North Coast awash in colorful chiles
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.
Batzel worked alongside Jill Adams before Adams closed her farm and moved to Maine. She is the rightful heir to the fabulous chipotle powder Crescent Moon produced. Soon, there will be a new batch, as this year's processed chiles overlap with fresh chile season.
Min-Hee Hill Gardens of Sebastopol currently has both fresh chiles and ground powders made from jalapeño, serrano, Korean and Poblano chiles. This year, Min-Hee Hill and her husband Damon Hill will experiment with Hungarian chiles, too. As their chiles ripen, they process them at the farm, store them in a cool place and package them as needed.
'We expect production to begin in the middle of September,' Hill says about the chiles she nurtures.
If it's heat you're looking for — and hot peppers are both a spectator and participatory sport, with passionate advocates of both — you want to explore Triple T Farms selections.
By the end of August, the east Santa Rosa Farm was harvesting 30 varieties, the majority of them searingly hot.
The heat of chiles and other pungent foods is measured by what is known as the Scoville scale, developed by Wilbur Scoville. It measures the impact of chiles on our palates, offering a range of units for each type of chile because actual heat varies based on location, soil and seed.
At the low end of the scale, you find bell peppers, with zero Scoville units. The poblano, which is known as pasilla once it is dried, has just 1,000 to 1,500 Scoville units. The common jalapeño weighs in at between 2,500 to 8,000 units; serranos are a bit hotter, with 10,000 to 23,000 units. Habañeros, with their 100,000 to 350,000 units, were once praised as the hottest chile around, though they have been surpassed by several chiles, including the Ghost Pepper, which hovers near one million units; the Trinidad Scorpion, which ranges from 1.2 million to 2 million; and the Carolina Reaper, which tops out at a whopping 2.2 million Scoville units. (Pepper spray, by comparison, has about 2 million to 5.3 million Scoville units.)