Peppers Sweet and Hot

I doubt there is any other vegetable that has so rapidly become so widely popular even amongst newer gardeners and those with only a balcony. The number of varieties on sale today as seeds and plants is huge compared to only a decade ago. (I know peppers are technically fruits, but like tomatoes peppers come under the ambit of the vegetable rather than the fruit garden.) Whereas when I first started there were few sweet (bell) peppers worth growing and almost no hot (chilli) pepper varieties now there approach hundreds of both.

And those older varieties were poor things- it seemed impossible to produce big blocky sweet examples as sold in the shops and gardeners had to be content with thin walled quite small ones. However the breeders have been at work and modern sorts are terrific. They are no more difficult, indeed easier, than tomatoes and enjoy almost exactly the same conditions and culture- though they’re a tad more reluctant to crop outdoors than toms unless it is an exceptional summer. Peppers really need a little bit more warmth than toms, not so much for the plant in general but to ripen the fruits which often get a grey/black shading if they are cold, or worse if they are cold and windy. Even so it is possible to get crops outside but they will always be bigger and better given a cold frame, cloche or similar. In a greenhouse I have found they do better up on staging in big pots than down planted in the border- at the start of the year. However there is an important wrinkle with peppers- their roots are much more sensitive to excess heat than almost anything else I have grown. See for yourself- evict any pepper in a pot that has been sitting undisturbed since potting up. I guarantee that, unless shaded, the compost facing the sun will have no roots in it, especially so if it is a black pot. This effect is so profound I now either stand the pot in another larger one or equip it with an aluminum apron or arrange it so the pot is otherwise shaded. In the border once the season has heated up I often surround peppers with other companions to help shade their roots.

Their roots are prone to rot if too cold or waterlogged, or even just too wet. It is better to keep them just moist and never ever to stand them in saucers or similar.

Surprisingly Hot peppers have little need for more heat than sweet peppers, indeed almost the opposite later in the season. While they do need a good warm period in summer to start fruiting and ripening hot peppers actually carry on later into autumn than either sweet peppers or even tomatoes as they can endure lower temperatures than both and still ripen their crop. In fact you can get many varieties of hot pepper, and occasionally even a hybrid sweet pepper, to become semi-perennial. Given a warm greenhouse or similar you may over-winter them and get an earlier crop the following year. The plants will sulk in the low light but providing they are kept warm may survive, the biggest threat to them comes from too much moisture promoting grey mould which needs stringent eradication as soon as spotted.

Peppers suffer from fewer pests and diseases than tomatoes and although they may get aphids and sometimes red spider there are few other common problems. However one to watch out for is slugs. These will make a small hole, often passing unnoticed, in the wall of the maturing fruits and when you come to pick it the inside has become foul and slimy. Very surprisingly slugs attack hot peppers just the same and do not appear to notice the heat. Slug traps of inverted orange skins, hollowed out spuds or marrows all work well.

Hot peppers can crop prolifically, decently grown plants easily giving many dozens of fruits and such heavy crops mean it’s worth staking the plants to prevent them falling over. Sweet peppers, especially the larger fruited ones, definitely need staking or supporting. I tie a string to the heaviest fruits’ stalks as being safer than tying strings around the stem. (the fruits grow out from joints where the stem breaks so the first is fairly centrally situated and simple staking will do but later fruits come further out on side shoots from the main stem and make the plant more and more side heavy). Tying up the heavy fruit is most effective but obviously a new tie is needed each time a fruit is harvested. (I have never pollinated either hot or sweet pepper flowers, I imagine this may be necessary occasionally but they seem to manage very well on their own.)

This month is an excellent time for starting off a crop of peppers, and although they can be sown even earlier that is often too early and they would get drawn and leggy in the low light conditions. Alternatively most garden centres sell some varieties as small plants or you could order by mail from specialists. The only problem with the latter will be deciding which from the plethora on offer you really want.

But you really ought to grow them, certainly the sweet if not the hot. They are full of vitamins, minerals and their rich colouring contains xanthocyanins and anti-oxidants making them extremely healthy for us. Peppers are also very easy to store- not fresh as they only keep for a week or month even if refrigerated, but dried or frozen. Cut into rings they can be strung on a string and dried in any warm airy place or cut into smaller pieces and dried on a wire tray then packed into dark glass jars when they can be added to soups, stews and casseroles in the winter months. Or cut them into small bits, freeze them on an open tray and then repack them in freezer bags- they need no other preparation or blanching beforehand, save a wash! You can also freeze them pre-prepared as a puree especially useful if you have removed the skin. Either scorch the pepper over a flame to ‘grill’ it or bake them for a few minutes in a hot oven, then scrape the pulp from off the skin. It has an improved flavour if scalded like this and the flesh is also easier to so remove to pack. Or you can just combine them with tomatoes, onions, zucchini and so on as a ratatouille base which freezes well. Hot peppers, especially the smaller ones can be dried whole, however as the heat is strongest in the pith surrounding the seeds, some may prefer to clean the flesh and dry it as for sweet peppers. Hot peppers can also be frozen, preserved in vinegar or brine (they need puncturing to let it inside) or turned into a hot sauce or pickles.

The hot peppers vary in heat and a ridiculous scale, of Scofields, has been drawn up but is not much use as to most people they are either mild, hot or mouth blowing. With the latter the degree of heat becomes so fierce it seems academic whether it has more or less Scofields than another, the very hot ones are all too much for many except as trials of manhood (or foolishness). If you do accidentally overdo it drink milk not water- and always remember when preparing them to scrub your hands before as well as after handling your private parts or touching your eyes or you may be uncomfortable for quite some time.

Just how persistent and fierce some can be was proven to me recently. The sieve I used when making a hot sauce with Habanero peppers was so contaminated that despite three years having passed and the offending article having been washed several times it still imbued a fruit sorbet with an unwelcome degree of heat, and then having been even more scrupulously cleaned still managed to contaminate yet another batch of fruit puree! Indeed I have now put it aside reserved for use only with hot sauces. (My recipe, in box, Take ripe, preferably Big Sun Habaneros, or other hot peppers and soak in spirit vinegar for a week then bring to boil and simmer till they break up with a little onion, garlic, bay leaf and a few black peppercorns. Sieve, add salt and sugar to taste (if you can) reboil and bottle, leave for three months to mature and then use carefully, and I do mean carefully!)(2nd box? Habaneros are also a traditional part of the ‘rice and peas’ dish from the Caribbean. The rice and Red Kidney beans (the ‘peas’) are boiled in coconut milk, which replaces both salt and oil, and with a spring onion (known there as a scallion), a sprig of thyme and a whole undamaged and just about to ripen but still green habanero. This last gives a delicious hammy flavour and if it is undamaged little heat, however cut or ripe ones burst and make the dish too hot.)

In general the smaller or slimmer the hot peppers (such as Bird’s eye) the hotter they tend to be. The longer and fatter ones tend to be milder such as the Jalapenos which are even eaten whole, pickled or cooked. Very mild ones may be eaten raw in salads. The Grannies Bonnet, Habaneros, are very hot but to me have far the best flavour. There are many ornamental edible peppers, often dwarf for patios and pots, with bright colours, these are usually fiercely hot but lacking flavour.

Sweet peppers also come in a wide range of colours, shapes and sizes, though in a blind tasting there is not a terrific amount of difference, except between unripe and ripe. Green ie unripe sweet peppers are a pleasant taste but may cause indigestion and ripe ones of whatever hue taste remarkably similar. And from unripe green they vary from yellow, orange to red and even brown to purple black when fully ripe.

Cayenne pepper is made from whole hot pepper fruits, seeds and all, dried and ground up fine. Paprika is the dried flesh of milder hot peppers ground without the seeds or pith. Paprika is especially tasty if smoked beforehand and then adds a delightful flavour as a flourish on top most savoury dishes, and is extremely good on cheese to be toasted as in a Welsh rarebit or pizza.

And to finish off- the condiment pepper is very different. Black pepper is seeds of a climbing tropical vine, collected slightly unripe. White pepper is the same with the outer skin abraded off. Green peppercorns (usually in vinegar or brine though occasionally dried) are unripe seeds.