As M.Otxoa leads our small group out of town and into the green fields, flashes or red appear in a distance, . We make our way down the narrow grassy path as the spicy aroma of dried peppers intensifies. M. Otxoa points out the drying house on our left. Don’t worry, he tells us, we’ll come back after we’ve visited my pepper plots.
Not even ten minutes out of town and we’re standing amongst the plants decorated with shiny, cone-shaped red peppers ready for harvesting. M. Otxoa begins his tour with a history of this South American pepper that is now grown in Espelette, France, close to the Spanish border.
1 – The Small Village of Espelette
In the small Basque village of Espelette, just twenty minutes inland from the resort town of Biarittz, the streets are lined with half-timbered, white-washed houses, decorated with colorful red or green shutters and…yes, strings of hanging red peppers.
Espelette is fiercely proud of its pepper heritage and the traditional methods of growing and drying them. An expression from this area, “l’argent de piment’ – pepper money – gives us a sneak peek into the history of this plant.
2 – Red Peppers of Espelette: A Woman’s’ Job
In years gone by, women would string 20 to 24 peppers on kitchen twine and drape them on their homes facades or shutters to dry during the winter months. It was the Basque women who took the time to baby the plants. They planted the peppers in various places to determine the best spots for growing them. They tried “selective breeding” until finally hitting upon the perfect specimen called “Gorria”.
From start to finish – by growing, drying, grinding and then selling their wares – they were able to have their own “pepper” money and greater autonomy over their lives.
3 – Hanging Espelette Peppers – An Ongoing Tradition
The tradition of stringing and hanging the pepper remains today. Many houses in Espelette are festooned with the long, pepper necklaces that start as bright red and mellow into a darker, burgundy color.
M. Otxoa leads us back to the drying house where we are greeted by an intense aroma of roasted pepper and the sight of mesh tables with drying peppers. We’re surrounded by pepper garlands hanging from the ceiling. He explains that the locals have a great respect for the traditional drying method but obviously because of the length of time, it would be impossible to make a living doing it that way.
The newer method of laying the peppers flat speeds up the process and allows the farmers to be more productive. He also explains that the piment d’Espelette is protected by an AOC (an assurance of local quality). The label guarantees that strict rules for growing, drying and grinding have been followed.
Back in town, (each with a red pepper in our pockets), we stop by a little boutique to stock up on the piment d’Espelette powders and purees. They’ll make perfect and easily portable gifts for friends and family back home. And great for adding a zing into our cooking! (See Olivier’s own recipe of BBQ lobter with Espelette pepper or the traditional recipe for the Axoa d’Espelette)
If you too would like to discover Espelette, why not consider a stay at Myriam’s home in Pays Basque to better your French? Here is more info about French Immersion Residential courses.
If you enjoy learning French language and culture in context, check out French Today’s downloadable French audiobooks: French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided French pronunciation.