NEWS FROM MARIQUITA: A CSA Journal

Chile shooters
What grows up to 15 feet tall, can produce through the winter in California and makes the perfect shot glass? Why, it's the Peron pepper and Andy's planning on introducing this fruteria regular to upscale San Fran.

By Andy Griffin

Farm-at-a-glance

Mariquita Farm
www.mariquita.com

Location: Land in Watsonville and Hollister
Years farming: Andy has farmed for the last 20 years in various capacities from farmworker to owner, from large farm to small.
Total acres farmed: 25
Key people: Andy, farmer and rave king; Julia, farm wife, CEO, mom, email elf, etc.; España, foreman, tractor driver, all around repairman; Jose España, head harvester; Lourdes Duarte, head vegetable packer
Range of crops: greens, root crops, tubers and herbs, berries, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, melons, artichokes, and more besides that.
Marketing methods: CSA and 1 farmers market, with a small number of carefully selected restaurants that pick up at the farmers market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year

July 14, 2005: Every plant I grow seems to serve as a host for some kind of rasping, chewing, or sucking insect, but my newest experimental crop may prove to be most effective at attracting bar flies. I’m talking about a pepper plant that grows as large as a small tree, even here along California’s foggy central coast.

Most pepper plants grow no more than waist high. They have little, unobtrusive, white flowers, and are typically sensitive to cold, wet, weather. Farmers in my growing region usually start their pepper plants in heated greenhouses in mid winter and don’t transplant them out into the field until after April 15th when they can presume the danger of frost is past.

After the first hard rains and freezing temperatures of November we’re used to seeing our pepper plants all blackened and broken. But the Peron pepper, that hails from Michoacan, Mexico, is hardy enough to grow all year long and bear a load of hot, yellow peppers well into the winter. I learned about Peron chiles from one of my employees, Manuel Esquivel, who originally came from Uruapan, where this pepper is a local favorite. The Peron chile will grow up to fifteen feet high with a main trunk as thick as a wrestler’s forearm, and its fruits pack a wallop. In it’s native habitat of Michoacan, the Peron chile often grows in the shade of larger trees, and its sprawling branches find support in the host’s arms.

Here, in our northern latitudes, the sun doesn’t burn so bright, so, against the advice the Michoacanos on my crew, I’ve chosen to grow my Peron peppers under full sun. For protection against wind, which could smash the plant’s rather brittle branches, I’ve planted the Peron peppers in an unheated hoop house that is open to ventilating breezes on both ends. My Peron plants seem to love this treatment. Since being set out in the ground in early February, the plants have already grown to four and five feet tall and they’re covered in purple flowers.

Most of the growers producing Peron peppers around my home town of Watsonville, California, are selling their harvest to the little fruterias that cater to expatriate Michoacanos. Like the more well known Habanero pepper, the Peron pepper is “muy bravo”. I’m not sure how many Scoville units the Peron pepper weighs in at but, as an afficionado of piquancy, I can assure you the Peron isn’t as hot as the Habanero. The Peron pepper is delicious minced into tomato or fruit salsas or shaved paper thin into fresh onion salads. With its lovely purple flowers and golden fruits, the Peron pepper even has the potential to be an intriguing ornamental plant for adventurous gardeners in temperate regions.

Manny Esquivel, who manages my green houses, has told me how to market this spicy pepper beyond the narrow confines of the ethnic Michoacano market and into the upscale bars of San Francisco. A Peron chile is the size of a shot glass. A bar tender has only to slice off the stem and calyx at the top of the fruit, knock out the seeds, and press the sliced end of the fruit into a saucer of sea salt and, presto! A shot of tequila can be poured into the empty chile that’s all frosty with salt, and left for a minute to become infused with a little heat. (For a refreshing nonalcoholic treat try sipping fresh squeezed lemon juice from a Peron chile. I’ve tried it and I find it delicious. Manny has Shirley Temple style lemon shooters for lunch sometimes.)

The novelty of knocking back tequila from a hot pepper sparks interest in a certain breed of drinker who may be too macho to listen when the bartender tells him not to eat the chile. As the tequila goes down the bravado flares up. Other bar patrons watch to see what’s going to happen. If the drinker insists on eating the chile he may end up buying a cold beer or three in a hopeless attempt to put out the fire. Either way the bartender and the pepper farmer both do good business, and there’s no shot glass to wash. That’s the theory, anyway. We’ll see what happens when the harvest moon rises for my Peron pepper crop during happy hour.

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