A traditional crepe tapa, paired with black cherry preserves. // © 2014 Kathy Bryant
Feature image (above): Red peppers are hung to dry nearly everywhere in the French village of Espelette. // © 2014 Thinkstock
“We’re no longer in France,” exclaims Natalie Beau de Lomenie, our tour guide. “You’re entering Basque Country.”
We were only 10 minutes outside of Biarritz and its seaside splendor, but already into what seemed like another world, filled with picturesque forested hills and red-tile roofed cottages — the French part of Basque Country. The area is also known as Northern Basque Country and has three regions, while Spain's has four. The Spanish influence doesn’t stray too far, although the locals call Spanish Basque country “the other side.”
Our vehicles added spice to the trip since we were rolling, sometimes lurching, forward in Citroen 2Vs, dubbed “Deux Cheveaux” for their two-horse-power engines and rented through World Safary Company. Our attempts at driving these sleek, red convertible cars with stick shifts were sometimes stop-and-go. But, it was fun when locals looked up at our caravan of three Citroens, smiling and waving.
Our first stop was at Moulin de Bassilour, in business since 1741. After tasting the establishment’s freshly milled and baked artisanal bread, we were off to the village of Espelette, motoring through some of the 10 surrounding villages that grow “piment d’Espelette,” red peppers that are indigenous to the area.
“Every Basque village has three things: a city hall, a church and a 'pelota’ (Spanish for ball) wall,” says Natalie. “Then, there’s also a school.”
We saw pelota walls in every village we passed, and we had seen an actual game in Biarritz. It’s quite fast-paced with the ball flying up to 300 miles an hour. No wonder children have to start early to learn the sport.
On our drive through this bucolic landscape, the beginning of the Pyrenees mountain range, we saw corn fields, sheep, cattle and even “pottok,” a breed of ponies native to Basque Country. The Basques are proud of being completely self-sufficient.
Upon arriving in the village of Espelette, we walked around, taking in the scenes of house walls covered in drying peppers and tasting local cheeses and sparkling wine. Our main destination, however, was Atelier du Piment, a specialty food shop just outside of town.
Acres of pepper fields greeted us, many ready to be hand-picked for the fall season. We were to try our hand at cooking a traditional Basque meal, “axoa.” To make axoa, we grilled veal cubes and added red and green peppers, an onion and garlic clove. We then sprinkled ground piment, a type of locally grown pepper, on the mixture, before adding a couple tablespoons of cream.
At Atelier du Piment and in Basque restaurants as well, we often encountered tapas. They are usually bread topped with local cheese, ham, peppers or bacon strips. My favorite, however, was a thin crepe that you slather with black cherry preserves.
After our exploration of the pepper fields, we headed back to our Citroens and the traditional Basque village of Ainhoa. Classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France, it lives up to its reputation with its white two-story houses, red or green shutters and tile roofs nestled near the mountains.
After a goodbye to the cars we had come to love, we checked into Logis Hotel La Maison Oppoca, a coach inn since the 17th century that Chantal and Dominique Massonde turned into hotel/restaurant. Our rooms were surprisingly contemporary and minimal, but the restaurant had traditional stone walls and featured local delicacies cooked by the genial chef/owner Dominique. We began with thin slices of rolled local ham surrounding a tomato “aspic” (a savory jelly), followed by fish and a reconstructed Gateau Basque: cake, cream and the ubiquitous black cherry preserves.
This swift trip through French Basque Country merely made me want to come back and explore more. From there, not only can you shop, surf and make an easy voyage to Biarritz, but you can also travel to the nearby mountains and ski.