Pepper varieties, thy name is legion. Big ones, little ones, hot ones, sweet ones, funny-shaped ones, funny-named ones and most of the colors of the rainbow except blue. If you think about it, food can taste pretty bland without a little seasoning, and peppers can certainly liven things up. Peppers were something the ranch wife could grow herself, unlike exotic spices. They also provided vitamin C, which was often deficient in the diets of those who lived where citrus fruits wouldn’t grow. Ecuador has archeological sites 6,000 years old that show peppers were grown and used by the inhabitants. Although Columbus and his personal physician probably took a few back to Spain, it was the Portuguese seagoing merchants who really spread peppers around the world.

Pepper Species

There are five domesticated species, all capsicums:

  • Annuum (bells, wax, cayenne, jalapenos and chiltepin)
  • Frutescens (malagueta, tabasco, Thai, prirpiri and Malawian Kambuzi)
  • Chinese (nagas, habanero, datil and Scotch bonnet)
  • Pubescens (rocoto)
  • Baccatum (aji).

These break down into three categories: bell, sweet and hot peppers. Pepper heat is rated according to the Scoville heat unit system, with a range from 0 in bell peppers to as much as 450,000 in habaneros. I hear there are some newer ones that average well over 1 million, but I’m darned if I know why anyone would want to eat something that could blister paint at 30 paces. In the bell group, I grow:

  • California Wonder – sometimes called Sweet California Wonder. It’s a 1928 variety that turns red when ripe, which is when we – or rather, my husband and the rest of the family – like them. I would be happy to like them but they don’t like me, and the resulting gastronomic distress leaves me miserable for hours. So I grow them for everybody else. When ripe, I understand it’s a very sweet pepper, nice and crunchy.
  • Cal Golden Wonder – basically the same as the California Wonder, only it ripens to yellow. It’s been around since the 1920s. Both of the Wonder peppers do better staked, as the fruit is heavy.
  • Bells also come in orange, purple and chocolate (color, not flavor), which I haven’t grown.

Bell peppers are sweet peppers, but the sweet pepper group extends far beyond this group of blocky, made-for-stuffing peppers. These are good ones:

  • Jimmy Nardello’s – this came from southern Italy with Giuseppe and Angella Nardello in 1887. Their son Jimmy grew it for many years in Naugatauk, Connecticut. It’s long, thin-skinned and typically used as a frying pepper, although it also dries well.
  • Sweet Red Cherry Pepper – these are my husband’s favorite for pickling whole. These have been around for a while; first mentioned in botanical texts in 1586.
  • Corno de Toro – the name translates as “Horn of the Bull” and you may hear them called Bullhorn or Cowhorn Peppers. Eight to 10 inches at maturity, when they turn deep red, Corno de Toro peppers arrived in the US in the early 1900s with Italian immigrants. Typically used as a frying pepper, but can also be grilled, roasted, stuffed or eaten fresh.

Hot Peppers I Like:

  • Anaheim – this is a typical chili pepper, although not a really hot one. This variety came to the Anaheim area with farmer Emilio Ortega in the early 1900s, although it probably originated in New Mexico. When dried, they’re known as chile seco del Norte. Some versions of this pepper that originate in New Mexico are hotter than the ones grown by Ortega. You won’t always know what you’re getting until you try some. These are the ones classically strung in ristras and hung to dry from the wooden beams of houses in the Southwest.
  • Ancho/Poblano – a pepper from Puebla, Mexico. Hotter when red and fully ripened. Lots of variability between peppers, even on the same plant – one may be quite hot while another is mild and relatively sweet (genetic diversity in action!). These are one of the major ingredients in chili powder.
  • Fish – this one either came to America with African slaves or was developed in the American South as part of slave cuisine; it’s been around since the American Civil War, at least, and is often used in spicy seafood dishes popular in the Philadelphia and Baltimore areas. It’s a gorgeous pepper, with green leaves striped and splotched with white. The peppers change from cream with green stripes to orange with brown stripes and finally to red; all colors may be hanging on the plant at the same time.
  • Habañero Red – habañeros are hot little babies, and the Red Savina Habañero was the hottest pepper in the known world from 1994 to 2006, when it was kicked downstairs by the Naga Jolokia pepper. Although it’s not a hybrid, it is protected by a plant patent, which means you’re not supposed to save the seeds or sell them.
  • Tabasco – the pepper used in the famous sauce of the same name. These are bright red fruits that don’t hang down like other peppers but remain upright. The name came from the Mexican state of Tabasco. The pepper has been around since at least 1868, because that’s when the McIlhenny family started making Tabasco sauce in used cologne bottles (since they were small and inexpensive, and nobody in the South had much capital left after the Civil War).
  • Paprika – what would Hungarian stews and Chicken Paprikash be without this spice? The two best varieties are Dulce Rojo, which means “Sweet Red,” and Alma Spicy. The Alma has a good bit more bite to it. Feher Ozon is a Hungarian heirloom. Although it’s a dwarf plant, it should be staked, as it produces a lot of peppers and gets top-heavy. Beaver Dam also came to America from Hungary. Joe Hussli brought it to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin in 1912 and it got its name from the town. Another that must be staked, as the peppers can get very large. It likes dry conditions. Leutschauer originated in Slovakia, then traveled to the Matra mountains in Hungary some time in the 1800s. It is still grown in that area, but is considered a rare pepper in most of the world. I like to mix them in different proportions, tasting until the dish has just the right mix of flavors.
  • Long Thin Cayenne – we know this has been around since 1883, officially, but it’s believed to be pre-Columbian (at least 500 years old). Named after the river in French Guyana. Use with discretion, as they have a definite bite. These can be dried and ground for cayenne powder (actually, that’s true of all hot peppers).

If I could only have one – there’s no way you can only choose one, because the peppers are so different. But I would take the Jimmy Nardello frying pepper, the California Wonder sweet pepper, the Anaheim chile, the Red Savina habanero and the Dulce Rojo paprika. This group will give you plenty of variety.

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