1 July 2006, Pau

Thursday, 29 June, we doubled back to St. Jean de Luz to pick up David's pillow, which he accidentally left at the Grande Hotel, then headed inland to Pau via Ascain, St. Pée de la Nivelle, St. Jean Pied de Port, and Sauveterre de Béarn. St. Jean Pied de Port's claim to fame is as a traditional regrouping and rejumping-off point for pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela. "Pied de Port" means "foot of the portal"; it was the last stop in France before pilgrims had to climb over the pass through the Pyrenees into Spain.

Espelette housesOur route also took us through Espelette again, where the peppers come from, so we stopped for lunch and the photo op. The place is full of the typical red-and-white Basque houses, which in fall are apparently thickly festooned with long vertical garlands of red peppers, drying against the white surface.

Espelette pigs'-ear saladWe had lunch at Hotel Euzkadi, which we noted afterward is favorably mentioned (as a modest but authentic eatery) in the Michelin Guide. It wasn't a salad sort of place, so David had a piperade: sweet tomatoes stewed with peppers and onions and with egg scrambled in; his came with two slices of local ham draped over the top. I couldn't resist trying the one composed salad they offered: salad of confit pigs' ears. David spent most of the meal keeping his eyes off my plate, though I think if he'd been able to get past the idea he'd have liked them. The ears were "confit" (that is, poached slowly in lard) for 2 hours, then thinly sliced, then roasted in the oven, then dumped in a sort of haystack on top of my salad. They were delicious—hot, crispy, chewy, salty, sort of bacon-ham flavored. Excellent.

Pau barricadesThe drive to Pau was the longest stage of the trip, so by the time we arrived via our meandering scenic route, we had time for only a short walk before resting up (hard work, driving around looking at things), showering, changing, and leaving for dinner. We had booked at Chez Pierre, a G-M 15/20 billed as an establishment of the old school. The chef was a classicist, and the food was excellent, napped with the old-fasioned sauces we hold dear. The walk down there involved picking our way through a huge zone of construction, then along a small street pocked with excavations and trenches where cars had to weave among the barricades—that's the restaurant, under the round illuminated sign on the next corner. The parked car hides the chalked sign leaning against the barriacade that says "Yes, we're open during the construction."

Dinner there was a hoot. First, the food was very good:

Amuse-bouche: Andalousian gazpacho.

Pau ravioliFirst course, both: Fresh, hand-made raviolis of langoustines in a creamy seafood sauce accompanied by a thick, chunky tomato sauce with fresh basil and chives. Wow. Another contender for Best Dish of the Trip.

Second course, David: Cassoulet. A slightly different take on the dish from mine or the classic at Au Trou Gascon—no tomato, and the confit duck wasn't browned. Instead, the beans (those wonderful big ones from Tarbes, each the size of the first joint of my middle finger) were spread in the bottom of a round, flat, earthenware casserole. Then the meats (confit duck, sliced pork, two kinds of sausage) were arranged on top, sprinkled with the breadcrumb topping, and the whole thing browned under the broiler. They spooned a huge heap of the stuff from the casserole onto David's plate, and he got through about 3/4 of it before bogging down (all the while lamenting that he wouldn't be able to finish), only to have the waiter reappear with the casserole (which had been in the kitchen being kept hot) and offer to refill the plate for him!

Second course, Anne: Sautéed veal kidneys and mushrooms in a creamy mustard sauce ("Beaugé style") with fresh home-made noodles. Classic; scrumptious. I too lamented that I couldn't quite finish them.

Dessert, David: A thin, crisp-crusted individual apple tart with caramel sauce and cinnamon ice cream.

Dessert, Anne: A square of crisp puff pastry, split and filled with pastry cream, topped with caramelized pears, all browned under the boiler. Yum.

(Do let me know if you want to see photos of any of these dishes; we have them, although I'm not including them all here.)

Almost as good as the food, though, was the "theatre; We were the first to arrive for dinner, because we dine at the unfashionably early hour of 8 p.m. Next, an older couple, clearly regulars, were seated in the far corner (the room only held six tables). Then a young couple were placed in the other far corner. Then a foursome of older folks, to our left, and a single guy about our age to our right. It was hard to keep from watching the young couple (she was wearing a wedding ring, so we assume they were married, presumably to each other) because they were so clearly working out some knotty problem on which they disagreed. As each new course arrived, they relaxed, paused to taste, appreciate, and comment amicably on the food, only to resume, between courses, their quiet, tense discussion. He worked hard at keeping his voice down; she struggled not to cry. (David's theory is that it was "Your mother is not moving in with us!" and "I know, it will be awful, but it's not forever, and what else can we do?").

The older couple in the far corner ordered plain langoustines, in the shell (not listed on the menu) and proceeding to crunch their way systematically through them, cracking the claws with their teeth, chewing and sucking on the smaller joints (a couple of claws were too hard, so they asked the waiter for a nutcracker; he couldn't find one, so he brought them needle-nosed pliers). David leaned over to tell me quietly, "If you ever chew and suck crustaceans in public, I will leave the table and the room" (he's very touchy about that kind of thing). Once everyone's main course was served, the chef came out of the kitchen to sit and chat with the crustacean crunchers and to greet the single guy, who turned out to be his old friend and golfing buddy. We took the opportunity to praise the food, and the chef answered "Thanks very much; I hope you don't mind being seated next to this troglodyte; he's Basque, you know, and they still start fires by banging rocks together." The single guy countered by telling us, "This guy isn't the world's best-known chef, but he holds the national record for bullshit per minute." That cracked up the young wife as well as us, much to the annoyance of her husband, who had his back to the room, positively bristling, and never turned around even when the railery became general. The chef said, "We play golf together, you know; he used to hunt, but they took his guns away a few years ago." The single guy said, "Yes, and since the accident," tapping his head, "I can permit myself to say many things, including that this young man," meaning the young husband, "has very good taste in women." She was flattered; he wouldn't turn around. While the chef was off starting the desserts, we had a long chat with the single guy, who told us that this sort of classical chef was getting rarer and rarer, and that food like this harder and harder to find, "but of course, when he comes back, I'll ask him, 'Just how old is this turbot!?'" He had been a regular at the restaurant all his life and remembered when he chef's father ran it. (The father wasn't Pierre, either; the name had been with the establishment since time immemorial.)

When we left, the chef walked us out and shook our hands. We had a long talk about the differences between his style of cuisine and that of the young nouvelle-cuisine whipper-snappers and their successors. He had apprenticed at 14, in the traditional way, worked in major kitchens in Paris, risen to spend six years as sous-chef at Maxim's, and traveled the world doing one-week workshops in the kitchens of Maxim's establishments overseas. But when his father retired, he came home to Pau to run Chez Pierre. Lucky for us.

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