food finds: piment d'Espelette

If ever there was a spice that Chef Caals absolutely could not live without, it would be his dearest piment d’Espelette. Just about every one of his dishes got a pinch (or two) of it and every time, Chef would ask us, Pourquoi pas? “Why not?” Being that he was trained by Master Chef Alain Ducasse we had very little doubt that he knew what he was doing. And naturally, of course, once we tasted his food, whatever doubt we had disappeared faster than the food on our plates =P

The Espelette pepper is a variety of chili pepper originally from Mexico brought over to the Basque Country by French seamen who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his voyages across the Atlantic. These prized peppers have since been cultivated in the town of Espelette in Southern France and have been deemed so worthy as to merit the AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) certification. AOC products, like Champagne and Roquefort cheese, have strict agricultural standards set forth by the French government to preserve the traditional methods of production and insure consistence in quality. Needless to say, this is not your average chili pepper.

The peppers hang on strings on the rooftops of villages in Espelette, and after harvesting in late summer, chilies decorate the facades and balconies of all the buildings in town throughout fall. The villages become festooned in fiery red, attracting thousands of tourists ever year to the annual pepper festival in October. I’ve yet to see the spectacle for myself someday.

Piment d’Espelette delivers a very unique type of spiciness… milder than cayenne and slightly smokey with just a hint of sweetness. I brought a jar of it at Le Bon Marche in Paris to bring back with me, but I do so regret not bringing back another jar or two =/ Now, unfortunately, I have to pay the price =P It’s a common staple in Basque cuisine and traditionally used as a rub to color and flavor Bayonne ham, but a dash of this will add flavor to just about any dish, from homemade tomato sauce to salad dressings to popcorn and french fries =P After all, as Chef Caals would say, Pourquoi pas?

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