My Visit to the Piquillo Pepper Harvest

Jonathan Harris | November 2016

Character matters, not just with people, but with food as well. Traveling across Spain, I have seen it again and again - how the special location, climate and culture of a region shape the character of every artisan food we offer, just as they shape the people who inhabit the area. The perfect example is the pimiento del piquillo, the phenomenal wood-fire roasted pepper of Lodosa.

The area around the small town of Lodosa is a land of rural beauty, fertile fields spread out alongside the Ebro river. The fields we visited in October are just a stone's throw from the famous wine region of La Rioja, and the piquillo pepper field was only a few feet away from a grove of vines heavy with ripe tempranillo grapes.

Our old friend Patxi Pastor Salcedo gave us a tour of the field of ripe red peppers. His family owns Navarrico, a producer of exceptional jarred and canned vegetables since the 1950s. He introduced us to the farmer who tends the fields and delivers the fresh peppers to Navarrico. 

The farmer explained that the plants need a lot of nutrients to grow quality peppers. He only uses natural manure fertilizers and no pesticides. The peppers can be grown in the field for a maximum of two seasons before it must be converted to other crops, and it takes around 20 years until the field is ready to be planted with peppers again!

On this beautiful October day, I picked the peppers alongside the workers for a short while. Each piquillo is plucked by hand, with no mechanical help. The peppers in my hand were heavy, with a thick wall and durable skin - attributes that make them perfect for roasting. Each ruby red pepper ends in a point reminiscent of a bird's beak, which explains the name - piquillo means little beak or point.

Unlike most produce that travels hundreds of miles after harvest, these beautiful peppers only travel the distance of a long stroll - the Navarrico warehouse is just two miles away! There the peppers are roasted over hardwood flames until the exterior is charred black. Each pepper is then cleaned and peeled by hand by local women, just as it has been done for generations. Finally the peppers are placed into into each jar by hand, retaining the smoky roasted flavor and sweetness that can only come from truly fresh peppers.

No water is used to rinse the peppers - this would wash away the flavor. And no liquid is added to the bottles as filler, just whole peppers. Any juice you see in our jars of piquillos comes from the peppers themselves.

The growing region, harvest time and roasting of these peppers is supervised by the rules of the PDO, or Protected Denomination of Origin, for Piquillo Peppers of Lodosa. Organizations like this one protect the traditions and quality of regional specialties across Europe - from Rioja wine to Parmesan cheese to Ibérico ham. These legally recognized groups play a vital role in protecting the character of these culinary treasures. 

After visiting the fields and watching the piquillo pepper production, Patxi took us to the old part of town for a feast. Each dish showcased an exceptional regional vegetable - giant white asparagus with boquerones, exquisitely tender artichoke hearts with sliced jamón, piquillo peppers with morcilla and quail eggs. Patxi raised a glass of excellent Rioja wine with us, and pride showed on his face as we devoured these amazing dishes. His family takes the time to only use the finest local vegetables harvested at the perfect time. These tasty dishes clearly displayed this passion for quality.

There are cheaper ways to make roasted peppers. I have tried "piquillo" peppers from Peru and elsewhere that are pale shadows of a Lodosa piquillo - they were obviously produced cheaply and efficiently, and water-cleaned to avoid manual labor. Quality can so easily be compromised if your main goal is a lower priced product. 

We could offer this kind of item at La Tienda to improve our margin and offer a lower price. But this would undermine the thing we love most about Spain's best foods - the quality that comes from the local traditions of regional Spain. A special place and a unique climate set the stage for a great product. The final piece is the culture. Our Spanish partners have an intense pride and appreciation for the quality of their regional foods, and they will not compromise to save a little money. That takes character.