Postcard from Saint-Jean-de-Luz (or An unexpected encounter with a Peking Duck in the Basque Country)

I think it is safe to say that Peking Duck is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of the Basque Country. 

Famous for its strong cultural identity, this little part of France on the Atlantic border with Spain is inhabited by a rather ingenious people who has managed to turn every single specificity of its landscape and agriculture into a money-making venture.

Much of the landscape is mountainous or too hilly for cows to live comfortably. It rains a lot, so the high humidity produces grass that sheep are particularly fond of. Result: sheep cheese. Lots of it. Almost exclusively so. Basque Marketing Claim #1: It is the best kind of cheese to have (I suspect that 100 years ago, it was pretty much the only kind they had, but I have no scientific evidence for this).

The area is full of cherry trees. There are millions of cherries every summer. People eat cherries, eat more cherries, make cherry jam, use cherries in their Gâteau Basque… Wait a minute… How about we serve cherry jam with sheep’s milk cheese? After all, we’ve got lots of both. Basque Marketing Claim #2: The best way to eat Basque cheese is with Basque cherry jam.

The weather in the Basque country is rain alternating with hot sun. All sorts of capsicum plants like this climate. 

The hot kind, grown in and around Espelette, is dried in long, decorative strings hung from roofs and balconies and sold either whole or ground to a pretty red powder. Basque Marketing Claim #3: Piment d’Espelette is the best kind of chili in the world which totally justifies its price tag. Deal with it.

The mild kind – or “peppers” – grow in abundance, too, which means that one must find different ways of getting rid of of eating peppers, like Piperade (onions, peppers, Piment d’Espelette, tomatoes), Poulet Basquaise (chicken with onions, peppers, Piment d’Espelette, tomatoes and garlic), Thon à la Basquaise (tuna with…), Chipirons à la Basquaise (squid with…) Basque Marketing Claim #4: Everything tastes better with Basque peppers. 

These are just a few examples, but there is more.

The département in which the Basque Country is situated is #64, les Pyrénées Atlantiques. Somebody had the genius idea of taking that number, drawing a circle around it and turning it into a brand. T-shirts are sold for an absolute fortune, bumper stickers, baby-gros, beach bags… with nothing more than the number 64 in a circle. You have to admire that! Basque Marketing Claim #5: You are a cooler person if you are from the 64.

The Basque language is an essential part of the local culture. Street signs are in both French and Basque. Bilingual schools are everywhere. Basque sports, like la Chisterra and la Pelota – a kind of local squash played outdoors against a pink wall – are alive and well and top players are celebrated like heroes. Tug of war is a local sport for real men, not to be mistaken for a game played on school sports days.

L’Express wrote a paper on what they called “La folie du made in Euskadi” (the made in Basque Country craze) in 2007. And the fashion has not declined since. In fact, tourists will pay top dollar for a keyring with a surfboard on it (Biarritz is a famous surf spot), a baby bib with a Basque cross on it, a cotton teatowel with a red chili on it, a T-shirt with the tongue-twisting word Kukuxumusu (literally “the kiss of the flea”) on it… the range is impressive. Basque Marketing Claim #6: Why charge 10 Euro when you can charge 25?

I love the Basque Country. The coast is beautiful. The houses are large and with a real aesthetic unity. The bar scene is great. The food is nice. The wine is excellent…

And the people have a fabulous sense for business!

So in the light of all these specialities ( I haven’t even mentioned the Tuna Festival, the Sardine Festival, the Bayonne Ham Festival, the Chocolate Festival…), the Peking Duck came as a bit of a surprise.

I came to visit a friend in Saint-Jean-de-Luz for a family event and found her husband in the kitchen with a duck and a bicycle pump. I think my face expressed this: “???

My friend is French, her husband English, and they had access to the diversity and the quality of London restaurants for many years before moving to a semi-rural town with a population of 13,000, half of with are retired. In Saint-Jean-de-Luz, getting their hands on “proper” Peking Duck was simply impossible. So Piers decided to learn how to do it himself.

The recipe is taken from a cookbook that is out of print and can, apparently, only be purchased second-hand. Its title is The Complete Asian Cookbook and is written by Charmaine Solomon.

 

What you need:

one 2,5kg duck

2 teaspoons of salt

 80ml vodka (or gin)

3 tablespoons honey

700ml water

6 slices of fresh ginger

What to do:

  • Wash the duck and pat dry with kitchen paper
  • Marinate it in the vodka, turning the bird frequently, for at least 4 hours
  • Dissolve the honey in some water and rub the duck all over
  • With the infamous bicycle pump and a needle used for inflating rugby balls, “inflate” the duck in order to lift the skin from the meat. This might take several attempts. 

  

 

  • Truss the duck and hang it in front of an electric fan for 4-14 hours (my friend’s husband did this in the bath tub)

 
     

  • Preheat the oven to 190ºC
  • Place the duck on an oven rack above a deep oven pan filled with water. This creates steam and keeps the bird moist
  • Cook for 30 minutes, then lower the heat to 150ºC and roast for another hour.
  • Bring the heat back up to 190ºC and roast until the skin in crispy and the meat is tender

Remove the duck from the oven and cut into pieces (It should practically fall off the bone).

Serve with Mandarin pancakes and thin slivers of spring onions and cucumber, accompanied with Hoi Sin sauce.

    You can make the pancakes, as my friend used to, but they take about 90 minutes to make and are readily available at Asian shops. (If you wish, I can put that recipe on the blog, too. Just drop me a line.)

      
    Here’s the chef in action. Not very Basque, I admit, but the best home-made Peking Duck I have ever tasted.

    On dagizula! Bon appétit! Enjoy your duck…
     

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