Everybody and everything was damp at Wednesday’s Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. The crowd was noticeably thin and sales were down—“at least fifty percent” I overheard one farmer say—yet Alex Weiser was smiling. “Isn’t it great?!” he said, gesturing up towards the thick, unrelenting sky. “But what we really need is snow,” he said, his tone becoming serious. Down the street at Cuyama Orchard’s farm-stand, a salesperson thanked a customer for braving “the storm.” “Even when it rains,” the gentleman replied, “I still gotta eat.”
The set-up at Kenter Canyon Farms, which on a sunny day is stacked high with loaves of Roan Mills Red Fife boules and blonde Sonora wheat baguettes, was reduced to two folding tables, each with a modest display of bread, one pound bags of farro and owner Andrea Crawford’s latest endeavor: organic Espelette pepper.
Epelette is a town in the French Pyrenees in an area that is both French and Basque—a word and a culture we associate more with their Spanish neighbors to the South. The Espelette pepper has AOC status (which means the name is protected like Champagne or Roquefort), so peppers grown outside of the region should not technically be called Espelette, but that doesn’t deter Andrea Crawford. “The Espelette police may come after us, who knows?” she says laughing. “But we’ll deal with that when it happens, I guess.”
Alex Weiser, who was the first farmer to bring the peppers to market, is less comfortable calling them by their French name. “It’s just like certain onion varieties—Mauis, Vidalias and Walla Wallas—they are all a sweet Yellow Granex, but grown in Maui it’s a Maui. That’s why I call my onions Lucerne Valley Sweets,” he says.
Weiser was inspired to grow the Espelette-type peppers after several trips to Spain. Seeing his crop on the table last summer provoked Andrea Crawford to give it a try. “I bought a ristra from him and saved the seeds, and we said, ‘Why don’t we grow some? That would be fun to have.’” One hundred and fifty plants later, Andrea and her husband Robert have entered Southern California’s Espelette market in a big way, first selling their fresh chiles and now bringing both whole dried chiles and ground Espelette pepper to local markets.
When dried, the brick red peppers are prized for their complex flavor profile. Crawford lists tomato notes, subtle spice and a hint of smokiness as part of the appeal. Across town at Bar Stella, the ground pepper is mixed with salt before lining the rim of the Soriano—a riff on the margarita that combines Chareau Aloe Liqueur, lemon juice, pineapple gomme, Sazerac rye, Angostura bitters, cucumber and, of course, Espelette. “I guess you could say its one of our secret ingredients in our cocktail program, says general manager Michael Grobstein. “It provides great contrast as a garnish and its French history is perfect fit for Cafe Stella.”
For Crawford, a bottle of ground Espelette is stashed in her purse at all times. “The main thing is that Espelette should be put on everything,” she says. “I am not kidding about that, it really brings up food.”
Where to find local Espelette peppers: Look for whole dried peppers and ground pepper at Kenter Canyon Farms (Wednesday Santa Monica and Sunday Hollywood). In the late summer and early fall look for fresh Espelette at both Kenter Canyon Farms and Weiser Family Farms.