In the one room factory of Romuntcho Pochelu’s farm, Atelier du Piment, in Espelette, France, the scent of heated spice tugs at my nose. Pochelu swings open an oven door the size of a commercial refrigerator and the aroma’s source is revealed. Trays of Piment d’Espelette, the town’s eponymous red pepper, stack inches apart. Pochelu reaches in and pinches a pepper between his thumb and index finger. Pieces of pepper skin, now darkened to a rusty hue, crumble like parchment paper and flutter to the ground.
As a traveler, I find food an easy entrée into understanding a place and its people, and the best stories often surface around the table. Here in the hills behind the tiny town of Espelette, about an hour from the seaside resort of Biarritz, it’s a ruby red fruit that turns out to be the chattiest raconteur. Slightly smoky and spicy, but not overpowering like cayenne, Piment d’Espelette has been cultivated for more than three centuries in Basque country, an area in southwestern France that spills into Spain, and is a key ingredient in local cuisine and history.
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