The Basque Village of Espelette
How about a little Espeletako biperra? A sprinkle on your sunny-side-up eggs will pop your peepers open at the crack of dawn. A tablespoon tossed in your stew will add zing without cauterizing your taste buds. Incidentally, that’s the Basque phrase for piment d’Espelette, or the Espelette pepper.
The famous piment d’Espelette pods.
Let’s hotfoot it to a red and white Basque village in southwestern France, the source of a chile pepper virtually unknown to American cooking. Espelette, with a population of less than 2,000, welcomes some 18,000 visitors during its annual 2-day celebration. At harvest time, thousands of Ferrari-red peppers festoon almost every building in sight.
An imposing 13th century castle rises above the village. This is Info Central. At the tourist office I load up on maps and brochures, with plans to return for a hardcover book on Espelette and one of the official tee shirts. The staff is friendly and helpful, including English-speaking Stephanie Pagola who warns me that the concert of Basque music (which turns out to be one of the highlights of my trip) is likely to sell out—I opt for a ticket on the spot. Upstairs, I spend an hour at the Peppers of the World exhibit. The display of American liquid fire is woefully limited, so if you decide to visit, consider contributing a bottle of your favorite hot sauce.
I begin my exploration of the fiery side of France with a stop at Dominique and Natacha Etcheverra’s shop. I find glossy peppers strung by hand, pepper puree, and pepper jelly. The traditional powder for which the area is known goes for a little over $4. At Williams-Sonoma, I’ve paid $12.00 for one ounce of piment d’Espelette. Sales are going gangbusters. The Etcheverrias, who produce around 10,000 strings of dried peppers and 24,000 jars of powder yearly, will sell 20% of their products during the two-day fete.
But there is more to the town than just a passion for peppers; Espelette is a walkabout feast. Forget the jammed restaurants—go for street food. I watch as a Basque hunk in a white tee flexes his biceps and deposits a perfectly browned lamb sausage on a foot-long length of crusty French bread. An avalanche of caramelized onions and bell peppers follow. A generous swipe of tangy mustard, a shake of red pepper and voila! The Marguez sausage masterpiece is mine. This is absolutely one of the most delicious creations I’ve eaten in a life filled with good food. Folks here are crazy about sheep cuisine.
Down by the clear-flowing Laxia River, a rousing zikio is in progress. Volunteers tend rows of legs of mutton suspended over a bed of glowing coals. A portly gentleman ladles white beans—a traditional accompaniment—from a kettle. A woman slices baguettes, another butters cakes. Cider gushes from a huge wooden keg, and bottles of local rose wine empty quickly. The barbecue’s proceeds go to support a school where subjects are taught in the Basque language. (Language is central to preserving a people’s heritage, and seeing that future generations learn Basque matters immensely here. The roots of this ancient tongue are lost in time. Toilets are labeled in both Basque and French–the same for road signs.)
Tradition and culture in Espelette are alive and well. On Sunday morning, I set out for its crown jewel, the 16th century church of St. Etienne, for the Blessing of the Pepper Harvest. When I arrive, I find a crowd has already gathered. I am one of the last to be admitted. Inside, I squeeze into a vacant spot along the wall. A procession of girls and young women moves down the aisle. Wreaths of flowers crown their heads. Their long white dresses seem to float, their red espadrilles to barely touch the worn stones beneath their feet.
During the ceremony, two dancers with swords in hand approach the alter. Wearing long-sleeved white shirts and trousers sashed with red, they leap impossibly high—the essence of pure unadulterated masculine grace in motion. What’s the word? Virile.
The performance of the Alaiak men’s chorus is not put on just for tourists. The group’s music is by turns rousing and gentle, but always with a beat that sets the foot to tapping and the body swaying. Many in the audience know the words and melodies. The place is packed with locals.
I see berets everywhere on men of all ages. They are either navy or red—I spy not a single yellow, green, or purple beret. Unlike mainstream France where berets are out of fashion, men here don the distinctive headgear with pride. Whether visitors from Bordeaux or Paris will actually wear their jaunty souvenirs when they return home, those thousands of Basque wannabes quickly deplete many shops’ supplies of berets, neckerchiefs, and Basque flags.
Red-white-green, the colors of the Basque flag, are everywhere. Emerald hillsides rise in tiers to the white-robed Pyrenees. Shaggy white sheep graze, white clouds billow. Cozy homes are white with red shutters, doors, and trim. Once, oxblood was used as paint.
Red and more red: Red peppers everywhere. Garlands of red-peppered sausages links. On a table outside his butcher shop, Rene Massonde displays hams the likes of which I have never seen. Truly magnifique! They are air-dried, rubbed to rich red with Espelette pepper, and weigh in the neighborhood of sixteen pounds. I imagine how fabulous that ham would be with some of my world-class mac & cheese.
Basque hams are rubbed
I taste my way around the town square, stopping at stands to sample almost everything in sight. I try one sheep’s milk cheese after another, and succumb to a particularly tasty version offered me by Jean-Francois Tambourin, surely the best-looking Basque for miles around. I buy a big chunk. I swear I can taste the fresh, pure mountain air. In fact, his herd does spend from July to October in high mountain pastures munching on grass and wild herbs.
By now I am obsessed with trying as many local specialties as I can. Time is growing short. How can I leave without having some Basque butter cakes? They come in three varieties: plain, filled with dark cherry jam, and filled with cream. I have one of each.
Licking the last buttery crumbs from my fingers, I arrive at Le Syndicat du Piment d’Espelette. Here Mademoiselle Barbace demonstrates the art of chile powder analysis. She holds a wine glass to her nose and judges the aroma. She eyeballs the color. She places a pinch of pepper on her tongue, about two-thirds of an inch back from the tip. I, and a half dozen other curious onlookers, follow her example. Yes, there are subtle differences between the products of different growers.
Analyzing the ground Piment d’Espelette.
Do I really need this stuff? Wouldn’t I do just as well back home with, say, paprika mixed with a tad of cayenne?
Those who value authenticity say emphatically non to that. Gerald Hirigoyan, a Basque chef from Espelette, decamped to California where he owns—and cooks at—the popular San Francisco restaurant Piperade. When he couldn’t find the Espelette pepper he needed for authentic Basque cooking, he began importing his own. This year, he will import 500 pounds, some for use in his cooking, some for retail sales. In his cookbook The Basque Kitchen he comments, “Chile powder, even from mild chiles such as New Mexican chiles, smells and tastes smoky and coarse when compared directly with piment d’Espelette. You can substitute sweet paprika or mild chile powder but neither will give the delicate complexity of this spice.”
For hot stuff it’s pleasingly mellow. Terrain and climate are markedly different from New Mexico’s. Here, in the early morning, ribbons of mist linger over pepper plants and the lacy green ferns that share their fields.
A unique product has evolved. Espelette’s A.O.C. status puts a legal halt to copycats. Just as only sparkling wines produced in Champagne can be labeled “champagne,” Appellation d’Origine Controlle restricts the right to label peppers as “Espelette” to 10 villages (currently including 55 producers).
During the festival, pepper farmers
I am staying with one of the growers. At Domaine Xixtaberrie—say that Sheesh-ta-berry—owner Maialen Noblia sets out some 30,000 plants in the environs of her hillside hideaway. Noblia’s partner, Patrice Mourgue, an architect, has transformed a dilapidated early 19th century farm building into a petite guest lodge of considerable style and comfort. Four rooms and a spacious lounge await fortunate travelers.
Late one gray, rainy afternoon I return to find a fire blazing in the huge stone fireplace. The stately grandfather clock, a family treasure, strikes the hour softly. I admire the long polished farm table and browse through the shelves filled with books. I make a cup of tea and pull the bowl of walnuts, complete with cracker and pick, onto my lap. I sink into the sofa, rest my bare feet on the hearth and finish the last chapter of The Basque History of the World.
Pods drying at Xixtaberri, a Basque pepper farm.
Come evening, Mourgue transfers his talents to the kitchen. Here I encounter unfamiliar edibles and discover how intensely satisfying Basque home cooking can be. Nettles, I learn, lose their prickle when cooked. Mourgue purees them and then adds fresh tarragon from the Xixtaberri garden. His nettle soup is delish, somewhat like a cross between asparagus and spinach. One night he gives me a mini cooking class. I learn to make the quintessential Basque dish—piperade.
Canned Peppers. The tablecloth shows
I’m spoiled. I decide to cancel my reservations elsewhere and stay put in this little piece of authentic Basque heaven. It’s the perfect base from which to foray as far afield as historic St.- Jean-Pied-de-Port.
My last morning here, I spread my croissant with the best blueberry jam I have ever tasted—Noblia made it from berries grown not far from my door. I consider trying to squeeze a jar into my suitcase but then eye the weighty consequences of my visit to the festival. I have accumulated sixteen glass jars of pepper powder, puree, jelly, mustards, sauces, and coarse sea salt pepped up with pepper. I tuck some into hiking boots and cushion others with clothes. I will get my stash of pepper home, but unfortunately I can’t pack the entire village of Espelette. Monsieur Massode’s magnificent hams are out of the question. Xixtaberri will stay behind to delight others with its simple pleasures.
Street vendors at the
Still, I’m thankful for what I can take. Memories are my souvenir of choice: a place where one can buy cheese from the hand that made it, buttery cakes from the hands that baked them; girls in white dresses; songs from the soul of a place like no other.
Espelette’s pepper may warm the taste buds, but the village’s charm and traditions warm the heart.
The Harvest Festival
Festival dates: The last weekend in October, every year. The 2003 Festival is October 25 and 26th.
Sunday is much more crowded than Saturday.
Make your first stop the tourist information office in the castle. In addition to maps and information, this is a good source for quality tees, Basque berets and kerchiefs, and books on Espelette. There’s a Peppers of the World museum upstairs. Consider bringing a bottle of your favorite hot sauce (the more obscure the better) for their display.
Cash machines may run out of Euros. Not all food and crafts vendors accept plastic.
Concerts may sell out, so buy advance tickets and arrive early to get a good seat.
The Blessing of the Peppers is memorable. No advance tickets. Arrive an hour and a half early—it’s worth it. Most seats in the church are reserved for locals and participants. When entering the church, move assertively and quickly to the stairs and nab a chair on one of the balconies.
Avoid leaving anything in your car. Be wary of pickpockets in the crowds.
Wear comfortable shoes—there’s a lot of walking.
Bring a travel umbrella, a folding travel cup for water, a tote to carry what you buy.
Nearby parking is limited. You may need to park a considerable distance away, along the highway.
Always say “Si’l vous plait” (seel-voo-play) and “Merci” (mare-cee), please and thank you. If you bump into someone, say, “Pardon” (par-doh), sorry.
Refrain from touching any merchandise, even an apple you intend to buy. It’s bad manners. If you see a piece of pottery, shirt, or an orange you like, point to it and ask, “Si’l vous plait?”
Getting There and Around
Espelette is about 17 miles from the Biaritz airport. It is very convenient to have a car.
Rooms in the town of Espelette are almost impossible to find. For the most memorable visit, stay in a B&B in the countryside or in one of the neighboring villages. Stephanie Pagola at the tourism office can assist you in finding a place to stay. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a friendly, Basque B&B off the beaten track with gorgeous views, go to Domaine Xixtaberri. It’s about a 15-minute drive to Espelette, with four lovely rooms and traditional Basque cooking. See their website (with English option) at www.xixtaberri.fr . The owner speaks English.
For information about the town and festival, go to monpetitvillage.free.fr For outstanding photography click on Fonds d’Ecram. The website is in French.
Espelette Official Tourism Site: www.espelette.com The site is in French but you can write your e-mails in English.
Sources for Espelette Pepper Powder
Gerald Hirigoyen at Piperade Restaurant
www.piperade.com (Click on “Products”)
Williams-Sonoma: www.williams-sonoma.com or retail stores for Igo brand Espelette pepper.
The Basque Kitchen by Gerald Hirigoyen. Harper Collins
By Basque chef, owner of the popular Piperade restaurant in San Francisco. Basque recipes for the American cook. Outstanding colorful illustrations of food and the Basque region. Includes introduction to the Espelette area, Basque history and culture.
The Basque History of the world by Mark Kurlansky. Penguin Books
Fascinating account of the accomplishments, history and culture of the Basque people of Southwestern France and Northwestern Spain.
Editor’s Note: For additional information about the Espelette pepper,
and recipes, see Piment d’ Espelette: The Beloved Basque Chile Pepper