The North Bay is awash in colorful chiles, with dozens of varieties, from tiny pale lemon drops and bright orange habañeros to plump green poblanos and big sweet bells.
And the season has not yet peaked. Among farmers who specialize in fresh chiles, dried chiles or both, September is a waiting game.
Sometime this month, jalapeños and serranos, fairly low on the Scoville scale of heat but high on recognizability, will take on their first blush of red. When all the chiles have a crimson glow, it will be time to pick them for decorative ristras and wreaths, to dry them for sale next year and to smoke and grind them into the chipotle powders, paprikas and other mixtures that spice up our soups, sauces and stews all year.
The season for fresh chiles will continue until October or November, whenever the first frost sets in.
“Sometimes we can anticipate the first frost,” said Zureal Bernier of Bernier Farms in Geyserville, “and then we pick everything we can. Chiles store well at room temperature, and we can extend the season a bit this way.”
Bernier Farms specializes in sweet peppers, chiles with a depth and nuance of flavor but not a lot of heat.
This year, the farm is harvesting Piccante Calabrese, a pretty little heart-shaped chile that has a bit of heat; Corno de Toro Rosso and Carmen, two fairly large tapered sweet chiles; Jimmy Nardello, which is thin, long, fleshy and sweet; Hungarian Cheese and Red Ruffled, types of mild pimentos known as Cinderellas because of their squat pumpkin-like shape, and Lunch Box, a sweet chile perfect in school lunches.
The farm also has Padrons and Shishitos, though they’ve pulled back on quantity since so many farmers now grow them, and Friggatello, an Italian chile similar to the Spanish Padron.
Bernier knows Padrons so well that he can tell just by looking if one has the heat that accounts for the chile’s nickname, “Russian Roulette,” a reference to the one in 10 or so that can surprise your palate.
“Size is a clue,” Bernier says, “but so is a waxy appearance. The waxier the chile, the more heat it will have.”
All Padrons, left to mature, will develop heat.
Until recently, Padrons were little more than a rumor, a tale of delicious tapas in Spain but unavailable here. Then a number of years ago Jill Adams of Crescent Moon Farm in Santa Rosa grew some, though not enough to keep up with demand. The next year, another farmer joined in, and today they are everywhere, in farmers markets, supermarkets and restaurants, where they’re typically seared, sprinkled with coarse salt and served neat or with aioli for dipping. Shishito, a similar chile from Japan, has joined them, and the Friggatello is increasingly available.
On Saturday in Santa Rosa, Libby Batzel of Beet Generation Farm in Sebastopol was a whirlwind of energy as she turned the crank of a basket grill where Padrons, Shishitos, Poblanos and other chiles tumble as their skins blackened. Customers nibbled them as they shopped and took them home to enjoy raw or use in other dishes.
THIS WEEK’S BLIND TASTING
The Food-Friendliest Thanksgiving Red —-- Grenache
Donelan, 2014 Cuvee Moriah, Sonoma County Grenache, 14.6% alcohol, $50. ★★★★ What makes this a pitch- perfect Thanksgiving pick is that this Rhone red has tangy, high-toned fruit, coupled with savory spice and crisp acid. It has notes of pomegranate, red currant and cardamom. The Donelan has a round texture and finishes crisp, pairing well with a broad range of rich dishes. The wine is 84% grenache, with 16% mourvedre. Impressive.
Clos de Gilroy, Bonny Doon Vineyards, 2016 Grenache, 13.1%, $20. ★★★1/2: This is a bright grenache with generous fruit and snappy spice. Notes of raspberry, red currant, a hint of plum and cracked black pepper. This pick is spicier than some, so it works best with lean side dishes and turkey. The blend is 82% grenache and 18% syrah.
Tablas Creek, 2013 Grenache, 15.5%, $45. ★★★★: This grenache has black fruit aromas but its weighted to red on the palate. It has notes of wild strawberry and cherry, riding on crisp acid. It also has a hint of leather and chocolate in the mix. This wine is 100% grenache and its tangy fruit makes it a savvy Thanksgiving pick with dishes that are both lean and rich.
Quivira, 2014 Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County Grenache, 14.8%, $34. ★★★★: This is a pretty grenache that leads with full- throttle strawberry but has layered flavors —-- a hint of vanilla and white pepper. This is another example of 100% grenache, and its tangy fruit coupled with bright acid makes it a savvy Thanksgiving pick.
Unti, 2014 Dry Creek Valley Grenache, 14.5%, $35. ★★★★: This is a full-bodied grenache that’s both fresh and savory. It has great complexity, with layered flavors of raspberry, anise and pepper. This classic Rhone works well with a Thanksgiving feast, as well as solo because of its tasty infusion of syrah. The wine is 80% grenache, 14% syrah and 6% mourvedre. Striking.