Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The Espelette Pepper – Piment d'Espelette

The Piment d’Espelette comes from the village of Espelette in the Basque country where it has become a cultural and a culinary icon. It's thought that the pepper was introduced into the region by Gonzalo Percaztegi in 1523. Percaztegi was a Basque navigator and a native of the village of Espelette. Having accompanied Columbus on his second trip to the Americas Percaztegi returned to his home town and, introduced both the peppers and corn (maize) to the region.

When Columbus brought chilli peppers to Europe they were first thought to be related to black pepper and was even called "long black American pepper," and it wasn’t until the 17th century that it was placed in its own genus. At first it was grown in monastery gardens in Spain and Portugal as curiosities. But soon the word got out that the pungent pods were a reasonable and cheap substitute for black pepper, which was so expensive that it was used as currency. In addition to their heat and flavour, they did not have to be imported from India; anyone could grow them as annuals in temperate climates.

The strain brought by Percaztegi to Espelette prospered there and has slowly mutated over the centuries until it has become the Piment d'Espelette beloved of the Basque people and used at each and every culinary opportunity. A hundred years after Percaztegi brought the pepper to Espelette they were being used in the making of Bayonne hams, pâtés , sausages, rolls, pies and even Basque Chocolatiers combined Espelette powder with Cocoa!

The Espelette Pepper is not particularly strong, in fact it only rates as 4 on the 'Scoville' pepper strength scale. What it does have, however, is a unique and delicate slightly sweet flavour, with a smoky tang to it which compliments so many different foods. The range of recipes and products using this resourceful pepper are amazing. From strings of dried peppers through powdered pepper, pepper flavoured mayonnaise, mustard, marmalade, barbecue sauce, pizza sauce and then onto Chicken dishes, fish, pork, veal, even salads tossed in a little 'Baskari Bixia' (piment and herb flavoured oil) and chocolates all get the Piment d'Espelette treatment. These versatile peppers even get used as kitchen decorations and are strung in festoons from the windows of houses!

The locals are so proud of this remarkable plant that they have even managed to gain for it the coveted 'Apellation Controlee' (AOC) status. This means that you cannot call a pepper product Espelette pepper unless it is produced within the confines of the tightly controlled region made up of ten villages. These villages have in total just under 60 registered producers who are entitled to use the coveted AOC Piment d'Espelette. The villages or small towns are currently, Espelette, Ainhoa, Cambo les Bains, Halsou, Itsassou, Jatsou, Laressore, St. Pee sur Nivelle, Souraide, and Ustarritz. The total growing area is about 3,000 acres.

On the last week end in October the inhabitants of Le Pays Basque or Basse Navarre have their festival in celebration of this remarkable plant and it's many uses. La Fete au Piment, the Espelette Pepper Festival is a two day 'full on' pagent of music, dance, awards ceremonies, and of course, eating and drinking.

Chicken Basquaise with Espelette Piperade

½ cup olive oil
4 onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic
4 green bell peppers, seeds and stems removed, chopped
2 red bell peppers, seeds and stems removed, chopped
4 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 tbsp Espelette powder
a pinch of thyme
1 chicken, cut into portions
salt and pepper to taste

Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a frying pan and sauté the onions and garlic for 5 mins. Add the bell peppers and cook over medium heat for 10 mins. Add the tomatoes and Espelette powder and cook for 20 mins. Add the thyme, salt, and pepper and transfer to a bowl. Wipe out the pan and heat the remaining ¼ cup of oil. Brown the chicken in the pan.

Pour the Piperade over the chicken, reduce the heat, cover and simmer until tender, about 30-40 mins. Add salt and pepper to taste.

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