Sweet, Smoky & Savory
Basilicata is a safe haven for carb-lovers – the region is awash with wonderful pasta and bread – but if you’re looking for the flavor that defines this southerly region, it’s undoubtedly the sweet, smoky scent of the peperone di Senise, or Senise pepper.
There’s no such thing as an indigenous pepper in Italy, or Europe for that matter. The peppers that have become so popular in Italy can all be traced back to the New World, where they were famously discovered by Christopher Columbus and then spread across Europe by Spanish merchants and traders in the sixteenth century. The temperate climate in southern Italy made these peppers easy to cultivate, and over the course of six centuries they have become a much-loved staple in places like Calabria, Basilicata and Sicily.
Senise peppers have their origins in the Antilles, but they have since become a recognizable symbol of Basilicata and a cornerstone of the region’s cuisine. They have been grown around the town of Senise since the 1500s; Senise itself sits near the Calabrian border, right next to the enormous Monte Cotugno basin – a man-made lake built in the 1980s that has since become an important wildlife reserve in the Pollino National Park. The construction of Monte Cotugno once threatened the cultivation of Senise peppers, as it took up the majority of their growing area. Fortunately, farmers relocated most of the peppers to new terrain, and Senise peppers have since been awarded IGP status, meaning that their cultivation in the area is now protected by law.
Most of the region's peppers are grown in and around the beautiful Pollino National Park. Once the peppers have been picked in August, they're strung up in the streets of nearby towns and villages to dry out in the summer sun.
As for the peppers themselves, they’re typically a ruby red color and they ripen over the course of the summer, ready for picking in the first two weeks of August. They may look like chillies, but don’t be fooled – Senise peppers are sweet. Instead of fiery heat they boast a wonderful sweetness, along with a pronounced smoky, nutty flavor when dried. Though the fresh peppers are sometimes used to flavor soups and stews, the vast majority of Senise peppers are dried before being consumed. Farmers tie the peppers onto long strings (called serte), threading the string through the stalk of each pepper, then hanging them up to dry outside. Senise peppers have very thin skins and not very much flesh, so they take very little time to dry in the baking heat of the Basilicatan sun.
This is the process that transforms these peppers into cruschi – as they’re known locally. Once the peppers are completely sun-dried, they’re briefly fried in oil until they turn crunchy and are eaten either on their own or as a side dish for fish, roast meat or sausages.
If they’re not cooked, Senise peppers will often be dried and then crushed into a pepper powder, which is then used to season all sorts of dishes from soups and stews to pastas and pulses. This is the powder that many refer to as Basilicata gold, or sometimes locally it will be called zafferano as it closely resembles ground saffron. This ground pepper powder forms the base of some of Basilicata’s most famous dishes, including ciammotta – a stew of peppers, eggplant, potato and tomato – and pasta mollica – a typical dish of pasta topped with oil, breadcrumbs and peperoni cruschi.
Senise peppers aren’t easy to get hold of outside of Basilicata – you can buy the peppers dried or crushed online, but might be better off growing your own. The seeds are easily available and if you have a warm spot to grow them in, they should thrive. Either way, the flavor of these distinctive peppers is more than worth the effort.
Original Article by Great Italian Chefs