The ‘Famous Pepper’ of the Basque country

My audio novel, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, is currently with Spineless Wonders Audio in the early stages of preparation for production though due to the current Sydney lockdown, actual recording has not started yet. I’m using the time at the moment to put together some ideas for interesting posts about different aspects of the book, and right now I’m thinking of posts around Basque food. In the novel, you get to hear quite a bit about it–the delicious hams and cheeses and stews and cakes of the region, and especially the aromatic powdered spice known as piment d’Espelette (Ezpeletako biperra in Basque), which is an absolutely central ingredient in a lot of Basque dishes. With its rich, deep, aromatic fruitiness and mild to moderate chilli warmth, piment d’Espelette is made from the long peppers grown in only ten villages, centred on Espelette, in the northern Basque country(ie the French Basque country) . It is so highly prized not only in the region but in the whole of France that it has it own AOP designation(which means it cannot be called or sold as Espelette pepper unless it is made from peppers grown by accredited producers in that small region). The pepper has a ‘confrerie‘ or fraternity dedicated to it and its protection, and it is celebrated in an annual festival that attracts ten of thousands of people every year to Espelette. From the very simplest use, sprinkled on boiled eggs and tomatoes to its pick-me-up presence in unctuous meat stews and rich fish soups or mixed in sauces, pâtés, mustards and even chocolates, it’s a very versatile and distinctive spice.

In A Hundred Words for Butterfly, there’s an important scene set in Espelette, proud home of the ‘Famous Pepper’ as my character Helen jokingly calls it, and in this first post around Basque food I thought readers of this blog might be interested to hear a little more about that celebrated spice. And in future posts, I’ll be putting up recipes for Basque dishes, many of which feature the Famous Pepper.

L to R: brochure about the pepper, me and youngest son Bevis in Espelette a few years ago; and dried peppers in a shop in Espelette.

Originally brought back to the Basque country from Mexico around four hundred years ago, the ancestor of the Ezpeletako biperra thrived in the soils of its new home and over time evolved to develop new characteristics that marked it as unique to that region. At the beginning, it was its medicinal qualities that were celebrated, but it very soon became the preferred spice in many Basque homes, as a substitute for black pepper which was then very expensive. And soon it started to colonise Basque cooking, but it was only in the 20th century that its central culinary and cultural importance was recognised, and its uniqueness protected and celebrated. In France, you can of course buy it pretty much everywhere; but you can also easily obtain it outside of France. In Australia, you can easily buy the ‘Famous Pepper’ powder online: for instance I’ve bought it here and here. It’s not exactly cheap outside of France but it is truly worth getting, if you’re interested in cooking Basque food: you can substitute high quality non-smoked hot paprika but it simply is not the same, and won’t have the same authentic taste.

Typically in the Basque country, Espelette peppers are sown in spring, with seedlings raised under glass in April, and planted out in mid-May when the soil has warmed up. Flowers appear in mid-June and then the fruit starts appearing. It starts off as green and gradually turns a deep red and is harvested from August to October and either sold fresh or kept to be dried. For this, the peppers are harvested with their stalks, which are then pierced to allow for food-quality string to be pushed through–the fruit is then hung to dry. Sometimes a whole lot of peppers are threaded on long ropes which are then hung on the front of houses to dry: you see these in several places in the season in the pepper area, especially in Espelette itself! Against the traditional white and red houses, it looks extremely picturesque. (But though it is still done to some extent, these days many producers dry the fruit in the air, but under glass). Then comes the next phase: making the powdered spice. Basically, once the peppers have dried in the air, they are then dried again in the oven for several hours and then ground to produce a grainy deep red or orangey-red powder. There are strict rules around it: no additive of any kind is allowed, the pepper powder must only be composed of the unadulterated ground dried fruit and as well, there can be no mixing of fruit from different growers: each accredited producer must use only their own peppers. Finally, the powder must be hermetically sealed into jars(this is how it’s mainly retailed) or shrink-wrapped packages(this is mainly for the larger quantities. )

So there you have it: the Famous Pepper! Incidentally, there are five other varieties of peppers which were brought back to the Basque country, north and south, by seafarers returning from the Americas. These include both mild and hot varieties which are rightly celebrated in their own regions. But none has quite achieved the worldwide celebrity of the piment d’Espelette 🙂

From brochure on piment d’Espelette

The key to a work in progress…

Some years ago, in a little antique shop near the British Museum in London, I bought an extraordinary object–a Roman key-ring, that is, a key designed to be worn as a ring. Made of lead, it was dated to the 1st century AD. It wasn’t particularly expensive, because apparently such rings are not uncommon finds. But I was immediately fascinated by it when I saw it in the window of the shop: it was the kind of humble object that propels you straight into another world, another time. And when I looked at it more closely, I saw that the ring size was very small–on my own hand, it only fitted on the little finger. So either it had been meant for a very small woman or a child, or it had simply been meant to be worn around the neck, on a leather thong or something similar. And what lock would such a key open? Definitely not a door, but probably a box of some sort. A money or valuables box? A medicine box? I had no idea as to the truth of it, but immediately what ifs began bubbling in my head…I began to see, through the mists of imagination, a figure become clearer, a young girl living in the province of Brittania whose widowed Roman father is an oculist, an eye-doctor(they were commonly found in Roman times, especially in Gaul and Brittania). And when he dies, he leaves her this key, a mysterious key that does not fit any of the locks of his boxes. And he tells her not to speak of it to anyone, but to find her uncle, who will know what to do. And so she sets off…

I began writing the story not long after I bought the key. But for various reasons–mostly because I couldn’t get past certain plotting problems with it–it never got finished or even really properly going. I had set it aside and almost forgotten about it until just a few weeks ago, when trawling through documents in my computer, I came across the outline and sample chapters which was all I’d written of the novel I’d called ‘The Key to Rome.’ Instantly, it called to me again. I got the key itself out of the display box in which we keep it and I looked at it for a long moment, and then I knew: I had to write this story! And now I knew just how to write it, and what I had to change to make it work.

So that’s what I’m working on: the unlocking of the story, and the real meaning of ‘the key to Rome.’ And now, somehow, all the plotting problems have disappeared, the story is powering along, simpler, tighter, stronger than I’d originally seen it.

And that’s why writing is so exciting!

The Ghost Ship: a special offcut from The Ghost Squad

When I originally wrote The Ghost Squad, as part of my creative practice PhD, I also wrote a very short story called ‘The Ghost Ship’, which is mentioned in the novel as having been written in pre-Pulse days by Link, one of the devoted followers of ‘Hermes’, whose unpublished manuscript about the Hermes group appears as extracts throughout the book. Though it wasn’t included in the published novel (unlike in the PhD, where it appears as an appendix only) I thought readers might be interested to see it here. ‘The Ghost Ship’ is a story nested within a story nested within another story: because not only is it purportedly written by a fictional character in my novel, but also it is about another fictional writer creating a story while on an overnight stay in what may be a haunted house, the manor house of Fitton Howe.

You may also be interested to know that the ‘Fitton Howe’ of the short story is inspired by the famous, evocative archaeological site of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk in the UK, which I visited back in 2017 when I was in Cambridge on a month-long stay as a visiting scholar, during my PhD. (The site has recently also been the setting for a recent film called The Dig, which appeared on Netflix, but which does not mention the story of the spooky aspect of the extraordinary discovery of the buried ship, which you can read about here.)

Photo by Sophie Masson of replica of Sutton Hoo helmet at Sutton Hoo museum, 2017(original helmet held in British Museum)

The Ghost Ship

By ‘Link’

She’d often sat at that window, looking out at the ancient burial mounds, twenty of them or more, some mere shrugs of the ground, others like humped backs, that dotted the green fields in front of Fitton Howe Hall. She was missing her husband, dead these several years, his body not placed in a mound like his distant ancestors might have been, with all their worldly goods beside them, ready for their journey into the afterlife, but instead resting in a quiet churchyard. His spirit however was still here; and she spoke to it, frequently, alone or in the company of the medium who had become her closest friend. She had never seen his shade, though she longed to; but if ever he came back to her, it would be here, in this place he’d loved so much…

She stiffened. Someone was walking around the mounds. Yet her view of the fields commanded entry and exit and she had seen no-one coming. She couldn’t make out the figure well, only that it was a man, tall, with longer hair than was surely normal, dressed in a smock or tunic and leggings. It could be a local farm labourer or a gypsy perhaps, with that hair—but then he turned and she saw a flash of gold at his throat and a glint of silver at his waist and she knew instantly that she was looking at someone else. He stood there, outlined in the sunlight, not ghostly, but somehow not quite solid either and then he looked straight at her and made a strange gesture, a gesture that afterwards she could hardly describe but which she understood to mean, Do not be afraid.

And that’s how it started. That’s how Mrs Violet Manning, bereaved widow of a dearly beloved man whose passionate nature had given her too few years of delirious happiness before his untimely death, a man she could not bring herself to acknowledge was lost to her for ever, became the chosen vessel for the return of a long-dead king, a king so wealthy and honoured he had been buried not only with all his gold and silver and precious objects, but held in the embrace of his favourite ship, a massive vessel that had been dragged from its mooring place in the tidal river to here, miles inland.

The ghost ship. That’s what the press called it, when the archaeologists uncovered it after centuries in the sandy soil. Its imprint was still there, fixed in the sand like an ancient X-ray, dotted here and there with rusted rivets, the ghostly ribs suggesting the vessel whose material substance had sailed into the afterlife with its kingly captain at the helm. The king who had vanished into the misty lands beyond death but who had left behind, as a marker, the trove of treasure and a powerful mask of gold and silver that was to become famous the world over as a mysterious image of his vanished people. His people’s vision of the afterlife was reassuringly secure. Beyond death was a calm harbour where the great burial ship, with its kingly captain steering, would have moored, to be received with honour. In that world were meadows and woods and rivers and villages and great halls, just as in this one. His departed family would have met him, his ancestors, his vanished warriors and friends. Here he would have been happy and honoured as in life but freed of life’s cares. Some say this king kept to the old faith of his ancestors; others that he had taken the faith of Christ, others that he mixed the two. Whatever the truth, he was at peace, in the world beyond, even if the living world he had left behind had forgotten him. So why had he come back? Violet always said it wasn’t in fact the king who had stood on the mound that morning but one of his trusted warriors, sent by his lord from the afterlife with a message to a country teetering on the brink of war. Do not be afraid; wars have come and gone in this land. Be steadfast; your ancestors stand with you. Or that’s what she believed. Whatever the truth, she had certainly done what no-one else had: she had triggered a discovery so stupendous that for a few days it distracted the entire country from the sinister drums beating in the distance over the sea and getting closer, closer…As the archaeologists raced to secure the site and its treasures so it would be safe from harm, Violet watched from her seat by the window, and never had she felt her husband’s presence so close.

The countryside here is green, flat, peaceful, secretive. Though it’s known as a valley of kings, it’s not in truth a valley, though it lies by a river. It’s a place of contrasts: there are fertile crop fields and pig farms ressembling villages of free-ranging swine; there are quiet corners in little woods where you can pick up stone axeheads and shards of ancient pottery, the detritus of the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, imperial ages, tribal kingdoms, settled societies, industrial ages—and further back, much further back, fossils from the time when humans did not rule the earth, and were not even a twinkle in God’s eye, and…

Thornley put his pen down, startled by a sudden noise. A creak, above his head. But he was alone in this house. He knew he was. He’d paid enough for the privilege. The trust which ran this place made sure of that. They might say that Mrs Violet Manning’s memory might live on in her house, even hint that it was haunted, but they made sure that writers after ambience and ghost hunters after sensation did more than pay lip service to it. Thornley had spent one night here. So far there had been nothing special to disturb his work. And today was a bright sunny day. Not a day for any self-respecting ghost, he thought, lip curling, as he gazed at the photograph of Violet Manning, over the mantelpiece, looking somewhere into the distance. Neither she nor anyone else haunted this place. Fitton Howe House was like any other old museum house where nobody lives any more. But it was his stock in trade, to build up atmosphere, tension, so that his readers would feel something was about to happen. Yes, that was it. He’d use the creak, and his own startlement, to add the right touch.

…and people who come to Fitton Howe House still report seeing things. Hearing things. The flash of a sword, in the morning mist. The muffled shouts of men, the gleam of gold, the creak of oars, as the ghost ship begins its journey to the afterlife laden with treasure. In her book Violet Manning says that….

The creak came again. A creak, followed by a squeak. Thornley half-rose from his seat, heart beating a little faster, till he realised what it must be. Mice! The trust might keep the place neat and tidy but it couldn’t shut out all life. Little, secret life, darting insects and scuttling spiders and nesting mice. How many of those so-called reports were down to the creatures who lived in the holes and nooks and crannies of the house?

This piece was due tomorrow. That’s why he’d shut himself away here. No distractions. He’d already missed one deadline. His editor would not let him miss another.

…says that the old king was full of sorrow when his favourite son died at sea and that it broke his heart so that he died and sailed off in the ghost ship to meet him. This what her medium friend had told her, claiming he’d spoken to the king’s shade. It’s a nice story, with the ring of poetry but sadly not a shred of evidence to….

 Creak. Creak. Squeak. Thump. Not mice, with that noise. Rats. Thornley had never liked rats. He got up and closed all the doors that led into the room. They couldn’t get in, then. Then he banged on the walls. Just to make sure they knew he was there. He’d been so quiet, writing, that the rodents probably thought no-one was in and they could have a party. A rat party. Imagine that! He shuddered as an image came into his mind. Rats on a sinking ship, clinging to the wreckage–or cosying up to the dead in a buried ship, coming closer and closer and closer…

Stop it, he told himself. You’ll be seeing ghosts next. Like Mrs Violet Manning. Who only saw what she wanted to see. The pictures in her mind, a product of grief and suggestion. After all, everyone knew Fitton Howe had once been a burial place, long, long ago. Finding the ghost ship—that had been a happy accident, a fluke of history.

Yes. He felt calmer. He took up the pen again.

…not a shred of evidence to prove why or how the old king died. Or even if he was the one who had been buried there, in his ship, setting sail into the afterlife sunset, crewed by a ghostly band who had been sent for him from beyond death itself.

The creaks were louder now. The thumps. The squeaks. And now voices. He couldn’t hear what they said. Or at least understand. The language they spoke, it wasn’t English. Not quite. The sound was stranger, older. There was a smell now, too. Not a rodent smell, but something made up of wood, pitch, iron. And dust. The dust of ages. Of centuries. Of millennia. It filled his nostrils. Clogged his throat. The door handles rattled. The lights went out. He could not see anything but he knew they were coming. Coming for him, in their ghost ship. His breath rattled. His chest tightened. He groped for the lifesaver on his desk. It wasn’t there. They would…

Fitton Howe, Monday

Bestselling author Thornley Gordon was found dead this morning at Fitton Howe House, where he had been working on his latest publication. It is believed he died of an acute asthma attack. Tragically, the inhaler that might have saved his life was just out of reach, having rolled under his desk. Though there is no suggestion that anyone else was in the house at the time, police are puzzled as to why Mr Gordon’s unfinished manuscript was stained with what appeared to be salt water.

Photo taken by Sophie Masson at Sutton Hoo house, 2017


The Basque elements of A Turn off the Path

My audio novel, A Turn off the Path, is set in the Pays Basque, the French Basque country, in the beautiful Pyrenean hill town of Saint Jean Pied de Port, or Donibane Garazi in Basque. I wanted to set it there not only because it is at the beginning of the famous Camino Frances, or French Way, to Compostella, but also for family reasons. On my mother’s family’s side, we have Basque heritage and though they’re not from Saint Jean, but rather from Biarritz (where my uncles, aunts, cousins and extended family still live) and also, further back, from the Spanish Basque side, from childhood onwards we have roamed across the beautiful Pays Basque, including several visits to Saint Jean, like this one to the markets there. As well, my sister Camille, who’s an artist, lives and works in Hasparren, and is a proud member of the Institut Culturel Basque.

Though we were not brought up speaking Basque ourselves, and we had other very important ethnic heritages–French (which dominated), French-Canadian, Spanish and Portuguese–our Basque heritage strand was always a rich and valued part of our family tapestry. It lived not only in our DNA but in our cultural references and lived experience. All of it fascinated me: the gorgeous landscape, the tumultuous history reaching way back into the millenia, the ancient culture whose ancient, non-Indo-European language still flourishes, and people both clannish and dynamic, tenacious and adaptable, traditional and innovative, fierce and businesslike, imaginative and reserved. And it influenced my writing: my first ever published piece was an article in Vogue Living on Basque cooking, which combined glimpses of Basque culture and places with delicious recipes. Over the years, I’ve sprinkled Basque references and characters in several of my novels, but in my alternative history YA novel The Hand of Glory, a Basque character is at central stage: a young undercover detective called Anje Otsoa. Through him, I was able to explore some aspects of Basque folklore, history and mythology. And now, in A Turn off the Path, I am exploring that Basque heritage again, not only through my main character Helen getting to know the region, its history and culture, but also through another character, another Australian, who’s come to investigate his family history and his Basque ancestors.

It’s an interesting challenge, both to include those elements yet not make it into some kind of Basque tourist guide or explanation of Basque culture. And in a novel like this one, where you always have to think of the auditory aspect as well, I have to think carefully about how I can present those important strands without overwhelming dialogue with information or having too much description. It’s very much about glimpses, and also emotion. For example, one of the scenes I’ve written recently has Helen walking through the streets one evening and suddenly hearing music floating from an open window: it’s a local Basque male choir practising. For like the Russians, the Welsh, Corsicans and others around the world, the Basques have a long-standing tradition of male choirs, and hearing a really good one is absolutely spine-tingling. That scene is only brief, but it anchors the action in something that is both concrete yet elusive, and emotional all the way through. (If you’re interested in hearing what such a choir sounds like, here’s the website of one, Gogotik, from Saint Jean Pied de Port itself)

Below is a composite photo of my mother’s maternal side, on the Basque lineage. Going left to right, far left is my mother, Gisele; then her mother, Anna (both born in the French Basque country); her mother Antonina, and her mother Ama (both born in the Spanish Basque country, though Antonina came to live in the French Basque country as a young woman). And below that is me, as a teenager in the late 1970’s in the French Basque country, near the village of Ainhoa. Yes, you could still see the occasional ox cart there, back then!

Real places that inspired settings in The Ghost Squad

In the world of The Ghost Squad, named places like New Haven, Ferndale, Hot Springs, and, across the other side of the world,  the University of Grantfen, whilst all being imaginary, are inspired by real places around the world which I have visited or know. I thought readers might like to know a bit more about those inspirations behind the novel’s settings.

For example, the steam-wreathed town of Hot Springs, with its mud pools, was inspired by Rotorua, in the North Island of New Zealand, which I visited in 2016.  As well, an important inspiration for one of the revelations in the book also came from that same New Zealand visit: seeing, in Auckland Art Gallery, an extraordinary video installation by contemporary New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana, Tai Whetuki/House of Death Redux.

Meanwhile, New Haven was inspired in some ways by several small towns in both Australia and New Zealand, while some of the look of the landscape around the entrance to the base was partly inspired by the country around Lightning Ridge, also in Australia (see below).

The look of Bear’s cottage in the woods was inspired by Russian houses I saw on a visit to that country some years ago, while a reference to the Squadder Piper’s mother being from a family of pearl divers was inspired by a visit I made in 2018 to the town of Toba, in Japan, which is home to a famous guild of female pearl divers (see below).

The University of Grantfen, and the college of Gabrielhouse, in the epilogue, is based on colleges in the beautiful University of Cambridge in the UK, where Sophie spent a month in 2017. And Sutton Hoo, an ancient Anglo-Saxon burial site near Cambridge, also provided the inspiration for the title of Link’s short story, which is mentioned in the novel, and which is called The Ghost Ship. That’s because the big find at Sutton Hoo was of the very rich burial of a great Anglo-Saxon lord, maybe a king, who was buried in his magnificent ship, for him to set sail on a ghostly voyage into the afterlife.

(Note: All photos taken by Sophie Masson.)

A bit about the world of The Ghost Squad…

What if there was scientific proof not only that the afterlife existed, but that everyone had an afterlife marker, similar to a genetic marker, that coded them irrevocably for their existence post-life? What if that explosive proof had been hidden from the general public by a worldwide conspiracy of silence, supposedly in order to protect the population from panic, but actually to facilitate secret experiments being conducted to push the boundaries of government surveillance and control, even beyond death itself? 

In the world of The Ghost Squad, everything seems normal to most people, the new normal that is, with all electronic communication strictly controlled and social media banned. Twenty years previously, a major solar storm had caused a massive electro-magnetic pulse which not only knocked out all computer-controlled technology and power around the world for quite some time, but triggered what became known as the Anomaly, the first indication of the afterlife markers of human beings. Since then, the followers of Hermes, a secretive whistle-blower, who operate out of an underground network, the Base, have been attempting to bring knowledge of the secret to the population in general. They are locked in a constant clandestine struggle with the forces of the Ghost Squad, who work for secret government research centres known as PLEIFs (short for Post-Life Entity Index Facility) , who are known to abduct people whose unusual afterlife markers show them to be of particular experimental interest.

The Ghost Squad is set in a contemporary/near-future time, in places which have deliberately not been tethered to real-world geography, though several settings are inspired by real-world places, including in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the UK, and Russia.

New blog series: Writing an audio novel, part 1

Introduction

Readers of this blog may remember that just before Christmas I got some very welcome news: I was awarded a grant by Create NSW, the NSW Government’s arts-funding body, to create the ms of A Turn off the Path, a short novel for adults which I’m writing specifically for the audio format. This will be then submitted by my agent to Audible for consideration for their Audible Originals list.

It’s an exciting new challenge for me and I’m so delighted to be able to work on over the next few months, thanks to the generous Create NSW grant. I’ve been doing a bit of background research for it since early this month but have now started work on it, with the draft of the first chapter begun yesterday. Over the next few months, as I write it, I’m also going to post regularly about the book and what it’s like to write a novel with an eye(or rather an ear!) to the audio format: thought that might be of interest to other writers contemplating the possibility of doing the same. This post introduces that series with a bit about what A Turn off the Path is about, and in future posts I’ll write about the background to it, why I wanted to write it, and how or indeed if the writing of an audio novel differs from one that you intend for print.

Something about the story:

Set in the picturesque French Basque town of Saint Jean Pied de Port (Donibane Garazi in Basque) in May 2017, A Turn off the Path is centred around twin Australian sisters, Helen and Alex Dorian, who are in the town at the start of their planned walk on the famous Camino, the pilgrim route to Santiago del Compostella. It’s something they’ve wanted to do since they were very young, but it’s only now, as they approach their fiftieth birthday, that they’ve finally found the time to do it. But when Helen injures her leg on the very day of their arrival, she has to stay behind in the town while Alex proceeds with their plans, and a very different experience to what they’d hoped for unfolds for the sisters. And when Helen unexpectedly meets an old schoolmate who is in Saint Jean to explore his Basque family roots, events really take ‘a turn off the path.’

This will be a lively, warm and thoughtful novel, exploring relationships, the past’s effect on the present, and the dream and reality of the modern pilgrim experience. It also has a strong sense ofplace and culture: as my mother’s family is part-Basque and has always lived in the Basque country, and two of my own sisters now live there too, I know the area well and I’ve been to Saint Jean Pied de Port itself many times from my childhood onwards.

A street in Saint Jean Pied de Port (Donibane Garazi): photo by Sophie Masson

Video on the inspirations and sources behind French Fairy Tales

I’ve made a video presentation about the inspirations and sources behind my retellings in French Fairy Tales, which includes both personal and family connections, as well as information about the tales themselves. Hope you enjoy!

And by the way, on November 7, at 2-4 pm(Australian Eastern daylight saving time) I’m running an online creative workshop for the New England Writers’ Centre, via Zoom, on how to retell fairy tales and how to adapt them for your own fiction. You can check out details here.

Fairytale-tellers: post on my fairytale blog

Over at my fairytale blog, I have a post which is part of a series about some of the great classic French writers of fairytales, from whom I’ve drawn my sources and inspirations for my own retold tales in my forthcoming collection with Lorena Carrington, French Fairy Tales (Serenity Press). You can read the introductory post here. More to follow later.