Ingredient Spotlight: Espelette Pepper

The Basques love their peppers! Flash-fried until blistered, roasted, stuffed, pickled, used in sauces, dried and ground for sprinkling… Gernika peppers, guindillas, piquillos… Take a walk through the market, and it’s a bevy of bright varieties, shapes and sizes; pop into a pintxo bar and expect an assortment of different takes.

But perhaps the most renowned of them all is the Espelette pepper, due largely to the fact that it was granted an AOC denomination (appellation d’origine contrôlée) in 2000, joining the ranks of iconic products inextricably linked to their terroir like Roquefort cheese, Champagne, and Cognac. This designation ensures the product has been grown solely in the designated region, and the production process adheres to strict regulations. This special chili pepper is produced in and around the French Basque town of Espelette, a tiny place in the southwestern corner of the country. Only Espelette and nine other villages spanning a 3000-acre area are allowed to use this name for their chili peppers.

About an hour’s drive from San Sebastian, Espelette is a charming, picturesque gem of a town dotted with the traditional red, green, and white architecture typical to the region (reflecting the colors of the Basque flag). In the summertime, its quaint houses are adorned with strings of peppers hung up to dry in the sun. After being picked by hand (required by the AOC) during the August harvest, the peppers are strung up from balconies, red window shutters, and gutters, bejeweling homes in garlands of ruby shades that turn a dark, crinkled crimson as they dry. They hang like this (or dry on racks) for about two months, after which they’re dried again in wood-fired ovens or dehydrators and then finally ground into powder.

Rich and fruity in flavor with a dash of mild heat, Espelette pepper (Ezpeletako bipera in the local Basque; piment d’Espelette in French) has a taste that’s both sweet and subtly smoky. It’s not an overpowering level of spice—it’s actually more similar to paprika or a softer, more nuanced take on cayenne. Locals commonly use it as a substitute for black pepper.  It is, in one word, addictive.

Espelette pepper is a staple in many traditional Basque dishes such as piperrada (sautéed onions, peppers, and tomatoes seasoned with Espelette pepper; you can read more about it in one of our previous posts), various stews, and chicken Basquaise. It can be used in dry rubs, marinades, and roasts; sauces, stews, and soups; used as a finishing touch of flavor, or even added to desserts, especially chocolate ones. We love it in eggs – sprinkled over a scramble, dashed into an omelet, or cracked into piperrada.

Though their powdered incarnation is the most common one, Espelette peppers are also sold whole, as a paste and jelly, or even infused into oils and salts. Dying for a taste? We’ve got several different varieties in our online shop, from a classic powder to a fleur de sel salt to snacks like spicy Espelette peanuts and gourmet crackers with sheep’s’ milk cheese and Espelette pepper.

Intrigued by the little French town and want to plan a trip? For a dose of culture and Basque tradition, we recommend the last weekend of October when the annual pepper harvest culminates in a big festival of dancing, drinking, and merrymaking. Espelette pepper dishes reign, prominently featured at sidewalk stands and on menus across town, and traditional Basque culture is on full display – expect traditional clothing, folk dancing, music, games, and parades.

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