France and Spain’s centuries-old celebration of peace
Elders file into the customs house for French wine and Spanish cheese, while their irrepressible citizenry do an accordion-led conga through what’s left of the marquee, gobbling handfuls of garlic-fried breadcrumbs. The stormthreatened feast has been hastily relocated to Isaba’s frontón, a sports hall where locals play Basque pelota. The mist thins on the drive down: in place of rolling green there is bleak, sheer grey; the forests beneath are of hardy, pointed pine. Halfway to Isaba, the road flattens and I pull in at the Queseria Borda Marengo, home to José Manuel Marco, 230 sheep and some spirited dogs. ‘Don’t stand there being barked at,’ says José, standing at the door in white wellingtons that match his goatee. ‘Let’s go inside, eat my cheese and tell lies.’
José’s kitchen table is soon buried in matured Roncal produce. Some of it is reminiscent of Jean-Marc’s brebis (‘Yes, similar – but of course superior!’), some is like nothing else on Earth. As we slice and chew, José confirms that on this side of the border, shepherding, and all old-school agriculture, is in steep decline. ‘There were plenty of shepherds when I started at 22, but now we’re just three, and the youngest is 46. There’s so much land for us down here that we don’t need to go up in the mountains any more.’ He picks up an elaborate boxwood spoon from the table. ‘I’m still milking sheep at 10pm, and when I finish my reward is to carve these by hand – young people just won’t live that life.’
José says he’s got too much on to attend this year’s tribute feast, but he’s a veteran of many gone by. ‘Before they built the mountain road in the 1970s, getting up there meant an overnight walk,’ he says. ‘Apart from the mayors, not many bothered and, if you did, you’d earned that bowl of stew – and a skinful.’ As a pair of sprightly Isaban octogenarians later confirm, those charged with ferrying the feast up the mountain often felt entitled to refresh themselves to dangerous excess en route.
Girdled by lofty crags and packed with cobbled alleys, Isaba feels extremely distant from the French towns just over its steep doorstep. Only 450 people call it home, and by the time I arrive most are already sat at trestle tables between the fronton’s echoing green walls. Courses come and go in a blur, made more blurry by endless mayoral toasts of Navarran wine and the sloe-flavoured liqueur patxaran, a source of ruination for many visitors. Isaba’s mayor, Angel-Luis de Miguel, talks me through the centrepiece dish, caldereta – a hearty mutton stew that has fuelled shepherds on both sides since before the treaty was signed.
A band launches into the first of many accordion-heavy Basque favourites, but Angel-Luis is reluctant to align himself with the separatist movement, or to trouble his guests with the hacking ‘Zs’ and ‘Xs’ of Europe’s oldest language. ‘Me and Pierre,’ he says, raising a glass at his friend across the table. ‘We’re not French, Spanish or Basque. We are men of these valleys and mountains. The tribute is one day a year, but our hands are always on that stone.’