A Basque Chilli, Mexican cousin
Adding to the magic of the cooking in this region is the Espelette Chilli. This Chilli has received protected variety status, a recognition only given to products that have developed a distinct and recognisable association with a particular area. This status gives protection to growers and processors that only a product that has actually been grown in a particular area can be sold commercially under that name.
This is not to say that the Espellete originally came from the Espelette Commune of Pyrénées-Atlantiques in France (from which it gets its name). It originated in South America and was brought to France in the 16th century. It is only because the Espelette was specifically cultivated in the area by growers to develop desirable and unique characteristics (like its distinct taste) that it has qualified it for its special status. This distinct taste is described as being mild with notes of citrus, hay, and tomatoes.
Having said which, what is so special about this Chilli? It would seem that the Espelette was brought to the area by a Basque seafarer from Mexico four hundred years ago. He planted the seeds, and they thrived. It appears that the microclimate of the area was ideal for the plant. As with wine, the area in which a plant is grown will impart its own special characteristics to the fruit it produces. Over time and special care, the locals turned it into what it is today—a Chilli with an exceptional flavour and colour.
With a bright red colour, the Espelette is about 10 cm long, with a cylindrical shape. It is dried in a specific fashion that includes air drying in open crates and finished in an oven at low temperature to remove moisture. The dried chilli is then ground to pieces that are a maximum of 5 mm before being packaged. In keeping with its South American heritage, when dried, this Chilli appears similar to the Mexican Guajillo (which it probably was in the first place).
The Espellete is used in the region to cure and flavour hams and sausages. It is an essential ingredient in Basque dishes like Piperade, Poulet Basquaise (Basque Chicken) and Axoa de Veau (stewed veal). It is not particularly hot, with a Scoville rating of between 500 and 4000 SHU, and has a smoky, citrus-like flavour with a hint of saltiness. It is excellent with eggs, and some famous chefs even advocate using it in desserts.