It’s International Hot & Spicy Food Day on January 16 and while the French are famous for their garlic and herbes de Provence, they do tend to keep it mild when it comes to spice. Apart from a little corner of the Pays Basque where you’ll find the houses festooned with bright red chillis when it comes to harvest time. Yes, we’re talking about Espelette.
This stunning village in the Basque district of Labourd, in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, is the home of the Piment d’Espelette: scoring 4 on the Scoville Scale, it is France’s spiciest condiment.
The Capsicum Annuum species of chilli, of which the Piment d’Espelette is an example, was first cultivated in Mexico around 6000 BC. No one is entirely sure how it ended up in southwest France (probably thanks to one of the great explorers) but by 1650, it had made itself at home in Espelette, where the women villagers recognised it as a useful substitute for pepper, which was prohibitively expensive at the time.
Used as a flavouring and a preservative, each year the women would select and plant the seeds for the next season’s plants. In autumn, they would thread the chillies into strings and hang them on the walls of their houses to dry – a practice still very much in evidence today. In the 19th century, the women started to sell the chillies at market, especially in Espelette, the regional hub for trade and commerce, thereby earning themselves an independent income.
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By the 1980s, however, the Piment d’Espelette was in decline and on the verge of disappearing altogether – until 1993, when a bunch of plucky farmers formed the Syndicat du Piment d’Espelette, winning it AOC recognition in 2000, followed by AOP status in 2002. An essential element of gastronomy and Basque culture, the piment d’Espelette today has the recognition it deserves – and an annual festival to celebrate it in the form of La Fête du Piment d’Espelette each October.
Planted in the spring, the Piment d’Espelette is picked by hand as soon as the fruit turns red, between August and December. The production process is governed by strict rules in order to maintain standards. It is available in three forms:
The powder of Piment d’Espelette
The powder of Piment d’Espelette is an orangey-red colour, and is fruity and toasty with a strong spiciness but not burning. It can be sweet or bitter.
The Espelette pepper rope
The Espelette pepper rope includes a minimum of 20 peppers up to 100 peppers, red in colour and of similar size, between 7cm and 14 cm.
The whole fresh Espelette pepper
The whole fresh Espelette pepper is unprocessed, its shape regular and conical and its epidermis smooth. It is intended for professionals for processing into powder and derived products.
If Espelette peppers have tickled your fancy, why not make a date for the Fête du Piment d’Espelette this year? And if you know of other traditional spicy French products or dishes, let us know in the comments below!