Like Champagne, Tequila, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, piment d'Espelette is one of those rare things regulated by AOC, meaning the product's name is tied to a specific region and can not technically be produced outside its designated origin. Piment d'Espelette is a chili pepper cultivated in the Basque town of Espelette. It's similar in flavor to paprika, though many chefs find its brand of smokiness and aromatics particularly bewitching. Of course, the pepper has been around forever, but recently I've seen its frequency rise on menus around town. Jasper's Corner Tap chef Adam Carpenter, a long-time lover of piment d'Espelette, suspects it's showing up more now because the price has recently become a bit more approachable. "There was a time when it was over $100 a pound," he says. "It was very scarce." Here's a glimpse of some places where piment d'Espelette is popping up these days.
Jasper's Corner Tap: The first item on the snack menu at Jasper's is Espelette chick peas. Chef Carpenter uses the pepper to lend a spiciness and chili flavor that slowly builds as you continue to eat. "I keep it simple and use a good quality chickpea and quickly fry it to order and then toss it with our house espelette“togarashi” blend. I use AOC piment d’Espelette powder with a little ground ginger, toasted sesame seeds, and a touch of yuzu powder. I find this make the chili more floral and vibrant. Then we garnish the plate with a lime. [sic]"
Heirloom Cafe: Chef-owner Matt Straus has a corn soup with fried shallots and piment d'Espelette on the menu at Heirloom from time to time. "The corn soup is really popular, and I think it had to do with the richness and texture of the corn and shallots, combined with the aromatics and smokiness of the pepper." Although it's not available right now, Straus may rotate it in during our Indian summer for a "last hurrah."
Txoko: Starring on pastry chef Ana Paliza-Brown's nuanced dessert menu is a chocolate torte with kumquats, star anise ice cream and piment d'Espelette. The smokey, spicey notes of the pepper add an extra layer of depth to the rich chocolate dessert.
Contigo: Althougth it's not technically piment d'Espellette, the varietal of pimenton chef-owner Brett Emerson uses is grown locally at La Tercera Farm and Tierra Vegetables. When the next batch is ready later this fall, he'll use it in a variety of dishes. "I find that the pepper's sweet spiciness goes particularly well with seafood tapas, especially octopus stews, our house cured salt cod buñuelos and, perhaps best of all, local Dungeness crab. We'll be using it in late fall to season Dungeness crab croquetas. Our locally grown piment d'Espelette is slightly more assertive than the genuine French Basque piment. I also like its sweet fruitiness, which I find reminiscent of ripe tomatoes."
So when you see "Espelette" on menus around town, now you know. Do drop us a line with other sightings and thoughts in the comments.