Piment d'Espelette literally means “pepper of Espelette” in French. It is a food product produced around the town of Espelette in Southern France, in the region sometimes known as Basque Country. This pepper is so famous that it has been given a protected designation by the European Union, ensuring that only peppers grown in the Espelette region may be labeled as “piment d'Espelette.” This is designed to protect the heritage and integrity of this unique pepper, which is a commonly-used ingredient in Basque food.
Peppers were one of the earliest imports from the New World, and they attracted immediate attention in Mediterranean Europe. Cooks realized that peppers could be easily cultivated in kitchen gardens, and that they made a convenient replacement for the much more costly black pepper. The earliest documented instances of pepper cultivation near Espelette date to the 16th century, and by the 18th century, the region was famous for its peppers.
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The piment d'Espelette is red when mature, and relatively small and mild. Heat-wise, it is usually compared to paprika, another flavorful European pepper product. Piments d'Espelette also have a dark, slightly smoky flavor which can be intensified with roasting or pan-searing, and a robust peppery flavor which can be useful in a wide variety of dishes. These peppers are traditionally used to rub Bayonne ham, a famous export of the region, and they also appear in many other Basque dishes.
Fresh peppers are sometimes available at markets and grocers, and strings of dried peppers are usually readily available in Southern France as well as being exported abroad. Piments d'Espelette are also sold in dried and powdered form, and in the form of pastes, which may be in jars, cans, or tubes. They are also sometimes blended into spice mixes which are meant to evoke the cooking of Southern France. If a dish calls for piment d'Espelette and you have trouble tracking this ingredient down, paprika often makes an adequate substitute.
Espelette takes its famous export so seriously that it has an annual Celebration of Peppers every October, in which the piment d'Espelette takes center stage. Peppers bedeck the streets while citizens compete with their favorite recipes and restaurants feature pepper dishes on their specials menus. Other regional foods are also feted during the annual Celebration, and for visitors to the region, it can be a great way to get a taste of Basque cooking.