Sharp, piquant peppers from San Sebastian, courtesy of Brindisa
They come on side plates, they come on cocktail sticks. They’re served with stew and alongside sherry. Though most commonly found lounging in the pintxos bars of San Sebastian, stuck on a stick with a large olive and hunk of canned tuna, they are equally at home nestled alongside one of the region’s most classic dishes: alubias, or Tolosa red bean stew.
They are guindilla peppers: a pickled variety of chilli peppers that have become synonymous with the Basque Country, despite hailing from the Americas initially. It’s found a welcome home in the country’s mild, humid and rainy valleys, and for reasons not entirely clear, given its long, yellowing, kelp-like appearance, has become known to the locals as langostino de Ibarra—the Ibarra king prawn.
“It is integrated into our culture,” says Maite, the export manager Brindisa employs to source from the Basque, and who’s taking us to visit her supplier, Agiña Piperrak. A family business and one of the oldest producers of the peppers, its processes for growing, harvesting and bottling are pretty much unchanged.
Young green shoots
They start in April, setting seedlings in small glass houses towards the edge of the farm. When we visit in May, a team of farm workers are bent double in the dank warmth, casting the young green shoots into the dark, fertile fields.
Harvesting runs from late June to October: a long, labour intensive process that involves picking each pepper by hand and checking it for quality according to the strict specifications set down by the Eusko Label Kalitatea: the Basque food quality stamp with which all guindilla peppers must be approved.
They must be long, unblemished and evenly coloured a distinctive yellow-green: a pantone which grows on you once you eat them and discover their firm, crunchy texture, sweet vinegary flesh and, a moment later, addictive kick. Their skin must be unwrinkled, and even their peduncle—the stalk, to the rest of us—must be unbroken, long and whole.
Distinction in taste
“The peppers are protected geographically, but the Eusko label means more than that. It’s a guarantee of distinction in taste, and in production,” says Maite. Fertilisers and pesticides must be from an approved environmentally friendly list, and only used in case of a specific reason: you won’t find anyone at Agiña Piperrak blanketing their peppers with spray.
Nor will you find anything untoward in the ‘production line’—read three rooms in an old warehouse near the farm—beyond the Eusko specified proportions of salt and wine vinegar. “There’s the preservation area, and the bottling area. That’s it,” smiles Maite—though it’s empty when we visit in May of course, with last year’s crop bottled and sold long ago and this year’s only just putting down roots.
After careful selection the peppers are cured, bottled and kept for 30 days before being sent out across the Basque Country and, increasingly, across the world. The Australians are particularly fond of them: “They buy gallons,” Maite laughingly exclaims. They serve them in sandwiches: “A little olive oil and salt on bread, which they then fill with the peppers, tuna and anchovies. It sounds great.”
Glowing almost galactically
It’s not far removed from the classic Basque pintxos with the olives and anchovies or tuna, but the Basque people “don’t really do sandwiches”, preferring to sit down at meal times. Here, you’ll find the jars in Brindisa, glowing almost galactically, and what you do with them is at your discretion.
At their most basic they are a pickle, to be served with anything and everything, snaffled out the jar or speared, Basque-style, on a stick. But do bear in mind Brindisa’s suggestions: as a topping for pizza, to brighten up a cheese sandwich or “add piquancy to rich foods like terrines”.