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Reflections on Spain

Legendary Peppers: The Story of Padrón

Our modern culture seems to be fascinated with fantasy and legend. There is great interest in the legend of the Holy Grail or Tolkien’s Middle Earth; C.S. Lewis’s Narnia and the Harry Potter series. I wonder how many people realize that the tasty little Padrón peppers, which are so popular here La Tienda, are also wrapped in legend!

The origin of the seeds from which we grow these tasty peppers traces back to a rustic town along the Atlantic coast of Galicia, in farthest northwest Spain. The town of Padrón is so far west that the neighboring village on the storm-tossed Atlantic Coast is called Finisterre - loosely translated as “the end of the world.”

The town of Padrón is shrouded in history and legend that stretch back to pre-history. Archaeologists tell us that it was an Iberian settlement of the Caporos people. Because of its natural location at the confluence of two rivers, the settlement was on the crossroads to what is now Braga (Portugal) to the south and Astorga (León) to the east. Ancient Roman documents tell us that it became a significant town named Iria Flavia under the Romans.

Now here is where the need to sort out history and legend comes into play. According to tradition, it was in a rocky area above Iria Flavia that Apostle St. James first preached during his stay in Hispania, which was at the peak of its cultural ascendency in the Roman Empire. It is conceivable that James would head there, as had St. Paul, according to Biblical accounts.

When he returned to the Holy Land where he was martyred in Jerusalem - and this is where the legend part of the story begins. It is said that his disciples Theodore and Athanasius placed the body of James in a stone boat and set it sail westward. They navigated the mythical stone craft across the expanse of the Mediterranean Sea, sailed by Gibraltar through the Pillars of Hercules, and headed north along the Atlantic coast until they found safe haven in a peaceful 'ria' or fjord. There they moored their stone vessel to a pedrón (Spanish for big stone).

The two disciples remained in Iria Flavia (now Padrón ) to preach after burying the body of the apostle. The legendary pedrón mooring stone can be seen today at the parish church of Santiago de Padrón.

Legend has it that some shepherds in a field saw a star shining on the site of the grave of St. James during a key period in the struggle against the invading Moors in the 8th century. As news of the shepherd’s miraculous discovery spread to the defending armies they took heart, and at the critical battle of Covadonga, they saw St. James riding out of heaven on a splendid white charger in order to lead the Spaniards to victory.

From that time forward, St. James, or Santiago (Iago was the old spelling), was viewed as the patron saint of Spain, and the name of the site where the funerial stone boat was pulled ashore was transmuted from 'Pedrón' (mooring stone) to 'Padrón' (Patron).

Padrón soon became a popular passing place in the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, but the focus of attention gradually moved to nearby Santiago de Compostela. But here is where the peppers come in (in case you thought I had forgotten).

Over the years a Franciscan monastery grew up in the barrio of Herbón, a neighborhood of Padrón. It was there at the Herbón monastery where the Franciscans apparently first tried growing the pepper seeds they had brought back from the New World in the 18th century. This place still remains the heart of the Pimientos de Padrón growing area today.

One of the members of the LaTienda community wrote me “ I am actually from Padrón - my family originates from there. We have a 100-year-old farmhouse next to the monastery in Herbón, the small village contained in Padrón. All my aunties and uncles produce these pimientos. There is also an annual fiesta to celebrate the pimiento. People come from all around to visit.”

What do these legends and fantasies have to do with the very tasty and occasionally hot tiny green peppers? Had the Spaniards not believed the legend of Santiago, they might easily have lost the crucial Battle of Covadonga to the surging invaders. Hispania would have had a radically different culture, in which Franciscans could not flourish, nor could they plant peppers in their monasteries. Nor would there be the pilgrims of Santiago de Compostela to enjoy them in their tapas bars, and therefore the fame of the peppers would never have spread across Spain and the world.

Are these stories true? Could a stone ship sail across the Mediterranean? Was the body the shepherds found really that of St. James or just another first century Roman? How could the soldiers have seen James riding out of heaven on a white horse? These are questions that we as children of the scientific age ask. Certainly they would not have occurred to medieval pilgrims. For them, life was a mystery.

So when next you sauté your Padrón peppers and sprinkle them with sea salt before popping them into your mouth as a delightful tapa, think of the amazing history and legend surrounding this humble pepper.

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