Ivo Adam investigates the origins of a Basque speciality
Spice is important not just in food, but in the rest of life, too, and no-one knows that better than the chilli farmers of the Basque country. So I travelled to France to find out more about the legendary chilli pepper piment d'Espelette.
"We're having four seasons in one day at the moment!" laughs Martine Damois, a producer of piment d'Espelette AOP, as she greets me. We are standing in a field near Cambo-les-Bains, not far from Espelette and surrounded by Basque charm – the characteristic white houses with their red timbers, the honking and gobbling of geese and turkey in our ears. The chillies growing on the rows of green bushes here are enticingly red. At the moment the sun is shining, but on the horizon a line of threatening grey clouds is forming – unusual for September, when piment d'Espelette is harvested.
The chillies are not all that worried about the rain clouds. As tropical plants they like a combination of sun and rain, it's just frost and constant damp that they can't bear. I pick one of the red pods and try it. Martine warns me that the chillies are a spice, not a vegetable, but her words come too late. It's not that bad though. Unlike many chillies from overseas, it doesn't have a burning heat but instead tickles the palate with a fruity, spicy warmth.
The chillies were introduced to the Basque country in the 16th century by sailors, who probably brought the seeds of the chilli plants with them from South America. The chillies, originally called "Biper Gorri", proved to be extremely will liked by the population, as spices were rare at that time. Soon the fiery red chilli peppers were growing in gardens all around the town of Espelette, at first just for private use. Trade in the spice did not begin until the 19th century, when farmers began to sell their excess chillies on regional markets. True "pimentiers", farmers who only grow piment d'Espelette, have only been around since the 20th century, and not until 1993 did the producers bundle their resources by forming an association.
Piment d'Espelette was named after the largest of the ten small towns in and around which it is grown, has now been awarded the coveted AOP label by the European Union and is exported around the world. Once a year, on the last weekend in October, Espelette decorates its streets and buildings for the "Piment Festival". Just as people wear gold chains, so the town is adorned with garlands of bright red chilli peppers.
Slowly, the clouds block out the sun, the wind gets up and rain is imminent. Martine Damois quickly takes me with her to Monsieur Arnaud, a pimentier friend of hers. The harvested and washed chillies have been laid out to dry on large wooden frames in his greenhouse. After a minimum of 15 days they turn deep red, and during this long ripening time they develop their characteristic flavours and the sweet warmth that develops in the mouth. Now the chillies are ready for the next stage of processing: they are dried out fully in a large oven at around 50°C until they are so crispy that they crumble to the touch.
They are then put into a large mill without stems but with seeds and ground to produce the orange-red powder that will go on sale. Eight kilogrammes of fresh chillies are needed to produce one kilogramme of powder. No colourants or other additives are used. While it's raining buckets outside, Arnaud cuts open a packet of the powder and hands it to me to try. It smells fruity, sweet and even a little malty. The chilli expert tells me to put it on the centre of my tongue, where its flavour will develop best – I follow his advice and immediately experience that unmistakeable taste. Every Thursday, the spice powder is checked by a group of specialists to monitor its taste, consistency and colour, and only powder which passes this stringent sensory test can be labelled AOP.
Unlike many chillies from overseas, piment d'Espelette doesn't have a burning heat but instead tickles the palate with a fruity, spicy warmth.
In order to guarantee the quality of their product, the pimentiers must follow a large number of rules, for example there are clearly defined times for sowing the seeds and harvesting the crop. As the plants are susceptible to frost, the seeds must be sown anew every year; at every harvest the farmers collect the seeds from their best chillies for sowing the next year. The plants have acclimatized well to the Basque country, so require little in the way of additional watering or care. Harvesting is done only by hand, as a harvesting machine would not be able to tell the difference between ripe and unripe pods.
All this tasting has made me hungry. Very kindly and with absolutely no hesitation, Martine invites me into her home, where I enjoy a cornmeal baguette, Basque ham, terrine, a glass of regional red wine and of course the ubiquitous spice, feeling quite like a king myself. Martine tells me enthusiastically about her work, and her pride in the spice she produces is palpable.
Piment d'Espelette powder is orange to red in colour and has a unique sweet and fruity taste reminiscent of pepperoni, tomato, toast and hay. It goes with almost all dishes and so in the Basque country it is used like black pepper: on meat, salads or even just bread and butter.
The heat, which comes primarily from the membrane and the seeds, is spicy rather than burning. It unfolds warmly on the palate like a welcome guest, and disappears again after a while. For me, too, it is time to disappear. The rain has eased off and I set off home, taking with me memories of friendly people and a product that embodies the warm soul of the Basque country like almost nothing else: piment d'Espelette.
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Top ingredients are essential for Ivo Adam. That is why he is also an ambassador for the Coop Fine Food label, which offers high-quality products for everyday use.
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