For Easter it was less a chocolate than a lamb celebration for us and Jean Lasalle provides the best at his farm near Hasparren. It must have been 40 years ago when this sprightly and handsome tarbais lad emigrated west to the Basque country and never went home. The Xasi Ardia or basque “bramble sheep" for centuries wandered the hills and mountains of our great pyrenean range and supplied delicious milk for cheese, fine woollen cloth and eventually a bit of mutton for the farmers until the race was replaced by the more productive, uglier and heavier "manech tête rousse" or red-headed John! in the mid 19th century. Once upon a time these red-headed Johns lived in Asia and were smuggled onto the european continent by the saracen hordes who left their mark centuries back on this part of the world and certainly today as these manechs litter the local hills, supplying their millions of litres of sheeps’ milk so that Ossau-Iraty cheese can be shipped to the far corners of the planet while the Xasi Ardia are now a rare breed.
They were even harder to find when Jean Lasalle moved west but he was a determined young lad and went over the mountains where the southern basque, more industrialised than their northern neighbours, worked in the factories during the week days and kept a Xasi Ardia in the back yard for their own pleasure and table. Jean returned with a couple, found some communal fields and forest to rent on the top of a mountain and saved the race.
Of course, we go to visit Jean not just to admire these lovely ladies with their thick coats of wool, woven into ringlets and their delicate stick-thin legs, but because Jean makes them into great food.
Any lush green field will never satisfy the wild nature of the Xasi Ardia who need a rich thicket of fern or brambles (hence their name) acorns and wild rose buds to feed on, which accounts for the exquisite taste of their meat.
You couldn`t call his farm a restaurant, yet we can reserve in advance, sit around a large farm table while Jean cooks you up a plate of 22 fluffy egg mimosas between four of us and as the chickens that laid them peck around our feet, they are devoured in no time. Our easter eggs are followed by plates of sizzling, grilled-rare lamb cutlets accompanied by duck fat-fried frites and a simple txakoli wine. Its wrong to say lamb as these cutlets and any meat that Jean serves, come from a three-year old sheep that has lived a decently long and very satisfying life but we call it lamb because it doesn`t taste of mutton. The meat is fine, delicate and perfumed so why have chocolate!
photos - Jean François