When I moved to Paris, I never expected that French cuisine, known for its subtlety and refinement, would have anything to teach my palate about heat. And then I discovered Piment d'Espelette, a homegrown hot red pepper with an understated bite. The fragrant, piquant powder that is now a staple in my spice pantry begins in the village of Espelette in the southwest Basque region of France. In summertime, strings of the red peppers hang from balconies and on the facades of its white houses to dry in the sun.
Espelette peppers are harvested in early August and by September, much of the harvest has been ground to a powder or made into piment-based jam or jelly, piment-infused oil or sea salt. Piment d'Espelette is a 4/10 on the Scoville scale, and its fruity, prickly heat infuses a classic poulet basquaise, perks up roast potatoes, a piece of cod or a plate of eggs. And chefs all over France use it in place of black pepper to garnish any number of preparations by adding color, flavor and a bit of sass.
Piment d'Espelette has been an AOC-designated product since 1999 and 10 areas surrounding Espelette are allowed to label their product with the official name. Every October, the Celebration of Peppers takes place in the village of Espelette.