10 June 2007
sunday scribblings: ode to the peperoncino
Prompt #63: Spicy

Spicy means one thing here in the toe of Italy's boot, and that's the beloved peperoncino, literally "little pepper" in Italian.

It's the chile pepper, the heat, the heart of Calabrian cooking, and a group of them are thrown on the table with just about every meal.

To say that dedication to the peperoncino borders on obsession is not an exaggeration--I know men who carry peperoncini in their pockets to restaurants in case the provided peppers aren't appropriately piccanti.

No joke amici. Don't mess with the pep'.

Here in my house, we have a steady supply of fresh peperoncini through the summer from our own plants, but for when they're out of season, it's also popular to keep them under oil:


Yum!

Although we all love hot peppers down here, there's one particular village in Calabria closely associated with the pods that pack a punch--Diamante, in the province of Cosenza, home of the annual Festival del Peperoncino held by the Accademia Italiana del Peperoncino.

I've never been (fellow blogger Judy has and there's another great report here), but apparently everyone in Diamante gets involved with peperoncino-inspired jewelry being a big seller (good to keep away the malocchio you know).

Admission is free, and you can visit over 100 stands set up along the gorgeous lungomare along the Tyrrhennian Sea. Foods range from a cornetto al peperoncino (pastry filled with a peppery cream) to tartufo piccante (ice cream with bits of peperoncini), and there's even a pepper eating contest, "Campionato italiano mangiatori di peperoncini," for the competitive types.

So, for anyone looking to spice up their Italian experience, this year's festival will be held September 5-9.

Back here at the home office, you'll see peperoncino in many of my What's Cooking Wednesday recipes, but even if you don't like spicy food, here's a tip: just a little bit of the stuff brings out the flavor of just about anything without adding heat.

Don't be afraid!

Also, if your mouth is burning from too much hotness, eat a piece of bread or something dairy-like instead of reaching for water. The heat in hot peppers is really an oil; water moves around the burning sensation but it doesn't counteract it.

If you'll be dealing with a large number of peppers, use disposable gloves. The oils of the peppers are very good at working their way into your pores and can be quite difficult to just wash away--bleach and water, salted water, or toothpaste, believe it or not, are your best bets.

Please be especially careful if you wear contact lenses.

Trust me. I've learned this the hard way.

Any more questions? Fire away! Hah!

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28 Comments:

Great post! I adore the pep! I can't believe that you know men who carry it to restaurants with them, that's awesome. At my house we put a little in almost every recipe. When Sara from Ms. Adventures in Italy made me pasta last weekend she even put it into the homemade dough, and it was a wonderful addition, just a bit of zing not too hot.
When are you going to talk about 'nduja!!!!??? (Maybe you already have and I missed it?)

Anonymous Giovanna said...

OK...have you been to dinner with my dad? He always has a pepper in his pocket when he knows food will be involved. As a kid I thought it was so embarassing...now I just say "pass the pepper"!

Blogger jennifer said...

I love love love peperoncino, and sadly here in the north it's not as widely used. It's also extremely good for you- don't calabrese live a long time?? Seems I heard that somewhere...

Blogger sognatrice said...

Shelley, it's so true about adding peperoncino--it really does give everything a kick without being too spicy.

As for 'nduja, you know, it might be a regional Calabrian thing because they really aren't big on it in my village (although I know in the province of Vibo Valentia they are). Anyway, I'll still have to write about it sometimes because it's just...so...unique :)

Giovanna, more proof! And yes, I can imagine appreciating the pocket peppers more as you get older ;)

Jennifer, yes, there are some great health benefits to peperoncino--relieves pain, improves circulation and breathing, inhibits the growth of some cancers, and boosts metabolism and digestion. Thanks for bringing that up!

And if it's any indication on the longevity of the Calabrese, when someone dies around here before the age of 85, the automatic comment is "Poverino/a...era giovane!"

Blogger Figs Olives Wine said...

Lovely post! I really do love the peperoncino in my food, and it's such a wonderful flavor enhancer. I wonder how you preserve them in oil? Do you partially dry them first? Blanch them?

Anonymous bella said...

I love hot pepper in my dishes. I have to snoop around my Italian butcher shop to see if he sells these little spicy guys.

Blogger Bryan and Autumn said...

I need to bring my 12 year old down to Calabria for the festival.
He loves peperincino. I buy him the calabrian stuff in a jar that he eats with everything.
I love spicy...but it's shocking to me how he consumes this stuff!

Blogger Giulia said...

When I was younger I was always such a wuss when it came to eating spicey food. Now as an adult, I am starting to get used to adding pepper flakes to some of my dishes, mostly the fish ones.
I grew up watching my whole family have contests as to who could eat the spiciest pepper! It was quite comical at times watching them get all teared up and choke! HA

Blogger Tammy said...

Wonderful post packed with interesting information. I'm Sicilian and love spice :)

I would be like one of those guys carrying them in their pockets! LOL! I do love heat and I love making new condiments and stuff with peppers! I always have to have a little heat!

Blogger Jér said...

I grew up eating spicy Mexican food, and I thought I had a good tolerance, but I learned differently when I went to Calabria. There was the old guy who had me and my friends over for lunch and shook so much crushed red pepper onto his spaghetti con aglio e olio that it looked like he had drowned it in tomato sauce. There were the ubiquitous salsicce piccanti. And there was the fateful dinner where our hostess decided to feed us a meal "ara calabrisi," and the peppers she gave us were so hot one of my friends got a nosebleed and the rest of us were gasping and moaning in pain. But she just sat there, calmly slicing peperoncino onto each bite of her pasta, and watching us die agonizing deaths by capsaicin poisoning.

Sognatrice,

I have dubbed you the Patron Saint of Kitchens. Feel free to use the title at will, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for the assist on the brownie disaster. It was so funny I just posted a blog about it. Good laughs, thank you.

I love peppers... they are so good, but I have to admit to never having tried an Italian pepper... do you have different varieties there than we do here? I suspect so.
One of my cousins was in Mexico and his friends gave him a super hot pepper to eat and laughed when he burned his mouth, they visited him in SoCal, and he gave them a heaping helping of Wasabi... looks like guacamole... paybacks hmm?

Loved the post, and the tips.
As usual, love the photo too.

Thank you, Patron Saint.

Scarlett

Anonymous jaci said...

Are those little peppers used in the spicy pasta dish, arrabbiata? I had some in Roma it was gustoso ! Yum indead.

Anonymous Mandi said...

There is a restaurant down the block from me called Peperoncino. Unfortunately, while yummy, their food is decidedly un-spicy, and would be much yummier if they pepped it up a bit!

Anonymous Sonya said...

Yum, I am really hungry now. Great post :)

Anonymous KG said...

Such a vibrant post! I loved learning so much about Italian pepper culture --- I had no idea. WONDERFUL photo.

Such great advice about those fiery oils. Same thing with jalapeños --- have tortillas or tortilla chips nearby and pass on the ice tea to relieve those mouth fires.

Blogger The Other Girl said...

I'm not sure I've seen peperoncino here except for the pickled version, and those are usually small and green. It's also possible that I'm thinking of something else entirely. (I'll try to say something less pointless next time.)

Anonymous Frances said...

Quite a peppery post there.
I love roasted red peppers.
I'm imagining people at a restaurant table pulling out containers filled with peppers because the ones provided were not up to snuff.
Waving at you from New York.
Ciao Bella

Anonymous Sara said...

Delightful! Oh, to be in Diamante in September.

I love the idea of men walking around with peppers in their pockets, just in case. Honestly, it sounds like something my half-Mexican true love would do.

Blogger Belizegial said...

As a lover of habanero peppers, the type grown down here in the tropics, I can relate.

Withstanding a burnt tongue and occasional burnt eyes, I would prefer to eat spicy food any ole day.

Thanks for the background info on peperoncino.

Enid

Blogger sognatrice said...

Figs, I don't know how these peppers were preserved as they were given to us, but when I've preserved another type (round, hollowed out, stuffed with anchovies and capers), I blanched first.

Bella, if it's an Italian butcher worth his salt(ed pork), he better have peperoncini!

Autumn, Diamante is actually a cute little town; it's an old fishing village with lots of murals lining the winding streets. And of course the beach is nice too :)

Giulia, I've gotten braver as I've gotten older too--most of my family *loves* spicy food, so I suppose it was only a matter of time!

Tammy, benvenuta Siciliana! Not surprising that you like the heat ;)

Jenn, the longer I've been here, the more dishes the peperoncino goes in; it just adds such a great kick.

Jér, glad to see you here! I love the "ara calabrisi"; I can just hear one of the older guys saying it. I'm still in the phase of where something is a bit hot to me, my OH can't even taste the peperoncino. No nosebleeds yet though, so I'm doing OK ;) Thanks for sharing a great story!

Scarlett, you're too funny, and I hope you've recovered from the, let's say, incident ;) I think peppers are different all over the world, and they range in degree of heat as well. I seem to remember reading somewhere that the one that's in Calabria isn't native anyway, so I'm definitely not sure where it comes from. Although I will say that a lot of the spicy influence comes from Arabic cultures, which were in the area about a thousand years ago. I'll have to do more research and do an ode part II!

Jaci, those would be them, and I have to agree on the yum :)

Mandi, the horror! What business do they have invoking the name without the heat? They need a stiff talking to!

Sonya, thanks--but don't eat too many peppers to satisfy the hunger!

KG, thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the post and photo. Yes, tortilla chips and spicy salsa (and sour cream!) make perfect sense when you consider the chemical reactions. But let's not talk too much science ;)

TheOG, you're right, those are peperoncini too. Basically any "little pepper" can be called peperoncini--in fact, exactly what you describe is what I was used to growing up. I remember my dad just eating them from the jar. Here in Calabria, there are actually peppers ranginig from white (woooweee!) to the deep red, green and even a violet color (ouch!) in between. They're all technically peperoncini and range in heat from moderate (to me, nothing to a Calabrian) to call the Vigili del Fuoco ;)

Frances, ooh, I could go for a roasted red pepper sandwich right now. Yum!

Sara, I just think it's hilarious that so many of the men do it, it's completely normal!

Belizegial, welcome! I have to say that there is something fulfilling about a slightly burning tongue and watery eyes--makes you feel alive, you know? ;)

Blogger Rebecca said...

I know people who carry around stones and a nail in their pocket for good luck, but I have never heard of the "pepper people". Obviously there is a whole world out there waiting to be discovered.

Anonymous Something... said...

It's only 9.30 in the morning and you are making my mouth water. I used to eat them fresh from the garden with just bread for accompaniment when I was little.
Have you tried 'Rosa di Mare'? It's made from those tiny fish called 'bianchini' or something like that, in a peperoncino sauce. Mmmmmm....

Blogger Rob Kistner said...

Wow! An entire country of pepper freaks... cool!

Wonderful read Sognatrice -- thank you!

Blogger paris parfait said...

Reading this post made me long for some of that spicy pepper! Sounds like the greatest place to be for fantastic ingredients and wonderful meals. And thanks for the tips when cooking with lots of peppers.

Blogger Betty C. said...

I must admit I am one who is a little afraid of these peppers. Thanks for the advice!

Anonymous gautami said...

I liked that picture!

Curd works great for washing out pepper from skin. Nothing can compare with that!

Blogger sognatrice said...

Rebecca, oh yes, the pepper people are out in full force around here. I wouldn't have thought it either.

Something, I don't think I've had that, no. Sounds tasty though. I'll have to ask around.

Rob, glad you enjoyed. I have to say, though, that the southerners are traditionally more into their peppers than northerners, so a whole country full might be a bit of an exaggeration ;)

Paris Parfait, it is wonderful to be surrounded by such fresh, delicious ingredients--makes cooking quite easy in fact!

Betty, as we say here, Forza! You can do it!

Gautami, thanks, and good tip on using curd :)

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