27 June 2006, Bayonne

Sunday (25 June), after checking out doings at the casino (the lithium battery people have left and been replaced by a very large congress on "transversal medicine," whatever that is; the 26-member Pfizer delegation is staying at our hotel), we spent some time in a bookstore near our Biarritz hotel called, appropriately enough I suppose, "Bookstore" (although they carry very few English-language books). It looks more like a bookstore than anyplace I've ever been. They sell only new books but manage not to look like it. They've crammed four levels into a space built to be three; it's open top to bottom, around an open-centered spiral wooden staircase, and every inch of wall and surface space is crammed with books. All the shelves are two rows deep in books, so you have to slide the ones in front from side to side to look at the ones in back, and there's just room for two people to squeeze past each other between the shelves and the bannister of the staircase. When you ask about a particular author or book, the staff of two or three instantly know what you mean and exactly where to lay a hand on it.

They weren't able to help me, though, with an author I'm looking for (recommended by two French friends in Tallahassee), Anne Bereau. Her books are supposed to be very funny, but nobody's ever heard of her. I'd already tried Amazon and À la Page and Google (in every spelling variation I could think of), but the best the staff at Bookstore could suggest was that my friends were thinking of Nicole de Buron, whose works the store was fresh out of. The original recommenders don't have e-mail, so I'll have to wait till I get back to Tallahassee to borrow one of these humorous books and check the real spelling of the author's name. While we were there, though, we bought a copy of Cyrano de Bergerac and a more modern book of humorous essays. We took the opportunity of asking the proprietor about French comic novels (a genre we're very fond of in English), but he says there aren't any. Just as all English literature is about class and all American literature about violence and/or identity, it seems that all French literature is about angst and/or tragedy. The closest thing is apparently 19th-century social satire, which makes sense only to readers who know a lot about the history, politics, and social mores of the time. It occurs to me that the French consider humor to be something entirely separate from literature—primarily a visual/physical thing—which would explain why they adore Jerry Lewis, Charley Chaplin, the Three Stooges, and several French three-stooge-type groups. They make some very funny movies, but the humor is always physical or situational.

Bonnat mural We drove up to Bayonne for lunch and to visit the Musée Bonnat, a museum of the works of Léon Bonnat (a long-time Bayonne resident), his many students, and the art collection he amassed during his sucessful and lucrative career as a portraitist. The city twice subsidized his foreign art studies before he became successful, and he never forgot the favor. He left his collection to the state, on the condition that it be exhibited in Bayonne. As well as being a darn good portraitist, Bonnat had great taste as a collector (or at least taste that matches ours as well as anyone's could who didn't go in much for still life), and the museum itself is wonderful—four floors arranged around a central open atrium. It's just the right size for a half-day visit; you can look once at everything in it in just an hour or two, then go back to spend time with the works and artists you liked best. The collection has been "enriched" since Bonnat's time; a couple of the items are actually videos of "performance art," which run continuously in their own little side rooms. Definitely worth a visit if you're in the area. We took this photo of the mural on the 2nd-floor wall of the atrium (without flash) before we realized we weren't supposed to. It shows Bonnat (the central seated figure in the middle panel) surrounded by his many famous students. They're posed on the banks of the Nive just short of its confluence with the Adour. The artist would have had his back to the museum, about a block away from it, and we had lunch about a block out of the picture to the left. Not all these students were contemporaries, so the group is a composite; some were painted in posthumously. The bamboo is part of an "installation" on display in the atrium.

Bayonne salad The lunch was also pretty good. Because it was Sunday, not much was open, but we got good composed salads at the Café du Théatre, overlooking the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers. I had a salad of pâté of foie gras, duck ham, preserved duck gizzards, hard-cooked egg, asparagus, and tomatoes. The eggs were a little overcooked, and the asparagus was canned, but otherwise, an excellent salad. David had a similar one but with ham and dry sheeps' cheese instead of foie gras and gizzards. The duck ham on both (the dark red slices with the white rims) was expecially good.

After a tour of the cathedral and a walk around the city's old ramparts, now part of a park, we headed back to Biarritz, for dinner at "Le Relais Miramar." This restaurant was a last-minute choice. We had planned to go back to Campagne et Gourmandise, but they've changed their hours and are now closed on Sundays, and we only found that out a couple of weeks ago. So we left the evening open, and yesterday, I was able to call the Miramar, which this early in the season was able to take us. It's in a hotel that specializes in "Thalassotherapie," but they have a separate restaurant for the fat-farm people; the Relais is a quite respectable G-M 15/20. (Thalassotherapy is another topic entirely; you couldn't devise a parody wacky enough to be funnier than the real thing: skin-toning mud-pack treatments ranging from actual mud to alga paste to hot melted chocolate (I'm not making this up), and 24-karat gold leaf; exfoliations; massages with hot rocks or with bags of specially blended Thai spices; sea-water whirlpool treatments, followed by forceful hosings-down; all at ungodly prices!) The food was good.

Amuse-bouche: Raw serrano ham, Charentais melon, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar syrup.

Miramar pigeon First course, David: Slices of rare breast of pigeon, asparagus wrapped in bacon, and a small salad.

Miramar gambasFirst course, Anne: Large shrimp split lengthwise and roasted in the shell, served with a smooth, creamy artichoke purée and slices of artichoke heart, the whole liberally drizzled with shrimp sauce.

Second course, David: Suckling pig four ways—two tiny rib chops, a chunk of roasted loin, a slice from the leg, and a "crêpinette" (a short of meatloaf/sausage wrapped in the thin "caul" membrane and roasted). Accompanied by roasted sweet onions and thin roasted slices of zucchini.

Second course, Anne: Four fishes (St. Pierre, barbue, rouget, daurade) "à la plancha" (i.e., grilled on a very hot dry griddle). Accompanied by a pilaf of spelt and green peas and by a creamy lobster sauce.

Cheese, David: Three Basque cheeses: an aged chevre, an aged vache, and a blue.

Cheese, Anne: Pelardon of chevre, St. Felicien, Valençay (much younger and drier than the Valençay at the Villa d'Eugénie)

Miramar tatin Dessert, David: Upside-down apricot tart on a shortbread crust, topped with lemon-verbena ice cream and accompanied by fresh berries (including both regular domestic strawberries and the little wild "fraises des bois."

Dessert, Anne: Two choices from the dessert trolley: A soft, fragil almond macarroon filled with pistachio cream and topped with fresh raspberries and a classic "île flottant" (soft poached meringue floating on custard sauce and drizzled with caramel sauce).

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