This Christmas, as per every year, my family (and new husband – his first Christmas away from home!) have de-bunked to the south west of France, where we are holed up in a tiny, traditional Basque house in the coastal town of Bidart. Over the years, our Christmas Day here has evolved into a well-established routine that starts at 10am with mass in the magnificent church of St-Jean-Baptiste in St-Jean-de-Luz (Louis IXV married Marie Teresa, the Spanish Infanta here in 1660) and ends at around 10pm with scrambled eggs, French baguette and lashings of Echiré butter.
But it’s the in-between bit where things get really exciting: when the two hour service (yes, we really earn our lunch) finally wraps up and we can pile into the car, snake through the winding roads leading into the Pyrenees and arrive (slightly green around the gills) in the pretty town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Here we are greeted with a very unprepossessing-looking establishment, situated in a car park, which nevertheless promises to perk us (and our billious tummies) up no end. It is, of course, the Hôtel des Pyrénées, where a quiet and understated two star restaurant, headed by chef Firmin Arramide and his son Philippe, provides high calibre gastro relief from any hiking, skiing, canyoning or parapointing one might feel tempted to do in the surrounding area.
In the many years that we have been coming to the Hôtel des Pyrénées, the menu has never changed and, boring as it sounds, we tend to salute this reliability with an unwavering allegiance to our own favourite dishes: I always start with the marinated carpaccio of salmon with tomato sorbet; my brother always has the hot oysters with a creamy mushroom sauce and we all tend to finish with the Crêpe Suzette. Meanwhile, my father always orders a magnum of Irouléguy Domaine Brana, a delicious medium-bodied red that comes from a tiny vineyard in the Northern Basque country of France.
This year, though the classic dishes still remain (phew!), the menu had been updated, cleverly so, with a more modern and sophisticated presentation and refined additions to the flavours that, for the most part, enhanced rather than diminished the original dishes. My carpaccio of salmon and tomato sorbet, for example, came with a hitherto-unseen boule of avocado cream, which added a delicate richness to the dish while balancing the cool, palate cleansing effect of the sorbet.Meanwhile, some new dishes had appeared on the menu: my husband and father branched out and had the warm salad of scallops with cauliflower cream and beetroot ‘marshmallows’, which I insisted on sampling in the name of this blog. Verdict: they had a pleasantly surprising texture – like soaked cubes of bread – and an intense, heightened flavour of beetroot that, like a good fur coat, added glamour and drama to the scallops.
In an ultimately failed bid to feel less full at the end of the meal (I’d forgotten about all the amuse-bouche that pop up between courses in posh restaurants), I plumped for fish as my main course: an elegant sole, whose understated flavouring chimed with puréed leek and sang amid the nutty flavours of spelt risotto, wood mushrooms and parmesan crisps.
Perhaps my tastes have changed or perhaps the pudding ‘samplers’ that appeared between main course and pudding were responsible, but, despite the orange salad and spiced bread sorbet, which now accompany the Crêpe Suzette and are clearly meant to add ‘zest’ to this dish, I found it, overall, to be a little too sweet. That said, I still managed to finish my plate and, later, when we drank coffee and taught the sommelier how to pull crackers (France doesn’t sell crackers, if you can believe it) quaffed a deliciously saccharine glass of Sauterne pudding wine. Turkey and all the trimmings? My best Gallic shrug and a heartfelt “Bof” say it all.
Hôtel des Pyrénées
19, place du Général-de-Gaulle
64220 Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Pyrénées-Atlantiques)
T: + 33 (0)5 59 37 01 01