February is the month of the French National Agricultural Fair in Paris. French agriculture – and all that it produces – is the star of the show.
There’s a 150-year-old competition within the Fair called the “Concours Général Agricole” (CGA). It designates the best of French agriculture in livestock and other animals, wine, and gourmet products.
This year I’ll be judging the French spice called “Piment d’Espelette” in the “Products” division of the Agricultural Fair. This chili pepper is the only spice produced in France that has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO or AOP “Appellation d’Origine Contôlée” in French).
How to choose the best Piment d’Espelette?
I was trained to judge the best Piment d’Espelette by the French INAO (the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité). This Institute monitors and designates which products will have AOP or Protected Designation of Origin status in France. It was initially created in 1935 for French wine production. Today its activity extends to other agricultural products like olive oil, cheeses, etc.
This AOP label means that it must be produced in a designated area (around the village of Espelette in the Basque region) to be called Piment d’Espelette. Read more about it in my blog post here.
What characteristics have I learned are indicators of the best Piment d’Espelette? Before even tasting this French chili pepper, here’s a quick summary of just 3 of the criteria (visual and olfactory) that signal its quality.
The first 3 characteristics to look for when buying French Piment d’Espelette
What are indicators of the best Piment d’Espelette? I’ve noted the first 3 of the criteria (visual and olfactory) before tasting the spice, as it may be difficult to have access to a tasting sample in a shop:
A top-quality Piment d’Espelette will have a color ranging from orange-red to red and even a reddish-brown.
If the color is a pale orange or lighter, there’s a problem.
Most often this chili pepper is dried then grounded and sold in a fine granular form. The long-established rules state that the milling or “mouture” must yield granules of less than 5 mm in size and without clumping.
Clumps among the particles indicate an excess of humidity – which could mean the presence of mycotoxins or mold.
During the training at the French INAO, we tested samples (19 in one day!). Before tasting the samples of Piment d’Espelette, we sniffed each one (which were placed for us in wine glasses – see my photo below).
The aromatic notes we looked for were: dried hay, ripe tomatoes, red peppers, grilled toast.
Undesirable (and disqualifying) aromas were: wet hay, mushrooms, grassiness, peanuts, excessive grilled toast aromas.
You can easily use the first 2 criteria above when deciding to buy a jar of Piment d’Espelette in a gourmet food store. Although stores probably won’t have a bottle open for you to sniff or taste, the first 2 characteristics will give you a good indication if the product is of good quality or not.
The jar must always have the seal of authenticity over the cap, showing it has not been opened. There must also be an AOP (PDO) seal on the label indicating that it’s the real deal from the Espelette region of France.
You can see what authentic AOP (PDO) seals look like in my The Finest of France Cooking Essentials Course. It covers in detail all the ingredients on the French Pantry Checklist and how to use them to enhance your home-cooking. You’ll also receive with the course a downloadable Pdf with recipes and links to online shops for all the Checklist ingredients so you can find them easily. As a BONUS: A Free 30-Minute Prep Call with me to answer any of your questions to help you get started enhancing your home-cooking using these ingredients.
Where to buy Piment d’Espelette online in the U.S.:
Amazon.com has an excellent selection that contains the AOP (PDO) authenticity seal:
A French secret for eating healthy meals (and avoiding take-out food) is to use good quality authentic spices to add variety to home cooking.
If you’re bored with your same old recipes on repeat, Piment d’Espelette is an excellent spice to add to your pantry: it can be used in so many ways: from savory to sweet dishes (think anything with chocolate).
It’s a versatile seasoning because it adds a delicious, warm smokey, citrusy flavor to food but without overpowering a dish like other chili peppers. Its unique aroma doesn’t drown out the flavors of other ingredients.
This workhorse will be an excellent addition to your pantry, and you’ll get a lot of use out of it!
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