Espelette – The Pepper of the Basque



Today I got the email from Dutch’s sous chef  that I had been waiting for over a week.   Basque sausages are in!    They had just been made this morning.    I had till 9 at night to stop by my neighborhood charcuterie and pick up some of these delicacies.

I’ve been enamored with the Basque region since high school after reading, The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway.     In the 1926 classic, he romanticizes the whole festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain, where the infamous running of the bulls happens every July.    I love the culture, the passion of the Basque people and their food.  And, travel there is high on my bucket list.   I want to see the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, and I want to dance and drink at all the little festivals til the sun comes up.

So, if I can’t go to the Basque now, I’ll taste its flavors until I get there.

As the butcher who made said Basque sausages was talking me through their ingredients – roasted red bell pepper, pork, garlic –  I stopped him at Espelette.    What the hell is that, I asked?   I had never heard of that one before.    He said it was the pepper of the Basque region and the cornerstone of their regional cooking.   It’s sort of like paprika, but has a subtle otherness that paprika doesn’t.   He brought over the container of dried Espelette and let me take a whiff.   There was definitely the smokiness  of paprika, but there was a sweetness, and this other worldly sort of scent that was reminiscent of Grippos potato chip spice and a Vietnamese-Chinese sausage spice my roommate in college used to bring from home.    It was exotic and lovely and I can’t wait to use them in a weekend meal.

My weekend scavenger hunt is to see if Colonel D’s at Findlay Market has Espelette.  Hmm – I wonder how it would taste in Cincinnati chili?

The butcher at Dutch’s  learned his sausage art, oddly enough, making the homemade meatballs and sausages at Mt Lookout’s Ramundo’s pizza on the square.  I had no idea they made all their own.

Because this was such a clean and mild sausage, he recommended cooking it in hot water and olive oil – sort of like sous-vide and then give it a couple of turns in a pan or on a grill for the sear.      He said the mistake most people make is grilling or searing a nice sausage at too high a heat, bursting the skin and letting all the flavors out.

So this weekend, I’ll break out my beret, some good Spanish wine, and cook some wonderful Basque sausage – all are welcome – just bring more wine!


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