Tom Garton‘s driving woes continue as he departs on the second of his Basque country tour, closing on the Spanish border, but salvation isn’t far away in the form of a fine French chateau…
I was driving headfirst into oncoming traffic. While leaving our previous hotel, I’d somehow forgotten we were in France. I was careering into a lorry on the wrong side of a dual carriageway.
I reversed at speed back into the junction, stalling at first because the ridiculous machine was an automatic.
A narrow escape. I exhaled a sigh of relief, before turning to my blonde companion to make sure she hadn’t prematurely died from the excitement.
Yet the horror was far from over. In escaping death, I’d become embroiled in an insurance claim.
In my rear window, the crumpled, leathery countenance of a cantankerous forty-something Frenchwoman in her Peugeot 206.
I stepped outside and rushed to her ageing motor. The leathery-faced woman stayed in her car. I peered into the car, curiously she was also wearing leather trousers. But to my relief, and her chagrin, the bumper of her silver-blue Peugeot 206 was immaculate.
‘Mais non, mais non’ I cried aggressively. The leathery-faced woman drove off snarling.
We left, finally, and headed on to Biarritz.
It was 2pm in Biarritz when we arrived. “What a quiet town” I thought “Perhaps too quiet”. The cooling breeze off the Atlantic swept through the narrow alleys leading down to the beach. Early 20th century hotels on the seafront stood out as glistening artefacts of grandeur. Both of us were still shook up by the events of the morning, and decided to get some food.
Our stomachs were dreaming of fat langoustines, crabs, and oysters. We headed to the seafront through a hilly pass which traces the city around the coast. From the top of the hill I espied several seafood restaurants. Straightforward, no-nonsense places with white, plastic chairs, blue awnings, and stubbly, swarthy waiters in off-white aprons.
One of the many problems with France is the strict opening times of its restaurants. Biarritz is a holiday destination. As tourists, we were in the majority. So why do restaurants shut promptly and rudely at 2.30 in the afternoon?
We joined the gaggles of German, Dutch, and Canadian tourists veering zombie-like through the streets from eatery to eatery, until we discovered an all-day restaurant serving mussels at 3pm. The mussels were fine, and extortionate.
Having escaped death, a hefty insurance claim, and unsatisfied by a mediocre lunch, we resolved to leave for San Sebastian the next day, and spend the rest of our time at our hotel in nearby Anglet: the five-star Relais and Chateaux property Chateau de Brindos. It was a good decision.
The Chateau de Brindos was built by Sir Reginald Wright. Wright, was a wealthy lover of the Basque Country, a great art lover and traveller, hosting elegant parties at the Chateau during the 1930s. In the 1980s, it was bought by the French international rugby player Serge Blanco and transformed into a hotel.
The Chateau is a fairy-tale Castle. For my blonde companion it is like Beauty and the Beast. Ivy drapes down the stone walls above the large dark wooden, double doors at the entrance of the hotel. The grounds are extensive, light green lawns stretch out as far as you can see. In the middle of the grounds, a vast, green-blue lake. In the restaurant, your table looks out onto the lake. Flocks of ducks mindlessly paddle.
Our room is huge. Wooden floors. A bed measured for a giant king. French doors lead out onto a private, terracotta balcony with a black steel baluster. We crack open a bottle of chilled blanc des blancs.
After a luscious nap, we wander down to the restaurant.
It’s a terribly romantic setting. A quiet, balmy night. Birdsong hangs in the air. We step down the staircase into the restaurant, and take out seats looking out onto the still lake through vast windows.
The restaurant is calmly elegant, with white walls and deep, dark wood floorboards glisten under the soft glow of large, ornate steel chandeliers. It has received one Michelin star, and seems to be attempting to distinguish itself among a host of quality restaurants in the area. I’m not sure whether it does distinguish itself enough though.
The view of the lake is heart-melting, but the space feels more of a wedding venue than a place for a romantic tete-a-tete. It’s too bright, too white, too large. The tables are spaced at huge distances from each other. I enjoy that, as I hate being near people while I eat, but it gives an air of rational functionality rather than intuitive beauty.
The maître d’ is a kind, stooping gentleman. He has a quietly deep voice, which leads us, trance-like, through the local French-Basque fine dining menu.
The menu is classic French fine-dining. Chef John Argaud creates colourful, elegant, and classically French food. The menu draws on local, Basque ingredients. The signature dish is a pigeon pie from nearby Souraïde, crafted into a delicate, flaky sophisticated dish with hazelnut butter. Starters include dodine de canard and foie gras; snails from the midi-Pyrenees, and roast squid from Bilbao.
We start with sushi de maigre sauvage, wild meagre, a French sea fish. It’s firm and tender, a perfectly French fish for sushi. It’s clean meatiness is offset with lobster caviar and citrus cream. The veal fillet melts sweetly, perfectly pink with a truffle jus. Chef creates really wonderful, big, clever flavours which make a visit to the restaurant definitely worthwhile.
The day after we headed to San Sebastian for the remainder of our trip: the epicentre of gastronomic excellence. Looking back now, it’s curious to compare the Biarritz and the French basque country with San Sebastian and the Spanish basque country. They are like two sisters. he Spanish Basque is the younger; lither, more energetic, humorous and mischievous, but can leave you unsatisfied as it flits to the next thing. The French is the elder. Elegant, wise, calmer, and slower, but also more intransigent and bitter. Where you stay dictates what temperament you’ll find. Fortunately, with Chateau Brindos we found only tranquil sophistication.
Chateau Brindos is part of the Relais & Chateaux collection. For more information, including details of activities and services, visit www.relaischateaux.com.