Ham from Aldudes Valley

Jambon des Aldudes

[Ham from the Aldudes Valley]

In the galaxy of first-class hams, this one most definitely deserves its place. It is made by 60 producers in the beautiful valley of Les Aldudes in the Pays Basque, from a specific breed of pig called le porc basque.

This pig, which sports a pretty pink and black outfit, almost didn’t make it through the twentieth century: from 140,000 individuals in 1929, the headcount had dwindled down to a dramatic twenty by 1981, when the species was officially declared endangered by the French ministry of agriculture.

A few years later, a group of farmers from Les Aldudes, led by Pierre Oteiza, decided to save the basque pig from oblivion and return to traditional methods of breeding and salting. Their action gradually raised the number of pigs and sows, more farmers joined the cause, and in 1995 the porc basque was officially declared out of the woods.

This is just a manner of speaking because the basque pig is in fact destined to spend most of its life up in the mountain forests, where it feeds on grass, roots and the dried fruits that fall from the trees — chestnuts, acorns and beech nuts (faîne in French, which I’m sure you’ll be as happy to learn as I was) — in addition to a mix of non-GMO grains delivered to the herd daily. At 12 to 14 months, the pigs are taken back down to the valley for a somewhat less pleasant episode, which I won’t expand upon.

Their legs and shoulders are then salted with natural salt harvested around Bayonne (200 million years ago this area was beneath sea level), rubbed with pepper, exposed to the mountain winds to dry, and aged for 12 to 16 months.

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Espelette Chili Pepper

Leaving Bayonne, we drove down the Atlantic coast to see Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz. We stayed in this fair beach city for the night and had a really nice dinner at a modern-Basque restaurant called Olatua — an excellent cod with txorizo and a mighty fine gâteau basque.

In the morning we left and crossed the Spanish border to visit San Sebastián, in the Spanish Basque country. The road to get there was magnificent, offering heart-stopping vistas at every turn of the road — which means it took us an inordinate amount of time to cross the Pyrenees, as we were constantly stopping the car to take pictures, enjoy the fresh mountain air, and say hi to horses and cattle who were grazing idly in the sun and forceful wind. San Sebastián itself was great and we really enjoyed our walk around the narrow streets of the historical center, but the highlight was definitely food-related, as we sat down for a late lunch at a tapas bar called Aralar. We adored the concept of freshly-made pinchos laid out on the bar for us to take our pick: we more or less sampled and shared one of each delicious bite, and particularly enjoyed the tortilla and the octopus — tender, juicy and full of flavor.

The next day took us where I had been dying to go ever since I’d spotted the tiny speck on the map (stamping my feet in the car and having red, cute and spicy visions): Espelette, home of the über-pepper, le Piment d’Espelette (AOC). A lovely village in and of itself — all white houses and red shutters — it was further prettified by the very thing that makes it so famous, strings of Espelette peppers hung up to dry on facades and balconies, inside restaurants and homes.


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South-West Roadtrip

If there’s one thing that should be said about the South-West of France, it’s that you shouldn’t go if you’re on a diet. Wonderful specialties and artisanal products abound, begging you to take a bite — or two or three just to make sure. As we drove and walked around, taking in the spectacular landscapes, enjoying the sunshine and the quiet, the lack of crowds and the friendly service (the reward for travelling off-season), I kept my eyes peeled (an expression that always makes me shudder but I use it anyway) for interesting food vendors and promising restaurants.

Both are aplenty, and when it comes to restaurants, we mostly went for the unpretentious, family-owned ones, those that serve local fare to local guests. One thing that really struck us was how generous — not to say gargantuan — the portions were. A regular menu would often include three or four courses in addition to the obligatory cheese and dessert. And we’re not talking about dainty little tasting-menu courses either. But however tempting this display of food was, appetite is the food traveller’s most precious resource, and after the first few meals we soon learned to treat it with the respect it deserves.

Our trip started by a train ride from Paris to Brive-la-Gaillarde in the Périgord, where we rented a car. We find this much more comfortable than driving all the way down — well, unless you are sharing your train car with an entire colonie de vacances (kids going to a holiday camp), shrieking with joy at the thought of the upcoming fun and arguing at the top of their voices over who gets the last piece of candy that their parents packed in their lunch boxes. Thank god for iPods. Anyway.

Our first destination was the village of Gourdon, where Maxence’s grandparents live. We stayed there for two days, enjoying their company, driving leisurely around the lushly green surrounding roads (happening upon the delightful medieval village of Martel in particular, more pictures on the moblog) and being treated to two excellent lunches, mostly featuring local duck and goose specialties — foie gras, confits, gésiers, magrets (Bird flu? What bird flu?). One was at the Hostellerie de la Paix in Payrac, and the other at our very favorite restaurant in the area, the Musée Henri Giron, where the owners are kindness incarnate and serve a delicious (though truly marathonian) daily menu. Their restaurant, which they only operate during the week-end, also acts as a museum for Henri Giron’s work, a painter and friend of theirs.

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The King’s Vegetable Garden

Le Potager du Roi

When Louisa brought me peaches and zucchini from Le Potager du Roi in Versailles, her birthday gift was really twofold — delicious produce to enjoy now, and the promise of a fascinating new place to discover later. And so it is that on a bright and sunny day last week, my parents and I took a little trip to Versailles, snubbed the castle and walked straight on to the Potager.

Le Potager du Roi — the King’s Vegetable Garden — was built by Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie between 1678 and 1683. A few years before, La Quintinie had been appointed by Louis XIV as the Director of All Royal Fruit and Vegetable Gardens, and part of his mission was to build a vegetable garden just South of the Château de Versailles, to accommodate the court’s needs for fresh produce. For this purpose he was given nine hectares (about 1,000,000 square feet) of swamps, which he dried out and structured into a large central square with a fountain and thirty smaller gardens all around, in which he proceeded to plant a wide variety of produce, experimenting and inventing a few horticultural techniques along the way.

More than three centuries later, his Potager would still do him proud. It is just a bit smaller — some elements have disappeared or been replaced — but it is still planted with more than 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables maintained by the students from the school of horticulture next door, and it produces over 70 tons of produce every year.

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Food and the City: Food Shopping

Chelsea Market

Besides eating out at restaurants, what is the other capital dimension through which to explore a city and its food scene? Food shopping! Show me your grocery stores, and I’ll try to guess how you eat at home when no one’s looking, how you cook and how you feed your friends.

As in all other respects, New York did not disappoint. I loved the hyper-luxurious Dean & Deluca in Soho (rarely have I seen such a beautiful — and insanely pricey — store) and the exotic stalls of Chinatown, its amazing array of fresh fish and its buckets of live, though none-too-cheerful, toads.

I paid my respects to Whole Foods for the sake of old times — the Whole Foods of Cupertino and Palo Alto were regular haunts of mine — but fled as fast as I could for fear of being stomped by the weeknight crowds.

I walked around the Chelsea market built inside an old Nabisco factory (enjoying the industrial architecture at least as much as the stores), as well as the Union Square Greenmarket, with its profusion of lush and vibrant greens (such variety!) to be plucked at the foot of skyscrapers, while sipping on a glass of fresh and delicious, no-sugar-added, raspberry-apple cider.

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