A culinary guide to Bayonne, France's 'chocolate capital'.

Sugar and spice combine to delicious effect in France's 'chocolate capital', where chefs and chocolatiers take inspiration from the bounty of local Basque Country produce.

Bayonne Botanical Garden.

Photograph by M.Prat
By Carolyn Boyd
Published 10 Jan 2023, 10:00 GMT

As I dip my spoon into a chocolate and Amarena cherry souffle  piercing the bubble-light sponge to find succulent cherries hiding at the bottom I thank my lucky stars I’m getting to enjoy a dessert course here in France’s chocolate capital. This souffle, at La Table de Sébastien Gravé, is so good I almost burn my mouth trying to eat it too quickly.

For a devout chocoholic like me, this treat would have been more than enough to sate my appetite for Bayonne’s signature product, but in truth the town has plenty more than its sweet moniker would suggest: there’s charcuterie; the punchy Piment d’Espelette chilli; and fresh fish from the nearby port at Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

Over my three-course lunch at Sébastien’s restaurant, next to the River Nive, I enjoy some of this bounty, including smoked idiazabal (a sheep-milk cheese) and barbecued pork loin, before finishing with that alluring soufflé. “We have everything here, in terms of good food,” says chef Sébastien when we talk after lunch. “We have the mountains, the sea and the land.”

Like many chefs in Bayonne and the wider Basque Country, tucked along France’s southwestern border with Spain, Sébastien’s chocolatier of choice is Monsieur Txokola (the ‘tx’ is pronounced ‘ch’). It’s one of many chocolateries in the town, part a tradition that dates to the early 16th century, when Jewish chocolate-makers banished from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition arrived, bringing their craft with them.


A chocolatier prepares confections at Chocolate Cazenave, an artisan chocolaterie in Bayonne.

A chocolatier prepares confections at Chocolate Cazenave, an artisan chocolaterie in Bayonne. 

Photograph by M.Prat

Back then, however, the flavour was quite different, as I discover on a visit to the Monsieur Txokola workshop in the Petit Bayonne district a little place I smell before I see, thanks to the honeyed aromas that waft out the door.

Here I meet Cyril Pouil, who, after a career at Lindt, opened the chocolaterie in 2017 with business partner Ronan Lagadec. He explains his bean-to-bar production line, which starts with cocoa beans sourced from small producers in countries including Liberia, Venezuela and India. 

As a tribute to the twon's chocolate history, the company has produced the Tablette d’Antan (‘bar of yesteryear’); as I pop a square into my mouth, flavours of cinnamon and clove, pepper and cayenne warm my tongue before I crunch down on fine sugar crystals. It’s delicious, but unlike any chocolate I’ve had before.

“Back in the 16th century, the beans were brought by explorers and sailors from Venezuela, and they would crush them on a stone slab and mix in these spices,” says Cyril. “We can’t find reference to the exact recipe, but we know they used the spices to mask the bitter taste of the beans.” Setting off with my Tablette d’Antan, I cross the river back into Grand Bayonne, the town’s largest district, for a tour with guide Andy Fischer, a New Zealander who moved here 30 years ago.

Artisan chocolates for sale at Daranatz chocolaterie.

Artisan chocolates for sale at Daranatz chocolaterie. 

Photograph by M.Prat

We order the famous hot chocolate at Chocolat Cazenave, a century-old salon du chocolat with an ornate glass cupola. The frothy confection is made with a special wooden tool called a moussoir, which whisks copious air bubbles into the hot chocolate. It’s served with a pot of Chantilly cream, a jug of hot milk and a napkin to wipe away the resulting moustache.

It’s light, with just the right amount of sweetness. “In winter,” says Andy, “the queue for this place is out the door.” Along the street is Chocolaterie Puyodebat, with its cafe, La Tasse à Moustache. Its sleek bar is decorated with vintage silver milk steamers, and glass cabinets stow a huge collection of serving pots and as the cafe’s name suggests cups sporting a little china shelf on which a gentleman’s moustache would sit as he sipped the hot chocolate.

Being located on the confluence of two rivers the Nive and the Adour and close to the Atlantic, Bayonne was once a key port city and therefore a frequent target for enemies. Andy explains that the Grand Bayonne we see now was a result of strategic planning in the 17th century by military engineer Vauban, who, to protect the town, insisted everyone be moved within the city walls.

Buildings were squeezed into every available space a policy that impacts trade even today. “There are mostly independent shops here, because big brands need more floor space for their ranges,” says Andy, as we stroll through streets filled with trendy boutiques and gourmet food stores. Among these is Maison Aubard, which specialises in another of the local products: charcuterie.

Harvesting Piment d'Espelette peppers at Atelier du Piment.

Harvesting Piment d'Espelette peppers at Atelier du Piment. 

Photograph by M.Prat

The product that bears the town's name is Jambon de Bayonne, a fine ham similar to Serrano or Parma hams, that’s cured for 12 to 18 months. First established in 1928, Maison Aubard has been owned by the same family for three generation and is now run by former professional rugby player Cédric Bergez. At the back of the store, a little museum explains the history of the shop and its different products.

The manager kindly offers me a plate of hams to try. They’re delicate, light and salty, but are eclipsed in flavour by the jambon de Kintoa, a glossy, rich, deep-red ham that’s cured for over 24 months. It comes from Basque pigs, a breed that was reintroduced to the region in the 1990s by Pierre Oteiza, a charcutier who has several shops in the area.

The pigs are left to roam outdoors in the Vallée des Aldudes in the Pyrenees, grazing on a natural diet of nuts and acorns, which accounts for the ham’s excellent flavour. It’s cured with salt and spices, among which is the region’s famous Piment d’Espelette. While the Vallee des Aldudes is a little too far from Bayonne for a day trip, the village of Espelette from which the eponymous chilli pepper comes is an easy half-hour drive into the foothills of the PyrenIt’s likely you’ll see the town’s scarlet peppers before you taste them, as they’re threaded onto strings (called ristras) that decorate the town’s red, timber framed Basque buildings.

Visitors on a tour of Atelier du Piment's farm.

Visitors on a tour of Atelier du Piment's farm. 

Photograph by M.Prat

The pepper finds its way into all kinds of local dishes, from pork to chocolate, and gives a gentle, warming heat rather than a blow-your-head-off chilli hit. At Atelier du Piment, manager Laura Goddard shows me around her farm to give me an insight into the product.“We sell the piment in all sorts of ways, from powder to jelly and sauces,” she says. “But we also sell them on the strings; the idea is that a 20-metre string of peppers is what a family needs for a year.” The peppers were introduced from Mexico in the mid-17th century and are perfectly suited to the humid climate in the Basque Hills, which provide a beautiful backdrop to the farm’s neat rows of pepper plants. “And we have enough rain that we never need to water the plants,” says Laura.

She explains that the peppers are planted in May and harvested from late summer until the end of October. Once picked, they’re left to air-dry for two weeks in greenhouses before being dried in an oven. As Laura shows me into the small warehouse in which their oven operates, the enticing smell of the drying peppers hits me a wonderfully warming aroma, similar to that of sun-dried tomatoes.

On the terrace outside the shop, Laura shows me the range of products for sale, including a surprisingly tasty aperitif that blends the peppers’ gentle heat with the juice of local black cherries. But our tasting session wouldn’t be complete without one final, classic combination: Piment d’Espelette and chocolate. I pop the square in my mouth and let it melt, the warm chilli lingering on my tongue. The pepper might be everywhere, but so too is Bayonne’s sweet speciality.

local ossau-iraty cheese for sale at a farmers' market.

local ossau-iraty cheese for sale at a farmers' market. 

Photograph by M.Prat

Three eateries in Bayonne 

1.  Hôtel Des Basses Pyrênêes

One of Bayonne’s bonnes adresses is the restaurant at the Hôtel des Basses Pyrénées, headed up by chef Sebastien Oudill. Like his friend Sebastien Gravé, he creates menus that draw on the incredible range of produce available in the French Basque Country, including smoked Baigorri trout from the Pyrenees, the acclaimed jambon de Kintoa and red tuna from Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Mains from €25 (£21.90). 


This lively, family-run bistro is loved by locals and visitors alike. Josette Erramoun is the octogenarian matriarch of the family; she’s so famous in the town there are carnival figures created in her image. Her piperade is a delicious combination of tomatoes, peppers, Piment d’Espelette, onion, garlic and eggs, served with frites and salad; be sure to leave room for the mousse au chocolat. You’ll find the restaurant on Rue des Basques, a street that sees some of the liveliest events during the annual Fêtes de Bayonne, which starts on the Wednesday before the first Sunday of August. Mains from around €14.50 (£12.70).

3. Vignoble & Dêcouvertes

Opposite the market hall with its enticing cheese shops, glossy fruit and vegetables, fish and meat this wine shop specialises in varieties from the Basque Country, including the fascinating Egiategia wines. These are aged in tanks under the sea at Saint-Jean-de Luz, using the natural temperature and pressure of the water as part of the eco-friendly production process. Pick up a bottle of red, white or rosé. €12 (£10.50) for a bottle from the Dena Dela range.

Shoppers in Grand Bayonne.

Shoppers in Grand Bayonne. 

Photograph by M.Prat

Five foods to try in Bayonne 

1. Itxassou Cherries

The black cherries that grow in the nearby hills are picked in May, but you can find them year-round in jams and syrupy liqueurs.

2. Jambon De Kintoa

This dark, velvety ham commands a high price (around £85 a kilo), so buy it finely sliced, à la chiffonade, for an affordable treat.

3. Piment d'espelette

This mild chilli pepper powder is used to pep any manner of dishes. Once opened, keep it in the fridge to preserve its colour and flavour.

4. Hake

Sustainable, line-caught hake is one of the specialities at the fish market at nearby Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

5. Ossau-Iraty

The best-loved cheese in this region, ossau-iraty is made from the milk of sheep roaming in the Basque Hills. As it ages, its mild flavour gets stronger as its texture more crumbly.

How to do it

Take the Eurostar to Paris, where trains from Paris Montparnasse to Bayonne take just under four hours. Ryanair flies from Stansted to neighbouring Biarritz in summer, and EasyJet from Gatwick from March to September. Doubles at Hôtel des Basses Pyrénées from €118 (£103), room only. 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Follow us on social media


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved