Basque Country, Spain

We explored Basque Country during our numerous visits to Aquitaine, France, dipping across the border to explore this unique culture. We love the picturesque white houses, with red, blue, and green trim, and the quirky lettering of the Basque businesses.

We’ve made numerous visits to seaside San Sebastián (for exceptional tapas or pintxos) and love the stunning vistas of the Basque Mountains. We’ve also made a day-trip to Bilbao to visit the dramatic Guggenheim museum and explore the bustling city.

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Waking up at home, the morning after a great vacation is always a bit of a letdown. Waking up at home after a fabulous vacation is a HUGE letdown – especially when your house is freezing because you’ve run out of oil. (If I was one of those ‘I told you so’ wives, I’d be gloating a bit right now… if I was one of those sorts of wives…)

So I’ve had the gas man in and now I await the man to restart the furnace. I’m on load 2 of at least 4 loads of laundry and I’m procrastinating from the vacuuming. I’m bundled up by the fireplace (luckily we have wood) and the cats are all huddled on the bed. Things could be a lot worse. But I have to say, last week they were a lot better.

I didn’t think it would be possible to exceed my expectations for my birthday week at La Bejamine. I had had a taste of Dawn and Cedric’s hospitality before and I had extremely high hopes for the week. That can often be a disastrous thing. This time however, the reality was beyond my highest expectations.

We set out before the sun on Monday morning. The MP3 player was loaded; we packed some snacks and traffic was on our side. Even our trip through Paris wasn’t bad. It was a lovely day for a drive and we made excellent time. We even took a bit of a scenic side trip before arrive at La Benjamine and we were still ahead of schedule.

The cosy sitting room of La Bejamine

Dawn and Cedric greeted us like old friends and we were introduced to the only other guests for the week – Dawn’s nephew and niece-in-law, Rob and Louise. Even though we hadn’t planned to dine with them that evening, we were welcomed to a paired-down version of Cedric’s normal feast (and by pared down I certainly don’t mean in quality). We had prawns and a fantastic lemony rice followed by cheese and dessert (and of course plenty of delicious wine). We had some great conversation and it hardly felt like we had never met Rob and Louise before (and Dawn and Cedric for only two days before, for that matter). Sinking into the sumptuous bed that evening was a treat and we slept to the sounds of silence.

Tuesday morning we were greeted with the La Benjamine breakfast – homemade granola, homemade yogurt, fresh, warm bread and pastry and a half dozen different homemade jams, fresh squeezed orange juice and perfect coffee. I’m not a big breakfast eater but what a way to start the day – Andrew was in breakfast heaven.

How could you ever tire of this view?

We decided we wanted to explore the countryside a bit and Cedric pointed out a couple of routes on our map. We were not disappointed. I made frequent road-side photo stops and we eventually arrived at a walking path. Unfortunately the Creperie recommended by Dawn was closed, but we had a lovely walk anyway, with stunning views of the Pyrenees.

When it started to cloud over and threaten rain we hopped back in the car for a quick mountain drive. Loads of people were out walking and hiking as it was school vacation week. Unfortunately we remained car bound as the rain started up. We headed back to La Benjamine to relax for the rest of the afternoon and await my birthday supper.

We didn’t mean to match… honest

Where do I even begin with the rest of the evening…? When Andrew had originally planned our week, Cedric had told him that he takes Tuesdays off from supper so we had planned to find a nice restaurant to dine at. As (my) luck would have it, Cedric wanted to take Rob, Louise and (a very reluctant) Dawn skiing. Because we were flexible with the plans for the week (i.e. we had none at all) we told him to take whatever day was going to be best for skiing. Because of Tuesday’s rains, he offered to cook my birthday supper. I have to say, if I could spend every birthday like this, I wouldn’t dread aging at all.

Before I get into the meal itself, I have to explain something about the way Dawn and Cedric do

Happy Birthday to me…

things at La Benjamine. From the moment you arrive, you are treated like old friends. You are welcomed into Dawn and Cedric’s lives and as such, you dine with them. Rather than being served as you would in a restaurant, you are at a fabulous dinner party with wonderful friends. Their warmth, generosity and humour shine through with everything they do. While the atmosphere is casual, no detail is left unattended. Everything is done with love and charm. (If you think I must be going overboard with the compliments here, I assure you I’m not. I don’t consider myself to be a gushy reviewer but I just can’t say enough good things about Dawn and Cedric. If you have any doubts, all I can say is go and experience it for yourselves.)

So back to diner…

La Princess Snuggy

First, I was escorted into the entry way by Dawn and Louise who had written birthday wishes on Dawn’s blackboard. Then we snuggled into the sofas in front of the fire in the living room. We were even joined by Snuggy, the princess (i.e. cat) of La Benjamine. We drank a beautiful Jurancon wine as our aperitif and nibbled on Cedric’s pate and cheese.

When Cedric was ready for us, we were ushered to the diner table. The great thing about being at the table is that it is in the huge open kitchen so you can watch Cedric prepare his masterpieces. For those of us who enjoy cooking it is a fascinating (if humbling) experience.

So our meal began with salmon that Cedric had smoked himself. I adore smoked salmon and this was superb. We even had little blinis to eat with it. Our main course will be a bit of a surprise to people who know me – it was stewed venison with lentils and it was the most beautiful meat I have ever eaten.

Since moving to Europe (and before that with many thanks to my Sue) I’ve been a lot braver about trying

My cake… no you can’t have any.

new foods. In the past few years I’ve tasted (and usually enjoyed) many things that I swore would never cross my lips. For me, it is all about trust. I trust Cedric’s cooking implicitly (as you will see even more on our last meal) and I haven’t been let down yet (nor do I suspect I ever will be).

With our cheese course, and the cheeses are always stunning at La Bejamine, (even the blue cheese which is now my favourite and is yet another food I swore I would never enjoy) Cedric, very kindly, opened a bottle of wine from his personal cellar. It was gorgeous and a real treat, especially for wine newbies like Andrew and I.

Cedric outdid himself for dessert. The birthday cake was incredible. I’ll have to let the pictures speak for it, because all I can say is YUM!

I did eventually share… this was my piece.

When we could eat and drink no more, we collapsed into bed, only to wake up to start breakfast all over again… life was rough.

On Wednesday we were very kindly invited to tag along on a tapas adventure to Spain. Cedric, Dawn, Rob and Louise piled into their car and Andrew and I followed behind in the Volvo. We zipped down to the coast and popped across the boarder to Hondarribia. Despite the lack of character in many of the cities in this region, this town has managed to maintain its traditional Basque buildings and is very picturesque. Despite the threatening looking clouds, the sun came out and we had a lovely stroll around town.

After a bit, we settled down to do what we had come to do – eat. And eat we did… Andrew and I turned the ordering over to the food

Hondarribia, Spain

professionals. We shared a bottle of Rioja (except Dawn who partook of her ‘traditional Spanish’ Martini and Fanta…) and noshed on our tapas. This was only the first course, however, because with tapas, half the fun is going from bar to bar. At our second stop, we ODed on potatoes but they were delish – patatas bravas, patatas aioli, and a potato tart, as well as ham, salad cheese and calamari. Needless to say after round two, we were rather feeling like stuffed potatoes.

We walked off some of the carbs by heading to the port and then finished our stay with coffees on a terrace. Andrew and I opted for the scenic route home through the Basque countryside and once again were not let down but the scenery. The houses in the Basque region of France are traditionally white with exposed beams painted in the colours of the flag – burgundy, blue or green. We stopped in the town of Espelette,

Peppers drying in Espelette

where they grow special red peppers and dry them by hanging them from their houses. Then we headed to St. Jean-Pied-De-Port, the last French stop on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. We admired the sights until the sun went down and then rolled ourselves into bed (opting to skip supper altogether – we couldn’t even think about food).

Thursday our fellow guests were taken skiing. Andrew and I headed to the mountains on our own, but without any of our Canadian warm-weather gear, we opted to stick to the warmth of the car (except for my bravery at stepping out of the warm comfort to photograph the mountains). Our day started out fabulously – the mountains are gorgeous and Andrew loves to drive on the twisty roads but around two o’clock things started to go a little wrong. We were travelling a circular route through the Pyrenees, from France into Spain and back to France. However, the route that we were meant to take back to France was closed. So we had to travel quite some distance out of our way. This would have been fine, except well… I had to pee. We had assumed the mountains would be busy with skiers, and while there were some people on the slopes, the valley towns were shut up tight. Apparently the tourist season revolves around hikers – in the summer. The towns were abandoned. Finally, we made it to the French border and spotted a little inn that was open and serving coffee. With two necessities out of the way (the thick black coffee was a great way to warm up) we started to think about food.

On top of the world

Dawn had recommended a great Basque restaurant that we were about and hour away from, so we decided to search it out. We found it quite easily although it is quite off the beaten path, but it was closed for the holidays. We were slightly devastated. We drove to the nearest town of any size and it also seemed closed up tight. Luckily we spotted a pizza place with the door open, only to be informed that the shop was closed. The pizza man must have sensed our desperation and he checked his oven. Luckily it was still on and he offered to make us a pizza. With profuse thanks we took our piping hot, thin crust pizza to a bench across the street, and ate with a beautiful view of the valley. I don’t know if it was starvation talking (it was after 4 and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast) but that was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had.

Drew in the misty mountains.

As Cedric and Dawn were enjoying their day off on the slopes, we thought we’d treat ourselves to supper out in Pau. We had a stack of business cards of places they recommended and we had my guide book that hasn’t yet steered us wrong for food. We thought we’d be spoiled for choice. We parked the car and walked to our first choice, only to find a for sale sign on the building. No worries, two others were on the same street so we’d check the menus and choose one – closed and closed. We walked to our fourth and final option and it was, you guessed it, closed. Just when we had given up hope, Cedric phoned to ask when we wanted breakfast. Andrew asked for another restaurant recommendation. We were given one by the train station. It was a bit of a walk and then a trip down the funicular and of course I was wearing my silly little black boots… The restaurant? Closed.

The photographically elusive Dawn ready (or not) to ski.

We were desperate. We found one restaurant open… it was in the main tourist square and it was definitely against our better judgement but it was full and really, how bad could it be? Well, in a word – terrible. The service was so slow it was like Chinese water torture. The one waitress was pleasant but couldn’t multi-task if her life depended on it. She was the only person taking orders and she could only do one at a time. As Andrew rather kindly put it, she was assisted by her two idiot brothers. These guys, for whatever reason could only deliver food. Even though on their way back to the kitchen their hands were empty, they could not pick up a dirty plate… it was bizarre. I’d like to be able to say the food made up for it, but in fact, it was even worse than the service. I wont appal you too much with the details, but my main course consisted of lamb (which normally I love since moving to Belgium) that was 80% fat and 20% bone, and it was over-cooked, and grey. The veg were so overcooked they were unrecognisable (except for the grey mushrooms from a tin) and in fact the whole plate was swimming in water. The icing on the cake was the two frozen potato patties. Even though we had ordered the three course menu, we contemplated asking to skip dessert. Luckily, when it was all over, all we could do was laugh. The night was such a disaster that it will make great dinner stories… when the pain isn’t so fresh.

Le Chef and La assistant chef.

Friday we took our time and headed in to Pau for a bit of shopping, where I found another pair of silly little black boots. (Thank you Jenn!) To make up for the previous day’s food disaster, we decided to try the new Thai/Vietnamese place for lunch that Dawn, Cedric, Rob and Louise had gone to after their ski trip. As they promised, it was fantastic and helped dull the pain of the night before.

After lunch we headed out to the countryside on the other side of Pau to meet with David and Leticia who kindly invited us for supper. We had a great afternoon, visiting and playing with the babies, followed by a superb supper. Leticia had cooked a beautiful Moroccan Tajine with couscous. By now, almost all thoughts of the past night’s supper had been erased. With full bellies we made our way back to La Benjamine for a quick nightcap with Rob and Louise who were off very early the next morning to catch the train.

Our Saturday morning was spent at the market in Pau. It was the nicest market I have been to. The fresh, local produce was endless and I wish I could have taken some home. We did however pick up quite a few things. We bought 3 different cheeses that I can’t wait to tuck into; some Espelette peppers and pepper pate and of course we had to get some Foie Gras.

We took our spoils back to La Benjamine and collapsed our bed with our books for a few hours of rest.

What happens when you taste very good wine and have a Volvo with a very large trunk.

At 4:30 we met Cedric for a wine tasting adventure. We already knew that we wanted to stock up on his house wine. This was our first trip to France where we actually had room to shop and bring things back with us and wine was a must. We loaded 30 bottles of the Madiran red in the car and headed for the next stop – Domaine Guirardel. This small scale winery is presided over by Jean (who Dawn refers to as the BFG). Jean only produces two wines and both are Jurançons. Jurançon wines are white and they are available in dry or sweet. The grapes used are a combination of Gros Manseng, and the more rare Petit Manseng. Jean’s wines are both sweet and the more special of the two is made entirely from the Petit Manseng grapes. I am not normally a fan of sweet white wines but these are really beautiful. Jean showed us where his kegs were stored and told us the history of his family’s farm, all while we were drinking extremely generous samples of his lovely wine. We left with two cases of the blended Jurançon and one of the more expensive but definitely worth it Petit Manseng.

After our visit with Jean, Cedric drove us back to La Benjamine to get ready for our last supper. Andrew and I retired to the sofas where we told Dawn about our afternoon. Cedric joined us with aperitifs and nibbles.

Our starter that evening was something I would never even think to eat had it not been Cedric cooking, but it was fabulous as always. We had pig’s trotters mixed with some veg in a delicious batter that was crispy and soft at the same time. Our main that night, was lamb and it more than made up for the lamb disaster the night before. Cedric was delivered a whole lamb which he butchered himself and we had gorgeous lamb chops with a crispy potato cake and perfect vegetables. This was followed by more scrumptious cheese and dessert was a passion fruit mousse. Of course it was all washed down with the fabulous red wine and tales of Dawn’s misadventures on skis. It was a fantastic way to end a fantastic birthday week.

Sunday morning we were reluctant to get out of the comfortable beds (I was seriously considering staging a sit (sleep?) in) and leave behind our room that was so beautifully decorated by Dawn. As we ate our final breakfast and settled our bill Cedric and Dawn packed us a picnic lunch to eat on the road. It was delicious of course and even after having some today for my lunch as well, there are still some leftovers that I will enjoy tomorrow.

When we were talking about their business and how much more than just a Bed and Breakfast it is, Cedric said that for he and Dawn, the highest complement is the fact that they have so many return visitors. I hope I’ve managed to compliment them and thank them again for their hospitality with this blog, but just in case, we booked our return visit for October. I’m already counting the days.

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