipes highlighted by such delicacies as squid in is own ink, Marmitako ( a tuna and potato stew), Bacalao al pil pil (salt cod fried in garlic and olive oil), Alubias de Tolosa (red beans cooked in broth and served with pickled peppers, cabbage, blood sausage and ham),and Pastel Vasco, a form of a sponge cake usually filled with cream and cherries. The most popular cheese of the region is Brebis, a soft cheese made from sheep’s milk, similar to chevre which is made from goat’s milk, but different in that it has twice the fat and 70% more protein. Healthy hiuh? Maybe, but it is a delicacy not usually found in the states.
Another, very pricey, Spanish delicacy is the ham from Iberico. Similar to a prosciutto from Italy or it’s French cousin, Jambon de Bayonne, Iberico is made from black pigs grown solely for their hams. Much as the French have rigid controls on their wine, who can call what etc., the Iberico vintages are strictly controlled by the Spanish government. Once the piglets are weaned they are fattened on a diet of maize and barley for several weeks and then turned out to pastures and oak groves where they graze on grass, herbs, acorns, chestnuts, and roots until they are deemed suitably mature for slaughter, at which time their diet is limited to chestnuts, or more exclusively, to acorns, the best of which are from a dense forest of oaks found between Spain and Portugal. The slaughtered pigs are salted and then left to dry for two weeks, then rinsed and again left to dry for another four to six weeks. Hung for at least one year and up to four, a mold develops around the leg which keeps the meat moist. A Jamon de Iberico, black label Belotta (acorn) aged for four years is the Dom Perignon of Iberico hams. And the priciest – working out to around $580 per pound if you buy the whole leg. We went white label which has less stringent qualifications of breeding but was nevertheless delicious, and quite a bit more affordable. Good stuff if you can get your hands on some.
Basque food, like the heritage it comes from, can be dark and mysterious, full of flavor, bold and nuanced and full of life. Sarah Johnston, an old friend from our Cali days, is of Basque heritage. She, and her husband Jacob, are great foodies and love all cuisines, but Sarah goes slightly wonkie when confronted with anything Basque – she and Jacob introduced me to Iberico hams, very very pricey in the States, and I in turn have shared numerous recipes with her and Jacob. I know they’re salivating about the Brebis and the Iberico ham, so here’s a recipe of Basque Lamb Stew that sort of embodies all things Basque. Enjoy.