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The Pepper People
Family Farming Specialty Peppers in the San Francisco Bay Area Since 1980
PADRONS ARE PICK OF THE CROP, SPECIALLY GROWN IN EAST PALO ALTO
At Happy Quail Farms, David Winsberg grows 30 varieties of peppers in seven sprawling back yards in East Palo Alto.
Red, heart-shaped ones perfect for roasting. Creamy white Hungarian ones ripe for pickling or stuffing. Opulent purple ones that dazzle in salads. And Dutch ones, super sweet and juicy, with the haunting hue of bittersweet chocolate.
But there is one pepper above all others that has stirred quite a fuss. Enough to make food writers come calling. Enough to pique Martha Stewart's interest. Enough to prompt renowned essayist Calvin Trillin to rhapsodize about his quest to find these Spanish peppers somewhere, anywhere, in the United States.
The pimientos de Padron.
Winsberg, whose peppers can be found only at restaurants and farmers markets, may well be the only farmer growing them for sale in California.
Skinny, dark green, and about as long as your thumb, pimientos de Padron don't look like anything special at first glance. But sauteed or fried in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt, they are absolutely addicting. Think of the grassy taste of a green bell pepper, but these are sweeter and far more tender.
One of the oldest non-hybrid peppers around, they were supposedly brought back from the New World to Spain by Columbus. They are named for the town of Padron in the cool Galicia region of northwest Spain, where the treasured delicacy is harvested only in summer, then eaten by the plateful in tapas bars.
Winsberg, 46, laughs when he remembers that he didn't quite know what he had on his hands when a friend of a friend brought him some seeds from Spain and he grew his first crop in 1998.
"I wasn't that impressed when I first tried one of the peppers. I wasn't even sure how to cook them," he admits. "I learned the trick is to fry them for only 30 seconds to keep them bright green but a little blistered. . . The frying just intensifies the flavor."
That's the simple, traditional way they're featured at Spanish restaurants, like Cesar in Berkeley and Picasso's in San Jose, each of which bought 20 to 30 pounds a week last summer from Winsberg. Although some diners initially weren't sure what to make of the small peppers, all it took was one taste to make them believers, says Julio Garcia, owner of Picasso's.
"They're to die for," says Garcia, who's also eaten his share of them in Spain. "They're so unique. They really provoke an appetite."
Adding to their mystique is the surprise they pack: One in every five or so possesses a spicy wallop, some just a tad tongue-tickling, others more heat-searing than a jalapeno. Generally, the hot ones all come from the same plant. Still, there's no guarantee that replanting the seeds from an all-sweet pimiento de Padron plant will yield all-mellow offspring in the future.
And even though the women of Padron claim they can distinguish the hot ones from the sweet ones by touch, and some folks swear the larger ones are the culprits, Winsberg is convinced you just can't tell until biting into one.
Winsberg strolls out into his East Palo Alto back yard, planted with horseradish and habañeros. He owns one parcel of land; the other six are rented from neighbors, making a total of about 2 acres that he farms on.
He moseys through East Palo Alto Councilman Duane Bay's yard next-door (with permission, of course) to get to his other property. Here, Aracana chickens lay eggs the color of pale green Jordan almond candies near a half-acre plexiglass greenhouse that protects the prized pimientos de Padron.
Inside, it's a toasty 90 degrees -- warm enough to keep the plants happy and the fungi at bay. There is a loud droning noise as computer-controlled cables pull open roof panels, letting in the afternoon sun.
Here, Winsberg grows all his peppers to get a jump start on the season. While field-grown peppers make it to market in September, his are ready as early as May or June. By peak time in July, he'll be picking 2 tons a week.
Basic red bells are the primary crop, making up two-thirds of his pepper sales. The pimientos make up only a fraction of what is grown. Those young green peppers will be harvested from now through December, and sold to Bay Area restaurants and at farmers markets for $2 per quarter pound (about 12-15 peppers).
With only a couple part-time employees, Happy Quail Farms is a true family affair. Winsberg and his wife Karin Schlanger, a psychologist, are a familiar sight at farmers markets. And their 6-year-old and 10-year-old sons answer customers' questions about the cheery Crayola-colored peppers while helping make change.
Peppers in his past
Peppers always have been an important part of Winsberg's past, but he never figured they would be his destiny, as well.
Winsberg grew up on his father's 600-acre pepper farm in South Florida. As a child, he was active in 4-H, and grew anything he could get his hands on. At one point, the Winsbergs were Florida Farm Family of the Year.
It wasn't until Winsberg was managing an outdoor clothing store in Palo Alto, that he realized his heart lay in being his own boss, and in nurturing something from start to finish.
So in 1983, he turned his eyes across Highway 101 to East Palo Alto, to a neighborhood that is one of the oldest agricultural areas in the state, he says. Behind what's now Home Depot, he came upon what was once the Weeks Poultry Commune, where folks each bought an acre, and raised chickens and eggs cooperatively to sell to customers in San Francisco. After World War II, Japanese-American flower growers settled here. But in the mid-1970s, when cheap flower imports flooded the market, many growers went out of business.
Winsberg found a former flower grower willing to rent him an old greenhouse for $100 a month. At first, Winsberg raised quails, hence the name of his business. He used the composted manure to grow basil that he sold at the Palo Alto farmers market. The basil did so well, he started looking for more land. In the beginning, he tried growing the exotic -- cape gooseberries, four kinds of mint, five varieties of thyme. But none sold well. Until peppers.
In the November 1999 issue of Gourmet magazine, Trillin wrote at length about his obsession with pimientos de Padron, about his insatiable appetite for them in Spain and about rumors that they were being grown successfully somewhere in California.
Last year, one of Winsberg's regulars stopped by the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market to tell him that she not only had Trillin and his wife over to dinner, but had impressed them by serving Winsberg's pimientos de Padron. They were so taken with them that Trillin's wife later hunted down Winsberg's stand to buy more.
All this over a pepper?
As those in the know will tell you: One bite explains it all.
Happy Quail Farms in East Palo Alto sells 30 kinds of peppers to restaurants and at farmers markets. David Winsberg grows pimientos de Padron - a treasured delicacy in Spain where they are harvested in the summer and eaten by the plateful in tapas bars.
Look for Happy Quail Farms stand at farmers markets in Los Altos, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Gatos, Palo Alto and the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco. For times and days for those markets, see the list in this section. You'll also find the farms' stand at the Marin Farmers' Market, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays, near the Marin Civic Center off Highway 101 at the North San Pedro exit.
Happy Quail Farms Recipes
Jessica's sweet pepper relish
Makes 7 pints
13 cups diced multicolored peppers
6 cups diced onions
3 cups cider vinegar
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons mustard seed
1 teaspoon celery seed
In a large pot, combine all ingredients. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Pour hot mixture into hot, sterilized, canning jars, leaving 1/4-inch space. Adjust lids. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
This is an easy tapas specialty of Galicia, the cool, green region innorthwest Spain.
Pimientos de Padron
Pimientos de Padron
Saute pimientos de Padron in a pan with a little olive oil until skins crinkle and peppers soften. Transfer to a plate and sprinkle with coarse salt. Serve at once. To eat, grasp a pepper by the stem and take a bite. Most pimientos de Padron are mild, but a few are somewhat spicy.
3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
3 large multicolored peppers, seeded and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 rib of celery, chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as cilantro, tarragon, parsley or basil
1 garlic clove
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lime juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable stock or tomato juice, as needed
In a large bowl, mix together tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, onion, celery and herbs. In a blender or food processor, puree half of chopped vegetable mixture with garlic clove. Return puree to bowl with chopped vegetables. Stir in oil, lime juice, salt and pepper. If necessary, add enough stock or juice for a soup-like consistency. Serve topped with croutons.
Adapted from a recipe from Old Bale Grist Mill in St. Helena
Red pepper cheddar cornbread
2 cups cornmeal
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons brown sugar (optional)
Cayenne pepper to taste (optional)
2 tablespoons melted butter or oil
2 beaten eggs
2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/2 cup corn kernels (leftover, cut off the cob is great)
1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix cornmeal, whole wheat flour, baking powder, salt, brown sugar and cayenne pepper in a bowl. Add butter, beaten eggs, buttermilk, red bell pepper, corn and cheese, and mix just until incorporated. Preheat a large, greased, cast-iron skillet until it is almost smoking hot, add batter and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until browned.
Copyright (c) 2001 San Jose Mercury News