Restaurant Le Socowa, Ciboure France

Literally across the street from the Bay of Biscay, Le Socowa is the  French version of a beach front fish shack. With that in mind, you would expect that organization would not be a strong point, which it is not:  they almost never answer the phone if you call for a reservation and as far as I can tell, they don’t have a website.  Similarly, the service is a bit casual:  the waiters are clearly stretched to cover all the tables on the terrace when the sun is out, chatty and easy-going when the clouds scare away the tourist hoards. But where Le Socowa punches above its weight is in serving very fresh, very simply prepared seafood sourced that day from the fishing boats docked at the port of Ciboure, 5 minutes away.

Consider the meal we had there this spring.  With aperos, crisy croquettes a la morue, moist salt cod barely held together with béchamel sauce, then breaded and deep fried. To accompany a bottle of rosé from the Basque countries, a number of small plates including very fresh sardines grilled on the plancha with only a squeeze of lemon, slow simmered octopus with plenty of Spanish smoked paprika, and anchovy filets, house cured with white wine vinegar and olive oil.  For the main course, a “parillada de mer”, a seafood mixed grill including head on pink prawns, merluchon (the arch-typical white fish of the bay of Biscay, a relative of cod that I think corresponds to “hake” in English) and chiperons (tiny squids cooked whole), all served with saffron rice pilaf and broiled tomatoes. To finish, a plate of Basque sheep’s milk cheese.  All impeccably fresh and very very simple.

Le Socowa is the sort of simple, honest, regional restaurant it is a pleasure to run across when discovering a new city.

Le Socowa
Address: 45 Av. du Commandant Passicot, 64500 Ciboure, France
Tel:  (011 33) 05 24 33 37 05
Reservations: accepted but not really necessary outside the season…in July and August, why are you in a beach town anyway?

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Near Saint-Gladie-Arrive-Munein in the Béarn

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Farm Chicken

French organic farm chicken

One of the difficulties of translating French recipes for the American kitchen is that many of the ingredients are just not the same in France as in America. This difference in ingredients can often mean that getting good results using a French recipe can require a lot of modifications in measurements, timing and techniques.

Take, for example, one of the most basic ingredients, the chicken. In America, when you think of chicken, you think of a round bird with very little fat,  breast meat that represents a significant portion of the overall weight, mild tasting meat in the legs and a skin that is wet and white. This sort of bird has very little to do with a good French farm chicken. Sure it is the same animal, but through breeding, diet and farm practices, American chickens have diverged from their European cousins in ways that are significant enough that they just can’t be cooked the same way.  In my experience, this US/France difference applies also to American farm -raised chickens that are more similar to US intensively raised chickens then to French chickens. Continue reading

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Spring lamb sweetbreads with cream and leeks

Drained lamb sweetbreads after soaking in cold water with vinegar.

Living need the Pyrenees, where sheep’s milk cheese is king, inevitably means spring lamb.  Ewes need to have lambs to continue producing milk, and the male lambs are of very little use on a dairy farm. Thus in the spring, when they are between 30 and 50 days old, the male lambs are culled from the herd and sold as milk-fed or spring lamb. Most of the Pyrenean production of spring lamb goes to Spain, where it is a much anticipated  delicacy.  A good portion finds it’s way onto tables in France.

In passing by the triperie at the Tuesday market…but wait, you say, what is the triperie?  In France, “le boucher” sells meat, including beef, lamb, veal and sometimes pork and poultry He does not, however, sell anything that we would consider offal or specialty meats. These are the purview of “le tripier”, whose offerings include tripes, organ meats (heart, liver, kidneys, sweetbreads, lungs, brains) but also a long list of odds and ends including cheeks, necks, feet, tails, ears and heads. The tripier also sells certain cuts of meat that would seem to be more in the butcher’s wheelhouse, like hanger and skirt steak, don’t ask me why.  If a person makes their own charcuterie at home, you make the acquaintance of the tripier, as he sells, the pork fat, neck, liver and casings that are so vital to that art. Continue reading

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Chez Mattin, still great!

The last time I had the good fortune to dine at Chez Mattin in Ciboure was pre-covid.  This family-run Basque restaurants has been consistently one of my favorites for years, see my recommendation from 2013! But a lot changed during covid, and many wonderful restaurants have either not opened or never re-found their pre-covid form, in terms of hours, services or quality. Thankfully that is not the case with Chez Mattin…if a recent lunch is any indication, they have thrived and are maybe better than ever.

Our recent lunch included a creamy shellfish bisque as an amuse bouche, then a plate of the excellent 2 year old jambon Ibaiana from Maison Ospital, followed by starters of house-made boquerones (anchovies  preserved with vinegar and olive oil) served on Japanese rice (an inspired, if not traditional, pairing) and  tiny Bay of Biscay clams simmered with purple artichokes.  Main courses included veal sweetbreads roasted whole with puree of sweet peas and baby goat cooked two ways, as a roulade stuffed with green chard, and its meaty bones slow simmered with piment d’Espelette.  For dessert, a simple but perfect profiterole with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce.  Yum!

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Preserved and pickled lemons

Salted lemons for pickles

So it all started with a tajine that I saw at the local vide-grenier (vide grenier =”clear out the attic” = garage sale) to support the Calendretta, the local bi-lingual school, which teaches in French and Occitain.  A brand new Emile-Henry tagine, still in its original box, never been used!  Although my experience with cooking Moroccan cuisine is limited, I have always loved eating it and found the tradition and history that surrounds it very appealing. I have never owned a tajine, the quintessential Moroccan cooking vessel;  its peaked top is said to yield the most succulent slow simmered stews by causing all the steamy goodness to condense and drip back into the sauce. But I have always been intrigued to find out if it actually delivered a better result than just using a Dutch oven.  And here was my chance to give it a try. Admittedly, Emile-Henry is 100% French, so not authentically Moroccan, but still, lovely ceramics all the same.  After a bit of haggling, I walked home proudly with a beautiful tajine large enough to cook dinner for six. Continue reading

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Farm butter

Purchased this Tuesday at the farmer’s market in Orthez:  organic butter from the farm Leit de Brunas.  In Béarnais, the name means “milk from the Brunes”, which is fitting for this family-run farm located south of Pau that raises the Brunes des Alps breed of dairy cows.  In addition to butter, their tiny stand in the market hall sells fresh milk, cow’s milk cheeses (their 16 month cow’s milk tomme is excellent) and riz au lait, a traditional rice pudding. And the little molded butters are too adorable!

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Green asparagus from Les Landes were in the market for the first time this spring, a true cause for celebration.  The area of Les Landes is just north of the Béarn, and is known for its sandy soil (and in 2022, for its terrible forest fires!) that is perfect for asparagus. Les Landes asparagus is considered to be the finest in France.

White asparagus arrived the week week before, but I have never really understood its appeal. Les flavorful, more fibrous and more expensive (?!), I generally leave it to those who love it – my apologies if that is you, please feel free to email me and tell me why I am wrong.

Anyway, very fresh asparagus is quick and easy to cook and is done in moments.  Wash the asparagus well, then snap off the tough bottom part of the stem. I dont think that there is any need to peel. I prefer the fat stems, and like them simply steamed with sea salt, pepper, a few tablespoons of water and a big knob of butter.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and cook gently  until the stems are tender but not soft, about 4 minutes. Remove the spears to a warm serving plate, then reduce the cooking liquid until syrupy and spoon over the asparagus.  With a roasted farm chicken, Heaven!

Note, here I have added a bay leaf, as we just completed pruning the very busy bay laurel that grows in our yard, and have dried a bunch for future use.

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First signs of Spring

After the longest of winters, spring always arrives…it just seems to take a long, long time years! So the first spring vegetables to grace the market tables are always a cause for celebration.  Last Saturday, I found spring green garlic, which I snapped up, along with last of the season Jerusalem artichokes.  The two ended up together in a creamy soup, where the sweet, mild flavor of the chokes worked well with the zip of fresh garlic.

A full blown recipe is hardly worth the effort for most soups, as they are so easy and seldom go astray.  I sauteed the whites of the garlic with onions, celery and a carrot, then added the Jerusalem artichokes, just scrubbed and slices, not peeled, then nchicken stock and simmered until everything was very tender.  Season well with salt and white pepper, then add a dollop of crème fraîche and a big knob of butter before blending.   I didn’t pass the soup though a sieve, as I dont mind a bit of texture, but if you prefer a smooth soup, by all means, sieve.

For a garnish, try a saute of chicken livers with the green garlic tops, de-glaze with a bit of cognac and spoon onto steaming bowls of soup!  Miam Miam!

With the remaining green garlic, I tried a very simple side dish of boiled lentils tosses with butter, salt, pepper and green garlic.  After boiling the lentils, drain well, then toss with a generous amount of butters, season, and toss in the thinly sliced green garlic…the residual heat of the lentils will gently heat the garlic and preserve its mild flavor! This was a nice accompaniment to roasted breast of farm chicken.

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Gratin of green chard

Late winter-early spring is a lean time at the farmer’s market (wow, hearing myself say that, it is hard to believe that it is already turning toward spring!).  The last of the fall harvest – winter squashes, pears, apples, onions, garlic – are getting old and a little rough looking.  Spring veggies are still just a pleasant daydream.  Most of what is still coming from the March fields are winter-over veggies like leeks, cabbage, cauliflower and chard.  The limited variety makes it challenging to keep winter meals interesting.

This week, I opted for green chard, looking very colorful on the dull winter farm tables, all fat, juicy stems and smallish leaves. With the exception of Nice, (where the green part is used in ravioli fillings, dumplings and even in sweet tarts with raisons and pine nuts), the French consider the stems the best part of the chard plant, and use it in soups, sautés, in stews and, especially in gratins.

With 24 hours of rain expected, a warm, bubbly gratin seemed somehow just right. I served it with a pan sauteed pork flank steak, which French butchers call the “grillade”. Continue reading

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