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Southwest France: Culinary Crossroads of Basque and Bearn

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Photo by mikelats35
Photo by mikelats35

One of the joys of exploring the French countryside is discovering the incredible diversity from region to region. Driving along narrow country roads, the landscape, architecture and topography seem to shift imperceptibly from one hour to the next. These variations are reflected in regional cooking styles.

Inland from the Basque coastal resorts of Biarritz and Saint Jean de Luz are lush green hillsides studded with villages full of white stucco houses and their typical dark red balconies. About 10 kilometers west of Oloron Sainte-Marie—a bustling medium-sized town flanking the Adour river, accessible is Esquiule, a tiny village at the intersection of the Basque country with the neighboring Bearn.

Esquiule is home to Chez Chateau, a restaurant located in the center of the village in what used to be a dilapidated old inn. It’s not a bargain-priced dining experience, but in terms of value for money it ranks high. Opt for the “Menu Tradition” at €19 and you will be rewarded with a rich and distinctly regional dining experience that will resonate long after many other travel memories have faded. To keep a handle on the bill, make sure you ask for “une carafe d’eau” (tap water) instead of “eau plat” or “eau gazeuse” (bottled water).

Before the meal officially begins, you will be offered amuse-bouches to whet the appetite: blinis spread with salmon rillettes, and cheese puff pastry fingers. The soup course is a garbure bearnaise, the symbol of Bearnais cooking, a thick cabbage and bean soup enriched with bits of smoked ham, cured duck, and sausage. Then there is a choice between pan-fried trout in garlic, parsley, and breadcrumbs or a “salade aux gesiers” (duck gizzards). While waiting for the main course, we were given a vial of claret-colored fruit juice infused with a Basque liquor and topped with a tiny scoop of mandarin sorbet (the local version of the “trou normand”) to cleanse the palate before the serious eating was meant to start.

Then you choose between a confit de porc or confit de canard (cured duck or pork) with sautéed potatoes. Before dessert, there is a “pre-dessert” (a rare treat by most restaurant standards) of tiny dishes of creme brûlée, followed by either four scoops of the house ice-cream or sorbet, each drizzled with a different chocolate or fruit-flavoured sauce, or crepes suzette. After the delicious sweet treats, it was impossible to pass on coffee. We ended up ordering two, an inadvisable lapse of budget control!

Restaurant Chez Chateau is located in Esquiule. It can be reached by telephone at +33 (0)5 59 39 23 03.

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