Not far from here, nestled amongst the foothills of the Pyrenees, sits a small traditional Basque village. The white washed houses and dark red beams so typical of Basque country are further accentuated by the addition of thousands upon thousands of plump red peppers strung up to dry on all the houses. This is not just any small village, Espelette, famed for the punchy little chillis is a national treasure and a cornerstone of Basque culinary heritage, so much so that it has classified with an AOC (Appellation d’origine controlee) much the same as a PGI (protected geographical status) we get in the UK.
France in general, and many of you may have also noticed this on your travels, don’t seem to be advocates of the chilli pepper. The Gallic palate is clearly not designed to embrace the spicy heat after centuries of being attuned to fine wines, strong cheese, and if I may be so bold to hit upon the presumptuous cliché of garlic and onions. Might I add, just to clear up a few things- Gauls don’t actually smell of these two fruits of the earth…or wear berets, or black & white stripy tops. But they do occasionally say ‘Ooh lala’ and are frequently seen brandishing baguettes, especially around midday. Down in this corner of South West France, and being so close to Spain the Espelette pepper has managed to gradually win over a fair few Frenchies, the dried, ground down peppers have replaced the use of black pepper in some cases: Bayonne ham (another AOC) is rubbed down with a paste of piment d’espelette during the curing process giving the ham a distinctive flavour. In Bayonne, many restaurants will serve ‘Bayonnaise’ a mixture of mayo and Espelette chilli powder- punchy and delicious with a bowl of frites.
The peppers themselves are grown in and around the communes of Espelette and Cambo Les Bains, vast fields of green are peppered (please excuse the Hugh Punely-Whittisism, but seriously, how many can he fit into one programme?!) with bright red chillis- quite a sight to behold in the open air, as opposed to being in the UK where they are shrouded in Polytunnel.
Espelette peppers are not all that hot- bite off the end of one and you would barely even feel a hint of warmth. However, munch down to the business end of the pepper, where the seeds are housed, and you will feel the endorphins start to flow as 4000 Scolville units assault your senses. This is a mistake I have made many a time when adding Espelettes to any dish, much like playing a game of Russian roulette with the fairly harmless ‘Pimiento de Padron’, a small green chilli from Spain and tapas favourite: the seeds are where the heat is and just because the flesh is bearable, the seeds will hit you where it hurts.
When I drove down to Espelette last week on a dual mission to see the village and explore the ‘Gaves’ or trout streams of the Pyrenees, I arrived to a very sleepy village, empty streets, the odd tourist (not sure if I classify as one or not) and millions of chillis. I browsed the shops and bought a rather expensive salami to go with my bread and cheese for lunch up on the mountain streams, not to mention picking up plenty of Espelette peppers- fresh and dried to play around with in the kitchen when I got home- perhaps with some fish?
As it happened, no fish, so soup it was with leftover bread. Basque soup to be precise, well my take on it at least. The chillis will create a gentle heat to the soup perfect to offset the winter blues. This soup is not so far removed from a good bolognaise sauce and as I made such a huge amount of the stuff, the rest was infused with a little red wine, reduced and thickened before being jarred up for later use. Thrifty.
- 8 Espelette Chillis (or 4 de-seeded red chillis)
- 5 large tomatoes
- 2 medium carrots
- 1 red pepper
- 1 large red onion
- 2 sticks of celery
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 sprig of thyme
- 1 TBSP of white sugar
- 2 TBSP of cider vinegar
- 2TBSP olive oil
- 1.2L hot vegetable stock (2 stock cubes)
- Salt & pepper
Heat up a large saucepan and add the olive oil, finely chop the carrots, red pepper, onion, celery and garlic and stick it in the saucepan. De-seed and finely chop the Espelette chillis and add them to the pan and keep a few seeds aside to add for a bit of warmth if you fancy it, sauté gently for ten minutes.
Slice the tomatoes into wedges and remove the white cores. Add the tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt and sprig of thyme, lower the heat and place the lid on top to allow the tomatoes to gently stew down for a further 10 minutes.
Make up the Veg stock, and slowly add it to the pan, stirring all the time, turn the heat back up until everything is on a fierce boil, then turn the heat back down and simmer for 20 minutes.
Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a bit then blitz it through a blender in batches- as to how long is up to you and how smooth you want your soup. Once blitzed, return to the pan and re-heat- adjust seasoning and serve, with plenty of bread and a dollop of sour cream if you think it is a bit to spicy for your liking.