The chile pepper you’ve never heard of – piment d’Espelette – is a D’Artagnan pantry staple. Often called for in our recipes and other specialties of Southwest France, piment d’Espelette is the French name for a specific type of chile pepper, known as Capsicum annuum in Latin and Ezpeletako biperra in the Basque language.
But can you get this special pepper in the United States? Or must it be carried home in the suitcases of travelers lucky enough to visit the Southwestern region of France? Read on to learn more about this mild and marvelous pepper, and how to use it in your cooking.
Grown in the Pyrénées, in Basque country, and named for the small village of Espelette, this unique pepper is milder than cayenne and similar to paprika in flavor and heat intensity. In fact, piment d’Espelette comes in at 500 – 4,000 Scoville heat units, which pales beside a jalapeño at 2,500 – 10,000 SHU.
It is also the first spice to receive the AOC – appelation d’origine contrôlée – which is a certification that guarantees the provenance and process of traditional products in France.
Although peppers originated in the New World, they were introduced to France in the 16th century, and just like the famous Tarbais bean, the pepper thrived in the mild climate. Used for medicinally and for preserving meats, the chile pepper eventually became a standard ingredient in the cuisine of the Basque region. Key to dishes like piperade, the piment d’Espelette has more or less replaced black pepper.
In the Pays Basque village of Espelette, they air dry the red peppers after the late summer harvest, aided by ocean breezes. This image is a typical sight, not unfamiliar to those in the Southwestern United States where chile pepper ristras decorate adobe homes. There is even an annual pepper festival every October which is orchestrated by the Confrérie du Piment d’Espelette.
According to the Syndicat du Piment d’Espelette, the cooperative formed to get the AOC designation, there are 160 producers of AOC piment d’Espelette which plant 183 hectares and produce 203 tons of powder piment d’Espelette, 1300 tons of raw pepper, as of the 2014 harvest (Wikipedia).
Spice It Up
The delicate flavor of piment d’Espelette offers a subtle balance of sweetness and heat, with a light smokiness. Fruity notes can be detected, and it’s spicy without being overpowering. Piment d’Espelette is akin to unsmoked paprika, which can be substituted if you cannot find the real thing. But it’s worth the effort to get piment d’Espelette, and over the past few years, we’ve noticed this unique French pepper showing up in both groceries and online.
Cooking with Piment d’Espelette
We will use this beautiful red pepper instead of black pepper in just about any recipe, and Ariane, the owner of D’Artagnan is never without it.
Try our brochettes, which highlight quintessential Basque flavors – shrimp, piment d’Espelette and jambon de Bayonne – and best of all, these skewers are ready in just 15 minutes.
Basque recipes often combine seafood and sausage, as we did in this simple dish of mussels and chorizo. Even pistachio-crusted duck breast is an opportunity to indulge in a dash of piment d’Espelette.
Have you tried piment d’Espelette? What recipes have you made with it? If not, we enourage you to try this fragrant pepper soon!