Despite Floods and a Tough Season Espelette Harvest Yields 1300 Tonnes of Peppers
Should the price of French Basque Espelette peppers and their dried dark-red derivatives go through the roof this year, blame the summer rain.
For as prizewinning growers Maritxu and Eric Amestoy can attest, devastating summer floods hit hard and saw the harvest of shiny red peppers from their 15,000 sq m smallholding drop from 880 kg last year to just 65 kg so far.
Despite this however France’s BFMTV reports that the AOP-protected area as a whole, reaped 1300 tonnes of a spice that has become very popular with many top chefs in France and elsewhere.
While they won a Medaille d’Or from the concours general agricole in Paris for their piment d’Espelette it has been a tough year for Maritxu and Eric Amestoy. The concours is judged on the previous year’s production and in 2013 these two farmers reaped 800 kilos of award- winning dried pepper from their tiny one and a half hectare farm.
This year’s extreme wet weather however led to wide-scale flooding in the ten communes covered by the Espelette AOP and so far this season the couple has only managed 65 kilos.
In late October every year the Fete d’Espelette take place in Espelette , some 24 kms south of Bayonne in the south-west, and this year there were almost perfect weather conditions, belying the tough times so many of the producers had been through earlier this year.
The streets of the picturesque little Pays Basque village nestling in the foothills of the Pyrenees are crammed over the last weekend of October by tourists, vendors and musicians, who come every year to celebrate the harvest of one of the world’s most famed peppers.
Espelette peppers were first introduced to the region by travelers who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his voyages of discovery from Spain to the Americas between 1492 and 1503. The crop adapted easily to the sunny conditions of the French part of the Pays Basque (that straddles the Pyrenees between France and Spain) and gained in popularity as a condiment favoured by the poor who were unable to afford real imported pepper.
At first the crop was grown by the women of the area who each cultivated a patch to generate a little side income. Today the piment d’Espelette has become an internationally recognised crop sought after by many of the world’s best known chefs and cooks.
The 10 different French communes permitted to produce it, now enjoy AOP (Appelation d’Origin Protegé) or protected origin status and the dried peppers sell for as much as 48 euros a kilo. It takes 7 kilos of peppers to produce 1 kilo of red pepper powder.
In the best French tradition several different derivatives are made from the pepper in addition to the dried product. These include a piment jelly that sells as an accompaniment for meat and fois gras as well as various mustards and oils.
The fete is an ideal place to sample some of the different products but visitors should expect a crowd as a tiny commune of just 1800 residents suddenly becomes host to an event attracting upward of 20,000 visitors.
While this year’s production was down by an estimated 30% the producers have banded together and even shared some of the harvest so that those hardest hit still had products to offer at the fete. Others sold raffle tickets in solidarity with the flood victims.
For producers like Maritxu and Eric this year may have been tough but it has in no way dampened their passion for their product.
Some years ago they were offered more land which would have given them capacity to increase production. Instead however, they chose to concentrate on quality rather than quantity, a mark perhaps of the wider dedication among small speciality producers of products depending on terroir for their uniqueness, to obsess about quality above constantly increasing profit.
The Espelette pepper is widely farmed in the cantons of Bayonne Nord; Anglet Nord; Bayonne Est; Bayonne Ouest; Anglet Sud; Biarritz Est; Biarritz Ouest; Saint Jean de Luz; Hendaye; Espelette; Ustaritz; Saint Pierre d’Irube; Hasparren; Labastide-Clairence; Bidache; Saint Palais; Iholdy; Saint Jean Pied de Port; Saint Etienne de Baigorry; Mauléon and Tardets.
The Espelette fete started in 1967 and was so successful, that today there is a Confrérie du Piment d’Espelette (Brotherhood of Espelette) who play a role as Espelette ambassadors and boost the activity of local producers, restaurateurs, canners and local merchants. The pepper is sown in March under frames.
Writer: Mike Alexander
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