About this time last year, while traveling through the Pyrenees mountains, Valerie, Ihsan and I stopped for a few days to pay a visit to the small farm that produces one of our favorite products: Piment d’Espelette AOC. Piment d’Espelette (translation: peppers from Espelette) are bright red peppers grown in the town of Espelette and 9 surrounding communes. These peppers have a delicate, sweet-fruity flavor and a medium spiciness, a little milder than your average jalapeño. They’re most often sold dried, whole or pulverized into a flaky powder.
The Espelette AOC area of the Basque country is very green. The rugged Pyrenees mountains surround rolling hills of farmland dotted with stone houses. On a winding road just outside of the town of Itxassou, we found the Fagaldia farm, a small property with an ancient stone house overlooking a valley. The Fagaldia house, built in the 1400s, is said to be the oldest in the town, but no one knows exactly when it was built. An open barn was filled with bleating sheep guarded by a sleepy dog. Rows of perky piments were growing on a sunny slope just below. We were greeted by the farm’s owner, Denise who took over the farm when her brother Pantxix, who restored the medieval farmhouse, was killed in a farm accident. Denise, her husband and her son do most of the work themselves. They care for and milk their sheep and cows, harvest the peppers and process them by hand.
When we arrived, Denise and her mother and neighbor were hard at work in the barn de-stemming and splitting peppers. I’m sure the family assumed we were just taking a look; they seemed surprised when we asked if we could help. Once they realized we were serious, Denise‘s mother gave each of us an apron, a plastic handled paring knife and a pair of latex gloves. After a quick lesson, we were flying through the peppers. First: remove stem, second: split pepper in half, third: check inside of the pepper for mold or black spots. Bad peppers went into a bucket, good peppers into red plastic crates. I was so impressed that Grandma was splitting peppers without the latex gloves. She was tough; more than once I rubbed my face or my eye without thinking and could feel the pepper burn on my skin.
After being split and checked, the peppers spent some time on racks in the open air and then were taken to a drying room on another farm. Denise said that this dryer was maintained and shared by 5 neighboring farms. The peppers were wheeled into the closet-sized dryer on a speed rack and, when dry, were fed into the hopper of a machine that pulverizes them into tiny flakes. The pink dust clouds rising from the pulverizing machine smelled wonderful but made my eyes water and started a coughing fit that sent me outside to wait by the chickens.
That night we had dinner in the town of Espelette and, needless to say, we had Piment d’Espelette with every dish. While the pepper does add spice, it’s a medium, warm, lingering spice and not one that overwhelms the complex and delicate fruity flavor. In the 10 A.O.C. communes, the pepper-crazed locals sprinkle these flavorful flakes into everything. Each local restaurant had a little pot of Espelette pepper next to the salt on each table. Most of them serve a side dish called piperrada, stewed green peppers and onions seasoned with Piment d’Espelette. Main courses regularly found on menus include piperrada with ham or eggs added and Aoxa d’Espelette, a rich veal stew made with onions, fresh peppers and piment. We saw dozens of Espelette pepper flavored foods, including: sausages, jams, cheeses, honey, crackers, macarons, caramels, chocolates and desserts. At home, our favorite uses for Piment d’Espelette are simple. We love a sprinkle of flakes or a smear of puree on omelettes and scrambled eggs, on grilled shrimp or chicken, on green vegetables, in vinaigrettes or on roasted potatoes.
From the pure pepper products Denise makes, we decided to import the pepper flakes, jars of her Piment d’Espelette puree and her marvelous Piment d’Espelette mustard. All three of these have just arrived from France and are on our shelves. Ask one of our staff to open a tin of Piment d’Espelette flakes for you to have a sniff. The scent will give you a hint of the rich depth of flavor of this perfect pepper.
Julie Cappellano is the General Manager and wine buyer at Formaggio Kitchen South End, Boston.