Padron is a town in Spain north of Portugal in Galicia on the Atlantic coast. I passed through Padron in 1993, and stopped for lunch, but I didn’t try their world-famous peppers. I was with Julia, and we were on our honeymoon. We shared a plate of sardines and a carafe of Albarino wine. I learned about the Pimiento de Padron the hard way, here in California in the fields, not on a cool, breezy restaurant patio by the Spanish seashore, and I lost money and burned my tongue off. If you’re a cook or gardener maybe I can help you to avoid making my mistakes.
Spanish food is different than Mexican food and the Padron pepper is as instructive an example of the difference between the two cuisines as I can think of. When I finally figured out how to handle the Pimiento de Padron I took time to fry up a few platefuls in the classic Spanish tapas style for my Mexican workers so they’d understand how to pick and sort these peppers the way a Spaniard might. My workers smiled at my cooking demonstration and they ate the peppers willingly, but they assured they never did things this way back home in Michoacan.
When it comes to peppers, Mexican farm workers have the right to grin at the antics of Spanish chefs, or wanna-be Spanish chefs like me. Padron peppers, like all varieties of capsicum peppers, originally came from the New World, and a lot of them came from Mexico. Columbus promised his financial backers that he could sail across the Atlantic to India. When he made landfall he didn’t understand or accept that he’d encountered a new continent so the indigenous people he met were “Indians.” These “Indians” didn’t cultivate Piper nigrum which yields the familiar–and costly– black peppercorns that lured adventurers to the Indian coast, so the botanically unrelated, utterly dissimilar and wildly various pods of American Capsicum plants had to stand in as “peppers.” Pimienta means “pepper” in Spanish.
The town of Padron is on the banks of the Rio Ulla where it flows into the ocean. The citizens of Padron would have been among the first Europeans to see and experiment with these new “peppers” that the explorers brought back from overseas. Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, was even nicknamed Gallega, which means “the Galician.” As Spain’s new empire expanded across the Americas, Spanish sailors brought many different varieties of pimiento back home. Modern plant scientists have improved the pepper, but before Columbus was even born Native American farmers had already developed every basic form of pepper that we know today, from the large, sweet, and painless bell peppers to the tiny, incendiary chiltepin. The citizens of Padron adopted one particular variety out of all these newly arrived peppers to be their own “Pimiento de Padron.” Because Padron is near the sea and sailors were as common there as sand fleas, I think a waterfront bar tender had something to do with this.
The so-called “heat” in a hot pepper comes from a chemical called capsaicin. When a “hot” pepper is tiny and undeveloped its tender pod will contain little, if any capsaicin. Over time, as the pepper pod matures, capsaicin begins to concentrate in the developing seeds and internal ribbing membranes. One theory is that the pepper plant developed capsaicin as a deterrent to herbivores; if a deer or a squirrel eats a pepper they get a burning sensation in their mouth and remember to not to eat another one. Frankly, I don’t buy this notion; the pepper plant is smarter than that.
A pepper plant grows for quite a while before it flowers and fruits. The Padron peppers in your share box come from plants sown in the greenhouse in February and transplanted into the field in April. We’ve only just started the harvest, but already the plants are five months old and very few of the peppers pods are mature enough yet to have much heat at all. According to the “herbivore deterrence” theory these plants would be vulnerable for most of their lives and only develop their protective concentrations of capsaicin at the last minute. That’s stupid evolution. I think the pepper genus developed “heat” in order to provoke herbivores to eat them.
What “irritates” one person (or mouse) may excite another – and I have had many problems over the years with mice eating the dried chilies I’ve saved for seed. Humans save seeds for re-planting, and mice store seeds to eat that then get rained on and sprout, so by being “irritating” and getting eaten the pepper assures its propagation and survival. Of course not everyone likes spicy food, and hot peppers are not typical of Spanish cuisine.
Five years ago, when Chris Cosentino, the chef at Incanto, an Italian restaurant in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, came back from a European trip, he brought me seeds of the Pimiento de Padron. “I can grow those,” I said. I remembered Padron. The weather in Padron is cool and temperate. The Gallegan landscape looks a lot like the Monterey Bay area, where I farm. “Any crop a Gallego can grow, I can grow better.”
My Padron peppers grew well. By September the plants were five feet tall and hung with gorgeous fire engine red peppers. I tried one. My eyes popped out of my skull and my tongue smoked. “You waited too long,” Chris said. “I can use a few of these to make dried pepper flakes, but that’s about it. Next year, pick them when they’re tiny.”
Gallegan farmers learned long before me that their favorite pepper gives a big yield of tender little peppers in early summer and that if you pick the plants clean, they’ll flower and set fruit again and again. Picking the peppers young and green creates early cash flow that allows a farmer to live until other crops are ready to harvest in August and September.
Gallegan cooks learned that the tiny, tender peppers are very flavorful, and rarely have much heat at all to them if they’re picked young enough. Only the older, firmer, heavier, waxier peppers are hot, and they learned to pick them out and set them aside. The cooks learned too that these new peppers could be cooked fast, in just a little more time than it takes to heat up a cast iron skillet. They’d get the pan hot, splash a little olive oil onto it, and when the oil was almost smoking hot, they’d toss on a handful of the tiny peppers. The peppers would hop and sizzle for a few seconds. When the peppers were blistered on one side, the cooks would shake the pan, toss the peppers, and let them blister on the other side. Then a quick sprinkle of sea salt, a deft sweep of the pan with a wooden fork, and the peppers were served, ready to eat, sweet, savory, salty, and piping hot.
But a Gallegan bartender’s is to sell drinks. They learned to put a little extra salt on the peppers. And Bartenders wouldn’t pick out the more mature peppers, either. A sailor bellies up to the bar, orders a bottle of cool Albarino wine, and grabs a handful of the fried peppers the bar maid had left within arm’s reach. The first ten or twelve peppers down the hatch are delicious; sweet, savory, salty, and piping hot. But the last one? “Hijo de la !@#$%,” it’s picante. So the sailor, his tongue burning, gulps his wine down and orders another bottle to extinguish the blaze. The bartender is happy to oblige.
True, a glass of cold milk works best to put out a pepper fire on the tongue, but what kind of self respecting sailor orders milk in a waterfront bar? Besides, even the spicy peppers taste great, especially after a couple of drinks. And so the reputation of these fried peppers spread out like a ship’s main sail and traveled the world. “You think your stale pretzels are good,” the sailors said to the bartenders of Boston, London, Lagos, and San Francisco. “You ought to cook up some pimientos like they do in Padron.”
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin || Gardeners who really like them should plant a few plants in their back yard. I get my seeds from Bill McKay at GrowItalian
Ladybug Buying Club!!
For the convenience of cooks who would like to can, pickle, juice, dry, or otherwise consume bulk quantities of fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits we are planning a series of special deliveries of bulk quantities of tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, basil, strawberries etc. whenever our the harvest permits. If this service looks interesting to you, please sign up to be included on the list of people to get a special email alert. We have three separate lists: San Francisco, the Peninsula, and the Monterey Bay Area. If we’re going somewhere that’s not convenient for you, delete that particular email. If something looks good to you, email us firstname.lastname@example.org and reserve what you need. Whole cases only, please. If a whole case is too much, find a friend to split it with or consider our CSA program. Let the cooking begin!
I live on a farm so I wake up with the rooster. When the donkeys see the kitchen light go on they bray for hay, and then the goats and the sheep hear the donkeys and bleat and bah for attention. After coffee I feed the animals, and by 6:30 I’m locked into a series of phone calls about the day’s work with Jose and Espana out at the row crop farm in Hollister, and with my partner Stephen at High Ground Organics in Watsonville. When Manny arrives I have a brief conference with him about the herbs, the animals, and the packing schedule for the day, then I have a phone conversation with Elias about his duties as the farm driver, and finally I leave myself for the farm in Hollister. On my way I might stop at Debbie’s market for a second cup of coffee, where I’ll run into Bobby Peixoto, and we’ll talk about farming for a minute. Once at the field my farm occupies my attention, unless Vince, Darrel, Steve, Ramon, or Martin should happen to call about the restaurant delivery route that we work together on, in which case we’ll talk about their farms and their harvests. When I get home I’ll talk with my wife, Julia, about our farm’s business, and after dinner, if I don’t play with my donkeys or haul water to my cows over on the Kliever Ranch, I might take time to write a CSA newsletter essay about farming or work on the book that I’m writing about farming. So by 9:30, when I’m looking for something to read something before I go to sleep, I don’t usually pick up a book about farming. I want a break. My favorite three books from the last several years have been The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, by Ben Watson, The Painted Word, by Tom Wolfe, and Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, by Frederic Spotts. Each of these books is about art, and not a single one of them has so much as a whisper about agriculture in it. So when my friend, Martin, gave me a book about urban farming called Farm City, by Novella Carpenter, I thanked him, but I wasn’t sure I’d read it.
I might not have read Farm City either, if it hadn’t been for the cute cover image of a wheel barrow all covered in graffiti. The last thing I need before I go to sleep is some doom-soaked call to action about the threats of lead in the soil or the politics of food security, but the cover promised humor. Besides, the wheelbarrow reminded me of Martin. He’s a funny guy. He farms in Chualar, south of Salinas, but he lives in Noe Valley, in San Francisco. He’s single and child free, so he has the time, money, and energy for lifestyle; if anyone I know is going to make it to the most interesting exhibition, the most exciting concert, or the opening of a new restaurant it’ll be him. He lives with one foot in the field and the other in the street, and talking to him allows me to vicariously live the life of a boulevardier. We both sell to restaurants and our delivery trucks are even the same make and model, except that he parks his at night on city streets, so it’s completely covered in graffiti.
In the 80s, years before I met Martin, he and I were ships that passed at night; I worked at Star Route Farms in Bolinas and delivered lettuces in the night time to the Hayes Street Grill in San Francisco and Martin worked as a bus boy at the restaurant in the daytime. He saw our lettuces, thought that it would be fun to grow food, and began a back yard farm, so Martin’s roots are in urban farming. As a farmer and a city dweller he’d know if Novella was writing truthfully. So I opened Farm City, and I really enjoyed it.
I’m not going to ruin the story for you by retelling it. Just let me say that when I first started writing for our CSA newsletter I crafted a piece about gopher control by telling a story about speaking to the Watsonville Christian Women’s Club on the subject of organic farming practices. My friend, Patty Unterman, read my story. She is a writer, a restaurant critic, and a restaurateur (she’s an owner of the Hayes Street Grill). When Patty talks, I listen.
“I liked your story,” she told me, “especially the line about the church lady and the rifle. You’ll find that you can write about any subject you know, and readers will be interested, as long as you write about people.”
That conversation with Patty crystallized something for me, and since that day that’s what I’ve tried to do; write about my subject, agriculture, by telling stories that convey didactic content in a context of human interest, so that facts and figures find a place in the tale the way nuts and cherries bring color and flavor to a fruitcake. And that’s just what Novella Carpenter has done so well in Farm City. She writes stories about raising, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and watermelons in the Oakland ghetto. Subjects that can get wonky and tedious, like food security, economic democracy, the spiritual dimension to taking responsibility for food choices, or the p.c. mantra of “fresh, local, and organic” all get covered, but in a fresh and provocative manner that introduces the reader to a tribe of people who don’t usually show up in contemporary food writing. I can write stories about chickens, turkeys, pigs, and watermelons too, but not these stories.
By this time of every year, tired and distracted from the months of work behind me, with the corn chest high and beginning to tassel, and with the first tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers just coming on, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the immense amount of work about to hit. The money’s all been spent, the harvest is hanging in the balance, and Thanksgiving seems like its ten years off; it’s too easy to ask, “Why, Andy, didn’t you choose to be a venture capitalist or a Chippendale dancer? Why did you want to be a farmer?” Well, Farm City is a fun book that reminds me why. Last night, July 7th, at the Capitola Book Cafe, Novella Carpenter did a reading from Farm City. Julia and I went and heard her speak even though it was in the evening and she did talk about farms. She’s as good at speaking as she is at writing and I enjoyed the fact that she didn’t take herself as seriously as some of the people in her audience did. Her next three gigs are in LA, NYC and Danville: go see her if you can. Here’s a link to an interview Novella Carpenter did with Gene Burns, in case you don’t live in Danvillle or you can’t fly to LA or NYC to hear a neighbor talk about pigs in Oakland. Or buy her book, enjoy it, and give it to a friend.
Copyright 2009 Andy Griffin