Béarn is a former province of France and lies at the feet of the Pyrenees mountains. It's bordered by the Basque provinces Soule and Lower Navarre to the west, by Gascony (Landes and Armagnac) to the north, by Bigorre to the east, and by Spain (Aragon) to the south. Béarn is the home of the beret - you can find the Beret Museum (Musée du Béret) at the entrance to the village of Béarn itself. The Béarn and the Basque regions are mountainous areas, and herders had to travel this rocky terrain with their flocks of sheep. Knitting wool berets would have helped them keep their hands busy while watching their sheep. Once the berets were knitted, the shepherds beat them with "hammers" to turn the cloth into felt. Because the sheep provided brown wool, the early berets were probably brown.
Today, only two companies in France produce berets, and both of them are located in Béarn. It was not until 1280 that the first reference to berets appeared in France - a barely discernible stone figure on a Notre Dame church portal near Orthez, France wears what is unmistakably a beret!
You might think that Béarnaise sauce originated in Béarn but is so named as it is thought to have been first created by the chef Collinet, the inventor of puffed potatoes (pommes de terre soufflées). Collinet had it served at the 1836 opening of Le Pavillon Henri IV, a restaurant at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, not far from Paris. It was named Béarnaise in Henry IV's honour as he was born in Béarn, at the Château de Pau. When Henri IV succeeded to the throne of France in 1589, he was King of Béarn and Navarre. Knowing that his proud people would not relish being absorbed by the French, he declared to them: "I am not giving Béarn to France. I am giving France to Béarn!”
The Romans planted vines in Béarn on the hillsides between Bellocq and Salies-de-Béarn in the second century AD and Béarn owes its origins to the Roman town of beneharnum, (destroyed in 840 by the Vikings) which now lies under Lescar just North of Pau. The discovery of remains of pottery, amphorae, ceramics and kilns for heating salt water to remove salt give a glimpse into Roman life at the time. You may be wondering what salt has to do with it – well, the town of Salies-de-Béarn developed because of salt.
The town has a unique salt water source created by a geological oddity formed 200 million years ago. A legend tells that the salt was discovered when a wild boar killed by hunters fell into the marsh. The boar's corpse was miraculously preserved thanks to the salt contained in the marshes. The salt is thought to be essential to the taste of nearby Bayonne hams (for more information see my blogs Bayonne Ham and Bayonne Ham, the Basque and Gascon Pigs and Recipe.) Béarnais cuisine includes the favourite local dish poule au pot, which, it is said, Henry IV wanted every French family to eat once a week! It is essentially a chicken and vegetable stew, the chicken having first been stuffed with breadcrumbs and preferably Bayonne ham.
Presumably the best wine to accompany the poule au pot would have been the wines of Béarn as both Henry IV and his mother Queen Jeanne d'Albret were extremely fond of them . . .