Basque in all its glory
The lush, oak-covered mountains of the French Pyrenees are filled with game and studded with cepes and girolles mushrooms just waiting to be picked.
The days are becoming longer and it's fully light by 8am. We're on a gourmet or 'slow food' tour of the region in the capable hands of Australian couple Patrick and Robbie Arrieula, who have been leading food and walking tours of the area for the past 12 years.
Patrick knows the mountains well because he grew up in the area. His parents live in Abos, where his father is deputy mayor. He returns to this Basque area of France from his home in Australia twice a year to share his passion with like-minded travellers.
Passion is a word that sits well with the Basque folk. In fact it's passion for their unique traditions that has kept alive the extraordinarily complex Basque language and has maintained their own Basque-speaking schools, Basque flag and rich traditions that go back centuries.
From our hotel base in the village of Hasparren, it's an easy drive in any direction to explore this picturesque landscape, which changes dramatically with every bend in the road, from impossibly green fields where thick-coated sheep graze, to steep, rugged mountains that form the perilous border with Spain which for many years were used as a smuggling route.
Breakfasts consist of croissants and crispy baguettes with Ossau-Iraty cheese, traditionally eaten with black cherry conserve from the nearby cherry capital, Itxassou. But it goes down equally well with local ham.
The region produces some of the finest foods in the country, such as Bayonne ham, foie gras, foie frais, confit of duck, wild boar and squab, with farmers and artisans finding ready markets all over Europe. Patrick believes that discerning customers have a great memory of homegrown food and are willing to pay more for what is now known as 'slow' or 'real' food rather than factory produced. He says much of the food in the region has been produced for hundreds of years using the same traditions and is favoured by many top chefs.
Our first day is typical of what is to continue for the next nine: we start with a visit to one of the many trout farms at Banca that hold succulent fingerlings in pens in the chilly waters of the Nive des Aldudes, that cascades down from the Pyrenees.
These rainbow trout are fed on prawns and hake fish pellets and smoked over beechwood shavings. Smoked trout pat? is passed around and gets the nod of approval as manager Francois Juanicotena tells us he often gets into trouble for telling the truth about the artificial colouring that goes into 80 per cent of cheap smoked salmon. He has won gold medals for his product at the International Agricultural Show in Paris.
Nearby is the celebrated charcuterie of Pierre Oteiza. Formerly a butcher, Oteiza has revived the rare porc Basque breed of pig that has found appreciative markets around France for its rich flavour, somewhat similar to the acorn-fed jam?n ib?rico of Spain. Here, in the lush valley around Les Aldudes, Oteiza has built traditional haystack sties with a chestnut tree in each enclosure - the pink and black spotted pigs graze on the windfall.
He tells how he discovered the rare breed that originated in his home region when he went to the Easter Show in Paris in 1988. Instead of returning with a diamond ring for his fianc?e, he arrived with two pigs under his arm. From that breeding pair there are now 3,000 pigs in the area. Oteiza has also opened 10 small goods shops, including two in Paris that sell everything from porc Basque ham to pat?, foie gras and confit. He too has won many awards for produce.
Next stop is the charming village of Saint-Etienne-de-Baigorry, where a long lunch table has been laid out in the Arc? Hotel's conservatory-style restaurant overlooking a crystal-clear stream. Glasses are filled with good local wines as guests tuck into grilled trout with homemade pasta and fresh fruit tarts. Nearby is Chateau Etxauz, which dates from the 11th century and was once owned by Charlie Chaplin's manager. Charlemagne is supposed to have buried a cache of treasure there.
Another day offers a visit to a small village metres from the Spanish border in the Labourd province. Ainhoa is a gem of a town with old farmhouses in the main street featuring the traditional bastide architecture - many dating from the mid-17th century. In 1629, they were nearly all destroyed by the Spanish. We wander through the village and happen upon a shop selling traditional Basque berets. A dozen sales later and the shop-keeper's face has taken on a permanent smile.
At a demonstration of how to cook the traditional gateau Basque, specialist Basque p?tisserie chef Bixente Marishvlar is po-faced and has us in hysterics as he demonstrates the cooking steps. Once made from cornflour, pork fat and honey, this sophisticated cake resembles a shortbread pie filled with either a rum and vanilla cr?me p?tisserie or bitter cherries. Either way, it is delicious.
Nearby, a charming farmhouse has been converted into splendid country accommodation, complete with a restaurant. The family who owns it cooks, waits on tables and offers outstanding country hospitality - producing one of the highlights of the tour: pan-fried foie frais. This is not the typically canned or packaged foie gras - but fresh, sliced and lightly fried, and served with roasted vegetables and pear. It oozes with flavour and just melts in the mouth, with a freshness that typifies so much of this unique region's cuisine.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) and Air France (airfrance.com) fly from Hong Kong to Paris. There are regular high-speed trains from Paris to Bayonne, taking 41/2 hours; go to tgv-europe.com for bookings.
Getting around: All transport, daily excursions, accommodation, meals and local wines are included in both the walking and slow food tours. Tours start from HK$16,961 per person (twin share) and are scheduled for May and October. www.pyreneestours.com.au