Now that I have your attention… let me tell you about just one of the good meals that Elaine and I encountered on the last ‘This Little Piggy’ research road trip to Basquelandia. We ate homemade garbure at every meal, drank tart basque cider and local Irouleguy wine, and best of all, sat in cozy unpretentious restaurants whose only aim is to feed their customers good honest food—everyday. This menu documents one such very good meal of many at what I call ‘The Taxidermy Cafe’.
I did what I often do, followed my nose along a small road. Away from the pilgrim tourist traps of St. Jean Pied de Port, we headed out of town. “There, near the vineyards. We’ll find a place where the winery workers eat.” We passed Maison Brana- the leading vignoble in the Irouleguy AOC and I knew we had taken the right road. When have you not eaten well where the wines are made? Past memories of lunches in the Medoc, St. Emilion, Cote de Gascogne, Armagnac sprung to mind and propelled me to this table. This was twenty-plus years of training showing off.
A wall of lace curtains framed in wood panels and a massive double door indicated the entrance. When we walked in, three things hit me at once: the smell of soup singing in the background, a dozen male heads turning to see who was walking in, and a stuffed zoo of game animals watching crowding an old piano. Welcome to The Taxidermy Cafe… with Ham.
What we had for lunch:
In my France, the Southwest, all good meals start with soup. Vétou Pompèle told me years ago, “On souper beaucoup ici.” As we turned toward the steep slopes, a cluster of white-washed, red-shuttered buildings huddled together, a Basque village at the foot of the wine growing slopes- Ispoure. The houses draped like freshly laundered linen down one main street and there, in the middle of the grouping, was a public house- the bar, cafe, restaurant. A restaurant that would surely serve not just soup first, but garbure- the classic cabbage, potato or bean, ham or confit soup.
with Ham Bits
Since this was a ham fact finding mission trip for Elaine’s This Little Piggy project (please go look at her project site for more information here) and since I am focusing on ‘ham-in-cooking’ recipes, I was delighted to find that after the great garbure, homemade and silky with long-cooked cabbage and ham bits, the second course was a perfectly cooked omelette- a la Basquaise. In the diners and coffee shops of California, this would be called a western omelet- onions and enough salty ham to offset sweet green peppers.
Lomo & Lentilles
When we walked in, I was so dumbstruck by the gallery of glass eyes staring at us from that piano that I didn’t even hear what was the plat du jour. I didn’t need to. Elaine and I eat anything; that is why we are friends. And I am happy for a home cooked meal anytime and it was already one o’clock- dangerously late to be looking for lunch in rural France. So I was delighted when this platter of lentilles et lomo (pork loin) appeared. The lentils were cooked like the omelet- perfectly, dressed with a bit of vinegar, and studded with sweet carrots. The loin slices were porky and tasty. It’s hard to resist this sort of dish served in a platter with enough for a second helping. Groaning when Madame returned to ask “Dessert?”, gourmandise fever took over and although we had eaten well and copiously, when the choice was offered simple as “Flan“, we said “Oui.”
The simple four letter word FLAN can conceal either a nightmare of culinary distress or the prefect marriage of egg and milk, sugar and …? The cook’s secret was the mysteryflavorquestionmark in this well prepared home-made flan, golden yolked, and not too creamy flan. When asked, the cook/owner, from his post at the bar around the corner from the dining room, shared - a splash of Ricard. That popular anise and herb-infused aperitif floated a subtle counterpoint to the eggy custard and confirmed my well-honed suspicions that we were eating real food in a house of a real cook. This would be the first of many hashtag flans, but the one that remains most fondly in my memory.
A solitary strong coffee (not espresso) completed ‘the proper drug mix’ of soup, starter, main, and dessert- the ubiquitous four-course routier lunch served in hundreds of village cafes across France for 11-13 euros including wine, coffee usually extra. By 1:45 the room emptied of our dining companions- wine makers drinking from the house carafe, painters in red-splattered white overalls, and a couple of businessmen lingering over an armagnac. Our waitress reset their tables for tomorrow’s lunch while we plotted the afternoon adventures with pigs.
At last, we were alone with our cameras, Instagram and the furry set. Elaine met her porcine match lurking back by the toilettes while I reflected about how easy it is to cook well and please people- everyday. No more thought is needed than what goes into buying a new computer, learning to use a smartphone, or figuring out a new app. And yet, I am always surprised by the thoughtlessness that goes into most daily meals- at home or in restaurants.
People come to Camont to cook, to learn to cook, to celebrate cooking. And while stirring, salting, and tasting, we talk about the demise of good cooking, about finding real and honest homemade food made from scratch. It’s the number one topic in my Kitchen, on my Facebook feed and over the tweets.
It’s been big news in all the French print media recently as well as several prime time TV exposés directed at famous restaurant kitchens that feed local and tourists alike a very ‘faux cuisine.’ These scandalous reports have documented pre-cooked and pre-assembled food masquerading as haute cuisine in restaurant kitchens, frozen Tarte Tatins and crème brûlées from industrial bakeries dubbed fait maison, and imported frozen duck breast from Bulgarian factory farms dished up as local fresh artisan-produced magrets. All too common in this age of ‘foodie-ism’ where the weight on marketing and garnishing overshadows the raw materials— their provenance and intrinsic quality, both nutritive and gustative. How do tell the real thing from the faux tables? I listen to my friends, people I trust, a good guide, and follow my well-trained nose.
Here, in a small Basque town of less than 600 people, we ate well. Good café-cooked, simple, delicious real food from the original raw ingredients- eggs, cabbage, ham, lentils, pork, milk. The Bar Restaurant de L’Arradoy served 14 people that lunchtime. Maybe there would be another dozen customers in the evening. A few more glasses of Ricard, a vin rouge, a couple glasses of cider for the working boys, multiple coffees over the afternoon and a tisane for one grand-mère. Sunday lunches will be busier, more village folk, a few from St. Jean Pied de Port. They are open everyday from Jan 2- Dec 24- cooking good food. Merci et Milesker to M. Chevalier for making our day.
RESTAURANT DE L’ARRADOY
Olivier CHEVALIER- Owner Chef
#05 59 37 06 01
P.S. Here’s my basix Garbure with Ham Recipe…http://kitchen-at-camont.com/2013/12/10/garbure-a-recipe-with-ham/