The Espelette pepper is a bright red pepper grown in French Basque country, located in the southwestern Pyrénées-Atlantiques department, on the border of Spain.
Chili peppers, like all peppers, originated in the Americas and were brought to France for the first time in the 16th century. By 1650, the chili peppers had made their way to the southwest of France and found there a climate similar to their place of origin. Over time, this special local variety was developed by only selecting the best seeds to be kept and sown the next year. The traditional method of drying the peppers on the sides of houses has made the Espelette pepper an emblem of the Basque country and a characteristic staple of Basque cuisine.
Espelette pepper is only mildly hot (it measures between 1,000 and 3,500 on the Scoville spiciness scale, meaning its heat is somewhere between that of a banana pepper and a jalapeño). Its taste is well developed due to being dried for a long time in the sun. It has been used for more than five centuries as a replacement for table pepper in Basque cuisine. Because of this, it plays an important role in a large variety of local dishes, including piperade, ragout (Veal “Axoa”), Basque-style chicken dishes, pâtés, ham dishes, etc.
The peppers can be purchased in powder, which is made from grinding peppers that all must come from the same farm, in “cords” – that is, in groups of 20 to up to 100 peppers bundled together – or as whole fresh peppers, used for further processing.
In order to be approved for sale, a team of experts closely examines all Espelette peppers before being sold. From the seed to the pepper, farmers making Espelette peppers have to follow time-tested traditions developed over centuries in the local area. The area of production, processing and packaging of the peppers is limited to 10 communes surrounding the city of Espelette, and only one type of rustic seed is allowed to be grown. Harvest of the peppers must be done by hand, irrigation rules are strictly regulated, and the use of phytosanitary chemicals strictly limited. The peppers must be dried in open air for a minimum of 15 days, which is essential in the development of the pepper’s unique taste. This is then followed by further drying in the oven for several hours.