Some like it hot, others not
Whether you’re an adventurous gourmand who likes to gamble a bit with your food, or you simply love the bold flavor of peppers, Bibiana Guerra has just what you’re craving. A technical writer in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, Guerra grows Padrón peppers, or Padrónes, in her spare time. The majority of Padrónes—a medium-sized, green variety from the Galicia region of Spain—are sweet, but a portion of any given crop are fiery hot, and you’ll never know which ones until you’ve taken a bite. Padrónes are a traditional tapa in Spain and are gaining a following with tapas lovers here in the United States. If you’re interested in trying some Padrónes yourself, you can contact Guerra at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The popularity of Padrón peppers originates in Galicia. Are you of Galician descent yourself?
Yes, I am from Galicia. I was born near Santiago de Compostela, in Northwestern Spain, some 15 minutes from Padrón, where the original peppers are grown. My family still lives there. I came to California on a grant program to gain my Ph.D. After studying viticulture at UC Davis, I became so inflamed with the subject—yes, I think “inflamed” is accurate—that I decided to study in Montpellier, France, where the science of viticulture was born. After France, it was easy to get a job at a California winery, so I decided to settle here.
So, do Padrónes live up to the Galician saying “Os pementos de Padrón, uns pican e outros non"?
How did you find that out?! In fact, I have a T-shirt that my sister sent me with that sentence translated into what I thought at the time was rather poor English: “Little green peppers of Padrón: Some are spicy; others are not.” Yes, the spiciness, or zest, has to do with the growing temperatures. In any season, 5 percent to 10 percent of Padrónes are spicy; that’s why they are referred to as the “Russian roulette peppers.” Summer heat increases the formation of capsaicin—the compound responsible for the hot sensation—so Padrón peppers grown in Sacramento tend to have a higher percentage of spicy ones than the crops grown in Padrón. You can immediately tell the spicy ones by nibbling on them. That’s how the Spaniards eat them!
Why did you choose to grow Padrón peppers here?
Padrón peppers are everywhere back home in Galicia. When you go out with friends, hopping from bar to bar, they are the typical tapa, or appetizer, that they serve you along with your small vaso de vino ("glass of wine"). They are mild and very flavorful—I cannot tolerate hot peppers. They’re unique, and it seemed logical to try them out in my kitchen garden. Once I discovered that they could grow here and taste like the ones back home, I knew this was one crop I had to continue growing. They remind me of the people back home who are so proud of these peppers. Last year I visited several growers in Padrón to learn their techniques.
How long have you been growing them?
Three years. It started playfully, when my sister sent me some seeds. The first few plants grew well, and from there on, the progression was exponential. I became addicted, and each year I enjoyed planning how I was going to improve and expand my little pepper plantation. The Padrónes did something else that was very important for me: They led me to discover my passion for growing plants, primarily vegetables and fruit. It had been with me all these years, but somehow I had not been able to read this inclination or to accept it. Today, I have no problem stating that I enjoy working the land, getting my hands dirty with soil.
How many pepper plants do you have?
I currently have 200 Padrón pepper plants. I’m planning on doubling that next year. My farm, or microfarm, covers the whole of a large backyard. I have considered leasing additional land, but this is difficult given that the plants need daily care. At this small scale, though, the farm doesn’t consume much of my time most of the year. During the peak periods of farm activity, I get up really early to care for the peppers before going to work. It’s a glorious time of the day to be working in the fresh, humid soil. Then I’ll do the same in the evenings, often until dark. I’m sure my neighbor has wondered more than once what possessed me to be hoeing like a maniac in the dark.
Besides as a tapa, are Padrónes used in other dishes?
I have seen friends and restaurants doing sophisticated nouvelle cuisine with Padrónes. They make those little green peppers look beautiful, stuffing them with crab or cheese. To be honest, I haven’t tasted anything that I preferred over the original preparation. You just simply fry the peppers lightly, stem and all, in good olive oil for a couple of minutes, drain and sprinkle with coarse salt. They are good by themselves but even better paired with another dish, such as a juicy Spanish tortilla.