Piperade is a Basque dish from the Midi-Pyrénées region of southwest France. It is often called a “Spanish omelet” as the Basque people on the other side of the French-Spanish border share the same language, cuisine and culture as the Basques of French origin.
The French name, dating back to the early 1800’s, comes from the Latin word piper and denotes ground pepper from peppercorns. From there the Béarnaise dialect coined the word “piperade” to describe a dish of beaten eggs with tomatoes and bell peppers, usually seasoned with hot red pepper. The Béarnaise and the Basques are neighbors in the French Pyrénées; the word was adopted into the Basque language.
Once the dish began to spread eastward into the Mediterranean area of southern France, onions were added. These three - tomatoes, green peppers and onions - can be called The Three Musketeers of the Mediterranean region. They appear together in the cuisine of the countries surrounding that inland sea. In France the Mediterranean coastline east of the Rhône River is Provence. Here the Provençals use garlic as the principal ingredient in dishes such as Aioli, chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, and garlic soup. They also put garlic in the majority of their vegetable and meat recipes. Piperade was made with garlic in Provence and it has remained part of the recipe ever since.
There are two other ingredients in piperade, both typically Basque, which are used regardless of where in France the dish is served. These are jambon de Bayonne and Piment d’Espelette. They are each interesting in their own right and deserve a paragraph or two. However, if you want just the recipe for piperade, you can skip down to the bottom of this node now and no harm done.
The first of these, Jambon de Bayonne, is a salt-cured ham produced exclusively in the basin drained by the Adour River and its tributaries. This land, just north of the Pyrénées, wraps around the Basque area. The Adour enters the Gulf of Gascogne near the coastal city of Bayonne, hence the name of the ham. Approximately one million Bayonne hams (average dry weight 15 pounds) are produced every year. This is roughly one-fifth of the entire ham production in France.
The ham is very rich and is generally served in thin slices. It is often used as an accompaniment to something else : with a slice of melon, perhaps, or a sliver on a buttered cocktail cracker at drinks time. In this recipe it is cut into julienne strips and incorporated into the dish at the last minute with the beaten eggs.
The production process is very traditional. Only certain types of hogs are used and they are slaughtered quite young, as soon as they reach a specified age and weight. The salt used is also important and is restricted to that produced in the Basin of the Adour. The drying time is a minimum of 9 months but can be extended to 15 months. Before being salted, the hams are massaged by hand to eliminate any blood remaining in the flesh and to tenderize the meat. As a final step, each ham is rubbed with a heavy application of Piment d’Espelette.
The hot peppers that are grown in Espelette are often mistakenly referred to as the only members of the capsicum family native to France (Capsicum annuum L. gorria). This is not strictly true, as they are native to Mexico and it is believed they arrived in the Old World in the entourage of Christopher Columbus in the 1520’s. At that time in history, peppercorns were imported from subtropical regions and therefore were very expensive and rare. Pepper was necessary not only to season food but to help preserve it or to mask the flavor of meat that was not entirely fresh. Imagine the excitement of the sailors on Columbus’ ships when they found another form of pepper, one that came not from a tree but from an annual plant. The pepper is bright red, banana-shaped and tiny, being only 3-1/2 inches long. It is medium hot in strength and is used in dried and powdered form.
Espelette is a Basque village only a few miles inland from the Atlantic. It has temperatures which are elevated in the summer, but benefits from moist ocean breezes, giving Espelette and nine surrounding villages a bioclimate quite similar to the subtropical origins of this plant. Even so, seedlings must be raised under glass for two months before being set out in a field or garden.
Production of this paprika-like pepper was traditionally a job for farm women, much like raising chickens for egg money. The almost-ripe peppers were strung into garlands and hung on the south wall of the farmhouse so they would dry against the hot stone of the building. After that they were separated. Some were kept entire to toss into a stew or a soup, others were crushed into powder and preserved in glass jars. Today the production has become commercialized and is limited to Espelette and the neighboring villages under an AOC designation like that used for wines.
Piperade is a seasonal dish, originally made at the end of summer when tomatoes and green peppers were abundant. There are two schools of thought regarding the recipe; some chefs believe in incorporating all the juice of the tomatoes and cooking the vegetables very slowly for 40 minutes to one hour or, “until it is necessary to add a few drops of water”. Other cooks suggest draining all the juice from the tomatoes and confining the cooking to ten or fifteen minutes before adding the eggs. The choice is yours.
Please note also that this is an egg dish and the vegetables are intended to compliment the eggs, which should be plentiful in proportion to the other ingredients. Here is the recipe :
Ingredients for six people:
· 2 pounds of ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped with seeds removed
· 3 green peppers, cleaned and cut into strips
· 2 medium onions, chopped
· 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
· 1 teaspoon of medium-hot red pepper in powder form
· 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive or canola oil
· 8 to 10 ounces of salt-cured ham, thinly sliced and cut into julienne strips
· 12 eggs beaten with 4 tablespoons of water
· very little salt because of the saltiness of the ham
· (optional) 1 teaspoon sugar to balance the acidity of the fresh tomatoes
In a large, heavy frypan, sauté peppers and onions in the oil until they are soft but not brown. Add the tomatoes, garlic, hot pepper and sugar (if you are using it). Cook this down to the consistency you want. Slightly brown the ham in another pan and drain on a paper towel. The resulting fat can be added to the tomatoes if you wish.
Lower the heat under the vegetables, then add the ham to the beaten eggs and pour over the vegetables. Let it cook for several minutes, using a spatula to lift the edges of the mixture so the excess liquid egg can run down to the bottom, just as you would for an omelet. Remove from the heat before the eggs become dry, i.e. while they are still moist and creamy in texture.
Using the spatula, loosen the mixture from the bottom of the pan all the way around the edges. Cover the pan with a slightly larger plate, positioned upside-down. Flip it over so the plate is on the bottom and lift off the frypan. Your piperade is ready to serve.