Post and Courier
September 21, 2014

Basque specialty espelette pepper finds favor among Charleston chefs

Posted: 07/15/2014 05:05 p.m.


By Hanna Raskin

Espelette (ehs-peh-leht)

What it means

As peppers go, the espelette is not particularly hot: It's a shade spicier than a poblano, but doesn't have as much kick as most jalapenos. But it's the espelette's mildness, along with its smoky, sweet flavor and deep red coloring scheme, that's made it popular in restaurant kitchens.

Although the espelette is native to South America, it's been cultivated in the Basque region of France and Spain since European explorers toted it home in the 16th century. Regional dishes, including a tuna stew, seafood stew and piperade, a tomato-based sauce for eggs and ham, rely on it. Beyond Basque country, espelette is typically sold in powdered form: Growers string up the peppers and sun-dry them before grinding. Last year, growers produced nearly 250,000 pounds of espelette power.

Although the figure represents a slight drop from 2012, The Telegraph last year reported espelette production has increased substantially since 1999, when 10 Basque villages were granted AOC status. The designation means espelette peppers can't be commercially produced outside of the 3,000-acre area, a rule that's no doubt made the Piment d'Espelette Festival, held every October in Espelette, France, even hotter.

Where we saw it

Blossom (Seafood stew of fish, mussels, shrimp, fennel, chorizo, espelette pepper broth, $18)

Where else you can try it

On the appetizer end of menus, Leaf Restaurant and Warehouse both pair an espelette aioli with fried oysters, while Husk finishes its blistered shishito peppers with espelette. Espelette aioli also appears on Vincent Chicco's brodetto.

Where to buy it

The Spice & Tea Exchange in Charleston doesn't carry espelette pepper. "And if we don't, it's going to be tough," an employee said of the chances of finding the pepper locally. But Sur La Table sells a 3/4-ounce jar for $12.95, plus shipping. www.surlatable.com