Exploring France: Pays Basque: Piment d’Espelette

15 05 2009

When did it get to be May 15th?  And here I am, writing my first post for what is supposed to be “Basque month.”  I have been doing some research, but so far that has not been apparent on my blog.  At any rate, I’m kicking things off with one of the produits phares* of the Basque Country.

Piment d'Espelette in its dried, ground, jarred form

Piment d’Espelette is a mild (around 4,000 on the Scoville scale for you chili geeks out there) red pepper with hints of smoke and a slight bittersweet quality.  It was brought to Europe from Mexico in the 16th century, along with many other New World food “discoveries” such as potatoes, tomatoes, and corn.  The Basque country was found to be an ideal climate for cultivating the small, elongated, bright red peppers, and the piment d’Espelette soon became an integral part of Basque cooking.  It gained AOC status in 2000, and now commands fairly hefty price tags.  On account of this, I had been holding off buying some, until one day, browsing in G. Detou (after stops at La Bovida and Mora– Les Halles can be dangerous!) I found a jar of that lovely reddish-orange powder for half of what they were charging at the grocery store.  I also came home with 3 kilos of Valrhona cocoa powder, but that’s neither here nor there.

The humble beginnnings of a tasty pasta sauce

I’ve been using it sparingly here and there, but this week, all that changed.  Apparently Spring’s sudden onslaught (and just as sudden retreat) has wreaked a bit of havoc on the farms that provide me with my CSA panier.  The bag was positively bulging the previous week, with more lettuce than two people could possibly eat in a week, barring some kind of fad diet.  This week, though, they had to supplement with some zucchini from the Drôme.  And they are beauties.  Small, slender and sweet, they gave me the urge to sauté them up with a little tomato and toss them over a big bowl of whole wheat spaghetti.  And then it occurred to me that the piment d’Espelette might be just the thing for a light, summery pasta dish such as this one.  And it was.  The faint heat was a great match for the fresh, sweet zucchini.  I see piment d’Espelette playing a pretty big role in my kitchen this summer.  Good thing I know where to get it cheap.

*WATCH! As my grasp of the English language slowly devolves into franglais.  Literally, this phrase says “lighthouse products,” but obviously that’s not what it means.  Maybe “beacon” would be a better translation.  Anyway, it’s a product that gets a lot of attention, or is especially connected with a region or company.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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