Sweet Peppers: Savor ’em, Stuff ’em, Celebrate ’em
We tend to think of peppers as a summer vegetable but it is really fall—when the evenings and mornings are cooler and the days a little shorter—when the sweet peppers take over the market stalls in all their colorful glory.
All sweet peppers start out green. When they are green they are immature, but edible, as we all know, but as they mature they become red, yellow, orange, purple, “chocolate,” even white, depending upon the variety, and also become much sweeter. The most popular and most familiar sweet peppers in the United States are bell peppers. A key element of the bell pepper is that it does not produce capsaicin, the compound responsible for heat in all the other peppers in the Capsicum genus.
Although breeders have produced many variations of this basic pepper, the essence remains the same: a thickly fleshed, blocky shape with four lobes. Part of the charm of bell peppers is their shape, which is ideal for stuffing. In 1952, Campbell’s Soup Company developed a variety they called Yolo Wonder, since it was developed in Yolo County. For many years, Yolo Wonder, along with California Wonder introduced by Burpee Seeds in 1928, set the standard for bell peppers, and they are still two of the most common for home gardeners to find offered as seedlings in nurseries.
Other bell pepper varieties have been developed specifically for greenhouse production. These types were so successfully produced in Holland they became known as Dutch or Holland peppers in the European marketplace, where they are easily differentiated from other bell peppers by their very thick stems and large size.
However, as you can see at your local farmers market, there are many more shades and shapes of sweet peppers than there are of bells. When I had my Dixon-based, mail order seed company, Le Marche Seeds, with Charlotte Kimball, the two of us used to travel to France and Italy in search of interesting European varieties. In France we discovered the huge Lamuyo pepper, three-lobed, thick-walled and up to eight inches long, considered the sweet pepper of choice in France, Spain and Italy. Eventually it was branded and marketed here in the United States by Sun World as Le Rouge Royale, along with a similar yellow one branded as Le Jaune Royale.
In France, at a small seed company we visited, we discovered an Italian pepper, Corno di Toro Rosso and Corno di Toro Giallo, popular with local market growers in Provence. These long-curing peppers in the shapes of bull horns are the kind you see preserved in those huge glass jars on delicatessen counter tops, and I’ve preserved them myself that way, but in more modest quart jars.
However, we had to go to northern Italy to discover two outstanding grilling and roasting peppers, these with names reflecting their origins: Cuneo and Quadrato d’ Asti. We drove from Nice, France, north through Sospel to Cuneo, Italy. The road is a series of switchback curves climbing to reach the Valley of the Roya River. From there, it continues over a series of bridges and gorges, bridges and gorges, to reach the 13th-century capital city of the province of the same name. Cuneo is an important agricultural area and it is here that the heavy, rounded, yellow sweet pepper with a pointed tip, the Cuneo pepper, originated. The pepper has very thick, sweet flesh and large leaves that provide it shade during the hot growing season. After tasting it, we immediately acquired seeds to sell through our catalog.
Only 20 minutes east of Cuneo is Asti, another medieval town, noted for its agriculture and its wines. The Quadrato d’Asti pepper is heavy, like the Cuneo, and very meaty, but with four lobes. Quadrato d’ Asti is not dissimilar to the familiar bell pepper, but it walls seem thicker, its flesh thicker, maybe because we tasted it in Italy. It, like the Cuneo, became a standard in our seed catalog.
Other sweet peppers among my personal favorites are the pimiento, a very thick-fleshed, heart-shaped sweet pepper. They are excellent roasted, packed in olive oil and vinegar, and lots better than canned pimientos. Think cheese and pimento spread with homemade pimientos.
There are dozens of different kinds of sweet peppers and our farmers markets will be full of them in fall, so plan on making the most of them, using them as many different ways as you can think of: grilled, roasted, stuffed, pickled, on pizzas, made into sauces—so much to choose from.
What’s in Season
VEGETABLES & HERBS
Arugula Asian Greens
Pumpkins & other