The mountain cuisine of Hautes Pyrenees has both Gascon and Basque flavours. Begin with garbure soup - a thick, slow-cooked broth which can be made from white haricot beans, cabbage and a variety of other root vegetables, sometimes containing small pieces of meat. Cassoulet is a warming bean stew with much the same ingredients including pork, bacon or goose confit. Haricot beans were introduced into Europe by Christopher Columbus and arrived in the Pyrenees via Spain in the eighteenth century. They became a symbol of Tarbes where the quality of the soil gives them their thin skins and delicious flavour. Red label Tarbais haricots are also traditionally served with tender pink AOC Bareges-Gavarnie lamb or conserves of duck and goose preserved with their fat.
Buy breads in all shapes and sizes in country markets to serve in chunks with delicious foie gras, salami, pates and Pyrenean cheeses.
Enjoy the great taste of Noir (black) de Bigorre pork as fine hams, sausages and bacon, or freshly cooked. These pigs are one of France’s most ancient breeds, well adapted to free-ranging in the hot summer pastures of the Pyrenees. They risked dying out in the 1930s as they mature more slowly and carry more body fat than more modern commercial breeds. Now a consortium of breeders and producers monitor and certificate their husbandry which ensures, amongst other things, that the animals free-range all year.
The department’s own red Madiran wine, first made by Benedictine monks at Madiran Abbey in the twelfth century, goes well with these dishes and improves with age. Madiran was introduced more widely by pilgrims travelling the road to Santiago de Compostela, who may well have drunk it to accompany Tarbes goats’ cheese. Visit the cellars of Madiran and Pacherenc in Place d’Eglise, Madiran for a free tasting and if you’re travelling near Sost look for signs anouncing the local cheese makers who sell direct from their premises.
If fish is your preference, try fresh fario (brown) trout caught in local lakes and mountain streams, and there are plenty of good things to please those with a sweet tooth. End your meal with cone-shaped gateau a la broche, made of spongy batter and cooked, as it has been since medieval times, on a spit before the fire. Take home sweets from Lourdes - some made with holy water flavoured with mint or lemons - sugar coated Gaves stones and boiled sweets known as Berlingots were originally made using hot spring water.