The Importance of Peppers (Part I)
What olive oil is to Meditteranean cuisine, pimientos (peppers) are to Basque cuisine. They permeate every facet of the local gastronomy, from the top down to the bottom, on its sides and in between. Literally. Pimientos are the garnish found on top of tortillas de patata (potato omelettes), the red of sauces, and are served as an accompaniment to steak. They’re grilled and in the sandwiches we eat. The list goes on.
Served in every bar and restaurant, and displayed by the hundreds on supermarket shelves, their omnipresence begs the question, “Do the Basques have an addiction?” The demand is obvious with little more than a fleeting glance at almost any bar counter. On skewers, they’re piled high forming pyramids. Or on pieces of bread, they’ll be stuffed with meat and placed side by side on trays.
Different pimientos serve different purposes, which also explains why there are so many kinds. For a region that is little more than the size of Delaware (it’s about 2,800 square miles), Basque cuisine employs the use of not one, not two, but five varieties of pimientos, all of which are grown locally. (For the purposes of this blog, we’ll explore two.)
Pintxos serve as the most visible showcasing of pimientos, and in fact, the vanguard pintxo – the pintxo to precede all pintxos – was the “Gilda,” a lovely combination of guindilla peppers, an anchovy, and an olive on a skewer. The guindilla is a thin pepper, picked early while it is still greenish yellow. Conserved in white wine vinegar and packaged tight like sardines in glass jars, they are tangy, with a spicy one creeping into the mix every once in a while. Chopped up, the guindilla pepper is added to alubias (red beans) for extra flavor and is sometimes eaten with a chunk of bonito and sliver of anchovy as a montadito (small sandwich).
Just as popular as the Gilda are “pimientos rellenos,” peppers stuffed with fish or meat. Served as a pintxo or even a meal in some cases, pimientos rellenos feature the most ubiquitous of the Basques’ peppers – the pimiento de piquillo. Impossible to miss, they are small, triangular peppers of the most intense red. Commanding nearly an aisle’s worth of space in the grocery store, the piquillo is certainly a beloved pepper among the Basques. This is likely thanks to their versatility and pleasing flavor.
First harvested by hand, the piquillo pepper is later roasted, peeled, and stored in glass jars or tins to be sold. Rare is there an occasion to buy fresh piquillo peppers. So it is once they’re conserved in jars that they are either eaten as-is or cooked. As pintxos, they’re typically stuffed with bacalao (cod) or sliced up to adorn montaditos. Sautéd with olive oil and garlic, they are also used to make sauces. Because it is a relatively sweet pepper, lacking any traces of acidity, it is not unusual to see it served with saltier foods like steak, tortilla de patata, or cheese.
Why talk about the guindilla and pimiento de piquillo? Because these peppers share something in common. Beyond the bar and restaurant, they exist as a household staple; the equivalent of peanut butter for Americans. They are also grown with the utmost care. The pimiento de piquillo, which is produced in Navarra (a region of Spain neighboring País Vasco to the east), is protected by the Denominación de Origen (DOE) label, which guarantees the quality and origin of any product bearing its stamp. The guindilla, grown in País Vasco, is protected by the Basque equivalent: the Eusko Label (“Kalitatea” in Basque). Certified to grow only in specific towns and harvested by hand, the guindilla and piquillo pepper are much more than peppers – they are the pride of the people who grow them and eat them. And they are the fruit of the land that, quite literally, would not be the same without them.