If I could only use one word to describe my trip around the Basque country it would be colour. We’re blue and you’d better believe it at the coast. This is green and everything else is an imitation in the Pyrenees. Red? Don’t even get me started. Not until you’ve seen Espelette.
With chalk-white houses and obsessively clean streets, Espelette resembles a toy town. A reverse world where peppers climb the walls instead of ivy, clambering across every house, shop and street.
It’s the season for les piments – peppers so valued in Basque food that France has granted them a prestitigious Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée - just like Roquefort cheese or that drink from the north of the country. What was it called? Ah, yes, Champagne.
Unlike the foie gras farms, Espelette is lucky that its main product is so picturesque. There’s something soothing about spending an afternoon here. A single dog sleeps in the street, outraged when a car purrs to a halt nearby and forces him to move. A light breeze ruffles the feathers of the hanging scarlet peppers and a handful of tourists drift along the street. It’s sleepy but successful.
Espelette has embraced its pepper potential, offering up piment souvenirs in every form imaginable: clocks, laundry holders, those half globes with confetti, calendars and salt ‘n’ pepper shakers. Yet its shops are quiet and dignified, relishing the opportunity to showcase other Basque products.
Cured ham hangs in windows, as in the tapas bars of San Seb. Shopkeepers fuss over bouquets of chocolate as if they were newborn babies. In a shop that resembles an apothecary’s cavern, smooth wax spills over the bottles, sealing in the magic.
Cerise noir. Cherry wine?
The shopkeeper must have read my mind because she pours me a small glass and places it on the wooden barrel at my side. She slices cheese as I taste. It’s not bad. She offers me another. What’s the difference?
This is flavoured with piment. It’s a specialty around here. Of course it is.
I stumble back into the street, a bottle under my arm. A peppery, dark-cherry wine. Who can resist?
A Basque flag flutters by the stone tourist office, lazily as though it could stop any time it wanted. I feel happy and relaxed. This place is just the antitode after the menacing surf at Biarritz and the lights and action of San Seb. My husband leaves another shop and joins me. He’s bought me a present, a magnet.
In the shape of a pepper.