Last week I had my first date with fresh green chillis, which usually make an appearance at this time of year. They were on sale at a neighbourhood fruit and veg shop in the Blanquerna area and were the shiny green variety as thick as a pimiento de Padrón but much longer.
I am calling them hot chillis but the Spanish word you will see on placards and blackboards is ‘guindilla’.
As soon as I see them I always buy some, mainly as decoration, although eventually I also get round to using them up.
I add them mainly to pasta sauces, but even if I had no culinary use for them I’d still buy some because I keep them in a bowl and they are a most economical way of adding a splash of colour to the kitchen.
Like many Spaniards and Italians, I snip them into salads to add a crunchy hint of fire. They also go into stews and sauces of all kinds.
Snippets of fresh green chilli in tomato sauce, for instance, will add a new dimension to your usual pasta dishes. If it’s good enough for the Sicilians, it’s good enough for me.
The visual pleasure of having fresh green chillis decorating the kitchen is a long and lasting one. The splash of shiny green always looks most refreshing and the price of the chillis is worth it just for that little delight.
But the green chillis will eventually start to ripen and, like traffic lights, they will change to red. Like all fruits and vegetables the ripening rate is never uniform, so some remain fully green and others are a nice mix of green and red.
The fresh red chillis will soon be on sale but they usually come strung together in clusters known as ‘ristras’. Spanish housewives buy these for adding a touch of heat to a wide range of regional dishes.
The bright red chillis on the ‘ristras’ soon start to dry out and undergo a wide range of new colours. They eventually become of a deep crimson shade and then a purple that is so dark it looks almost black.
Michele Caporale, cook-owner of La Bottega di Michele restaurant in Calle Fábrica, has the most colossal ‘ristra’ of red chillis I have ever seen. Although he has a very busy restaurant and uses chillis frequently in his cooking, his ‘ristra’ is gigantic enough to last for at least three years.
But there are two reasons why his ‘ristra’ takes up so much space. He comes from Abruzzo where chillis are much used in cooking and where the ‘ristra’ is considered to be an omen of good luck…which is why Michele’s is so voluminous.
Having a ‘ristra’ of chillis in the kitchen means there’s always a source of spicy heat on hand for adding to sauces, vegetable dishes, stews, beans, rice and other favourites of Spanish regional cuisine.
Some Mallorcan housewives I know give their families a hot kick in another way: they preserve the green chillis when they are very fresh and crisp.
This is done by blanching the green chillis in boiling water for a minute and then packing them into jars and covering them with vinegar or a strong brine.
Done like this, these green chillis are a long-term pickle: as they are uncooked they take time to mature. Give them at least a couple of months before trying one. You’ll probably find they need another month or more before they undergo the metamorphosis that changes them into a crisp pickle.
Until Columbus made his historic voyage across the Atlantic, European cooks had nothing quite like chillis to add a touch of fire to their food. Pepper was the hot spice par excellence in those days and fetched very high prices. So much so that black pepper was the main reason Columbus made that epic journey in the first place.
He thought that by going west he could find a quicker way to India and thereby open up a lucrative new spice route which, until then, was a rather slow overland one.
That’s why the Caribbean area is known as the West Indies. When Columbus first saw these islands he thought he had landed in India by a western route. He soon saw he had opened up a whole new world that had nothing whatever to do with India.
And it is nicely ironic that his voyage in search of pepper should have introduced the rest of the world to a source of gastronomic heat such as it had never known before.
Columbus eventually brought back hot chillis and from Spain they went to every corner of the rest of the world to become essential items in an extensive and varied range of cuisines and cultures.
It’s thanks to chillis that we have the traditional hot dishes of India, Pakistan, Africa and Asia. They also add a touch of heat to European food — from the various regions of Spain to southern Italy, especially in the latter two’s pasta dishes.
There’s a scene in Prizzi’s Honor in which Jack Nicholson takes a dry red chilli and rubs it between his thumb, index finger and forefinger and showers the blazing hot seeds over a dish of pasta.
That’s pasta for machos and you’ll never find it at your local trattoria. It’s strictly for hard mafia types — even the toughest European tough guys don’t want their food quite as hot as that.
The chillis Columbus brought back from the New World were among the first products he presented to Isabel and Fernando, the Reyes Católicos who financed his voyage.
His name for the chillis was ‘aji’, a word used by the Araucanian Indians of central Chile and adjacent parts of Argentina. Argentinians today still use the ‘aji’ word for the red chilli powder that goes into their famous chimichurri sauce and some traditional dishes.
In his book Historia General de Indias, López de Gomera tells of Isabel and Fernando tasting the ‘aji’ which he described as “a spice of the Indians that burns the tongue”.
The first scientist to write about chillis was a Spanish doctor called Álvarez Canca who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. Writing about chillis in 1494, Álvarez said that a chilli’s taste and heat were determined not only by the different varieties but also by the climate and the soil in which they grew.
The chilli is a native of Mexico where they had been cultivated for about 9,000 years before Columbus came on the scene. There are now some 200 varieties some of which are sweet and cool while others are so hot they can blister the fine skin on the roof of the mouths of the uninitiated.
The word chilli comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. In the old Castilian language it was changed to ‘chile’ although today most Spaniards called them ‘guindillas’ or ‘picantes’. Mallorcans usually use the ‘picantes’ word.
All chillis and peppers, whether sweet or hot, belong to the genus Capsicum annum or Capsicum frutescens of the Solanaceae family that also takes in the potato, tomato, aubergine, deadly nightshade and the tobacco plant.
Chillis and peppers come in an amazing variety of sizes and shapes. They can be fat and round or long and thin and sometimes very thin and tiny.
Size bears no relationship to the ferocity of their spicy heat. Some of the minute ones are so hot they are like little bullets of fire.
In Mallorca we have nothing like Mexico’s 200 varieties to choose from. But the hottest of those that are available can impart a degree of heat that even an Indian from Madras would find more than hot enough for his palate.
Hot chillis are used in all of Spain’s autonomous communities. The biggest consumers are the Basques who are fond of adding whole ones or snippets to just about every kind of dish except desserts.
The people of Navarra and La Rioja also like a touch of spicy heat. La Rioja’s ‘patatas con chorizo’ can be too hot for many people. But we needn’t go to the north of Spain to find people who like their food very hot. Right here in Mallorca, out in Sa Pobla to be more exact, they also adore hot chillis.
The people of Sa Pobla, called ‘poblers’ in Mallorquín, like their food to be extremely hot — so much so that the average Majorcan cannot cope with it.
When ‘poblers’ are invited to a meal at the homes of friends in other parts of the island, they sometimes take along their own hot chillis (either fresh or pickled) to add a touch of fire to what’s on their plate.
I’ve seen this happen more than once when a foodie group I was in invited members of a similar Sa Pobla circle to lunch.
As we were about to start the meal, one of the ‘poblers’ put his hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out a bag of fresh green chillis.
When that group invited us out for a meal, we had a rice dish that was about as spicy hot as I can stand it — which was too hot for other guests who weren’t used to such fiery fare.
The people of Sa Pobla, and elsewhere in Spain, sometimes add whole green or red chillis to stews and rice dishes after slitting them slightly so that the seeds spill out as the dish cooks.
It’s the seeds that contain the real fire of hot chillis and that is why some of the dishes made by ‘poblers’ and others are far too fiery for the uninitiated.
But to have Sa Pobla food at its hottest you must eat at the home of a ‘pobler’ because most restaurants in the area season their dishes for average tastes.
Even so, you are more likely to find a touch of fire in your food when eating at a restaurant in Sa Pobla than in any other part of the island, with one or two exceptions.
If you were in Sa Pobla on the few days before and after January 17 (the day of Sant Antoni, the patron saint of Sa Pobla) you would have come across typical ‘pobler’ culinary fire if you had tried an espinagada.
This is a fiesta day pie whose most authentic version has a filling of eels and vegetables — and a nice big pinch of red hot cayenne pepper.
The people of Sa Pobla are so used to eating really piquant food that they don’t even consider it to be ‘picante’. Instead, a ‘pobler’ will say that a dish, which would be really hot for most people, is simply ‘especiat’ — spiced. A euphemism if ever there was one.
Other islanders also like a touch of fire in their food — the ‘poblers’ simply take it to extremes. To discover the Mallorcans’ fondness for spicy hot food, you only have to go to the charcuterie counter of any supermarket.
There you will find the island’s two favourite ‘embutidos’, botifarrones and sobrasada, in two quite different versions: sobrasada picante and botifarrones picantes.
That word picante says it all. These two products are made to exactly the same recipe except that the picante versions contain cayenne pepper or, in the case of the botifarrones, white or black pepper. And the difference in fiery heat is more than a little noticeable.
I can manage botifarrones and sobrasada that are ‘picantes’ when served at a friend’s home but I never buy them at the supermarket or order them at a restaurant.
When buying either of these two products at the supermarket or a butcher’s, you can always tell which are the picante ones — they are tied with red string. The non-piquant ones, which are called ‘dulces’, come with white string.