Espelette pepper, from the field to the plate: Current Woman Le MAG


In a few years, Espelette pepper powder has crossed the borders of the Basque Country to become established in the cupboards of the French. However, nothing predestined this little pepper, brought back from Mexico by explorers, to meet such a fate. Not much more pungent than pepper, it has replaced it in local cuisine for more than three centuries.

Organic adventurer

Originally, it was the women who cultivated it in their vegetable garden and used it to prepare “pork”, then sold the surplus to local butchers to earn three cents. A worthy heiress of these pioneers of red powder, Laurence Lastiri, vice-president of the Syndicat du piment d’Espelette AOP, likes to explain all the particularities of this spice with its acclaimed flavors.

After a first life in catering, punctuated by many seasons abroad, she wanted to settle down to start a family. Almost 25 years ago, she started farming. “It was a challenge at the time, the Espelette pepper did not have the notoriety it has today, we were only about thirty to cultivate it“, she says. Her husband had just inherited a small plot of land in Larressore, so she teamed up with an agricultural technician to learn how to cultivate it. Happy to work in the open air, in this context exceptional lifestyle, organic farming has naturally imposed itself. “At the beginning, I cultivated in organic without being labelled. The other producers looked at me strangely, partly because I was a woman, but above all because I was organic!“His pepper has been certified AB for more than fifteen years.

Laurence Lastiri, producer of organic peppers. © MAISANT Ludovic / hemis.fr

From seed to pepper

Laurence now cultivates her plot alone. She rents a second field in Itxassou, which she works alternately to practice crop rotation. “This represents only half a hectare, I organize myself to be independent. I like working the land, and especially going from seed to marketing, on Wednesday mornings at the Espelette market. It’s the icing on the cake to talk about the product with consumers! As a child, I was already doing the markets with my butcher father.

Growing this little fruit requires many steps, spread over the year. “This is farm seed, so I harvest the seeds from early plants in the fall. I place these future seedlings on warm beds or heated tables before transplanting them.“After germination, they grow in greenhouses until May:”I bring some water, I watch for insects and I release predators, such as ladybugs that devour aphids. I don’t use fertilizer, but just before planting I dip them in manure. They are babies, they are very fragile!” she laughs.

In the spring, Laurence plants 7,000 to 8,000 plants by hand, and three weeks later she starts staking. It is also necessary to weed and hoe to oxygenate the soil, until the plants reach 1 meter in height in mid-July and give the first flowers. “The harvest takes place when it is red, in August and until the first frosts of November. I harvest continuously, flowers and peppers keep coming back.

© Syndicate of Espelette pepper

From fruit to powder

Unlike other market garden crops, Espelette peppers are rarely sold fresh. They must dry to allow their aromas to develop. “I clean them, I sort them and I put them on shelves in the greenhouse. I let them mature for three weeks in the ambient air.“The peppers can also be dehydrated on strings, according to the ancestral method: using a needle and string, a garland of 20 to 100 fruits is formed which will dry on the facades of farms and houses.

But the majority of peppers are processed into powder, which still requires several steps. “I start by removing the peduncle and I cut them in half, to check that there is no mold inside. I then place them again on shelves in a mechanical dryer for 36 hours at 50°C.“Laurence checks that they are ready and really crunchy before grinding them, in a machine which makes it possible to obtain a more or less fine grind, never exceeding 5 mm. She then packages the powder in large sachets, but must wait to sell it until it is controlled in order to obtain its designation, a guarantee of quality and authenticity for the consumer.

© MORANDI Tuul and Bruno / hemis.fr

A well-deserved AOP

The specifications are very strict: the powder contains only Espelette pepper, no preservatives, additives or colorants. It must also pass an organoleptic test evaluating its color, the intensity of its aromas and the quality of its spiciness. “Each production goes through an approval commission. The powders are tasted by producers, restaurateurs… Once the approval has been obtained, we are given the labels to put in pots; without this validation, the powder does not obtain the AOP.“The jury makes sure that we find these slightly sweet flavors, with vegetal notes of tomato and pepper, aromas of hay and this toasted taste, reminiscent of toast. The producers, grouped in a syndicate since 1993, have demanded excellence in order to promote this local pepper and fight against counterfeits from Spain.They thus obtained the PDO in 2002 and worked for its notoriety, supported by chefs won over by its aromatic qualities.

Laurence Lastiri is very proud to have won the silver medal at the last Espelette pepper competition and several prizes at the Agricultural Show. At 60, she is preparing to hand over to her son-in-law and is delighted that the success of chilli is an economic lever for her region: “There’s a glass jar maker in Biarritzprinters who work for our labels, and the Syndicate helps young farmers to settle.” The succession is assured.

© JF TRIPELON-JARRY / ONLYFRANCE.FR

Not so spicy!

Espelette pepper can be used in all recipes, like pepper, because it burns little. The Scoville scale, which measures the strength of peppers, shows that the Basque flagship is much less hot (with a rating of 4 out of 10) than its Mexican cousin habanero (which has a rating of 10 out of 10).

Discover the land of Espelette pepper

Stroll through the spa town to discover pretty villas, visit Edmond Rostand’s museum house (arnaga.com), the Icon Chapel and its frescoes, the Saint-Laurent church, the chocolate museum (free admission) and taste chocolate with Espelette pepper (chocolats-puyodebat.com).

All the half-timbered facades are adorned with garlands of red fruits, they are revealed to photographers along the alleys, all pedestrianized. Visit Etxea, the interpretation center of the Syndicat des Producteurs, to learn all about the local pepper and taste it (free entry).

© MAISANT Ludovic / hemis.fr

Basque architecture is in the spotlight in the village with 7 pediments, the cradle of pelota. The astonishing Lota and Haltya castles are considered American residences, houses in a very quirky style, built by Basques who made their fortune across the Atlantic.

Listed among the most beautiful villages in France, this bastide designed to welcome pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela is 3 km from the border. Climb up to the Notre-Dame-de-l’Aubépine chapel (45 min walk) to enjoy the superb panoramic view of the village, the mountains and the coast.

Recipe of Basque chicken

For 6 persons
Preparation: 45 mins
Cooking: 1h15

  • 1 good free-range chicken
  • 4 peppers
  • 6 tomatoes
  • 2 onions
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 glass of dry white wine
  • 5 cl of oil
  • salt
  • Espelette pepper

Cut the chicken into pieces. In a casserole dish, brown them in hot oil.

Incise the tomatoes crosswise around the peduncle and immerse them for 20 seconds in boiling water. Peel and seed them, then chop the flesh.

Remove the chicken from the casserole and replace it with the peeled and minced garlic and onions.

Remove the membranes and seeds from the peppers, cut them into strips. Pour them into the pan and cook for 5 minutes.

Add the tomato and white wine, season with salt and Espelette pepper.

Put the chicken back in the pan and simmer for 45 minutes.

Adjust the seasoning and serve with rice.

Axoa recipe

For 6 persons
Preparation: 45 mins
Cooking: 55 mins

  • 1 kg sautéed veal (or shoulder)
  • 150g Bayonne ham
  • 8 sweet peppers
  • 2 bell peppers
  • 1 onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 1 branch of laurel
  • 1 glass of dry white wine
  • 1 tbsp. tablespoon Espelette pepper
  • salt
  • 2 tbsp. oil soup

Peel and chop the garlic and onion. Wash, seed and dice the chillies and peppers. Cut the veal and ham into small pieces.

In a large sauté pan, sauté the onion, peppers and peppers in hot oil for 5 minutes. Add the meat and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes.

Pour the white wine, thyme, bay leaf, salt and mix. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.

Add the Espelette pepper and simmer for another 15 minutes without covering.

Serve with steamed potatoes.

Find this article and many other topics to get away from it all and discover our French regions in the new magazine Femme Actuelle Escapades n°5, on newsstands June 7, 2022.

© Current Woman

Read also :

⋙ Espelette pepper: 35 recipes that awaken the taste buds

⋙ 5 good reasons to spice up your plate

⋙ How to dry peppers?

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