On a recent Saturday in Tolosa, Spain, I lost a negotiation with the Basque equivalent of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Call him the Pepper Roaster.
I was standing in Euskal Herria Plaza, an outdoor gathering place built during the 19th century in this small city, about 20 miles southwest of San Sebastián. In the spot where, according to a historic marker, there were once livestock fairs, nowadays there is a weekly Saturday market. And on a sunny morning in early October, there was a lot of commotion around what looked like a Rube Goldberg contraption.
Constructed of metal and about eight feet long, it is called a tamboril (small drum) and belongs to the Pepper Roaster. On one end is a funnel in the shape of an inverted triangle. Into it the Pepper Roaster was emptying plastic crates full of bright red, raw piquillo peppers.
These much-prized peppers come from the village of Lodosa, in the sparsely populated Spanish Basque province of Navarra. It’s situated about a two-hour drive south of San Sebastián, but the farmers bring the “red gold of Navarra,” as piquillos are often called, to the markets in commercial centers.
There the Pepper Roaster deploys his bizarre machine – a metal tube that rests on a rectangular cart with wheels. At one end is a hand crank. As the Pepper Roaster turns it, a mesh basket within the tube’s interior rotates over roaring, gas-fueled flames. The peppers, with their blackened skins, tumble out, into a large rubber pail, and the intoxicating, sweet smell of roasting peppers fills the air.
Harvested between September and November, these peppers are named for their shape – piquillo means “little beak.”At their widest point they measure about two and a half inches. Their relatively flat, three-inch body gradually tapers to a rounded point. Piquillo peppers are a key ingredient in everything from paella to meat- or chicken-stews.
The peppers’ shape and size also makes them ideal for stuffing. And since they hold about two tablespoons of filling, they are often served as pintxos – the popular Basque bar snacks (called tapas in other parts of Spain). On the counters of the ubiquitous watering holes of Bilbao and San Sebastián, one sees them offered that way, filled with ground pork, salt cod, cheese or what gets passed off to tourists as baby eel, but is generally a less expensive composite made with other fish. If the peppers are to be stuffed, the core and seeds must be removed while the peppers are still firm; after they are roasted, they are more delicate and could break.
Far from the flames, on the morning of my encounter with the Pepper Roaster, a group of women were engaged in that labor-intensive task. At first I assumed that the giggly crew were his employees. But somehow this didn’t seem to be their daily grind. When they mugged for a photo, I understood the seasonal ritual: Each will core ten kilos (22 pounds) of peppers before turning them over to the Pepper Roaster.
In the food chain, he then performed a valuable service. The first step in many recipes is to roast the peppers until they blister, and then peel them. This can be done on the grill, by placing the peppers over the burner of a gas stove or by roasting them in the oven. Blistering loosens the skin so the peppers can be peeled. The tamboril greatly expedites the first step by roasting 22 pounds of peppers in just a few minutes.
As each batch emerged from the tamboril, the Pepper Roaster unceremoniously dumped them into a heavy-duty plastic bag. Only then did money change hands: €18 (about $20 at the current conversion rate), or about $1.10 per pound for the peppers, roasted.
When I asked several customers hauling off the bulky bags what they planned to do with the bounty, they all had the same answer: rinse off the charcoal, peel the peppers and freeze them in plastic bags. An autumn purchase from the Pepper Roaster is enough to last until the next harvest, they said.
I was filled with envy – enough to stuff many dozens of piquillo peppers – as I observed this process. Customs regulations prevented me from taking peppers back to the United States, but I wanted a small (relatively speaking) quantity to consume during my remaining six weeks in Europe.
On past trips I have stocked up on jars of piquillos at grocery stores and made my own pintxos. I stuff them with brandade, which I acquire at prepared food counters in Basque Country and in Paris. Brandade is a hearty emulsion of salt cod and olive oil (my favorite send-up also includes mashed potatoes). This year I wanted to make the delicious snack with freshly roasted peppers. But 22 pounds of piquillos?
I have a history of succumbing to large purchases of fresh local ingredients, acquired at the source. Among those to which I’m willing to confess are a 6.6-pound bonito and an entire wheel of Saint-Nectaire cheese. But unless I opened a pintxo bar, I couldn’t devise a way to consume that many piquillo peppers.
Would the Pepper Roaster be so kind as to sell me a smaller quantity, I asked, with all the politesse I could muster in Spanish. He did not crack a smile or show even a pepper seed’s worth of compassion. Five kilos (11 pounds) was the minimum he could put through the tamboril, he said. He did not say he was sorry.
I assumed I was just plum out of luck until, 11 days later, I went to another market – this one held on Wednesdays in the village of Ordizia. And there I spotted a vendor selling the freshly roasted piquillo peppers, already hand-peeled. They cost about four times as much as the Pepper Roaster charged, but she had done all the work for me. Best of all, she would be absolutely delighted to sell me only two pounds. And this was exactly what I needed.
As I was leaving the market, who would I see but the Pepper Roaster? On that day, in Ordizia, he wasn’t selling piquillos, but the much larger (and to me less desirable) bell peppers, which don’t have to be cored before they are roasted.
Again, I stopped to admire his curious contraption, and to inhale the aroma of roasting peppers. But this time I was no longer at his mercy. I just smiled, perhaps a bit too smugly. And he did not smile back.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, chronicling her adventures in Basque Country. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.