Story and Photos by Harald Zoschke
We already reported in detail about Calabria, the secret European
Chiliheadquarters. Just north of Calabria, in the Basilicata region, we
discovered another tasty treasure: "Peperoni di Senise".
Just like "Champagne" sparkling wine or "Roquefort" cheese, this
special kind of pepper enjoys origin protection issued by the
European Union, so the rest of the world can enjoy the quality of this
specialty, guaranteed to be grown in a certain area , with its typical
soil and climate. We went there around harvest time in September.
Embedded between Puglia, Campania and Calabria, the Basilicata landscape is breathtaking, There's even a tiny bit of coastline on both sides. Most of the region is covered by hills and mountains. A major part is covered by woods, but some areas with less vegetation even remind of the American southwest. Various cultures left their traces here, including Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Normans. Impressive buildings are witness to thousands of years in history.
Some parts of the Basilicata remind of the Southwestern USA
The Basilicata is the only Italian region with two names. Basilicata has been the official name since 1945, but the antique one, Lucania, is still popular, too. Most people who live here consider themselves "Lucanians" rather than "Basilicatians". Also, the regional cuisine is still known as "Lucanian Cuisine". And what a cuisine that is -- full of great dishes and unique culinary specialties. These are just too many to name them all, but here some of the Lucanian treats that we discovered on our trip:
Aglianico del Vulture - Made from an ancient grape that dates back to as early as 700 B.C., this tasty and intense red wine is produced in the zone of Monte Vulture on the slopes of an extinct volcano. This is the smallest of all Italian wine regions, and the wine was granted DOC status in 1971. If you see it in a good wine store, give it a try.
Fagiolo di Sarconi - A number of bean varieties that are used both fresh and dried. Since they're done quickly, these flavorful beans don't get mushy. They are grown in the Alta Val D'Agri, a valley with perfect soil and climate conditions for this plant. See also our 2005 Peperoncino Festival Report.
Peperoni di Senise - After this small capsicum was imported to Italy from the New World, it spread quickly here. This particular variety is well-adapted to the soil and microclimate of a specific region of the Basiclicata. The "Peppers of Senise" are grown in various communities in the provinces of Matera and Potenza, but they got their name from one of the villages in this area, located on the slope of one of the hills along the Sinni River valley. Like many wines, these flavorful peppers enjoy origin protection and are used widely in Lucanian kitchens.
And just don't get me started on all the incredible sausage and cheese specialties in the Basilicata...
After hearing about those Peperoni di Senise, we decided to take a little detour on our way to the Peperoncino Festival in Diamante (Calabria) and find out more about the popular peppers of Senise. Since harvest was in full swing, this was a good time of the year to visit.
Driving through the Basilicata is quite enjoyable. As mentioned, some mountain areas remind of the American Southwest. Other places are typically Mediterranean and look more like Tuscany, with countless olive trees.
The region is crossed by various rivers, most importantly by the Agri and Sinni rivers. Their valleys provide optimum growing conditions for specific plants, including peppers.
Passing the region's capital Potenza, we're heading southeast, first following the Sinni river, later driving along the Agri. Already from a distance, we could make out the historic part of Senise, picture-perfectly situated on a hill.
Entering the village was rather unspectacular. We found that faded "Don't honk" sign rather unneccessary, as it is quite quiet here anyway. This is definitely not a tourist spot, and you rarely see any cars.
Dried and Fresh Peperoni di Senise
We didn't have to wait long to find our first Peperoni di Senise though. Driving by, it wasn't hard to notice a produce dealer's outside display of fruit as well as fresh and dried peppers. The peppers were tied up as ristras, which are called fila (thread) in Italian. We purchased a huge fila right away, and for the rest of our trip, our car was filled with the wonderful aroma of Peperoni di Senise!
Inside the produce store, we discovered fresh pods as well. While most of the mature red peppers are dried, the green and green-red ones get seared in the pan.
In the early days, Senise paprika was used to enrich poor people's meals. Today, they are a sought-after Lucanian specialty, very much like New Mexican green chiles from Hatch. Their appearance and flavor are uniqe enough to get origin protection by the IGP quality seal of the European Union (EU). We'll get back to that IGP certification later.
OK, we've got dried peppers, and we've got a big bag of fresh pods as well. But where can we find these Peperoni di Senise growing?
Finding the Fields
Again we didn't have to drive far to stumble across the first pepper fields - we found some right at the foot hills of historic Senise. The newer part of the village starts just below the old town, and right in front of it, bright red pods stuck out of a field like candles.
We learned that this small field belonged to a sheperd, and that larger ones were located outside town.
And indeed, next to a rural road to the neighboring village, pepper fields appeared that seemed
to be almost endless. A good deal of the peppers was harvested already, but still the green
was punctuated by countless red spots, and pepper-picking was still in full swing.
As set by the IGP certification rules, harvest has to be done by hand.
The peppers are growing under the intense sun on compact loamy soil, and we can't help noticing the similarity to soil conditions we saw in southern New Mexico. Above left is a picture we took at a field close to Senise, while the one to the right is a shot we took in the Hatch valley near Las Cruces. This is a hint why Peperoni di Senise are developing their characteristic aroma, much like Barker, Big Jim, Sandia and other New Mexican varities develop theirs in their original growing areas. As with wine, you can grow the varieties elsewhere, but is is hard or impossible to duplicate the effects of soil and climate on the flavor.
Comparing the pictures also reveals differences. Note the hose to the left of the Senise pepper plants. It is punctuated by countless tiny holes, providing drip irrigation to the plants. From these holes, the water is dripping to the ground close to the root, i. e. very little water is wasted. New Mexican chile farmers take advantage of the Rio Grande river nearby - in certain intervals, shallow canals between the rows of pepper plants are flooded with water pumped from the river, a technique called furrow irrigation. The New Mexican picture to the right shows such a furrow in the center.
Origin Protection for a Paprika
To guarantee the quality specific to those peppers grown in their area, the farmers around Senise sought origin protection by the European Union. For quite some time now, various European agricultural products have been enjoying trademark protection due to their unique origin and production methods (see also The Question of Origin-Controlled Chiles. For example, "Champagne" is restricted to a sparkling wine from that region of France only, while "Roquefort" cheese is limited to the cheese that is produced in certain methods only in the village by that name. In Germany "Nürnberger Bratwurst" was granted protection - it has to be made in Nuremberg (Bavaria), following certain procedures. The four requirements of such a trademark designation are the region or soil contributing to the product, the raw material, the production techniques, as well as tradition. More than 500 unique EU products are protected that way by now, and the number is continuously growing.
Peperoni di Senise was awarded IGP status in 1996. "IGP" is short for Indication Géographique Protégée or Indicazione Geografica Protetta - protected geographic designation, just like "DOC" for wine.
The rules for obtaining IGP status are tough and bureaucratic, like many other things in the EU. In this particular case, they're defined in "Disciplinare di produzione dei peperoni a Indicazione Geografica Protetta 'Peperoni di Senise' ".
Among many other aspects, the regulation also defines the area where the peppers have to grow to be legally named "Peperoni di Senise".
In the Valle del Sinni, these are the provinces of Francavilla S.S., Chiaromonte, Valsinni, Colobraro, Tursi, Noepoli, and San Giorgio Lucano, and in the Agri valley, that's Sant'Arcangelo, Roccanova, Tursi, Montalbano Jonico and Craco. It is also regulated when the peppers can be sown - from the last third of February to the the second third of March. Planting the seedlings has to be done from mid May to early June.
Harvest starts in August, after the pods have taken on their typical bright red color. Only manual harvesting is permitted. Commercial trade requires wooden crates that hold 12 to15 kilograms.
Ristras of dried peppers have to be 1.5 to 2 meters long, with pod humidity being in the 10 to 12% range. Pods need to be arranged in a spiral pattern, forming angles of 120 degrees (i.e. three to a circle). Trade size for ground chiles is 50, 100 or 1000 grams.
Fresh Peperoni di Senise Pods
Appearance and shapes are also regulated. While shopping for Senise peppers, we discovered slightly diffferent pod types - see picture above. We could not find out if these were variations of the very same cultivar, but the EU docs define three different types:
Pod shape: Lightly bent with few visible ribs
Pod length: 10 to 17 cm.
Diameter: 3,5 to 5 cm.
Wall thickness: 1,5 to 2,2 mm
Pod shape: Lightly bent with few visible ribs
Tip: bent to hook-shaped
Pod length: 11 to 16 cm.
Diameter: 3,5 to 5,2 cm.
Wall thickness: 1,5 to 2,2 mm
Pod shape: Cone-shaped, lightly wound
Clearly visible ribs, typically three, one of them developed more
strongly than the other ones, and running all the way to the tip.
Tip: Shaped like a dog's nose
Pod length: 9 to 14 cm.
Diameter: 3,0 to 5,1 cm.
Wall thickness: von 1,5 to 2,0 mm
(Note: 1 cm = 10 mm = 0,39")
All three types are required to have peduncles (stems) that don't detach by themselves from the fruit after drying. Also, all of them need to show a mild sweet aroma (dolce). Legal trade colors for pods are green and crimson red.
Drying the Pods
The cut-open pod reveals that Peperoni di Senise are rather thin-walled. The climate in the mountains of the Basilicata, warm air and always light winds, is ideal for air-drying this kind of pepper. For that purpose, the pods are threaded to ristras. We spotted those strings on many homes around Senise, an indicator for heavy use private kitchens around here.
The thin-skinned fruit has a low water content which makes it perfect for natural air drying.
On a commercial scale, drying follows the same scheme, but in special buildings with open walls (yet another regulation requires that peppers don't dry in direct sunlight).
We found two-story builidings that were just loaded with ristras, and even from a distance we got a whiff of the fantastic aroma.
Hanging on hooks, the ristras get plenty of natural ventilation. In addition, peppers that are not 100% picture perfect are placed on wire mesh drying racks.
While the ristras are sold as is, the single pods are ground to a flavorful powder with an intense color. Because of its similar appearance to saffron, it is also named zafarano in this region.
The tasty powder is used in a number of regional cheese and sausage specialties, as well as for spicing up various soups and main dishes.
Tasting the Popular Pods
Now it was about time to find a place to taste the popular pods. By now it was late afternoon, about 6:00 pm, and no restaurant in Senise was open. Even the local pizzeria was closed, not to open before 8:30 pm - not unusual in Southern Italy.
So we used the time to check into our hotel, Villa del Lago. Since there isn't much tourism in this area, there are not too many hotels. That's why we were even more pleased to find Villa del Lago to be an appealing place with excellent service and a very nice in-house restaurant. To reach the hotel, just leave Senise, heading for the lake nearby.
Hotel Villa del Lago is not far from the lake. The shore is lined by olive trees.
We were really hungry, and fortunately, the hotel restaurant started already at 8:00 pm. A couple of tables away from us, a huge Italian family, about 18 people, was already there when we were seated. When their first course was served, we immediately got a whiff of the dish they had: the unmistakable aroma of porcini mushrooms. The friendly waiter was baffled that we detected that flavor from the distance and asked if we'd like to order the same -- home-made pasta with fresh porcini. Being porcini lovers, this was a no-brainer for Renate and me! We asked our waiter though that we'd also like to sample the region's specialty, Peperoni di Senise. No problem, he replied. So before getting our porcini pasta, we received all sorts of antpasti -- local sheep cheeses, air-dried pork, slices of various sausages and a plate of Senise peppers, still sizzling hot.from frying in olive oil. The plate had fresh green peppers, as well as dried red ones, the latter getting really crispy when fried. Frying the peppers does even enhance their great flavor, and this healthy snack is a highly popular appetizer in Southern Italy.
Peperoni di Senise: Fresh green pods seared in olive oil (left)
and dried red pods fried crispy (right).
As still commonplace in Italy, the Villa del Lago hotel and restaurant is a family-owned operation, with various generations running the place. The senior chef walked over to our table to welcome us. He noticed that I liked their red wine, and he told me that they make it themselves. When we told him that we were on our way to the Peperoncino Festival, he took us outside between two courses and gave us a tour of his garden. He picked a branch with tiny chile pods on it for us - "here, try these!" -- Mamma mia, those peppers were tasty-hot. Senise's trademark peppers are rather mild peperoni, but that doesn't mean they don't like hot peppers in the Basilicata. Live and learn!
The porcini pasta dish was as great as we expected, just the right stuff. They took good care of us all night, making us almost feel like family. If you plan to see Senise, we can highly recommend this friendly hotel and its restaurant. Plus, it is one of the places open year round. For more information, see their Web site. The receptionist speaks enough English to check you in.
We would have loved to stay another night and explore the area by walking, but the Peperoncino Festival in Diamante was waiting for us. On our way we purchased more fresh Peperoni de Senise pods. In a small village nearby, we were fortunate enough to catch a farmers' market. Check out the fancy scales!
After arriving at our hotel in Diamante, we unpacked our peppers and took pictures while the pods were still fresh.
Of course we took seeds to start some plants in our garden back home in Germany.
Due to the significant differences in soil and climate, these won't be real Peperoni di Senise, and we expect them to taste different from the ones on location.
Yet they will serve as a reminder of a pleasant trip to this beautiful spot in Southern Italy.
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