Sunday, September 7, 2008

I Left My Heart in San Sebastian....



Here I am again, back home - smoothie in hand, carpet underfoot, grey sky crowding in at the window. We are to expect the remnants of hurricane Hannah any day now so I plan to make some stock and start cooking the comfort food that will cushion our inevitable bumpy landing from summer in France, to Autumn in Dorset.

But I promised to tell you more about our time away and I want to dwell a little longer in the pine scented warmth of Aquitaine so here's what we did....

The first week really was a blissful miracle of strong sun, sea breeze, long lunches and balmy nights. Although travelling with an only child entails one of us being on playing duty most of the time, the pool and Fin's new found confidence in the water at least allowed the spines of our novels to be cracked and pages dog eared, long enough to finish a book each over the course of two weeks. We ate simply but well; slender emerald green beans, sweet misshapen beef tomatoes, succulent free-range, corn fed chicken, sticky Agen prunes and the holiest of squash holy grail - a potimarron, dense deep orange flesh with a nutty flavour.

In the local Intermarche supermarket I found ground hazelnuts and almonds - for making crepes apparently. In broken French I managed to convey my need for gluten free baking powder (levure chimique) and followed a surprisingly buxom sales assistant to the cleaning aisle where she pulled down a large yellow tube and handed it to me excitedly, whilst miming what seemed to be an explosion. In the midst of a stream of French, I caught the words, 'pour gonfle!' - (to inflate) and got it. Aha! Bicarbonate of soda, 'tres bien, fantastique!' I almost hugged her, but the enormous wobbling cleavage nipped that impulse right in the bud.

There was also a whole shelf of artisanal flours, from barley, through chestnut to walnut (farine de noix) - I fondled the packets longingly and wished I could trust that the walnut flour was gluten free, but I knew it wasn't and left the chic brown paper package sitting on the shelf with a wistful pang for all the things I would have baked with a shelf of flours like that in the days before SCD. I still managed to whip up some hazelnut pan-bread, honey almond brittle, yogurt ice-cream and lemon biscuits baked in the tiny apartment kitchen oven, all of which Fin greeted like manna falling from heaven.

Our second week was the first in September, so all the French families packed their trunks and headed home - back to school and work. The weather decided to do the same and although the days were still warm enough for short sleeves, there were clouds moving swiftly overhead and a distinctly tumbleweed feel to the little towns we visited. It was as though, with the departure of the French, nothing much mattered now - leaves gathered wetly at the edge of the pool and peddalo boats knocked forlornly at the edge of the lake.

So we all piled into the car and headed south. First into the Western edge of the Pyrenees where the landscape initially looked a bit like Dorset and then as we drove higher and caught sight of the blue paper cut out mountains ahead, we agreed it wasn't that much like Dorset after all. We were heading for a little mountain railway that scales Col de Saint Ignace, near the border. But the Michelin guide-book said nothing about the crowds of eager passengers waiting five deep on the tiny platform for three small carriages to convey them upwards. We stood in the static ticket line for twenty minutes - noticed that everything would be shut for lunch soon and contented ourselves instead with a visit to the gift shop, to buy some postcards of the view we would have seen had we spent half the day and a small fortune waiting for it. 'Now I can pretend I've been up there!', mused Fin. Nick and I exchanged an indulgent look - definitely glass half full.

Back at the car we scrutinised each other's faces for signs of disappointment and found none. 'I'm glad we didn't go on that train' said Fin before happily sucking his thumb and enjoying the scenery as we drove onward to San Sebastian. It was as though we had got a day off school somehow and the miles fell away until the Sat Nav announced, 'you have reached your destination'.

We emerged from the musky car park into the most amazing fish market, where shoals of bright glassy eyes followed our slack jawed tour of the stalls: a huge tuna beached on a bed of ice, pinky bream, silver bass and my favourite, merluza (hake) - surely the freshest fish we had ever seen.

Although we planned to eat lunch, snacks were in order so we ducked into a supermarket to see what we could find - some ripe bananas, toasted hazels, thin slices of dark cured beef and a brief survey of the chorizo in case we could find one without lactose, dextrose or some other indigestible sugar in it. The lady behind the counter checked all the chorizos in turn for sugars, 'mmm..no, mm..no, mmmmm...no....'. I wandered away through the refrigerators stacked high with charcuterie I was never going to taste and started to look idly through the ingredients...azucar, lactosa, harina, dextrosa, glucosa....how can something that started off as simple as meat, fat and salt end up with these sweet additions? I could see Nick making his way over with a shrug in his walk and glanced down at the packet I had just picked up. By the time he made it to where I was standing, I was grinning from ear to ear and little cherubs were firing up an orchestra of flutes and harps for the heavenly chorus that accompanies finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Pork, Pimenton, Salt and Garlic - just what pigs were made for in my opinion. I grabbed three packets, punched the air and ran towards the till, grabbing a jar of roasted piquillo peppers and some saffron on the way. Back at the apartment was a corn fed chicken waiting patiently to be gently introduced to these new treasures.

We strolled on towards lunch in a cafe on the side of the docks. The hills above the city are a dark densely wooded contrast to the restrained hazelnut colour of the buildings. Above the beach with its flotsam of barely clothed bodies, stood an enormous statue of Jesus - smiling benignly down at the bathers frolicking in the waves. Old women were swimming off a jetty to our left and fish wives sat in a cluster mending nets on the dockside, each with a large hook caught in between her nut brown toes. We ambled on past day boats and teenagers line fishing, drinking it in, squinting in the bright haze that shimmered over the elegant sandstone streets lining the bay. The impression was of a town comprised of layers of gold, yellow sand, bronzed bodies, buttery stone houses and strong pale gold light illuminating it all.

The cafe was shady and filled with food loving San Sebastianos tucking into huge plates of seafood. We ate each mouthful reverently, sharing a plate of sweet succulent tiger prawns and melting, milky merluza - Fin had his second ever steak, a piece almost as big as his face that he guarded jealously, allowing us only a morsel each so we could appreciate just how good it was. Our waiter was a little non plussed when we asked for salad in place of the patatas (chips/fries) - I mean, what kid has salad instead of fries?

Walking back through the town hand in hand, I felt replete with that sense of well being bought on by a fantastic meal, in a lovely place. A spot of gentle mooching and a visit to some swings rounded off a delicious afternoon - and then reluctantly, we headed back across the border to France.