Wednesday, June 21, 2006

from Sare: pastures and peppers

Not that we are looking to make Madison a mega tourist destination. Certainly that would have its drawbacks. I already regard our farmers market as too crowded with south of the (Illinois) border types who think it’s quaint and charming and take up all credible sidewalk space each Saturday on the Square.

Nonetheless, wouldn’t it be interesting to pick something and make it a Madison special and really hype it up some and then the world would know that we were the capitol of, say, lilacs? We could have a lilac fair in May and we could develop artisanal lilac wines and cheeses, or at least bath salts and linens… No, that doesn’t quite cut it. Too matronly. Madison is hip. Maybe we could try growing extreme amounts of garlic. Garlic is cool across ages and cultures.

The little village of Espelette, some 15 kilometers from Sare, is the pimento center of the world. They not only grow the peppers, but they make them into all sorts of things and peppers have thus become one of the symbols of Basqueness. Everyone has linens with stripes at home, of that I am certain and everyone has towels or plates or something with three little peppers. It looks like a regular New Mexico here, with all the peppers.

I chose village and country hopping over hiking on my last full day in southern France, not because I was down on exercise, but because foliage is still dripping from the early morning rains. Good excuse, don’t you think?

And since I am so close to Spain, I know I also have to ride over and back, just to check things out.

It appears that it is a completely open border. I note that the booth stands empty, probably because I am driving to Spain during lunch time and no way is anyone going to choose border patrol over eating and napping.

It is not that interesting on the other side of the border as there is no village there and all I got for my efforts were road signs in several languages I did not comprehend (Basque and Spanish) and so I probably did the fastest visit to another country known to anyone: 90 seconds flat.

On the French side, I stopped at a flower designated village dripping with Basqueness (Ainhoa). Everyone told me I should see it and I am glad, because it has an abundance of older Basque houses, though one might observe that they are sort of similar and once you get the feel for them you can turn around and go home.

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Except that I did not go home. I went next to the capital of the pimento world (population: probably around 400). Before immersing myself in all things pimento, I searched for a place that would offer a warm chevre-on-toasts salad. No luck there. A café did sell Basque cheese with cherry jam and I thought this was a fine enough substitute. Especially with a glass of rose wine.

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It happened that the waiter got every part of the order wrong before he got it right, and there are not many mistakes you can make with “a plate of cheese and a glass of rose wine.”

I have observed that the French are very patient with poor service. Here, the couple next to me was getting a tad upset, but that was only because they had to wait for half an hour for a slice of cake and the place had only two other tables occupied.

At the third table, another couple finally did get their order, and it was wrong as well and had to be sent back (he confused tea with coffee). Both of them looked our way and the gentlemen stretched his legs out, shrugged and smiled. “Can’t stress about it,” he said. Indeed, he looked very unstressed. I suppose if you take three hour lunch breaks routinely, a half an hour wait for a café isn’t going to make you or break you.

Anyway, the village was charming and it indeed had tons of pimentos and pimento products, though it will look even more colorful come fall and last year’s darkened peppers are replaced with this year’s red ones, strung out to dry.

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In the pimento town parking space I noticed that someone had backed into my rental car and cracked the tail light. Now isn’t that a bum deal? I have driven through Sicily’s tight mountain alleys, sped through the Languedoc and worked my way up and down to Pierrerue and incurred no dent or damage and here, standing absolutely still I get smashed into. A regular hit and run.

So what do I do? I go back to Sare, stretch out for a tiny siesta and listen to the bees outside. Can’t stress about it.

Later that evening I get motivated and take one last hike into the country. These photos may mean nothing to you, but for me, they are all about southern France and how I have come to know it – through villages and pastures and forests rather than towns and cities. Making friends with cows and sheep. I think I am rediscovering my agrarian roots (of course, ultimately, we all have agrarian roots).

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mountains in clouds, Sare in the background, sheep

My last country dinner is at the country auberge where I am staying. I like this place quite a lot. It is run by one big Basque family: brothers, wives, sisters of wives, even a cousin or two, all there, doing their various tasks. I don’t know if there are some rough spots, but as I sit downstairs in the mornings and work on my computer, I find it ever so pleasant to listen to them go about their business, calmly, confidently moving this great ship of food and rooms forward. Their young children are scampering about, except during the actual lunch and dinner service when they retreat with one of the many who are there to care for them.

I had Basque fish for my first course and Basque duck for my second one, with a Basque aperitif and Basque rose wine for the dinner itself, capped with a noisette and I wish I could say my plate is full but really it is quite empty because in the morning I have to speed like a demon to Bordeaux and catch the train to Paris so that the next day I can catch the flight back home.

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pear gratin, to finish things off