We visited Espelette, and nearby towns Biarritz and St Jean Pied de Port, in the south west of France from September 2nd to 4th, 2005. These towns are in the Pyrenees Atlantiques region of France known as Pays Basque (Basque country) and are within 3–4 hour's drive of where we live in Toulouse.
Espelette is famous for its chilli, which actually has a name control on it. We got the idea to go there when long strings full of these chillis appeared in the supermarket in Toulouse in late August. We bought one with 22 chillis on it, and 2 weeks later we only had 7 left on the string. I guess we liked them or something so a visit to the town was a must.
There are only 2 hotels in Espelette, being that it is such a small village, and we stayed at the hotel Euzkadi which is probably the best known in this tiny little town. We drove down on the Friday night after Yves finished work, and had a picnic at a scenic spot on the way with a light summer meal that I'd prepared earlier that day. We ate chicken which I'd pan-fried with olive oil, fresh minced garlic and an Espelette chilli and on the side we had fresh sun-ripened tomatoes with basil from our garden, salad in a homemade vinaigrette, then goat's cheese from our local farmer's market followed by fresh fruit. That pretty much set the mood for a gastronomic themed mini-break.
At around 10am we strolled over to a bistro called Pottoka, just around the corner from the hotel, for breakfast. We drank real, old fashioned hot chocolate, spiced with Espelette chilli, and ate pain au chocolats and croissants as we sat in the warm morning sunshine and watched the sleepy little village come to life.
Afterwards we wandered around the village, down towards the church and around the little streets. The houses are all white with tudor style wooden beams painted in bright red with matching wooden shutters. Many of the houses have long strings of chillis hanging out to dry on the walls. The village was very quiet and many of the shops were closed. We finished our tour by walking up to the other end of the village to the chocolate factory, Annton, which we decided was a tourist trap and not worth visiting. Instead we jumped in the car and studied the map for the nearest beach because, at 11.30am, the temperature had already reached 30 degrees and was still climbing.
We drove first to St Jean de Luz, but were unimpressed and pushed on to Biarritz instead. There is a separate journal entry and photos for Biarritz, so I will not talk about that here.
We drove back to Espelette in the early evening and headed straight for the hotel pool for a cool dip. Afterwards, we got showered and dressed for dinner and went to the hotel's restaurant which specialises in traditional Basque cuisine. We ordered the 'Menu Typique' and a bottle of local wine called Brana Gorri, from Domaine Irouleguy.
The meal started off with a very hearty soup, based on cabbage, with red beans and chunks of Bayonne ham called Eltzekaria. Next we had a dish called Piperade which is a dish based on tomatoes with scrambled egg, Espelette chilli, garlic and a host of other ingredients and served with Bayonne ham. For the main course we had Axoa (pronounced 'Ashwa') which is diced veal with Espelette chilli, green capsicum (or peppers, depending on the dialect of English you speak), garlic, onion and herbs.
We finished with a chocolate cup (a large, creamy, chocolate custard-like pudding), spiced of course with Espelette chilli. Everything was so incredibly delicious that by the end of the four courses we vowed to come back for a longer holiday next time to try all of the other regional dishes that we couldn't fit in!
After dinner we went for a walk around Espelette by night. As we left the restaurant, the staff started to close the neighbouring pub and we noticed that the town was completely deserted with all of the houses locked safe and sound behind closed shutters. It was just on midnight. We had a peaceful walk around the dark streets, delighted that at last the heat of the day was beginning to subside, and admired the stars in the velvety black sky.
The scorching heat of yesterday, when it got up to 37°c, caused complete cloud coverage today and we were blessed with a much milder 27°c. We woke up a little later, and didn't get down to breakfast at Pottoka until around 11:30am when we were surprised to find the village in full swing when we ventured outside. There were people everywhere!
A poster on the door of the bistro informed us that there was a car boot sale on today, and it seemed to have encouraged all of France to visit Espelette. More bizarrely, all of the shops which had been closed on Saturday, were open today. And they were open all day. Our minds were boggling, because even in Paris the majority of shops are closed on Sundays — France's day of rest, which apparently has nothing to do with religion.
Taking advantage of this unexpected burst of commerce, we went shopping. We bought a Gateau Basque from the bakery across the road from Pottoka, which is apparently the best in town according to a local lady that we spoke to. Next we visited "Le Piment et La Table" (pictured) and bought two large jars of Axoa, 2 jars of Espelette chilli powder and a bottle of chilli flavoured oil. Further down the street, we wandered into a pottery shop called 'La Terre au Feu' where we marvelled at Basque pottery, which is apparently reknowned, and ended up splurging on a beautiful red Tagine pot.
Following our spending spree, we decided it was time to head towards today's destination, a vineyard in the A.O.C. region of Irouleguy, Etienne Brana.