Taste the piquant peppers of Espelette, try a game of Basque pelota and spot pilgrims travelling along the Camino de Santiago
Neat rows of plump red peppers, threaded onto thin pieces of twine, hang from the matching red timber struts of an immaculately-kept house in the Basque village of Espelette. The shutters are painted the same shade, and pots of scarlet flowers add another pop of colour to an already arresting scene. The villages of France’s Pays Basque have their own unique visual identity, even using an angular font to spell out the names of houses and shop signs in what is one of the oldest languages still spoken in Europe.
Culturally the Basque region shares as much with neighbouring Northern Spain as it does with France. While traditionally French food features little spice, the Espelette pepper is a cornerstone of Basque cuisine. In the village that gives it its name, peppers adorn most houses, hanging to dry in the sunshine. Every Wednesday, at the indoor market, stallholders display produce in a kaleidoscope of fiery shades: jars filled with pepper salt, piperade (a stew made with onions, green and Espelette peppers and tomatoes), and powdered peppers, all neatly lined up for sale.
At Boutique Bipertegia, her shop on Espelette’s village square, Véronique Darthayette lays out various samples on the counter. “The Piment d’Espelette has a lot of virtues, and isn’t really a very spicy pepper,” she says. “On the Scoville scale, it is at 4/10 – compare that to a Caribbean red pepper, which is at 8 or 9/10.” The Espelette pepper is to Basque cuisine what black pepper is to French, she explains. “We use it in every dish – even some desserts. It’s a lot more digestable than black pepper, much less aggressive.” Peppers are so important to this village that church services are held to ensure a good crop, and the product is celebrated with an annual Espelette festival.
The Basque climate is also different to that found in the rest of France: the region gets double the amount of rain, turning it a uniformly luscious shade of green. Above Espelette looms the jagged peak of La Rhune – locals say that when there’s a cloud over this mountain, it’s going to rain and when there isn’t, it’s going to rain too. Cutting through the landscape, with its abundance of ferns and fields filled with neatly geometrical rows of corn, is the twisting road to the neighbouring village of Sare. On the verges, sheep and little Basque horses – called pottoks – graze the grass.
Sare has the Basque trilogy of church, town hall and fronton: a single-walled court used for pelota, a game not unlike squash. Today, two amateurs have a go, wielding wooden palettes to whack the ball against the wall and, on the bounce, contorting their bodies to avoid a forbidden backhand. Eventually over-exerted, they slump under the shade of a plane tree.
A little further east, in a cafe window in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a poster advertises a professional pelota match on tonight at the town’s fronton. In this small, lively place spread across the banks of the Nive de Béhérobie river, talk at the pavement tables is of the match. Weary passing hikers pause to take a table, lowering their bags to the cobbled floor. Scallop shells hanging from their backpacks mark them out as pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago route. Most stay to tuck into galettes with piquant piperade – for now, their mission can wait.
On the village of Sare’s main square, stone-built hotel-restaurant Arraya dates back to the 16th century and remains traditional in appearance, with wooden shutters and cream walls. There are 16 rooms, the most luxurious of which have balconies opening onto the manicured garden below. Bedrooms are country in feel, with antique furniture and luxurious fabrics.
Buy Espelette pepper products at Bipertegia.