In Basque culture, the choricero pepper is as ubiquitous and widely revered as the kalimotxo--an oddly refreshing blend of cola and red wine. And among the handful of small-scale choricero growers in the Boise area, 62-year-old Lino Zabala is equally revered. Leaning back in a chair on his Bench-area back porch next to his wife Sam, Zabala explained how he got his choricero seeds (you can't bring them back from Spain) and how, three years ago, he turned his next-door neighbor's run-down back yard into a fertile choricero factory. Though Zabala does sell some of his peppers--thousands every few weeks to rear neighbor and owner of Leku Ona Joe Aritach--it is mostly a hobby for him. A hobby that can get a bit competitive.
When did you first start growing peppers?
Many, many years ago ... We started growing peppers when I was kid over in the Basque country. My mom and dad started. And over here, since [my wife and I] got married, like 40 years?
[Wife, Sam, interjects: No, it's been since '76 or '77, so that's 32 years.]
Where did you grow up in the Basque country?
In Mendata. It's in Bizkaia. It's a small town. [Points to a Mendata T-shirt that he's wearing.]
[Sam: But he was raised in Guernica.]
I moved to Guernica when I was 14 years old. After that I was a mechanic, then I went to Navy and served for Franco. Then I came back over here, and I herded sheep. Then after that I worked in Grandview [Idaho] in a feedlot for Simplot. After that, I worked in Nevada at a gold mine ... from there we went to Spain again, to Guernica. I was there for a little over a year. Then I came back, and we got married ... That's when we bought this house here, and I started gardening.
Did you bring your pepper seeds back from the Basque country?
Actually, somebody brought those seeds, one of my friends. That's how we got them.
Is it a special variety of pepper?
Yeah, it's a special variety. You can't find those over here in the United States. I got some books; I've never seen it. It is what we call "choriceros." Joe [Aritach] opened up the restaurant Leku Ona, and at that time, I got retired from my work. That's when I decided I can make a big garden, and I talked to Joe and he said, "Yeah if you grow peppers, I'll use the peppers [at Leku Ona]." ... The first time people, they don't know. Then as soon as they find out that they are good, gosh, they're just selling like candies.
Do you feel like people come to the restaurant specifically to get your peppers?
Several people come especially for peppers from Mountain Home. I think they come at least a couple of times a week. They go to Leku Ona and eat the peppers.
How many peppers do you harvest?
Harvest? The peppers? Gosh. A lot. Thousands and thousands. This time of year, I take down there like a couple thousands. Normally [at Leku Ona] they use like 500 a week. Also, there was a picnic last week; they used a couple of thousand over there.
Why do you think we don't import choriceros here?
I don't know. I guess people don't know how to use this pepper; I think that's why. They don't let you bring the seeds here, I got them from someone, somewhere a long time ago. You can save the seed off of peppers forever ... We've also got a different pepper type, too, called [pimientos] morrones. It's a really heavy pepper that's got the real thick wool like a bell pepper, but it's different. I took those last year to the fairgrounds. It's only two Basque guys taking those peppers up there. Last year, we both take them, this year we're going to take it again. See what the competition is going to be. Who's got the best peppers?
So, is pepper growing competitive in the Basque community?
We do a little competition. We've got about two to three gardeners here. Well, a lot of Basques grow a few peppers for home. We always discuss about gardening; who's going to get the first peppers in the spring. It starts like that. Yeah, [my wife and I] are the first ones that get the pepper. Because usually in the spring, I plant a little garden over here. Then I cover it with plastic. I usually have my first peppers like the 20th of June, 25th of June. It's pretty early. It's a little competition ... [Smiles.]
Do you guys share secrets with each other about pepper growing?
Yeah, we do. We do. There's not any secrets, just start early and then, you know, just take care of it.
What's your advice to people who would want to grow choriceros?
Get the mulch. The mulch is the best mixed up with the dirt. That makes loose ground and they grow real good in there.
[Sam: It's pretty organic. The last two or three years, he's planted basil among all of his peppers because it attracts bees, which strengthens the crop and doesn't use chemicals. The basil wards off bad insects, and so forth.]
What would you say is your favorite recipe to make with the choricero peppers?
I don't know about recipe ... [Looks at Sam.]
[Sam: We probably eat more of them as hors d'oeuvres. Fry them. Sautee and put the coarse salt on them. You wipe them off with a paper towel, poke a couple of holes in them, have a fairly high heat, a minute on each side and put them on a paper towel to drain them. Then sprinkle with real coarse gourmet salt. That's it. They're really thin so they cook up really fast.]
What else do you grow besides peppers?
I grow tomatoes. All kinds of different types of tomatoes. I take them down to Leku Ona also. Then we can a lot at home, too. Also, I grow leeks. A lot of people, they don't know how to use leeks, but the Basque people, we use leeks to do sauces and stuff. And also leek soup; we love leek soup with potatoes. I start everything from seed at my house. I've got a little greenhouse here.
[Sam: Keeps him off the streets.]
That's how I spend most of my time since I retired. I'm no couch potato.
Click here for a recipe for biscayne sauce using choricero peppers from Teresa Barrenechea's The Basque Table.