This iconic Basque pepper was introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus in the 16th century. It must be said of the man, although he caused no end of trouble he unwittingly gave a much needed burst of energy to Europe’s insipid cuisines. I mean, think about it: tomatoes, chocolate, all manner of chili peppers and squash…the list is extraordinary. Anyway, this pepper found a particularly hospitable environment in the area around Espelette, nestled in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.
Strung into garlands and hung on long cords to dry in the sun outside houses, this slender, bright red pepper became an emblem of Basque culture and cuisine. It was first used to flavor and help cure meats, but soon found its way into sauces, simmered in oil, or flaked and sprinkled over all manner of savory dishes. It is a classic ingredient in Pipérade, a Basque specialty, and a common addition to pâtés, fish, and seafood dishes. The flavor is sweet, fruity, and slightly spic; it is mild, delicate and complex with notes of sundried hay and warm summer dust. In a pinch you can substitute other types of red pepper flakes but they generally fall short of this tantalizing spice.
This pepper is considered so exceptional that in 2000 it was granted its own protected denomination of origin. Since then cultivation and processing of piment d’Espelette has been regulated for sustainability and quality. Cultivated on small plots, irrigation and pesticides are strictly controlled and respect for the environment is maintained.
Piment d’Espelette aioli
Enriched with sweet, slightly spicy piment d’Espelette, this aioli catapults your burger to a whole new level. It also makes a fantastic accompaniment to shrimp, calamari, or grilled asparagus. If you don’t have the time to make aioli, there are many decent store-bought versions; simply stir in piment d’Espelette, ½ teaspoon at a time, to taste.