A woman walks into a bar in Spain. She’s expecting tapas: small, shareable plates of meat and cheese, salty deep-fried snacks, and garlicky bites drowned in good, grassy olive oil. Instead, she’s served a heaping mound of a single vegetable. This is not the setup for a joke. It’s what happens when I visit Galicia, in Spain’s northwest corner. What passes for a bar snack in the region—at least for the few months each year when they’re in season—are the bright green peppers known as pimientos de Padrón.

Galicia doesn’t look like the rest of Spain. Rather, it could be Scotland. Thick, wet fog rolls in each morning, and bagpipe music often wafts through the streets. But instead of pubs serving cask ales and sausage rolls, local tabernas sell plates of peppers, best enjoyed with a crisp lager or an even crisper glass of albariño, the aromatic, high-acidity local white wine.

Botanically speaking, the Padrón, like all peppers, is actually a fruit. Small and green, it looks like a miniature bell pepper and is traditionally lightly fried in olive oil until gently blistered, then dusted with coarse sea salt. Its flavor is unmistakable: sweet, nutty, and intensely “green.” Then, when you least expect it, kapow!—you bite into a fiery hot one. Among aficionados, the ideal ratio is about one hot to 10 mild peppers. That you never know when the heat will explode on your tongue makes the eating all the more thrilling. Call it Spanish roulette.

The story goes that Franciscan monks brought the pepper seeds from Mexico to Spain—specifically, to the Herbón parish in the town of Padrón—in the 17th century. The peppers remained Galicia’s best-kept culinary secret for generations, until the rest of Spain developed a taste for them. In the last decade or so, the Padrón migrated again, to pockets of the United States. Several farmers in Northern California started cultivating the fruit in areas where the temperate climate and fertile soils match those of Galicia.

David Winsberg grew up on a pepper farm in South Florida and, since moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, has raised just about every chili under the sun. In 2001, when pimientos de Padrón were still largely unknown in the United States, Winsberg began growing them on his Happy Quail Farms in East Palo Alto. “The pepper develops heat as it matures. They get hotter later in the season, and they have to be picked before they turn red,” he says. “People complain if there are too many hot ones in a batch—although we get just as many complaints if there aren’t enough hot ones.”

Spiciness does increase with ripening, but a number of factors can affect the pepper’s heat, according to Adrián Rodríguez-Burruezo, a professor of genetics and a specialist in chili breeding at the Universitat Politècnica de València in Spain. In the wild, peppers use their pungency, caused by compounds called capsaicinoids, to ward off predators. When cultivated for several generations, individual peppers can lose the spicy gene. However, sweet peppers grown near spicier ones can acquire some of their neighbors’ fiery character through spontaneous cross-pollination. So, Rodríguez-Burruezo explains, the Padrón pepper has evolved to be randomly spicy.

Back in Galicia, my first game of Spanish roulette is a triumph: I have a knack for picking the hot ones. A spicy Padrón burns with the sort of heat that can be tempered only by eating another. The plate of peppers soon vanishes. Like any gambler, I begin itching for more. Luckily, from as early as May to as late as October, pimientos de Padrón are everywhere in Galicia. Game on. A

Pimientos de Padrón
(SERVES 6)
Based on a recipe from Happy Quail Farms

INGREDIENTS
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil 1/2 pound fresh pimientos de Padrón
Coarse or kosher sea salt, to taste

MAKE IT
1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over high heat until almost smoking.
2. Quickly add the pimientos de Padrón and turn them frequently so that they cook evenly. Fry the peppers for 3 to 5 minutes or so, until all peppers are blistered. (Larger peppers take longer.)
3. Drain on a paper towel or serve over slices of crisp baguette to absorb the excess oil. Salt to taste.

Photo by Alvaro Leiva. This appeared in the August/September issue.