France: A Great Afternoon in Espelette
the markets of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where the fish is spectacular (this is dorade)
and the dozens of small villages tucked into the Pyrenees
People come to Espelette for many reasons, among them to visit Andre Darraidou, the proprietor of the Hotel Euzkadi (where we stayed), who knows everyone for miles around and who can tell you the story behind just about every Basque specialty. And they come for the famous peppers, piment d’Espelette, which are harvested in the fall, tied into beautiful bunches (reminiscent of New Mexico’s ristras; in fact, the chiles came to France from America)
dried, seeming on every available surface
and then ground, made into jelly, syrups, mustards and sauces, or added to chocolate (the Cote Basque was one of the earliest chocolate centers in France)
When the peppers are ground, they’re a beautiful red and their spiciness is not so much hot as it is deep. In every restaurant we went to, from the simplest and most traditional to the most modern (about which more in another post), the pepper that was on the table was piment d’Espelette, sometimes in grinders, most often in small bowls with openings just large enough for you to grab a pinch.
We came to Espelette because we’d never been. And, as it turned out, we came at a special time.
The Saturday of our short stay in town, the village hosted its 32 nd annual run/walk/horseback ride up and along the mountain peaks that surround it. (The following day, a runner told me that there are 600 important road races in France and that this one is among the ten toughest; anyone looking at the looming Pyrenees wouldn’t think of arguing with him.) Some 3,000 people came to race and it looked like each of them brought a friend, spouse, kid, parent, horse or two or three of each.
We had gone out on a drive-around and got back to town just as the horseback riders were heading out
and as hundreds of runners approached the finish line, passing our hotel at the 50-meters-to-the-end mark and getting cheers, whistles and screams from the onlookers who lined the cobbled street.
We stood with the crowds for a while then went up to our room, only to be drawn out minutes later by the haunting sounds of men’s voices against the background of an accordion. Walking downstairs into the Euzkadi’s bar – a place I can imagine packed to bursting when there’s a good soccer match – we found the choristers circled in front of the zinc singing in Basque, a language that is very much alive in the region and one that a friend described as made for singing.
After the group finished and everyone had thanked them and bought them another round of Eki beer, they moved on and so did we, but only to the front door, where a brass band was tuning up. They, too, formed a circle and were instantly surrounded by people who sang with them and danced. A round of beer, happy farewells and, hup, another band, more music, more singing, more beer.
It was raucous, yet I felt strangely quiet. I was touched by the music and even more affected by the sense of shared tradition and community it conveyed. I loved how the bands would come and go and how the people would join in singing or how a line of dancers would form or how a few couples here and there would start dancing. For an instant, I thought I was caught in a film, but nothing about this was staged – it was just a moment of spontaneous happiness and we were lucky enough to be swept up in it.
Our part of town calmed down at about 10 pm, just as the sun was falling below the mountains and the banquet for the footsore and happy was starting down the road. As soon as everyone marched away, I missed the music.