Piment d’Espelette is a powder made from a particular spicy red pepper specific to the Basque region of France—grown as part of the housewives’ potager (kitchen garden), from seeds that originally arrived during the time of Columbus. In the region, it served as a substitute for both salt and pepper.
In 1994 Vincent Darritchon, founder of La Maison du Piment, started to commercialize his mother Marie Jeanne’s pepper plot. He and a handful of small producers set about trying to protect Piment d’Espelette from counterfeit products by pursuing the provenance and quality designation AOC. In 1997 they succeeded and in 2001 it became official.
Vincent and his wife Edith still have a home and office (a nicely converted barn built by Vincent’s father) on their familial property. Since two of the five hectares of Piment d’Espelette are just across the bridge over La Nive river (think rich alluvial fill), Vincent is able to ramble his way to work.
La Maison du Piment cultivates a total of five hectares containing 96,000 plants—certainly a different scale than his mother’s—and yet everything is much the same as in Marie-Jeanne’s era, including the fertilizer:pure animal!
Since the AOC prevents mechanization, the amount of handwork necessary to produce Piment d’Espelette is shocking. Here is the process: In early March, seeds are densely sprouted in the open-air greenhouses in a light potting medium. When they are about two to three inches tall, they are teased apart and placed individually into a plug of soil where they will grow in the green house until they are about ten inches high.
In late April (hopefully after the last frost), the seedlings are planted. The mature plant attains a height of about three to four feet, spaced about four feet apart (with the rows generously spaced about eight to ten feet). Since they are not allowed to spray or use mechanization, weeds abound. During the harvest, each field is passed over by hand every ten days.
The harvested peppers are sorted, with the very best going onto ropes to be cured and dried in open air. The others are ripened on wooden racks in open-air greenhouses for at least 15 days (per the AOP). After these obligatory two weeks plus one day, a team re-sorts for defects and the stem is removed by hand.
The remaining peppers are placed on the racks again, and put in a kiln to dry slowly at a temperature of 104–110 for one or two days as they turn from crimson to a deep maroon (interestingly, the bright orange-yellow filaments running through the pepper contain the spicy capsaicin).
The harvest goes from mid August until the first frost—usually the beginning of December. Finally, the peppers are ground to a prescribed mesh size and sacked or jarred or used to enhance other products.
Check out this video (in French) about La Maison du Piment, including some recipes for using Piment d'Espelette.