Neeti Mehra sneaks into the sleepy lanes of a French hamlet to smell a pungent spice.
It’s a piquant palate’s dream come true. Fleshy chillies, the colour of a sober ruby, are wound up in bunches and strung up on facades of homes and shops, like Rapunzel’s flaming locks. Stretching from the tops of roofs till the reddened earth, they fill the air with a pungent spice each time the breeze blows.
Some of the piment d’Espelette, as they’re known in French, are the length of my palm, and many are thicker than my thumb. In this chilli wonderland I can’t wait to try what lies beneath their waxy skins.
Espelette, a lovely village in France’s Basque Country, also known as Le Pays Basque, is swathed in the region’s traditional colours of red and white. Espelette draws its name from a noble family of Navarre, the barons of Ezpeleta, masters of the village till the end of the 16th century.
Fading away into the annals of history, the barons’ modest castle stands testament to their reign. The second most illustrious resident of the village is the noble family’s namesake: The Espelette Pepper that’s thrived robustly since it was first planted.
A non-native, the pepper had set sail on the high seas with Christopher Columbus, accompanied by a Basque sailor, all the way from Mexico in the 16th century. It eventually made its way to Espelette. This fiery, if fragile, denizen of France has been assigned an AOC status, a French certification recognising its salubrious savouriness. It’s a mouth-watering fact to consider.
A spicy store
I follow Carine, who’s been showing me around, into l’Atelier du Piment, on the outskirts of the village, where Ramuntxo Pochelu, a Basque pepper farmer has been making edible delights with the piment. I push my way through formidable pepper curtains, past shelves stacked with produce pounded out of the chilli — jellies, powders, and flavoured meats.
Nibbling my way through, I sample blazing pepper caviar, sweet peppery jelly, and a piece of peppery dark chocolate. Piment d’Espelette is a versatile condiment. With each spoonful a spicy sweetness fills my mouth, leaving my eyes watering and my tongue tingling, just like pepper back home.
My nose leads me straight to Ramuntxo’s pepper farm. It’s a small, fairly bald patch of land, hemmed in by his homestead. Vines with drooping tendrils and delicate flowers grow in neat beds at regular intervals.
Still green in colour, the peppers hardly look dangerous in the spice department, puny in the face of their decorative brethren.
Planted in spring, they’re plucked by hand as soon as they turn a shade of deep blush, the harvesting season beginning in the middle of August. They were strung out for a year traditionally, says Carine, till the peppers turned into a deeper, richer hue, a process of drying followed no more.
These days the pepper braids dangling off buildings are purely ornamental instead of the former sun-basking piment soaking in the warmth for a meaningful culinary end.
Town of tales
Before long we’re walking through the quaint Basque town peppered with more peppers than people. I admire pepper-shaped jewellery, rifle through pepper-decorated linen, and even sneak a glance into a pepper-decorated lavatory!
Carine shares nuggets about this sleepy hamlet. The first Miss France, selected way back in 1920, Souret Agnes, lived here, but she’s not the only resident siren of Espelette.
Laminaks, nature spirits in the form of beautiful women, and elves are other dwellers of the Basque region, living under rocks or in caves.
These industrious faeries help out village folk in exchange for food and presents. It’s a delightful tale and I half expect to see a laminak lurking around the cobbled pathways. After all, who would give up flavoursome treats in the land of chilli?
Feeling peckish, we head to the Hotel Restaurant Chilhar for a meal in a palpably green garden under the shade of a blossoming cherry tree. Around us, peaks separating France from Spain frame the horizon.
I settle down for a meal of veal, local Irouléguy red wine, and piperade, a tasty Basque dish made from onions, tomatoes, green peppers and lots of red hot Espelette pepper. From a distance, beyond the stately Mondarrain Mountain, I know the helpful laminak are watching over me.
HOW TO GET THERE
Espelette is about 25 km away from Biarritz Airport, a short picturesque drive. Air France currently offers 18 weekly direct flights from Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore to Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. It also has convenient connections to Biarritz from the Paris-Orly and Lyon Airports.
For more information, visit www.airfrance.com