The ‘Famous Pepper’ of the Basque country

My audio novel, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, is currently with Spineless Wonders Audio in the early stages of preparation for production though due to the current Sydney lockdown, actual recording has not started yet. I’m using the time at the moment to put together some ideas for interesting posts about different aspects of the book, and right now I’m thinking of posts around Basque food. In the novel, you get to hear quite a bit about it–the delicious hams and cheeses and stews and cakes of the region, and especially the aromatic powdered spice known as piment d’Espelette (Ezpeletako biperra in Basque), which is an absolutely central ingredient in a lot of Basque dishes. With its rich, deep, aromatic fruitiness and mild to moderate chilli warmth, piment d’Espelette is made from the long peppers grown in only ten villages, centred on Espelette, in the northern Basque country(ie the French Basque country) . It is so highly prized not only in the region but in the whole of France that it has it own AOP designation(which means it cannot be called or sold as Espelette pepper unless it is made from peppers grown by accredited producers in that small region). The pepper has a ‘confrerie‘ or fraternity dedicated to it and its protection, and it is celebrated in an annual festival that attracts ten of thousands of people every year to Espelette. From the very simplest use, sprinkled on boiled eggs and tomatoes to its pick-me-up presence in unctuous meat stews and rich fish soups or mixed in sauces, pâtés, mustards and even chocolates, it’s a very versatile and distinctive spice.

In A Hundred Words for Butterfly, there’s an important scene set in Espelette, proud home of the ‘Famous Pepper’ as my character Helen jokingly calls it, and in this first post around Basque food I thought readers of this blog might be interested to hear a little more about that celebrated spice. And in future posts, I’ll be putting up recipes for Basque dishes, many of which feature the Famous Pepper.

L to R: brochure about the pepper, me and youngest son Bevis in Espelette a few years ago; and dried peppers in a shop in Espelette.

Originally brought back to the Basque country from Mexico around four hundred years ago, the ancestor of the Ezpeletako biperra thrived in the soils of its new home and over time evolved to develop new characteristics that marked it as unique to that region. At the beginning, it was its medicinal qualities that were celebrated, but it very soon became the preferred spice in many Basque homes, as a substitute for black pepper which was then very expensive. And soon it started to colonise Basque cooking, but it was only in the 20th century that its central culinary and cultural importance was recognised, and its uniqueness protected and celebrated. In France, you can of course buy it pretty much everywhere; but you can also easily obtain it outside of France. In Australia, you can easily buy the ‘Famous Pepper’ powder online: for instance I’ve bought it here and here. It’s not exactly cheap outside of France but it is truly worth getting, if you’re interested in cooking Basque food: you can substitute high quality non-smoked hot paprika but it simply is not the same, and won’t have the same authentic taste.

Typically in the Basque country, Espelette peppers are sown in spring, with seedlings raised under glass in April, and planted out in mid-May when the soil has warmed up. Flowers appear in mid-June and then the fruit starts appearing. It starts off as green and gradually turns a deep red and is harvested from August to October and either sold fresh or kept to be dried. For this, the peppers are harvested with their stalks, which are then pierced to allow for food-quality string to be pushed through–the fruit is then hung to dry. Sometimes a whole lot of peppers are threaded on long ropes which are then hung on the front of houses to dry: you see these in several places in the season in the pepper area, especially in Espelette itself! Against the traditional white and red houses, it looks extremely picturesque. (But though it is still done to some extent, these days many producers dry the fruit in the air, but under glass). Then comes the next phase: making the powdered spice. Basically, once the peppers have dried in the air, they are then dried again in the oven for several hours and then ground to produce a grainy deep red or orangey-red powder. There are strict rules around it: no additive of any kind is allowed, the pepper powder must only be composed of the unadulterated ground dried fruit and as well, there can be no mixing of fruit from different growers: each accredited producer must use only their own peppers. Finally, the powder must be hermetically sealed into jars(this is how it’s mainly retailed) or shrink-wrapped packages(this is mainly for the larger quantities. )

So there you have it: the Famous Pepper! Incidentally, there are five other varieties of peppers which were brought back to the Basque country, north and south, by seafarers returning from the Americas. These include both mild and hot varieties which are rightly celebrated in their own regions. But none has quite achieved the worldwide celebrity of the piment d’Espelette 🙂

From brochure on piment d’Espelette

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