Basque cake made with a 280-year-old water mill. In the Basque Country of France, a quaint bakery still uses old-fashioned methods to make the region’s beloved shortbread. The sights and sounds of the mills and bakeries keep reaching people. You have to move fast, Gerard Lhuillier told me as I entered the Moulin de Basilor, camera in hand. The cakes are almost ready!
Black cherry jam/ yellow pastry cream
At 08:00 a.m. on a weekday, the quaint bakery in the French Basque town of Bidart is in full swing. Several hands move dozens of round cake pans from station to station in perfect sync. Owner and chief baker Lhuillier stamps the circles on a layer of dough.
Another baker spreads the filling, either with black cherry jam or yellow pastry cream. As the cakes peak, the team teams up to seal the layers with a fork. The sound of metal scraping fills the room. The raw dough rounds, now glazed with an egg brush, are loaded onto wooden planks and taken to brick ovens.
These 150 traditional butter cakes, called gotou basques, are the pride and joy of the bakery. The Gateau Basque has become a symbol of the French Basque Country, a region known for its fierce cultural pride. Like the modern burnt Basque cheesecake that comes from the nearby Spanish coast.
The popularity of Gateau Basque lies in its elegant simplicity and the recent interest of international visitors in tasting a certain regional delicacy. While the exact origins of the recipe are unclear, legend has it that a Basque woman named Marianne Hirigoyen has her to thank for the modern version of her cake.
Originally from a spa town called Cambo-les-Bains, Hirigoyen began making and selling his Ghetto Basque in the Bayonne market around the 1830s. For the next century, the cake remained a traditional dessert eaten after Sunday dinner, as each homemade recipe was passed down from one generation to the next.
When tourists began exploring the Basque Coast in the 1960s, they brought stories of beautiful beaches and a crunchy cream-filled cake that couldn’t be found anywhere else. In recent years, Gateau Basque has become a tourist attraction in its own right, and today the cake is proudly displayed in the windows of local bakeries.
Yet at the Moulin de Basilour, visitors and locals alike come for more than just a taste of the bakery’s signature item: here, passersby can see firsthand how the cake was made generations ago. When the baking craze had almost subsided, Lhuillier led me into the front room of the bakery.
Where thick stone walls joined by wooden beams keep the air cool even in the summer. Two large mills were idle in the middle of the room. From the window I could see that the stream still ran under the bakery. Passersby saw firsthand how the cake was made generations ago.
Lhuillier put a sack of wheat in the hopper. He pulled on a long metal lever and the water flowed out almost immediately. The stones began to roll. What a few seconds ago could have been mistaken for a museum has now vanished in a symphony of clicks and whistles.
Through a crack in the ground, I could see the water splashing violently against the wooden paddle of the mill. A fine, earthy powder came out of the grinding table: the flour that was used in the next day’s cake.
The watermill was built around 1741, Lhuillier tells me, and is in a canal that was dug by hand specifically for that purpose. For nearly 200 years, two simple rooms remained in the mill, with a single oven for a few loaves of bread. Farmers can pay the mill owner to grind their crops.
In 1934, the grandmother of Lhuillier’s wife came to Bidart with her seven children and saw an opportunity. Using her traditional Basque ghetto recipe, she began making and selling cakes to support her family. When she retired, she turned the business over to her son.
Tourists from the Basque Country
In 1994, after receiving training as a mechanic and serving in the military, Lhuillier found himself working in a hardware store. Although he had never baked before, he took the opportunity to purchase the bakery and the original recipes that go with it.
His in-laws were hesitant, but Lhuillier assured them that his love of playing with all things mechanical was a perfect match for the historic operation. In the following years, Lhuillier added a more modern workshop to the bakery and invited an increasing number of tourists from the Basque Country to come see the mill work.
Keeping the century-old watermill in working order isn’t easy, but Lhuillier says it’s been a lifelong project. “I know I will die before I finish everything I have to do and want to do,” he said. “But I’ve already done a lot and that gives me a lot of satisfaction.” It’s unclear what will happen to Mill once Lhuillier is no longer his champion.
He doesn’t see a clear heir, but he says the threat to Mill’s existence goes beyond the issue of inheritance. At the Moulin de Basilour, visitors can see first-hand how the Ghetto Basque was made generations ago.
Since the early 2000s, environmental groups in France have alleged that watermills, even historic mills, bear some responsibility for declining native fish populations. Over the past decade, dozens of watermills have been demolished or otherwise disabled when local governments decide that environmental damage outweighs what is needed to preserve heritage.
“Sixty years ago, there were fish. That means the water wheel didn’t bother them,” he said. “I’m worried that when I leave, the mill will shut down. It’s a fight.” Questions about the future of the steelworks seem like a distant concern during the summer. Customers walk around the mill before heading to the bakery to buy freshly baked goods.
“I’m sending them to Paris!” One woman explained, as the two golden brown cakes of hers were wrapped in white wax paper and tied with a ribbon. While many visitors enjoy the black cherry filling, Lhuillier says the custard flavor is actually the more traditional of the two varieties because it uses the same simpler ingredients found in the batter.
It is a cake from the grandmother’s house with ingredients from the farm: milk, flour, eggs. It is passed down from father to son, she said. In the 1980s, Moulin de Basilor made its own fruit-filled version of the cake with apricot jam. Now, Lhuillier uses the local variety Black Cherry, which is a more traditional flavor. His homemade pastry cream continues to be a bestseller.
“Many bakers season their pastry cream with almonds, but on a farm we would never start adding ingredients that cost a lot of money,” she said. “Our taste is a little rum because there is always a little rum on hand to cool coffee in the Basque Country.”
Lhuillier says his commitment to the simplicity of the recipe keeps the bakery going year after year, and he prides himself on continuing his region’s tradition. We haven’t changed the recipe for over 60 years, but every generation that loves it, she said. He is a Basque from the ghetto who delights a palette of people who come from all over.