All about the exceptional Espelette pepper

Today, 19 March, is St Joseph’s day, and in the Espelette area of the French Basque country they are likely to be busy. The local farmers will have carefully selected their seed, and, if the temperature allows (ideally 20-22°C), they’ll be planting.

A few weeks later, they’ll prick the plants out into pots, and continue to grow them in poly tunnels. In May the plants will be transferred to the fields, and by the middle of July they’ll be a metre high. In August the harvest (carried out by hand) begins – and it continues until the end of November.

espelette pepper
The harvest is carried out by hand.

History of the Espelette pepper

The chilli pepper was brought over to the Iberian peninsula from Mexico (see A Tour Around the Paprika Factory of Hijos de Salvador López) in the sixteenth century. Around the same time Gonzalo de Percarteguy, a Basque navigator who sailed with Columbus, brought maize to the Nive valley (in the Basque Pyrenees), and the thinking these days is that he may have introduced the Espelette pepper to the area at the same time.

It did well – the climate and terrain being similar to those of its origins and it soon became popular, both as a source of gentle heat and flavour, and as a preservative.

Over the centuries the local farmers (who took, and continue to take, great pride in their crop) continually selected the best seeds for future germination and thus developed a particular strain of chilli pepper known officially as Gorria (the Basque word for red), and more popularly as Piment d’Espelette.

Where is it grown?

That’s because these days it’s grown in a carefully specified zone in the French Basque country. The zone includes just ten villages which wonderful-sounding names: Souraide, Larressore, Ainhoa, Ustaritz, Itxassou, Halsou, Jatxou, Cambo-les-Bains, Sain-Pée-sur-Nivelle, and ….Espelette. It’s the warm, wet bio-climate of the area which gives this pepper its particular flavour. Irrigation is forbidden, and the use of pesticides is very strictly regulated.

What form does it take?

Espelette pepper comes in four forms: as a powder; corded into lengths of up to a hundred peppers of similar lengths; fresh – they can be between 7 and 14 cm long; and as a jelly.

1. The powder

To make the powder form of Espelette the chillies are dried naturally in the fresh air for a minimum of two weeks. Each batch is made from chillies from the same farm. No additives, colourings, or preservatives may be added.

Quality control is strict. A panel of producers, experts, and ‘knowledgeable amateurs’ gets together each year to taste the latest harvest.

First they look at the visual appearance – the size of the grains should be less than 5mm, and they’ll be looking to see the shade of red.

Next they will sniff! They will judge the intensity, which should not be too strong; and they’ll be looking for a mix of hay, ripe fruitiness (tomatoes, red peppers), and a sort of charred, toasted aroma.

Finally, they’ll taste. They want a sweet flavour, with a hint of bitterness and a developing spiciness.

Espelette pepper
Next they will sniff…
powdered Espelette

2. Corded Espelette

The chilli peppers are sorted according to size, and then corded by hand. This was the traditional way that the peppers were dried – they were hung down the south-facing walls of the houses – a very typical sight in the area. Corded Espelette is also ground to a powder.

The dried, powdered form of Espelette (whether dried by laying out, or hanging) has the AOC PDO accreditation (go to ‘confused by PDOs’ to find out more).

Corded Espelette drying on a south-facing wall.

3. The fresh Espelette chilli peppers

These don’t fall under the AOC accreditation but they are used in purées, sauces, and, particularly successfully in jellies.

4. As a jelly – gelée de piment d’Espelette

You can buy Espelette pepper as a jelly. It’s made with fresh peppers, sugar and vinegar. Alternatively you can make it. There is a good recipe in  My Little French Kitchen: Over a Hundred Recipes from the Mountains to the Market Squares and Shores of France by Rachel Khoo

Espelette jelly

Using Espelette pepper

Espelette pepper has a touch of smoke about it (like smoked paprika), and it has chilli flavour without the fiery heat that the chilli heavyweights have. Espelette pepper goes well in all kinds of dishes:

  • sauces, soups, stews, stocks of course,
  • but also on omelettes
  • and goats’ cheese – or on marinated feta
  • with piperade
  • on sardines….
  • and particularly effectively, in chocolate….ummmm…in chocolate….
  • or in duck-burgers
  • the powder is a good dry rub
  • it’s in its element on shakshuka
  • with black pudding
  • with halibut roasted over a bed of vegetables
  • it’s often used, like paprika, to dust crisps
Espelette crisps
espelette and chocolate
A warming Espelette-scattered hot chocolate at La Galerie chocolaterie in Verbier.
espelette pepper
Spotted at the Fer à Cheval restaurant in Verbier: shredded duck burgers with a sauce of espelette pepper and chips….

The jelly in particular is good with:

  • foie gras
  • cheese
  • pair with blue cheese atop crostini
  • add to a sauce to coat chicken wings
  • drizzled over a cheesecake
  • drizzled over chocolate cakes
  • use to glaze duck
  • add a little to champagne!
Espelette pepper is particularly successful as a jelly.
Espelette pepper is particularly successful as a jelly.

How hot is Espelette pepper?

Espelette pepper is 4,000 on the Scoville scale. This makes it hotter than a spicy paprika (1,000), but not as hot as Aleppo pepper, or Byadgi chilli (both 10,000-30,000), or as Urfa pepper (30,000).

Where can you buy Espelette pepper?

Espelette pepper is available as a powder on, of course, Amazon, and it’s also available there as seeds, if you fancy having a go at growing it yourself.

Best substitute for Espelette pepper

Try Spanish sweet, smoked paprika. Follow this link for a post on that, and how it is made.

Visiting Espelette

This mountainous Basque region is truly beautiful, and largely unspoilt. In the last week of October there is an Espelette pepper festival with many culinary activities.

Espelette pepper
A truly beautiful area

For a post on Aleppo pepper, follow this link.

For information on Byadgi chilli, follow this link.

For more on Urfa, or Isot, pepper, follow this link.

For a post on Sichuan pepper, follow this link.

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