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Slice of Mexico the Basques have made their own

Piment farmers will soon get ready to celebrate another harvest of spicy pepper brought to France from central America

After safely gathering the harvest of their protected spicy treasure, piment d’espelette farmers and producers in the far southwest of France will celebrate the livelihoods at a two-day festival.

The event first took place in the 1960s, to mark the end of harvest, and now takes place every year in the final week of October. This year, the Fête du Piment takes place on October 28 and 29, Espelette. Entry is free, and details are available on Espelette Tourist Office website www.espelette.fr

It is organised by the Confrerie du Piment et du Axoa de Veau d’Espelette. Secretary Romain Casemajor explained: “A confrerie is an association which promotes local products. The members can be producers but also people who live in the area.

"Each Confrerie has its own costume and sends its members to other festivals in other regions all over the country. Representatives from 90 different Confreries come to the Fête du Piment.  

"On the Sunday of our festival they all process in their different costumes after a mass to bless the Piment and we then have a ceremony where we swear in new members who might be honorary such as chefs and Basque sportsmen and women or local people.”

The Axoa de Veau is a local dish flavoured with the Piment d’Espelette and has its own festival on Whit Sunday. Last year a record 30,000 visitors came to the Fête du Piment, which featured 200 stands with Piment d’Espelette, other regional products and artisanal goods for sale. It is lively and colourful with plenty of Basque music from the Bandas who perform in the streets, houses decorated with cords of chillies, a traditional basque dance show called the Makiri and a Pelote game. 

Mr Casemajor says piment d’espelette is now very well known: “The TV food programmes which became popular around 2000 did us a great service, as many of the chefs used Piment d’Espelette in their cooking.  The fact that people are more and more interested in authentic products has also meant increased sales. And now we export worldwide, to Brazil, Switzerland and Asia.” 

But what does he think are its virtues: “People think that because it is a chilli it will be spicy hot but in fact it isn’t and that means that it flavours cooking without taking away the taste of the principal ingredient but adds to the character of the dish. It is versatile. As well as savoury dishes it is also really delicious in chocolate and also in purées. Local producers make apple, cherry and kiwi jams flavoured with piment d’espelette which are much appreciated.” 

The Piment d’Espelette is the only French spice with the French AOC Appellation d’Origine Protegée and the European AOP Appellation d’Origine Protégée labels. It is grown in a small area covering 10 communes in the heart of the Basque country - with the town of Espelette at its centre.

This species of chilli was brought to the area from Mexico in the 16th century and flourished in this region in the foothills of the Pyrénées, which has a similar climate to its origins with gentle temperatures in summer, sufficient rainfall and warm southerly breezes.

It is not certain who first brought the chilli pepper to France though it could have been Gonzalo de Percarteguy, a Basque sailor who introduced maize to the Nive Valley in 1523.

At any rate by 1650 most of the farmers in the region were growing the chilli in and around Espelette and using it as a condiment and to preserve meat and ham. The chilli was traditionally dried on the facades of the houses and the Piment d’Espelette is now recognised as the emblem of the Basque Country.

Over the course of the generations, farmers selected the best seeds, and the resulting variety of chilli is the rustic Gorria, the Basque word for red, though it is more commonly known as the Piment d’Espelette.

The Piment d’Espelette is a local variety of capiscum annuum. The difference between a chilli and a pepper is that chillies secrete capsaicin, the substance that gives chillies their “bite”.

The number of producers has grown in recent years from around 30 in 1997 to 190 producers and 14 production centres today. The numbers of producers goes up every year.  Each producer has around a hectare of land and together they produced 160 tonnes of chilli powder in 2016.

Quality control is rigorously applied and if a producer fails to meet the criteria three times in one year, he loses his right to apply for the AOC label that year. A tasting panel composed of producers, tasting experts and knowledgeable amateurs scrutinise batches by eye, nose and by taste and there are strict guidelines:

In the mouth: it must taste sweet with a hint of bitterness. There must be a sensation of heat and  spiciness must develop in the mouth and the flavour should linger.

The nose: There should be an aroma of dried hay, ripe tomatoes, red peppers and hints of roasting and toasting and the intensity of the aromas should be medium

The eye: The powder can be orange, orange/red, red or russet and the grain size should be 5mm.

It is not a very hot chilli. On the Scoville scale, which measures the pungency of chilli peppers, the piment d’espelette is rated as 4/10.

 

IN THE KITCHEN

The espelette pepper is sold fresh in cords, or as a powder. 

When bought in cords it can be used fresh or dry in fine shreds in sauces, omelettes, soups, stews or stock. One tip is to add it to cooking oil as you would onion or garlic. To keep your cord as long as possible you should hang it in a ventilated area, away from the sun.  When your piment has dried for about 2 months you can reduce it to a powder.

In powder form it can be used to flavour meat, vegetables, fish and seafood and the advice is to use it at the end of the cooking time rather than at the start, to preserve its aromas. It can also be used at the table in the same way as salt or pepper.  Piment d’espelette can also be added to desserts, fresh or puréed fruits and chocolate. To prolong the flavour the powder should be kept dry in a closed jar, away from heat and light. 

Savoury cake with fresh goat’s cheese Piment d’Espelette and chives

Courtesy of Chef Gérard Fouché, L’Atelier des Sens, Paris, and the Syndicat de l’AOC Piment d’Espelette

For 6 people. Preparation time 20 min.

Ingredients: 3 fresh goat’s cheeses, 1 small jar of sweet red peppers, chives, juice of 2 lemons, 6 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 courgettes, 1 pinch of salt, 1 large aubergine, basil, garlic, Piment d’Espelette.

Wash the courgettes and cut into fine slices. Blanche for 1-2 minutes in boiling salted water, drain, run under cold water.

Cut the aubergines into small cubes. Place in a pan with 2 tablespoons olive oil and salt. Cover and cook for 8 minutes, then purée the aubergines and add a pinch of Piment d’Espelette.

Put the goat’s cheese, juice from 1 lemon, chopped chives, 2 tablespoons olive oil, pinch of Piment d’Espelette and salt in a processor and purée. Cut the red peppers into small cubes and fold into the cheese mixture.

Line a suitable dish with courgette slices. Layer the cheese purée to 1/3 fill the dish, add the aubergine purée and add the remaining cheese purée. In the processor, mix garlic, juice from 1 lemon, remaining olive oil, salt and pinch of Piment d’Espelette to make a vinaigrette. Turn out the goat’s cheese cake onto a plate and drizzle it with the vinaigrette.

PIMENT D’ESPELETTE IN NUMBERS

1 – It is the only spice to be awarded the AOC and AOP

8 - 8kg of fresh chillies are required to make 1kg of powder

10 – its production is limited to 10 villages

20 – the minimum number of chillies needed to make a Piment d’Espelette cord

35 – The average weight, in grammes, of a single fresh chilli

500 – the plant is an annual. One plant will produce on average 500g of fresh chillies

FIND OUT MORE

A new visitors centre, Etxea, (basque for house) was opened this year in Espelette where you can learn about every aspect of the town’s chilli, its history, its composition, the way it grows, its nutritional and gastronomic virtues and there is a tasting area. In the summer, activities are organised for children and there are cooking demonstrations. Entry is free.

Open:  July-September, Monday to Friday 10am-6.30pm, Saturday 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm.  October – November and March-June, Monday to Friday, 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm. 

It is possible to visit chilli farms in the area and details are available on the Syndicat de l’AOP Piment d’Espelette’s recently relaunched website www.pimentdespelette.com

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