“La Belle Auberge”, Castegnede, France
Having grown up reading Elisabeth David, I have always been enchanted with her descriptions of the auberges that populated the countryside of France when she first visited in the 1940’s. The kind of place that one happens across when driving way off the beaten path, where a lunch of well cooked local fish, meat and vegetables can be had for next to nothing, where the dining room is full of beret wearing locals, a socially mixed group ranging from the local plumber to bank tellers to the mayor and his wife. In Elisabeth David’s world, the chef was always an older woman who wore a cotton house coat over her dress and pumps; the servers were always jovial and intuitive and happy to introduce you to the local dishes and wines; and everyone left well fed and happy after a glass of the local alcohol, perhaps, with a little luck, distilled in the families barn across the road. Or most people left, some who were traveling through instead opted to take a comfortable room upstairs from the dining room, because the location was so sweet and the rooms were cosy and well kept by the hard working owners.
Years later, as I have traveled around France, I have begun to wonder if these idyllic auberges have all disappeared. I have had good food, great food even, many experiences I would not trade for anything, but never an experience that makes one feel a man out of time, the way I felt when reading Elizabeth David.
La Belle Auberge in Castegnede has finally convinced me that these places do still exist. People come from miles around for the amazing value of their 13 euro prix fixe lunch. On a recent visit, lunch began with garbure Béarnaise , then followed scrambled eggs served on a bed of spinach, mushrooms and duck gizzard confit, then beef simmered in red wine with carrots served with buttered noodles, then a green salad, then a choice of simple desserts: gateau basque, baba au rhum, salade des fruites etc. All was well prepared, simply presented and delicious. And 250cl of the local Bearnaise wine is include in the price. It borders on the philanthropic.
Located in a tiny hamlet in near the foothills of the Atlantic Pyrenees in the region of the Béarn, not particularly convenient to anything except beautiful countryside and farmland, La Belle Auberge also offers simple rooms, and there is a swimming pool beside the terrace where meals are offered in sunny weather.
I go as often as possible, hoping that, in my small way, I can help assure that simple, thoughtful country cooking continues in France for ever.
La Belle Auberge
Address: 64270 CASTAGNEDE
Telephone: 05 59 38 15 28
Reservations: Definitely needed for lunch, less so at dinner