Our Food Wholesale team have returned from the ever-inspiring Pays Basque. The beautiful region in South-West France straddles the Pyrénées and the Atlantic Ocean - it is a culinary melting pot, a true treat for food lovers. As you can imagine it it was a trip we had been relishing for some time.
After arriving late evening in Toulouse, a comforting Confit de Canard dinner and a good nights rest left us in perfect shape to head South the next morning towards the imposing silhouette of the Pyrénées.
Les Bergers du Haut Béarn - Raw Milk Mountain Cheeses
Our first stop took us east of the Pays Basque to the neighbouring region of Béarn. We visited master cheese affineurs - Etienne and Julien at ‘Les Bergers du Haut Béarn’ in the small village of Lanne-en-Barétous.
You might know Etienne and Julien through their cheeses: Lou Nousté and Tomme de Chèvre. Etienne showed us around their ‘caves’ where they receive young cheeses from trusted local farms, turning and washing them twice a week during maturation. Etienne explained his belief in the importance of raw milk cheese production and how utilising this method was a conscious choice to ensure the flavours of his cheeses reflect the unique rugged terroir of the the Béarn. This was abundantly clear when we tasted with Etienne and Julien.
First up we tried some Lou Nousté meaning ‘ours’ in the local Béarnais dialect. A sheep’s milk cheese sharing many of the attributes of the local favourite Ossau Iraty. We were lucky enough to be tasting their ‘Estive’ - a Lou Nousté produced in the summer months when the sheep are roaming the high mountain pastures eating a diet of fresh grass and wild herbs, the flavours were fantastic; herbaceous, buttery and with a gentle hint of lactic acidity. We then tried their Tomme de Chèvre - at two months it was bright and delicate with a flavour that evoked images of the late summer mountain pastures. After being treated to a hearty and convivial lunch of the ‘Béarnaise’ speciality Garbure - a rustic soup of duck, ham and vegetables - we headed West.
Maison Mayte - Basque Hams of the Highest Quality
Our next visit was to a Provisions favourite: Maison Mayte, a family run charcutier who have been producing traditional Basque-style ham and saucisson in the town of St Jean Le Vieux for five generations. We were shown around by the Eric and Sylvie Mayte who have headed the family business since 1998. What shone through from the moment we met them was their passion for the Pays Basque and their mission to produce high quality and innovative charcuterie.
What particularly grabbed our attention was the production of their stunning Ibaiama Hams. Ibaiama are a local Basque breed of pig and Maison Mayte are one of only three producers who use this breed for their hams. Cured for 20-24 months in open air rooms hanging from the traditional wooden beams found in Basque houses, production is hands on and relies on the knowledge and skills the family has built up over generations. After butchery, the hams are salted using only naturally sourced salt from the Béarn, which is manually applied. One month of drying is followed by 3 months salt penetration when the hams are then moved to the upstairs curing rooms. This process leads to a stunning ham - sweet and delicate - it melts like butter in your mouth, reminiscent of the finest Prosciutto di Parma.
The breadth and quality of charcuterie from Maison Mayte was evident when Eric and Sylvie laid a fantastic table of their products for us to try. This included their Jambon de Bayonne as well as a a selection of cured meats you might be familiar with: Saucisson Bonnet, Chorizo Basque & Jésus. As we tasted Eric proudly showed us a map of the local farms they source their meat from and in the typical warm Basque fashion wished us adieu.
Okina - Basque Baking
The following day it was time to reignite our love of French baking with a visit to Okina. This bakery with strong Basque accent is in the small town of Idaux-Mendy. You might have already tried their biscuits as we have been lucky to import them for some years now. Savoury biscuits flavoured with goat’s cheese or Ossau Iraty and their beautiful, sweet hazelnut biscuits.
Okina - simply meaning ‘the baker’ in the local Basque dialect - was founded in 2004 and now headed up by Hervé and Hervé. From the minute we walked through the door the comforting aromas of a bakery grabbed our attention. Everything Okina bakes is an ode to Basque produce: flour is locally milled, cheeses are sourced from local farms, the local Espelette pepper is used liberally in many of their biscuit recipes and the honey they use is from hives just up the road.
As we were shown around and observed the bakers at work, what struck us is how virtually everything is still done by hand - with the skill and judgement of the bakers key to producing their stunning biscuits. We were then invited to taste through their selection of nine savoury and six sweet recipes; the goat’s cheese with honey, sheep’s cheese with Espelette pepper and walnut with Roquefort cheese were stand outs. To finish and much to our excitement Hervé brought us a Gâteau Basque to taste. A true speciality of the region, shortcrust pastry is filled with almond frangipane and a layer of black cherry jam, a fantastic way to finish another inspiring visit.
Maison Argaud - A family tradition
Our final visit took us north to the town of Puyoo to visit master conservers and the epitome of a family business - Maison Argaud. We were warmly greeted by Paul Argaud - now the second generation of the family business started over 40 years ago by his dad and uncle. Maison Argaud specialise in producing tinned/jarred rillettes, terrines, pates, foie gras and locally specialities such as Confit de Canard and Cassoulet de Canard.
Paul explained to us that their philosophy was simple; to produce the highest quality products by hand, with simple recipes, locally sourced ingredients and without the use of any additives. For example, they only use ‘label rouge’ Moulin ducks sourced from four trusted local farms. Production still happens in the workshops behind their shop with a small team of twenty people including eight from the family, working to exacting standards. We were lucky enough to be shown around by Paul and saw for ourselves how labour intensive it is to produce these products that we all love. Paul and his family are rightly proud of their fantastic products and the local culinary tradition and terroir they represent.
Following this trip, we have decided to celebrate the Spirit of San Sebastián in our Holloway shop with a series of dinners at the end of the month. It would be a pleasure to see some of you here!
Time: from 6:30pm till 11pm
Location: Provisions Holloway, 167 Holloway Rd N7 8LX
Booking: 020 7700 0476 or email@example.com