The Espelette pepper, also known as Piment d'Espelette, is a chili pepper cultivated in the French commune of Espelette, Pyrénées-Atlantiques. It is mildly hot, measuring up to 4,000 Scoville Heat Units.
Scoville Heat Units: up to 4,000 SHU
When it comes to Basque cuisine, the Espelette pepper reigns supreme. The Basque country straddles the borders between France and Spain, both of which influence the area's cooking techniques. The fact that it is flanked by the abundant sea on one side and fertile land on the other, you'll find a diversity of dishes, from seafood and meats to beans, cheeses, ciders and wines.
The Basque people were quick to adopt culinary influences, and came to adopt peppers as part of their cuisine, among other ingredients. A favorite among them is the Espelette pepper.
Because this pepper is so prevalent to the Basque region cuisine and economy, it was confirmed as an AOC product in 2000 and an APO product in August 2002. AOC stands for Appellation d’origine contrôlée, or “controlled designation of origin”.
This certification exists to protect the branding and quality of regional foods, such as wines and cheese. Champagne is a famous example. Much like "Hatch Chile Peppers" can only be called Hatch Peppers if they are grown in the Hatch region of New Mexico, Espelette peppers must be grown in the French Espelette region. Otherwise, they would be called by another name.
About the Espelette Pepper
The red peppers originated in Central and South America, but was adopted by the Basque people in the 16th century. The peppers grow from green and mature to a vibrant red color. The pods grow to about 6 inches long, often curve, and end in a defined point.
They are popular dried as well and often sold in powder form.
The peppers are cultivated in the French commune of Espelette, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, hence the name. The town of Espelette lies in the Labourd province interior and is best known for these peppers. A tour of the village would find quaint homes drying peppers from balconies, and local shops selling the peppers and other foods flavored with them.
In France it is known as "piment d espelette".
Espelette Pepper Festival
This pepper is so important to the region that they hold a yearly Espelette Pepper Festival (Ezpeleta Pepper Festival) in October to celebrate them. There you can taste peppers, purchase them, and also enjoy music, pelota games, parades, and Basque dancing.
The many restaurants are there to serve and delight you.
How Hot is the Espelette Pepper?
The Espelette reaches a maximum of 4,000 Scoville Heat Units on the Scoville Scale, so it considered more sweet than hot. Compare that to the popular jalapeno pepper which ranges from 2,500 to 8,000 SHU, and the hottest of them would be roughly equal to an average jalapeno pepper in heat.
As a comparison, the popular serrano pepper ranges from 10,000 SHU to 23,000 SHU.
Espelette Pepper Flavor Profile
The flavor is somewhat fruity and fresh, with mild hints of heat. You may notice some level of spiciness, as the peppers can range in heat, though nothing that overpowers, as well as a slight smokiness.
When dried and ground into a powder, you'll notice a stronger smoky sweetness element, akin to smoked paprika.
Growers follow specific specifications set forth by the trade union of Espelette peppers and treat the peppers much as wine growers treat grapes, with an eye toward growing conditions, weather patterns, soil and geology, all of which can affect the wonderful pepper flavor and aroma.
Cooking with the Espelette Pepper
French or Basque cuisine is ideal for this pepper, though you can incorporate it into numerous dishes. There is a piquant sauce called "basquaise" that incorporates Espelette powder along with tomatoes and fresh peppers that can be used to cook anything from lamb to seafood to vegetarian meals.
There is also a dish called "piperade", which is a famous Basque dish made with onion, peppers, tomatoes and Espelette peppers. It is much like a relish or a sauce.
In the region, they can be purchased as fresh or dried peppers, as ground pepper, or puréed or pickled.
Where Can I Buy Espelette Peppers?
Obtaining these peppers might provide difficult if you are not near the French region. However, you can order the powder version online. Here is an affiliate link from Amazon - Buy Espelette Power from Amazon, imported from France.
There are non-AOC Espelette peppers grown and marketed in California, so you can begin your search there.
What is Good Substitute for Espelette Peppers?
The best substitute is either sweet paprika or smoked paprika. Both of these chili powders will give you a similar flavor to the Espelette.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me or leave a comment below.
NOTE: This page was updated on 5/11/20 to include new information and photos. It was originally published on 7/6/17.