My 7 Sweetest Discoveries in the Basque Country
I recently professed my love (again) for Zürich and before that, for one of my favorite regions in France, Alsace (by the German border). There’s yet another region in France that holds a spot near and dear to my heart, and that’s the Pays Basque (on the very opposite end of the country by the Spanish border). While living in Clermont-Ferrand (in the Auvergne) from 2001 to 2002, I spent a week in the French Basque country and was beyond charmed by a culture, cuisine, landscape and language (Euskara) all its own. Ten years later, I finally returned with my husband and parents, overjoyed to share it all with them. I returned to the villages I have been thinking about all these years, and brought my taste memories back to life.
And I’m already planning my next trip there… if only to replenish my stash of the following goodies. Here are my seven favorite sweet tastes during my trip there early July. And trust me, it wasn’t easy to limit it to seven. So why only seven then ? As a nod to the Basque’s omnipresent striped linens and espadrilles (that filled my suitcase) – all with seven stripes for the region’s seven provinces. Zazpiak Bat, “the seven are one.”
1. Gâteau Basque
How could an article on sweets in the Basque country begin anywhere other than with Gâteau Basque, the region’s signature cake ! I tasted too many varieties to count and heard too many different stories on what is the “authentic” recipe to know what’s actually true. This buttery cake seems to have begun life with a pastry cream filling, and later on was filled with Itxassou’s famous black cherries; and you’ll now see versions with apricot or even chocolate too. It was unanimous in my family – the classic cake with (not too sweet) pastry cream filling was the winner. Some had too much lemon zest, others too much cream or too soft a crust… it’s rather fun to taste them all day long on your travels and compare, no boulangerie or pâtisserie will be without their own version. If you can’t decide which to get, then Maison Inda in Ascain (Azkaine in Basque) has the perfect solution for you: “crème et cérise,” both cream and cherry in one (below, bottom left).
2. Macarons (the original), Maison Adam, St Jean de Luz
Forget what you know about Parisian style macarons (Ladurée, Pierre Herme, etc.). No sandwiched cookies, and no filling here either. Just a small, light, extra chewy macaron purportedly the “original,” created in 1660 by the first of the Adam pastry chefs. The recipe has not changed since then, so you’ll be tasting the macaron just as Louis XIV did.
Confectioners in the French Basque country have taken a liking for Spanish touron, pâte d’amande (almond paste) in different flavors that shows up in a rainbow of colors most often as flat bars or small rounds. I loved the look of Pariès’ bar with the Basque flag on it (below, top left) and Maison Adam’s mini rounds in individual paper cups (below, top right). Famous chocolatier Henriet in Biarritz also had colorful almond based confections called “Harlequins,” pâte de fruit (fruit jellies) sandwiched by pâte d’amande (below, bottom right). If you like almond paste or marzipan, this region is for you !
4. Lollipops, La Tartelette d’Espelette, Espelette
While discussing the different varieties of Gâteau Basque with the baker at La Tartelette d’Espelette, I could hear my father busy as a bee behind me. He was hard at work, selecting the most colorful and attractive lollipops he could get his hands on ! Beautiful, hand-crafted lollipops with natural ingredients come in 40 different flavors like pear, coconut pineapple, cactus and banana kiwi. We all joined in the fun and selected a few; for me it was salted butter caramel with sesame, coffee, raspberry, chocolate nougat and last but certainly not least, cherry & piment d’Espelette, the town’s famous pepper that adorns all the building facades.
5. Pastries (Palmeritas & Cocos), Pastelería Oiartzun, Donostia-San Sebastián
After an hour or two of pintxos-hopping in San Sebastián (tapas tapas tapas), we needed a break. A sweet break. And we found it on a very sunny terrace at Oiartzun. Cocos, big coconut macaroons, were one of the many house specialties, but their small, super crisp palmeritas (palmiers or elephant ears) stole the spotlight.
6. Kanougas, Pariès, St Jean de Luz
Having discovered Pariès’ sublime caramels and chocolates at Paris’ Salon du Chocolat years ago (they were on my 2009 annual “Salon du Chocolat Not to Miss List“), it was truly a thrill to be at their shop in the Basque country (like my recent pilgrimage to Alsace for kugelhopf). While their Mouchous (softer than macarons, made with more almond paste and less sugar) are fantastic and come in fun boxes (mouchou means “kiss” in Basque), it’s their Kanougas that steal my heart, chewy, extra buttery caramels first created in 1905. I always go for the gold wrapper, “Tinousky,” a coffee flavored caramel that’s simply divine.
7. Turrón gelato, La Turronería, Pamplona
Forget bulls and red scarves. Mere minutes after arriving in Pamplona, stepping onto the main square, my family started to look around at the buildings, commenting on the architecture. Then I yelled, “Turroneria !!” My sweet radar was going off in full force. On the opposite end of the square, there it was, La Turronería. Wish I could go back for more Turrón gelato, made with pieces of Jijona nougat. After I do, I’ll go around the block to get in line with the crowds at Heladería Larramendi Izozkiteguia to compare the two…
If the list continued, number 8 would be Henriet’s pavé noir 68%, a dark chocolate bar with the most delicate and subtle crunch from its praliné feulletine. Luckily the symbolic Basque number is 7, since I finished that bar before I could get a photo of it. Speaking of chocolate, I wouldn’t want to ignore Chocolatier Antton in Espelette and their ganache infused with Espelette pepper or the region’s black cherry jam. And how could I forget to mention the funnily named “Crottin de Pottock” by Maison Adam in St Jean de Luz, chewy nougatine encased in cocoa powder. Last but not least, an honorable mention goes to Parisian-style macarons by Pâtissier L. Raux in Biarritz, Nutella and salted butter caramel with peanut leaving the sweetest memories…
Ok, I clearly need to plan that trip back to the Basque country sooner than I thought.
What other sweets would you add to the list ?
Tags: Antton, Ascain, Basque Country, Biarritz, Chocolate, Espelette, Euskadi, France, Gâteau Basque, Henriet, Kanougas, L. Raux, Macaron, Maison Adam, Pamplona, Pariès, Pastry, Pays Basque, Piment d'Espelette, San Sebastián, Spain, St Jean de Luz, St Jean Pied de Port, Sweets, Touron, Travel, Turronería