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Pepper, Pepper, and Espelette pepper. The Basque pepper. With a touch of Armagnac thrown in.
Article Category - Food
On the Last weekend of October each year the pretty picturesque Basque town of Espelette explodes into life. Throughout the summer months this small town of some one and a half thousand souls is the host to hordes of tourists all faithfully following their tour guides, stopping to buy a garland of peppers or a jar of the pepper powder or even a box of chocolates flavoured with the 'Piment d'Espelette'. The reason for all the tourist activity and for the amazing whirl of activity in the end of October are the same. That reason being a 10cm long pimento or chilli pepper, the Espelette Pepper or Piment d'Espelette.
It is believed that this plant was introduced into the region by Gonzalo Percaztegi in 1523. Percaztegi was a Basque navigator and a native of the town of Espelette which straddles a hill top overlooking the valley of the Nive in the Basque region of S.W. France. Having accompanied Colombus on his second trip to the Americas Percaztegi returned to his home town and, introduced both the peppers and corn (maize) to the region.
Pepper in the 16th century was a luxury and Black Pepper commanded such a price that it was even occassionally used as a substitute currency. The arrival of the American Pimento and Chilli varieties was therefore welcomed and it was not long before many different strains were being grown in Southern Europe, the Middle East and India. The strain brought by Percaztegi to Espelette prospered there and has slowly mutated over the centuries until it has become the Piment d'Espelette beloved of the Basque people and used at each and every culinary opportunity. This piment(o) is not particularly strong, in fact it only rates as 4 on the 'Scoville' pepper strength scale. What it does have, however, is a unique and delicate slightly sweet flavour, with a smoky tang to it which compliments so many different foods. The range of recipes and products using this resourceful pepper are amazing. From strings of dried peppers through powdered pepper, pepper flavoured mayonnaise, mustard, marmalade, barbecue sauce, pizza sauce and then onto Chicken dishes, fish, pork, veal, even salads tossed in a little 'Baskari Bixia' (piment and herb flavoured oil) and chocolates all get the Piment d'Espelette treatment. These versatile peppers even get used as kitchen decorations!
The locals are so proud of this remarkable plant that they have even managed to gain for it the coveted 'Apellation Controlee' (AOC) status. This means that you cannot call a pepper product Espelette pepper unless it is produced within the confines of the tightly controlled region made up of ten villages. These villages have in total just under 60 registered producers who are entitled to use the coveted AOC Piment d'Espelette. The villages or small towns are currently, Espelette, Ainhoa, Cambo les Bains, Halsou, Itsassou, Jatsou, Laressore, St. Pee sur Nivelle, Souraide, and Ustarritz. The total growing area is about 3,000 acres.
On the last week end in October the inhabitants of Le Pays Basque or Basse Navarre have their festival in celebration of this remarkable plant and it's many uses. La Fete au Piment, the Espelette Pepper Festival a two day 'full on' pagent of music, dance, awards ceremonies, and of course, eating and drinking. The basic rules for attending this event are, firstly get there early or be prepared for a long walk because by 10 a.m. cars are parked along the road for up to a mile outside the town. Be prepared for a long day, it's not a very big town but it's packed with people and it can take you 20 minutes just to walk along one street of 100 yards. Start at the town hall (Marie) where the local tourist office is based, that's easy to find, it's the castle just off to the right of the main street. The staff there are friendly and helpful and normally one or two of them speak some English. Having armed yourself with a few brochures and the carte de ville (town map) you are on your way. Most of the streets are lined with stalls selling everything from food and wine to clothes objet d'art and some amazing trivia as well.
Most of the houses in the town are festooned with garlands of peppers the streets are packed and there is an ambiance which can only be described as jovial, content, and relaxed. No one hurries here, nobody could hurry even if they wanted to, the pace is the pace set by the slowest. So just chill out. Stop at a stand selling 'Talos' the traditional Basque maize flour tortilla.
Take your time, watch the ladies rolling out and hand finishing your talo before handing it to be grilled over a charcoal barbeque by one of the male assistants. Isn't it strange it doesn't matter what nationality is involved it's always the men running the barbecue! To finish it off you can have a filling of smoked bacon, cheese, or chocolate. Suitably refreshed you can now make your way past the stalls, loaded with fresh bread, cheese, wine, olives and other preserved pickles, Bayonne ham, Armagnac. Take your time, take every opportunity to enjoy a tasting (degustation) and, remember, always compliment the stallholder. They're not too bothered if you don't buy but those compliments are all important. Also the more you ask the more you get, they want to talk about their product they are in love with it, it's their passion so ask away.
Early on the Sunday morning is the time for the ceremony of the blessing of the pepper harvest. It takes place at the16th century church of St. Etienne. Young women and girls from the town dressed in flowing white dresses with their hair adorned in garlands of white flowers move forward down the aisle. Their feet are shod in red high laced espadrilles and seem to scarcely touch the floor. As the ceremony progresses it is the turn of two young men to make their entrance, they carry swords and are dressed in white with red sashes and red kerchiefs. The swords flash as they leap and twist in the air. The energy that they put into the dance and the love of dance of the Basque people is truly amazing as is the power and clarity of the 'Alaiak' men's chorus. Known throughout Basse Navarre this group of, mainly middle aged, men command an audience wherever they appear and it is wonderful to be there as the audience slowly joins in, their feet tapping and mouths gently shaping the words. Music and dance are deeply embedded in the Basque culture. Again remember if you want to see this ceremony get there early, it's always oversubscribed, so get there about an hour early.
As the day passes the town fills until you think it will burst at the seams, but no, you just move more slowly. The marching bands appear and move from bar to bar filling the air with Basque music to go with the ever present cooking smells. If you want to take refuge go to the large covered Trinquet (Pelota stadium) which for the two days doubles as a banqueting hall and join the other two or three hundred people enjoying the excellent and very reasonably priced three course meal. Or wander down near to the banks of the sparkling river Laxia where there are usually one or two 'Zikios' in progress. Whole mutton hang on rails barbecuing over hot coals, cider is poured from a large barrel and before long you will find yourself enjoying the taste of the two along with white beans in a tomato and Espelette pepper sauce.
In the early afternoon a crowd starts to gather on the terraces cut into the banks of the slopes facing the castle. They are waiting for the start of the presentations honouring local people who have have, in the view of the organising committee, done something to enhance Basque culture or improve the profile of things Basque in the world. This is truly a splendid ceremony made all the more wonderful by the presence of many of the Trade Associations (guilds) from throughout France. Clad in full ceremonial robes with their huge hats the members of each 'confrerie' make their colourful way to their reserved seats at the front of the audience. The scene is almost 'medieval' with the castle acting as a backdrop to these wonderfully costumed 'players'. The President of the 'Confrerie du Piment d'Espelette' gives a short speech congratulating each of the persons receiving the award. This year saw Peio Etchelecu step forward to receive his award. Peio is the driving force behind Fromgerie Agour winners of the 'World Cheese Award 2006' and has certainly raised the profile of things Basque.
This is a truly unique day and one of the best ways to experience the joys of Basque culture and things Basque whilst at the same time having a truly great day out. If you want to find out more about Piment d'Espelette see our links section and our recipes section.