Photo by Alvaro Leiva
Photos by Alvaro Leiva
Biting into a Padrón pepper is like playing a game of Spanish roulette.
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.”
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.
Based on a recipe from Happy Quail Farms
This article originally appeared online in July 2013; it was updated in December 2017 to include current information.
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