Take a trip down to the Basque region and you will no longer feel like you are in France. Everything here is different, from the colors of the houses, to the way they play boules, to the language they speak, to the food they eat and the wine they drink.
But there are three really amazing things that come
from this region: ham, cheese and cake. (Not to mention wine and piment d'espelette, and the Lindt factory that's near Pau. Let's just say that I would get really fat if I lived here. )
One of the most well known dishes from this region is probably the gateau basque. There are traditionally two different fillings to this amazing cake, black cherry and frangipane, which is a kind of almond paste mixed with sugar and butter. But one quick look at the landscape around you will reveal that there are indeed no almond trees to be found- which seems to be a clue about which filling is the more authentic one. Look a little closer and you will also notice that black cherry jam is traditionally served with their cheeses, so I think it's safe to say that anything made out of black cherry is probably the more indigenous choice, and that the almond cake filling is probably a more recent addition.
As for the ham. Well, here is a picture of some very happy little piggies frolicking in the sun in the middle of the Aldudes valley in the Pyrenees mountains. These little piggies, which are black and light pink, or white, are the traditional Basque pigs, which were almost going extinct before a man named Pierre Oteiza decided to revive the race and make amazingly delicious ham and pâtés with them. Oteiza now has boutiques in Paris and exports to the US and Japan.(http://www.pierreoteiza.com/) If you get the chance, buy the black pork pâté with the piment d'espelette, spread it on some crusty bread and drink with a good glass of red and you don't need much else to make you happy.
So as cute as these little piglets look, they taste even better.
And finally, the cheese. The most commercialized version of their local cheese is the petit basque, a cheese which is frequently found advertised on billboards in the Parisian metro. You can find it anywhere, and I have to say that it never dissapoints. But of course once you visit this region, you realize that in fact, like everywhere in France, there is no 'one definitive cheese,' but instead practically every little village or valley makes its own special cheese. While driving around in the Iraty region, every 500 meters or so there were little hand written signs by the side of the road telling tourists that they are only 200 meters away from amazing, hand made sheep's milk Ossau Iraty cheese. The regional government has tried to standardize these signs by making one big brown sign depicting a sheep's head, a piece of cheese and an arrow, which is actually quite amusing.
So apart from all the amazing produce, the restaurants that I've visited really seem to try to incorporate the local ingredients into their dishes. The salade Iraty that I ate in the Iraty region contained, of course, Iraty cheese, basque pig ham, and local asparagus. For my main dish I continued with the tradition of eating small, cute animals and chose to eat baby mutton cutlets, simply seasoned with rock salt and grilled on a sizzling hot plancha. While gnawing on the bones I could literally see the little baby muttons grazing on a nearby hill. Now that is what I call 'eating local.'
Oh, and the wine is really good too.