I knew that someone had been growing them up in Maleny and supplying them to restaurants – but suddenly there they were facing me at the Byron Farmers Market. Padron peppers – or pimientos de Padron – are small green roundish peppers once unique to a region of Galicia in Spain called Padron, and the first time I tried them was at the now-defunct Pacific Dining Room at the Byron Beach Hotel. They were served in a deep white bowl as an appetiser to have with drinks and the waiter, as he deposited the bowl before us, issued a warning to the effect that one in ten was explosively hot. Because of this reputation they are sometimes referred to as Russian Roulette peppers! At any rate, I was smitten straight away: they had been briskly fried in olive oil and showered lightly before serving with sea- salt. Several to be sure were hotter than the majority, which were simply sweetish, fruity, a little charred from the pan-frying.
At the Market there was Mike Burless from Newrybar telling me that he had ‘hunted down the seeds for a long time and finally found them. So much sleuthing!’ he grinned, ‘and it’s been a learning curve.’The ones he was selling at the Market constituted his first batch. ‘They’re much milder in winter’, he told me, ‘and hotter in summer. Apparently hot winds make a big difference. In summer you have to get them out small or they get too spicy… the bigger they are the hotter!’
And so I had no choice but to purchase a bag of them, mostly about five centimetres in length with the exception of one long fattish one which aroused my curiosity. Duly, several evenings later, I heated olive oil in a heavy- based frypan and hurled them in, tossing them around until they had begun to blacken and blister then finishing them off with a scattering of sea-salt. We ate them immediately and they were as fantastic as the ones I had enjoyed at the PDR – although the big fat one was not quite as fiery as I had masochistically hoped.
Mike seemed to think that the Sunshine Coast hinterland grower (Richard Mohan
from the Midyim Eco Resort) was no longer operating his business, which makes it all the more exciting that he is. There is a lovely little saying relating to Padron peppers, to wit ‘os Pimientos de Padron Uns pican e outros non’, which translates as ‘The peppers of Padron, some are hot and some are not’. They were originally cultivated in the 16th century in a small Padronian village by monks who had brought them back from the Spanish colonies in South America – probably from what is now Mexico. They abound in nutritional value, are devoid of calories (discounting of course their cooking medium) and on top of all that are widely known as an aphrodisiac. Heaven in a pepper!
Heaven in a pepper I have also experienced a number of times at Ballina’s Sandbar restaurant, where Spanish chef Nic Gomez sends out as part of his tapas menu Stuffed Jalapenos. He coats the brined peppers with a light beer batter and fills them with bechamel and Manchego cheese then deep-fries them; they arrive beside a tiny dish of good guacamole. You bite in, molten cheese spurts out and then you soothe your palate with the creamy avocado and the combination of temperatures, textures and tastes is so gorgeous that you find yourself reaching for another, and another, and another.
The heat of peppers is measured in Scoville units, or SHU. And so while ordinary green capsicums have a zero rating, jalapenos range between 3000 and 6000; habaneros a terrifying 300,000. I have yet to find out what the one- in-ten Padron pepper rates. The culprit is a chemical called capsaicin which, according to Jane Grigson, ‘has an onion effect, with heat rather than stinging tears. It can make your skin tingle, your nose and throat burn.’