Some Small Towns in West Pyrenees?
We are planning a 3-day hike in the Western Pyrenees. Food won't be our only criteria (and I'm sure some of these towns are small enough to have only a handful or fewer of places to eat), but I thought it was worth posting here to see if anyone has had any experience with any of these places.
A few names of places we might visit: Sare, Ainhoa, Bidarray ... St Jean Pied de Port ... Lescun, Borce/Etsaut
My wife, baby, and I actually just returned. We were in Bilbao with the in-laws for most of the two weeks, but snuck off to the French Basque Country for a few days. What an amazing area.
We did all pretty low budget meals, and everything was fantastic.
The most memorable (and most expensive) was at the Hotel Arce in St-Etienne-de-Baigorry. It was still a bargain for dinner at 25 euro each for three courses. We had read about it in Gerald Hirigoyen's book "The Basque Kitchen."
It's right on the Nive River, and we were sitting as close to the river as you can get. After ordering the trout, one of the chefs ran out of the kitchen with a net in hand, and scooped up a live fish from their holding tank at the bank of the Nive.
Tonight I'm going to attempt to duplicate the piperade that we had there.
If you just want to do a picnic, all the cured sausages, ham, and pate were very tasty, and pretty much every farm you drive past will sell sheep's cheese.
On the way to Irouleguy, there's a shop that sells all the local wines. We spent about an hour in there sampling, and bought one bottle. The rose is very good, but I wasn't crazy about the red. I think they're all more expensive (and not as good) as the Bordeaux's and riojas.
Be careful on the roads there. The mountain passes are absolutely insane. They are narrower than any roads I've ever been on (including Ireland), with cows and sheep around every other curve. Sometimes you're driving on a ridge with huge drop-offs on either side, and not a guard rail within miles.
We spend time in the Pays Basque, department 64, Pyrénées Atlantiques each summer and love the towns of Espelette (red peppers), Sare, Ainhoa, Bidarray (upper town), Larresorre (where the mahkila walking sticks are made), Itsassou (the black cherry town).
For wonderful dining, I suggest the following:
Euskadi in Espelette (the most quintessentially Basque of my recommendations),
the outdoor terrace of the Hotel Arraya in Sare (their 15 euro, 3 course menu at lunch is an unbeatable value),
the 1 Michelin star Ithurria in Ainhoa (and order their magnificent cassoulet),
the fantastic Auberge Iparla in Bidarray (opened by Alain Ducasse-order their 22 euro lunch menu-it's very, very high quality),
the Hotel Le Chene in the lower town, next to the church in Itsassou.
We only venture to extremely hectic St.-jean-Pied-de-Port for the delightful Monday market. 1 Michelin star Les Pyrénées is very pricey but has a 42 euro lunch menu.
The wonder of the Monday market is that all the best purveyors of Basque local products-the Brebis cheeses, hams, black cherry jams, honey, gâteau basque, Irouléguy wines, etc. come to you rather than your having to go search for them at each farm.
Closer to Lescun, I recommend the Chez Etchemaïté in Larrau, which is a Michelin Bib Gourmand for high price to quality ratio. They serve a weekday lunch menu for 18 euros.
It's a wonderful part of Southwestern France for dining well.
Trying to escape excess August heat, I did a 48-hour drive by shooting of that beautiful mountain high Basque country. These are well-trod tourist towns in summer season and pilgrim routes in fall and spring with the usual mediocre offerings. But nearly every village has a best spot; the traditional Euskadi in Espelette and high-end Les Pyrenees in St. Jean Pied de Port are two delicious memories. Best of all and as much fun is the availablity of great local Basque products and conserves at charcuteries and fromageries. Farms also welcome visitors and sell their own wares as well. Pack picnic gear and be prepared to feast!