Espelette: A Village Where Things Get Spicy!

Today, the town of Espelette is known throughout the world not just for the picturesque beauty of its streets, but also for the famous red peppers that grow there.
Chefs and gourmets from all over the world use this little pepper to subtly enhance their dishes. Let's look back on the history of this village and its famous red spice…

Vue d'EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

Espelette: A village in the heart of the Basque Country

Espelette is a town in the province of Labourd, at the foot of the Pyrenees, just a few miles from Spain. Its name comes from that of the noble family Ezpeleta, of Navarra in Spain, where boxwood grows in great abundance. "Ezpel" in Basque means "a place planted with boxwood."

Château des barons d'EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

The first castle was built on the commune in the year 1000, by the lords of the Ezpeleta family.

A second castle was built around 1414, when the region was under English rule. It was comprised of a vast enclosure flanked by five towers, in the shape of an irregular polygon.
When the Basque Country once again returned to the French crown, in 1462, the lords were made barons.

Château des barons d'EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

The castle of the barons of Ezpeleta was partly destroyed under the reign of Louis XIII during a villagers' revolt. It was then bequeathed to the commune in 1694 by the last descendant of the family.

In 1998, the castle—and then more recently, the ramparts—were restored with support from the Fondation du Patrimoine (Cultural Heritage Foundation).

Today, the building houses the town hall, the municipal library, the tourist office, and exhibition rooms, one of which is dedicated to the Espelette chili pepper.

Fresque du Syndicat des Producteurs de Piments d'EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

This small red pepper is the symbol of the village, even more so than its medieval castle. This is evidenced by the fresco that adorns the wall of the ETXEA cultural center devoted to the Espelette chili pepper.

Une récolte de Piments d'EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

The Espelette pepper: a spice from America

The Espelette pepper arrived from South America in the 16th century. Folklore suggests two possible explanations for how it got there. It could have been brought back by one of the companions of Christopher Columbus or, a few decades later, by Juan Sebastián Elkano, a native of Guetaria in the Spanish Basque Country. Elkano was the captain of one of the ships in the round-the-world expedition led by Magellan.

Carte des villages basques ayant l'autorisation de produire du Piment d'Espelette AOCFondation du patrimoine

The first mention of a pepper in Espelette dates back to 1650. Its location is significant given that the city was at the center of the trading routes that led to the port of Bayonne.

Today, only nine communes have the AOC certification (now PDO) for the Espelette pepper, which was awarded in 2000. It is the only spice in France to benefit from this protected status.
Apart from Espelette, the other communes with this certification are Cambo-les-Bains, Itxassou, Ainhoa, Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle, Ustaritz, Jatxou, Halsou, and Larressore.

Un champs de piments à EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

To grow to its full potential, the Espelette chili pepper needs regular and plentiful rainfall and a mild temperature.

The territory perfectly combines these two conditions with an average of 63 inches of rain per year. The clouds are trapped by the Pyrenees, so the green landscape receives plenty of rainfall, while the sea breeze is stopped by the hills, allowing temperatures to rise easily from April to October.

The cultivation of the Espelette chili pepper lasts for nine months of the year, from March to November. It is done entirely by hand apart from the planting.
At the end of winter, the first seeds are sown, and then the seedlings are transplanted into greenhouses.

Piments d'Espelette verts dans un champs à EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

From April, when temperatures allow, the seedlings are re-planted, this time in the ground, with 15 inches of space between them.

Irrigation is forbidden for one month following planting and is also not allowed after July 15.

The plants reach a height of just over three feet from mid-July onwards, and then the flowering and fruiting begins.

Piments d'Espelette mûrs dans un champs à EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

The peppers can only be harvested once they have turned completely red. The sun is essential for them to obtain this color.

They must also be between 2.5 and 5.5 inches long and be regular in shape.

Harvesting begins in August and is carried out every 15 days until the end of November, when the first frosts arrive.

Atelier du Piment d'EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

Only the most beautiful peppers, selected according to their size, appearance and color, are plaited onto strings.
Each string should contain a minimum of 20 peppers, but larger strings can hold up to 100.

Une façade de maison à EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

These strings are then hung out to dry on the façades of houses in the village for varying amounts of time, according to whether fresh or dried peppers are required.

Premier séchage des Piments d'EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

Once collected, the peppers that have not been put on strings are laid out to mature on racks, in a dry and ventilated space, for a minimum of two weeks.
They are then de-stalked, dried once again in the oven for 24 hours, and ground into a fine powder.

Sachet de poudre de Piments d'EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

In order to obtain the precious PDO label, a sample of each harvest is tasted by members of the Espelette Chili Pepper Association (Syndicat du Piment d'Espelette).
From August to December, a tasting panel meets every week to test that season's produce and to decide whether or not it meets all the defined visual, taste, and olfactory criteria.

Confection de cordes avec les plus beaux pimentsFondation du patrimoine

A spice as an identity

Historically, the cultivation of chili was considered women's work, since the chilies grow in a vegetable garden and require less physical work than some other crops grown by men. The pepper had two functions as it was as much used for its antibacterial properties as it was in the kitchen, where it replaced the more expensive traditional pepper.

Vincent et Jérémy de l'Atelier du Piment à EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

Today, the Espelette Chili Pepper Association has 199 producers. This means many families in the region make their living from growing the peppers.

Pictured here: Vincent and Jérémy, who work for the Atelier du Piment pepper cultivation company. The first, on the right, is in charge of growing the peppers, while the second, on the left, markets the peppers in all their forms.

Produits faits avec du Piment d'EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

As it's pretty mild, the Espelette pepper can easily be combined with many other flavors—whether it's in a condiment or a complete recipe, it offers something for all tastes!

A recipe that is particularly linked to this spice is Axoa veal, a dish that has now come to symbolize the region.
It is a dish traditionally eaten at fairs and especially at the famous Espelette chili festival, which is held every year on the last weekend of October.

Chocolat au Piment d'EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

One of the taste combinations that may seem the most daring is actually one of the oldest: chocolate and Espelette pepper.
It is a reminder that the Basque Country is actually the region in which chocolate first arrived in France.
As early as the 17th century, chocolate made in Bayonne was spiced with Espelette pepper!

Recette pimentée : le velouté de potimarronFondation du patrimoine

Here is a video of a simple recipe for a cream of red kuri squash soup that brings out the spicy flavors of the Espelette pepper.

Cap Sud-Ouest - Le piment d'EspeletteFondation du patrimoine

Watch this video to learn more about growing and cooking with the Espelette pepper.

Credits: Story

We'd like to thank Christiane Bonnat from Tourisme 64, to Anne-Sophie Fernandez, from the Espelette Chili Pepper Association Cultural Center, and also to Jérémy and Vincent for their warm welcome and their invaluable help in producing this content.

Follow this link to support the work of the Fondation du Patrimoine:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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