It's become clear that Spain is, at least culinary speaking, hot right now. After the surge of upstart Amero-French bistros and brasseries transformed our dining landscape (and left us with such civilized French trappings as cheese for dessert), chefs moved on to the next big thing: Spain. There has been a lot of hoo-ha about El Bulli, Ferran Adria's laboratory of gastronomy hours from civilization in a Spanish coastal village, and food folks are equally excited about the Arzak family, in San Sebastian, where father and daughter work together to create mind-bending food that is both art and science. Years back, on the aforementioned trip to Alsace, I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Ms. Elena Arzak. She stands at roughly five feet tall, but is a true powerhouse and a generous spirit. While the rest of the chefs (notably the Parisians---sorry, but true) ignored me, Elena graciously joined me at table for the aforementioned beer soup.
While Arzak and Adria are all good, I'm really interested in the foods of the Basque region, the stretch of land that blends all things French with all things Spanish. It's a happy marriage, at least as far as the food is concerned, with the cheeses (look for Bleu des Basques and other sheep's milk cheeses, among them Erhaki, Ossau-Iraty and Petit Basque) of particular note. But perhaps the best thing to come out of Basque country is Piment D'Espelette. This dried, powdered red pepper resembles true Spanish paprika, and shares with paprika a warm, smoky, rich flavor. Underlying the mild heat is sweetness that reminds you that the peppers used in Piment D'Espelette are picked when dead-ripe, then sun-dried for two to three months to concentrate their flavo, after which they are quickly broiled and ground to a powder. Like a lot of great European foodstuffs, true Piment D'Espelette has been awarded with D.O.C status (Denominacion d'Origine Controle). D.O.C status means that Piment D'Espelette can only be produced in certain areas, during certain times of the year, and that production must adhere to standards that dictate everything from how ripe the peppers can be before harvest to how they must be dried and powdered. Giving a product D.O.C status protects its integrity and tradition, but it also keeps a lot of cheap imitators from producing inferior product and claiming it's the real thing. Currently, only 10 Basque villages are allowed to produce piment.
Espelette Pepper, also known in the Basque dialect as Ezpeletako BiPerra, is the ideal spice for fish and potatoes, for scrambled eggs, for little garlic crostini with white bean spread, for roast lamb...basically, it's the ideal spice. Best of all, unlike loads of kitchen tools, ingredients, and gadgets, a bottle of Piment is relatively inexpensive and will last for a long time in your kitchen, enlivening lots of formerly drab meals. At the end of October each year, a Piment D'Espelette festival is held in the Basque region. Having never seen it myself, I can only imagine that it's an unparalleled culinary event.
San Francisco chef Gerald Hirigoyen has a Basque restaurant here in the city, aptly named Piperade. Below, his recipe for--what else? Piperade! Piperade could be considered the building block of all Basque dishes, and it highlights the regional foods of Basque country--tomatoes, garlic, and piment.
Gerald Hirigoyen's Piperade
1/2 cup olive oil
1 small onion, finely sliced
6 anaheim chiles, seeded and finely sliced
6 garlic cloves, sliced
6 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 tsp. sugar
1/8 teaspoon Piment D'Espelette
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper
Heat the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions, chiles and garlic and cook for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, sugar, piment d'espelette and bay leaf, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, then reduce the heat and simmer 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Discard the bay leaf and serve warm, alongside eggs for an elegant brunch, or with fish, lamb, or chicken.