In one of those good parts of globalization, I actually discovered Pimientos de Cristal for the first time last year when I was in Australia. (So, let's see, peppers came the Central America, went to Spain with Columbus, perfected their over many centuries, exported to Australia where they're found by an American from Ann Arbor, who goes to Spain to learn about them then brings them back to the American Midwest...)
I'd never heard from them even though we've been buying from the exact same supplier my Aussie contacts were for something like...20 years! Let me tell you, if I were into regret and worrying (which I used to be as a youth but no longer am now), I'd expend a seriously enormous amount of energy feeling bad about how many jars of these incredible peppers I've missed out on eating over the last two decades. Granted, they're extremely expensive so they're probably not for everyday eating; like the really good tinned tuna, it's hard to imagine wanting to spend a lot of money on a jar of roasted peppers. But if you want to treat yourself to something really good...
Even in Spain, the Crystals are hard to come by. "Everyone makes Piquillos," one local told me. "But only a few do the Crystal." I guess that's sort of a given since I've managed to do 20 years of studying Spanish food and hadn't ever heard of them. Their high cost is, not surprisingly, tied to the rarity of the pepper, and even more especially so, to the labor involved in making them. "When it's roasted the flesh is so thin it's like paper," explained one producer. "We use tiny little knives to scrape the skins off." And it's a lot of scraping--each little jar contains an entire kilo (over two pounds) of raw red peppers.
Although they come from the same area (Navarre), the Crystal is a completely different pepper from the Piquillo. In their fresh state, the Crystal are actually larger, with four little bumpy points up at the top. After being picked each autumn, they're roasted over beechwood as they have been for many centuries.
To get to the heart of the matter, to my taste, the Crystals are basically the foie gras of the pepper world. They're so super rich, so delicious, so good that I ate a whole jar's worth in one sitting while in Spain. Basically I ate 'em with a spoon, a touch of sea salt and a bit of olive oil. Slices of toast if you like. That's it. Although I had them served to me in a nice bowl, you could honestly eat them right out of the jar with a loaf of warm Paesano bread alongside to tear pieces off of. They're smoky, rich, very buttery, and very good. Something special to grace any table, Spanish or otherwise.
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