Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Espelette, the Devil, and the Details
Appellation d’origine contrôlée), espelette is an A.O.C. pepper. That means that the pepper can only be grown in ten authorized villages in the valley near Espelette (Ainhoa, Cambo-les-Bains, Espelette, Halsou, Jatxou, itxassou, Larressore, Pée Saint-sur-Nivelle, and Souraïde Ustaritz), hence the $10 per ounce price. It is used extensively in Basque cuisine, pipérade being the most famous dish. It is a shi-shi item. Is it worth it? That depends on your priorities, but you should certainly purchase it once and decide for yourself. If you are the type that buys the good anchovies, then yes, this is for you.
Espelette is not a hot pepper, though the heat can vary depending on all the normal climatic/soil/sun things. One container I used was quite hot, though generally they have only about one-third the heat of a jalapeno. The magic of the espelette is in its depth and range of flavors. For me it is sort of a cross between the fruitiness and tang of sumac and the much cheaper aleppo pepper. Aleppo (which is highly recommended as well for different reasons) has less fruit but more earthy-spice (like cumin, coriander, etc.) and can be found in most Middle-Eastern stores - will write on this one later. Espelette is quite pungent with a strong red fruity quality and also a floral tone. Its most famous attribute is an element of natural smokiness having nothing to do with smoking, unlike smoked Spanish paprika. Espelette therefore is a more delicate pepper. Though it can be used in robust dishes, like piperade, it will show its natural attributes best on a clean canvas. It performs very well with seafood (duh), utilized with clean and light flavors with a touch of natural sweetness and the umami character really brings the piquant and slightly tart flavors forward. It works well with citrus. Keeping it simple is key. Another way I have used it was in a simple fingerling potato salad that was only sliced fingerlings (gently simmer skin-on just until cooked, then slice hot and toss with ingredients while warm so that they absorb the ingredients and the starch creates a gentle binding creaminess), grey sea salt, lemon Agrumato oil and espelette. Add protein and some greenery, and you will look very, very sophisticated, if a little heavy.
Wine pairing: Espelette will rarely drive a pairing. After all, it is not like adding a teaspoon of anise to a dish. But, it can add heat and sharpness, and it has that delicate citrus floral thing, so these elements should be accounted for. Let's imagine that the potato preparation above is the dish as a simple appetizer. Txakoli is the regional drink to go to, it is the Basque Vinho Verde basically. Its attributes are low alcohol which handles the heat, very high acid that keeps it clean, and the wonderful freshness that would make your Italian grandmother blush. If you want to go Spanish an Albariño may work, but if you use enough pepper to make it hot, look elsewhere. My recommendation is to grab something that has a bit of smoke characteristic to echo the pepper, and just a touch of residual sugar to smooth the heat. If the potato dish mentioned above is used, I say grab an Alsatian Pinot Blanc (yes, the derided lowly Pinot Blanc) in the $10-$20 range. It has some of the Albarino characteristics wrapped in a totally different paradigmatic package. Pinot Gris can taste like peanut shells (especially in the Willamette Valley) and I just can't roll with it. It should have about five to seven grams of residual sugar per liter to tame a touch of heat, a whiff of smoke (from the auxerrois usually in the blend) and peach that works with the fruit of the pepper, and a medium body that matches the weight of potato and olive oil. Oh yeah, and it is cheap. If you must have Italian, go Catarratto from Sicily. Alto Adige Pinot Blancs are absolutely beautiful but they are dry and more crisp so let your heat level guide you. Add a few leaves of arugula and a couple of prawns, could not be easier. We are all Trader Joes whores.