Surfing in the cote Atlantique
26.06.2014 - 28.06.2014 24 °C
A couple of days before going to Toulouse an email landed in my inbox at just the right time – a family in Helette in Pays Basque (very South West of France, even closer to the Atlantic coast than Oloron-Saint-Marie) were looking for help with their gites and guests asap. Great, this was the right area of France to start my travels up along the West coast.
I would be staying with Tony & Jane, an English couple in their 50’s who had inherited a ‘maison fort’ (a really really big house that would have been purpose built semi-fortified to protect somebody important) and moved permanently to France 15 yrs ago raising their kids there. The house was originally built in the 13th century (or before) with Tony recently renovating and transforming many rooms and bathrooms into effectively separate apartments with a large dance/yoga space to rent out as BnB accommodation and also to larger groups for yoga programs and as a concert venue etc.
- For those interested, here is their website with some good pics inside the house
I received a warm welcome as soon as I walked in the front door but after seeing the look of stress on Jane’s face as she was busily preparing dinner for 10 I dropped my bags immediately and jumped in to help her cook. For the following 5 days we were making 3 course lunches and dinners for a group attending a wellness weekend of yoga and massages. This group happened to include the local French founders of Quicksilver & Roxy - they brought the franchise over from France in the 80's. It was a LOT of fun, we all ate together, the meals became more casual each day and Jane was really happy to have new ideas and a second opinion on her very vague meal plan. I was stoked to have access to a fully stocked kitchen again ! (Seriously, I had no idea how important having a somewhere to prepare food was to me until I didn't have one. I especially miss spiced-up and spic-y food like Indian and Thai. So I do now carry ground piment d’espelette with me ).
I For a couple of days I did some work around the garden, digging trenches and shoveling compost, straw and soil to plant a new tomato bed, and checking out the health of the beehive with Tony...
No matter how friendly and caring hosts are, it makes a world of difference to the atmosphere to have more people around generally, ‘work-time’ can be much more enjoyable and of course buddies to hang with in free time. Besides, as warm as they are, Jane and Tony were a little intense for me on my own. I was very happy that after week 1 I was joined by another 2 helpers arrived – Irish Carl & South African Sean.
Carl – sweet but totally lost in his place and purpose in the world, even more so than me. At 24 he had already done a fair amount of travel but he was a daydreamer and really danced to the beat of his own drum as the saying goes. Perhaps could benefit from a stay in a Sadhana Forest type community !
And Sean, what a lovely guy. Deep, thoughtful yet open. A genuinely good person who can appreciate the little things in life. We had a few very interesting talks about relationships, karma and positive thinking/ law of attraction and more unusual topics like drug-induced meditation (and not the typical drugs you may be thinking of). He can think outside the box, the kind of person I’d love to have on speed-dial to ask a second opinion on anything. Oh and he’s just a bit good looking!
It is incredible how many people I am meeting from all walks of life.. I love talking to all of these interesting people and finding out their 'story', their beliefs and opinions and what shaped these. Some have travelled extensively (they are usually the more 'easy-going' ones), some have been through very tragic or traumatic events. Most are very particular about the way they run minor details of theor life, often to the point where they're hard to live with.
Many do have similar beliefs and ideas to me but a few have very different beliefs and values. I have met perhaps one person so far who is on a similar wavelength to me.
So apart from studying the psychology of people, my 3 weeks in Helette were the busiest and most profitable thus far. When I wasn’t cooking or digging a new tomato patch I got lifts into coastal towns like Saint Jean de Luz (the Eagle Bay of France’ SW) and re-visited Biarritz and Bayonne.
A couple of times we drove into Spain to do a bit of food and supply shopping – as you do – since everything is a bit cheaper there and we were just 30 mins from the border plus a one-off visit to San Sebastian to collect her daughter Melissa. Only time for a quick tapas lunch but it was worth it.
Socially it was a great scene too, a village fete in Espelette and a music festival at another village in the same weekend, plus a date with L, a guy who attends the weekly yoga classes at the house. Well it didn’t start out as a date (or so thought) but quite rapidly morphed into one, thanks to the subtle and not so subtle powers of seduction the French are famed for... Here’s a light run-down of how they do it – just speaking French (of course), smiling and laughing a lot, even at his own jokes, talking about his past and admitting he’s very sensitive (while exposing killer arm muscles and a six-pack through a tight t-shirt), insisting on walking the beach promenade even in dodgy weather and generally being friendly toward other people around us. I dare say he’s also had a lot of practice staring into girl’s eyes too. Damn. Shame he just wasn’t my type. Amongst other things he was a smoker who also had a weed addiction - Not uncommon in this area actually, Tony was also a fan of weed smoking when the opportunity arose and didn’t have an issue with his 18 year-old daughter par-taking either!
Something else exciting happened in my final week in Helette. Jane received a phone call from a UK Channel 4 producer, looking for people to interview for a program about British ex-pats living in Pays Basque. The wanted to interview them and other English people in the area and mentioned a dinner that we could all go to in Cap Breton the following week if we wanted to (at our own cost). So following the phone call this email arrives, mentioning that the name and location of the restaurant cannot be advised at this point due to the “World famous chef” that will be there…
Ok so of course I’m the most excited person in the house now, and we all start speculating… Is this chef going to be cooking or a guest? Is it related to the afore-mentioned travel program or completely separate? It HAD to be a UK chef – Blumenthal? Ramsey? Raymond Blanc?
Hahaha I hope I have you all in suspense now ! It actually didn’t take much research as the beans were spilled in a UK paper article a few days later.
Fast forward to the following week.
I had already made plans to leave Helette and continue North along the coast. I had pre-booked a 1 week surf school / camp much further up the coast in Carcans to start on the Saturday 21st June so I left Helette that day. The dinner was on the Tuesday 24th at a resto called ‘Le Deck’ in Cap Breton, closer to Bayonne.
I didn’t want to miss it. This would be a one-off opportunity.
So what does any self-respecting foodie do?
Hire a car from the town next to Carcans. Drive almost 2.5 hours back down to Cap Breton to join Jane, Tony, Melissa, Shaun and Carl at the resto. Enjoy a pretty damn good 3-course meal with... Gordon Ramsey! Well no we didn't actually dine with him, he was roaming the room every now and then (no swearing or yelling heard by us by the way) for filming of his final series helping to improve restaurants that aren’t performing well. Then leave at midnight to drive 2.5 hours back to camp, through pretty dark and scary pine forest.
Yes I did it.
It was one of those things, if I let it go I would have always wondered...
(sorry only food pics... I didn't dare take photos around me in inside the resto, and the only one i got outside has cars blocking most of the view)
I wish there was a whole evening of excitement to relay to you, but it was actually reasonably low-key. The camera didn’t visit our table so you won’t see me on tv giving an educated critique (oops, I mean 'opinion' hahaha - and can you believe it! I came so close but perhaps its not my calling after all) but it really didn’t matter. I’m not particularly a fan of GR and I didn’t really want to be on TV amongst the Pommy diners – if you’ve seen their tv shows you’ll know what I mean.
It really was fun regardless. There was a buzz in the air, conversation was great, the 6 of us had a fantastic night out and the food was excellent.
[This TV series is a spin-off of ‘Ramseys Kitchen Nightmares” and will be called “Ramsey’s Costa del Sol” – instead of visiting properly shit restaurants, this time he goes to restaurants that already are doing lots of things right – good location, good food etc – but just aren’t reaching their potential.]
For what it’s worth, here IS my opinion. The food and service were great, no issues there. So was the price, more than reasonable for the quality of the ingredients, presentation and portion size. The choice of dishes was also excellent (although they had run out of 2 of the specials). The blindingly obvious thing that needs to be overhauled is the décor and the presentation of the staff. From the outside it looks like a cocktail bar and possible disco aimed at 18 year olds from Essex in England. All that can be seen from the street is large signage in fluoro pink over the top of that linoleum wooden-slat look above the outdoor bar to the side. Suitable perhaps for a themed English sea-side chip-butty hotspot or American 50’s roller-skate hamburger diner. To match this, the waitresses were also dressed like they were Essex girls going clubbing. A few wore fluoro yellow or pink tops, black skirts barely covering their arses and fashion high-heeled trainers. We weren’t on the beach, we were on a marina and wait staff wouldn’t get away with this anywhere else. Now I realise that in Summer this town is crawling with UK tourists but they also have to appeal to locals (just a reminder, we are still in France) and the food and décor just don’t match at all. Judging from the outside you would never dream that the dishes coming out of the kitchen and the internal décor could be as fantastic as it is and I certainly would walk on in search of another place to eat.
So there you go. I can’t wait until this airs to see if that’s what Gordon gives them grief over!!!
Local article on the visit. Sorry, it is in French.
Meanwhile, the rest of the week at Carcans surf camp was good fun and a nice break in worrying about choosing hosts to stay with and if I’m going to like the work and lifestyle at the next place. The instructors were all young and very good, with gorgeous bodies! I AM able to stand up on a surf board, just. And I made a couple of good friends, including new instructor Emily from Ireland and got to do yoga twice every day as well since we were a small group of 10. I’m keen to keep practising surfing when I get the opportunity again even if it’s not until I return to Oz. Especially as I have discovered a wetsuit really does keep one warm and cosy in the water.