Piment d’Espelette – the peppery pride of the Basque country

I’ve got a cold. A stinking, snivelling cold (given to me by The Heid, curse him) that is negating the feel-good effects of a week’s holiday and a sunny spring day, making me feel thick-headed and cloggy when I should be all zingy and fresh.

Piment d'Espelette

Better than Lemsip.

I’ve been sipping Lemsips, sucking on Tyrozets and enjoying temporary relief from my bunged up nose with liberal sprinklings of the spicy ground Piment d’Espelette on my food, which I can hardly taste otherwise (sob!), so it seems like a good time to tell you a bit about this famous pepper from the Basque region of south-west France, which is a much-used store cupboard essential of mine.

Translating literally from French as ‘pepper of Espelette,’ Piment d’Espelette offers a smoky, piquant alternative to paprika or a milder substitute for chilli flakes and is as prevalent in Basque culture as the lauburu Basque cross or pelota courts that feature so widely in the region.

Piment d'Espelette lauburu

A lauburu Basque cross drawn in piment d'Espelette on cheese. Marvellous.

Imported from Mexico in the 16th century, dried garlands of Espelette peppers now hang from almost every home front, kitchen and in every restaurant here, their ruby rich colour providing the perfect decorative complement to the traditional ox-blood red roofs and white walls of the Basque houses that dot the rugged coastline and undulating foothills leading into the Pyrenees.

These peppers crop up constantly as an added flourish to local produce, bringing a heady spice to bars of dark chocolate bought from Bayonne’s famous chocolatiers, a sprinkling of fiery colour on local cheeses such as Petit Agour, Tomette d’Helette or Brebis, and an intense depth of flavour when rubbed into Bayonne ham. Meanwhile, visit any restaurant and you’ll find Piment d’Espelette featuring heavily in the cuisine, whether it’s dusted over a garlic-studded hake, scattered over a dark bowl of chipiron (squid) or stirred into a sumptuous chicken Basquaise.

Piment d'Espelette sprinkled on hake

Scattered on a butterflied hake.

So celebrated is this product that it has its own two day festival, held in the town of Espelette in the last weekend of October, when thousands gather (arrive early unless you want to get caught in a very long traffic jam as we once did) to enjoy marching bands, dancing, awards ceremonies and stalls overflowing with food starring the adored piment, which – as with all great French produce – enjoys a coveted Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) or “Controlled Designation of Origin” status, meaning that you can’t call a pepper product ‘Espelette’ unless it has been produced by one of the ten villages certified to do so.

It’s excellent on eggs, fabulous on fish and marvellous on meat, but I wonder if anyone’s tried putting a dash of ground Espelette Pepper in a hot mug of honey, lemon and ginger? I think it could really be something. Sniff.

WHERE TO BUY PIMENT D’ESPELETTE

Piment d'Espelettte bunch

I’ve done a bit of a search on Google and found the following sites:

* Frenchfoodfreaks.co.uk – a small jar of ground Espelette Pepper is £5.85
* Thegoodfoodnetwork.co.uk – a medium jar of ground Espelette Pepper is £7.50

Failing that, you can just visit the region – a much better idea!

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