A group of French Basque farmers are toiling to preserve a culinary tradition inherited from their mothers’ kitchen gardens: Piment d’Espelette, AOP—a rare red pepper powder. It is coveted by chefs for its food-friendly heat (in both savory and sweet dishes), its voluptuous red pepper parfum and its reliably nuanced flavor.
In its simplest terms, Piment d’Espelette, AOP is a capsaicin red pepper grown in a 22 kilometer square area compromised of 10 villages in the Basque country of France, (the southwest region bordered by Spain, between the Pyrénées and the Bay of Biscay).
Piment d’Espelette reflects the growing conditions and specific terroir of the French Basque county: slightly acidic soil and a very wet, hilly countryside overgrown with deciduous forest. The average-sized plot of espelette per farmer is only 1 hectare (2.47 acres).
Piment d’Espelette’s AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée) was officially recognized by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO) on July 4, 2007. This recognition put into place regionally accepted farming and production practices for these beloved peppers. There are only 166 recognized producers.
There’s a reason for this. Here are some of the AOP regulations that contribute to Piment d’Espelette’s inimitable taste and consistency. Don’t groan: all of these excruciating steps, though of a Gallic nature inconceivable to many folks stateside, make for an exquisite product that’s also very consistent—even from season to season:
• Location of the fields; correct plant species; crop density and spacing
• No irrigation; manual labor only; all product must come from the same farm
• Air-drying time on wooden racks—a minimum of 15 days in open-ended green houses (it is really rainy there)
• Kiln-drying time and temperature (and yes, even a prescribed type of wooden drying rack. It’s France, okay?)
• A specific size mesh to use for the optimal poudre (powder)
• The type of sack; the number of whole peppers per dried string; the material for the string!
• Regular organoleptic testing to make a perfect, consistent and unique Piment d’Espelette, AOP (oh, and they test for bacteria)
As you can see, the process of producing true Piment d’Espelette, AOP is much more involved than planting, watering, weeding with a tractor, speed-drying and grinding with an electric blender. The farmers in the Basque region have painstakingly and mindfully developed a standard to preserve a traditional food, with the shared vision of excellence and sustainability.
It Really Is All in The Name (The Good Stuff, That Is)
American wine makers can’t name their sparkling wines “Champagnes” just because they’re made from French-origin grapes and they can’t name their red wines “Bordeaux” just because they’re made with cabernet franc grapes.
Why? Because those wines, with their inimitable terroir, are protected by an international provenance standard called “AOC” (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée). Piment d’Espelette AOP—also hard-earned and distinctive—is similarly protected. It may be more costly than imitations, but for very good reasons, and well worth it.
There’s an old Basque Proverb: Begi bat aski du saldunak, ehun ez ditu sobera erostunak (“One eye is enough for the seller, one hundred not too many for the buyer”).