Growing chillies: a lesson in extremes
Author: Paulette Whitney
Photography: Prue Ruscoe
It was cold enough to make sowing warmth-loving seeds seem ridiculous. But with the short growing season we have at 43 degrees south, the task couldn't be put off if we hoped to reap a harvest come summer. And nothing is more warming than a larderful of dried, fermented and pickled peppers in glowing red jars.
Cayenne peppers are our bread and butter. They thrive in our short summers, and their thin flesh dries quickly to a glossy, translucent red, revealing tiny seeds inside. They're hot but not too hot - perfect for chilli wimps like me who feign bravado but run for their hankies when things get spicy. We'll toast and grind them for curry pastes or put a handful whole into a roasting pan of chopped up chicken, spring onions and ginger for a "choose your own adventure" dinner - the kids can avoid the peppers, sodden with delicious pan juices, and our heat-loving guests can launch them, Cleopatra-grape-eating style, down their throats, while I aim for something in the middle.
A more precious commodity is the poblano, a fat, dense Mexican pepper, usually harvested green. When dried for use in mole it's called "ancho", but while fresh poblano is magnificent, as I suppose everything is, stuffed with cheese, lightly battered, and deep-fried. These yield poorly, but they're so beautiful we enjoy whatever we can glean.
My nine-year-old co-farmer buried her hands in the warm sand of my propagation bench - the means by which I trick seeds into thinking spring has arrived - between writing labels for my punnets filled with seeds and pretending to listen to my lectures on the geographical and cultural origins of peppers. Serrano and jalapeño, our other favourite Mexican peppers, are thick-walled, and again warm but not hot - serrano's chunky fleshiness is a boon when diced for salsa, and pickled jalapeños are essential for taco Tuesdays.
Paprika is always a winner. Hailing from Eastern Europe, these varieties of capsicum find Tasmania less of a stretch. Alma paprika peppers are a flavoursome staple, and in a good year they'll be dried on strings, then hung in the smoker alongside the bacon they'll eventually join in the stew pot. In a bad year - if they fail to ripen - they'll be pickled while still light green to brighten a whole winter's worth of sandwiches.
After braving the cold with my little helper, we got to our final seed, the rocoto tree pepper. Native to high, cool Peruvian mountains, it thrives in Tasmania. My little one opened an envelope of saved seed, and the devilishness of this plant was plain to see. The seeds, unlike those of most peppers, which are an innocent creamy colour, are the dull black of charcoal, a forewarning of their fiery heat. Their lack of complex flavour is a compromise we're willing to bear since the plants produce buckets of fruit all through winter when other chillies have long-since succumbed to the cold.
My daughter, fingers purple with cold, sprinkled the last seeds of the day across the surface of a punnet, wiped the hair from her face and smiled up at me with pride. But within moments her eyes began to water and her face fell, quickly turning blotchy and red. Our chilly but contented morning changed as the remains of the pepper seed that lingered on her hands worked its way into the pores of her skin and burned. I washed her face, taking care not to spread the heat, and slathered her in yoghurt, which seemed to help. My other balm, telling her of how our friend Jack Donohoe, a chef at Franklin, fermented the peppers with tomatoes to make a hot, but delicious sauce, and how she could pick them for pocket money, helped not in the least.
As her tears abated, I left my brave little helper with the comfort of cartoons and an icy pole and went outside to water our morning's work, imagining the tiny lives awakening under the compost, getting ready to give us a spicy, delicious summer.