While I’ve always associated different chili peppers or “piments” with Latin American cuisine, the Basques adopted and adapted centuries ago this imported spice to make it their own. Saffron is another spice produced in France, along with Tahitian vanilla (Tahiti is a French Overseas Territory), but Piment d’Espelette is the only one in France that has obtained its own “AOC.” (protected designation of origin). Other spices are used in French cooking, like cumin, but they’re not produced here.
The Piment d’Espelette chili pepper was brought back from the Antilles in the 16th century by the navigator and explorer Juan Sebastian Alcano. It was first planted in the Spanish region of Castile.
It was introduced into the Basque region of France later in the 16th century, mainly around the village of Espelette, south of the city of Bayonne.
The Piment d’Espelette adapted well to the local climate. At first, used for therapeutic treatments, it was used in cooking from the 17th century onwards.
The Basques used it in place of black pepper, which was a rare and expensive commodity at the time.
It was also applied as a dye or to conserve meat like the typical Bayonne ham. As the city of Bayonne was also the largest producer of chocolate at the time, it was used as a spice in chocolate.
Why the name “Piment d’Espelette?”:
Espelette was the Basque town where people usually went to buy the spice, so in the 19th century, the name was associated with it.
Today, however, the official producers of this chili pepper also grow it in 10 different communes of the Basque region.
Its botanical name is from the chili pepper species “Capsicum Annum” and the Basque varietal that has been developed over the years through selective cultivation is ‘Gorria.’ So its full botanical name is Capsicum Annum ‘Gorria.’
How to recognize if it’s authentic:
It’s the only spice in France granted an AOC (“Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée”) and must be produced in particular communes and in a specific way to be considered authentic. Authentic Piment d’Espelette will carry a label mentioning the AOC designation.
Cultivation of authentic Piment d’Espelette follows these AOC criteria:
• it must be harvested by hand when it is a ripe red color
• it cannot be collected before August, but only from August onward
• the whole peppers must be dried naturally for at least 15 days, if not more (usually around 21 days)
It is sold in several forms with the AOC appellation:
• as the whole pepper in full red color
• corded in braids with 10-20 chili peppers of equal size per cord
• as a fine powder (which can go from orange in color to a brownish red). The powder is obtained from mature chili peppers that have been oven-dried then grounded.
How the French Use Piment d’Espelette Spice:
This spice is an essential part of French Basque cooking. It has a warm, typical aroma which is slightly smokey and citrusy without being overpowering.
It’s a very versatile seasoning used in many ways because it’s not too strong: It has a grade of 4 on the “Scoville” scale. By comparison, sweet paprika has a score of 2.
How the French Basques use it:
• to flavor sauces like mayonnaise or mustard
• mixed into butter and spread on toast
• sprinkled over grilled meats or eggs
• used in marinades
• incorporated into meat and bean dishes like chile con carne
• mixed into crusts for mushroom pies
• mixed into desserts such as vanilla ice cream or chocolate mousse
The French also infuse it in:
• vinegar for vinaigrettes
• olive oil
A French Recipe With Piment d’Espelette:
Roasted Butternut Squash & Potatoes with Piment d’Espelette
• 2 Butternut Squash
• 6 Potatoes
• Sea salt or Kosher salt
• 1 tsp of Piment d’Espelette (in powder form)
• 8 Tb of olive oil
• 2 tsp (leveled) of garlic powder
-Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/390°F
-Slice the butternut in one inch thick round slices, remove the peel and chop in 1 inch thick cubes.
-Peel the potatoes and chop into one inch thick cubes, of similar size as the butternut.
-Place the butternut & potato cubes in an oven-safe dish and drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with the Piment d’Espelette, garlic powder, and salt.
-Leave to bake in the oven for 45 minutes, stirring from time to time, then put the oven on “Grill” for 15 minutes until the potatoes are slightly browned. The potatoes will melt due to the water rendered by the squash.
-Once removed from the oven you can sprinkle with thyme if you like and serve with chicken or veal.
Where to Buy Piment d’Espelette in the U.S.:
Here are 3 sources online:
1. MarketHallFoods.com – They have an AOP producer who sells it in powder form (which is the most convenient to use)
2. Amazon.com – They have several brands to choose from
Bored with your same old recipes on repeat? Tempted by take-out? A French secret for eating healthy meals is to use good quality authentic spices to add variety to home cooking.
Piment d’Espelette is an excellent spice to add to your pantry because it can be used in so many ways: from savory to sweet dishes.
It’s a very versatile seasoning because it adds a delicious warm smokey, citrusy flavor to food but isn’t overpowering like other spices. 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!
And now you: Have you ever tried Piment d’Espelette? Leave a comment and let me know!
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com