It was my last day in San Sebastion. I did not feel melancholy. This is my European counterpart and as such it is a home I will surely return to. On this last day I made arrangements to take a cooking course on traditional Basque cooking. Basque cooking, as it is explained to me, is entirely unique from all the countries that surround it. The chef, Patricio, greets his class with professional ease. He is warm and inviting. His passion for his craft immediately apparent. You can imagine my thrill to hear that the menu for today’s lesson had changed to include a sous vied foie gras and lamb. I am so deeply fond of foie gras however I seem to have a knack for butchering it. Today, however, Patricio patiently guides my hands in the skill of properly deveining the lobe of foie. We immerse it in Armagnac and then it is sous vide.
My first experience with molecular gastronomy.
We prepare lamb two ways, each accompanied by aromatic sauces. He explains that traditional basque food does not involve too many spices. It does not need to. The slow roast of lamb bones offer a foundation of rich taste to the sauces it births. It needs nothing but perhaps a little salt.
We then make ponchas con almejas in a fish broth. This is a dish I will be sure to replicate when I return.
We all eat our creations together on a long wooden table, sipping wine and enjoying each other’s company and shared passion for gastronomy.
And so the curtain falls over my majestic San Sebastián.
My friend Eric arrives from his home on the French border to fetch me. He and I will be travelling to Paris to meet with his Parisian brother and his friend Ann (a fellow foodie) for one last meal together. The three of us shared a meal in Paris two years ago that indeed was, to this day, one of the most memorable culinary experiences I have yet to encounter. It is with them I learned the art of dining..when time is abandoned and our curiosity ignited. I am eager to learn what they have decided on this time.
We first go to his home in charming Bayonne. We have plans to eat with his friend and her son for dinner on their farm in the French countryside. We drive between the rolling hills brushed with oak and acacia trees and arrive up the narrow path to their 400 year old farm house.
Ann Marie is inside stoking the fire in her kitchen.
The smell of Ann Marie’s zucchini and salmon tart fills the room. Her son, Silvain also arrives. We sit in front of the fire, us four, sipping our wine eating some melon.
Sylvain, though only 30, encapsulates the very essence of this basque farming way of life. He has bees and makes his own honey, he has recently planted grape trees to start his own vineyard. And most interesting to me, he produces his own espellette. Piment d’espelette is a pepper variety native to the southwest French countryside. Mild but smoky it is ‘the’ pepper of this region.
We first eat Anne Marie’s creamy tart encased in delicate phyllo. Eric then prepares seared foie gras drizzled with reduced balsamic and served with espellette, fig chutney and a baguette. “Lentement”-slowly. We finish with some Beaufort and Abondance cheese. I’m struggling now. Perhaps it was the four course lunch followed by the three course dinner, both of which contained fatty duck liver. Maybe it was the wine I consumed at both seatings. I am, in fact, feeling like a stuffed duck myself. Eric picks up on my notable sighs of mixed elation and discomfort from being so full and suggests we call it an early night. It’s midnight. I have quite literally turned into a pumpkin.
“Bonne nuit”, I say to my little bulging belly as I give it a little rub, and immediately fall into a deep slumber. Paris awaits me…