Espelette powder, produced for centuries in the Basque country of southwestern France, is the aristocrat of the chile world. It’s only moderately hot, but has a touch of sweetness, a rich aroma of roasted tomatoes and peppers, and a complex, lingering aftertaste, imparting distinction to foods from omelets to octopuses. Now it’s catching on with California growers, including Kenter Canyon Farms of Fillmore, which just started selling the freshly ground spice at local farmers markets.
The original French powder may have tradition, terroir, and an Appellation d’Origine Protégée, but the California version has the advantages of being locally grown, organic and, most crucially, very fresh. The imported Espelette sold in stores may be a year or more old, and over time ground chile tends to lose aroma and develop a slight unpleasant bitterness. The Kenter powder is deep red-orange and exquisitely fragrant.
“It’s extremely good, with a lot more aroma than the French product,” said Nicolas Peters, executive chef of The Little Door restaurants, who grew up in southern France and loves Espelette powder. Recently he used it on Marcona almonds smoked with rosemary and olive oil; in a bouillabaisse broth with cod, clams and sunchoke purée; and in a saffron sauce for sea bass.
Kenter Canyon, owned by Robert Dedlow and his wife, Andrea Crawford, is best known for their organic greens and herbs, but they recently branched out into more unusual ventures such as growing heirloom wheat and baking bread from it. Growing chiles and making powder has been more of a fun project than a major business, said Dedlow on a recent visit to his office.
This spring Dedlow planted an acre of chiles to sell fresh, dried and in powders, including Espelette, Cayenne (more unidimensionally sharp and hot) and Padron (surprisingly spicy and intensely flavored). He and his wife are still refining the pod-grinding process (French Espelette is a bit more fine-textured), the packaging and the price (currently $20 for a glass bottle containing 25 grams), but last week they started to sell their powders at farmers markets at Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica (Wednesday); soon they'll add Santa Monica (Virginia Park) and Calabasas.
Several other local sources make Espelette products available, starting with Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, who will sell ristras made from the dried peppers at the Santa Monica market next Wednesday. Steven Sprinkel and Olivia Chase offer their organic Espelette and Cayenne powders at the Farmer and the Cook Market & Café in Ojai.
Barbara and Bill Spencer of Windrose Farm will sell biodynamic Espelette chile powder at the Santa Monica (Wednesday) and Hollywood farmers markets in January. Jennifer Little and James Imhoff of Little Farm Fresh will offer homegrown Espelette and other chile powders when they return from family leave to the Beverly Hills farmers market in the new year. And Monsieur Marcel has the original French Espelette powder at its shop at the Original Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax.