Piments have been grown in the small market town of Espelette in Pyrénées-Atlantiques since the 16th century, when the spice was introduced from the Antilles. At that time it was used as a medicine, but very quickly superceded black pepper as the favourite local spice and meat preservative.
The wives of local farmers began growing it from around 1650, and gradually began selling it to supplement their incomes. Each autumn, the peppers were threaded onto long strings and hung across the facades of the houses to dry in the sun, along with similar garlands of lemons. The half-timbered traditional houses in Espelette, in common with the rest of the Basque country, are painted white with either bright red or green shutters.
Marietxu Garacotche-Lecuona took over her family's business Lurretik (www.lurretik.com) in 1992 and, with other piment producers in the area, was instrumental in gaining the Piment d'Espelette AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlée) in 2000. "It was important is it gives us the right to challenge building permits and protect agricultural land in the area, which is in limited supply as we are sandwiched between the sea and the mountains," she said.
She is passionate about protecting the area's culture and traditions. "Since we obtained the AOC for Piments d'Espelette, local farmers have also obtained the label for the distinctive locally-made Jambon Kintoa and Ossau-Iraty cheese, which is made with milk from three different breeds of sheep.
"It means we're also protecting these heritage breeds as well."
Piment d'Espelette is not as hot as a chilli. "It is possible to measure the amount of capsaicin in a plant and grade it accordingly. So on a scale where the sweet pepper is 0 and the hottest chillis are 10, the piment d'Espelette scores 4, which is about the same as black pepper." The taste is slow to develop in the mouth, she says, allowing it to be used with meat, fish and even chocolate.
The Lurretik farm is open to visitors on Wednesday and Friday monrings at 11am. "I enjoy showing people round and explaining how we produce everything," said Ms Garacotche-Lecuona. The visits are free and end with a visit to the boutique, although visitors do not have to buy anything.
Their shop in the town centre of Espelette sells all their own products as well as a selection of other regional specialities from small scale producers in the area. Choose from a selection of charcuterie, including local paté, and preserves like sweet red peppers stuffed with fish, handmade jams, biscuits (sweet and savoury) and local chocolates.