For the first time, this week, I got to see with my own eyes a medlar tree. The fruits are slowly growing and will be ready to be harvested ripe, only in autumn.
In the Basque Country, this tree is not valued as much for its fruits, but rather for its wood, used to create the typical stick of the region, la makila.
Its origin goes back various centuries and its manufacturing process starts right in the forest, while the branch is still attached to the tree.
It is quite fascinating how an artisan carves over the warm months the branch so that the overflowing sap produces a design. The branch will only be cut in winter when the decoration of the stick has naturally appeared.
The fine work is done with heat, to smooth and straighten the wood.
Braided leather is used to cover the handle that is then topped by a metal grip and a horn knob.
The tip that touches the ground is made of steel. The handle hides a point made also of steel, that might comes in handy while walking the mountains and encountering wolves or bears (for example).
The metal parts have traditional Basque motifs and are used for an engraved short dedication.
These sticks are usually offered as a gift to mark an important event, be it the coming of age of a youngster or visit of a president to the region (Reagan was offered one as well as Pope John Paul II).
These are some cheese (non-exhaustive list) from the SW of France with basic information and where you can see the farm production of each cheese. Check out each AOP (Product Designation of Origin) Route des Fromages, as they will have a drivable route with plenty of relevant places to visit in each area. Please call all farms in advance if you would like to make a visit and be sure to tag us on Instagram @aquitainetravelguide when you go!
Most cheese in France are made from the milk of either a cow, sheep or goat and a rennet will be used to make the curds, which are then pressed into a form and aged for varied lengths of time. The type of animal and what it is feeding on during lactation will change the flavor. Some will have salt washes, some salt rubs…some will be wrapped in linen and others to air dry. All of these different methods (and more) will add the to the unique flavor and texture of the product.
Rennet – the curdled milk from the stomach of a baby cow, the byproduct of veal production, used in the cheese making process to make the curds
Artichoke Thistle (cardoon) – used often in the Mediterranean, one of the many vegetarian options, also less expensive options, available to curdle milk in cheese production
Microbial Rennet – vegetarian rennet alternative, used to curdle cheese in France, derived from molds
Fermier (artisanal) – farmhouse cheese, made with raw milk from cows on the farm (small production)
Laitier – commercialized, large production of pasteurized cheeses / many cheeses will have a pasteurized version for international sale
CHEESES : Locally to Bordeaux, we have small goats cheese producers like Cheverie Dunie in Gajac which makes lovely fresh and aged using vegetarian rennet or La Ferme du Pre Chic in Prechac which makes really young, fresh cheese and goat milk soap. The delicious Tomme de Bazas, from pasteurized cows milk, is actually made closer to the Pyrenees (not in Bazas). Please feel free to share your local favorites below!
Saint Nectaire – cows milk, AOC since 1955, curds the size of corn are placed into a round inox mold for an hour, salted on both sides, wrapped in damp linen and returned to the inox molds. They are stored in 8C-10C for a week before being taken to the aging room (cave d’affinage). Should have a semi-soft rind and soft interior. Visits to a local farm Ferme GAEC de l’Oiseau can be made here or GAEC de la Ferme du Clos here.
Bleu d’Avergne – cows milk, AOC since 1975, first made in 1854 by a roquefort cheese maker, has the blue mold Penicillium roqueforti but a creamier taste to Roquefort. Outside and inside should be crumbly. Aged over sixty days. Visits at La Grange de la Haute Vallee can be made here, which also offer other local AOC cheeses like Cantal and Salers.
Cantal – cows milk, AOC since 1956, one of the oldest cheeses in France and mentioned since Gallo-Romain times. The larger curds are salted en masse and pressed twice then aged from 30 days up to eight months. Exterior should be hard and the interior crumbly in more aged versions. For visits.
Salers – cows cheese, AOC since 1961, and fermier produced from spring to autumn. ‘Tradition Salers‘ is made from hand-milked, Salers cows. At least 300 liters of milk is used for each round of cheese, which is aged around nine months or more. As with other SW cheeses, Henri de La Ferté-Senneterre is a local from Auvergne famous for serving Salers to Louis XIV and finally giving them notoriety even though it has been produced for thousands of years. For visits.
Rocamadour – goat milk, AOC since 1996, familiar small round of cheese that is aged for 12-15 days. Should be white and soft on the inside. Named after the Lot Valley mountaintop village area where it is produced, Rocamadour (also worth a visit). Tours at one of the 90 farms can be made here.
Ossau Iraty – sheep milk, AOC since 1980, traditional cheese of Bearne and Pays Basque. Made during the late Spring and early Autumn months, 5-6 Liters of milk make one kilo of cheese. They are aged from 2 1/2 months up to even 12 months. The Pays Basque age in dry caves while the Bearne cheeses are in a more moist environment, even wrapped in moist cloth, which explains the difference in taste and look of the Ossau Iraty varieties. For visits, you can stop by Farm Gaec Hobiaguehere.
Explore the whole Pays Basque area which includes the production of the tiny pepper piment espellette, which was used as a black pepper alternative in the region, Bayonne with it’s important chocolate history, and the land of a very cute and small variety of horse, Pottoka.
Another cheese in this area, Kukuklu, is a goat cheese and you can do a self guided tour at the farm La Ferme Kukuluhere.
Laguiole – cow milk, AOC since 1961, takes its name from the same little town also famous for their knives, Laguiole. Considered to have a nutty/acidic flavor, from the Simmental or Aubrac cows milk only, aged six to 12 months and should have firm crust with a firm yet creamy center. This is used to make the famous ‘aligot‘ potatoes – a rich dish of cream, potato, butter and cheese. Visits at the Ferme des Claudels can be made here.
Bleu des Causses -cows milk, AOC since 1949, considered the mild variety of Roquefort. Aged from 3-6 months in North Aveyron and Causses’ natural limestone caves and perforated (like other blue cheeses) to allow for mold growth. Ferme Gazenas offers group visits here
Roquefort – sheep milk, AOC since 1925, 4.5 liters makes a 1 kilo of cheese. Named for the region it is produced, Charles the IV in 1411 grated the locals of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon the sole producers of the cheese. The mold, Penicillium roqueforti, is found inside the natural limestone caves where they are aged. Fromagerie Papillon is one of my favorite cheeses, visit the cellar here.
Fourne d’Ambert – cows milk, AOC since 1972, uses the same mold as Roquefort. Generally made with pasteurized milk, there is a small artisanal production which has started. La Ferme des Supeyres makes unpasteurized cheese and you can buy directly from them here. They are also included on the Route des Fromages AOP Auvergne.
If you have ever been to the Alps, you cannot compare the skiing available nearby in the Pyrenees (try going to Andorra in that case). Within three hours from Bordeaux (or Bazas) you can get a wintery experience at either of these nearby locations.*
Piou Piou ESF
Charcuterie for two, with fondue
Gourette : A small, low altitude, affordable, family ski village created in the 1960’s with a good selection of trails
The instructors are really great with kids and introduction lessons for 3-4 year old kids with Ecole du Ski Francais start at 61 EURO for 2×2 hour courses during the weekend. An adult ski pass costs 37.50 EURO for the day. Secured parking is also very reasonable. Adult ski rental equipment from SkiSet starts at 18 EURO a day (13.50 if booked in advance online).
The restaurant selection is OK, you can get cheese fondue with morelles at La Quebotte if you book in advance. Lots of garbure (traditional Gasconne soup) and even palombe are on offer, depending where you dine. There is the Maison Casaux, a cute coffee shop with patisserie, decorated in skiing antiques and mountain bric-a-brac.
There didn’t seem to be an particular hotel but lots of apartment rentals and chalets. There are groceries, cheese shops, bakery and a butcher by foot.
The bad – Outside of skiing, there is not much to do.
Saint Lary Soulan : A charming mountain village with slopes for families and experienced skiers, spas and thermal indoor pools.
The good +Saint Lary and its 58 pistes has a snow park and toboggan run, but so much more…so it’s a great place to go if you have people in your group who don’t want to ski.
There are lessons with ESF for beginners under 5 years, starting at 36 EURO for one 2-hour lesson. Ski passes can be booked online and start at 44 EURO for an adult day pass. Most hotels have free parking and there is plenty on the street as well.
The main town of Saint Lary has a good selection of shops and little stores to buy the gateau a la broche – a delicious cookie/cake that is cooked over an open fire and resembles a pine tree. There is a great selection of restaurants serving everything from galettes to local beef, even wine bars for socializing like Le Balthazar.
My favorite place to stay in the town is the Mercure Sensoria, they have a NUXE spa and decent restaurant attached, lovely lounge area with fire place for after skiing and are just at the bottom of the tele-cabin to the slopes. They are great with kids and offer a small play area with PlayStation and sitting area to read their books. Prices can be as low as 200 EURO a night for a family, but go up in season and tend to book fast. They also offer a pool and play area with thermal spa waters, which is also available to the public.
The bad – It is more expensive than Gourette for the basics and most everything is in the village if you don’t want to ski.