I seriously have a spice addiction, and, when I recently spotted a jar of this stuff I couldn’t help but pick it up. It’s not the cheapest of spices, so I’m rationing its use.
And, truthfully, I can understand why it isn’t. This rare pepper only comes from the town of Espelette in French Basque country. The cultivation and processing of the pepper is still done traditionally, that is by hand, and a little over 100,000 pounds of it is produced annually. The French government has gone so far as to safeguard this pepper under the Appellation D’Origine Contrôlée (A.O.C.), a classification system that basically designates the quality producers in an approved growing area (with A.O.C. being the highest).
The pepper is red in color and has a truly complex flavor – sweet, mild, a bit fruity and smoky. The peppers are harvested, sun-dried, and then smoked in wood-fired ovens before being ground into the flakes we use. It has a really low Scoville rating which is to say it packs more flavor than heat, and the closest comparables would be hot paprika or even New Mexico red chili powder.
Piment d’Espelette is a key ingredient in Basque pipérade (see: Julia Child’s recipe), a stir-fry of peppers, tomatoes, onions, herbs and ham. But I like to use it like a finishing salt. The pepper is fantastic to top a soup, pep up a simple risotto, or speckle a potato or squash puree. I love it on a simple pizza or garlic bread and add it to my caramelized onions to round out the flavor.