Monday, June 21, 2010

Piment d'Espelette: France's Home Grown Hot Pepper

Today is officially the first day of summer and to celebrate I ventured down to the beautiful town of Espelette in south-west France. This town is world famous for its piment, a homegrown hot red chili pepper, those grown in the region even have an Appellation d'Origine Controlee to vouch for their authenticity. Once I arrived in the town, I headed straight for the nearest pepper shop to find out more about this great french culinary delight. I was handed a clip board and question sheet and was told to venture out into the pepper field to find the answers to all the 20 questions. It took me a few laps around the field but I eventually filled them all in. Here are a few things I learned...

Espelette peppers are harvested over the course of ten weeks, starting in mid-August. They are hand-picked and hand-sorted, before being strung together into the famous cordes consisting of 20 peppers per string and on each string is written the week of harvest. The cords are then hung outside to dry on many of the houses and shops in the village during summer. Once on the string, Espelette peppers can be used immediately while they are still fresh, or at every subsequent stage of dryness, turning from bright red and smooth-skinned to dark crimson and shrivelled. When dry, they can begin to make their way into a delicious variety of condiments -- powder, jelly, jam, paste, seasoning salt etc – all incredibly delicious as I found out from the sampling component which followed the questionaire exercise.

When I moved to France I never expected that french cuisine would have anything to teach my palate about spice and heat. I would describe the Espelette pepper as having a fruity prickly flavour and an understated bite. This newly discovered fragrant piment will now be a staple in my spice pantry as it can add colour, flavour and sass to just about any dish. Can't wait to go back in October for the annual Fete aux Piments!