Espelette chile peppers are grown in and around the village of Espelette, in the Nive Valley, in the Basque region of France, 4 miles (7 km) from the Spanish border. By law, to be called Espelette chile peppers, they can be only grown in 10 communities: Espelette, Ainhoa, Cambo les Bains, Halsou, Itsassou, Jatsou, Laressore, St-Pee sur Nivelle, Souraide, and Ustarritz.
The pepper plants are started indoors in March, and planted out in the fields between April and July. Each plant grows 19 to 23 inches (50 to 60 cm) tall, and will produce about 20 peppers, weighing in total 21 to 24 oz (600 to 700 g.)
The peppers are about 4 to 5 inches (10 to 12 cm) long, tapered, and have a very mild taste, no hotter than the hottest paprika.
During August through to September, the peppers start ripening from green to red, and are harvested when fully ripened.
They are strung through their stems into garlands, and hung on racks on the southern sides of houses and buildings to sun dry for several weeks. Then they are roasted in an oven, and ground into a powder for use or sale.
Some are not dried, however. They made be sold fresh, or ones that look less than perfect may be processed into a paste labelled “purée.”
Some are also sold whole in brine, or pickled.
A cream is also sold, which is even milder than the paste.
1 December 1999 Espellette pepper producers were granted a French AOC for both the peppers and its products.
See also: Brebis au piment d’Espelette
Originated in the New World, probably Mexico. Possibly introduced into the region in 1523 by a man named Gonzalo Percaztegi.
The stringing them into garlands started around 1940, as harvest increased.
Literature & Lore
There are around 2000 people in the village of Espelette (2005 figures.) A festival, started in 1967, is held to celebrate the peppers on the last Sunday of October. Strings are brought to Church that day to be blessed.
Espelette means “place planted with Boxwood shrubs.” The name, though, doesn’t refer to Espelette itself. Rather, it refers to the family name of the barons of Espelette, after whom the locale was named. They came from Navarre where Boxwood was plentiful. They built their first castle in Espelette around 1000 AD. The last one in the family died in 1694, leaving title to the castle and seigneural rights to the inhabitants of the village.
In Basque, called “Ezpeletako bipera.”