Sunday, November 17, 2019

Dining in and Around the City of Bayonne on France’s Southern Atlantic Coast where it Borders the Pyrénées and Spain. Bayonne is the Capital of France's Basque Country.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman

The City of Bayonne.
The City of Bayonne is an inland port on the River Adour, just 8 km (5 miles) from the Atlantic and 30 km (19 miles) from the Spanish border and the Pyrénées mountain range.  Bayonne's position was already important to the Romans when they occupied France 2,000 years ago and it has remained so ever since.
Bayonne is beautiful, even though it is an industrial city, it has a well-regarded university and a population of 50,000, but if you include the immediate area around the city, the population rises to more than 300,000.
A visit to Bayonne is an introduction to a different France. The city is the capital of France's Pay Basque and the French Basque people. Bayonne is the center for all things Basque, arts, sports, culture, and lifestyle and that, of course, includes Basque cuisine.

When you dine in Bayonne expect Jambon de Bayonne IGP, the Bayonne cured ham, that is so popular that it holds 50% of the French market, dishes with Espelette peppers, and Ossau-Iraty AOP sheep's cheese, among many more products and produce. 
This region is also famous for its emphasis on fish and seafood dishes and its unique Basque cider called Sagardoa. The Basques consider their cider to be the precursor to all other ciders, including the ciders of Normandy and Brittany. (Sagardoa translates into French as Vins de Pomme, and into English as Apple Wine).

The Basque cider called Sagardoa.
Pintxos (pronounced pinchos), the Basque Tapas.

Basque cuisine has its own version of  Spanish Tapas called Pintxos (pinchos) and like Tapas is offered in dedicated bars called Pintxos bars, Along with Pintxos Basque wines, beer, and cider are also served. Pintxos are also served in restaurants. The Pintxos offered have an endless number of ingredients and recipes with the most traditional including cheese with figs, ham with fried green peppers, fried rings of calmar (calamari, squid), cod croquettes, or pieces of Spanish omelet and wild mushrooms. Each Pintxos bar has its own specialties. 
On the menu in Bayonne:

Axoa de Thon (Pronounced Achoa de Thon) - A traditional tuna stew made with sweet peppers, and potatoes and flavored with garlic and Espelette Peppers; the same recipe is used for veal. (The word Axoa (achoa) in Basque means minced or finely chopped).  
A choice of Pintxos
Amatxi – This pie is a favorite dessert; it is made with pears in a pie crust with a vanilla crème brûlée topping. (I was told there is a wide variety of "original Amatxi" recipes, and this is one of those).
Bayonne also has beer.
Including Akerbeltz, Udako, Garagardoa, Oldarki and Eki among many Basque beers from all parts of the Basque country.
Assiette Basque - Chorizo, Pâté Basque, Jambon de Bayonne, Fromage de Brebis – This Basque platter of local favorites is often served as an entree, the French first course or as a light lunch. Chorizos are originally Spanish pork sausages with many different recipes that have been adapted to Basque tastes. The most popular Basque Chorizo being a cold (or grilled) spicy pork sausage made with lots of paprika, which gives it its typical red coloring with more flavor from garlic and the Espelette Pepper. Basque pate is a pork pate, including pig's liver, and pork cuts, then comes the Bayonne cured ham. Bayonne ham is the most popular cured ham in all of France and with over 50% of the market it beats all the many other excellent cured hams of France combined. Finally, there is the sheep's cheese that will probably be similar to the famous Ossau-Iraty AOP sheep’s cheese. There are many similar cheeses like Ardi Gasna, which comes from a different valley and is prepared in smaller wheels. Nevertheless, be prepared to be surprised as there are many other  local, but very different, sheep's cheeses; ask questions and enjoy,
Assiette Basque

Moules à la Planxa Sauce Basquaise - Mussels cooked on a planxa (plancha) prepared with a sauce made with red and green sweet peppers, onions, tomatoes, chorizo sausage, dry white wine and flavored with garlic and Espelette Peppers. The planxa or plancha is a large flat cooking surface, at least two centimeters (6/8") thick and claimed as their own by the Basques, with counterclaims coming from the French and the Spanish. This traditional and very even method of cooking uses very little oil and results in a taste somewhere between frying and grilling.
Ossau-Iraty et sa Confiture de Cerises Noires Ossau-Iraty AOC cheese served together with black cherries. This is a very popular and traditional dessert combining the sweet and tart cherries the region has grown commercially for 800 years with the Ossau Iraty cheese that was probably first made 2,000 years ago. 
Basque cheese on sale.
Txilindron d’Agneau – A lamb stew made with sweet peppers, onions, and flavored with garlic and Esplette Pepper. Most Basque sheep are in the cheese-making business, and so the lamb on the menu will come from the young males who  will produce no milk. 

Pavé de Cabillaud  Crème De Piquillos. Écrasé de Pomme de Terre et Poêlée de Legumes – A large cut of cod prepared with a cream sauce made with the Pimientos del Piquillos, grilled, peeled and marinated sweet peppers that  originated with a recipe from the Spanish Basque country, accompanied by mashed potatoes and lightly fried vegetables. The Basque and cod, the fish, have an important and long interconnected history. That long connection, according to an excellent book entitled “Cod” by Mark Kurlansky clearly shows that Basque fishermen and women reached North America before Columbus discovered South America.
Stuffed Piquillos.
Ttoro - A velvety Basque fish soup made with three or four different fish. A chef told me that he buys his fish at a daily auction in the closeby fishing port of Saint Jean de Luz and so the fish included may change from day to day.  Nevertheless, if available the soup will include Merlu, European Hake; Lotte or Baudroie, Monkfish; a member of the Rascasse, scorpionfish family; and the Congre or Anguille de Mer, the Conger Eel. Mussels and crustaceans, usually the Langoustine, the Dublin Bay Prawn, may be added at the chef's discretion. To create additional flavor, the Basque Esplette Pepper, a local white wine, and garlic lead the way, but the secret that creates a perfect Ttoro is well-managed fish stock. The taste will be assisted with the fresh herbs in the Basque kitchen that always include sage, rosemary, parsley, and basil.

Your Ttoro will be much like a full meal on its own, so wait until this has been served before ordering anything else. I read an online guide that stated the TToro is the Basque Bouillabaisse; that's rubbish, the fish are often different, and the herbs are different. The only connection is they both use saltwater fish and are large fish soups or stews and made in France, and that's it.  They both are very tasty but are very different.
A Ttoro ready for serving
Tartare de Truite de Banka – A Tatar of fresh, farmed rainbow trout from the trout farm in the commune of Banca, just 80km (50 miles) from Bayonne. The trout from this farm are renowned for their taste and excellent farming conditions, which may be visited. When there is a Banca trout in the kitchen, its name will be on the menu.

In addition to the traditional Basque cuisine, Bayonne is very much an international city, very cosmopolitan. My two visits to Bayonne allowed time to sample the Basque cuisine in its home territory though Bayonne has famous and well-known chefs influenced by a population mix that has created an incredible choice of cuisines. The languages spoken include French, Spanish, Basque, Occitan, and Roma, and they all affect the local menus, that plus imported chefs in Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese restaurants. 

The Wines of Liqueurs of the Basque Country

The Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the Department where Bayonne is situated, includes some excellent wines. Look for the Madiran AOP red wine; the Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh (pronounced approximately as Paherank du Vik Bil) white wines. Then consider the more famous Irouléguy red, white, and rosé wines that come from the smallest AOP vineyard in France; just four square kilometers (1.5 sq miles). To the above add the Jurançon AOP dry white wine and the highly-rated Jurançon AOP sweet white wine. The traditional Basque liqueurs called Azarra. (both with an Armagnac base) that are made with sixteen different herbs, the yellow version tasting of almonds, and the green version tasting of mint.
In the cellars  of Irouleguy
Chocolate and Bayonne

Cocoa beans first entered France via Bayonne in the 1490s, and since then the town has been a renowned center of chocolate making. Take a look around the Musée du Chocolat. The first chocolate makers were Spanish and Portuguese Jews escaping the Inquisition. A number of those refugees were expert bakers, and in Bayonne, they became experts at working with chocolate. They made chocolate drinks and chocolate cakes, called tortas. With their growing success in France, the locals formed a Christian chocolate guild and banned the Jews from making chocolate. The Jews went on to make chocolate drinks and chocolate cakes elsewhere, and Bayonne has remained a center for well-considered French chocolate producers.
Canal in Bayonne
Photograph courtesy of dmiluz
The problems with Fetes in Bayonne in July and August

Bayonne has the oldest French bullfighting tradition in France. The current arena, opened in 1893, is the largest in South-west France with more than 10,000 seats. A dozen bullfights are held each year, attracting the biggest names in bullfighting.
This barbaric production (already banned in Catalonia in Spain) had nothing to interest me, and I visited Bayonne at another time. To be clear, Corridas, bullfighting is also an attraction in the summer season in many towns in southern France. Here in July, there are five fetes organized around parades, bulls running (inspired as a tourist attraction by  Pamplona),  bullfighting, fireworks, and music in the Basque and Gascon tradition. In Bayonne, the bulls running are actually cows with horns, and they don't run through town but are released on the crowd in front of the Château-Neuf, but they still hurt if they run you down. 
The Course Camarguaise  a non-bullfight bullfight.

There are now displays called bullfights where the bulls don't get hurt. For those who prefer that look for the signs that say Course Camarguaise. The Course Camarguaise is undoubtedly not a bullfight as some translations suggest; it is a unique acrobatic attraction, and bulls, or, more often, the cows, do not get hurt or wounded; these animals are trained professionals. The Camargue is a long way from the Pays Basque but as bull-fighting loses its sparkle so the Course Camarguaise will shine through the dust and keep the bull rings open.
Trying to grab the purse tied between the cow's horns.
The only weapons seen here are the runner's feet.

Bayonne's Foire au Jambon; its ham fair.

If you are visiting the Pays Basques around the time of the Easter vacations, consider taking a day to enjoy Bayonne's Foire au Jambon, their ham fair. It is a long-established fair that the organizer's claim was first held in 1426. The official date is from the Thursday before Easter through the following Wednesday. Check the dates for this year's Easter with the official Bayonne Tourism Office English language website:

Eat your way around the Foire au Jambon de Bayonne
The Bayonne ham fair.
Photograph courtesy of Sud Ouest

Zesta (Cesta) Punta

The Basque game of Pelota or Zesta (Cesta) Punta or Jai Alai (outside France) is a must to see when you are in Bayonne. The French Federation of Basque Pelota is headquartered here at the Trinquet Moderne Pelota and players from the city have won many titles. The Basques brought this game to several towns in Florida and Spain and I have also seen it in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. There and in Bayonne, you may also bet on the games, I always lost. For more about Zesta-punta and the Basque country, see their English language website.
Cesta Punta Players
The baskets that the players are the "cestas" used in the game.
The throw the solid ball at speeds of up to 306 kpm (190 mph).
Photograph courtesy of Angula Berria
Zesta Punta justifiably holds the reputation for the fastest ball game in the world; the spectators are thankfully separated from the players and the hurtling balls by durable wire mesh. There are different balls with different weights for different games, and in the fastest games, the ball can reach over 306 km (190 mph) per hour. For most visitors, there will be few other chances to see this unique and exciting game so take an hour in an evening and visit the hall used for playing Zest Punta; in Basque, it is called the Trinquet.

The Cathedral

The Cathédrale Sainte-Marie de Bayonne or Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayonne; is Roman Catholic and was begun by King Edward I of England and Queen  Eleanor of Aquitaine the 5th English Plantagenet King, who in 1272 ruled Aquitaine. The dowry of Eleanor of Aquitaine consisted of all the South West of France, and Bayonne itself remained in English hands for three hundred years from 1152 until 1451, during which time the Cathedral was being built. The Arms of England can still be seen in a window near the High Altar and also high up in the Nave.

Despite its beginnings in the 13th century, the Cathedral was not ready, let alone 60% complete when it was finally opened for worship in the 15th century. In the 17th century, more was work was done, but the Cathedral was only fully completed in the 19th century! Today, when you look at the Cathedral that took 600 years to build, consider your own town or city with building permit committees and the delays they can cause. This Cathedral will probably warn you off bureaucracy and investing in any projects built with partial public funding.

Bayonne Cathedral
The inhabitants of Bayonne 

The inhabitants are called Bayonnais or Bayonnaises. The city also had an important arms industry and gave its name to the bayonet.

                                         The Museums in Bayonne. 
The Musée Basque, the Basque Museum, offers a fascinating insight into local life and history, its beautiful displays ranging from Celtic looking tombstones to rural crafts and a large section on Basque sports. 

The Musée Bonnat is just one street away and is a little known art treasure. Housed in a striking 19th-century building, it contains the fantastic collection of 19th-century painter Léon Bonnat as well as works by El Greco, Delacroix, Gericault, and Degas.
The River Adour flows through Bayonne
on its way to the sea

Traveling close to Bayonne.


Biarritz is just 9km (5.60 miles) from Bayonne. Napoleon III famously put the resort of Biarritz on the map when, in 1855, he built his wife, the Empress Eugénie, a summer residence on the Atlantic coast on the Biarritz seafront.  From the 1880s Biarritz became famous as one of the earliest coastal resorts that saw the arrival of English tourists and it remains a prestigious resort and spa.

The fantastic palace Napoleon III created became the Hotel du Palais in 1893 and, complete with marble-pillared lobby and chandeliers in the lifts, Hotel du Palais still exudes an imperial air. 

Biarritz is also the French surfing center with surfers coming from all over the world.
Surfing in Biarritz
Saint Jean de Luz:

Saint Jean de Luz, just 8 km (5 miles) from Bayonne is an old whaling port.  When whale fishing was banned Saint Jean de Luz switched to Tuna and it is now one of the most important Tuna fishing centers in France; that is apart from many excellent seafood and fish restaurants around the port, Saint Jean de Luz has beautiful beaches and an annual Tuna festival and much more. Just yards from the port Saint Jean de Luz has wonderful sandy beaches.
The fish market in Saint Jean de Luz.


Pau is the prefecture of the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques is 115 km (71 miles) by road from Bayonne. 

In the winter, the distance from Bayonne to the nearest ski slopes is one hour by car

Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2019,

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog write to Bryan Newman

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