There are caves near the Basque town of Sare, among the limestone foothills of the Pyrenées where les basquais have lived since the Bronze Age (or, as we like to think of it, the golden age of rock and roll). We came, we saw... then we went for lunch.
Arranging lunch in the French provinces is tricky when it starts approaching 1 PM. As everyone knows (right?) restaurants stop serving before 1:30 PM and the good ones will have filled up early. So, we left the caves in a slight panic and raced down the hillside ("racing" meaning we took some of the hairpin turns at up to 40 kmh) towards the town of Sare. We had checked with the Michelin red guide previously and knew there was a listed restaurant in or near Sare. (Not that Michelin is the only way we choose a restaurant, but it is a touchstone.)
As it was the Basque country, full of unfamiliar Basque words, we forgot the name of the restaurant a moment after we read it. Could it have been Arranxy? Arroxi? Ttsisorkx?
The small town of Sare is huddled around a central place with the requisite church, period buildings with local businesses, restaurants, and handball court, a Basque favourite. The population of Sare at 2,667 has remained constant since 1793. (We considered applying for residency but would have had to wait until two people died or moved away.)
Agriculture is the regional mainstay, along with mining and raising sheep for wool; it's been so since the Middle Ages. The town itself is nearly on the Spanish border yet just 15 kms from the Atlantic Ocean.
Restaurants around the place are casual, with lunch menus running at about a mere €15. But also overlooking the place, kitty-corner from the church, was Hotel Arraya and its terrasse restaurant with tables sitting prettily in the shade of plane trees and white awnings. It looked like the perfect place for us. There was a 3-course Menu de Notre Terroir for €28 and the terrace was packed. Outside the restaurant, at the end of the terrace, was a stand with a man selling gateaux basques, the ubiquitous (and delicious) patisserie of the region. We stepped around him to get to the entrance.
We asked, with some trepidation, if there was table for two; luckily, there was. We sat down knowing that the next two hours would be yet another lesson in French luncheon pleasure. (After we were seated we noted with evil satisfaction that we had secured the last available table, watching as subsequent suppliants were turned away.) The servers were run off their feet; we had to lasso one to put in our order for deux coupes.
The glasses of champagne arrived, cool and refreshing after our EXHAUSTING 23-minute walk through the limestone caves. Did we mention there was a colony of bats (for so a group of them is called) in the cave and one whizzed right by Mark's ear?
For new readers, there are two things we love to do in France; one is to eat and the other is to visit the country's caves. We've been to Lascaux and other caves in the Dordogne and in Provence. This was our first cave in Pays Basque, and our first without Alexandre, who would have inundated us with bat facts. (The zoologist in him.) Unlike Lascaux, which was only discovered in the 20th century (another golden age for rock & spelunking), the caves of Sare have always been known to the locals.
The cave opening is a yawning gap and gives one a pretty good understanding of how prehistoric man (Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens) could have lived inside and around the cave. With that profound insight we moved on to lunch. Let's return there now.
Morue en volant, creme de piquellos.
Our entrées were tender, flaky pastry filled with cod in a light sauce; a tangy bite of salad on the side; and a rich, red pimento sauce.
Epaule d'agneau cuisson basse temperature, gratin dauphinois de pommes de Terres et de patate douces.
Diane often chooses her plat by on what's served with it. The lamb, a staple in the region, was described as long-simmered, but it was the sweet potato purée that caught her eye. It didn't hurt that the rich sauce was redolent of black cherries.
Truite de Banka: haricots cuit a la plancha, haricots verts et jambon de Bayonne, sauce alleges au beurre blanc
Trout is also a local speciality and Mark's was grilled and plated next to a bundle of green beans wrapped cleverly in local Iberian ham.
Just as our plats arrived and after a few tables had left a young British couple broke through the restaurant’s defensive line. Smart, British and, "No, we don’t even try to speak French."
Diane’s dessert was a smoky, brebis (sheep milk) creme brûlée while monsieur ordered gateau basque cerise, which he declared to be the best EVER. The cake, filled black cherry, was served on a sauce anglaise.
The restaurant started to clear as the Brits were in their coffee course. Diane stopped by their table to ferret out their story. Young doctors in love, on their honeymoon, wed barely a week. From near Oxford now living in Cardiff, they were beaming with fresh optimism.
As we left our Basque restaurant terrasse other church bells were ringing, just across the place. A local wedding featured a charming couple and guests perfectly turned out comme les francais. Could it be that the town's population will see its first rise since 1793?
–Diane & Mark
photographs copyright Mark Craft