The Espelette treasure
A small terroir of barely ten townships determines the Espelette-Ezpeletako Biperra AOP [protected designation of origin]. The landform and proximity to the ocean create a micro-climate ideal for growing this chilli pepper. At the shop Lurretik (the name means “from the terroir”) in Espelette, one pepper producer recounts the history of this spice.
Where does the Espelette pepper come from?
Originally from Central and Latin America, seeds were introduced into the Basque Country by returning explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries, along with other peppers. This pepper is used especially for the conservation of hams. The selection of seeds over time led to the Gorria variety, which gave the Espelette pepper.
How is it cultivated?
The plant is cultivated over a yearly cycle. First of all, each producer selects his seeds himself; they are not bought in a shop. Seeding starts in March/April. The young seedling plants are then transplanted and cultivated in greenhouse nurseries. The plants are replanted in the fields of the AOP parcels in May with the final harvest taking place from August to end of November. The work is done entirely by hand, much like market gardening.
The terroir is important: the plantations and parcels must be wide open to the sun in fertile ground.
Is there not only one Espelette pepper?
Given the staggered harvest, you find different products at various periods of the same production. There is not one standardized product, not to mention the various forms that are found on the market (powdered, on strings, jams, etc.). Depending on how it is to be used, you can choose peppers of varying intensity. For example, a pork butcher-ham maker will chose a fairly hot pepper whereas general consumers usually prefer a medium-hot pepper.
How can you recognise a good pepper?
There are different criteria. First of all, by sight:the colour is important, it should be a bright red. It should not be too finely ground: you should be able to distinguish the particles, the placenta, and the seeds. If the grind is too fine, the aromas will disappear more quickly. The intensity on the nose is not very important since the Espelette pepper expresses itself fully only on contact with heat, once it is cooked.
Then comes the flavour: to choose a pepper well, you have to taste it. It should be fairly sweet at first, with a gradually increasing hotness, a good structure on the palate and a very slight touch of bitterness at the finish. The spiciness is an essential element. The best pepper offers medium to hot intensity: a too spicy pepper is not typical, whereas, on the other hand, a pepper whose flavour is too subtle is a sign of poor quality.
How is the Espelette pepper used?
In so many ways! I would say that the best way to appreciate it is also the simplest, on a fried eggs.. To understand its unique nature, you can first taste them with Espelette chili and then with regular pepper or another spice, to compare them.
Which chefs do you work with?
We work with leading chefs throughout the region, who are of course part of our regular customers. We also work with Paris restaurants like the 21, or in other cities, such as Rémi Massé or the Coutenceau in La Rochelle.
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