All of France has descended on this small Basque village sandwiched between the Pyrenean foothills and the Atlantic Ocean. We abandon our car almost a mile outside the settlement and follow the hordes that stream into the narrow country track snaking upwards to Espelette.
Chic French women in elegant dresses and high heels pick their way over rough stone, sticky clay earth and sodden autumn leaves. High-spirited children weave through the grown-ups. Fathers force buggies over uneven ground. The smell of smoke and damp, decaying foliage tickles the nose. The muted sound of sheep-bell mingles with the excited mumble of voices. There is an air of expectation on this bright October Sunday morning.
Espelette’s population may be less than two thousand but the village can make a number of claims to fame: the discovery of the giant panda (Father Armand David) and the resting place of the first Miss France. Its pièce de résistance, however, is… the humble pepper.
The sweet chilli pepper is not just a flavor enhancer here. It’s a matter of grave importance and huge regional pride. Granted the coveted ‘Apellation d’origine contrôlée’, AOC status, no produce can take the Espelette badge unless it’s been grown in this small tightly controlled Basque area made up of ten villages. Adored, revered and worshiped, every year on the last Sunday of October, the church service is given up to the beatification of the glorious Espelette pepper. Then the village celebrates.
At the end of the lane, we pass fields of lush green pepper bushes intermittently punctuated with dots of red: most of the peppers have been picked now, lovingly sorted and painstakingly hand-tied onto long strings. They cascade fountain-like from the gables of the red-and-white Basque houses and spill from the food stalls that line the narrow streets. An explosion of fiery color - flame red, burgundy and dark crimson – they dazzle the eyes.