Continuing with our occasional series on Basque terroir, today we’re celebrating Ezpeletako biperra, the red chili pepper of Ezpeleta, Lapurdi. Chili peppers, native of course to the Americas, were introduced into France in the 16th century, and chili pepper cultivation in and around Ezpeleta began in the mid-17th century. Although originally used for medicinal purposes, it was later embraced as a means of conserving meats, and later still as an ingredient in many different recipes. Today it enjoys both controlled designation and protection of origin status.
These chili peppers are not just cultivated in Ezpeleta, but in nine other towns in the same area: Ainhoa, Haltsu, Itsasu, Jatsu, Kanbo, Larresoro, Senpere, Uztaritze, and Zuraide. They are harvested in late summer and hung outside, typically on the facades or balconies of buildings, to dry in the early fall. The annual Ezpeleta chili pepper festival, held during the last weekend of October, is a major event in Iparralde, attracting thousands of visitors every year.
Their protected status means that certain protocols must be followed in the cultivation process: there must be between 10-20,000 plants per hectare in the plots where the chili pepper is cultivated; watering is forbidden, except during the months immediately after planting (May-June) or in the event of a drought; the plants must be harvested by hand, and harvesting season runs from August until the first frost of the year.
According to Wikipedia, the Ezpeleta chili pepper attains only a maximum grade of 4,000 on the Scoville scale and is therefore considered only mildly hot. It can be purchased as festoons of fresh or dried peppers, as ground pepper, or pureed or pickled in jars.
Nowadays, it is a key ingredient in the cuisine of Iparralde. Specifically, it is used to cure the famed Baiona ham, and is also the key ingredient in piperrada sauce, a blend of mild green chili peppers, the red Ezpeleta peppers, white onion, and tomatoes (forming the green, red, and white of the Basque flag). This base sauce can then be added to, for example, with minced beef (to make the dish known as axoa) or grilled or roast chicken; or it can be served separately as a starter or main dish with the addition of eggs, scrambled into the sauce, and/or slices of Baiona ham. And if all that were not enough, you can always finish up a meal with some Baiona chocolate infused with Ezpeleta chili pepper, as noted in a previous post here.