Bust A Capsicum

Espelette peppers, named for the town in Basque France that made them famous, are a unique food. Dried and ground, they have a particular aromatic quality: earthy and yet bright at the same time, with a fairly gentle but insistent heat that represents (in general, based on my own anecdotal experience) the upper limit of most French palates’ tolerance for spiciness. The great hams of Bayonne are cured with copious pepper, and it gives them a gorgeous flavor and tint. It’s not really a cooking spice, but rather a finishing one, especially given how much money a small jar commands. A pinch sprinkled on top of fish, chicken, or potatoes (or a hundred other things) adds an irresistible trebly zing and a not insignificant coloristic bump.

When I returned from France—almost exactly a year ago, if you can imagine that—I brought some seeds that Kate gave me. The year before, another friend gave me some seeds, but I planted them too early and a cold wet spell rotted them all. Last summer I got a good crop, though they ripen late and need to be started indoors in this climate. Lesson learned. I saved their seeds after I crumbled them into the spice grinder, dividing them up into two piles: the ones the ripened fully and the ones that didn’t. We’ll see how they do this year with a head start. In any case, I now have a nice supply of my own highly aromatic and piquant vemillion powder to reach for every time I’m siezed with Iberian urges. Which is often; I have a post about some scallops that needs writing.

This hardly qualifies as a recipe, but it’s worth mentioning because of the noticeable difference between the homemade version and the stuff one pays for. This is of course true for almost anything, but when it’s a one-ingredient preparation like this the subtle details are all the more vivid. When you buy a powdered spice, you have no idea how long it has sat on a shelf. The likelihood of it sharing more than a few properties with sawdust is thus higher than ideal. If growing such things is not an option, then at least get yourself a grinder, buy whole spices, and grind them as needed. Your curries, moles, and chili will thank you. Remember, though, that when grinding chiles, especially hot ones like cayenne—which I also ground, both regular and smoked, plus ripe serranos, and all went into different jars—do it near your vent hood or wear a mask. I’m not joking; depending on your exposure to the powder, effects can range from some light sneezing to a massively uncomfortable sino-respiratory catastrophe. And wear gloves.

3 comments to Bust A Capsicum

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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