Fired up in France: A local pepper reveals a spicy history
Champagne wine, Roquefort cheese … In the village of Espelette, it’s a red pepper that’s synonymous with the area. Writer Kimberley Lovato takes a bite of Basque cuisine and discovers a story that spans more than three centuries and two continents.
In the one room factory of Romuntcho Pochelu’s farm, L'Atelier du Piment, in Espelette, France, the sweet smell of heated spice hangs in the air. Pochelu opens an oven the size of a large commercial refrigerator and reveals the aroma’s source. Trays of Piment d’Espelette, the town’s eponymous red pepper and a key ingredient in Basque cuisine, sit roasting at 140 degrees. Pochelu cautiously reaches in and pinches one with his fingertips. Pieces of the skin, now darkened to a rusty hue, crumble like parchment paper and flutter to the ground.
Slightly smoky and spicy, but not overpowering like cayenne, Piment d’Espelette has been cultivated for more than three centuries in Basque country, an area in southwestern France that spills into Spain. As a traveler, I find food is an easy entrée into understanding a place and its people, and the best stories often surface around the table or the stove. In this region, Piment d’Espelette is the chattiest storyteller of all.
“In the world, there’s not a lot of knowledge of where a particular spice, like cinnamon or paprika, comes from,” says Pochelu. “But the Piment d’Espelette is different. It has a story, a history, and a very specific provenance.”
A few hours after going into the ovens, the shriveled peppers will be ground into a coarse powder and poured into small 50-gram jars. To Pochelu’s great pride, these jars will be sealed with a label bearing the letters A.O.C., the acronym for appellation d’origine controlée, or controlled designation of origin.
Based on the idea of terroir, and most commonly associated with wine grapes, the A.O.C. distinction specifies the region in which a given agricultural product must be produced, protecting its authenticity and quality. In 1999, the French government bestowed Piment d’Espelette with this status, making it the only A.O.C. pepper in the country.
Only peppers grown in 10 Basque villages may call themselves Piment d’Espelette. In 2000, there were 23 producers in the region. Today, there are roughly 180, including Pochelu, who has become somewhat of an emissary for the region’s distinctive, yet little known pepper.
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Pleased (even amazed) that I’m interested in learning more about the Piment d’Espelette, Pochelu invites me to tag along with him, visiting other producers and his own farm and cooking school. He begins our day together with a tour of the little village of Espelette, which lasts less than 15 minutes. Rain and hail have been pummeling the tiled roofs for most of the morning, chasing away the usual crowds of swivel-headed tourists. As we walk along the glossy wet streets, I’m struck by the sheer volume of peppers. Large clusters of Piment d’Espelette, some fiery red and plump, others sun-dried and withered, dangle from the eaves, balconies, shutters, and facades of just about every stark white building on the town’s main street.
“Behind these facades and these strings of peppers, there is a real story of Basque people, of Basque tradition, and a way of life for more than 300 years,” says Pochelu.
He tells me that a Basque sailor named Gonzalo de Percarteguy first brought the peppers back to his home near Espelette in the early 1500s after accompanying Christopher Columbus on his second trip to the Americas. By the mid 1600s, the peppers, then called Gorria (the Basque word for red) were grown on most family farms in the region and hung on strings to dry.
“But that’s mostly a practice for tourists and pictures now,” he laughs, though he admits the scenic symbol is a daily reminder of the Basque heritage that lives on in the village.
Our next stop is the ivy and pepper covered Hotel Euzkadi, where we warm up over coffee with the mayor of Espelette, André Darraidou, whose family is one of the oldest in the region, and Romuntxo Lucuona, president of the local Syndicat du Piment d’Espelette (kind of like a trade union for the pepper producers). This trio was instrumental in obtaining the A.O.C. designation for the Espelette pepper, which they say took 30 years.
Like water rolling to a boil, the conversation gets livelier by the minute. The three voices grow louder, one over the other; their hands punching the air like exclamation points. They discuss the language (Basque has only been taught in local schools for the last 20 years; prior to that it was French only) and Pelota, a court sport played with a basket-like glove and a ball that’s hurled against a wall called a Fronton, which can be found in just about every village in the Basque country. Pochelu maneuvers the conversation back to the pepper every chance he gets and asks me what Americans know about the Piment d’Espelette.
“Not much,” I tell him. “Maybe only chefs in big cities and food curious folks like me have ever heard of it.” He doesn’t seem surprised. I ask the men what they’d like people to know.
“The Basque culture is disappearing and we’re trying to hold on to our language and culture, but it is hard,” Darraidou says. “We don’t want our culture to be something you read about in a museum, but a living, breathing way of life.”
The peppers—growing them, protecting them, and passing on these traditions—propel the Basque heritage through the generations says Pochelu.
Back on Pochelu’s farm, we walk between rows of hip-high bushes, my feet sinking into the muddy earth. Two weeks ago, workers hand-harvested thousands of Piment d’Espelette and transferred them to the greenhouse, where they now blanket mesh racks in rows twenty to thirty feet long.
Last year, Pochelu built and opened a boutique and cooking school next door to his farm, “because when you love what you do, you love to share,” he says. Inside, bottles of Basque wines and boxes of chocolate line the shelves, and a glass case displays products containing Piment d’Espelette, such as a round sausage called a Beret Basque and sheep’s milk cheese brightened with the spice.
On a cutting board in the teaching kitchen, Pochelu and I chop bell peppers, onions, and garlic, and we thinly slice veal for Axoa, a traditional stew that originated in Esplette. After sautéing the ingredients on a hot griddle, we add the final flourish to our lunch—a sprinkling of the town’s trademark pepper.
“We have something very specific here, very different, which is why we wanted the A.O.C. protection,” says Pochelu, the consummate ambassador for his beloved spice. “The smell, the taste of this pepper is very unusual. It’s not like a hot pepper, or a jalapeno that most of the world knows.”
He pours a small amount of cream over the grillade, tosses it into a bowl and hands it to me with a fork. As I take my first bite, he asks me what I think it tastes like.
All day Pochelu repeated that the Piment d’Espelette is a story of the Basque people. And after swapping tales with the mayor, sinking my feet into Basque earth, and listening to pepper-spiced history lessons, I’m a believer.
I want to say it’s good, yummy, swell, or some other banal adjective I learned in high-school French, but the words are not befitting. So I answer the best way I can think of. “It taste like the Basque country,” I say.
Pochelu nods, satisfied, at least for the moment, that he’s recruited another crusader to his cause.