During the summer I was pretty excited to find jars of ground Espalette pepper, a sweet, smoky Basque chilli pepper with AOC status, on the Roots Deli stall at the High Wycombe Food Festival. After a chat and some cheese tasting with the owner, the lovely Les, he recommended using it to season food with a subtle spicy-smokiness, as well as being good in dressings, sauces, salads and Basque style dishes.
Like many ingredients I have excitedly pounced upon and carted home, the jar was soon relegated, unopened, the back of the cupboard, occasionally emerging to taunt me as I scrabbled around trying to find a tun of tuna or a bag of chickpeas for dinner. It was only after reading an article about the La Fete au Piment, which is held on the last weekend of October in the picturesque town of Espelette, that I realised this was the perfect time to dig it out.
La Fete au Piment sees 10 towns in the Pays Basque come together for two days of music, dancing, eating drinking and celebration centering on the humble pimenton. One speciality is the talos, a Basque maize flour tortilla, hand made and grilled over coals with toppings including smoked bacon, cheese and chocolate. Whole mutton are grilled by the banks of the river, accompanied by white beans with Espalette pepper and washed down with barrels of cider, and there is even a blessing for the chilli harvest held at the church of St Etienne.
My plans were to be rather simpler - Cod Basquaise; a classic dish featuring a thick piece of milky white, lightly salted, line caught fish served with a ragout of peppers, tomato, smoked ham, and of course the Piment D'Espelette. Chuck in a few new potatoes to soak up the rich, smoky juices and you have the perfect late summer/early autumn fare.
2 thick cod (or whitefish fillets) about 175g
Sea salt flakes
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 large red pepper, cut into strips
1 large yellow pepper, cut into strips
1 clove of garlic, crushed
3 slices Bayonne or Serrano ham, diced
2 large tomatoes, diced
Splash of red wine
Pinch of sugar
2 tsp Piment D'Espelette (or smoked paprika)
Large sprig of thyme
Sprinkle both sides of the fish with salt, place in a non metallic dish and refrigerate for an hour.
Meanwhile heat olive oil in a pan and gently sweat onion. Add garlic, peppers and ham and cook until the peppers and onions are soft.
Add tomatoes, thyme, red wine and sugar and cook on a low heat for 15 minutes until sauce is reduced. Season with salt and Piment D'Espelette.
Remove fish from fridge, pour away any liquid and rinse fish thoroughly under running water. Dry on kitchen paper.
Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and cook fish until golden on each side and just cooked in the middle (about 4-5 minutes on first side, flip and cook for a further 3-4 minutes).
Spoon the Basquaise sauce into warmed bowls and top with the fish and a few fresh thyme leaves.
Serve with new potatoes or country bread
I like to lightly salt the cod before using, as it firms up the flesh and produces a deeper flavour. Of course any firm white fish would work well too.